by Galadriel Watson
Silence. Six of us stand, toes skirting strips of tape placed on the parquet floor, glowing dimly in the dark. My mind concentrates on slow, methodical breaths. The inner mantra of inhalations, exhalations is all I hear. My eyes stare into emptiness. Beyond the boundary people whisper, muted by a heavy sheet of velvet. I pose, twisted, arranging, waiting. Knees together. Heels forward. Back straight. Stomach in. Chest out. Breathe. Arms float heavily in the air at my sides.
The loudspeaker crackles. A thin strain of violin seeps under chairs, through the arms of women reading programs. It circles the stage. Whispers I’m ready. As the curtain parts into swags of gentle red folds, human sounds are replaced by the hum of bow on string, of smooth reverberations. Spotlights rise, bathe us in a winter twilight blue.
Six identical, frozen forms.
Two, four, six, eight. The count is internal now. A chorus of violins joins the lonely call of the solo. The music thickens, weighs down the arms of women who place programs on their laps, look up.
Two, four, six, eight.
A cello breaks through. Deep, slow, lamenting. It snakes in with my breath, pulses through veins, into muscles. Spurs movement. On stage, twelve arms rise. Flow. Stretch and circle. Pull in the audience with poised fingers. One on top of the other—the cello, the violins—pushing screaming fighting vying for my body. I let go. Legs move, torso follows through the rhythm of rehearsed, practiced movements unleashed.
Six lean bodies in pale blue tulle, set free, harmonious, moving without a thought to a dance they know by feel.
Steps weigh heavy on the wooden floor, dipped in the middle, varnish worn. L’École de Ballet Karayan. Downtown Montréal, Saturday, 8:30 a.m. Tired legs bypass open stairs with heavy brown banisters, ride in a rickety elevator to the fourth floor.
A vague terror of abandonment strikes when I enter the school. It is still, cavernous. Echoes bounce off the thin, stark walls.
Sandy sits on the changing room bench, a pale form against peeling blue paint. She stabs at the toe of a pointe shoe, her left hand firmly entrenched inside. The pale pink satin skin has been pulled back, sliced off, the coarse canvas exposed to prevent slipping on smooth, waxed floors. Satin edges are being bound to stop fraying. With each stitch, Sandy pushes and pulls, the needle descending into, ascending from material pasted with glue. Hardened into a block.
We smile, yawn. I would rather have stayed in bed, but then the phone would have rung, Madame Karayan demanding an excuse. Anyways, this is my life. I practice to master my body, to master my art, to get my fix of the movements with which I have fallen in love. We should never leave here, we think. Eighteen hours of classes a week, plus changing, plus transportation, all on top of high school. We should make this our home instead. Set up cots.
Inside the studio we limber muscles. Split legs, curve backs, stretch arms. I stand, bend forward, touch my head to my knees and wrap my arms around my calves. I am careful of my hamstrings which I’ve already pulled, which no longer allow me to sit for periods of time without pain shooting down my legs, which force me to leave early during school exams. I straighten and pull one leg up until the thigh touches my shoulder, shin alongside my ear. Not bad for someone who, as an eight-year-old girl, sat on a stage auditioning for the National Ballet School, straining, straining to reach fingertips to toetips, back arched, a vast expanse of air separating the two. Hearing, “Thank you for coming, Galadriel . . . .”
The pianist takes her place, taps trimmed nails on yellowed ivory. Coughs. I find room behind Stephen, our token male. Left hands skim the barre. Right arms curve, held to the side. Feet at 180 degrees. Madame claps and notes erupt from the piano. My body aligns, elbow up, rear in, head cocked to the right. Demi-pliés, grand-pliés in first, second, fourth and fifth. Turn and repeat left side. While a chilled breeze seeps under scratched windows and cools my skin, I forget my worries of life outside this room and concentrate.
As we follow the music, I watch Josée. Her foot curves sharper, her leg lifts higher than mine. Clothed in burgundy spandex, she is bright in the row of pink legs and black torsos. Any other would be banished for such an outfit, but Josée is Madame’s hope for fame.
I peek at myself off reflecting glass. I see a bony chest, thin arms, flat stomach. Good—until my eyes move farther down. Large hips, large thighs. I sigh as I stretch up my arm, curve my spine. Reach back back back until my head is level with my waist. I make it lower than the others. The 20-foot man on the Classy Formalwear billboard outside looks in and approves.
From exercise to exercise, Madame’s black boots tap the floor. Full skirt, emaciated frame, sharp nose, dark eyes. Curly black hair stretched into a skullcap, knotted in a bun. She approaches. Slaps my buttock, jiggles the flesh.
“What’s this on a 16-year-old girl?” she asks. Thin lips purse as she speaks. Armenian accent heavy. “When I was dancing I ate only an apple a day.”
She doesn’t know that Katie, hips protruding, has lost so much weight she has stopped having periods. She doesn’t know that I grab onto railings and move slowly to gather strength to mount stairs, that I passed out in a shopping mall. That I am 5’6” and 100 pounds and my mother has called my school to ask teachers to make sure I am eating my lunch. I secretly hope one day I faint before her, tumble in a heap during a battement. Teach her a lesson.
