A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant.
When Sarah’s mother, Penny, got sick four years into our marriage, we decided to move back to Mississippi, considering it penance for the sins of our youth. We signed a lease on a house, a white one-story on the historical register with a wraparound porch and angels, stars, and the moon painted on the transom above the front door.
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After barre, Mme. Francesca follows me to the locker room and tells me I’m officially going to the Cupids dance program this summer and I just can’t stand it. I’m over that toilet bowl so fast, squeezing around my uvula like I could rip it all the way off, carrot mash and a nibble of chocolate splattering the bowl like an ugly sunset watercolor. I go and I go harder than I normally do, even though Mme. doesn’t seem to notice.
Call it the Swan program, at least. Make it sound graceful, with a swoop neck and big wings.
Mme. Francesca runs the water while I vom. She’s the artistic director’s assistant at my ballet studio and I am her protégée so what she says goes. The Cupids are in Chicago and it’s not that bad a program, actually, but I still ask, “What about the wait list for Juilliard’s summer thing?”
“You probably want to try again for that next year.”
I lay my head against the cool porcelain of the toilet seat. Mme. Francesca wets a paper towel and brushes away the eyeliner that has streamed into the crease of my cheek.
“Look, the wait list is more of a formality. No one turns down a spot at Juilliard.”
We leave and Mme. Francesca wishes me luck in Chicago and tells me that I didn’t hear it from her, but they’re considering me for company if I can lose three or four pounds, and then she buys me a sliver of cheesecake so I can prove I’m strong enough to ignore it.
“I’m trying, Mme. Francesca,” I say.
“Well, if you’d condition more, maybe we could give you a solo. Cardio is slimming.”
OK, so I resolve to hit the elliptical.
North of Chicago is like college paradise, all ivy-strewn, without a single good ballet theater. The Cupids are dull, dull hobby dancers except for one girl, Elody, who is skinnier than me and we both know it the second we lock eyes. We are both sixteen. The head instructor, Mssr. Peterson, throws us right in, and we must jeté and pirouette and arabesque and whatever else he shouts at us until “Allegro, girls, allegro! To the barre, quick as if your lives depend on it!”
The other girls giggle. Elody rolls her eyes at me.
We are all worked and our bodies are pinched and adjusted until noon when we are promised pas de deux partners, but first we must be nourished. I peel the crusts off my ham sandwich and eat them, and when Mssr. Peterson looks I take a hearty bite of the soft white middle of the sandwich. Last night we all had to sit through a sermon about proper nutrition for dancers. He smiles at me and my cheeks bloom.
Elody comes into the bathroom and sits on the sink while I puke. I can tell she’s impressed by the way I don’t even need to wiggle my finger too much. I pat my lips daintily even though there’s nothing on them — I’m very clean.
“You wouldn’t have to do that if you ate less.”
“Monsieur was looking at me,” I say, pressing on a spot in my stomach. I imagine a clean hole where the white bread used to be.
“Don’t tell me you also think he’s cute,” she says.
She’s right. You wouldn’t find a Mssr. Peterson at Juilliard, where the instructors are fat famous German men who strike you with rods and promise you contracts if you’ll cry a little for them. That’s what the company girls at my studio say it’s like. Not that I’d care, I tell Elody. I’d spill all the crocodile tears they wanted if I could dance at Lincoln Center someday. But I didn’t count on a dreamboat in these miserable five weeks. Mssr. Peterson was a soloist at the Canadian National. You can see all his muscles straining against the confines of his worn black tights.
“Sucks that Juilliard didn’t work out. I heard you got wait-listed.”
I shrug, but search her face for some sign she’s impressed that I was considered at all. She pops her lips and applies a fresh coat of gloss. She’s unruffled. She caps her gloss and throws it in her dance bag, swinging out of the bathroom like she owns the place.
“Come on, cutie. We have pas de deux and I’m desperate to see if any of these boys can keep up with us.”
I follow her out and we are manhandled all afternoon, me by a fifteen-year-old, Bryant, whose face is bleeding from freshly popped pimples, and her by the youngest boy Cupid, who can barely lift her, but it’s only fair to put the lightest together. There are no boys with talent like Mssr. Peterson. I keep my eyes firmly fixed on the ripples of calf and thigh that crash ocean-like underneath his tights as he dances with us, willing him to notice me not looking him in the face.
The time is ours when we are out of dance. We are encouraged but not required to go to dinner, so Elody and I walk to the lakeshore with black coffee in to-go cups.
