". . . and I want each one of you steady as a rock on this adage--right, Tori?"
"Oh! . . . um . . . right!" So deep am I in memorizing the combination of ballet steps the teacher has just given us, hearing my name makes me jump. It also tells me that my cleverly chosen position in the back row is not going to shield me from her eagle eye. We've just come to center floor after our exercises at the barre and are "marking"--sketching with feet or hands--the steps Marika is setting for us. Center exercises always begin with an adage, a series of flowing steps and beautiful poses done to slow, or adagio, music. Unfortunately for me, adages involve a lot of balancing and pivoting on one foot. My downfall--for real!
"Everybody got it?" We troop back to our places with a chorus of uh-huhs. "Keep that balance under control. Remember, you are swans, not frogs--no hopping. All right, from fifth position, AND . . . " She starts the cued-up CD, and we're off.
Tchaikovsky tries, and I try, but it's uphill work to be a midnight swan maiden in a rainy-afternoon ballet studio. We glide on a lake of gray battleship linoleum, our moon a bank of brilliant overhead lights. I do okay right through the killer développé a la seconde. In French, the language of ballet, développé means "developed," as in the way a flower opens out. You draw the toes of one foot up the side of the other leg and then unfold the raised leg--to the side, if it's to second position, and as high as possible. At this point Marika has thrown in three ronds de jambe en l'air, or circles of the leg in the air--my absolute unfavorite thing to do in the whole world. I grit my teeth and tell myself, "Slow and steady wins the..." HOP. Darn it!
"Not bad, girls, it's coming. Michelle, keep the arms soft--don't show the tension in your hands. Kristin, tongue in--don't let your face show the strain." Same names, same struggles. "Tori, you need to work on your adage. You must get these slow movements under complete control." I agree--but HOW?
The rest of each class is like a reward for having survived the adage. I love the allegro movements--you can let go, you can dance, you can fly! The music just picks you up and carries you away. Since that part of class comes last, I almost always finish in a good mood.
We make our révérence, the deep bow that will one day end our performances, to our teacher and our musician. Today, our pianist being out with a bad cold, we curtsy dramatically to the CD player, bestowing upon it our most gracious smiles. After the traditional round of applause--students to teacher, teacher to students--we grab our dance bags from along the mirror wall and head for the water fountain.
Today Marika stops me at the door. "Tori," she says, in her slight Hungarian accent, "you are now fourteen, yes?"
"Yes, since last month," I reply, wondering why she's asking.
Marika nods. "I'm thinking that if you can get your balance under control, you might be ready to be a trainee next year." I'm in Level Eight now, the final year of the school of Southern Ballet Theatre in Orlando, Florida. The best students at SBT can move up into the Company as trainees, then apprentices, and finally professional dancers. . . .
My heart beats hard with hope. I've only got this one year to make trainee. Mom does substitute teaching to bring in the extra money for my lessons, but her arthritis is getting bad now. Last year I told her I'd quit, but she insisted she could manage one more year to get me through Level Eight. Trainees get their classes free and their pointe shoes provided by the Company, so if I can get that far, I can make it on my own. . . .
"Marika," I promise, "I'll work superhard this year. I wish I knew what to do about my balance."
"Keep at it--it will come," she replies. "You have the technique, and you know where your weight should be centered and where you must pull up. First you need to find the problem--whether it's physical or mental--and then you can work to correct it. I'm sure I'll see a big improvement this year." I wish I felt as sure.
* * *
Mom parks the car close to the side door and comes in for me with her umbrella. Outside, it looks like a gloomy fall evening, though it's only October. Our Florida fall doesn't come until December. Mom and I slide into the front seat and exchange our traditional rainy-day greeting: "Blaahh!" We both hate dark clouds and rainy days. We're always threatening to run away to Arizona. It amazes us that Dad and Roni, my big sister, don't mind rain at all. They actually go out for walks in it--yechhh!
