Though I’m sure ballet is a very common interest of young girls, there was something quite sad about my bookish bulk twirling about the room in a makeshift tablecloth tutu. With my round, unflattering glasses slipping down my nose, frizzy uneven bangs plastered to my forehead, and sounds better suited to a buffalo mating ritual – I’d dance my chubby heart out. It’s a wonder my parents didn’t claim I was adopted. Though, in my defense, my mother was the source of the uneven bangs.
Like most things, ballet failed to hold my attention for very long. After several months of insisting my family refer to me only as Madame Nicole (Nicole being my middle name), I turned to a hobby I could really put my weight behind: Karate.
But as I’ve mentioned before, my mother was horrified by my success in combat and pulled me out before I reached my full ass kicking potential. When she told me that I was going to be enrolled in dance classes instead, my thoughts immediately turned to my previous obsession. As loathe as I was to give up my belt and sparring gear, I couldn’t help having visions of Swan Lake finery. My mother had other ideas.
We went to a small family run store downtown that sold all manner of dancing shoes right next to their main selection of old lady footwear. My Nana would take me there every summer to help pick out gold sandals to match her gold bikinis, purses, and the gold case that covered her oxygen tank. So I was quite used to the balding old owner that measured my feet and pinched my cheeks, and he was quite used to my demands for two suckers – one to eat immediately and one to stuff in my pocket.
But my contentment faded when, instead of the coveted ballet slippers, I was presented with a box containing black, soft soled jazz shoes. My mother flitted about, watching as he pressed his thumb down on my big toe, and I scowled – arms crossed and mouth screwed up tight around the sucker stick. No amount of pleading, threats of dying, or arguing would sway her. I was going to take jazz lessons and that was that. “Has her Nana’s temper, doesn’t she”, he commented to mom with a pitying smile.
The studio was small and unassuming, but the dance teacher was another matter entirely. Her name was Deena and she was the most theatrical person I’d ever met. Her hair was a tall, reddish brown thicket that looked like it would have been more at home tumbling across the desert. Her clothing and makeup were bright, her frame thick, and her choices of décor leaned toward the middle aged cat woman with a doily obsession. In fact, she was a single middle aged woman, with no children, that lived right next door to the studio with her parents...who still treated her like the 10 year old child star she allegedly used to be.
I wasn’t even allowed the luxury of private lessons. I had to shuffle and sashay across the room, accompanied by a thin black girl named Brittany, who hated me on sight, and Deena’s sullen nephew Dan who, in the absence of another girl, was chosen to be the stardom hungry family’s whipping post. I felt more pity for him than I did myself and we formed a hesitant friendship built on mutual misery.
The lessons were only 30 minutes long, but my sister was enrolled in a toddler class called “creative movement”, so I had to sit in the lobby and wait. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what “creative moment” meant, but I knew they got to wear tiny ballet slippers and I was pissed. I also wasn’t too happy when, after a few weeks of classes, I was informed that I would be expected to participate in an end of the year recital.
I didn’t like the idea of dancing on stage to begin with, but when I saw the outfit they intended to shove me into I almost died from humiliation in advance. It was a black spandex affair, all one piece, with gold sequined elastic around the edges of the shorts and sleeves and crisscrossed with silver sequins across the chest. Oh, and of course the gold sequined elastic headband that went “across the forehead, Alyson, not in your hair”.
That first recital was one giant lesson in futility. Crying, reasoning, threatening to “tell Grandma”, and claims of broken legs were pointless. I was going to get up on that stage three times whether I wanted to or not: for the introduction with all the dancers, my routine, and the awards ceremony. The majority of the students were excited about getting a trophy for doing nothing more than shuffling around a room with an ageing diva that talked too much. The only thing I had to be excited about was the celebratory dinner I’d been promised if I cooperated and stopped telling everyone that I was being “forced to perform like a monkey” and mumbling about “reporting this to social services”.
Waiting in the wings of the dark theatre was nerve racking. On our side there were several crew members to make sure the dancers were ready, pull the curtains, and move props. On the other was Deena, dancing each dance with us in case someone forgot a step and needed to glance over. As far as I was concerned she was more of a hindrance than a help, because even if someone remembered all the steps they couldn’t help but look over at her jiggling form and get distracted.
There were video cameras everywhere. It was a rather large community theatre and from the sidelines I could see red and green lights dotted throughout the gloom. Between the photos my parents had ordered from the professional photographer the studio used before recitals and all of the tapes being made that day, it was clear I wouldn’t be able to destroy all evidence of my involvement. The only form of rebellion I had left was to look absolutely miserable while on stage. I was too much of a perfectionist to mess up the steps on purpose, but goddamn it I was not going to smile like a loon.
The curtain was lowered and we took our places, spandex clad asses facing the waiting crowd and fingers splayed out into jazz hands. The stupid sequined headband was digging into my forehead and making it itch, but I couldn’t scratch because of the massive quantities of stage makeup. As they began cranking up the curtain I forgot all about my forehead and silently panicked. My palms were sweating and I thought I was going to vomit. Stage fright was entirely new to me. I’d always been quite the attention seeker, but there was no way in hell I wanted the kind of attention I was about to get.