Elody asks what my favorite ballet is. There’s no question. The Firebird, I tell her, and she says, “Show me,” and she puts her hands out in a square in front of her, positions me as if I’m center stage. Who has ever cared about what I care about like this? Not even Mme. Francesca, who is practically all business. I feel as though I’m the woods, and Prince Ivan, and the Firebird all at once. I show the prince dancing in the first act, and the one magical feather he plucks from the Firebird, a pantomime in my pinched fingers. I pull Elody to the edge of the lake and we enter the next scene as sisters, two beautiful princesses, and then I become the prince again and waltz her around, pretending to be in love, barefoot in the grass and laughing and missing steps.
I show her the sorcerer, Koschei the Deathless. I crouch and snarl and chase her to the water’s edge.
“Koschei steals the princesses,” I tell her. He has thirteen of them, and not even the prince can defeat him, until he remembers his feather and calls the Firebird. I pose Elody prettily on the rock, to swoon helplessly as I leap and flap my arms. The Firebird makes short work of Koschei, because she’s just as much a demon as he is, but she loves to see girls wild and free and dancing. She sets them all free and then the prince is married to the most beautiful princess before the sun is even all the way up.
“That’s the worst part,” Elody says, as we lie in the grass and sweat. She tells me about her uncle coming on to her after a dance recital when she was thirteen.
“My therapist thinks that’s why I’m so sexually obsessed.” She wrinkles her freckled nose a little. “I’ve fucked three people.”
“Why would your uncle make you sex obsessed? Was he hot?”
“You bitch.” Elody blows smoke from her cigarette in my face, but then gives me a wet cheek kiss. She calls her uncle Koschei and we promise that we’ll eat his heart. We point at boys walking with girlfriends and we call them Koschei, too. We call them all Koschei, and then we fall silent and simmer and think about firebirds with red feathers and gold sparks. Beautiful things that hurt to touch.
“Let’s make this one ours,” she says.
“This rock? This cigarette? This sunset? Your uncle’s dick?”
“This ballet, you dumbass.”
And we laugh and laugh, and I can’t remember ever feeling so understood.
The secret: I have never had sex. Before Mom got me linked up with Mme. Francesca so I could attend auditions and train with the company girls instead of school, I skipped English to sneak into the unlocked spare gym with this boy Christopher. He dragged his hands over the crotch of my jeans and moaned obscenely in my ear. Flecks of spit fell on my neck and raised a constellation of goose bumps. I was squirming around, not because I liked it, and Christopher undid his pants and pushed my head down to his dick.
It was half-hard and it flopped in my mouth, smelling of salt and musk and wiggling inside the barrier of my teeth, giving slightly to the probe of my tongue like the elastic skin of a slug. And even worse than that was when he got hard, choking me from lip to throat, like I’d swallowed a balloon. He grabbed the back of my head and thrust deep into my throat. I dug my nails into his thigh to warn him but it only encouraged him to thrust again, harder.
Watery orange vomit dribbled out of the corners of my mouth and onto his balls. I’d had black coffee and carrot sticks for breakfast. He pulled away from me and I retched my entire stomach onto his crotch. I couldn’t stop vomiting until it was all up, mashed onto his boxers and cargo shorts and smelling like rotten eggs. He whimpered in confusion.
I’ll lose my virginity when I find a real man.
One afternoon Mssr. Peterson assembles everyone and we sit on the floor to listen to music. Stravinsky and Debussy and Tchaikovsky. We’re supposed to close our eyes but I sneak mine open and watch Mssr. roll his head back on his neck, his hand drifting to the movement of the notes. In ballet, he says, there are no small emotions. He opens his eyes and sees me peeking and I think I see the ghost of a wink.
“What do I mean by that, Bryant? No small emotions?”
Mssr. Peterson stands and begins to pace while Stravinsky sails along. I look around and a few other Cupids have their eyes open, including Elody, who touches her tongue to her teeth and grins at me.
Bryant says, “It means that the audience can’t see you acting with your face?”
“That, too,” says Mssr. Peterson. He skips a few tracks to the end of The Rite of Spring, to the sacrificial dance. Trumpets cut the heady air in the practice room; a few Cupids jump. “What use is subtlety to a ballet? The audience doesn’t care about your deepest character interpretations or the microexpressions on your face — they show up to see magic.”
He halts in front of me. Everyone’s eyes are open now. I can hardly breathe.
