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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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04/04/2006 Archived Entry: "J LHLS 9: French For Dancers"

French For Dancers
By Jessica Groper

Chaînés -- Chains, links. A series of rapid turns done in a straight line or circle.

You climb the two flights of stairs with songs from "A Chorus Line" ringing in your ears. With a deep uncertain breath you push open the door to the third floor. Sensory overload kicks in as the familiar combined smell of sweat, shoes, rosin, hairspray, antibacterial ointment, band aids, and blood invades your nose and floods your brain. You close your eyes briefly to reorient yourself. Sight is not necessary here, the appearance of a dance studio and its inhabitants is programmed into your DNA. There are legs everywhere. That's always what people notice first -- the legs of a dance studio. Somehow dancers always manage to draw attention to their thighs, knees, calves, ankles all the way down to their arched feet and tortured toes. Even while relaxing, the legs seem to be alive with a compelling energy. Reading a book she wraps one leg around and over the other spiraling her torso and head away from the top thigh. Talking to a friend she lies on her side and lifts her top leg up and behind her head in a hyperactive Jane Fonda stretch. Taking a nap between classes she stretches her legs out to either side of her body, crawls forward until her chest hits the floor and supports her head on crossed arms. Even when she is not stretching, a dancer's legs are intriguing. Curled up in a ball she is either centering herself or -- horror of unimaginable horrors -- injured.

This tangent has distracted you. You have to move farther inside than the doorway. Automatically you pay your ten dollars, give your name and the class you wish to take. You're told the studio number and directed to the women's locker room, but like a pro you undress in the hall with everyone else. Modesty doesn't exist in this world. You spent most of the first part of your life in rooms with other naked girls and women, and often men. You peel off your street clothes to reveal the regulation "theatrical pink" tights and black leotard. You hate pink tights, you never wore them when you were a dancer unless you were performing. They add fat to your thighs where it never dwelt before. White tights are of course worse, somehow managing to turn even the slightest women into cows, but no one ever wears white. While you wait for class to begin you slide on an old pair of ballet shoes. The leather is permanently creased in the shape of your foot's arch even though the shoes have been stuffed away in your discarded dance bag for two years. Your heart aches a little as you feel the perfect fit of each shoe -- your old friends -- and you tell yourself that this is only the beginning, the real pain is yet to come.

You find a place at the barre and try to relax. Don't look around, don't pay attention to anyone else, don't wonder what they are thinking, DON'T look in the mirror. You look in the mirror. Not bad . . . not nearly as bad as you expected. Your legs look like overstuffed theatrical pink sausages, but that's to be expected. No, not bad at all. You've kept your figure, never allowed yourself to binge during the hard times, always stayed under 110. Your eyes move from your own reflection to those of the rest of the class. Dammit! You weren't supposed to do that. Now you know who is sizing you up and now they think you were doing the same to them. In one false movement of the eyes you started the competition. The girl you made eye contact with begins to stretch. You noticed her because she has a long ponytail instead of the uniform bun. She has a good figure, not perfect, and you know she'll either give up all together when she realizes she can't be in the ballet world or she'll become a show dancer. Broadway and Vegas love not-quite-good-enough ballerinas, they add a touch of class to everything. But, for now the ponytail girl is confident. She glances at your reflection in the mirror as she lifts her right leg to her side up by her ear, not completely straight up -- but close. You sigh as your damned pride and survival instincts force you to respond to her challenge. You lift your own right leg to the front until your knee touches your nose. You rotate your hip so that your leg is to the side, directly against your ear. Then as a final insult you move your leg to the back dropping your torso forward and down to touch your chest to your supporting left leg. You are one long straight line. Out of habit your body has done exactly what you told it to do, but your muscles are screaming at you in pain and surprise at being used after so much neglect. You can already feel how sore you will be in just a few hours. And yet you hold the position to prove you can. Finally you lower your leg and return to a normal standing position. The girl is looking at you, you're certain, so you pretend to be focused on adjusting your shoe. The only thing worse than being challenged is being ignored.

The teacher walks in the door. She begins to greet her regular students and then squeals when she sees you. You shudder inwardly, now everyone is interested in who you are. The teacher runs over to you, she is your friend from your childhood ballet school. She decided to go into teaching around the time you entered the academy. She was the one who recommended you go back to class after two years away from dance. She kisses both of your cheeks and runs her hands up and down your arms supportively. She is so glad you finally decided to come. She is honored to be the one to help you. She knows this might be hard and she wants you to be careful and take things slowly. You blush as you imagine her disapproval at your recent interaction with the ponytail girl. You smile and nod praying she'll shut up and start the class. You feel eyes on you and see the ponytail girl staring at you. That's it. She's now your official nemesis. She doesn't know who you are, but she doesn't like you and is going to show you up in this class no matter what it takes. You wish you could feel confident about giving her a run for her money.

