by Alison Stine
Pointe shoes, the wood-enforced slippers that allow ballet dancers to stand up on their toes, are dirty, hard, painful and ridiculous—and for several years, they were all I wanted for Christmas. The bright pink satin of the shoe is a shell. It conceals a hard wooden end called the box, squared off into a platform and molded with cardboard. New, the soles of pointe shoes are unyielding; we had to break their backs by bending them again and again with our hands like cracking open glow sticks or shaping the bill of a hat or the palm of a baseball glove. Some dancers held their shoes over boiling water, to steam them into shape. The long pink laces, called bindings, were tied so tight they cut into our flesh.
Traditionally, a dancer’s foot was cushioned from the wooden box of the toe shoe by only a thin layer of lamb’s wool. But by the time I was dancing en pointe in the mid 1990’s, gel cushions were starting to come on the market: squishy, synthetic cushions of polymer. The cushions were supposed to feel softer than wool, and unlike the tacky, spreading wool, you could reuse them. Still, I peeled my tights away from my toes every night. The tights were red on the ends, sticky with blood. It never got old and I never got used to it, wincing every time I slipped off my shoes, wondering what horror would I unveil this time? What shade of crimson and blue were my toes? What splatter would be imprinted onto the scrim of my tights like a pressed flower in the journal of some other kind of girl? I threw away a pair of tights each practice. Smarter dancers cut off the feet of their tights—but then those girls bled into their shoes.
Like many little girls, I started dancing at age three or four. In classes of wiggling tots, we wore tutus shaped like bumblebees, could never manage to form a straight line or pliè at the same time. In pictures of our recitals, I always have my mouth open; when the music began, I thought I was supposed to sing along.
My family moved to a different town and the lessons ended. I discovered boys and horses. Something led me to return to dancing a decade or so later, and I can’t say for certain what it was. Maybe an idea of beauty. Maybe an idea of control. I was thirteen, and had nearly reached my adult height of 5’8”—but weighed less than a hundred pounds. I felt like an ironing board, walking around my junior high school. I didn’t know what to do with my hands and feet. At the mall, I could never find shoes big enough. Why did I return to dance? Like most girls, I guess, I just wanted to be lovely.
I started again with lessons, this time at the community arts school where I already studied voice once a week and did the occasional theatre production, where I scrubbed tables and mopped floors on the weekends for a discount. Lessons led to auditioning for a new dance company the school was forming. I was cast in the junior company. Because I had spent a few years away from dancing, I was behind. Most of the girls in the group were younger than me: ten or twelve. I towered above them, a tree surrounded by low, pink flowers. In recital photographs from this time, I am almost always positioned in the center, perhaps mirroring our choreography, so that I don’t stick out too much among my smaller and more nimble dance mates. I look like a weeping willow—that’s the tree I resemble—my gauzy layered skirt, my long arms hanging down. We’re all flat-chested, smooth as trunks. In that way, I fit in.
I remember when the ballet company’s artistic director, an energetic brunette named Ann with long, girlish hair she wore down, a smattering of freckles on her nose, and a way of snapping her fingers to direct our attention, called a group of seven or eight of us out of the practice studio and into a conference room down the hall. We clustered by the door, nervous and energetic, none of us sitting. Ann announced she was forming us into a special class. She was putting in toe shoes. We were going to be en pointe. We all nodded, emotionless, professional and serene. She dismissed us with a snap and wave, and back into the hall we went. In the hallway, order broke down. We cheered, screamed. I remembered collapsing into the wall, my arms around another (smaller) girl. We were both weeping with joy.
Why were we so thrilled, so excited about pain? Bloody, joint-crushing, bone-deforming pain? We believed it meant something. We believed it was a sign of confidence, a declaration: We were ready. Our bones were strong. Our feet were turned out. We could hold positions. We were going to stand tall and solid and spin and leap and defy gravity and freeze time. And be beautiful.
What is it about being en pointe, about being the tallest one on the stage? For me, both as a performer and an audience member, it is about expectation. The ballerina stands tall, stands straight, then pop. With a push of her muscles, a punch of her tendons, a flick of her ankles and a slide of her legs, she is taller still. She is taller than her body. That was it; I wanted to be taller than my body, to defy the laws my bones and muscles, nutrition, genetics and just plain luck had set out for me. I would choose my own height now. There is something defiant about a ballerina dancing en pointe, terrifying, blasphemous. Tiptoeing across the stage, it looks as if she is walking on water.
