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Ballerina’s Life MAG
I wanted to be that girl, decked out in a froth of glittering feathers, plaited and leaf-like under the harsh grate of a spotlight. Confident and utterly delicate as she glides with the inhuman grace of a winged sprite. Lovely and delicate and brimming with untold whispers and flawlessly poised grace: an ethereal being, rising above the sweat-beaten toils of the rest of us. No fears, no pain, no scars. The soft glint of satin, sliding into an effortless position that manages to seem both natural and unachievable.
As in, yes, I can do this, but don’t think you can too. But then there are those dancers, with such a combination of posture and musicality and attitude, with that ability to mesmerize a full house. The ones who can bring their legs to their ears, land a silent jeté, float their pirouettes, and understand the artistry of choreography without a glance in the polished mirrors. But that awe can only last on one side of the curtain. When you’re in, the view is invariably distorted.
Because the truth is, when the ballerina steps onto a stage, heated with the glow of the spotlight, there is fear. There is always fear. No matter the dancer, the soft clumping of her steadiest shoes, the elongation of rigid muscle, there is always fear. This is the culmination of sweat and frustration and countless hours, countless classes, innumerable effort. Every toenail lost, every body part bruised, constant rehearsing and marking and practicing, all for that heart-throbbing ache, the tightening of the spine, that palpable thrill. A slight tremor, the lazy attentiveness of the audience, the rolling of a curtain. That’s what she lives for, what we live for, from that first step to the curtain call, to the cacophony of applause and “Brava!”
And of course, she’s exceedingly aware of herself, her body and her smile. It is often mistaken as conceit. But her skin, her flesh and bones, her arched feet and stretched hands. They are everything. Her life, her fixation. It’s her privilege and her wish to glare at herself in the unforgiving reflection of a cool-headed mirror. That painted smile, the austere consciousness.
We live for that quiet tension. We live for the pain and the work. We live to be a part of that world, no matter how insignificant, to be just the slightest sliver in an achingly exclusive universe. Wake. Stretch. Class. Rehearsal, the shadowed panes of “Swan Lake” looming before us, ready to make us suffer and swivel and exult for an unappreciative generation. Stretch. Eat (lightly). Bed (early). Wake (early). Until our tragic and perhaps inevitable descent into pain and the scathing temper of age.
That’s what ballet is. Once you make it in, there is no backing out. Because there’s that sugar-sweet carrot dangling before you, the too-close-to-see possibility that you will live long enough and work hard enough to be that aforementioned ballerina, the one who can drown herself in that pleasant fear, in the breathlessness and beauty of it. She can dip and twirl and bellow in the glaze of glory. She procures for herself what almost nobody can, and once you know this is even remotely possible, you will crave it too. And so you, me, we never stop working. Ever. Finding your balance, getting on your leg, trying for that triple. Pushing your legs just an inch higher, just a bit farther and longer and higher and better and straighter and more turned out.
It is infinite: something that never truly leaves a body. And when you dance, you can go on without a stop or start, you can dance anywhere and somewhere and everywhere.
Ballet is life, a constant war, and its artists are compatriots. Your toes are whiny little beasts that demand to be petted and beaten and tranquilized.
I used to have a teacher who would use his cigarette lighter in class, and hold it beneath our trembling, airborn legs. “Higher, higher,” he would shriek with that thin, effeminate voice, and that sweaty Cuban accent that seemed to match his mustache and slick wooden cane.
If our legs dropped just an inch, we would have burned. I could practically feel the heat peeling away my tights when he set that lighter beneath my arabesque leg, lifting his hand a centimeter at a time, watching with fascination as my leg lifted with it, magnetically repulsed. I was afraid of being burned.
I think I was eight years old. After class, an older girl sniffed at me and said, “It is just a bluff. If you lowered your leg, he would have moved the lighter away.”
“Stop crying. You won’t get burned in ballet, okay?”
She was wrong. You can get burned, and sometimes, they gorge scars that won’t ever disappear. But I think I am okay with that. Expect it, perhaps. But I really remember crying when I saw that lighter flicker, in out, in out. Ready to bring us all to ashes. Perhaps not me, though, which was the worst part of all. The burn demands a victim, and no one knows who will be caught next.
It seems we are mere mockeries of our own rusted blood and pale sweat.
And we love it.
The dancers will dance.