Anyone who has ever taken ballet lessons remembers what it was like to strive in that beautiful art form. Here, from over a dozen years ago, was my first attempt to describe that agony and ecstasy.
“Dear Melba Cortez: “
I was seven years old when my parents enrolled me in your school. I was nine when we moved to the suburbs. It was then that I made my final (and finest) leap across the stage ...”
The Melba Cortez School of Dance nestled comfortably in an unremarkable office building in downtown Chicago. Although it must have had an elevator, I only remember a staircase that led from the ballet classes on the fourth floor, which I loved, to the tap dance studio on the fifth floor, which I hated. Tap was taught by a handsome, haggard middle- aged man who was not haggard until I got there.
I was not his favorite student.
When I and the other aspiring Princess Auroras were between classes, we sat on the steps in the stairwell landing. It had a window, always opened, that looked out on a rusty fire escape. The stairs, window, and fire escape hold as big a part of my memories as does Melba Cortez herself.
She was a stout, graceless woman, except when she was teaching us a new step, a new position, a new way to curve our arms or hold our hands. Then, even though she did not become less stout or more attractive, she somehow became a perfect conduit for “essence of dance.”
Melba Cortez, the polished wood floor of her studio, the tiny set of bleachers on which parents sat when they waited for their children, the wide windows overlooking Lake Michigan, the length of bars at which we practiced our extensions … all are part of my memories of the school. But none are as vivid as the dressing room, because only there were little girls like me allowed to intermingle with the older dancers – exotic creatures 14, 15, sometimes even 16 years old – who were tall and slim and who danced like angels.
They wore their hair pulled back into dramatic buns, and their passion, dedication, and love for their art made them as exquisitely diaphanous as a pastel pink fairytale dream.
I would devour them with my eyes.
They sat on benches opposite open lockers; their bodies casually balanced on one hip as they lifted an opposite leg and held out a delicate slipper to insert a foot.
That was when I first saw the battered toes on the feet of these luminous creatures.
The toes. Oh, the toes! Blistered. Calloused. Sometimes bleeding.
In contrast, my toes were perfect ... my level of commitment reflected by those dull pristine little stubs on my feet.
I envied the older dancers their battle scars. I was jealous of the bruises. Jealous of the blood.
Some of them would wrap their toes in pretty tufts of rabbit fur. But the girls who aspired to be professionals always tucked them into soft layers of lamb’s wool. They would slip on their point shoes, coil long silk ribbons around their insteps and ankles, stand, and walk to a small tray on the floor filled with crumpled chips of rosin. There they ground the tips of their shoes into the powdery substance – a delicious last step in the ritual that I so eagerly romanticized.
Yet even then I knew that I did not have the dexterity to be a ballerina. My arabesques wobbled. My leaps were unimpressive. My spins were cumbersome and slow.
But I loved the discipline. I loved the lyricism of turning one’s body into an art form. I loved the costumes. The music. The dedication. And, of course, the passionate drama of bleeding feet.
I did wonder over the years if Melba Cortez had once possessed a sylph-like body. If she had ever been ethereal enough to swoon into the arms of a handsome male dancer. I wondered if she had been born Matilda Krackower or Myra Greenberg but one day had stood in front of a mirror, clicked the heels of her ruby red slippers, and become Melba Cortez instead.
None of which matters because in the atmosphere of the school that she created, she accomplished what she had set out to do, and I learned what it takes to become a dancer.
“… And so, dear Melba Cortez, if, until now, no one ever has rung a bell to sing your praises, stop. Look. Listen. This afternoon, with my utmost sincere gratitude, that bell ‘tolls for thee’ alone.
“Former nine-year old.”
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com