I step to the front of the line, rolling through my feet in alternating relevés. It’s my turn next. My heart flutters as Nathan takes my wrist to prepare for a series of finger turns. My first-ever partnered pirouettes, to be precise, at my first-ever away-from-home summer intensive, in my first-ever partnering class.
I’m ridiculously nervous. What if my arms get tangled with Nathan’s? What if I can’t stay on pointe long enough to do more than one pirouette? What will these girls think of me? Why couldn’t my studio back home have had at least one male student?
I bourrée forward and lift my right leg into passé, then développé front. Here goes nothing… I think as I rond de jambe and whip my leg back in for a solid double turn. Success! A mini-me does triumphant Italian fouettés inside my chest.
I prepare to go again. I bourrée, développé, fouetté. Nathan gently nudges my waist to correct my balance as I revolve—once, twice, three times. A triple! This is going so much better than I’d expected. I get to try once more before I head to the back of the line, where I’ll practice on my own while Nathan’s other four partners take their turns.
I wind up this time, pushing off Nathan’s left hand to get more power. The first two turns are glorious, then I feel myself start to wobble, like a top near the end of its spin. I make it around a third time, but halfway through the fourth my ankle gives way.
I sit down, hard, at Nathan’s feet. It takes me a second to understand what just happened. My ankle is throbbing. I reach down to touch it, then realize that Nathan is talking to me.
“Oh my gosh, are you OK?” he asks, extending a hand to help me up.
“I…I think so,” I stammer, attempting to stand without putting any weight on my left foot.
The pianist has stopped playing, and our classmates form a circle around us. Everyone’s speaking at once. “Who fell? What happened? Did you see it? Is she OK? Glad it wasn’t me…”
“That’s enough, everyone,” Madame Giovanna says, kneeling gracefully to peer at my lower leg. “Nathan, can you help Megan get to the nurse?”
“Sure thing,” Nathan says, draping my arm across his shoulder. I hop along beside him, trying not to jolt my throbbing ankle. Still, I wince with each step, and so with a dazzling smile and a wink, Nathan scoops me into his arms.
“Thanks,” I say, suddenly shy. I wrap my arms around his neck, right hand clasping left wrist. “I’m such a klutz.”
“No problem at all,” Nathan replies, bending to grab my dance bag—a middle-school holdover with “Megan” written in cursive across the top.
Secure in his arms, feeling how easily he glides across the floor even while holding me and my massive bag, I can see why he’s the most sought-after partner in the advanced level. It’s not just that he’s incredibly cute, with a mop of curly brown hair and blue eyes that sparkle when he smiles…
“How’s your ankle?” he asks, interrupting my thoughts. He swings open the studio door and turns sideways to maneuver me through.
“Hurts,” I mumble. “I sprained it a year ago; it’s still a lot weaker.” Then something awful occurs to me: “What if I can’t…I mean, it’s the first day…”
“Hey, don’t think like that,” Nathan chides. “We’ll get you to the nurse and go from there. And then I gotta get back to class—there are four more of you waiting for me!” His smile makes my heart beat double-time. I lean my head against his shoulder and sigh, trying not to think about what just happened.
* * * * *
I didn’t re-sprain my ankle, which is great news. Still, just to be safe, I am out of commission for the rest of the week. More specifically, no dancing at all on Tuesday, barre only on Wednesday and then, if I’m feeling up to it, class minus jumps Thursday and Friday. Oh, and no pointe shoes until Monday. I’m under doctor’s orders to rest, and under the school director’s orders to observe all the classes I can’t participate in. My ankle is purple and Ace-wrapped. I am miserable.
My roommate, Jess, tries to cheer me up by drawing pointe shoe ribbons on my Ace wrap with Magic Markers. Everyone in class asks how I’m doing, and I smile and play down the lingering pain. Really, my pride hurts more than my ankle, which will heal. I am mortified that I fell in front of everyone, and I feel like I’ve lost an opportunity—I can’t get the most out of this three-week summer program sitting on my butt while everyone else dances seven hours a day!
