As spring began that year, the air began to tease of summer and the pavement warmed to heat our bare feet in the courtyard, which gradually filled with people as the weather got sunnier and the school year’s end approached. We were students; for some of us, that was all we were. The rest of us peeled away from our groups of friends at the end of each day to go live other lives in other places after we had had enough Vitamin D. There were scientists, musicians and actors, and I was a dancer, and I had always been a dancer. As long as my mind had been able to retain memories, I had been two things, student and dancer, and I had lived those two lives without much time for anything else.
The winter months had been unfriendly; it had been harsh and cold outside at all times and the television news dangled hopes of sledding weather before us which were never realized, leaving the Central Park ground hard, dead and worthless. Five days a week, I pulled on pink tights and a black leotard, wrapped my hair into a tight bun close to my head, stuffed shoes and band-aids into my bag and walked to ballet class under thick layers of sweaters and coats. The mirrors all around the studio reflected a humorless dancer, unrecognizable compared to the girl with long yellow hair and excitable limbs who lived during the student hours of my day.
Ballet was a passion that had faded to hobby. At some point or another it had been worth sweat, blood and blisters; classes were too short, and the strict diets were worth it, to feel myself jump higher and extend my legs further. Ballet was part of my day, and since there was no question of quitting, dreary walks to the little studio where I had spent most of my afternoons for thirteen years were frigid and the streets I passed on my way were familiar and monotonous. Light was grey as I dressed and it was dark by the time I left for class; the windows of the studio were small and offered nothing but dullness mixed with the glow of passing headlights. The sound of the city was obnoxious, but the piano music sounded no better, and I did not long for the quiet of the countryside so much as the quiet of an empty room. Everyone around me was improving, and I hated them for it as I spent class watching the clock and coasting whenever my teacher looked the other way, still tiring myself out enough that my homework would suffer when I got home. My teacher asked me to lose weight and stretch further and hold poses longer and I did not even feel like crying.
In early spring I had an audition for a summer intensive at a ballet school with better name recognition and bigger studios at which I had danced the summer before. The teacher was a strict man; he was kind and helpful outside the studio but once we were in lines, each dancer with one hand resting on a barre, his furrowed brow did not relax until we were filing out the door, gulping water and thanking him for his class. I had engaged every muscle in my body during that class, and when I went to the dressing room I sat as my muscles seemed to buzz and my blood vessels pulsated. I had activated a type of energy that had been dormant in my bones for months, close to a year; it was only vaguely recognizable as something I had known before but it awakened memories of when I had taken ballet to satisfy a want and a need. Summer would approach at its steady pace, and then I would be free from the bonds of school temporarily. With fewer obligations and in unfamiliar studios filled with strangers from every part of the country and new teachers I would be able to spend four weeks dancing, treating my body just as a musician tunes his instrument. The weeks seemed less tedious knowing that as long as I was accepted I would be able to dance and I would be able to love it again, to crave it. I wanted to need it, nothing else. I had once been confident that I could never fall out of love with ballet, and as I started to feel my attachment to it return, the feeling that ballet was there as something I could do again with just a little help was interesting. Ballet was safe. It was a refuge; it was a constant presence in my life, a skill I had developed for years. I had a performance opportunity coming up and I vowed not to waste it. I would do one last spring show before my time in high school ended. Doing so would give me an opportunity to work hard, to dance more, and to show off a final product – a performance that would hopefully be well received.
I woke up the morning after the audition feeling sore and as I began my day, aching, that evening’s ballet class held more excitement than anything else had promised in weeks. I sat through my classes, focusing all the while on the importance of returning to fifth position between multiple pirouettes and of keeping one’s hip in place while extending one’s leg forward. My dancer life was seeping into my student life; they were merging into one happy existence in which I loved both aspects and lived with a passion for the things I was doing. I worked for a few weeks, regaining my muscle tone, which would always be easily defined, before I was cast for our spring show. The casting went exactly as I had hoped; I was given a solo—a two-minute chance to showcase my journey as a dancer, alone. It was an honor and a privilege, but even more, it was a challenge, and I had not felt a lively affection for my activities in a long while. I started to plan time into my days when I could spend extra time practicing in the studio or when I could go to the gym to work on toning. I shed weight in order to look best in my costume; I shed it without trouble because it was a clear measure of my devotion to the task. I was obsessed with the idea of achieving perfection. It seemed attainable, with enough work, after so many years.
Throughout the season when reminders of spring flicker in the forecast without ever bringing blossoms or chirping birds, I rushed home after school to do homework so that I could focus on my dancing in ballet class. Every minute was precious, and I watched the second hand nervously, wanting each moment of class to be as useful as possible. I tired myself out but still I pushed, dehydrated, defeated; my lack of sleep showed up in every aspect of my appearance but still I felt a growing hunger for dance. My ballet class peers, to whom I had not given much thought except to despise them for their talents, became my best friends as we bonded over how hard we were working, laughed about strengths and weaknesses, and encouraged each other to meet our goals. I felt strong. I was strong.
