Once a year, my mother and I would drive down to San Diego for my Cachets ballet exam. The trip down I-15 seemed to take forever. I was always so anxious. If I did not pass the exam, I could not move on to the next level, so it was extremely important. We weren’t notified of the results until weeks later, so the ride home would be filled with questions about the exam.
“How did it go?” Mom would ask.
“Good,” I’d respond, still nervous from the exam.
“How do you think you did?” I could tell she wanted more than a one-word answer.
“Well, I know I did well at the barre. But I fell out of one of my pirouettes. It’s okay because I landed the other ones. And, I don’t know how, but my arabesques were really good, I remembered to keep my heel down. I just want to work on my splits, so that my grand jetés are better.” I hoped this was enough information.
“Do you think you passed?”
“Yes.” And I did. I was feeling more optimistic and confident in my performance.
After that, the one-hour drive seemed to go much quicker. My hard work paid off when I received the certificates in the mail. I still have them at home.
Although I had a passion for ballet, deep down I knew I would never be a professional. As the only African-American dancer at the ballet studio, I could tell I was not built like the other girls. I was thin, but I was not a stick like them. My butt would stick out when I did pliés, and no matter how hard I tried, it would not be flat. My thighs were very muscular, but they were not as lean as a professional dancer’s were. I just did not have the physique to be a principal ballerina in a company. I was okay with it, though. I loved dancing. I was happy.
My friend Hannah DeMattia went from Temecula to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Hannah was good. She was always the lead in our productions, and we could all tell she was going to go far. Although she was only a year or two older than us, everyone looked up to her.
I can remember going to the studio early and waiting outside along with the other girls to see the Nutcracker cast list go up. Everyone was in the production, but not everyone got the main roles. As the instructor taped up the list, there would be tears from girls who would be mice for the third year in a row and cheers from girls who made it into the “Waltz of the Flowers.” I would run back to my mom waiting in the car.
“Mommy, I’m a soldier and a Gingerette,” I yelled through the driver’s side window, with my ballet bag hanging on my shoulder.
“Very good,” she said back with a nod of satisfaction and a big grin. It was a look I often saw when I did well in school.
“Thank you.” I smiled back, pleased that I made my mom proud.
But I would have been happy with any role. If I could have, I would have lived at the ballet studio.
We even practiced on Saturdays. The younger children rehearsed in the morning, and the older girls came later in the day. That’s how you knew if you were good, if you practiced in the afternoon. There were some disadvantages. The studio had no air-conditioning, so we had to dance with the doors open. There were only two entrances, and not much airflow. On a hot September day, it turned into a sauna, the air thick from all the energy in the room. Our black leotards hid most of the sweat, but there were still beads rolling down our faces. But I voluntarily went into this inferno. There were many times when I could have been swimming with my family or shopping in the air-conditioned mall with my friends, but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to dance.
The spring of my eighth-grade year it all changed. I was in ballet class doing jumps. I landed wrong and dislocated my knee. I thought it was nothing and tried to continue, but I could not put any weight on my left leg. The pain was excruciating. I did not go to the doctor right away. I decided to tough it out, but a few days later it popped again. The doctor said that I had dislocated my knee, and a bone chip had lodged itself in the socket and had to be removed. I feared that I would not be able to dance again. The surgery, followed by physical therapy, did not allow me to dance for the rest of the year, meaning no Nutcracker for me. The only thing that made the situation better was that I was going to see the performance that I should have danced in. At least, that is, until I got in trouble.
It was the weekend before the performance, and my sister and I were painting the fence. Because I was taller, I worked on the highest boards while she did the lowest. I accidentally got paint in her hair, but she told Mom I did it intentionally.
“It was an accident,” I screamed through tears.
“I don’t care, you should have been more careful,” Mom said nonchalantly.
“I was careful, it was an accident.” I choked out the words, barely able to breathe.
“Well, next time you’ll be more careful.”
“This isn’t fair!” I crossed my arms as tears streamed down my face.
“Life is not fair,” she said.
My mom decided that I was not allowed to go to the performance; tears and pleading did not change her mind. I was so upset I wore all black for the next three days and sat in the dark, crying.
Following months of physical therapy, I was able to participate in ballet again. But it was not the same. I was not the same. I worked hard, but I knew my knee was not as strong. Yet I was determined to dance, and I did. I performed in the next two Nutcrackers.