Starting in level 1, we began getting evaluations each spring. They checked boxes to indicate our progress in four categories, and now I can’t remember the categories, but I remember that there were three levels: achieved, progressing, needs work. At the bottom, they listed our new level for the fall.
My first year of level 4, the evaluation envelope suddenly got thicker, and I tore it open to reveal a packet of papers. The four categories had morphed into twenty or thirty, with space for teacher comments on the side. Categories like: flexibility, musicality, footwork in petit allegro, cleanliness and consistency of turns, focus in class. Among the comments, most of which were about what needed to be fixed, one caught my eye: it said I had “such lovely, precise musicality.” I read that comment over and over, committed it to memory.
The same teacher who complimented my musicality recently told our class, while we were struggling with a difficult combination, that it didn’t mean we were bad dancers, we were just being lazy. We all laughed. She made us do the combination again.
During our lunch break, we stretch on the floor. We do crunches and see who can hold a plank for the longest. We run laps around the studio covered in layers of clothing to keep our muscles warm. We go over last week’s choreography. We change our pointe shoes three times to find the pair that makes our feet look best. When we realize there are only five minutes before rehearsal, we frantically eat our packed lunches: turkey sandwiches on whole grain bread (no mayo) and baby carrots, fat free greek yogurt with fruit, spinach salad.
Backstage, we lift up heavy skirts to fan our faces and tuck water bottles in corners. We carefully avoid the hot stage lights and press ourselves against the wall to avoid causing unnecessary traffic. While the curtain is still closed, we tiptoe on stage and practice the steps we messed up the night before until they’re perfect.
The audience files in, fanning themselves with their programs. They stare at the heavy black curtain. They’re completely oblivious to the chaos behind it, don’t see the dancers running up and down the steep stairs to the dressing room or linking their pinky fingers in a gesture of good luck. I’m not sure what they think happens backstage. Maybe they’re under the impression that it’s all perfectly choreographed too. The reality is, this is the step we mess up, no matter how many times we rehearse it: not tripping on the stairs, standing still as the curtain opens and closes.
John breathes in deeply, feeling his chest muscles expand. Blood rushes around his shoulder muscles. He feels good. He’s going home now and will be able to be there for a while because he was told something this morning that he never knew until then: he’s non-essential.