“When you are a dancer, your feet will bleed and your stomach will ache and you will live in fear of muscle pains. You will not drink alcohol or see your family much. Every part of your life will be quartered and sectioned. So why do we do it? It’s in the hope that when we show up to dance, we are showing up to lose ourselves in something beautiful, to become nothing but the parts that have been written for us. We do it to give our bodies to art. We have no time in this for small emotions, only for essential truths.”
The music ends but I am still in it. My head rings. The other Cupids murmur.
After, at the lake, Elody says she’s so tired of pretentious dance instructors acting like what we do is some kind of mystic transcendence.
“How much you want to bet he rehearsed that whole speech? Koschei.”
But I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.
Mssr. Peterson tells us during pointe class that we will be putting on a production at the end of camp, and that we’ve been auditioning secretly all this time. He’ll make up the cast list by the end of next week. The Cupids look at Elody and me. There are two other classes, but we will clearly fight for lead.
Elody winks at me. When we are released, I offer to buy her some Hostess cupcakes, and she pretends to push me into oncoming traffic. There’s no loyalty in dance class — we laugh at kneecapping the competition.
I’m going to get it, though. Probably. Bryant, my pizza-faced prince, has fallen in love with me and the smiles I give him to make Mssr. Peterson jealous. If Mssr. is stone, I am enough to dance him awake. Three days before the cast is decided, Mssr. Peterson stops us in front of pas de deux class, freezing us in the beginning of a lift. He touches my leg, arabesqued behind me.
“Lovely extension,” he says. “Ballet is about movement and image. You must be like a hummingbird: dizzying in motion, stunning in still frame.”
We listen as he takes me from Bryant and turns me on my tiptoe. With only a soft press of his finger on my flesh to warn me, he lifts me against his hip and spins me dizzyingly, my neck arched and my back arched and my leg lifted just so. I feel like I’m flying.
When I stop, I see Elody chewing on her lip.
After class I linger at the barre and tell Mssr. Peterson that I want to work on my fundamentals before dinner. He stays at the piano, scribbling choreo into his notebook while I dance. My battement tendu speeds with my heartbeat into a battement glissé when I catch Mssr. Peterson watching me. His hands drop onto the piano keys, a major chord startling the silence of the room.
“Entrechat, my dear,” he says, and my feet flutter. My calves strain as he increases tempo. My dear, my dear, my dear. He stops playing and walks over to me.
“What is your favorite ballet?”
The outlines of my bones shine in the fluorescence like precious, expensive things. I pant and answer, “The Firebird, Monsieur.” I lower my eyes to his feet. “I saw it when I was five and I’ve wanted to be a dancer ever since.”
Mssr. Peterson laughs.
“All girls want to be birds. Swans, sparrows, firebirds. Every ballet is the same.”
He liberates an escaped section of my ponytail from the salt plastering it to my shoulders. Gently, he winds it back into the rest of my hair. His eyes stay with mine and they’re warm, bright brown with rings in them that make me feel achingly empty.
“Why don’t you work on the first Firebird variation and show me in class on Friday?” He brushes his thumb against my cheek and turns away.
OK, so I resolve to practice until my feet bleed.
I tell Elody everything, immediately, in our usual spot in the grass.
“Watch out for that one,” she says, but I blow tobacco smoke over her face and she wrinkles her perfect nose. I can have anything I want.
In class on Friday Elody doesn’t clap as I perform my solo for evaluation. Mssr. proclaims it “workable” and I am named the Firebird, the lead. Elody will solo as the princess. In the locker room, as we change after class, she throws her dance bag on the floor. Her eyes narrow at my body, especially at my bare hint of hip.
“Hey, if I suck Peterson’s dick, too, do you think he’ll give me a better solo?”
The other Cupids gasp. I don’t care what they think, talentless, always looking around at each other to make sure their steps are right, following me and Elody to Peet’s to see what we take in our coffee after class. I try to laugh but it comes out strangled. I want to show the wannabes that they’re stupid for taking this seriously.
I wind my elbow around Elody’s neck and smack a kiss on her cheek. “Cutie, aren’t you supposed to pretend to be nice to the lead?” This is what you get to do when you’re better.
She has to back down, because that’s how it works.
Truce is resumed when we go purge after lunch.
Elody dabs plum-colored lipstick on her mouth. “Chance is a terrible pas de deux partner,” she says. “I’m glad I get to dance with Bryant for the performance.”
