by Erika Staiger
It’s early December and the snow is coming down outside, thick and fluffy. Even though we sold out the show, there are bald patches in the audience visible from my little purple stool in the downstage left corner. Fake snow is stuck in my hair and outside the real snow has people stuck in their homes. There is muttering backstage about the possibility of getting stuck here inside the theatre. That wouldn’t be so bad, I think. This is the Sunday matinÃ©e show–the last one I will ever do as Clara–the lead in The Nutcracker, the part I wanted since I was a toddler. Even as the lights flicker, even as the lights go out and the theatre is plunged into darkness, I think about how much I want the wind outside to break in and freeze us in time. But after a moment, the generator kicks in, the lights come back on, and the show keeps going.
Main Floor, Left Side
My mother is fond of saying that there are no ex-Marines, only former Marines. That doesn’t really work with ballet. There are lots of little girls who took lessons for a year or two and then moved on. Ex-ballerinas who never even think about being ex-ballerinas until their mother digs out old scrapbooks.
I wasn’t one of those girls. I’m a former not an ex.
The story goes like this: I was two. My grandmother took me to a local production of The Nutcracker. My mother was sure I’d fall asleep, but I didn’t. I tried to dance in the aisle way, clapping my hands and stomping my sparkly shoes on the concrete floor in front of my mother, who had to physically restrain me so that I didn’t run on stage.
The longer version of that story goes like this: I was a ballerina for sixteen years. Now, I’m something else.
Main Floor, Center
I stopped getting taller in seventh grade. If you look at my old dance pictures, you can watch my friend Jacci gradually get taller than me. The last two years of my dance career were pretty much like that. Inch by inch, I got left behind.
My junior year, the spring production was Giselle, a ballet about a village girl who dies of a broken heart at the end of the first act and then spends the rest of the ballet as a ghost. I was a villager, and not the fun kind, with pitchforks–the boring kind, with wicker baskets that made my arm itch. The choreography was forty percent skipping, and after being Clara, it felt like a slap in the face.
I needed a slap to wake up, though. I was so tired that whole year. I was always sick. They had to keep a special box of Kleenex backstage just for me. I used to show up for school, half asleep, pockets full of used tissues, held upright by a strange sense of superiority. I never thought about what I was giving up. It was just gone.
Back stage during a blocking rehearsal, I tried to remember what way I was supposed to skip first. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of pink satin–Jacci’s foot–the tip of her arabesque, extended higher than mine would ever go. I leaned against a wall and let my eyes close for a moment. It was so easy to let them close–it felt like there were little weights on my eyelids, pressing them down. I couldn’t think about the steps. My brain had frozen over.
I was so tired. I was so tired of being tired.
Main Floor, Right Side
When I was a kid, I went grocery shopping with my mother every Saturday. I did some of my best work in the baking aisle at Meijer. My mother turned her back and I turned and turned and turned until she spun back around and made me stop.
In the grocery store, I did pirouettes more perfect than anything I’d ever managed in rehearsal. Triple. Double. Triple. Quad. Stick the landing. A little old lady looked at me and I could tell she was trying to figure out whether to scold or applaud.
My mother told me to run back to canned goods and grab something she had forgotten. Grande jete, grand jete, grand jete down the empty aisle.
Now, when I come home for Christmas, I make it a point to go shopping with her. Occasionally, she’ll turn her back and I’ll get the urge to turn, too, and it’s like sensation in a phantom limb.
I try a pirouette. My foot cramps. I spin out of control.
People ask me all the time if I still dance. I don’t, but I have a leotard and tights tucked away in my underwear drawer, just in case.
I haven’t taken a ballet class since I was eighteen, but I still can’t grow a normal pinky toenail on my right foot. It used to rub on the side of my point shoes and split in half, tearing bloody rivers down my foot. I used to rip it off with clippers as a preventive measure.
I think it was the preventive plucking that did most of the long-term damage.
I think about dance most often in the winter. I can’t get away from it. Every time I turn on the TV, Nutcracker music is playing in the background of a car commercial. There are Clara ornaments for sale starting in October. I hated them for a while after I had stopped. I was angry at myself for having spent so much time trying to please the little girl who danced in the aisle way, only to have ultimately told her to sit back down.
I dream about dance in the winter more than any other time of year. Sometimes, I have to perform a show I didn’t practice for and when I try to roll en pointe, my legs buckle. They snap in half like toothpicks and I wake up.
But sometimes, my body remembers. I point my food it feels right and when I jump I land silently, rolling through my feet like I’m supposed to. In some dreams, I can lift my leg higher and hold it for longer than I ever could in real life. I’m wearing a red sequin tutu and I’m standing in the wings with girls who have since graduated college and had babies, but who, in my head, will always be seventeen.
In the waking world, the first time I saw The Nutcracker after quitting was three years ago. I was sitting in the balcony. I sat down just as the curtain was pulled back and the first notes of the overture began to play. I watched a little girl in a sparkly dress bounce excitedly in her mother’s lap and suddenly I felt the urge to hum along. My right foot was dancing before I could stop it.
There was snow melting in my hair.