Focus. Class is starting. Your body automatically performs the exercises as if it had never had a break. This isn't so bad. You aren't as out of shape as you thought. For several minutes you float in the euphoria of denial, then you face the fact that after only three exercises in ten minutes you are sweating like a pig. Rising onto the balls of your feet you also become aware of a distinct ache in your knee, dull now but promising to sharpen. That's your own fault. After you got rid of the crutches and could walk comfortably without the brace you stopped bothering with the physical therapy exercises. You had vowed never to dance again if you couldn't do it with the company, so what did you care if your knee would hurt and possibly give out under stress? You were never going to stress the knee again anyway. The teacher walks by while correcting students and gives you a reassuring pat on your slick shoulder. You grit your teeth in hatred. How dare she support and patronize you? You were up and coming. Only 16 when asked to join the company you were moving quickly. A brief stay in the corps de ballet, then on to soloist. After only three years there was talk of you being made a principal in the company. You were featured in a "who to look out for" article in Dance Magazine. You had achieved twice as much by 19 as any of the people in this class might ever dream of.

As the class moves away from the barre to the center of the room you take a swig from your water bottle hoping to wash away the bitter taste on your tongue. It was never this way before. You were never bitchy and egotistical then. You were friendly, eager to help and please, and distinctly non-competitive. Now everything is different. For the first time you are not sure if you can prove yourself.

Center work is demoralizing. Without the barre's support your knee begins to shake violently. You are humiliated by such a public display of weakness. Pain you could endure, but shaking lets everyone else in on your secret. Relief comes in the form of a combination with lots of jumps. A quick glance at the teacher lets her know you'll sit this one out. She nods approvingly. You move to the side of the room and under the guise of stretching desperately try to regroup. Your face is glowing red and your hair is a mess. You breathe slowly trying to find some reserves of strength that will help you climb back to your feet and finish this torturous class. Your eyes are drawn to your competition. The ponytail girl is clearly the best in the class, which would explain her confidence. However, you can see that the class is obviously too easy for her. She is not pushing herself to do better. You can't help but feel sorry for her. She has probably already figured out -- in some wrinkle of her subconscious -- that she will not "make it." Staying in this class is her way of delaying the inevitable, of making her feel talented and promising a little while longer. You remember girls like that in your classes years ago, and you remember how superior to them you felt. They weren't competition for you, and you could feel pity for them. Pity that you're sure they resented, just as you would resent any sympathy now.

The class is moving toward you in order to practice turning across the room. This was always your favorite part of class, a chance to lose yourself in the second wind of dizzying release. You stand up and feel a stab of pain in your knee. You curse. Sitting still too long has stiffened the joint. You try to perform the turn demonstrated by the teacher and cannot complete it. You can almost see your knee swelling. You should get your pressure activated cold-pak out of your dance bag and begin cold treatments right away. But you will not be defeated. You can't give up so quickly after two years of feeling miserable, and sorry for yourself, and guilty about giving up. After all that you will not be beaten down. You will remain standing until the last moment of the class no matter what. The throbbing in your knee is intense, so you focus on the other dancers spinning across the floor. You cannot join in, a couple of people glance your way wondering what is going on in your head but you are too far gone to care anymore. You feel like crying and know that once you make it home you will. This has proven harder than you imagined.

Suddenly you realize the teacher is demonstrating Chaîné turns. Your eyes zoom in on everyone as they move across the floor and you step into line without thinking. Chaîné turns, a series of rounded arms, straight legs, perfectly circular rotations that connect one to the other in perfect chains as their namesake implies. These were the first turns you mastered in ballet 1. You step forward for your turn ignoring the concerned look in the teacher, your friend's eyes. As you step into the first turn your knee punishes you severely, but the pain is different. Your body and mind have reconnected and you only feel, you don't think. Your chain becomes more fluid as you find your balance and rhythm. You have total clarity of mind and vision as your head whips around -- your eyes barely leaving the spot on the opposite wall that will keep you from getting dizzy. The pain is excruciating and exquisite because this is why you danced -- to feel this complete control and complete abandon harmonizing in your body, the vessel. You're at top speed, the way you used to turn on stage. It's all right now. Then you've reached the other side of the room far too soon. You have to stop. The moment the chain is broken you too feel broken. You walk to the nearest barre as nonchalantly as you can, gripping it for support and as an outlet for your pain. You continue to stand there while the other dancers Chaîné turn back to the other side of the room and while they take their group bow and while they applaud the teacher as the class ends. You continue to stand there because you are not sure how you will get out of here without letting go of the barre. You have been through World War III and your muscles and nerve endings are sending in major casualty reports. You hear a step behind you and turning your head slightly recognize the ponytail girl. She looks nervous and very young to you now. She clears her throat uncomfortably and mumbles that your Chaîné turns were really great. Then with a half smile she rushes away. You stand there not caring that her compliment was grudging or that it probably came from a place of pity. You stretch your aching neck and tentatively release your grip on the barre. Somehow you manage to pull on your pants and shoes without too much knee bending. You tie your sweater around your waist and shoulder your dance bag. You make you way to the door and then the elevator, no stairs now. You do not look back. There's no need to, you'll be back. You can do this.

Jessica Groper is a long time English major who hopes one day to finish her graduate education. She splits the 25 hours a day in her life between being a college English professor, a Pilates instructor, and a dedicated reader of anything written in the 19th century.

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