Excerpt


Chapter 1


            Let me say it this way. Until the day Serena appeared in Ms. Evangeline’s ballet class, I lived my life like a waltz, the years floating by in a smooth whirl from one gentle and pleasant moment to the next, moving more or less in one direction. That’s how a dance works, until the music changes. Then the new rhythm forces the dancer to change steps.

            I was rushing to my other home in town: the ballet studio in the South End shopping center, where I’d taken dance since I was three years old. Ms. Evangeline, the owner, knew me since I was a toddler in her creative movement class. She didn’t like it when we were late, and I only had ten minutes until class started.

            Swerving around the fire station, I cruised the rest of the way to the bike rack. My best friend Caroline was there, zipping her backpack. Caroline was all awkward limbs and braces.

            Bryan rode up next and climbed off his bicycle. His warm smile brought a grin to Caroline’s face. He locked his bike and hurried toward us. Everyone at ballet adored Bryan. At school, well, that was a different story. As if it wasn’t hard enough being black on an island where most of the kids were white and sports-oriented, he had to be a boy who danced too. My dad said Bryan had a hard life ahead of him, but I didn’t really know what he meant by that.

            “Another vacation over and another missed opportunity for Hollywood to discover me,” Bryan said. I laughed, forgetting we were in a hurry.

            “Just back from LA?” I asked. His aunt was an actress on a sitcom. “Did you get an agent finally?”

            I caught a glance from Caroline: Tread lightly, you know this matters more than he lets on—"It’s only a matter of time,” she said.

            He gave a dismissive flip of his hand. “It was like this. The hotel photographer asked to take my picture and my fifteen minutes of fame ended in two short minutes.”

            Bryan was hyper-aware of the impression people made and liked to brag that he made all his appearances with a ballerina or two on his arm. He walked with a swish and spoke in a sing-song voice. Caroline and I always exchanged a look when he lectured us to dress meticulously, even when we didn’t go anywhere, because according to Bryan, you never knew who might see you.

            Caroline laughed. “I see your future! You look just like the kid in the airline magazine I saw when we flew home from Hilton Head.”

            He narrowed his brown eyes at her. “Stop. We better get to class.”

            Jostling each other and giggling, we hurried in together, comparing notes on our first day of school. 

            The studio was comfortable and familiar, the same as always. Parents bustled in the hallway amid the smell of rosin and sweat. The Chopin drifting through the studio doors enchanted me and gave me beautiful dreams, even on my lowest days. I loved to watch the teens, so accomplished and focused as they worked diligently on their advanced steps. Those older girls were role models I looked up to and admired. 

            In the winter, when I stepped from the sweaty, warm studio out into the cold night air, life felt magical and as good as it could possibly get. 

            I wanted the ballet world to stay that way forever.

            


            “Class, this is Serena James,” Ms. Evangeline said, beaming at the new girl.

            I stopped rustling in my dance bag for an extra bobby pin. What? 

            She was a swan among birds, the kind of girl who gave off a mix of worldly confidence and intensity. I scrambled to my feet and my mind took in the competition. Serena was the most sophisticated-looking and poised girl I’d ever seen my own age. Her crystal-blue eyes and delicate bone structure gave her face an adult look. She had long legs and an elegant neck, adorned with a gold necklace shaped like a pair of pointe shoes. Dressed in a black leotard, pink tights, and matching ballet slippers, she held her chin high and avoided eye contact with us. Her dark golden hair, coiled into a crisp bun and sprayed to her head, was as serious as her expression. From the moment she turned up in my class, our fates began to intertwine.  

            We took our usual places, evenly spaced at the barre. There were ten of us besides Serena in the group, nine girls and Bryan. At five minutes to the hour, some of us lay stretched out in the splits and some had one leg on the barre. As usual, I was the one sitting on my butt doing as little as possible.

            As soon as Ms. Evangeline introduced Serena, there was a dramatic shift in the room. We went from humming with excited chatter to nervous curiosity. Those on the floor rose to their feet. I gave up on the bobby pin and shoved my bag against the wall, jumping to attention too. 

            “Serena is new in town. I know you’ll all make her feel welcome.”

            “Hi, Serena!” the ten of us said in unison, followed by giggles and whispers.

            “Thank you,” Serena said. Her polite manner didn’t disguise her stiff body language. The ropy muscles in her neck looked tense, and there was nothing in her expression I could interpret. We watched as she walked further into the room, chest out, projecting more confidence than I’d ever seen in a girl my age.

            Svetlana, a full-figured, older Russian woman dressed in black, arranged her music on the piano and settled on the bench. Bryan, who was at his usual barre spot closest to the piano, scooted closer to her and stuck out his hand. She leaned over and pulled a box of Tic-Tacs out of her bag. As was their habit, she shook a few into his palm. 

