Adrenaline assuages the hunger, an aching appetite for the thrill of the dance. Sauté, a spright pluck from off the studio floor, legs and feet stretched beneath me. Step, glissade as the impetus builds, invisible energy that gathers within the molecules and particles inside of and all around me; I amazed by the consummation of physics and artistry. Finally, the grand jeté as I am propelled by a creation of spirited momentum that sends me through the air as if I was something altogether different, something other than human. I soar through the studio, fully extending into a split when I am airborne, and land lightly in relevé, arms finished gently in second.
“Stop! Cut the music!” Cassandra’s face is taut, arms crossed tightly, not a gentle second.
“What’s wrong?” I match her taut expression. I’m deeply disturbed, like any artist would be, at the interruption of my craft. From the corner of the room, Elisabeth stirs in her barstool to pause the track from Cassandra’s laptop. The sudden withdrawal of the music is haunting as we wait in the silence. Genevieve and Claire and Jenny stare at me from the sidelines. Elisabeth stares at me. Cassandra stares at me. My reflection stares at me.
“I don’t know how many times I have to give you corrections before you apply them,” Cassandra finally fills the silence.
“What corrections?” I ask, audibly annoyed.
“You cup your back foot when you take off in the air instead of stretching out those muscles and winging that point. I tell you that every day. I can’t stand it when you do it.”
“I’m sorry. It’s a habit.”
“Yeah, a bad habit. Get a new one.”
“It’s a minuscule detail,” I say under my breath, wiping a band of sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand.
“What did you just say to me, little lady?” The grizzly bear awakens from hibernation, starved for some fucking salmon after its winter-long slumber.
I smile back at her. I’m no fucking salmon.
“It’s…a miniscule…detail…” I emphatically stretch out the lengths of each syllable.
“Oh really? Oh really, miss smart mouth? Well, let me give you some more substantial stage notes then! When you hit your tilt sauté, your supporting foot never degagés into second. The battement sequence? Lazy! You’re distending your neck forward and piking the legs. And Jesus Christ, do I even need to tell you that you’re falling forward out of pirouettes? Pirouettes, for God’s sake! And you’re doing it downstage, front and center, right smack dab in front of the judges! It’s atrocious!” For a moment, I imagine that Cassandra’s eyes will roll into the back of her head and we’ll all be stuck at the studio overnight performing her exorcism.
“You are never as good as you think you are,” Cassandra emphatically stretches out the lengths of each syllable.
I cry. Even though I’m not sad. Even though I don’t want to.
“No. You can’t stand here and cry. I can’t have you stand here and cry.” Cassandra shakes her head.
“Mom, if you yell at me, I’m gonna cry.” I look right into her eyes, an unfeigned expression of exhaustion and heartbreak.
I stride past her, sucking in tears, and make my way out of the rehearsal studio.
“You can hit the next track, Elisabeth,” I close the door behind me.
* * *
I’m waiting on a bench in the lobby, blankly mesmerized by an inspirational Hobby Lobby poster that reads Make Your Dreams a Reality. Genevieve and Claire and Jenny slide into winter coats and cover their delicate ears with knit hats that run down the sides of their faces. They push past the double doors and disappear into a nightfall backlit by tall lampposts in the parking lot that illuminate the soft flurries of snow that whistle through the wind.
All of the other girls have gone home by now. Only the five young women from the senior competition team stay until the studio closes for the night. Elisabeth is the last to follow out, having some conversation with Cassandra about the piano cover of a Sara Bareilles song that’s ‘truly poignant.’
Elisabeth is a kiss-ass and I hate her. When Elisabeth finally shuts her big fat mouth about truly poignant Sara Bareilles piano covers, she gives Cassandra a brisk side hug and heads for the door.
“Goodnight, Miss Cassandra! Goodnight, Louise!”
“Goodnight, Elisabeth!” I wave her out with a suspiciously high-pitched farewell and an animated smile across my face.
Cassandra sits next to me on the bench. She sits quietly, blankly mesmerized by the Hobby Lobby poster. Several minutes fall around us, but whistle away in the wind.
“Make your dreams a reality,” Cassandra grabs a moment and holds it before the flurries whisk it away. “You are all of my dreams, Louise.”
The grizzly bear isn’t angered after it’s satisfied, and she’s had a full dinner. Four beautiful fucking salmon – Genevieve and Claire and Jenny and kiss-ass Elisabeth too.