Rehearsals for our pointe class felt a cross between therapy and health instruction. We spent much of our time sitting cross-legged on the springy floor of the studio, our shoes in our laps like dolls. Tenderly, we touched them. Ann spent much of her time teaching us how to care for our pointe shoes, how to break them in, how to tend to our sore and bloody feet. The end of class was always punctuated by winces, loud intakes of breath, air sucked through teeth, as we peeled away the sticky wool to see the damage of the day.
I only remember one performance of the junior company: the first one. We were doing a show at a high school a few towns away. The auditorium was dark—and the stage was hard, concrete, which was painful even on flat fleet. En pointe, it could be murder. The stage floor felt slick and cruel beneath our toes. “You need to be careful, girls,” Ann warned us. “Use good judgment.” Then the spotlights clicked on. We danced our piece, an excerpt from something; we never did whole ballets. Midway through the choreography came the shift to pointe. It was a dramatic reveal. We stood in a line, facing the side of the stage, our profiles to the audience, and one by one we turned out of the line, lifting ourselves up onto our toe shoes, onto pointe, as we spun like fingers unfurling from a palm.
I don’t remember who the first girl in line was: the best in the class. Not me. She made the decision. She was the first to spin out and do it. The hardness of the stage and its slipperiness and the spotlight—she only rose halfway, standing and turning on the balls of the feet, demi pointe it is called, the foot arched but the toes flat on the floor, not vertical, not en pointe. She half rose, and then was gone away into the next move. The next girl in line did the same. Then the next, then the next. I was one of the last in line, due to ascending height or descending ability, I’m not sure. And I remember thinking, watching those feet in front of me not rise, and not rise, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do the choreography. I’m going to go en pointe.
My moment came and went and I didn’t. I spun on the balls of my feet like everyone else. No one fell. We finished the piece, panting, though not in a visible way. In ballet, they must never seen you breathe.
“It’s the first time on our toe shoes,” Ann said into the microphone, to the crowd after the applause, introducing the company like a comedian apologizing for his act.
There must have been others, times we actually did it, performed en pointe—though I only remember one more: Wearing a knee-length, tulip-shaped skirt, stiff with layers, and a crown of dried flowers, I dance on a soft wooden stage. The stage is yielding, pliant. It feels fine under my toes, against my hard shoes (I’m wearing, somewhat unprofessionally, canvas practice covers over the gleaming pink satin of my shoes, so as not to ruin them). The black paint of the stage doesn’t rub off on my shoes, as I feared. But the stage is hollow, and every time I lift up en pointe, there’s an answering clunk somewhere below me, the dry thud of wood striking wood.
In another year or two, I joined the adult dance company, which was not actually made up of adults, but teenagers a little older than me—seventeen, eighteen. Ann got married to her partner in many a pas de deux, a dashing dark-haired man who looked like a Disney prince. As a day job, he worked for his father’s fastener company. “He sells screws,” Ann would say.
It rained on her wedding day. Soon she was pregnant. She danced and taught all through the pregnancy, wearing her leotards, still performing every turn, every stretch, every arch, every bend. I remember her leaping, vaulting into the air, extending across the room in a jump called a jetè. She was six or more months pregnant at the time. Her gauzy black dance skirt fluttered out behind her, her arms were thrown wide, belly high and round. “That baby’s going to be born with toe shoes on,” one of the stagehands at the arts school joked. Ann gave birth to a boy.
At sixteen, I auditioned for another ballet company for their yearly production of The Nutcracker. We didn’t do whole ballets at the arts school. We did recitals, and I wanted a story. I wanted a role. The Nutcracker was being performed by the ballet company then known as Opus, which had the reputation of being the most professional dance group in North Central Ohio. Many Opus dancers had gone onto professional careers. They were all lean, the dancers: hardened and serious. They smacked their pointe shoes against the floor to soften them, smoked outside while leaning against brick walls. Opus was founded and directed by a woman named Hellie, a whip-thin, raven-haired dancer in her forties. She terrified me. She was kind, as kind on the surface as Ann had been, but her kindness was like the red gloss coating of a candy apple, sweetness that breaks teeth, sweetness that shatters. It seemed to conceal something other.
