Just about every girl I knew had a musical jewelry box like mine: pink and white plastic with a ballerina doll on top. I don’t know about the other little girls, but my ballerina mocked me. She was a blonde with perfect hair; I was a brunette and my hair wouldn’t stay knot-free, let alone curled. Her body was thin and cool-looking; I was a pat of butter. Worst of all, she looked graceful. I moved like a drunken hippopotamus (still do).
I ended up in an afterschool dance class, mostly because I wanted to be more like my Auntie V. Now, SHE could dance! Ballet, tap, jazz, ballroom… You name it; she’s done it, and done it well (As a matter of fact, well into her 90s now, she teaches dance classes at the senior center in her neighborhood!). To me, she was more perfect than the plastic jewelry box ballerina.
The dance program took place in our school’s cafeteria, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Ballet and tap. It was an 8-week program that culminated in a Christmastime recital at a local hall.
I was happily surprised to see a couple of girls from my homeroom there. It made me a little less nervous (Even then, I had anxiety issues.). They were the girls who were nice to me (I was picked on a little bit that year, mainly because I no longer had a father; he’d committed suicide that summer.).
At the first class, I realized I did not belong there. All of the other girls seemed more like the plastic ballerina, and more like my mother’s sister than I did. They were all thin, hair neatly up, and most of them had been dancing since they were toddlers.
When the first class was over, I told Terri, one of the girls from homeroom, that I was embarrassed because I didn’t know anything.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said. She then invited me to join her and Tanya, another girl from our homeroom, to practice on Wednesdays. It made me feel better, a little hopeful. I said yes.
When I got home, my Auntie V was visiting.
“How did it go, V?” she asked.
“Well, it was pretty awful… but my friends Terri and Tanya are going to help me. So, maybe it will be okay.”
“Good!” Auntie V said. “The shoes fit okay?”
My aunt had purchased my ballet slippers, tap shoes, leotards and tights a week or two before class started. I loved her for that; my mom was struggling with money since my dad passed away (I don’t even know how she managed to pay for the class; I didn’t then, but I now suspect that Auntie V may have paid for that, too.).
“I’ll break them in,” I said; I felt a tiny blister starting on the back of one of my heels.
The next day, Terri, Tanya and I met in the cafeteria afterschool. We went over everything taught the day before. Then, while I practiced the basics, they worked on their tap routine (They were going to audition for a duet in the recital.). Every once in a while, one of them would come over and correct me. I felt bad, taking time away from their work.
“If you say you’re sorry again, I’ll kick you,” Terri said. “It’s really no big deal.”
I put on my tap shoes, got behind them (in front of the large mirror), and tried to imitate their steps, just for fun.
“Hey,” Tanya said, “That’s not bad!”
I laughed. I was still horrible, but tapping was fun anyway.
A week or two later, I was still struggling with the ballet steps, but I was gaining a little bit of confidence with the tap dancing.
There were two teachers, a man and a woman (I don’t remember their names). They switched off each class, one teaching ballet and the other tap. I was in the group that practiced ballet (in the small room, off of the cafeteria) for the first half, tap (in the actual cafeteria) for the second half of the class. Just as I was about to change shoes and head for the cafeteria, the lady teacher came up to me.
“Honey,” she started (and so it sounded like it was going to be a nice conversation, right?), “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I think if you lost some weight, you’d dance better.”
I didn’t know what to say or where to look. I didn’t want to look at her. What does she mean by “wrong way”? I thought.
“You should think about going on a diet, maybe,” she said. And then she was gone, getting her second group of girls ready to practice.
I laced up my tap shoes with shaking fingers. She just said I’m fat.
I looked around as I stood up. I AM fat. All of the other girls are skinny.
I couldn’t get any of the steps right that afternoon. I wasn’t concentrating on dancing; all I could think of was how fat I was, and how, if the teacher thought so, everyone must.
They must think it’s a riot, some big fat pig trying to look graceful.
I gotta get outta here.
Once the class was over, I ran out of the building. Terri and Tanya followed me.
“Hey,” Tanya said. “What happened?”
I burst into tears. “I’m too fat!” I wailed.
They hugged me. It might have felt nice if I hadn’t been thinking that they were both skinny and I would probably suffocate them if I hugged back too hard.
We sat down on the merry-go-round at the front of the school. Tanya gave me a tissue. I wiped away my tears and told them what the teacher had said to me.
Tanya rolled her eyes. “Geez! What a witch!”
“Do YOU think you’re fat?” Terri asked.
We started walking home. On the way, the girls gave me diet tips, things they did when they felt like THEY were fat (I couldn’t imagine either one of them feeling that way).
That night, when Mom served dinner, I said I wasn’t hungry. I ate the salad and left the rest.
I began skipping breakfast, and only eating the (boiled to death) vegetables that were included in the school lunch. I stepped on the scale three times a day. Whenever I was starving, I’d gulp down as much water as I could. In the evenings, I practiced the ballet and tap routines until I was really tired.
I’d tell my mother I wasn’t hungry. I thought that if I kept saying it, I’d believe it myself.
Despite the extra help from Terri and Tanya, and losing a little bit of weight, I never got much better at ballet. Half way through the program, I told the (male) teacher that I did not want to appear in the ballet portion of the recital.
He raised his eyebrows. “Why not?”
The words rushed out of my mouth. “I stink. My Auntie’s going to be there, and she’s a real dancer. I don’t want her to see how bad I am…”
The teacher frowned. “Are you quitting the class?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I just think I’m better at tap.”
“Do you want to take tap classes and cut out the ballet altogether?” He asked.
I thought about it a moment. Shook my head again. “No. I need the exercise.”
The teacher’s eyebrows went back up.
“I’m trying to lose weight,” I explained.
He looked kind of confused. “You look like you’ve lost some.”
I looked down. I had lost very little weight. “Yeah, but I’m still too fat.”
“No,” he said. “You are not.” He paused. “You will have to be in the recital. I can put you in the back row. Okay?”
I thought about it for a second and then nodded. At least I won’t have to explain anything to Auntie V.
Auntie V drove me to the hall for the dress rehearsal, the Saturday before the recital. By then, I wasn’t feeling well. I was having dizzy spells, headaches, and stomach aches… and I hated dancing.
My aunt was kneeling in front of me, fiddling with my leotard. “All this dancing, you’re getting skinny,” she said. She looked up into my face. Frowned.
“What did you have for breakfast this morning?”
I shrugged, trying to avoid Auntie V’s eyes.
She pulled an apple out of her purse, polished it on her shirtsleeve, and handed it to me. “Eat this. Now.”
I began eating it. My aunt sat on the little bench next to me. She felt my forehead.
“Hm. You sure you want to dance today, V? You feel warm.”
I couldn’t give up, not then, not with Auntie V watching. Later that day, during the rehearsal, I decided that after the recital the following weekend (the end of the program), I would not renew.
The male teacher approached me after the rehearsal and patted my back. “Good job today,” he said.
I introduced him to my aunt. I left them to go change into my street clothes. When I returned, Auntie V was alone, and she was not smiling.
Instead of driving me straight home, she drove around the park (about a half mile from where I lived).
“If you don’t eat right, you are going to be a sick little girl,” she announced.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. The tone of her voice scared me.
She glanced at me. “Are some of the girls in your dance class teasing you?”
I shook my head. The girls in class had been nothing but nice to me.
She parked in the circle and turned to face me. “Your teacher thinks that’s what’s going on.”
I shook my head again and tried not to cry. I told her about what the lady teacher had said, and how my friends in class had been helping me.
“Oh.” Then, silence.
After a minute or two, I croaked, “I don’t want to be a dancer. I don’t like it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I don’t like it, I’m not good at it, and it makes me feel bad!”
Then, I did cry.
She hugged me and laughed a little. “Well, honey, why in the world didn’t you say something? You don’t have to dance, you know.”
“I wanted to be good at it,” I sobbed. “So I could be like you!”
She laughed some more and squished me.
“Why is that funny?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, fishing a tissue out of her purse for me, “Why would you want to be me when you could be you?”
I dabbed at my eyes. “Well. You’re so… cool beans!”
Auntie V laughed hard. Kissed the side of my forehead with a loud smack, the way Grandma always did.
“Well, I’m flattered,” she said, getting another tissue out, this one for herself.
Then she made a face, crossing her eyes and making her mouth open funny. “Th-till wanna be wike meh?” she lisped, tilting her head.
I laughed and laughed. Yes. I do.
I danced at the recital; I did the best I could, and it went okay. My aunt sat in the front row, applauding and whistling.
When we got to my house, my mother asked all about it. My aunt explained to her that it was great, but that I didn’t really like dancing as much as I had thought I would. I breathed a sigh of relief when Mom shrugged and said, “Oh. Okay.” No big deal. (I don’t know why I thought my mother would be upset, but I was sure glad she wasn’t.)
I kissed Auntie V on the cheek and whispered, “Thank you.”
That night, after a big dinner, I went into my room, to the musical jewelry box. I stroked the ballerina’s perfect coif, and then snapped her plastic head off.
And I laughed and laughed.
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