Wednesday, September 24, 2008

To the pointe

Twist. Turn. Tie. Tie. Rotate foot, inspect.


Pound that second toe shoe. Inspect.


It's a ritual, even if it doesn't make sense. And rituals are live, because they are how you live, and what you live with. In this particular case, it was the ritual of putting on toe shoes for point exercises. To understand what it means to do this, think of what it would feel like to fly - by having someone put your foot in a vice and smash the heel into the toe and then have marble pumped into your veins.

That's what it is like the first few times. And then? And then it stops. Then it just is. Your toes get pushed and shaped, your skin gets a kind of strange reptilian scaliness. And it's normal. And at that point, you just float.

But getting there? Well you also learn that even small things out of place, things you don't even know what they are, can create a rocketing pain that burns out your achilles tendon. If it happens in class, you drop down, make a damp slapping nose, fiddle with your shoe and smile in a sheepish way. The teacher nods severely for you to go back to the end of the line, and you blush. It doesn't happen often after you get what to do.

And what you doing bang your toe shoes, wrap them, bend them, tie them. And get religious about it. Once you do something that works every time, you do it every time.


bang. For good measure.

bang. No I really mean it.

Slide. Wiggle. Waddle.

And so on until both feet are comfortably ready to spread out.

The girl next to me looked at my somewhat battered shoes. She was, in her nice new shoes about to sneer. Then she noticed the brand. Of course mine are battered, they are the best leather shoes made, I have three pairs, and they last. Unlike your shiny canvas junk.

I bobbed my head back with a slight disapproving tilt of the nose. Her eyes fell and she went back to her ritual of feeling inside the shoes to get the box in the right place. In the hierarchy of pointe shoe priestesses I had just show that my goddess had a better temple than hers. Leather. Since almost the first, I had insisted on it. That fitting trip my mother, in one of her vague acts of defiance against consumerism, westernism, and not buying the cheapest thing and living with it, had directed me at the canvas shoes. I knew better.

I had pointed to a demi sole that I knew could be deshanked, that is the box part pulled out, so that I could wear them in the technique class even though I was not ready to go on point. What training bras and assorted other things are to ordinary girls, to a ballet dancer, using a deshanked pointe shoe is. It's often called "demi-pointe." You can't actually go on pointe on it, but it feels like a pointe shoe otherwise, and that's the point. You see, you can start learning what it feels like to be in a full pointe shoe, and learn how to live in them. Aside from that, if you are a young dancer, you have no boobs. Yeah, you can this and that eat with the guys at the pizza place. But you will have no boobs. Which sort of means the whole thing about bras, is not so much of a big deal.

No, it's going on point. It's soaring above the ballet shoe clad younger girls. It is floating, that you ache for.

Of course, you only have the faintest idea how much you are going to ache. And ache. And ache. But each stretch, each massaged out muscle cramp. It's nothing.

The night after we bought the shoes. I had put my tiny foot down, and by that age I was almost as tall as my mother and could stare her in the eye. "These are my tools." And that ended it. She was always always willing to spend money to make sure she had the best things that rested in her hands properly. We had cheap everything in the house at that time, except anything that was a tool..

Well the night after we bought the shoes, or she bought them for me, or however you want to think about it... I was at the sewing machine sewing elastics in. She looked at me.

"I bought exactly what you said..."

She gave me the "ungrateful child" look that Chinese parents master pretty quickly. They got it from their parents, and have waited a whole life time, maybe many lifetimes, for the chance to apply it to the appropriately wayward offspring.

I spin around on the swivel stool that was in front of the sewing machine, leaving the shoe I was working on in place, and picking up one that had been neatly deshanked and had elastics put in place.

"These," I explained with an emphatic falling tone, "have the best and most uniform leather, but what the don't have." I paused turned the shoe over and held it up for her inspection, "is elastics rather than drawstrings, and they don't have a demi-pointe version. So rather...." I pause, applied the ungrateful offspring look, "than spend much more on getting an imported special order." Pause. Pause. "Because they do sell them in England. We picked out these, and I am going to spend the time to make them what the teacher wants."