The dance is control. Taught muscles. Bending. Thrusting. Slowing movement so a hand lowers as a feather trapped on a breeze. Each turn studied but calm. My body is a leaf caught on a current of violin and cello, pulled by the flow, dipping, lifting, spinning. The stream slows. The sad song of the cello fades. Heads bow to its departure. The single violin is alone again. It teases, plays, says good-bye. I follow it down to bathe in its ripples on the stage floor. Hands rest on a satiny foot, head on knee. The violin releases a last note and is gone.
The curtain sways into place. Sharp slaps of palm on palm chase away the ensuing stillness, refill the theatre with sound. As stage and audience are illuminated, Madame herds us down a cold cement corridor, notes how I rose too early, how Irene faltered a step. But she is pleased.
In the dressing room we pull on new leotards, replace powdery tutus with rose pink organza, freshen makeup, secure false eyelashes. Time moves quickly and we rush back to the stage where we stand and internally follow the next dance, vaguely placing hands and feet where they ought to go. The rustle of the returning audience quietens. I think briefly of my mother, my aunt, my three best friends sitting beyond. I hope they are impressed.
The lights dim. Sandy presses my hand, starshine in her eyes. We move into position.
After class we practice our upcoming show. Stephen grimaces as he lifts Angelique to shoulder height. His hands grasp her waist, his neck crunches to one side to make way for her hips. She jerks into place, arms held stiffly.
I sit at the side on the floor, wipe hands of the chalk dust stamped on pointe shoes for traction. My soft leather slippers, used only during regular class, are thrown aside. I wiggle my toes free through holes slit in opaque pink tights, slowly peel moleskin off my baby toes. A thick strip of dead skin peels also, the top layer of a blister-to-be. The skin beneath is raw, red, pulsing. I liberate my big toes. Discarded bandages reveal blood and pus. The air stings.
Angelique is lowered with a thud. The record scratches to a stop. Madame shakes her head and sighs, waves them off center-floor. My turn is next. I cram freshly-wrapped toes in shoes half the width of my foot, hard as stone, pink satin laced around my ankles. Open capillaries throb. I stand. Fire shoots through my calves, dims my vision. I take my position, pose, and wait.
The dance starts. Soft at first. Arms, head, a shift of balance. Madame taps out time with a heel. As the full weight of the music approaches, I hold my breath, close my eyes. I step onto a blocked shoe, hoist myself on pointe. My foot slides down, ramming at the end. Glued sides cramp on toes. Bandages slip back. Nerve ends shudder. Blood stains the inside of my shoes.
For a moment the world blackens. I stop myself from screaming, ripping off the baby pink symbols of women constrained, bound. Think The men don’t have to wear these things. Madame stands, the jailer by the exit. She locks me in.
Two. Four. Six. Eight.
My mind floats. I see myself sitting in the wings when Russia’s Kirov came to Montréal, friends of Madame. Entering the stage door, stating name and purpose to the guard behind glass. I sit hugging knees beneath a light-stand blaring bright as the sun, leaning forward to see balconies of spectators in Place des Arts, a full house. I feel immense joy and pride that I’m on the other side of the curtain, bodies rushing past me, standing hands on hips in the shadows, adjusting costumes, waiting their turn. A tutu-ed corps de ballet fixed in rows on the stage. Each member pirouettes, graceful arms dropping feebly. Smooth, synchronized, there is no indication of effort, of pain. I hear them whisper to each other in harsh Russian words as they dance, imperceptible to the audience. I wonder what they say.
My weight falls on pointe again, jolts me back to the humid studio. My toes beg Remember me. It’s my fault anyway. I neglected to shelter them with moleskin two weeks before. This is what happens.
The pain endured, I finish class and call my mother for a ride home. I emerge on a crowded downtown street at noon. My stockinged feet step around crushed cigarette butts. From my fingertips hang shoes I can’t bear to put on.
Spotlights flash blurred shapes on the backdrop like splashes of notes flung against a wall. Piano shocks flit my wings, send me flying, leaping. A game of hide and seek with invisible waves, waves which sneak in, occupy, electrify each nerve. We are hummingbirds in a garden, the piano the surges of air. My limbs are pulled, my torso bent. My body spins across the platform, pointed feet struggling to control the momentum.
A single piano, the drum of hammer on wire, of pressure on my heart. It bounces off the ceiling, tickles the back of knees to cause feet to tap on the audience floor. Seated bodies agree to play and privately sway to each beat, the fulfillment of a secret agreement.
Eight bodies. Pastel shapes of grace and ease. Wrists flicker in unison, figures shift on cue. The piano is the binding thread that entwines arms and legs, laces all parts into the whole.
One last time I reach to grab the note but it eludes capture, dances beyond my grasp. Silence trails a final flurry of melody. I am still. My chest heaves. My lips taste of salty sweat. Blood surges through my veins.
Past the blinding light, claps blend into a thundering river of praise.
“A Marriage to Music” won the professional non-fiction category of CBC Radio One’s Alberta Anthology 2004, plus received honorable mention in the 1997 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition