It’s lonely behind the black velvet curtain. Tammy shifted her weight and pointed the toes of her right foot in the darkness. She could hear the music of Stravinsky beginning to fade as the dancers on stage finished their performance. They curtsied. The audience applauded. Moments later, twenty young dancers exited stage left and flooded backstage.
This meant it was almost time, Tammy thought. The muscles in her stomach clenched up. She licked her lips. Her mouth was dry. She glanced down at her satin pink ballet slippers and eyed her uncoordinated dancing feet with disdain. Somewhere inside her right shoe, she had an itch. She reached down to do something about it. And that’s when the music started.
It was a song selection that Miss Judy had chosen for them months before. Tammy and the other girls in her class had heard it over and over again for months on end as they practiced the choreography for this exact moment.
Behind her, a cluster of little girls Tammy’s age jostled and pushed their way toward the stage, thrusting Tammy closer to the front. She glanced back toward the velvet curtain she was leaving behind. It seemed like a friend now, a comforting embrace she could hide inside.
In the darkness, the mass of little girls assembled into formation. Tammy took her spot in the line, pointed her right foot and raised her right arm in the air. The lights blasted on, illuminating the stage. The girls were now in the spotlight. There was no hiding now.
Tammy’s stomach clenched like a fist. Her body stiffened and as she looked at the other girls, she could sense that her feet weren’t going to cooperate. They never did. The other girls seemed to move naturally as though the music had spoken to them, whispered the steps into their ears. The music spoke nothing to Tammy even though she’d tried to hear its conversation often. She’d practiced all of her pliés, relèvés and tendus in sequence but none of it stuck in her brain or in her feet.
Tammy had started dance classes at age six. Her mother, Beatrice thought it would be good for her daughter to have an artistic skill like that, a physical activity to participate with other girls her age. Perhaps it would lead to something. Instill confidence in a little girl whose identity was just barely beginning to emerge.
Tammy was now nine years old, a week away from turning ten and her lack of artistic talent was only becoming more evident as she grew older. And Tammy was only becoming increasingly more conscious of this fact as time wore on.
Beatrice had enrolled her daughter in dance classes because that’s what all the other mothers were doing. She wanted her daughter to be graceful and pretty as a ballerina. Tammy was neither of these things. She was awkward and homely and a little flabby in the middle. She was always a step behind, a little out-of-rhythm. Tammy tried to mimic the other dancers, but she never got it quite right. She always felt like she was cheating, copying the moves of others.
That year, the girls in Tammy’s ballet class dressed as watermelon with bright green tutus, tights and hot pink leotards that had been affixed with black sequins sewn to look like watermelon seeds. Tammy didn’t know why her mother dressed her up in these funny clothes. She knew she wasn’t as good as the other girls. She knew she wasn’t as pretty or talented. These things hadn’t occurred to her until she’d gotten a little older, more conscious of herself.
Backstage, the other girls had expertly put on lipstick with Q-tips, smudging the corners of their lips with their fingertips like grown women. Mothers had swooped their daughter’s hair up in high ponytails, coiled it into tight buns and secured it with bobby pins. Little girls had chattered while spinning and twirling with ease in their Capezio ballet flats. And Tammy had observed all of this as she had stood backstage beside the velvet curtain, tugging at her leotard, nervous for what was to come.
Tendu, tendu, point the toes, rond de jambe… Tammy could hear Miss Judy’s voice in her head but it didn’t translate to her feet. She followed along to the best of her abilities by copying the girl in front of her. The girl who always had the answers, who volunteered to be up front. The girl who looked as pretty as a flower petal in her leotard and tutu.
Midway through the dance, they were supposed to do a Chaîné turn on their numbered count. Tammy remembered this, but she couldn’t remember her number. When was she supposed to turn? One by one, the other girls turned on cue. Tammy watched as the girl in front of her turned, but Tammy didn’t know what to do. She started to panic. Her stomach coiled up. Suddenly, her body pivoted without her. Halfway through the turn, her feet double-crossed on themselves and Tammy lost her balance, landing on her dérrière with a splat.
The other girls saw her fall, but pretended not to notice. They danced around her, continuing with the choreography their instructor had made them rehearse for this occasion, their year-end recital. In the audience, Tammy’s mother was horrified. Get up! Get up! She tried to communicate to her daughter telepathically. The other mothers were embarrassed for her, but secretly thankful that it’s not their daughter giving up in the middle of the dance, making a fool of herself in the presence of an audience.
Tammy sat cross-legged on the stage floor for the remainder of the dance. As she watched the pretty girls twirl in their green tutus at eye level, she came to a decision: She didn’t want to dance anymore. She wasn’t sure if she ever did. She found no joy in it, no sense of satisfaction. And she was no good at it either.
The music stopped. The little girls gathered in a line and curtsied to the crowd. There was applause and then the lights went out. Tammy had looked forward to this, darkness and the security of the velvet curtain backstage. It didn’t feel lonely there anymore, not to her.
At home that night, there was a note written in pencil and childish script. Minutes after Tammy had tiptoed in her stocking feet and placed it on the kitchen table, her mother, Beatrice, had found it.
I don’t want to hurt your feelings. Please don’t be angry. But I want to be done with ballet.
I hope you approve my choice. For my birthday?
Tammy peered around the corner and watched her mother read and then Tammy realized that she’d never felt more confident than she did in that moment. Not only had she stood up for herself, but she’d expressed her wishes gracefully. And wasn’t it confidence and grace that her mother had wanted her to gain all along?
One step toward becoming her own person. A small act of rebellion.
Kendra Liedie‘s writing has appeared in Metro L.A., NoHo L.A., The Valley Social, Nebraska Life Magazine and The Gambler Magazine. She is also the author of The Best Days Of Mabel Gordon and This Is How We End (available on Amazon and Kindle.) She lives in Los Angeles, CA where she works in the entertainment industry.