At least Mom and I can cheer each other up. My mom has a cheerful face anyway, with smiley brown eyes and energetic-looking dark hair. "The traffic's a mess, naturally," she says as we set off through the early dark, the wipers going thunk! thunk! in the drizzle. The streetlights gleam up at us from deep within the shiny black roads.
Friday night rush hour would be a mess anyway, and with the rain, it's stop and go. It reminds me of the game Red Light, Green Light that Roni and I used to play when we were younger on summer evenings in our old neighborhood. One kid would turn his back to the rest of us. When he called "Green Light," you could creep up on him. When he hollered "Red Light," you had to freeze before he turned around. If he caught the slightest wobble, you were out. I wobbled and hopped then, too--no wonder I was always out!
"Is Dad picking up Roni at the gym?" I ask Mom.
"No, we are. Your dad's working late, so I postponed the meat loaf--sorry!--till tomorrow. I thought we'd just stop at McDonald's, if that suits you girls." The "sorry" is for my feelings as the lone vegetarian in a family of meat eaters.
"Okay by me, but let's make it Wendy's, so I can get a baked potato." Since my family is willing to respect my decision, I figure I have to accept theirs. It's hard, though, because I love animals and I know what happens to the ones that end up as meat . . .
"Guess what?" I say to get my mind off the subject. I tell Mom what Marika said about my maybe making trainee next year. . . .
"Fantastic, Tori!" Mom says. "Looks like one of us is going to make it!"
"Well, maybe, but the whole thing depends on my conquering The Hops. You should have seen me bobbing all over the place in adage today. Mom, what am I going to DO?"
"It's tough, I know," she answers. "I hopped, too, but I was sixteen, and dancers start working at seventeen or eighteen. You've got time on your side. You'll keep improving as you go through trainee and apprentice."
Mom didn't even start ballet till she was fourteen. Grandma was raising three girls alone, and money for dance lessons was out of the question. Mom had to wait until she was old enough to earn it herself--and so too old to begin serious training. Some male dancers have started ballet in their teens, but almost never female dancers. For girls, ten is good, twelve is late, fourteen is impossible.
"But Mom," I point out, "they won't take me as a trainee until I have this balance thing under control. After all, the trainees perform with the Company, and I couldn't if I hopped.
"You'll get it, honey, and you're so strong in other areas. Remember what Grandma said."
My grandmother loved dancing, too. We have an old, old pair of her ballet slippers, very different from my pointe shoes. There's also a brownish photo of her as a slim young woman in a silky blouse, velvet shorts, and shiny tap shoes. I never got the chance to really know my grandma, though. She died a little while ago of Alzheimer's disease, which means that for years it was impossible for us to talk about dance or anything else. We had our last conversation when I was only eight. I told her I had started taking ballet lessons, and she took both my hands in her soft, old ones and looked me over from head to toe. "You'll be a winner," she said.
"Do you think Grandma could really tell my future, the way she did with the tea leaves?" Grandma's neighbors used to beg her to tell their fortunes from their teacups. Grandma would cut her tea bags when her friends came over and give the teapot a good swirl before she poured. When they finished their tea, they'd turn their cups upside down in their saucers, give them three turns, and pass them to Grandma. She'd take up the cup, look at the shapes made by the tea leaves stuck to the bottom and sides, and predict weddings, new babies, and so on. I watched her do this once on a visit when I was little, and I remember how excited the women were about it. Now I think If only I could see ahead like that!
Mom smiles. "Grandma only made up the stuff with the tea leaves, honey. It was just for fun. But she recognized that spark you have, Tori. It's real--I see it, too."
"What do I have? What do you see, Mom?"
Mom eases the car into a tight parking spot in the gym's crowded lot, cuts the engine, and then turns to face me. "I see a girl who loves to dance and lets it show. When your group performs, a lot of the girls are blank-faced or frowning, concentrating on the steps. Your face is full of joy, and the audience loves you. You're the same about life--Grandma saw it before you were a dancer. You'll be a winner whether you're a dancer or not, my sweet Victoria." She leans over the gearshift and kisses my forehead.