The one bright spot in this whole mess is Nathan. He brings me flowers before class on Tuesday. He helps me get back and forth from the dorms to the studios, and he sits with me at lunch. He even stops by my room one evening to show me some Pilates exercises to keep my muscles strong and lengthened until I’m back in class. And on Sunday afternoon, we go out for ice cream. It’s the highlight of an otherwise awful week.
* * * * *
"You sure you’re OK?” Nathan asks, eyeing my pointe shoe–clad feet warily. It’s Monday of week two, which means I’m back full time—and it’s my turn to step up to the partnering plate.
“Yeah, I put on my shoes last night and did a few test-relevés,” I say. “I’ll take it easy today, I promise. I don’t want to be out for another week!” I piqué into first arabesque and allow Nathan to promenade me.
“Sure, you say that now,” he laughs as we turn, “but I know you perfectionist bunhead types. Stop at nothing to get the part, glass in each others’ pointe shoes…” He makes sure I’m on balance, then dips me into penché. I lift up and close my arabesque leg gently into sous-sus, taking care not to slam my still-sore ankle into the floor. Nathan notices my caution and, as I step down, he takes my hand. “Sorry to nag,” he says. “I just…well, I like hanging out with you and I’d like to dance with you, too! So, you know, no more twisted ankles, OK?”
I nod, but am so flustered that I can’t form a single word. I jog quickly to the back of the partnering line. Nathan starts working with the next girl, and I busy myself with some slow, strength-building relevés, holding on to the barre facing the wall. Did anyone hear him? I ask myself. I rise and lower, rise and lower, ignoring the twinge in my left ankle. I decide to ask him what he meant when it’s my turn again, but as luck would have it, Madame Giovanna has other plans.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we do not chatter amongst ourselves in classical ballet,” she calls out from across the room. We finish the rest of the class in silence, broken only by the pianist’s playing and the clatter of pointe shoes against the floor.
* * * * *
Two days later, I get amazing, incredible, unbelievable news. I’ve landed a small soloist part in our final showcase next week, and I’m partnered with Nathan! We start rehearsals this afternoon, and I can’t wait to show that I’m more than just the girl who fell on the first day.
Nathan finds me in the hallway. “Megan!” he says. “Am I psychic, or am I psychic?”
I look at him, feigning ignorance. “About what?” I ask.
“You know what. When I, you know…” he pauses, “when we…when we were in class on Monday, and I said I liked…um…”
He looks so mortified that I decide to put him out of his misery. “Yeah, I remember. I guess you did bring me good luck! And,” I add, “this will mean we’ll be spending more time together.” I glance up into his eyes, and he’s beaming. I beam right back.
“Can I walk you to variations?” he asks, extending his hand in a grand, princely gesture. I take it, placing my palm in his as delicately as Aurora to her suitors, and we head off down the hall.
"So what’s the deal with you and Nathan?” Jess asks, plopping down on my bed. It’s the end of the second week, and we’ve just gotten back from dinner in the cafeteria.
* * * * *
“We’re partners in the showcase,” I say, deliberately stating the obvious.
Jess doesn’t take the hint. “And…?” she says, drawing out the word into at least four beats.
“And…I kind of like him,” I murmur, unable to stop a smile from picking up one corner of my mouth. I look up at Jess, but she’s frowning. “What?” I ask.
“Well, Nathan’s great and all,” Jess starts, “but aren’t you worried about losing focus while you’re here? I mean, you’re here to dance, not to date. And you already lost a week, with getting hurt.” She pauses to let that sink in, then pats me on the shoulder. “I’m just looking out for you,” she says, smiling now.
I smile weakly back, but my mind is racing. Is that what the other girls think of me—that I’m wasting my time at this program flirting with a boy? It doesn’t make sense; I haven’t missed a single class since starting back full time, and Nathan and I pretty much only see each other at activities we’d be doing anyway, like dinner and rehearsal. So why would Jess say something like that? Is she jealous?