I’m not sure who I thought I was kidding by auditioning. An outsider, an interloper and an amateur, I would not dance in The Nutcracker in any real way. All the major roles—Clara, the Nutcracker Prince, the Sugarplum Fairy, Arabian—went to Opus dancers, many of them already cast before the open auditions had even begun. I was cast in a minor, nameless capacity; I was Adult Party Guest, though I was not yet sixteen. I danced in only one scene, the “Nutcracker Party” in the beginning of Act One when Uncle Drosselmeier gives Clara her Nutcracker doll, soon to be broken by a boy. Fellow party guests included: moms of the ballerinas; my friend Tia’s dad, who was an astrophysicist in his fifties; and my high school friend Lauren who had never danced before. I remember being disappointed in my costume, a long velvet dress which stretched to my ankles and precluded the chance for any real dancing, which was not in the choreography. I was disappointed in the choreography, which resembled a sedate minuet. I was disappointed in my shoes, which were definitely not toe shoes. At least I was not disappointed in my dancing partner, a cheerfully talented high school boy named Sunny with foppish hair and a way of sliding down the banisters in the theatre and smiling at Hellie to get away with it.
I was also disappointed in myself. Wasn’t I supposed to do better? What was I training for? But I was never going to be a dancer. I learned that in the winter.
Once in The Nutcracker, I was watching from the wings, the thick black curtains shielding the backstage from the stage. I can remember exactly what I was thinking: How beautiful the dancers were, how lithe, how perfect. It was like their bodies were knives, cutting through everything, so precise, slicing through the choreography, exact in every turn. It wasn’t true, of course. The ballet dancers seemed unearthly to me: ethereal, perfect and lithe. That wasn’t true, either. Offstage, I watched them smoke and drink, cuss, make out, fight, make up, bruise, bleed, shove each other against the stairs. I pretended not to be shocked the first time I had left rehearsal and seen the line of dancers against the brick wall outside, smoking in the cold—some of them still in their tutus. Their eyes were hard as they flicked ash.
It wasn’t true, either, that The Nutcracker was pristine, a white world of snow. The snow that fell onstage was very expensive, a glittery hard plastic cut in flakes, made to catch the lights, made to glisten just so. Once I remember gasping when I realized a ballerina onstage was in tears; the dance had moved her that much! But no. One of the damn snowflakes had fallen into her eye and scratched her contact lens.
The snow was expensive; it was re-used. Each night the stagehands swept up the great, glittering mass of it, and dumped it into bins to be hauled back into the wings and sprinkled down again, like a ticker tape parade. The stagehands swept up dust too, and dirt and whatever else was on the stage along with the snow, and dumped all that back into the bins. Which is how, one night, I saw a wire coat hanger fall from the sky, clip a ballerina on the arm and tumble, clattering, to the ground.
But still, I was thinking how lovely, how perfect when the line of demi-soloists rushed off stage, their pale tutus bobbing like lamb’s tails. As soon as they got to the wings, one of the dancers collapsed into the arms of the stagehand closest to me. She began to scream.
“Get her outta here! Get her outta her!” another stagehand said. She was screaming so loud—loud enough to be heard by the audience. I was part of the group, swept away in the group, that lifted her, carried her around the corner and into a dressing room. It was stagehands and me; all the other dancers had disappeared. They had just been dancing close in a linked, pink row, their arms held together at the elbows, their legs kicking out: stylized, mechanized. One dancer had kicked too close, swung her leg out too far. She had struck another dancer, the one who cried in our arms, hit her in the stomach with her hard pointe toes.
Years and years after I had stopped dancing, I had forgotten what it felt like: the pain, and how I grew used to the pain. Then hurrying up a set of library stairs one afternoon, I tripped and fell up. My foot, in a soft moccasin, slammed against a concrete step. I caught myself, skinning my hand as I fell. I tried to stand up demurely and walk it off, hoping no one had seen. In the library bathroom, I took off my shoe: Blood in the toe. This was familiar. I had broken the toenail off my big toe in a low, jagged tear.
In the next few days the pain would become recognizable. Pain of the low, torn nail. Pain of the toe pushed into concrete. Pain like a bamboo shoot shoved into the nail bed. After the first day, I was able to name the pain, to remember where I had felt it before: dancing. This was the pain of dancing en pointe. This was the raw, stunned, shocked-dull pain I had walked around with for years.
I am sure eventually my feet will pay the price of a few years standing on top of the world, of being the tallest person on stage. I’ve seen an x-ray of feet standing en pointe, the curved and concentrating bones. My toes have a funny shape, so much so that I have long been embarrassed to wear sandals. There are little bumps on each joint of my toes, the bones swollen, malformed beneath the skin. There’s a callous on the top of my left big toe that will not go away, the skin dark and rough. My toes no longer look straight, but long and knobby, like vanilla beans.
At least none of my toenails fell off completely.
“What did you do?” I asked a friend, a former ballerina, whose little toenail had fallen off, thanks to pointe shoes.
She shrugged. “Painted my toenails. Painted a little spot there on the skin, to pretend like I still had a nail.”
The dancer in The Nutcracker had been hit hard. They took her off. They hurried her away so her screams could not be heard from the stage. Someone called someone: an ambulance or a doctor or a friend. Someone ruined her costume by ripping it off and cut away her tights and found the bruises on her belly, the bleeding. But that was far away, in another world, far from the audience who sat back in red velvet seats and smiled and watched it snow.
I got hurt during The Nutcracker too, though not during a performance. Before class one afternoon at the arts school company, I was standing at the barre. I wasn’t doing anything, not practicing or dancing at all. Maybe I was talking to the girl next to me. Maybe I was twisting my hair around my hand. My leg collapsed. It simply folded, went out from under me. I fell, as if through a trap door, as if down a magical portal. My leg fell—not down, but in half. The two parts of my left leg split, and I could not figure out what was happening, how or why I was breaking.
It was my knee. I had dislocated my knee, and the bottom half of my leg flopped, boneless, useless. I remember thinking it looked like jelly, this thing that had just been my leg. Girls were screaming. Ann couldn’t figure out what had happened, but she said we had to get my leg back together again. Another dancer grabbed my hand. She was a year younger than me in school, was popular, dating a football player. Other girls said she had maybe been a model. She had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. She had taught us all to slick the ends of the ribbons of our toe shoes with clear nail polish to keep them from fraying. Now, she held my hand while our teacher pushed the lower part of my leg back into the joint.
“Look at me,” the blue-eyed girl said. I can’t remember her name—only that she said she had been with her mother through labor with a sibling. Only that she got me through this.
A father, waiting for his daughter to get out of practice, a father who had the misfortune of being large and strong and there, was called in to carry me to my mother’s car. We drove straight to the emergency room because my teeth were chattering. I was sent home in a wheelchair, then hobbled around on crutches and went to physical therapy for months. I could not dance. I had to drop out of The Nutcracker, the first and only time I ever had to leave a show. The cast sent me a Christmas card, signed by everybody: Hellie, Sunny. I forget who took my part, one of the stars probably, slumming, because she could learn the moves.
Still, every day I made my mom drop me off at the arts school because I wanted to be present at the company class. I sat through it, my leg, puffy in its padded brace, sticking out before me, propped up like a battering ram. “She’s a trooper,” Ann said, patting my back.
We couldn’t understand the injury. My legs were strong. Only the week before Ann had asked me to come to a beginner’s class and do a few jumps so that the dancers could study my legs. I was proud of my muscles, watching them work in the mirror. Below the pink transparent skim of my tights, they looked like gears of blood and skin. I would never have such muscles again.
The orthopedic specialist said it was a common injury, especially for teenage girls: The patella, or kneecap, had slipped. It was loose, had always been a little loose, and dancing, especially dancing en pointe, the stress that toe shoes place on the joints, would just make it looser and looser. Years later, the injury makes more sense, thanks to the insight of a nutritionist friend: I was a vegetarian at the time of my injury and eating poorly (my idea of vegetarianism was cauliflower and bread). My slipshod nutrition had weakened my bones, especially the joints.
My knee became the reason I would never pass the physical exam, part of every dance audition, at the Julliard School—if I had ever applied to Julliard, which until my injury, I had thought I might. I had wanted to. I had wanted to keep going, keep standing tall, keep up the illusion of water-walking, though I was not actually good enough for those dreams. I was not good enough to dance professionally. I was not good enough to major in dance, to be accepted into a dance program. I was not even good enough for a larger role in The Nutcracker—but the want was so strong. It pulsed in me. I fed on it. I pretended that it was only my knee, my newly-bum knee, that held me back, but in reality, it was me. I held me back, what I could and couldn’t do, the talent that was and wasn’t in me, my limits. I could push so far and no further. I could go so long and then stop.
