The Dance of Perfectionism

East Tower, San Xavier del BacThe pianist rests his fingers on the ivory keys. He locks eyes with my teacher.

She mouths the words.

One, two, three—

They nod on the four. And the studio fills with a high note that rings along the barre and into my fingertips. A Chopin nocturne rolls through the sunlit air. I push a careful tendu to the front.

À croix.

Front-side-back-side.

I am eight years old. So are my classmates. All girls.

We grip the lowest barre and concentrate on our posture. Evenly spaced along the white walls of Cornish College of the Arts.

Our mothers followed the instructions on the sheets mailed out before the semester began, and so our black leotards and powder pink tights all match.

No language is allowed in the studio but Chopin and the teacher’s commands.

It is my first year at this prestigious arts college.

I stand beside girls from some of the wealthiest Seattle families.

My cheap tights embarrass me, shiny nylon where theirs are a soft cotton weave. A graceful seam runs down the back of their calves. My old-fashioned leather ballet shoes reek of sweat, while their canvas shoes whisper against the wood floor. Before class, they arrive in Catholic school uniforms, plaid wool skirts, French textbooks under their arms.

I’ve read about girls like this in books, but this is the first time I see them in real life.

But then the music stops.

“Sasha.” Ms. Barker says. “Show me that tendu again.”

The girl blushes. Her elbow droops. She knows already it is hopeless.

Ms. Barker is British and gray and imposing, at 5’8″ or 5’9″ to elementary school children. She tells us stories about being hit with a ruler when she didn’t stand straight enough. She wears corded sweaters in muted mauves and grays and blues. She cracks odd, wry jokes that my mother is proud I get. I smile down at the floor lest Ms. Barker see my reaction and try to speak directly to me.

She hugged me once.

When I was 14, she gushed. “You can go professional. You’re good enough.” It made my year.

“You see that?” Ms. Barker kneels down and holds the foot. “See how it’s sickled, girls? That’s a lazy tendu. Now.” She says and peels her palm down Sasha’s arch. “Like this. You must arch the foot. More.”

She shakes the girl’s foot emphatically. “Your tendus must be like that.”

Sasha does not move. We all know this posture. The play-dead move. You just want it to be over.

Ms. Barker stands and walks to the front of the studio.

“I don’t see how you can be so lazy, Sasha,” she says. “You come here every week, and I don’t know why. If you’re not going to try to get better, there’s no reason for you to be here. No one wants to see a lazy dancer. None of you should be lazy with your tendus. Everything comes from that, yes?”

I stare straight ahead. I strive for perfection. No mistakes. Not to be noticed, except when I am brilliant.

I don’t want to be one of those girls who runs from the studio, sobbing. No one looks at you the same after that.

You have to keep a stiff upper lip in this place. Hold a poker face while sweat slides down your spine, drips onto the floor, your thighs quaking with exhaustion.

No expression.

At 14, I still cling to this. A group of girls breezes past me. On their way to lunch before rehearsal. I sit on the tiled floor of the hallway, an edition of David Copperfield open in front of me. The size of a dictionary.

I’ve learned that large books keep people away from me.

All those conversations I don’t know how to have. All those people whose attention I may prove unworthy of. All those mistakes I can’t afford to make.

One girl, Brittany McDermott, stops in front of me. “We’re going to lunch. Want to come?”

I like Brittany very much. I always wish for the courage to make friends. And she always stops to ask me this question, year after year.

I love her for that.

But my answer is always the same. “Thanks,” I say. And I risk a smile up at her. “I think I’ll stay and read.”

She looks at me for a moment, and then the other girls pull her down the hallway and into the stairwell. The door bangs shut behind the last girl.

I flip to the first page.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

I begin to read.

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