“We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?”
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Sitting cross legged on the hard wooden floor of Studio A, I am an island. The current o conversation flows around me, yet I remain apart. I ruffle through the papers in the purple folder I was handed at the door to give the impression that I am busy, but really I am watching the others. As they mingle around me, I am foolishly surprised by the range of language that I hear, from two older girls with thick Bostonian accents to a group of Costa Ricans conversing in rapid fire Spanish. Some of them are stretching on the barres, their thin, muscled legs casually pushed to 180° angles as they catch up with old friends. Everyone wears some version of the same uniform: black leotard, pink tights, and hair pulled into painfully tight buns. I am wearing it too, although my bun is rather pathetic, as I lack practice. Although I know they come from all over the country, some even farther, they all seem to know each other. I suppose that, in a sense, they all grew up in the same place – the dance studio. Most of them have probably met at competitions, taken classes together, or simply have the shared experience of being a young dancer. With my meager two years of experience, I feel alien.
Suddenly, every head that I am surreptitiously observing turns towards the white framed door in the far corner of the room. Conversations cease. I notice postures straightening, eyes lifting, and stomachs being sucked in. I quietly do the same, because entering the room are the two most important people in my life for the next four weeks. There are two people, a man and a woman. They are our teachers.
The man makes his way to the front of our crowd in the silence. In spite of my acute nervousness, I can only describe him as beautiful. His arm rests on the piano, seemingly more for aesthetic than physical reasons. Head shaven and wearing only plain black dance clothes, he looks to be more sculpture than man, his chestnut colored skin gleaming slightly under the artificial lighting. Each movement he makes is fluid and filled with intention, his technique and experience apparent with every step, every gesture. Though his movements exude feminine grace, his defined musculature and erect posture lend him a distinct air of masculinity. He is so completely a dancer that I feel he is dancing even now, as he moves forward to address us. I am entranced. I want to know him, learn from him, and most of all, be him. His face serene and welcoming, the man finally breaks the spell.
“Hello,” he intones, his voice sharp but soothing, like clear water pouring into a tall glass. “My name is Duncan. I am one of the founders of this program, and I will be teaching ballet and also repertoire for the four weekers.I already know many of you – “ he pauses to share a conspiratorial glance with a few girls “ – and I am looking forward to getting to know everyone else.”
He pauses, surveying the crowd of young dancers before continuing.
“Before we begin placement, I would like to say a few things.”
His kindly gaze sharpens slightly.
“I see in all of you sitting before me, and I expect your other teachers do as well, myself. All of us have been in your position, and I know it’s a scary thing. This is a tough industry. At this intensive, we want to help you, and we want you to have fun. But in the end, we can’t do the work for you. Don’t expect to achieve anything if you aren’t willing to do the work.”
Having laid down his gauntlet, Duncan steps back, gesturing to the woman instructor sitting behind him on the piano stool.
“I think I’ve said all I have to say, so I’ll let Elana introduce herself, and then we’ll get started.”
The woman smiles and stands.
I first notice her unusual hairstyle – she’s shaven completely bald, except for a circle of dark dreadlocks on the crown of her head, tied up into a bun, and two by her left ear. Her face is stern, and the crease of her brow is firm, unyielding. On top of this, she wears a pair of round spectacles perched on a wide, flat nose, and has a series of earrings dangling from her right ear. She has darker skin than Duncan, and she’s short, barely meeting the middle of his chest. Her stare is piercing, and as it passes over me I feel unexpectedly guilty, as if my very existence is a disappointment to her, as if daring to dream of achieving what she has is a crime. This is not a woman who does things halfway.
“My name is Elana Bergman,” she introduces, and I am surprised by the warmth in her voice. “I will be your teacher for the modern technique of Lester Horton. And before you ask,“ she grins at us wryly, “The hair has always been like this. Call it a teenage rebellion that never ended.”
The smile on her face fades back into seriousness.
“I will also be teaching a new class this year, called Dance History. I hope in that class we will be able to talk, freely, about some of the issues you have encountered in your study of dance, and also write a statement about your own personal dance history.”
Her gaze turns pensive.
“I feel like, you, as young dancers today, are constantly given technique, technique, technique, to the point that maybe, you think that that’s all that is important. But it’s not. I want you to think, really think about what you’re doing here, and why you’re here, because if you don’t know that, then in all honesty there isn’t going to be any point.”
She suddenly beams at us playfully.
“I’m also here for all four weeks, both sessions, so I’m especially looking forward to having conversations with you brave four weekers.”
I don’t feel brave. I feel terrified. The sheer immensity of the talent in the room suffocates me. I can’t even fathom why I’m here, and I certainly don’t know what I’m going to tell Elana in Dance History.
Around me, people are standing and stretching. Duncan is directing us to the barres to begin the placement class. Thoroughly intimidated, I slink away to the other side of the room, the corner opposite the piano and instructors. As the piano’s melody lilts softly from the speakers, I assume the starting position, resigned for the worst. Duncan is leading the ballet portion, it seems. As I struggle through the movements, I try to remember what’s important. Tight core. Eyes lifted. Back straight. Feet turned out. Hips still. Shoulders down. Elbows up. Duncan demonstrates the next combination, effortlessly, like breathing.
By the end, I am dripping. My leotard feels sticky and gross, and my bun has given up entirely. Now it’s time for Elana’s portion, the Horton technique. We stow the barres by the door in order to clear the dance floor as Elana takes her place in front of the class.
We begin with plies, bending our knees precisely to ground our bodies, just like in ballet, except our feet are parallel instead of turned out. This is a relief to me. I can breathe with the movements and I even dare to look at myself in the mirror. However, it still doesn’t seem to be enough. The girl in front of me has incredible fluidity, her short, twelve-year old limbs whooshing through the movements with precision and clarity. I try to copy her, but it’s difficult. My untrained body feels awkward, and the poses I shift through look annoyingly off, like a blurred photograph.Through the pounding in my ears, I vaguely hear Duncan announcing that placement results will be released after lunch, and dismissing us.
Exiting the studio after downing my entire water bottle, I survey the lunch situation. As I had expected, everyone is sitting in seemingly predetermined friend groups. I take a chance and sit next to the girl who stood next to me during the ballet portion; she is eating alone. She looks up when I sit down, then returns to her lunch. I open my own lunch box and follow suit. As she seems uninterested in my existence, I decide to remain silent. The girl looks a little younger than me, and has a round, chubby face with full, rosy cheeks.Everything on her head is small –nose, eyes, mouth, even her ears. Her dirty blond hair is drawn back into a tight ballet bun, and she wears a blue headband. Eventually, the awkward silence becomes too uncomfortable, so I introduce myself.
She looks at me critically.
I instantly regret starting a conversation as Alison launches into a long-winded explanation of her entire dance career, starting at age three when she began her “study of the Russian technique” under some famous balletmaster. I feel as though I have punched a hole in a dam. Her eyes sharp and lips pursed condescendingly, the words fly rapidly from her mouth, almost as if she can’t contain them, like a nervous tic. Looking at the tension she carries in her shoulders and the soft rolls of fat on her cherub-like arms, and recalling what I saw of her during the placement class, I am fairly certain she will be in the lowest level. Despite myself, this brings me some comfort. Skill is relative, after all.
My stomach feels uncomfortably heavy.
Escaping the irritatingly one-sided conversation, I walk through the main lobby, as if to use the bathroom, so that I can take a passing glance at the bulletin board where they will post the final placement. By the third time, some younger girls eating lunch in the area look at me strangely. They probably assume I have digestive problems. I wonder, what do I look like to them? Do I look like I belong? Are they assessing me like competition, trying to judge how many pirouettes I can do by the muscles in my legs? Or do they look to me the way I look at Alison, guiltily taking comfort from realizing her faults?
With a jolt, I realize that this time I didn’t walk by for nothing; there are 3 white sheets of paper tacked onto the board. I freeze, heart pounding, eyes scanning, and finally I find my name. I’m in the lowest level, Level I. I bite my bottom lip and look away.
Why am I so disappointed? It was clear from the moment that placement class began that I would be in the lowest level. What had I been expecting?
I recall Duncan and Elana’s words from the beginning of the day. I imagine Duncan as a little boy, struggling to rotate his thighs outward in plie. I imagine Elana as a teenager, angrily biting her lip in front of a bathroom mirror, electric razor in hand. As I look at them together in Studio B, muscle-bound, sweat dripping, preparing the afternoon’s classes, I think of myself: my faults, my possibilities, my past. Suddenly, my entire body is overrwhelmed by a ticklish feeling of anticipation. Pulling my bun tight, I head over to Studio C, early for class, to warm myself up. It’s time to do the work.