By the time there were two weeks until the show, I had developed habits inspired out of love. I hopped out of bed in the morning despite the fact that my muscles had often not fully recharged and so they still drained energy from my body from the exertion of the night before. Any bad grade was compensated for by the promise of my routine lifestyle, which gave me an assurance that ballet would be part of my day for at least five classes a week, and probably more if I could find the time and space. I carried myself with poise and grace, and my dancer life merged with my student life. As more and more people asked whether I was a dancer, and I offered them a brief history of my time with my ballet company. I came home one day to find an acceptance letter for the summer intensive in the mail and my excitement began to build. I told my friends and soaked in their congratulations as the reward for so much hard work, which I took as inspiration to keep going. I was vibrant and alive. My body was being taken care of exactly as it should have been; I paid it none of the disrespect of laziness and it became impossible to cling to my old pessimism, bringing me mental peace.
My success at improving my dancing turned into a mindset of positivity for approaching all matters in life; as the daylight lasted longer, the windows of the studio offered a happier view of people passing by with places to go, living their lives instead of staying indoors. This small portion of the world in which we lived that had once seemed so boring and uninspiring came to be enough for me to appreciate everything I was able to do, and I looked forward to a day when I could travel and continue my experiences at another place in the world.
There were four days until the show, and I was ready. As we took our last class in the studio before our theater rehearsal days I found that the combinations kept slipping from my mind, but I blamed it on nerves. I was distracted by my excitement for the show but more importantly for the approaching summer intensive program. I had four long weeks ahead of me of dancing from nine to five, and I would struggle through them and come out so much improved as a dancer and, as I kept finding, as a person.
My lack of focus was understandable but unacceptable. We got to the theater the next day for a tech rehearsal and I could hardly remember the choreography of pieces I had danced before and watched for years before that. My temples throbbed and I became frustrated with the effect that stress was having on me; I drank twice as many ounces of water as usual and still felt faint. My headaches got worse. The next morning I could hardly get ready for school as my ears pulsed and rang and my eyes stung and failed to focus. My limbs were heavy and when I came home from school before the first of two dress rehearsals, I fell sound asleep immediately and could not be awakened. My mother tried; she poured cold water on me and assigned my little brother to talk into my ear but, badly as I wanted to stand, I was trapped under the weight of my own body. I missed a dress rehearsal to sleep because my mother told my teachers that she was concerned that otherwise I would develop a serious health issue. The next day, I told her that she worried too much and I dragged myself to the dress rehearsal, pulled by the need in my heart to showcase what I had been practicing, even though my body was dead and worthless. The show came, as I had anticipated for weeks. I waited in the wings, fanning myself as I sweat uncontrollably before I even began to dance, alternating between putting my leg warmers on my arms as a solution to terrible chills.
The dancers filed on and off stage in the order that the program had promised the audience they would, and finally the music began for my solo; excitedly I made my entrance and began to dance. Dancing on stage felt like dancing in a bottle. I lost all understanding of where the audience was, and I followed the spotlight to place myself, but it felt good to hear applause when I was done and my friends in the wings told me it was my best performance of that solo that they had ever seen. I finished out the rest of the show and went to get dressed, but as I grew increasingly dizzy I called to my mother who was helping backstage. She came into the dressing room and gasped at how pale I was. She then gathered my belongings and took me downstairs to receive compliments from my teacher as well as the few friends from my student world who had been willing to pay the expensive ticket price to see me dance. My mother hailed a cab and took me home. My temperature ran almost at 104 degrees. As I continued to sweat and shiver she took me to the emergency room where we waited in the reception area for hours, as I shook, and she tapped her foot and fingers nervously. Sometime in the quiet hours past midnight they took me in, read my high fever and saw my swollen tonsils and glands and informed me that I had tonsillitis. A lady took a strep test that made me gag but it was negative and so they took a blood test to test for different problems. They released me with the command that I rest as if my body was giving me no choice to do anything but, and so the following week I lay on the couch feeling as though I had swallowed tiny shards of glass and spent hours in the snow without a jacket, as well as in an oven wearing a coat. I burned; I could not open my eyes because my head ached so much that I was effectively paralyzed, unable to move my limbs or even remember the idea of standing upright. After days of agony with no mercy, the doctor called back with results from my blood test and told me I had mononucleosis and a mycoplasma infection, a symptom of walking pneumonia. The list of instructions for getting over mononucleosis was long, and as my mother recounted her conversation with the doctor to me I grew angrier as I tried to come up with a way to avoid having to follow such rules, but of course I could not think of a way, and so I only grew more upset. I would probably stop feeling symptoms soon enough, she said, though I did not believe her because I could not imagine myself ever getting better. I would have to be very careful over the upcoming six months to prevent a relapse; bedtime would be no later than ten o’clock if I could stay up that late, which was unlikely because no matter how much I felt like I could survive a school day I was guaranteed to crash when I got home. I could participate in no contact sports and since my liver and spleen were swollen, too much physical activity could result in emergency surgery. Upset, I asked my mother what the doctor had said about ballet, but she had not asked; I begged her to call back and when she finally did the doctor said unfortunately, it was unlikely that I would be able to handle a four week intensive – or any ballet classes – so close to my recovery. I sank into sleep and woke a few days later, my symptoms faded. I woke up in time to go to school and when I came home, I sat on my couch through the afternoon hours, my muscles settling into the cushions as I watched the seconds on the clock in my living room instead of in the studio for the first time in years. I did as much homework as I could, and then I went to sleep.
Lucie Fleming, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Silver Key