When I was ten I saw a ballerina tear her Achilles tendon. I was sitting on the side of the stage during a recital rehearsal, unrolling a leg warmer on my left thigh. It was April, and I could hear heavy rainfall beating against the emergency exit doors of the theatre. My face was warm, and one of my legs was aching with a cramp. I sipped some water from my bottle as I looked at the girl who was going over her pas de deux behind the curtains opposite me. I knew her name was Camilla because she was the most promising dancer in our school, even though she was only fifteen. She was talking angrily to her dance partner, Alex, but I could not hear what she was saying. He was a handsome boy with wavy hair, and all the girls in my class were obsessed with him. Through the white empire-waist costume Camilla was wearing, tight on her flat chest and broad around her thighs, her ribs and backbone were visible. When I saw her walking towards me, I hastily looked down.
“Is this yours?”
I raised my eyes. Camilla was pointing at my water bottle. I nodded. From up close, I noticed that her hair was dirty and that she had a violet bruise on her neck, the shape of a jellyfish. She had an unlit cigarette in her right hand. She grabbed my bottle with her free hand and gulped like she was dying of thirst. Then she put it back next to me.
“Camilla!” Maria, our ballet teacher, joined us on stage. She was pregnant at the time, her belly round like a melon, bags under her eyes that were puffy and purple. “What are you doing?”
“Smoking.” Camilla talked to Maria as if they were equals, which surprised me, as I feared Maria more than anyone else. Maria took the cigarette from Camilla’s hand and broke it in two.
“You’re rehearsing.” She stared into Camilla’s eyes until she nodded, like a rebellious daughter annoyed by her mother. “Get ready now!” Then Maria noticed me, sitting at their feet: “Cecilia, after Camilla bothers to try her choreography, it’s your turn.”
Camilla and Alex danced like swans. She looked pale and weightless, while he touched her and lifted her. They ran away from each other and then jumped back into each other’s arms. I counted her pirouettes as her gown opened like a moonflower. Then I heard a snap, and Camilla fell. It was an audible pop; it echoed all over the stage. Alex stepped back, unsure of what to do. The music went on. Camilla was not crying.
“Fuck,” she screamed, panting.
Maria hurried on stage as I looked from behind the curtain. She knelt next to Camilla and caressed the back of her ankle.
“It’s the tendon,” Maria said, “I’m calling an ambulance.”
“No!” Camilla almost shouted and grabbed Maria’s arm. Her ankle was twisted, quickly swelling up. I wanted to go closer but I couldn’t.
“She’ll be fine.” I turned, and Alex was right behind me. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or not, but I could tell from his face that she wouldn’t be fine at all.
I straighten my back and grit my teeth. I can feel blood staining my pointe pads; I did not have time to place them properly on my toes.
“Smile!” Maria shouts to the entire class, yet it feels like she is addressing me only. I’m her favourite, but she hates me. She has been my teacher since I was three. Now, after thirteen years, nothing has changed. She still treats me as if she doesn’t understand that I have feelings. I suspect she doesn’t have any.
I complete the sequence of assemblés and échappés, my ballet shoes clacking against the polished wooden floor, my hand holding on to the barre. When the music stops, the smiles drop off every girl’s face at once. Maria takes the CD out of the player. We are all waiting for her response, our necks sweaty, our legs shaking with exhaustion. Once, she took the CD out and threw it on the floor, then started shouting at me, saying that I was “rude”, “stupid” and “unfit” for the class. Turns out I kept yawning before starting the choreography.
This time, Maria turns to us and says: “Class is over.” She never says “well done” or “good job” or anything like it, but, if she doesn’t complain or insult any of us, it means she’s satisfied. I’ve learnt that silence can also be a compliment.
We leave class dragging our feet, looking forward to getting rid of our uncomfortable tights. In the changing room, the radiators are not working. I take my bag and clothes and walk to the bathroom; I don’t feel like talking to anyone. Sara follows me. She is older than me, like everyone else in the class. This year, her acne is gone and her blonde hair has grown long and glossy. When she rehearses without tying it in a chignon, it swings and arches like a golden rainbow.