I'm Victoria--Tori, for short--because Roni had already used up the name Veronica, if that makes any sense. Mom's favorite reading in her dance-student days was a series of ballet novels by Lorna Hill. They followed a girl named Veronica, who got her wish (and Mom's!) to study at the school of Sadler's Wells, now the Royal Ballet, in London, England. So my mother, full of hope, named her first child Veronica. When I came along a year and a half later, she gave me the almost-matching name of Victoria. Wouldn't you know it--Roni turned out to be a gymnast, and Tori is the dancer!
"Run in and get Roni. Want the brolly?" Mom holds out her folding umbrella. She uses a lot of odd words because she grew up in Canada and Grandma was from England. Trouble is, Roni and I don't always know which of her words are "Brit" until kids tease us for using them!
"Nah," I tell Mom. "I'll run for it." The rain has let up to a sprinkle. Roni, who's been watching for her ride, bolts out the door as I get to it so that we nearly have a wreck. Her hair, dark like Mom's, is sproinging out curly the way it always does on rainy days. She hates when it does that and will probably beg me to braid it in the car. I tell her she's getting a bit old for pigtails, but she likes to look like Olga Korbut, the darling of the 1972 Olympics. She says guys think it's cute. My own hair, dark blond like our dad's and straight as water, is most often scraped back in a bun for ballet class. At my school, the boys call me Bunhead. Not Cody, of course--he likes my hair any way I wear it. Ahh, Cody, I love you!
I should love rainy days, I tell myself, since I met Cody in the rain. Right after school started last year, our mean science teacher, Mrs. Stengle--we still have her, worse luck--made us go outside in a heavy drizzle for fire drill. Seeing me shivering, Cody, who was the new boy in class then, flung his jacket over both our heads. We got acquainted fast in that tiny tent! Turns out he loves ballet--I have to like that in a guy. Heaven knows it's rare.
Roni is hugging some papers to the front of her team warm-up jacket so they won't get too rained-on. "Whatcha got?" I ask her.
"Something cool! Hi, Mom! I thought Dad was coming." She throws her gym bag into the front seat with my dance gear, and we both climb into the back.
"He's working late, so we're going to Wendy's," Mom tells her.
"Fine with me, but I wasn't expecting to eat out, so I just threw my clothes on over the sweat," Roni says.
"Me too--stand back, everyone, here come the Sweat Sisters!" We hold our noses and stick out our tongues at each other. "So what are those cool papers, anyway?"
"These cool, WET papers, you mean? Well, it's too dark to show you properly here, but we can spread them out at Wendy's. It's stuff for getting pen pals! A guy on my team has a million of them all over the world. He belongs to this pen pal club, and he brought in the info on it."
"Neat!" I said. "It'd liven up social studies to know someone who actually lives in one of the places we study."
"Speaking of school, today we had one more proof that English is crazy," says Roni, who doesn't care much for the fine points of her native language. "We were reviewing tenses, and I got to thinking about the one called future perfect. Even I know that perfect means 'completed.' How can the future be completed? Answer me that!"
"Very strange--have to give it some thought," I say, stepping into my role as family word-person. Any kind of thought, however, is difficult at the moment because now that the rain has nearly stopped, the windshield wipers have started shrieking. It's a relief when we pull into the Wendy's lot and they quit.
"Tell you what--" Roni says, "--why don't you get a table and look over these papers while Mom and I get the trays? Then we can talk about pen pals while we eat. And you can braid my hair."
"Oh, right--while I'm eating!"
I find a table by the streaming windows--it's pouring again--and spread out the papers. They're curling crunchily as they dry, so I weigh them down with the napkin box and the salt and pepper shakers. Before I read the info sheets, I look at the little world map that comes with them, and my mind, still on Roni's "future perfect," begins to wander along strange lines. Maybe, I think, the future is already decided, or perfect, and we're all just plowing along our paths toward it. Somewhere in the world, the girl who will be my pen pal has sent in her name to this club, and I, who will be her pen pal, am about to do the same. Are our lives already connected? What about other things, like Cody and me and whether I'll be a dancer--is all of that known somewhere too? What is the future perfect of me?
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