BAM! A spotlight came on over our heads and the first strains of our routine started to play. We were supposed to wait in place, shaking our behinds for the first 15 or so counts. While I was reluctantly shaking my ass and wiggling my jazz fingers, I heard whoops and shouts behind me.
“GO, AL! THAT’S MY DAUGHTER! WOOOOO! SHAKE IT, AL!”
I visibly winced when my uncle joined my father’s, likely drunken, encouragement. When I turned around to begin the routine I was scowling fit to kill. I step-ball-changed and galloped across that stage with windmill arms without missing a beat, face like a puckered asshole. My family filled up two entire middle rows and even in the dark I could see them: the men in ball caps and cut up t-shirts next to the women in flashing gold jewelry and teased hair.
At the end of the routine we were supposed to move together and have skinny Brittany stand up on our knees and wave her arms. I hated that part because the floor hurt my knee and even though she looked skinny, she certainly didn’t feel like it. Dan and I had let her fall accidentally on purpose in practice a time or two, and I’d briefly thought about it on stage, but in the end I decided that it wasn’t a good idea. My family knew me well and there was the possibility that they’d notice I caused the accident and renege on our dinner plans as punishment.
But as we step-ball-changed toward the center for the final formation, Brittany tripped and went sprawling across the floor. We kept going and had reached our places when she was just picking herself up. The music ended and the applause started as Dan and I kneeled side by side, jazz fingers going in the air with nothing to hold, Brittany standing crestfallen out to the side. I was genuinely grinning for all I was worth and I could hear my dad laughing over the cheers of the crowd as the curtain fell.
Long t-shirt over my glittery chub, I made my way quietly into the auditorium to sit with my family and watch until intermission and award time. I was given a coke and a rice krispy treat, clapped on the back, and praised for my performance. I was marginally pleased with myself until my sister and the rest of the toddler class took their places. They were adorable in tiny Minnie Mouse costumes with tights, tails, and tiny black slippers. While the annoying music played some of them stood shock still and stared out into the black, thumbs stuck in their mouths and eyes as wide as saucers. Some toddled around and chased each other, some cried and attempted to wander off stage, and some, like my sister, actually tried to do the routine. But she was like a two year old Hitler in mouse ears, barking orders, pulling at the others and trying to make them join her in the jumping jacks and heel step, toe point exercises.
The audience was roaring with laughter, my family was cheering, and I was pissed all over again. What was so great about what they were doing? I hadn’t missed one step, had done my routine perfectly, and here they were going all crazy for a bunch of babies that couldn’t even stay in a line. If what they wanted was kids running around in a circle, then why the hell had I spent all that time learning the moves and suffering in embarrassment?
When my name was called at the award ceremony I walked forward, bottom lip poked out, and accepted my ribbon and a gold star. Apparently only people that had been there for two or more years got trophies. Not that I wanted one of those stupid plastic statues, but damn if I didn’t deserve one.
After the lights came up and everyone started pushing out the door, we stopped at the back table to pick up our flowers, balloons, and stuffed animals that family members brought. With arms full of goodies and mom’s promise that we were on our way to dinner, I was happy once more. My sister rode my dad’s shoulders across the parking lot, her balloon trailing behind, and I walked beside my grandparents. “Hey Alyson”, someone called from behind.
I turned and there was Dan, waving, with his family. “See you in a few months! Deena says you’re taking clogging with us!”
Clogging? Clogging? My mouth opened and closed like a gulping fish. I looked over at Deena, who gave me a huge grin and a thumbs up, the gapped up tumbleweed atop her head bobbing as she nodded. I looked at my mom. She smiled, but it looked more like a grimace of determination to me.
“I’m not doing it”, I said defiantly.
“Ok”, she replied automatically. I knew a fake dismissal when I heard one. She wasn’t prepared to argue with me in a crowed parking lot.
“I’m not,” I shouted in panic.
“How about some ice cream, honey”, grandma said.
“Whatcha say, Artist! Want Papa to buy you a pretty new dress to celebrate?!”, my grandpa shouted.
“I’ve got a Yoo-Hoo with your name on it, Al”, dad said.
“Assin”, my sister lisped, “I dance pwetty.”
My uncle picked me up, tossed me over his shoulder and they continued to move en masse toward the cars. “Let them think I’m going”, I thought, “I can milk this for three months.”
Seven years, seven cringe worthy videos, seven plastic trophies, four out of state competitions, and a plethora of sparkly costumes later – I still hated it. I probably could have quit without much argument after a few years, and believe me I often wanted to, but something always stopped me.
I was good.
I knew it, they knew it, and even if it was embarrassing... having my family come together, cheer in the audience and put aside their many differences over the years, for me, was worth a little social suffering. Well, that,
and you wouldn’t believe how much awesome shit I got.
*Due to reader heckling, I've decided to post a photo of my humiliation. Sigh. Enjoy.*