On the day of the showcase, our morning classes are replaced by a warm-up followed by dress rehearsal. Nathan and I are dancing a contemporary duet choreographed by one of the junior faculty members, set to music by Philip Glass. It’s only a minute and a half long, but it highlights what we’ve been working on, from promenades to pirouettes to this great moment where I run at Nathan from across the room and he flips me around his back like a swing dancer and catches me on the other side.
At noon we break for lunch, where Jess grabs me and pulls me aside. “I have to talk to you,” she says—the most words she’s spoken to me all week. “Listen, I’m sorry for what I said about Nathan. I watched you in rehearsal; you’re really good together.” I nod cautiously, waiting for her to finish. “And,” she says slowly, looking me in the eye, “you’re dancing really well. I guess I just wanted to apologize….” She looks genuinely upset, and I can’t stay mad at her.
“It’s fine, really,” I say, pulling her in for a hug.
“Friends?” she asks, sounding nervous.
“Friends,” I answer. “Now let’s go dance!” We head to the studios to warm up and get in costume. Before lacing up my pointe shoes, I rewrap my ankle, which is better, but still a little tender. Then I apply an extra coat of shimmery eyeshadow so that the light will catch my eyes.
I’m making a kissy-face at myself in the mirror when Nathan pokes his head into our studio, eyes squeezed shut. “Is everyone decent?” he calls. The girls giggle. “What do you want, Nathan?” Jess answers, winking at me. “We’re all dressed; come on in.”
“I’ve come to pick up my partner,” Nathan says, striding inside. “You ready to go, or what?” I follow him out into the hallway, where we practice a few sticky lifts. Then we wait, holding hands, for our turn to perform.
Within minutes, we’re onstage in our opening pose. The stage is lit in a soft blue, like we’re underwater. We start in silence, facing each other. He traces the air around me with one hand. I duck under his arm and chassé into an arabesque, wrapping my arms around his waist. We pick up speed from there, and the duet flies by. We nail every element—including the ones we reversed so that I wouldn’t have to put as much weight on my sore ankle.
The dance closes with the two of us sitting on the floor, side by side, legs extended in front of us. Nathan pulls my legs in with one arm, using the other to scoop behind my back until I’m curled in his lap, my head on his chest. As the lights fade, he rocks me back and forth.
Outside in the hallway after our bows, we can’t contain our excitement. “That was awesome!” I stage-whisper, doing a little chainée away from Nathan. “Thanks for being such a great partner.”
He catches my hand, giving it a small squeeze. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” he whispers back. “We work really well together.” We walk toward the dressing rooms holding hands, separating only to let a corps of 12-year-olds in tutus slip past. “So,” Nathan says when we’re alone again, “I guess this is it.”
“Want to meet up tomorrow before we leave?” I blurt. “I mean, I’m spending tonight with the girls, but I’d love to… you know… see you before I go.”
“It’s a date,” Nathan says.
The next day Nathan and I meet on the lawn outside the dorms before the airport van is scheduled to show up and whisk me away. We look at each other for a long moment. I begin to stutter. “So, um… it’s, um… I’ve had a…”
Nathan leans over and kisses me lightly on the lips. When he pulls back, his cheeks are red. “Sorry, I… sorry,” he says.
“No, it’s OK,” I say smiling. I only hesitate for a second before leaning in to kiss him right back. We’re startled apart by the honk of a horn. When I look over my shoulder, the airport shuttle driver is waving at me, wiggling his eyebrows. “See you next summer?” I ask. Nathan nods. “Right,” I say. “So you better e-mail me!” He nods again. The van driver honks. I toss my dance bag over my shoulder and grab my rolling suitcase.
I look back as we drive away, just in time to see Nathan blowing me a kiss. I catch it in one hand and wave.
Illustration: Emily Giacalone