Sara sits on the cold floor of the bathroom and wipes her sweaty chest with toilet paper. She starts removing her shoes slowly, first the heels and then the toes, which have become glued to the pointe pads. I remove mine quickly; I’d rather feel the pain hitting me all together. I stuff the pointe pads in my bag, then I rapidly place my feet under the freezing water coming out of the sink. Sara does the same. Our feet look terrible, mine covered in blisters, hers missing a couple of nails.
“Ballet shoes are not for everyone,” Maria has always told us. When we were ten and got our first pairs of pointes, we all looked at them with excitement. The satin was shiny and the sole was hard; it smelled of leather. I used to put them on at home, and jump and spin around my mother’s grand piano, coming up with choreographies that I would then perform in front of my family.
After getting dressed, we walk back to the changing room through a narrow, poorly lit corridor, then to the entrance, where all the other girls are waiting for someone to pick them up. I walk past them, stuffing my hands inside the sleeves of my coat. I see the lights of the cars driving away from the parking lot, chasing one another until they fade into darkness. I look at the illuminated windows of the terraced houses and at the floating moon. The outlines of other passers-by seem ghosts under the lamp posts, and I am glad they cannot see my horrible feet.
Alex has come to class today for a new pas de deux assignment. I haven’t seen him in six years, since the day Camilla tore her tendon. Sara, whose mother is friends with Alex’s parents, says he passed the auditions for the ballet school at La Scala Theatre but then quit because he wanted to go to university to study psychology. He has changed: he has tattoos on both his hands, his skin is stretched on his muscles and a hint of beard has appeared on his chin. He is sitting on the floor next to Maria and watches us as we perform the choreography alone, one after the other. I see him out of the corner of my eye: sometimes he stares blankly, other times he checks us out in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.
Emma, our headmistress, paces back and forth in the room, clapping her hands to the rhythm and shouting “posture!” She is in her forties, her hands are rough and wrinkly, and her long black hair looks dry. Still, when she moves, only hinting at the steps of the dance with her graceful limbs, she seems younger than any of us.
Maria is quiet, as always when Emma is around. Earlier today, I heard them talking about the costumes we have to wear for the next recital. Emma suggested we paint our faces red, which did not sound like a good idea to me. I still remember the dance contest when we had blue paint on our cheeks and so much glitter on our eyelids that some got into my left eye. It started to ache and water right in the middle of our performance, and everyone thought I had become emotional.
After she has observed all of us carefully, Emma says: “Cecilia will dance with Alex.”
The other girls whisper in disappointment.
“Does anyone have a problem with that?” Maria asks. Anna, who is shorter than me and as skinny as a twig, speaks up: “The best choreographies are always assigned to the same people.” Last week she almost fainted. I think she doesn’t eat much anymore; she keeps swallowing weight loss pills before class.
“Like who?” Maria stands up, walks closer to her.
“Cecilia is the only one who did a solo.” Anna’s top is slick with sweat and sticks to her back.
“Cecilia remembers the steps of the choreography and doesn’t complain.”
Anna flushes, and I notice her hands are shaking. Emma takes me by the arm and turns to everyone else: “You can leave early today girls. Good job everyone.”
I remain alone with Emma, Maria and Alex. He stands up and stretches. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.
“This is not a pas de deux as you imagine it. It’s not too graceful, too perfect, too clean,” Emma says. I look at Alex’s tattoos and then at my pink bodysuit.
“I want this to start quietly. You smile, you touch each other gently. Then you let go. Can you do this Cecilia?”
“Yes,” I lie.
“Good. Then let’s just try one sequence before you go home. Alex’s running after you, he catches you. So you stand and your arms reach out… remember?” We both nod and get into position.
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
Alex runs after me, and his hands brush against my naked back. He takes me, and I raise my arms to the ceiling.
“Hold it!” says Emma, “Hold it Cecilia, you are a tree, a tree in the wind!”
I let my arms swing gently, and wonder what kind of tree I am.
“Your arms are branches, your hands are leaves!”
I feel Alex’s hands tight on my waist, his breath on my neck. I move my fingers and wrists, and tilt my head back, laying it on Alex’s shoulder. I decide that I am a weeping willow, like the one that grows in my grandmother’s garden, shading the daisies and cobblestones against the sun. Its branchlets turn yellow in autumn and look like a cascade of golden tears.
After class, Alex lights a cigarette outside, cupping his hand around the end. The tattoos on his hands are feathers, one for each finger. He has nice knuckles. I wonder if he remembers that I was there when Camilla got hurt. But that was a long time ago.