Perhaps this giving up, this ending, is easy to understand. The specialist said I would have to have surgeries on first one, and then the other knee. It was inevitable. Or I could rest. And give up dancing.
Did surgery scare me more than a dream ending? Or was this when I realized that I was not right? My body was not right, would never be, though I had the height, the thin willowy frame, the long arms and legs and feet. The prima ballerina Anna Pavlova had large hands and feet, the owner told me when I had gone with my father to the dance store several towns away to pick up my first pair of pointe shoes. I was informed that my size ten feet were too big; the store would have to special order the toe shoes. “Maybe it’s time to give up this dance thing,” my father said and I burst into hot, embarrassed tears. The storeowner put her arm around me, told me about Pavlova, told me, “all the prima ballerinas have big feet. Those dancers are always long, like you.”
But not creaky, like me. Not loose-kneed, like me. Not slippery-boned, like me. Is that you? I would hear from friends as we descended stairs together; the crunch of the bones in my knees was audible.
“Don’t you miss it?” I used to ask my friend, Shara. Shara and I met in graduate school for English, but she had had an earlier life as a ballerina, majoring in dance in college, dancing professionally. I asked her the question more than once, thinking that maybe her answer would change, that she would say more, reveal longing or loss, but she never did. She would always shake her head and say without smiling, “No.” And when I asked her why, she would say, “Because I know I can never be as good as I was before. I can never be what I was again.”
The answer was so quick, so firm, and delivered so convincingly, it occurred to me she had practiced it. She had been asked this question many times—not just by me. She had needed to have an answer ready.
“Don’t you miss it?” I was asked by friends when I was home from college, and we had gone out to eat, probably to Denny’s for brunch. “Don’t you miss performing?” I told them how busy I was with my classes, my writing. I told them giving poetry readings was like performing—but it wasn’t.
I don’t think I did miss it then. I don’t think the reality of what I gave up would hit me for a long time—until I moved to New York, not for performing, but for love, to marry a New Yorker. Until I worked in the city, not as a dancer, but as a teacher. Until I walked down Broadway, not to get to a show or a stage door, but because it was a quick shortcut to the cheap eats of Hell’s Kitchen.
Broadway was deserted certain times of the day: well before curtain or at night after the shows had started. The street seemed always be to wet, as if it had just finished raining, just on that street. I remember steam coming out of the gutters. I remember cobblestones, though of course this is not true. Perhaps I’m just thinking of the rough, broken asphalt, the pebbles that collected there. I remember once walking down Broadway to find a cluster of people blocking the sidewalk, clogging a stage door. “They’re waiting for someone,” my husband said.
“Who?” I asked.
Someone in the crowed turned around and cried. “Harry Potter!”
Perhaps I realized I missed performing when I didn’t feel excitement then, or even mild interest. I felt annoyed. These people—this film star—were blocking my way.
One of my New York friends had done community theatre when he was a child, and we used to walk around Hell’s Kitchen together, eating things. He was a high school teacher in Chinatown. “Isn’t it funny?” he said. “We’re finally in New York—but not for performing at all.”
“Funny,” I said.
It wasn’t funny. It was failure—and I hadn’t realized it until that moment. It was failure. I was a failure. I had been trained, I had been experienced, I had been told stories and given hope. I had gone off and given it up. Why? Because it was hard. Because I had been broken.
Because it was not mine. Dancing was a dream of childhood—a dream of so many little girls who start in those wiggling classes—and I had held onto it a little longer than most. But still, it slipped away, as it was meant to, and I found other things. My leg healed and I grew.
For Christmas that year, I opened presents with my family sitting on the floor—my leg, still in its brace, sticking out, a log they had to be careful to step over. My final present, the big present, was a slim cardboard box. Shoe-sized. Inside the box, wrapped in tissue, nestled a brand new pair of bright pink pointe shoes.
“We didn’t know if we should still give them to you,” my mother said.
“I’ll just save them,” I said.
“Save them,” she said.
I put the gleaming pink shoes back into the box, one shoe cupping the other like they were sleeping, only sleeping. I slipped the cover of the box back on, and I slid the shoes under the tree.
Alison Stine is the author of two books of poems: Wait (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) and Ohio Violence (University of North Texas Press, 2009). Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Defunct, and 1966. She lives and works in Appalachia.