            “Spasiba,” Bryan said, grinning as he showed of one of the Russian phrases Svetlana had been teaching him since he was little. He tossed the candy in his mouth. The familiar rattling attracted a few of Svetlana’s usual takers, so she filled a few other outstretched hands, but we all knew she brought the candy for Bryan. 

            “I’m so happy to be back,” Bryan said to Svetlana. He turned and addressed Serena. “Hi.”

            “You like?” said Svetlana, offering Serena her box of Tic-Tacs.

            Serena shook her head and her cheeks flushed.

            “You can stand there,” Caroline said, pointing Serena toward the place behind me as if it was her job to give permission. Serena looked at the ground and walked to the spot without so much as a thank you to Caroline. I could read the irritation behind the neutral look on Caroline’s face. 

            Like Caroline, our class dynamic was very important to me, almost as important as ballet. My life revolved around the friendship and support here. I minded that Serena didn’t so much as smile at Caroline or Bryan, and especially Svetlana. 

            Noticing Serena’s neat appearance, my face flushed with shame that I hadn’t come to class looking nicer. Why hadn’t I worn a newer leotard and done a better job with my hair? There were holes in my tights. Ms. Evangeline was always reminding us that as ballet students, our hair should be tightly fastened to our heads, but I hadn’t bothered today and hadn’t even found that extra bobby pin buried in my bag. My bun was already falling out, frizz was everywhere. I’d forgotten my hairspray.

            Ms. Evangeline drew the attention back to her by clapping her hands. She was a powerhouse of a presence, small with graceful limbs and elegant mannerisms. Ms. Evangeline was an older version but still felt like one of us, her hair pulled into a tight bun, her pale pink leotard, matching skirt, pink tights, and peach teaching slippers with a small heel only a variation on our uniforms. The caring expression that was almost always on her face was a reminder of how well she knew us and how much of our growth she had observed over the years. I longed for and basked in her admiration. She’d loomed large in my life as far back as I could remember. 

            At the precise moment that the clock ticked the hour, Ms. Evangeline walked to the barre and demonstrated the first plié combination. 

            Ms. Evangeline had a charming habit of humming and counting as she danced. Her movements gave us and Svetlana an indication of the tempo and how to match the music to the steps. The seriousness of her posture and focus demanded we show an equivalent level of commitment and professionalism. She and Svetlana had worked together for so many years that they knew how to align their goals.

            Serena was in the spot right behind me. Unnerved by her unfamiliar presence, I risked Ms. Evangeline’s wrath and turned around to acknowledge her. Our eyes met. She stared back at me, her gaze burning into mine like a hot laser. Not even a tiny smile. Was she mean or just scared?

            “You don’t have to be nervous,” I whispered. “I’m Lauren.”

            “Quiet!” Ms. Evangeline said.

            Serena’s breath quickened and a dark shadow crossed her face. Something genuine threatened to wreck her game face, and after the beginnings of a smile, she doubled down on her grave demeanor. I jumped back to attention and stared straight ahead, putting my left hand on the barre and my feet together in first position. Svetlana placed her hands on the keys and the music—a slow, flowing Puccini waltz in 3/4 rhythm—began. Flustered, I missed the port de bras and raised my arm off the music. 

            Class had barely started, and despite the level of concentration class required, I couldn’t focus. 

            “Remember,” said Ms. Evangeline, “that the purpose of this first plié combination is to warm up your muscles. The basic knee-bend is the first building block for developing your technique and strength.” 

            Whatever, Ms. Evangeline. I didn’t care about our pliés, and I wasn’t the only one. Looking in the mirror, I could see everyone covertly trying to watch the new girl in the reflection. I felt Serena’s stare pushing into me, and when we turned to put our right hand on the barre and repeat the combination on the left side, her ability stunned me. 

            Ms. Evangeline’s comments from years passed echoed in my head, reiterating that the ideal ballet foot had a high arch and a high instep. Serena had the highest arches I’d ever seen. Her muscles were defined and toned; knowledge sunk deep into the inner workings of her body. The fluid way she moved her arms and upper body showed a subconscious understanding of technique. I had no idea how to even begin to move like that. She was worlds beyond the level of the class. I knew immediately that I would never be better than her.

            It wasn’t just her feet. Ms. Evangeline avoided talking too much about our body types, but as we continued the combinations at the barre, I remembered the articles I’d read in Dance and Pointe magazines, stressing that ballet was a visual art, our physicality mattered. The glossy images imprinted on me from those pages showed that the ideal ballerina was supposed to have certain genes. Caroline was the perfect example that not all bodies were coordinated and could be trained to perform with flexibility, endurance, and strength. With the black superstar Misty Copeland as the main exception, the ballerina pictures in my brain all showed white girls with small heads, elegant necks, graceful arms, short torsos, long legs, and a slender silhouette. 

