When I was three years old, my mother and I walked to ballet class once a week. She held my hand as I toddled along beside her, running to match her slowed pace, with baby wisps of blond hair floating and catching sunlight around my head. On 67th and 3rd, we would turn a corner to reach Mrs. Steiger’s Ballet School, which was located on the second floor of a walk-up apartment in the middle of an unfriendly block. I stood outside it, mesmerized by the curious storefront of the salon that lived below, wide eyes running over rows of faceless plastic heads wearing wigs. I stood silently in the clump of mothers with designer strollers on the street, holding staring contests with the mean cat in the window of the salon while my mother pulled my arm back and forth, telling animated stories to other ballet moms until class was ready to start. When her watch said it was almost one o’clock, my mom took me down a few cement steps, past an array of potted mini pine trees, and through a narrow, dirty hallway that smelled of neglected house pets. We hurried up one flight of cold stairs to a landing littered with little girls’ sparkly shoes and boots of busy mothers, and my mother turned the gold-painted doorknob and opened a flimsy door, peeking into the ballet school. We walked inside to meet the school’s Director, Mrs. Steiger, who then taught me to take her hand and curtsy. The skin on her hands was soft and wrinkled, hung loosely over fragile bones and purple veins. She wore gold jewelry and gold-framed glasses, and her hair was a dark grey.
“Good afternoon,” Mrs. Steiger said in a thick Austrian accent, visibly amused as I stared at her and then gazed at all the shiny framed photographs that were all around her desk and on the walls of the room. In each one, tall, strong girls were suspended in grand jetés or eternal arabesques, their sparkling costumes illuminated by stage lights.
Soon my ballet school days became a routine. My mother would take me into the dressing room and pull a tiny pair of pink tights over my legs, then a little white leotard, and finally a pair of ballet slippers. If she was in a good mood, she put a bow in my hair. Then it was time to go into the studio. We were usually late, and while other girls would scurry ahead of their mothers to run and see Miss Rebecca, I was always reluctant to enter the studio. I would hide behind my mother’s leg, which was conveniently taller than I was, and let her drag me into the studio so I could take a spot in the back. If I was on time, I would have to greet Miss Rebecca, whose smile was beautiful and friendly but whose eyes told of a fierce hot temper that could be unleashed in an instant, even on a three-foot-tall ballet class delinquent. After class, we would pour out of the studio in a swarm, holding stickers or candy from Miss Rebecca, and look for our mothers in the back. Mine was always late, so I became accustomed to hiding in the back of the dressing room, sometimes getting to watch an older girl in a sleek black leotard wrap her hair into a bun with bobby pins and tie pointe shoe ribbons around her ankles before heading readily into the studio for a midday rehearsal.
The routine remained basically the same each year, as my mom would sign me up for class one day a week. All that would change was the color of my leotard, labeling our level. The levels didn’t matter until light blue, when we had to come two days a week—a major commitment, my mother complained—and then navy blue, which required our attendance four days a week, and soon, pointe shoes. In high school I was promoted to a black leotard, a call to action: in black, we were responsible for representing the school’s finest dancers.
Now, six days a week, I trudge to ballet, late in the evening when it’s already dark out and anyone else who is out on the street is heading home. I peel pink tights over my skin and wear a black leotard, wrap my hair into a bun with bobby pins and tie pointe shoes onto my feet. I sit in the back before class with my classmates, most of whom wore white leotards with me when we were too shy to become friends, and together we bemoan ballet blisters and high school homework, mourn for the sleep missed in the past and future. The school is on the same inhospitable block, a space perpetually hidden from the spotlight, only ever seen by the passengers of a crowded cross-town bus. But to me, the warm upstairs window of the studio glows like a fire in a hearth. The new bright blue canopy above it boasting “Mrs. Steiger’s Ballet School” in a light pink cursive is as comforting as the picture of me dancing in the window. When I hurry up those dirty stairs to enter the school, I hear Miss Rebecca in the studio, snapping at little girls to be quiet, point their toes and follow the music, but if the studio door is open she’ll turn around and call me over for a hug. I curtsy to Mrs. Steiger every day and ask how she is doing; she looks the same but her hair is more silver and since her ninetieth birthday she has danced a little less. The walls are covered in photos of my classmates and me in sparkling costumes and flowery headpieces. My mom doesn’t walk me to class, but she waits in the wings during shows to help with fast changes and cheer us on.
Lucie Fleming, Age 17, Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Silver Key