“Are you sad?” he asks me.
“Why would I be?” I remove the pins from my hair and let it loose on my back. He watches me as if we were intimate and not two strangers.
“Your friend hates you because you got the part.” He tilts his head a bit, his smile is cheeky.
“She’s not my friend.”
He laughs, ties his curly hair in a knot and walks away.
“See you tomorrow,” he says, without turning around.
Back home, I skip dinner and fill the bathtub with hot water and vanilla soap, as the smell of minestrone comes from downstairs. I undress slowly, my muscles tired and aching. I throw my clothes on the floor like waste paper. The water burns my skin but I slowly sink until I am completely immersed, my hair dancing around my face in slow motion. I close my eyes.
I hear a muffled knock on the door. When I re-emerge, my mum is folding my clothes, crouching on the bathroom floor. I rub the soap from my eyes and look at my toes that creep out of the suds, covered with plasters.
“How was class?” my mum asks.
“And this new guy Alex?”
“Better than you?”
My mum runs her fingers through my wet hair: “Should you practise more?”
“I already practise two hours every day. I also need to study.”
“But if you want to do the auditions for La Scala…”
The moonlight filters through the slats of the blind, striping her face. She takes my feet into her hands and rubs them gently.
“It’s my life not yours,” I say.
“Don’t talk to me like that.”
My mum wanted to be a ballerina but her family couldn’t afford to pay for her ballet classes. Once, I saw a photo of her dressed up in a light blue tutu, taking a bow in front of an invisible audience. The colours were faded and there was a blemish on the lower part of her face, so I couldn’t figure out whether she was smiling or not.
“I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”
“I’ll bring you something to eat.” She leaves the door slightly open, the light of the corridor illuminating the flowery tiles of the wall. I fall asleep in the cooling water, my head resting on the edge of the tub.
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
Alex and I rehearse two hours every day after my class with Maria. Emma supervises the choreography, sitting on a white plastic chair, swinging her head left and right to the rhythm. Alex does not seem to struggle with anything. I sweat too much, weigh too much, forget too much.
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
Some days Emma dances with Alex to show me what I do wrong. As they sway around the room in perfect harmony, they seem to hear each other’s thoughts, their steps echo in tune. I feel like an off-key note.
“We have to do this together, you know,” Alex says to me as we take a break, stretching at the barre. “It’s like finding a compromise.” I think that I’m not good at compromising but I nod.
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
My horoscope says: “It is important for you to keep at least one foot on the ground, as powerful emotions are likely to take over the scene.” As Alex lifts my body in the air, his hands on my thighs, my back arched backwards to form a right angle with my hips, I wonder if the “foot on the ground” thing is physical or metaphorical. I start liking our practise, our stretching breaks, the cigarette he smokes before we go back home, hungry and exhausted.
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
I learn that he is always a bit early with the tempo, that pirouettes are not his strength, but he jumps so high he seems to defy gravity. I learn that our bodies have a way of reading each other that slips beyond the things we tell – or fail to tell – each other. When my fingers brush against his shoulders I imagine I am opening windows, letting his light peek through the clouds.
When he runs after me, Emma repeats: “Cecilia is the direction you are going Alex! She is your path!”
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
Emma hasn’t come to class today because her daughter is sick, so we have to practise without her. I look at Alex and myself in the mirror, at how his tattoos jar with my pale skin, his hair band that barely holds his curls back with my perfect chignon. The floor is dusty and covered in signs left by my pointes. We try the choreography until the sunshine does not come through the windows anymore, and we are left with the feeble light that comes from the bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
“I’d better go home for dinner,” I say as I put on my oversized sweater. Alex nods.
“Do you want me to walk you?” He has never asked me that before.
“That’d be nice.”
He smiles, picks up his bag. I open the door and, as I am about to walk out, he closes it from behind me, covering my hand with his. He kisses me, and I taste mint and smoke and remember when, as a child, I was looking at him with Camilla, wanting to be like her. I am like her now but I’m not sure it is a good thing.
On Saturday Sara insists that we go to a house party thrown by a boy from Anna’s high school. I drink too much beer, the kitchen table is sticky, and the people keep jumping in the swimming pool with their clothes on.
