She never was anything else: never the girl who boys liked, the girl who played sports, the girl who was cool, or the girl who was young and wild and crazy. Anna was always the girl who danced.
Anna wiped the sweat from her long neck, wishing she were thinner. She scrutinized herself in the mirror: long brown hair, blue eyes, delicate features, but only five foot three, at least two inches too short by Ballet New York standards. She loved riding horses, writing in her journal and reading horror novels, but above all, ballet. Ballet was everything: the sweaty and tired feeling at the end of class, the clarity and elegance of her arabesque, the way she felt important, the way the rest of the world went away.
Just 16, Anna was starting her first year as a full-time student at the School of Ballet New York. She’d landed the spot, along with five other lucky dancers, after finishing SBNY’s six-week summer intensive. A few days ago, feeling relieved and excited after a long, dull August at home in Rock Island, Illinois, Anna had kissed her family and friends goodbye. Without a backward glance, she’d returned to New York to follow her dream. New York was the place for anyone serious about a major ballet career. She had yearned to be a ballerina for as long as she could remember. She had to get into a company. She just had to!
At the world’s greatest ballet school, she joined 79 other advanced dancers with the same ambition. And as much as she loved ballet, only a few days in, the punishing schedule had left her exhausted. Anna’s feet hurt all the time. Students in the upper division at the School of Ballet New York were not allowed to take class in ballet slippers. Like the others, Anna was on pointe at least five hours a day. Her toes blistered and bled.
At the Rock Island School of Ballet, she had loved her twice-weekly pointe classes. Now she stared down at her feet with horror and revulsion. Would she ever reach the point where dancing this much seemed natural? Her goal was to not wear any lamb’s wool or padding in her pointe shoes, so she could put them on as easily as sneakers.
Since the dancers in Ballet New York wore pointe shoes all day, every day, Anna decided to wear an old pair of pointe shoes to bed to try to get used to them. She sat down on the edge of the bed in her SBNY dorm room and rolled up her pajama pants to slide on the shoes.
“You’re nuts!” Hilary, her roommate, remarked, looking up incredulously.
What does she know? thought Anna. From the moment Hilary—a tall, bronzed, California sylph with banana-shaped feet—stepped into the Chico Dance Academy, teachers fell at her feet begging her to take plum roles like Clara in The Nutcracker. SBNY had offered Hils a full scholarship, and her mother pushed her to come. I had to ask the school for my partial grant, after begging my parents to let me leave home, Anna thought, lacing up her shoes. I always have to work so hard. Hils barely makes the effort to show up!
“Dance is so boring,” Hilary would sigh at least 20 times a day.
She drives me crazy, thought Anna. Hils is nice, but her dance world is the mirror opposite of mine: I arrive and warm up half an hour early, and Hils flies into class just a second before the teacher, her hair in a sloppy mess of a bun. She just doesn’t care about ballet as much as I do.
When they’d first moved in together, Anna couldn’t avoid noticing the numerous pictures of Hils cluttering her desk, most taken by her mom. Hils had a typical, pushy ballet mother, who watched through the window at every class and stood on tiptoes in the wings during every performance. Hilary’s ability to lift her leg far above what seemed humanly possible fed her mother’s conviction that her daughter was fated to be a principal dancer in a major ballet company.
Before coming to New York from California, Hils’ mother would push her back into their red Hummer after ballet to run Hils to cheerleading practice in the Valley. There, Tommy, her boyfriend and the starting quarterback on the football team, waited on the sidelines to grab her hand and hear all her imaginary burdens after his own practice. Acceptance at SBNY rescued Hilary from a string of Cs and Ds. She always had scads of friends, in and out of ballet, and schoolwork wasn’t as important to her as her social life.
Back home, my mother gave me bus money and kissed me for luck. Dad just chuckled at my excitement over ballet. I should sooo hate Hils, but she’s so sweet and likable that I’m glad she’s my roomie, thought Anna. But she doesn’t get it. She knows nothing about Petipa and Fokine, not to mention Nicholas Roizman, the genius choreographer and founder of Ballet New York. What would she do if she ever had to work at ballet, school, anything? What would she do if her irritating ballet mom and her gorgeous boyfriend with that to-die-for six-pack stomach didn’t call her at least twice a day? What would she wear if her rich daddy couldn’t shell out for a new pair of pointe shoes every week? And why do I like her even though we’re so different?
Wouldn’t it be cool, mused Anna, if one day we both become principals? All I can do is what I’ve always done: work like hell, become just as good as Hilary, maybe even better. But, until then, I at least have to get more comfortable in my pointe shoes!
Anna sighed, then started as she realized Hils was still looking at her. “Wearing pointe shoes to bed is just an experiment,” she finally replied.
“Maybe I should try it too…” Hilary cracked sarcastically.
Anna wondered if she was a little crazy, but in a compulsive way, she loved the pain. Later that night, Anna awoke, feet throbbing, and ripped the shoes off. It hurt. It hurt like hell.
Anna pulled off her street clothes and slipped into her new black leotard with velvet straps, pink tights, grey knit legwarmer pants and a purple ballet sweater. It was only 10 am, but she’d already had a busy day! At 7:30 am, when Hilary hit the snooze and rolled over in bed, Anna was already dressed and ready to join the rest of the students who ran back and forth several blocks every day, alternating academic classes at the Young Artist’s High and ballet classes at SBNY.
She had the same routine every morning: Jump out of bed, wet her hair, pull it into a tight ponytail, twist it into a figure eight, clip it to her head and jam in bobby pin after bobby pin. When her hair looked perfect from all angles, she sprayed everything down with hairspray. Next, she applied mascara, mocha lipstick and powder, before pulling on her jeans and shirt.
Now, in the studio, Anna crammed on her pointe shoes so she could warm up, removing her legwarmers and sweater moments before class began. The second hand on the clock swept past 10 as Madame Sivenko sternly clapped her hands twice. Her silver hair, pulled into a tight bun, accentuated the pointed features on her face. Twenty-five girls, loaded with nervous tension, straightened up at the barre.
Placing her left hand on the barre along with all the other girls, Anna’s heels touched in first position as she struggled to elongate her muscles. Music poured out of the piano.
Sivy shot a withering glance at Anna from her austere, 55-year-old eyes. “Separate your fingers, Anna. I only should have to tell you this once. You need to carry your hand as if you have a diamond ring on each finger. Get a ball and hold it during barre.”
Anna nodded submissively. Madame Sivenko then whipped her head and glared at Marie, who was yawning in the barre spot just in front of Anna. “If you’re so tired, there’s the door,” she snapped. Marie’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head vehemently.
Throughout the class, Sivy explained at length the details of the Roizman style they were learning. The 25 stood and listened as much as they danced. It was a lot to take in, but they were determined to get it.
On the way home, Anna bought a small, squishy stress ball to hold in class. The next day, when Anna carried the bright red ball into her next class, Madame Sivenko showed her approval by slightly raising her left eyebrow. Sivy’s glance made the humiliation of holding the ball worthwhile. No one else had to bring a ball to class.
Am I that bad? Anna wondered for the hundredth time. No, I’m good, and I’m going to get better. But, I’ve got to work for everything I get, more than Hilary ever will. Roizman worked. All his ballerinas worked like I’m working. They created the roles Hils and I will inherit. And, there will be new roles for us to make our own. But, for today, Sivy’s eyebrow of approval is all the encouragement I need.
As classes progressed and Anna slowly grew accustomed to everyone and everything at SBNY, she knew that this was where she belonged. She sensed that she was talented: Her feet had high arches, she was delicate-boned and her movements were graceful and precise. In addition to her talent, she always worked her hardest.
It will be okay. I’m not the best, but not the worst either, she kept telling herself. I get just as many corrections as Hils or any of the others. Individual corrections were a gift, a sign of interest. They were not taken for granted.
