When I was little my mother still believed that we'd move back to New Orleans and my sister and I would go to Cotillion and take turns being queen of her Mardi Gras krewe. She taught us to behave as if we still lived in that tiny sliver of New Orleans society. Our manners were frighteningly perfect. We knew which fork, knife, spoon and funny shaped doodad to use for every moment of a seven course meal we'd never had. We stood out in Ohio like little Lady Fauntleroys, causing mirth and derision with our straight posture and little white gloves. My dad's family cringed when we visited, having now to put napkins in laps and abandon barehanded eating. It wasn't enough for them that my mom towered above them, at 5'9" -- but she sewed her own knockoffs of designer dresses, first Christian Dior wasp waists, then Halston's Jackie look, and wore them to the farm on Sundays. She thought she was showing respect. They didn't take it the right way at all.
She scoured the Cincinnati area to find a ballet teacher who had the right resume. Ours had been the dance mistress for the Cincinnati Ballet and Miss D often sent pupils to local ballet groups for auditions. I was probably about 11, slender and not gawky enough that you couldn't hide it with makeup and a lot of rehearsal time. Miss D. liked the way I was shaping up, rounding my arms into a tidy oval in fifth position. My biggest flaw was a tendency to grimace in self absorption when performing a series of steps. That and a not so secret detestation of barre exercises. Mom got to the point where she was bribing us with a trip to McDonald's for dinner after class, something her French soul rebelled against I'm sure.
I don't know how my sister and I ended up in a performance of Coppelia with a university dance troupe, but it happened. Ms. D. told us very little, perhaps to keep from making us too nervous, but this wasn't our usual dance review and we all knew it. The role was fairly simple. During the night, the toymaker's shop comes to life, and we were godknowswhat-- little Scotch dolls in red tartan topped tutus and tams. Finally, instead of boring me, ballet was fun. It had a purpose. I learned the piece, I smiled involuntarily when we practiced it. I wanted to be that little Scotch doll finally free of its wooden limbs.
Miss D noticed, and gave me a tiny bit of solo work to do. I would be the doll whose mechanism sprang loose when daylight put the other dolls into a coma. I could pirouette across our segment of the stage and flop down like a rag at the end of the piece. I loved it. Not only could I have a solo, but I could make people laugh. It meant that Miss D. understood me and I would never let go of that feeling.
We rehearsed on the stage the day before, to make sure we all had our marks and timing right. I could see all the empty chairs rising in front of us like an impending wave. Tomorrow the seats would be full. We could put on makeup. We could share the stage with the beautiful Coppelia. Whom I would never be as big or as glamorous as. I didn't mind. I had the only solo of all the students.
It came off better than I thought. I kept waiting to be scared but I wasn't. I should have been shy-- wasn't I always shy? I hesitated to look at the imposing wall of chairs filled with judging faces, as the curtain came up, but they'd disappeared. The stage lights had canceled out the audience. I could pretend we were all alone up there. I can still remember my sister and our classmates watching each other to help keep time as we went through the routine, and then a little explosion of fireworks in my soul as the music drew up on my part and I broke away, keeping my eyes on the invisible audience as my body spun 360s past my collapsed cohort, then the dramatic flop, my legs flying up into the air, tutu over teakettle. And the shock of laughter and applause from the darkness. I lay there on my back and laughed till tears came. It worked. I no longer had to be perfect, as long as I could be funny.
The next year I grew too tall to be in a corps de ballet, and not long after that, my dad had his first heart attack, and mom couldn't afford to send us to ballet classes any more. My mother cried when she realized that now we'd never go back to New Orleans, and my sisters and I would never be presented to society.
The irony that I had learned to love ballet just in time to lose it did not escape me, but what could I do? I was changing diapers for the new baby sister while mom drove back and forth to the hospital to visit dad. It was time to grow up, whatever that meant. For all of us.