I begin to have panic attacks in the dance studio. I have been dancing for seven years, but now, suddenly, I can’t. I can’t go to auditions. I begin to skip the occasional class.
In the studio, I can’t stand the sight of myself in the mirror. In my maroon leotard and pink tights, I look almost naked. It is grotesque how bony I am, elbows and knees like burls on a tree trunk. How pale I am. Little brown hairs feather my arms. The pad for my menstrual periods bulges awkwardly between my legs. I thought I’d made a deal with my body, and this isn’t it. I hate my ribs, fingers of bone laced over my organs, skin webbed between them. I am grotesque.
A male teacher approaches me to make a correction. He is a kind man, soft-spoken and balding. I don’t even remember his name. But if he touches my hip or adjusts my shoulders, which have started to fold forward protectively, I grip the barre until my knuckles go white. I shiver, the way a frightened dog does. He stops coming near me.
I have grown superstitious. I believe human contact of any kind will kill me. Even eye contact can suffocate me. When I can’t breathe, I can’t control my body. My perfect technique has crumbled. My tendus and passés have become sloppy. My pirouettes lopsided.
One teacher yells at me. If you ever do another pirouette like that, I’m cutting you from the performance!
Another teacher tries a different tack. You’re good enough. But you don’t have any confidence. Just put yourself out there. Be confident.
No one gets it.
What is so hard to get? I want to scream at them. I’m broken, okay? Can’t you see it? You think I want to be like this?
* * *
During our Nutcracker performances, a man wanders into the dressing room, packed with teenage girls. He holds a video camera, film rolling. He pans over the room. Catches dozens of girls naked or half-undressed. Girls shriek. Two of the older ones, 17 or 18-year-olds, scream at him. Most dive behind racks of costumes.
For the first time, I congratulate myself for hiding in my usual corner. Turns out for once it wasn’t cowardly. It was the right call. After all, my father has admitted he’s attracted to my classmates. “It’s easy to forget they’re your age,” he murmurs, peering into my studios before class. It wasn’t like I didn’t know how the fathers look at us.
Teachers whisk in. He points out his daughter as an excuse. “How could you think this was appropriate?” One teacher demands. They escort him to the elevator.
The dressing room isn’t even on the same floor as the theater.
* * *
I’m still not talking much at school. It is eighth grade now. I sit as far from the doors as I can. Having my back to the farthest wall feels safer. Unfortunately, the only students who want to sit there, too, are girls who say shit and fuck like they’ve been saying these words since they were nine. Every morning, they slump into their seats reeking of drugstore perfume and the stench of cheap cigarettes.
At first, they jeered at me a few times. I said nothing and simply filed xeroxed worksheets into my three-ring binder. Since then, they have left me alone. I am tolerated. Invisible. I appreciate them for this.
They swap lipstick colors and press their lips together and examine the effect in their compacts. They talk about what dicks boys are, but everything they do seems centered on getting boys’ attention.
One of them tried running away over the summer. She got far. But not far enough. The police dragged her back home.
“I hate my mom,” she says to no one in particular. “What a bitch.”
By this time in the year, the teacher, Ms. Atkins, has noticed I don’t associate with them. I just sit there. I earn perfect grades. I seem genuinely interested in the material. I just don’t speak. One day, she puts me in a different seat. I obey. I always obey.
But the next day, when she doesn’t tell me to sit there again, I return to the back of the room, my chair securely planted against the back wall.
She becomes so concerned that she calls my parents for a special conference. I feel angry at her for seeing that something is wrong with me. It infuriates me. I had been doing such a good job. I was blending in.
In retrospect, this is laughable. I wear clothes my mother picks for me, a decade out of style. My mother tugs neon scrunchies around my ponytail (I still don’t know how to do my own hair; my mother won’t teach me). I wear jeans in awkward cuts with felt vests that look less preppy and more bargain-bin. My glasses are huge, each lens like a moon over my eyes. I am anemic and asthmatic and small for my age, routinely mistaken for an 11-year-old.
My teacher is a woman of color, and she has taught us about slavery and Jim Crow in ways no white teacher ever could. She knows trauma. As a U.S. history teacher who is African-American, she has made a study of it. And I am terrified of her perceptiveness. But I also cannot turn away from the stories of runaway slaves, of men and women and children shackled and beaten, treated worse than livestock. Such a long and indelible history of cruelty in this country. I weep quietly in the dark when we watch Roots and Glory.
Why are human beings like this?
I don’t want to be like this.
I hate her for seeing. Yet I draw hope from her seeing. She is the first to see. She is also the last, while I am still a child. When she looks at me, I read the words in her eyes: Something is wrong with this one. Gratitude and resentment are so twisted up inside me that if she had asked, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I am only 14. I only know I am afraid of my careful equilibrium getting smashed to pieces.
After the parent-teacher conference, I set the dinner table with shaking hands and wait to hear what revelations came out, what blame has fallen to me.
My parents tell me that Ms. Atkins is a lovely woman and that she simply didn’t understand how shy I am, that I’m very confident in other contexts, that I love to perform, that I’m a ham in ballet. I’m just quiet at school. She seemed to understand this, my parents reassure me. She knows many performers are quiet when they’re out of the spotlight.
I feel numb. Flattened. No one is coming to help me. Through my parents and their smoke screens, no one can see me at all.
In a year, my father will tell me that God doesn’t want me to dance anymore. As a good Mormon, I believe the priesthood grants him a direct line to God. So if he says it, it must be true. God has decreed it so.
The next year of ballet is my last.