Principal Dancer or Keeping to My Principles

by Aderet Harari, age 16, from NY

My right hand clutches the barre, knuckles red, chin high. My eyes dart away from the teacher and away from the mirror.

Don’t look for a nod of approval.

A real ballet dancer knows when it feels right and when it feels wrong. Miss Debbie used to say that you have to pretend that you have a little mirror in the palm of your hand, and you look at your palm, not at the teacher. You’re a fancy lady with very long, dangling, crystal earrings that just nearly touch your shoulders. If you don’t extend your neck with your chin up, the earrings will reach your shoulders — and that’s very unattractive. So I extend my neck and avert my gaze to the little pretend mirror in the palm of my hands.

But I need to consciously drag my eyes away from Zoya, since she just rebuked me yesterday for looking at her too much while I dance. But the temptation is too strong. With just a quick glance I can tell if she approves of my technique or not.

I wish I could just dance, let go of the barre, and leap to any music Zoya decides to play.  Sometimes, in the last five or ten minutes of class she puts on a random piece of music and lets me dance. I love it. When I dance at the end of class, I don’t pay attention to whether my knees are over my toes or if my head is tilted in the right direction. Zoya will sometimes stop the music while I’m in mid-step, and tell me to look down at my feet. They’re turned in. But when the music’s on and I dance from the heart, I can’t worry about these details. She always asks me if I recognize the composer or if I know from which ballet the piece is from. I never know. Then when she tells me the answer I say, Oh sure, of course, I knew that! I hope she believes me. She tells me that they are planning some sort of performance. It would be great if I had a solo. I know that I probably won’t be able to perform anyway. But there’s always room for wishful thinking. I’m good at that. I think I’ll probably have a solo.

When I started at the New York City Ballet Institute they forced me to turn out 90 degrees and I just couldn’t. Zoya took her stick and prodded my right foot – out, out, out… and then my left foot – out, out, out, and I cried. Every time my feet would turn slightly inward again, she would come back with her stick and force my feet out into a straight line. She stopped doing that after a while, and I’m not sure why. Either my turnout improved, or she decided that I’m a lost cause, and my turnout will never be perfect.

At the end of class, Zoya tells me that there is going to be a performance and they want me to have a solo. They are going to have lots of girls performing classical pieces, but because I’m also very good at jazz and modern dance, they want me to improvise and dance the way I do at the end of class. That’s when I dance from my heart. I guess it would show prospective students that they offer all different kinds of dance classes…which they don’t.

Zoya takes me to the costumes in the back of the room. The colorful and intricately designed tutus that I always eyed wistfully are hanging there, beckoning. I immediately pick the bright red one. It has jewels on the chest in the shape of a V and the bottom juts straight out to make a dancer look like she is standing in the center of a table covered in a beautiful tablecloth. Yes, the tutu is as stiff as a wooden table but not quite as heavy. I admire myself in the mirror, twirling and leaping, envisioning myself on the big stage where my mother takes me every year on my birthday, June 19, to see a ballet. I begin to dance. I am Coppelia, the doll that comes to life, the Swan that gasps for her last dying breaths, Clara the girl that is ecstatic with her new toy.

Then Zoya interrupts and she tells me that this is not the costume she wants for me. I trudge to the back of the room, abandoning my arabesque poise, smiling at the tens of empty threadbare red velvet chairs. She shows me a plain black skimpy mini dress that tugs at my body. She tells me that I should let out my tight bun, so that my long, thick, black hair can whip while I dance. She puts on music that makes me think of a subway – and I start to dance. I feel all wrong. I try to forget she is watching because I am ashamed of the way the music makes me dance. I don’t even have to check for a nod of approval. She is squealing in glee.

I tell her that I cannot perform. She knows that I am Orthodox and I won’t dance if there are men in the audience. Especially in this costume! The conversation moves to my not taking enough classes…that my parents pay for me to go to a prestigious private school and don’t want to pay for more dance lessons. That we have our priorities mixed up. Then she tells me that I will never go far in life because I missed so many classes because of Passover.

She tells me that I am ruining my future.

That I don’t have to listen to my parents. That I should perform. That I can be so much more but I’m wasting my abilities. She tells me to throw away my religion.

I don’t care for her nod of approval.

*    *    *    *    *

And, as I catch a smile from the old lady bent over in her wheelchair, and teach the gorgeous girl with Down Syndrome how to stretch to the sky, a feeling of deep joy and fulfillment pirouettes inside of me. A feeling that only comes with the approval of my heart.