It had always been talismanic that this particular teacher had studied in a prestigious school, and had danced with a well known European company. Her word was from the heavans. My mother got a faint look of surprise, being schooled by her daughter. She then stopped, and the sourness left her face, and she beamed with pride. This, was her daughter. Spend for exactly the only thing you have to have, and spend hours getting it just right rather than spending a bit more. She nodded approvingly.

"Just make sure your..."

"Home is already done. I did it at lunch and on the train back." And in any other snippet of time.

This is Lillian. Age something younger than most adults would feel comfortable with, fully in command of all the little things that she has to get done, so that she can get back to.


I remember one of the first times I began prepping pointe, these were the first pair I did not deshank, and tied them neatly in their pink ribbons, and with slightly more grace that a newborn zebra began to stand up and point my feet, check my turn out and absorb myself into the person I know best in the world... I speak of course of my reflection in the mirror, the mirrors that run down the length of every studio in the world. This person is not me. She doesn't look like me, but instead some how the leotard gives her a feminine stretch that I don't feel in my own body. She has a lilt and a grace, that I know I just don't have. Her turn out is better than I feel mine to be.

She's confidently warming up.

I wish I felt that way.

I look at her, she looks... adult.

I am 12 years old, and do not feel a year over, 5. I am constantly wanting to jerk my head back and look behind my shoulder, fearful that the teacher will tap me on the shoulder, and send me home. I have just started going on pointe. There is piercing pain in between two of my toes. I know that it is the blister breaking, the one that formed up two days ago.

The girl in the mirror doesn't have that problem, she rounds her arms and stretches her leg out and puts it up on the barre. She bends forward and see only her feet. And mine. Why is it that mine are in such pain, and hers look perfect?

The class passes, and every moment I am sore. Every moment the other girl, the Lillian in the mirror, mocks me with how she does everything I do, but without the weight of fear and pain. I search her shoulders for scrunching, her head for the slightest bowing. There's none.

I, on the other hand, feel the vice pressing in from the back and sides of my feet. After an eternity of Mozart played badly on a piano, it ends. I begin disassembling myself. Another girl comes up behind me.

"Lillian. Did you notice she didn't correct you once."

"Maybe she knows I'm hopeless."

I look down as I throw things into my dance bag and hurry off. One more ritual to perform.

I skitter along the curve of the hall. I reach the Ladies room. I am in a stall even before I know I a cross the expanse of white tile.

I am on my knees in front of the urn, grateful that my hair buns have held up the whole class without once wiggling loose. I don't even check them for fear that I will unravel it.

There is a pulverizing churn in my middle, and compression in my lungs and throat, which alternates between clenched and open, clenched and open, clenched and open. Only a whisp of foul air comes up first, and it fissures into my nostrils, heavy with an acid scent. Then, just as I think I have escaped it, a burningly liquid races up my throat and I have just enough time to open my mouth and bend a bit farther forward.

I wipe my mouth, with an exact primness of ritual. Pull out the bottled water, rinse and spit. Pull out the Scope. Green only. Rinse. Spit.

I settle my self in my skirt that falls below my knees, but just barely, and in my shoes, which are a shade too large. I wish there was a mirror there, but of course, that other Lillian is not here with me.

I walk out of the stall, snatching the dance bag without even looking and pulling the zipper closed. There, in the mirrors, is that other Lillian. She is flush of face, with her lips impossibly more red than I have ever seen them. Our eyes meet. She denies that anything has happened. I turn back, realize I have not flushed, turn back, bag swinging it's way around to behind me. I flush and scurry out, catching only a glance of the thin outline of that other Lillian, who is, as well, sneaking away before anyone else gets here.

I reach the dark wooden door just as the second girl is reaching it. She has a strange green look on her face, her otherwise peaches and cream perfect skin reddened. I know that look. But I do not let my eyes meet hers, and I am out into the hall, the air blowing cool over my face.

This is my ritual. It is what I live with. It is how I live. It is what happens after every class. It would be 14 before it would stop, when the balled up pressure and competition with that perfect Lillian would stop. I will write, sometime, I think, what happened to change all that.

But I was 12, and didn't know what it would take to catch Ms. Perfect and prove, that she is me, and I am her, and both of us have the same secret to hide.

1 comment: