Originally written for a writing course I took this winter
with instructor Jonathan Rogers,
here is an artistic look at a turning point
in the developing feminine psyche of eight-year-old Melissa.
At the Barre
Ballet lessons were a highlight of my childhood. The weekly foray into all things poised, wearing the uniform of black leotard and pink tights, made my little-girl heart skip and leap like my instructor Miss Tammy herself, yet the defining memory of my years in that ballet studio has little to do with plie, jete, or curtsy.
The rectangular studio held polished wood floors, two walls of barre, ample floor space for the ten little dancers in my class, and one entire wall of flawless mirror. The room smelled of sweat, hairspray, and leather. We practiced leg and foot positions standing along the wall of barre which faced opposite the mirror, one hand delicately resting on the barre, the other extended in a gracefully draping arc. Legs extended to lengthen muscles as our calves carved shapes along our pink tights, thighs tensed like gazelle necks, toes pointing until the leather of our pink shoes creaked with the strain. Necks were long, shoulders pressed down, shoulder blades squeezed tight on plank-straight backs, chins elegantly turned slightly left—just enough to see our reflections in the mirror, to self-correct poise and gauge how long until Mrs. Henshaw reached us for professional critique and instruction.
Miss Tammy was absent this particular day, replaced by the studio director Mrs. Henshaw. Everything about Mrs. Henshaw was as straight and strict as her name sounded. She moved along the line of dancers as we practiced repetitions of movement to classical records.
Born with German bones and raised alongside a puppy frolicking in an overgrown pasture, often crawling along a creek bed to catch tadpoles, ballet made me feel more lovely and dainty than anything. So there I stood, stately and feminine in uniform and practice, not a red hair fallen loose from the perfectly round bun atop my head, when Mrs. Henshaw reached me. Her gaze exacting, she studied the position and movement of my body, her chin aloft and cheekbones harsh. Without words, her terse hands stretched my leg further than my hamstring knew possible, and raised my elbow ever so slightly to achieve the angle of perfection.
Waiting for her eyebrows to soften and her head to give me the expected miniscule nod of approval before moving on to the dancer behind me, I almost relaxed into the genuine ballerina I saw in my reflection across the dance floor. I felt confidence begin to blossom in my bosom. And then Mrs. Henshaw cocked her proud head ever so slightly, pursed her lips in that confrontational way which makes the neck hair bristle, and reached her index finger out to poke it into my stomach. If her manicure had been less perfect she would have snagged my leotard with the veracity of her nail pressure. “Getting a little chubby,” she said coarsely.
She moved on to the dancer behind me, as though she had not just eviscerated me with the penetrating words of an irreversible cut.