To Learn Technique
This piece was selected as the winner of Olde Wolf's monthly writing competition.
A toenail clipping stabs my calf through my tights. Bend my knee, brush it off. I sit on the purple-brown carpet, stretching out my limbs, pushing just to the point of pain. In the corner, I watch another girl eat spoonfuls of peanut butter. She alternates. Nibble of peanut butter. Ibuprofen. Peanut butter. Ibuprofen. Until she’s taken four pills and two full tablespoons. Any more would be sacrilege. But she could get away with it. I can’t. I’d finally achieved it – getting myself small. Enough to look in the mirror and convince myself that the line I created was beautiful. In second grade, I remember sitting in music class, tapping out rhythms with sticks. My legs folded funny when I sat atop my heels like that. I didn’t like it. I don’t know why. So I shifted to criss-cross applesauce. Better. Pops resound up my spine as I twist, pushing against my knee. Other side. Now butterfly. If I could sit, with my hips open like this forever maybe, just maybe, I can make my hip sockets change. “Could you stretch my feet?” I ask peanut butter girl. She smiles and nods. She is the best. Her hands wrap around my arches, pulling them before applying all of her weight. At home, the couch substitutes, hovering above its indent in the carpet, suspended by my feet. Bad feet, low arches, I thought if I held the couch up for hours I could change those too. There is so much to do. My foot pops. That’s why she is the best. “Thank you.” “Mhm.” The door opens, a little girl shuffles in, shrinking in on herself. Her tights are splotchy, wet, ruining the illusion. She hurries to the corner, but someone’s in the stall. She’ll wait, avoiding our gaze. But we don’t look. She’s not the first – not even the first this month. When you tell little girls no you should’ve gone before class, they’re afraid to ask, they will fight their bodies, will it to wait! wait! Only one more combination. But it’s allegro and they weren’t jumping high enough, they had to do it over and over and it was too much, her body fought back and she didn’t listen to it because it was not the authority. The door opens. The rest of the little girls walk in, collapsing on the ground catching their breath. An agreement already stands to avoid the subject at hand. They all survived, and that was enough for them. Grabbing my pointe shoes, the bag with my putrid toe pads, I enter last. Most of the time, I prefer last. My empty mind focuses on the movement, forgetting the combination too. But everyone stops. Stalling in the corner, adjusting their slippers. Taking off a warm-up shrug. The girl who stretched my feet is the only one in front of me. She turns, panic on her face. Last class, she was berated to the point of humiliation, forced to perform the piece alone. After she asked us one by one what she did wrong. I went first. The front of the barre is stressful. You have to remember. But it’s freeing too. You’re alone if you forget enough, moving your arms through empty air, reaching, so long you can almost touch heaven. “Hailey, feet.” I thought I’d stretched them enough. I try to point harder. As she approaches, the heat proactively finds my face. “More.”
I point harder. “Stretch her feet.” I turn around and hurry into a sitting position. She stretches my feet again, pushing so hard that they should’ve broken. “Thank you,” I whisper. We both stand and finish the combination with the rest of the class. She approaches again. I had done everything I could. I stretched, I fought my body, I quit everything else that meant anything in my life, I’d drop out of school if I could. Her breath mixes with the four-four tempo, I can feel her eyes on my skin, studying, calculating, piercing through each limb, pinning me to the barre. “Long neck.” I lengthen my neck. I tilt my head with each tendu, I point until my foot cramps, I pinch the muscle under my tricep so the skin can’t move. Once when I was younger, she’d told me that I was smart, but I wasn’t very good. That I might never be very good because of the way God made me. I was angry with God for so long. “Good.” Good. She terrified me, made me want to be small, to crawl into a jagged crevice to change, to break my feet every night, to go back to the beginning before anything and plead with God to use a different mold. She made me miserable sometimes. But I wanted to make her proud. She helped me do something beautiful. And I loved her for that. I still do.