But isn’t it just like those long-necked males to ride our talents to the spotlight? Of course Bryant will play the prince, but he didn’t have to audition. I can’t get past his pizza face but Elody insists he likes me. I blow a kiss at her. “Too young for me,” I say.
She scrutinizes me in the mirror. “Do you want me to do your shoulders?”
I nod and she moves behind me, pulls my arm out from my body. Her fingers press the tension out of my shoulder blades, move it to my wrists, where it falls away. The heels of her hands run against my spine. Elody’s all bluster sometimes but when she massages my back I think I almost feel something tender. She brushes my hair off my neck and whispers, “So are you fucking him?”
I whisper back, “Not yet.”
Elody steps away. She pulls out a cigarette and taps it against my shoulder. “You are so immature. And don’t forget it’s illegal until you’re eighteen.” Like that, the thick, relaxed warmth that hung in the air dissipates. I roll my eyes.
“Like you’re some kind of paragon of good behavior.”
“I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Like with your hot uncle?” I snap, and when I look at her there’s momentary hurt in her eyes, a hesitation like she’s swallowing something that isn’t part of our game. I don’t know why, but I will her not to say it, not to break from our choreography. Finally she looks away.
“You can do better. Have some self-respect.” But it comes out strained.
Whatever. I can take care of myself. I take her cigarette and mash the butt in the sink; then I swing out the door. She can follow me or not.
It finally happens. I stay after class to practice and he comes to correct a plié, and as he moves my legs, his hand skims my inner thigh. I close my eyes and his drifting hand becomes a grip, and then he is lowering me to the floor and undoing the shoulder snaps of my leotard, yanking at my tights, scraping his teeth against my rib cage, and my body raises up and down with the heave of my breath. He doesn’t even close the door all the way and I am intoxicated by his boldness, by his hands all over my skin.
I swear to God. I am the body and the mouth of a river. Water runs from his lips and my eyelids and it is everywhere inside of me and around him. I don’t open my eyes until the end, until I feel him yank from me and groan over the heavy, warm string of semen he leaves on my leg. He puts his hand on my head and smooths my hair from brow to ponytail.
Orange sunset light shines into the studio. I can see dust falling over our bodies. I breathe heavily long after he blots my leg with one of the sweat rags and collects his score and leaves, the door only halfway shut but the room quiet with summer sun. I remain fixed, naked on the floor, living it in my mind again and again until the details slip away.
Elody is prettier than me. I’d never tell her this, but sometimes the freckles dotting her cheeks in lake-speckled sunshine make me dizzy and excited. Her looks also make me want to get one over on her. I don’t feel as plain as I did yesterday. I feel powerful, sexy, like an adult woman. Like a Firebird.
I meet her by the lake after dinner and I kiss her cheek and say, “Well, I did it. We did it, I mean.”
“Oh my God.” She rips a handful of grass from the ground and splits the blades into halves, then thirds. “Are you stupid? Do you think he’s going to, like, call you at home? And have dinner with your mom? He’s Koschei all the way through.”
I almost laugh. We have a little over a week until the performance. If I sleep with Mssr. until then, someday he’ll remember me fondly and maybe get me an audition. It’s what ballerinas do. I hear the company girls talk about it sometimes. Even Mme. Francesca makes jokes. It occurs to me that though Elody’s thinner and louder and prettier, she’s really very young for all this.
Elody stands up and faces me. I see a cloud behind her that a few weeks ago we would have danced with. I don’t move as she paces around.
“Don’t you know he’s taking advantage of you? Why would a soloist at the Canadian National even teach at this joke camp unless he wanted teenage ass?”
I wanted to do it, though. It’s the truth. I wanted him to look at me like he had to have me. But, anyway, I tell Elody, “I don’t care what he wants from me if I can dance at the Lincoln someday.”
“Who cares about the Lincoln?” Her voice breaks. “You don’t have to get it like this. Just let one of those groupie freak Cupids keep him busy.”
And I hate her suddenly for telling me that my first time was this sad little statutory rape or something. For acting like all I want from the world is to be pawed at by Christophers and shitty uncles and to live a pathetic life in a body that gets softer each nothing year. I thought she understood what it was like to be fine-tuned, powerful, and devoted.
I stand and mash the lit end of my cigarette in the grass, under my toe.
“If that’s how you feel,” I say, “maybe it’s good you had that extra apple with lunch. You’re looking puffy. You’re probably too undisciplined for ballet.”
