Like many girls, my first great love was ballet.
But the Royal Academy of Dance examinations terrorized us once a year. The first time I stepped into an examination room and faced an examiner shipped in from the Commonwealth, I was ten years old. The square windows in the doors were taped over with paper, and a table with a green tablecloth stood at the front of the studio. The mirrors reflected our faces at the open door, blank with terror.
And then a woman raised a brass bell from the tablecloth and held it between slender fingers—the fingers of a retired ballerina–and then she rang for us.
The teachers sent us in, two at a time. We ran to the table, skirts fluttering, like ballerinas—never jogging like the children we were—and we had to curtsy. The doors closed behind us.
Then the examiner said something.
I looked at my partner. She looked at me. Our eyes went round with terror.
Neither of us understood a word she had said.
The only British accents I’d ever heard were from Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady. This bore no resemblance. Maybe she was South African, like one of the other instructors we couldn’t understand, either. Australian? I’ll never know.
We gave each other one final look and then walked slowly, with the composure of prisoners sent before a firing squad, to take our places at the barre.
We waited for the pianist to strike the first note from Chopin, a nocturne, and then we did the first exercise. Exactly as we had rehearsed for months. And then, when another command issued from the woman in the center of the studio, we proceeded to the next. And the next.
This was how I grew up. Day after day in the studio, Chopin floating around me, aiming for perfection.
But then, my first year of high school, something changed.
It began with my parents. They realized this was no longer the obsession of a child; I meant to go professional, and Ms. Barker told me I was ready to begin auditions for apprenticeships and summer programs. Not that I would quit school or take a position any time soon, she assured my parents. But for practice. For experience. Because in a few more years, it would be time to begin a career and enter the corps in a company.
I’ll never know exactly what went through my parents’ minds, but they told me I should quit. They didn’t want to force me, they said. But it wasn’t too late for me to have a childhood, to enjoy the last years of high school. Didn’t I want to go on dates? Make friends—and have time to do things with them?
I didn’t want a childhood, I said.
I wanted to dance. It was all I wanted. It was everything I loved. Why would I quit?
And besides, I didn’t know how to make friends. I wasn’t any good with people. I was good at tendus and grand jétés.
The longer I held out, the more panicked they became. Until they sat me down and told me my father had prayed about it, and god didn’t want me to dance anymore.
We were a devoutly Mormon family. This should have settled it.
Still, the spring of freshman year, I sat at the cafeteria table with the other outliers—the special education students and nerds and recent immigrants who wore t-shirts that reeked of curry—and ate my sandwich. I wanted to talk it all over with a friend. But we sat in silence, each of us wrapped up in larger dramas we couldn’t articulate. The girl across from me snapped her chopsticks over her Hong Kong dishes, and the Indian girl ate her carton of French fries. And I stared into my tuna fish and considered defying god.
In the end, I started having panic attacks when I crossed the threshold of a studio. Shaking so badly it was all I could do to grip the barre. And that settled the question.
But still, at 32, I cannot hear a Chopin Polonaise without remembering the power of so much space and that music, always the music, and the way it held my waist and lifted me and carried me through that space, sunlight falling like joy through the windows and across the open floor.