            We bent our knees as far as they would go, keeping our heels on the floor. When we straightened our legs again, they visibly strained, feeling the resistance between muscles and gravity. We repeated the plié again. The third time we bent our legs, our heels released as they went all the way down to a full knee bend. As they came up, our inner thighs spiraled outward like eggbeaters. Sucking in our stomachs, we bent forward over straightened legs to touch our noses to our knees. Bending forward hurt, and I could always feel the stretch in my lower back and hamstrings. Inhaling and bringing our heads back up, at the end of the phrase of music, we arched back with our right arms over our heads. 

            While Ms. Evangeline demonstrated the tendu combination, Caroline and I huddled together, whispering about Serena. “She’s too advanced for our class,” Caroline said under her breath.

            Because we were talking, I didn’t pick up the combination. It wasn’t the first time this had happened.

            “Ready, girls?” Ms. Evangeline said.

            I raised my hand. “I’m sorry, Ms. Evangeline. I didn’t get it. Will you show the combination one more time?”

            Ms. Evangeline clucked her tongue in disappointment, and with a sigh, patiently walked back to the barre and repeated the demonstration.

            To my chagrin, Serena rolled her eyes and gave Caroline and me a look of disdain. 

            My body was bending and stretching, but my mind was comparing. Serena had all the natural gifts a dancer could want, but there was something else about her dancing that began to bother me. Why was she doing the familiar steps in such a different way? Surely Ms. Evangeline could that Serena’s training was all wrong. Why wasn’t she correcting the way Serena crossed her wrists as she brought her arms over her head? 

            Serena looked straight forward during barre exercises, instead of turning her head as part of the various positions. When she executed a plié, her heels sometimes popped off the floor. Ms. Evangeline insisted we keep our heels on the ground. Serena’s tendus were faster and more energetic. She held her hand in a different shape too, as if her fingers curled around a ball, each one defined and separated so air could flow through. Ms. Evangeline always told me to keep my hand simple, like an extension of my arm.

            For god’s sake, say something already, I thought to myself. But Ms. Evangeline remained silent. 

            The thought of having to take class next to someone like Serena all the time made my stomach curdle.

            “Your neck is too tense, and your arms are stiff, Bryan,” Ms. Evangeline said instead. “How many times do I have to remind you to keep breathing? Relax and soften the muscles.”

            Ms. Evangeline moved on down the row. “Caroline! You’re rolling your feet forward to force your turnout again. All toes on the floor, please. Straighten your legs and stop hunching!”

            “Audrey, get on the music. Why are you always running ahead or behind the rest of us?” 

            “Liz, stop hooking your pointed foot inward—that’s sickling—you are ruining the lines of your legs. It’s no wonder you’ve sprained that same ankle twice.”

            And me? Ms. Evangeline lifted my chin with her finger as the music finished. Her eyes looked me up and down. “Lauren, you’re killing me here. You look like a little colt trying to control her limbs. With those long legs and high arches, so much flexibility that you can lift your leg as high as you want, how can I convince you to stop being so weak and lazy? That kick was the sloppiest thing I’ve seen in ages. If there is a way around working hard, you always find it. Do you even care that you’re cheating by lifting your hip and leaning into the barre?” 

            The room grew more vivid. Her attention brought me to life. I loved when she harped on me this way. With renewed energy, I repeated the grand battement, keeping my hip down and pulling up on my supporting side to engage my muscles. It wasn’t hard to apply her corrections. I just hadn’t bothered. 

            Take that, Serena. Do you understand who the favorite is in here?

            “See?” Ms. Evangeline said, nodding. “I knew you could do it.” 

            Her words momentarily snapped me out of the occasional boredom I felt at ballet when we had to stand around, waiting while Ms. Evangeline demonstrated a long combination or spent too time privately correcting another dancer. Here was the addictive part. My mind was at ease when I danced and received praise. I loved to perform. In the studio, what I needed to do spread out before me, clear and defined. The steps varied, but the vocabulary was consistent, a framework that programmed exactly what I should do. 

            Sometimes my dad asked me if dance was the challenge I wanted in my life. Wouldn’t I rather be doing soccer or choir? I always said no, thinking of when Ms. Evangeline corrected me, or when Caroline and Bryan and I had a good laugh. 

            I had put in so much time, especially over the last two years, getting ready to go on pointe. My goal for so long was to dance in my own pair of those beautiful toe shoes. 

            Serena’s arrival put a damper on my enthusiasm. I felt so bad compared to her. Because she seemed so perfect, she shattered the way I’d always seen myself, as the most gifted dancer in the school. She had the kind of talent I hadn’t even realized existed. The menace of her ability changed everything for me.