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My whole life has been ballet – what does it mean to give it up?

We are 11 or 11 years old, but most of us People look younger; we are chosen in part because of our young age. Our smiles tense, our necks elongate, our backs straighten. Maybe we’re pretending, like we’ve been taught, that a puppeteer is pulling our heads up with a string. We’re told that our ballet school is the best in the world; we’re told we’re lucky.

There are 20 of us in the photo and we all want the same thing: Dance with the New York City Ballet.

My cheeks are tilted towards the light, but my eyes are down. This year, my body started rebelling against me: the curves of my hips protruded from my torso, disrupting the lines of my once-smooth legs. I can control my muscles and my weight, but, I’m learning, I can’t control my bones.

At least on photo day, I’ve managed to keep my frizzy hair under control. It lay flat on my head in a tight bun, and I could almost feel it tugging at my scalp. I don’t want to add any volume: George Balanchine, the founder of our school, said that dancers should have small heads, which will always be his institution, even if he is dead 20 Year.

I kneel. My wrists are crossed over my heart—a gesture that symbolizes love in a classical ballet like Giselle. Of course, I didn’t choose this pose; I was just doing what I was told. Our teachers lined us up in three rows and instructed us on what to do with our hands, arms, and legs. They don’t have to tell us to smile.

When I was finally accepted to the Academy of American Ballet, I was rejected twice. Most afternoons since then, I’ve hurried out of school when the bell rang and sped across Central Park. The thrill of jogging up Lincoln Center’s escalators and pushing through the glass doors never fades away.

I’ve learned to put all of my energy, mental and physical, into micro-adjusting the way I move. When I struggle to make my fondu “look like melted ice cream” or my frappés ” It’s like opening a bottle of champagne”; how it’s impossible to worry about the next day’s math test or middle school grade system when I’m thinking about where all my 11 toes are. I love that when I get into the studio, I don’t have to worry about saying the right thing. I don’t need to talk at all.

In ballet, no one asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up; it was self-explanatory. Of course I wanted to be a dancer. The dress code is strict and hasn’t changed in decades. Making an effort on my appearance was mandatory, and hiding that effort was unnecessary. I took stage makeup classes, learned to apply loose powder, bronzer, and blush, learned to paint on a face, and by the end, I was only loosely imitating my own face. It’s not in vain to pay attention to my appearance; it’s part of my art.

author for her role in The Nutcracker.

Photo: Debra Goldsmith Rob




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