Going on Pointe
Carole Ann Moleti
The woman walked across the room with that dancer’s toes-turned-out, ball-of-the-foot prance. She held her chin up with that I am more graceful than you look on her face and asked, with a closed-mouth smile and a voice that dared me to answer in the affirmative, “Will you be needing anything else?”
I stood in the fitting room, in my underwear, the words stuck in my throat, heart pounding. I had already confessed that I was in a ballet recital the following night. She hadn’t snickered at the nerve of the forty-something-year-old me, to go out cavorting in a sheer skirt, in front of a live audience.
She diplomatically brought out the sleeved leotard, instead of the spaghetti-strapped version, to handle the cleavage issue. There are tricks for every body type when it comes to costuming, and even though I’m a size six, the years, and pregnancies, have rearranged things. Hence, she suggested the power stretch, opaque black tights.
I never had a body like hers, long and pencil thin with matchstick arms and legs, but was still light enough on my feet to surprise anyone by sneaking up behind them. And time hadn’t erased the memory that everyone has of the first time they realize wanting something isn’t enough to make it happen.
When I was twelve, Daddy told me not to feel bad that I wasn’t a flat-chested ballerina with no shape. It was his way to ease the sting of Teresa Manikova, my ballet teacher, telling me that I wasn’t good enough to go into advanced classes, and on pointe, despite my feverish training. I had stretched and forced myself into full splits so much, my hips hurt when I walked. I drilled in the required skills over and over. Miss Tessie’s unsmiling face, wagging head, and Russian accented “No!” was like a bullet that stayed lodged in my body, waiting to jab me whenever I came face to face with that same feeling of frustration and helplessness.
“Just focus on swimming, and studying. Forget about ballet,” my father said.
Miss Tessie had the last word so I didn’t have much of a choice. By the time I turned fourteen, I had also given up on music lessons and competitive athletics. I was going steady with Mike and was a science whiz, destined for a different kind of greatness.
Let’s fast-forward a few years. My life revolved around science and research; there was no room for the performing arts. I worked my brain, not my muscles. I became a nurse and completed advanced degrees in midwifery and public health. I played by the rules, found what I had a talent for, and did it. I succeeded, had a good job, and made a name for myself in my profession.
Then the bullet shifted. I’m writing a memoir with the old U.S. military recruitment theme “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” I tired of pushing papers, unrealistic expectations, the specter of malpractice suits, and running into walls.
My first marriage, to Mike, didn’t work out. Among other things, he hated ballet. I re-married, birthed two boys, and adopted a girl. Now, I was back to being that petite, curvy twelve-year-old with a dream that wouldn’t die, and tried to figure out what I wanted to do, now that I was all grown up.
For too many years, the career and motherhood pas de deux demanded all my attention and there was little time left for what I wanted. I was sick of being told what I couldn’t do and sought something to re-ignite my enthusiasm for life. The sand ran through the hourglass, clustering in the bottom half, and I was more than half empty.
I’d studied ballet as an adult, and had performed once or twice. My friends and I were regulars at the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. We’d seen the magnificent Russian and French dance partners with ABT and the Paris Opera Ballet: Baryshnikov and Makarova, Nureyev and Guillemé.
I knew all the George Balanchine classics, danced by the last of the New York City Ballet stars to be trained by the master himself: Farrell, McBride, Nichols, Ashley, Watts, and Martins. I studied the ballerinas, and their techniques, as they moved effortlessly in those blocky, oddly curved instruments of torture, fracturing the bones of their feet and ankles, causing such damage that most of them couldn’t dance past the age I was right now.
Three pictures of pointe shoes hang in my bedroom, along with ABT’s Alessandra Ferri doing a magnificent arabesque in middle of a New York City street. My pointe shoe collection includes signed, aromatic relics from NYCB’s Heather Watts and Merrill Ashley. I even have a pointe shoe key chain and fake miniature pair, complete with curled ribbons magically suspended in air. It is possible to defy gravity, and reason.
The first dance with my life partner, John, was at the ballet, and he dozed through ABT’s Sleeping Beauty under the glimmering crystal stars at the Metropolitan Opera House. But I knew that night he was the real thing, having first agreed to go with me, and then assuring me he loved it. He didn’t complain when I signed our son up for ballet. The first class Nicholas did along with me. The second class he sat in the corner and watched me. I gave up.
My sons endured the suits and ties at the yearly ritual of The Nutcracker Suite, but were more interested in the rat fight scene and the snacks at intermission. I begged them to pose for a picture with a “snowflake” ballerina but they refused.
“If you want a picture that bad, Mom,” my twelve year old said, “why don’t you just get one taken of yourself?” Both went on to earn black belts in Tae Kwon Do, following the more traditional life script imposed on them.
My daughter did pose for the picture with the “snowflake” and turned three: old enough to take ballet lessons. There was an adult class right after hers, so I decided it was time for me to go back.
