Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sweet Irony, Continued

Part II

When I started college, I had given up dance, moving on I told myself, on to the next thing, another step into adulthood, leaving childish things behind me. I planned a schedule of classes, intermediate French, anthropology and logic, European Civilization. I lived a blissful month of freedom, wandering from class to class, kissing boys in dimly-lit dorm rooms, pale boys with skinny bodies, our mingled breath stale from late nights and Camel cigarettes, their long-fingered hands creeping along my legs in awe. One boy liked to sit in fetishistic wonder, my calves cupped in his sweaty palms. Even other girls remarked upon my legs, not with jealousy, but a placid envy. I tried to explain my time as a dancer, but the revelation of such serious pain was indelicate, out of place in the playhouse of college life.

I auditioned for the college dance company out of curiosity, the way a reformed alcoholic might have a drink six months into recovery, just to see if they have shaken the craving. I pulled a gray leotard from the back of a drawer, a lone pair of black tights with the feet cut out, a secret stash for just such a case, an undefended fall into addiction. Passing through the agitated herd of girls in the hallway, more self-possessed than I knew, I settled onto a cold patch of tile and assumed the position, flat on my back, legs opening out against the wall, wide and wider.

I am not without presence. Maybe it is my posture, staked out from years of dance classes, or maybe the way my cheekbones cut out sharp under my eyes courtesy of a Cherokee great-grandmother. My husband says it is the confidence conveyed by someone who knows she is always the best looking woman in a room. But this is not true. A photograph will show you that I am a sallow-skinned person of indeterminate ancestry who ought to have had a nose job ages ago. But presence, like talent, is impossible to account for. At eighteen, I may have had no real talent for ballet but I was pretty and extremely thin and my whole body hung from Granny Suni’s cheekbones like a beautiful dress you think will last a lifetime.

When the audition moved to center work I finished the adagio with my feet tucked into a tight and nearly perfect fifth, my stomach flat, shoulders relaxed, all at attention. My arms hung down in an illustrative curvature of limbs and my chin was turned just that fraction from the front required in the Russian method. The woman in charge of the repertory company came up close to me and ran her fingertips around the line of my hips, inspecting, fingers trickling up the trunk of my body, then skipped past my breasts and floated up to my face.

“Gorgeous,” she said, and stood back.

“This,” she announced to the class at large, now eyeing me with envious nonchalance, “this is the ideal of what a dancer should be, the perfect dancer’s body.”

Ah, I thought; a-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

And so I was briefly a star. It lasted only a moment, till the woman asked if I danced on pointe. I was happy to say no and even to watch myself disappear from her view, my gray-clad body evaporating like smoke in her clear blue eyes. Still there had been time enough in the spotlight for two boys at the audition to conceive ill-advised passions for me and for the guest choreographer to take note and choose me for her group. Later she would tell me I had reminded her of a Twyla Tharp dancer, a comment designed to flatter and entrance, and really referring only to my long curly hair, and not my ability. I joined Ren’s small army of modern dance, an elect group devoted to covert operations, and gave up cigarettes and all my free time for long hours in florescent-lit studios, trading in my vintage tuxedo jacket and ripped jeans for sweatpants, tights and jazz shoes.

I was an enthusiastic recruit. I would practice difficult moves in the dormitory hallways, one in particular causing me the most trouble. You had to walk backward and fall to the ground, rolling till you flipped over one shoulder and flowed down along your cheststomachpelvisthighsshins, smooth against the floor. I inevitably flopped like a fish, knocking the breath from my body, but would go on and on, little bruises coming out along my ribs like tiny blue ribbons. I jumped off pianos into the outstretched arms of fellow dancers, turned cartwheels, was carried shoulder-high and flipped head over heels like a dim instrument of fate.

I took at least two dance classes a day and there were rehearsals every evening, but there were also my regular classes to attend. One was a french class with an ex-military linguist who was testing a new way of teaching foreign languages and called us all, a room of big-haired southern girls, by our last names, except for me, whom he referred to as “Princess.” Western Civ was led by a man who was rumored to have been a member of Hitler’s Youth when he was a child in Germany. Boys called me cold out of the freshmen year facebook, wanting dates. I stayed out late walking, while the weather turned, the trees lost their leaves and the clear evening sky shone through bare branches like a painting by Rousseau come to life. And I ate every day, pancakes for breakfast, chicken salad sandwiches with extra mayonnaise, chocolate-covered pretzels, baked potatoes with cheese and sour cream, and not an ounce accumulated on my well-exercised frame.

Bliss like that can never last.

A roommate became difficult and one of the girls I danced with, who lived just off campus, invited me to stay with her until housing could find another place for me. I welcomed the extra freedom, the view from Angie’s apartment out over the old college quad, even the long walk in the mornings to class. We were deep into rehearsal for the winter program and Ren had given me a special part in our dance, a sort of lead. All three sections of the piece were danced to Rolling Stones songs from Some Girls, the dances themselves full of jazzy modern movements, mixed with group lifts, handstands and the bone- jarring fish-flip. I was the Girl with the Faraway Eyes.

Ren had decided early on, perhaps because of my age, that I was to be treated as the adorable dumb baby of the group. She called me Scruffy, a pet’s name, and petted and popped me like any young mutt. She gave me a button to wear that said “Shut up and dance.” But she did think I could dance and for that I was willing to forgive almost anything. As the Girl with the Faraway Eyes, I moved in and out of step with the other dancers, half-time, double-time, rushing ahead, rushing to keep up. At the end of the dance I was lifted up and carted about like a pig on a platter, complete with apple stuffed in my mouth, and then left alone center stage, Eve taking a bite from the bitter fruit of knowledge and tossing it to the first male I could find in the front row.

All this time I was also writing. I wrote poems with anthemic endings and awkward plain prose dismissive of artifice and I think I may have been the only freshman on campus who knew where to find the fiction shelves in the library. A story I read then has stayed with me for all this time, probably because I felt rather a kinship with the unspeaking part of the young boxer in the tale, a young boxer who had been bred with his brains in his ass in order to withstand maximum impact with minimal damage. My brains might as well have been in my ass for all anyone around me cared what I might think. Not for the first time in my life, I felt constrained by my body, held back, but not for the usual reasons, not the poor turnout, not the stiff hips. I was powerful only in silence, unheeded unless in motion, trapped by a pleasing appearance. I might as well have been a blonde.

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