I love you like a love song baby. Anna and Sara drag me to the centre of the living room to dance. I look at them and copy their moves; the rhythm is repetitive and shallow but it’s nice to let go. And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat. Anna takes my hand and makes me spin; she doesn’t seem to hate me now, she looks beautiful in her leather dress, her curls loose. A tall boy comes up to me, offers me a plastic cup filled with wine. I, I love you like a love song baby.
“That’s Marco, he’s from my school, go and talk to him,” Sara whispers in my ear and pushes me towards him.
“So you’re a dancer,” Marco smiles, a bit awkwardly. He is wearing a nice, ironed shirt. I take the cup from his hand and gulp down the wine.
“Yes, but what I should really have been is a singer. Everyone kept saying it for years.”
“Wow. Really?” He sips from his drink. He seems more confident now, enjoying the idea of me singing for him.
“No. That was a joke. No one has ever told me that.”
He stares at me, confused, then laughs out loud. Before he can say anything, I feel the weight of someone’s arm across my chest and I turn and see Alex, a cigarette between his full lips, a wrinkled blue shirt looking too big on him. The music grows louder and Alex carries me outside, leaving Marco and his ironed shirt empty handed. The street is quiet and still.
“Let’s go home,” Alex says. He drops his cigarette, and I watch it glowing and bursting into sparks as it hits the ground. He drives me home, in silence. Re-peat-peat-peat-peat. The screen of my phone illuminates with Sara’s message: “you okay? Why did you leave?” I type: “practise tomorrow,” and wonder why I keep doing this, going to ballet classes, spending most of my days with people I don’t really like. I come to the painful realisation that I don’t have an answer.
Alex kisses me goodnight in front of my door, then drives away. From outside, I see my parents’ faces lit up in front of the television screen. I unlock the front door with difficulty, then walk up the stairs to my room. I hear the soft steps of my father’s slippers following me from the living room. I jump on my bed and hide under the sheets, my alcohol smelling clothes still on. My father’s head pops in, accompanied by a gentle knock.
“How was the party?”
“Your mum is upset. The recital is in one week.”
“Tell her it’s fine.”
He nods. Doesn’t leave. It looks as if he is about to speak but then he closes my bedroom door behind him, and I am left alone in the dark.
I draw a big amount of brown eyeliner across Sara’s eyelids and smudge it with my fingertips, as we have run out of eye shadow. She is struggling to flatten her chest inside her bright red tutu.
“Can you stay still?” I ask.
“Why do I have big boobs?” she moans.
I spread some glitter on her cheeks and chest, then I fix my own headdress, whose orange and yellow feathers won’t stay in place. We are standing in a corner of the changing room, next to a harlequin costume that is hanging from the ceiling and keeps ticking our necks with its sleeves. The room is an explosion of colours, as girls and boys of every age walk around, trying to find space for their own bags and costumes, swearing whenever a hairpin falls and gets lost on the messy floor. Most of the older girls are stretching, leg warmers wrapped around their ankles and feet. The place smells of sweat and deodorant. The music that is playing upstairs, on the stage, is muffled by the buzzing that reigns backstage. Every now and then, the head of a ballet teacher pops in and tells us to lower our voices.
I crouch on the floor and close my eyes, focusing on the sound of Sara’s hands rifling through my make-up bag. I wonder where Alex is; he is late and I am meant to perform with him right after the dance with Sara and the other girls. I feel Sara’s fingertips finishing the touches of my winged eyeliner.
“You’re up next,” Maria’s voice comes from the stairs. I know she is talking to us, even before she walks down and repeats: “Cecilia, Sara you’re up next. Then I want Anna, Clara, Francesca, Paola! Quick!” She grasps Sara and me by the arms and drags us upstairs. We leave the changing room and enter the darkness of the stairs. We go past younger ballerinas who are already waiting in their yellow tutus, biting their nails. Emma’s husband is smoking by the door at the top of the stairs, keeping it open; the cold air makes me shudder and paranoid abut my muscles.
Maria speaks on my behalf: “Shut the door, Mario! Can’t you see they’re about to go on stage?” She keeps holding our arms, as if we weren’t able to walk by ourselves.
I stand behind the curtains with Sara, looking at the girls on the other side of the stage, as they twitch their hands and fix their shoulder straps and headdresses. Emma presents our choreography, a dance inspired by The Firebird with music by Igor Stravinsky. Then the audience applauds, and the lights go down.