Our teacher was nothing like Miss Tessie, who slammed the studio door in the parents’ faces and used a broomstick to pry our knees apart and increase turnout.
Miss Mary spoke perfect English, smiled, and said “Yes!” when pleased with a student’s effort. After trying to teach the baby ballerinas téndus and pliés, she was happy to have a class that knew what they were doing.
I, along with five other grandes dames, stretched at the barre and perfected a synchronized combination. We practiced our pirouettes and coached each other through turns and leaps. Only three of us summoned the courage to go on stage for the end of year recital.
We were flawless in our routine. My tombé-pas de bourrée-glissade solo finished with two piqué turns. Katherine and Nancy did their solos with equal aplomb. The DJ started the music too soon, so we began our final complicated synchrony of steps after our cue, but Nancy counted loud enough that we pulled it off. All three of us nailed our pirouettes, if slightly asynchronous.
My husband and sons waved frantically at me from the audience. I remembered Miss Tessie admonishing us before our childhood performances.
“Zee dancer, she does not vave. She smiles and performs, but she does not vave.”
At the final curtain call, Miss Mary was out on stage, sweating and red in the face after her hip hop performance with the “Junior Fly Girls.” She waved both hands at the sea of happy faces in the audience.
I took my dignified bow and my beaming husband brought his diva’s bouquet of flowers right up to the stage. Manikova would have had a meltdown.
Now, back to what happened that day at the dance shop.
“Yes,” I said, pulling my tee shirt over my head and taking a deep breath. “I need to be fitted for a pair of pointe shoes.” It was finally out and no one was going to say no this time.
She didn’t laugh, or raise her eyebrows.
“Where are you taking classes?”
“I’m signed up for the ballet workshop, next door.”
“I teach at that studio, you’ll love it,” she said, with the chin up, hair in a bun, confident performance smile of someone like me, who loves to dance, even though she’ll never be great enough to be partnered by the likes of Nureyev, Baryshnikov, or Martins.
“Let me see your feet,” she said, gesturing to a bench in front of a large mirror.
She took them in her hands, studied them, and went into the back room. She returned and handed me a pair of the pink satin icons.
“This type is best for beginners, it’s called Aspiration.”
I slipped them on and was surprised at how different they felt than my regular ballet slippers. My feet were locked into a position that demanded I walk putting my toes down first, or I would look like Charlie Chaplain.
“Fifth position,” she ordered, and my feet reflexively followed her command.
“Now, up!” She gestured with her hands in the commanding tradition of a ballet mistress.
I rose on pointe, in front of the mirror, in my own shoes! It didn’t hurt—that much. I extended my arms up over my head, chin tilted up, and held my balance. When I saw her smile and nod, I resisted the urge to dance between the racks of costumes and accessories.
“How do they feel?” she asked.
“Absolutely wonderful,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t notice the tears in my eyes. Eat my dust, Miss Tessie!
The night after the recital, I sat in bed and burrowed through my sewing box for pink thread. I folded down the back of the shoes, marked the creases on either side, and attached the ribbons there. I slipped them on and adjusted the tension on the elastic bands, so my foot wouldn’t come out when I leaped or turned.
John got in next to me as I was pushing the needle through the satin and elastic and tying the final knots.
“What are you doing?” he asked, patting the mattress to be sure I hadn’t dropped any sharp objects.
“Preparing my pointe shoes.”
“Can’t they do that at the factory?
“It’s a tradition; ballerinas always sew on their own ribbons and elastics. Dancing on pointe requires incredible skill, balance, and precision. They have to fit like they’re part of your foot.” I immediately recalled the passage I had read so many years ago while preparing to take the test.
“Oh,” he said, accepting my word as if I had written the book.
“Do you think I’m crazy, acting like a teenager?” I asked.
“No,” he said, with that tiny smile and head wag I’ve come to recognize as his exasperation with my insecurities.
“Why would I think that? You can do anything you want, if it makes you happy.”
Dance partners need absolute trust in, and familiarity with each other, to pull off those complicated moves and make it look easy. I saw the same veneration in John’s eyes as when he handed me the bouquet, held our babies for the first time, and watched me walk down the aisle on our wedding day.
God, I love that man!
Carole Ann Moleti lives and works in as nurse-midwife in New York City, specializing in the care of socially high risk women and children. She lectures and writes on all aspects of women’s health with a focus on feminist and political issues. Carole is just finishing Someday I’m Going To Write a Book, a memoir about her experiences as a public health professional in the inner city. She is at work on her second memoir Karma, Kickbacks, and Kids, the title of which is self-explanatory. But her first love is writing science fiction and fantasy because walking through walls is a lot less painful than running into them. Visit her blog at http://360.yahoo.com/caroleannmoleti.
Photo by Carole Ann Moleti.
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Essay and Photo Copyright © 2007 Carole Ann Moleti. All rights reserved.