Even when a compliment came her way, Anna obsessed about how far she had to go, how inadequate she still was. There was so much to think about. Every correction goaded her to want to do better, but in spite of her best intentions, her body behaved incorrectly countless times.
“Anna, I’ve got to hand it to you,” said Hilary one night. “You make more progress than any other dancer I’ve been in class with. My mom would love to have you as a daughter. Why do you push so hard?”
“It’s because I’m so insecure,” Anna confessed. “I worry about everything. I wish I could be more like you.”
That night the two girls shared their whole lives, gabbing nonstop until 3:30 a.m.
“We’ve got to get some sleep, Hils,” yelped Anna when she noticed the clock. “Sivy will kill me in 10 hours, I’ve got a trig test and it’s sleeting outside.”
“Chill out, Ace,” cracked Hilary. “This was so worth it. Get a D for once. Join the human race and live a little. You can sleep when you’re dead.”
Anna giggled. It’s good to have a friend, she thought. I hope it lasts.
On days when the class ended a minute or two early, the girls in level S1 liked to watch the end of men’s class. Anna was curious to see if the guys worked as hard as the girls. Tyler was her favorite. He was the best male dancer in the school. His body was long, lean and muscular, but it was not his physical gifts or his strong technique that made him so unique. Tyler had presence and style. The teachers always put him in the front. He carried himself as if he already was Ballet New York’s principal male dancer. Anna loved to watch him.
Though all the girls thought he was so cute, Anna made a conscious effort to put Tyler out of her mind. She was determined not to spend too much time thinking about boys. Her goal was to improve each day. She held the ball during barre in Madame Sivenko’s class every day for four months. It made her feel stupid, but she did it anyway.
* * *
As the curtain was rising on Ballet New York’s winter season, Anna’s heart leaped when Tyler miraculously, but casually, sat down next to her in the balcony.
“Hey,” he said. She was shocked he was so friendly.
Stay cool, Anna, she said to herself. Nothing this good ever happened to you in Rock Island. Here I am, watching the company of my dreams with the hottest dancer in the school. Breathe!
After the performance, they walked home together, passing the huge illuminated fountain at Lincoln Center.
“I’m so glad we saw Roizman’s Elements. It’s my absolute favorite. Fire is incredible,” Anna said breathlessly. “The pas de deux was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I have five videos of Elements, each one with a different cast. Each performance is unique, with its own interpretation. In London, they botched it, but San Francisco does it almost as well as BNY. I think tonight’s performance was among the best. Am I right, Ty?”
“You’re so pumped about it,” he said. “It’s just a ballet.”
She smiled at him.
“You’re such a hard worker, Anna. I try to work hard, but you put me to shame. Most of the other guys have their eyes on you, but you don’t even notice. I really had to screw up my courage to sit next to you tonight. Hope that’s cool.”
Anna sighed, thinking she’d died and gone to heaven. “It’s cool. Really.” They glanced shyly at each other.
“Do you think I’m going to be tall enough for BNY?” she asked Tyler nervously.
He stopped and looked at her. She met his eyes, looking for an answer, but there wasn’t one.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s so competitive for the girls. Shh. Anna, stop obsessing. Let’s enjoy the moment.”
His strong arms wrapped her in a hug. Eyes shut, she turned her chin up towards him and let him pull her close for a lingering kiss. After a long minute, he pulled away. “You know, we should dance Fire together,” he whispered.
The very thought thrilled her. She couldn’t stop smiling as they signed into the dorm. Glancing backward at each other, they took separate elevators to their respective floors. Six o’clock tomorrow morning would come in just a few hours, and Anna still had to sew pointe shoes and break them in, pounding the toe boxes with a hammer before slamming the door on them. In the bed next to her, Hils was snoring softly.
She didn’t even go to the show, Anna thought. They cut six girls at the end of last year. I wonder where we all will be in a year? Which of us won’t make it? And who will?
Want to know what happens next? Check out Girl in Motion, Part 2 in December!