“Elisabeth is a kiss-ass and I hate her.”
“Yeah. Yeah, Elisabeth is kind of a kiss-ass, isn’t she?” Mom laughs. I laugh too.
We rise from the bench, push past the double doors, and disappear into the nightfall.
* * *
“I have evaluated each and every one of your solo auditions over the weekend. I have thought long and hard about which one of you should have a solo at the national championship.” Cassandra is pacing back and forth, face taut, arms crossed tightly. We sit on the floor, backs against the wall, Genevieve and Claire and Jenny and Elisabeth and me.
As Cassandra paces, her eyes linger from student to student, but for only a second, no more and no less. She looks over Genevieve, then Claire, then Jenny, then Elisabeth, but Cassandra avoids me altogether, evading the intimacy that exists between a shared second. She is unable to share even a single second between us.
“And I think it should be you, Louise. I think you should represent the studio as our solo entry this year.” Cassandra looks right at me, unbroken, one second, two seconds, five.
Genevieve and Claire and Jenny applaud. Elisabeth frowns softly, but offers a few claps of congratulations.
“So without further ado, girls, if you’d step out and begin a stretch circle perhaps, I’d like to begin a solo rehearsal with my daughter.” Cassandra never uses that word at the studio, but today marks a special occasion.
“Come on, Louise. Let’s get started.”
* * *
“When I was conjuring up ideas – ideas for a concept and costuming and choreography – I thought that maybe to win a crown at nationals, we could bring a crown to nationals.” Cassandra smiles at the sound of her voice, prideful of her own creativity.
“Good thinking,” I say thoughtlessly.
“Make Your Dreams a Reality,” Cassandra recites, “Maybe if we act like royalty, we’ll begin to believe that we are. So, I went out and got you something.” She looks to me, wide eyes that wait for a similar reaction.
“What is it?” I feed her ego.
Cassandra reveals a tiara.
“I call this piece The Coronation. I think we can tell a beautiful story.” She’s eager to rehearse, and doesn’t hesitate before she sticks and pins the crown into my hair. Her hands move quickly, energized by her inspiration, and she inadvertently sticks and pins some pokes into the sides of my head.
“Just remember, Louise, that a crown for some people, some places, some kingdoms is more than a headpiece. A crown is a symbol. And there are some people, some places, some kingdoms that will try to tear your crown away from you. Louise, you must fight to keep your crown or someone else will take it away.”
* * *
The spotlight is searing, but I am able to make out five shadows seated at a judging table in front of the stage.
“Judges ready?” The box of the auditorium bellows from the speakers, waiting for a thumbs-up from all five judges before beginning the music track.
One thumb for Genevieve.
Two thumbs for Claire.
Three thumbs for Jenny.
Four thumbs for Kiss-Ass.
Five thumbs, and the music wells, a grandiose fanfare that dawns The Coronation.
The spotlight still burns. I am transported to a memory of myself as a little girl, taking a competition stage for the first time. She was hungry for the thrill of the dance, the prospect of a crowning moment, the fanciful coronation of a beautiful queen.
But the spotlight still burns, and with it, something burns away.
Adrenaline no longer assuages the hunger, an appetite that aches for something else, something greater.
I fumble a foot over a peeling piece of electrical tape on the floor of the stage.
I nearly nosedive, hurled forward, and catch myself with my hands.
The grand jeté.
I make the split-second decision to keep going, thinking I can redeem the performance.
But without impetus, invisible energy that gathers within the molecules and particles inside of and all around me, physics and artistry are at odds. They play a ruthless game of tug-o-war, caked in mud and strained by the muscular wear and tear. No one can hold to the rope forever.
My ankle rolls into an Uno! Reverse, and the pain courses up into my leg, my pelvic floor, my churning stomach. I hit the ground with a thud, contorted and mangled, head back as my eyes burn away under the spotlight.
But all of this pain is nothing to the embarrassment of it all, because to everyone here, to five esteemed judges, to troupes of prestigious dancers from across the country, to Genevieve, to Claire, to Jenny, to Elisabeth, to Cassandra, to the ballerina I see every day in the studio mirror, I am flopping and flailing centerstage like a fish out of water – a fucking salmon in the grizzly bear jaws of my mother.