When I was around 6 or 7 my parents enrolled me in ballet. I didn’t understand at the time, but the primary reason I was there was that my doctors thought it would help me. I was severely pigeon toed. So pigeon toed, that at one point I had to wear this contraption at night that was basically a pair of shoes bolted on a board that forced my feet to turn out. They thought ballet would help with my problem and I was totally on board. I mean, really, what little girl doesn’t want to be a ballerina at some point?
I spent several years dancing and loved every minute of it. I took it very seriously and was not patient with the other girls that didn’t. I loved my ballet shoes, my leotard, and the music. I loved my teachers and I wanted to be exactly like them down to the way I held my fingers. I practiced every day while looking in the mirror trying to perfect each of the routines.
Then there were the recitals….oh how I loved the recitals. In addition to everything else I loved about ballet, recitals brought it to a whole other level….there were costumes. There were puffy pink tutus and silver sequined leotards. There were lights and an audience and although I was shy most other times, I loved getting nervous and then shining on stage. The applause…oh the applause. It was pure joy.
At the pinnacle of my ballet career, my ballet class had a routine to the song Music Box Dancer. We were the oldest girls that our teacher taught and as a 4th grader with several years of ballet under my tutu, we were clearly the models that all the younger girls wanted to be like. We were the last routine of the night, except for the big finale of all the girls, and I took the whole thing very seriously. Our costumes looked exactly like the ones that you see in music boxes; long pink tutu’s with white tights underneath with a simple white leotard on top.
Even today, I remember the dance. For weeks leading up to the recital, I practiced and practiced. My teacher had put me in the front, clearly because I had so perfectly memorized the moves from beginning to end. I was the back-up in case someone forgot what they were supposed to do. I was very important.
I remember stretching out my arms with my fingers in just the right position and jumping and landing gracefully at the just the right moment. I tilted my head ever so slightly so my hair just barely fell in front of my face as I turned on my tip-toes. I had never felt so beautiful as I did that night. The audience clapped wildly for us when we were finished and I was sure that had we an encore prepared, they would have surely loved it too.
Around this time was when the first video recorders had come out and while my parents didn’t own one themselves, some other parent did. About two weeks after the recital, I came home from school with a copy of our performance which I watched again and again. I relived that moment for weeks and it was just as great every time.
The next year we moved and I had to quit ballet. It was heartbreaking because I was only one year away from being able to start using pointe shoes…the ultimate ballerina shoe. Eventually, the regular watching of the video tape ceased but of course was kept for memories sake.
Fast forward about 12 years. I was in college and home for the weekend. Joe, who was just a boyfriend at this point, had come home with me. My task for the weekend was to go through the stuff I hadn’t taken to college to determine if I really wanted my mom and dad to continue to store it. I came across my sticker book, pencil collection, and other assorted things that for some reason I felt I needed to keep. Towards the middle of the sorting, my hands landed on the video tape. I stopped doing anything else and started to run downstairs, calling after Joe to follow me.
As I waited quite impatiently for the VHS player to fast forward to the Music Box Dancer performance, I explained to Joe what he was about to see. I called to my mom and dad to join us and settled myself into a front and center position that was surely too close for adequate eye safety. I finally found the right spot and as soon as I heard the music begin to play, the exact feeling I had that day came rushing back and I held my breath.
What happened next gave cause for great consternation.
At the beginning of the routine there was a short moment where we were all standing in position, while the music began to play. Then two at a time, we leapt across the stage, arms stretched, landing gracefully before beginning the next jump. At least that is what I remembered.
What I saw instead was an awkward, skinny little girl clunking her way across the stage. Instead of graceful jumps, big knobby knees poked unevenly out to the side and wobbled after the impact of landing. A face, sort of twisted with concentration and determination, was framed with stringy dishwater blond hair. Arms seemed mostly forgotten, looking more like someone trying not to drown. I was in front, not because I was good, but because I was the shortest one in the group, by quite a bit, and not one of the other girls watched me for a second to remind them what to do.
I turned to look at Joe who tried a little bit to keep from laughing, but didn’t last long. I can’t blame him at all. I looked funny…really funny. The girl on the t.v. wasn’t at all the girl that I remembered. I don’t remember what I said, but my mom just kind of smiled and my dad threw up in hands like he does and walked away.
That night when I was trying to fall asleep, I tried to understand how in the world my version of the moment could be so different that the reality. How did I not see my knobby knees? How could I think that others would want to be like me? How did I think that was beautiful? What was I thinking?
Today, the video tape sits on a shelf with the other few home VHS tapes we have. We don’t even have a VCR anymore, but we still have the tape. I don’t think I will ever be able to get rid of it. I wonder now, almost 10 years since really seeing it for the first time, whether or not I am glad I watched it? It definitely shattered my thinking of the whole event and I have been teased more than I think is fair….I was only 10 for goodness sake.
But then a part of me feels grateful for watching it. While I definitely was the furthest thing from a beautiful ballerina. there wasn’t a person in my life at the time that let me believe anything but that; not my parents, my ballet teacher, or the other girls in my class. They had to have seen the stringy hair and knobby knees…but they also saw how much I loved it and how much I believed in myself. What an incredible gift they provided me at a time when life just starts to get really weird.