My pointe shoes do not make any sound as I walk towards the centre of the stage with Sara, the other ballerinas spreading around us. I look up and smile; the light suddenly illuminates me, and the music starts playing. I stare at the upper part of the audience, where faces seem to melt into one another. My arms are wings, my fingers are light and long, my palms are speaking. When I jump near the curtains, I see Maria’s apprehensive face. She is counting to help us keep the rhythm. I finish the dance landing on my feet after an assemblè. The audience claps and shouts, I can see my mum’s proud face in the crowd; she is sitting in the front row.
We run backstage, and, in a second, a thousand hands are touching me, removing my tutu, working on my chignon and make up.
“She’s up next!” Maria says. Sound and light operators make room, pushing younger girls behind. Alex, already in his white costume, is stretching his neck with his eyes closed as if I wasn’t here. I stand half naked behind the curtains, trying to fit into my empire dress, as Maria wipes off my Firebird make up with a wet tissue. An assistant covers my cheeks in white foundation and my lips and cheekbones with red lipstick.
“The hair!” Maria removes the pins of my chignon, pulling the skin of my head. My eyes tear up but I have no time to recompose myself, as Maria pushes me towards the stage. I feel Alex’s hand into mine and I follow him.
There is only the two of us now, our bodies curved one on the other like two piled up spoons. We start dancing in the silence and our shoes echo on the floor, our breaths fill the air. We dance in circles, as if there was a revolving door between us, its glass never letting us touch each other. Then the music starts, his fingers grip mine, and I start doing my pirouettes. In a second, my neck paralyses. I lose my balance and fall; I feel Alex’s hands letting me go as I land on my ankle. A shooting pain makes me gasp. I try to stand up as gracefully as I can, but my leg cannot carry me and I fall again. I hear Maria’s whispers behind the curtains: “stop the music for fuck’s sake.” Silence, followed by Maria’s and Emma’s light steps on stage.
“I am sorry but we have to interrupt the recital, our ballerina has been injured, nothing serious, no need to worry.” Emma speaks into her microphone, and her words echo in the theatre. I raise my eyes and see the audience, all silent and staring back at me. One small figure detaches from the mass, the gracious silhouette of my mum, running towards the stage. She is wearing her best silk dress.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whisper, as Maria and Alex lift me up and carry me backstage.
Back in the darkness of the curtains, the cold pavement is like freezing water against my back. My mum and Alex remove my ballet shoes, exposing my damaged feet that I don’t want anyone to look at.
“You’ll be alright,” Alex tells me.
The parking lot is empty in the early morning light, except for Maria’s light blue beetle car. I know I can always find her here in the morning; she prepares the choreographies before the afternoon classes. From the window of the ground floor, I see her standing at the barre, stretching her arms. I limp inside with my crutches.
“You look better,” Maria says when she sees me. There is a freshness in her face that I have never noticed, maybe it is the summer air or her blonde hair, always messily tied up, now loose and brushed.
“Last week before I can put these crutches away,” I smile.
“When do you finish your physical therapy?”
“Two more months.”
“So you can only do the winter recital. That’s fine. You can catch up with the choreographies afterwards, maybe you can come here every day after lunch, we’ll work together.” She speaks hastily, as if she was eager to make things go back to the way they were as fast as she can.
“I’m not coming back here,” I blurt it out all at once.
“What did you say?”
“I’m not coming back to classes in September,” I repeat.
“I want to focus on school, then try to go abroad for university.”
Maria takes a strand of my hair and smoothes it with her nervous touch.
“Think about it. You still have time to change your mind.”
“Yes,” I say, but I know I won’t. “Thanks for everything you have done for me. I’ll come back and visit.”
Maria seems to struggle with words.
“You are one of our best dancers,” she says.
“You have been a great teacher. You pushed us to our limits.” I turn around, the wooden floor creaking under my crutches.
Her voice follows me: “Alex says you haven’t been replying to his calls.”
“Say sorry to him from me. I’ll see him around, I guess.”
About the author
Costanza Casati is a writer and screenwriter. After completing her Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick, she currently works as a freelancer journalist for the Canadian magazine HOLR and as a screenwriter for Erminio Perocco’s feature-length documentary about the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto. The first chapter of her historical novel has been published in Manifest: New Writing from Warwick and her short film Sguardi is available on Youtube.