She slaps me and I’m glad she does.
I stay on the shoreline long after she leaves, long enough for the stars to come out and for college students to appear with their girlfriends and nestle on little benches or rocks. I go to the water, let it lap at my toes. I want to throw up but there’s nothing there but stomach acid, burning in my throat.
I finally go back when the dorm minder calls me. Elody’s door is closed, and I wouldn’t have knocked anyway.
Elody doesn’t crack all week. She gets coffee after class with one of the other Cupids, which I know because I see them at Peet’s. She’s ripping a sugar packet to shreds and she’s got to be just bored to tears without me.
“Let’s make this one ours,” she said, but the Firebird and the princess never even share the stage. They’re in different leagues. Different worlds.
At least it’s quieter in the bathroom without Elody there sucking on her teeth. I wonder where she’s been going to puke. I try to put it out of my mind so I can focus on this moment of serenity when I vom, just me, totally empty, totally hollowed out. I reach back and I retch and I retch until blood leaks around my fingers. I tell myself it’s just jam from a piece of toast. I swish my teeth and spit into the toilet. I’ll definitely be asked to join the company when I get home.
In class Elody’s princess pas de deux is coming along. She looks good with Bryant, who I guess has a little talent. I wonder what she said to him about me, though, because he keeps giving me these little glances and then looking away.
Mssr. doesn’t talk to me either, except to correct an extension here and there.
Fuck them both.
Every day after lunch, when the other Cupids are off getting ice cream or wandering around campus, Elody and I are called into solo rehearsals. Finally we are actually challenged. My feet ooze, and I make myself ice baths in the bathroom sink.
I thought after everything that happened Elody would stop competing with me. But in rehearsal, when I drop down onto my heels, she stays on pointe a minute longer. When I jump, she jumps higher. She throws in extra piqué turns. I know she wants to rattle me, make me want to quit. But she’s not the lead and I am. She wants to drag me down with her. Mme. Francesca warned me about girls like that, who would pollute you with their lack of focus.
We are worked and adjusted and exhausted of our deepest reserves.
In dress-rehearsal week we’re finally allowed to wear pieces of our costumes — Elody, silk skirts and a tiara; and me, a feathered, bright-red tutu. On the first day we wear them, I accidentally shed haphazardly glued feathers, and Elody slips on one when landing an assemblé, turning her ankle.
“Jesus Christ!” she yells, and Mssr. Peterson looks up from his notes.
“Can you keep dancing?”
“It fucking hurts.” She holds her ankle and moans.
Mssr. Peterson crosses the stage. He pulls and pushes her ankle while Elody grits her teeth. “If you’re not screaming, you should be dancing.”
Elody’s face twists up. “Are you for real? That’s child endangerment.”
“If you want to leave, you can leave. Your parents still have to pay the full tuition.” Mssr. doesn’t even look at her. “Stand up, I want to see that assemblé again, higher right leg this time.”
Elody stands, but she doesn’t get into position. All of a sudden I just know what she’s going to do. She plants her fists on her hips and says, “My parents don’t have to pay tuition if I tell them you’re fucking students.”
I’m moving over the stage, as if I could really do anything at this point to get her to shut up, but I don’t make it there before Mssr. has her arm in his grip. “Is this your plan? Are you going to whine to Mommy because you bruised your ankle a little bit?”
He lets her go and she stumbles forward. I am there to catch her. She clutches my forearms.
“I should have said something a long time ago.” She’s crying and I can barely understand her. “This world is so fucked up. You know that, right?”
“Please stop it,” I say. “You’re not helping.”
Elody hardens and she yanks her arms away.
“You are beyond help anyway,” she says. “Koschei.”
Who is she to tell me that I shouldn’t get to have a spotlight? But it hits me like a slap, anyway, fast and stinging.
She whips around to Mssr. and her tiara hangs off her sweat-matted hair. “I am done with rehearsal. I know the choreo. I’ll practice it with Bryant.”
She leaves without another word, yanking the silks off her waist, limping, red marks blossoming under the skin of her arm where Mssr. gripped her, digging in with those same fingers that undid my snaps and drove into me just a week ago. I am no longer intoxicated by his stares; in front of me he looks small and angry.
“Get to the locker room,” Mssr. growls, and how dare he, but I do.
In the evenings we watch videos of ballets. Elody and I always used to skip and go to the lake, but now we both attend, on opposite sides of the room. Over the last few days it’s been different performances of The Firebird. The choreo doesn’t matter. It’s always the same in the end: the Firebird appears and everyone she hates she dances to death and everyone she loves she dances back to life. Koschei is called the Deathless but the Firebird conquers him. There’s nothing more powerful than that many pirouettes. Nothing realer than the principal’s face, that far gone in the role. If you analyzed her brain you’d see that she was a bird inside and out, at least for those moments. Some of the other Cupids wince when she goes on pointe and stays there, but I don’t even notice her feet, she doesn’t notice her feet, she doesn’t even have feet for as long as the movement lasts, for as long as Stravinsky says.
“Look at the way Tallchief moves her wrists,” Mssr. Peterson says to me. “The choreo becomes character. Look at the port de bras. She flutters. She startles. Watch birds, and you’ll see.”
It’s the first time he’s addressed me in days. I wonder how he can stand to talk to me like he’s normal to me, like he’s just my teacher.
We file back to the dorms and Elody is with some other Cupids, drinking in their attention like it’s her and not me who’s the lead. But I guess they should be glad that someone with an ounce of talent is paying attention to them. She lingers outside the door and I can’t help myself: I offer her a lighter. She takes it without looking at me.
“You know,” she says, “when Misty Copeland was sixteen, she had offers of summer study from the Joffrey, the American Ballet Theatre, and the San Francisco Ballet.”
Elody can have the lighter. I head back inside. As tired as I am, I still think, Your game is so old. I’ll get there, as far as I want to go, as long as I’m hungry and willing.
On opening night I flex my feet backstage and wallop my shoes against the piano bench and I think I have just a bit of nerves for the first time in a long time. Out there under the lights Elody is turning and turning and, whatever, let her spin. The Firebird is about a man who falls in love with a demon. The princess is inconsequential.
I saw Mme. Francesca in the audience as they filed in. She kissed Mssr. Peterson on the cheek and I wondered if she’d known what could happen when she told me to go be a Cupid for the summer. If she’d imagined he would think so little of me — would think he was so entitled to take whatever he wanted — that he wouldn’t even close the door when he fucked me.
I must stretch until those thoughts go away. There’s only room for big emotions out there. Stravinsky didn’t write any dynamic notations into the score — he did it so that the artists could decide for themselves how big or small to play it. But no one ever takes it small.
The flutes begin their tense ascent into my cue. And for a second it’s like I really lose myself, fluttering in and out of Bryant’s arms, never letting him truly catch me. My wrists twitch like wings and my head snaps back and forth, and I’m like a tornado, like if you looked inside me you’d see flame all the way down. My feet flutter and tap and allegro, girls, allegro, quick as if your life depends on it. Wake up, girls, dance yourself as large as you know how, shake off your stone skins and live for your big emotions for a moment. Am I on fire, or is that the spotlight making my muscles burn?
In the infernal dance I forget that Koschei is just some kid in a costume. I forget that Elody and I dreamed of eating his heart together. I forget the feeling of floor meeting toe. All that counts is that this incredible crescendo is all mine, and just when I think I might burst into flames, it’s over and I am backstage, and the last note of a single trumpet strips it all away. I am me again, sweating and panting in the wings, shadowed away from the triumphant lighting that promises dawn for the princess, finally safe.
Does Elody see me in the corner of her eye? She raises her arms with the trumpets and crashing timpani, raises her whole body to the tip of her toe like she’s the hero. I wonder if I’ll ever stop being mad at her for making me think we could be friends. I can’t stop for her or for anyone — not after those spins, that fire on my skin. I have given myself to the art. And what the art will never stop asking of me is to be better than everyone else. I will never be willing to walk away and live a life that’s soft and unremarkable. I hold my hands together because, for a second, they’re shaking.
Elody holds that last, long pose in the air until the music falls around her into applause. When we take the stage for bows, it is the last time we will stand side by side. The gold in her tiara brings her freckles through the sweat. We glow, like sunset on the lake, like we wanted.
Alysandra Dutton’s short story “Firebirds” [July 2020] was riveting. I come from a similar ballet background and found her story wrenchingly believable.
Dutton’s portrayal of the girls’ friendship brought back painful memories for me. I had hoped the ballet world had become healthier since I left it, and I was saddened to see that it has not changed at all.
Alysandra Dutton’s “Firebirds” wonderfully captures a moment in the lives of these innocent, ruthless, vulnerable, and confident young ballerinas. Merci beaucoup!