How I Quit Ballet

Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Hayley Huntley

How I Got Roped Into It

I was three years old.  My dad sat on the couch in the den, and I sat on his lap.  I was playing with the brass lamp to his left, twisting the marble-like switch to turn it off an on again.  He asked me, “Do you think you’d like to try doing ballet?”  I said yes.

How Nevada Does Ballet

All of the ballet teachers I ever had originally came to Reno, Nevada to dance in Hello, Hollywood, Hello, a revue on the new, biggest-in-the-world stage of the MGM Hotel and Casino. My ballet teachers weren’t homegrown westerners.  They were trained ballerinas from Boston, Great Britain, South Africa:  dancers who became showgirls by subtracting inches from their necklines and adding inches to their heels.  When the show closed, many of the dancers stayed in Reno, put Miss in front of their first names, and became my teachers.

Miss Suzanne

Three years after the final Hello, Hollywood, Hello curtain fell, I started ballet classes with Miss Suzanne, a leggy South African with a platinum blond bangs and a pony tail that hung over her shoulder, down around her heart.  To a three-year-old, she might as well have been a big Barbie doll.

Miss Suzanne wore a leotard, pink tights, and ballet skirt to every class – she was the only teacher I ever had who dressed like us.  With her elegant accent, she said “BAH-lay” instead of “bah-LAY” and taught us how to have BAH-lay hands by having us press them together in an inflated prayer position, “like a tulip,” and peel our index fingers and pinkies away like petals.   She was classy and showy at the same time.

Miss Suzanne’s idea of the perfect recital make-up was blue eye shadow and red lipstick.  One of the older girls whom I idolized complained backstage once that whenever she left the theatre with makeup on, people looked at her like she was a hooker.  I dreamed of people looking at me like that one day, whatever it was.

With Miss Suzanne, no leotard went un-bedazzled: I wore a red and white dotted dress for my Shirley Temple dance (sequins at the bottom), a shiny patriotic leotard with fringe for a skirt (sequins criss crossing down the front), a white tutu from my first performance ever, when I was three and danced the role of a bunny (sequins galore).  The year I quit my tap class, I missed out on being in a number actually called “Showgirls,” where the dancers wore hot pink and black feathered things with fishnet tights.  And sequins.

The “Showgirl Complex”

In my freshman year of high school, I went to my first dance in fishnets and a red dress.  My mom took me to Macy’s where I got my smoky black eye shadow done Then I came home to meet with my dad’s disapproval.  He looked at me, squinted, smirked, and said, “You look like a showgirl.”

I said, “Thank you.”

When I Should Have Known I Was More of an Actor Than a Dancer

In my first recital, all the three-year-olds got to dance in one number where we dressed like white bunny rabbits.  Each of us wore a different colored hair ribbon; mine was pale pink.  The choreography was simple:  skipping, pointing our toes, hopping in place.  In the middle of the dance, we stood in a line at the front of the stage, facing the audience, and shimmied.  Then we bunny hopped to face away from the audience and shook our cotton tails in their faces.  The crowd roared with laughter.  I liked that sound.  It made me feel powerful.

What Ballerinas Do in the Fall

They rehearse for The Nutcracker every single weekend so normal people can come see it, one night, for a couple hours.

The Story of The Nutcracker

A young girl named Clara receives a magical nutcracker on Christmas Eve from her creepy and conspicuous “uncle.”   The nutcracker grows into a life-sized prince and slays the Rat King, leader of the mice who try to kill Clara in the night.  The prince, who seems too old for Clara (but who’s counting?) kidnaps her to a winter wonderland, where she perches on a throne and watches while Arabian, Spanish, and Chinese entertainers dance for her.  (Seriously, Clara sits down for almost the entire second act – one hell of a lead role.)  At some point, several little children escape from beneath a rotund woman’s cavernous skirt.  Eventually, Clara’s uncle extinguishes her hallucination and brings her back to Earth.

The Truth About Sugar Plums

Visions of them really did dance in my head, though usually in a taunting way.  In a you’re-never-gonna-play-the-Sugar-Plum-Fairy kinda way.

How They Get You, Year After Year

The roles in The Nutcracker fit into a rigid and universal hierarchy, and any Nutcracker ballerina can tell you what role she deserves next year.  The roles in the first act, when Clara is still at home, are the easiest and least coveted, so I started there.  First, I was a mouse, but not just any mouse:  I was the one who got shot in the battle.  I remember trying new methods of falling and dying, seeing if I could get the audience to laugh, which is not a normal part of the ballet experience.  I was later cast as the soldier who shoots the mouse, but I almost always missed the sound of the gunshot in the music by the slightest beat.  After that, I played a Party Girl, an Angel, and a Snowflake, all more than once.  The potential for promotion was addicting.  Once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out.

My Father, on My Career in The Nutcracker

“You’re not a rat again, are you?”

That One Time I Loved The Nutcracker

When I was still an elementary school upperclasswoman, I was cast as a Party Girl.  The term “Party Girl” may bring to mind images of a Cancun spring break, but by Nutcracker standards, it’s an honor and a privilege for girls who are too young to dance one of the corps de ballet roles in the second act but too good to play a rat again.  Party Girls wore velvet dresses and lacy pantaloons, and each of us got our own porcelain doll as a prop.  But perhaps the best perk that came with being a Party Girl was that we didn’t have to wear our hair in a bun.  (And I hated my hair in a bun.)

On performance days, my mom and I woke up when it was still dark and made our way to the kitchen with robes and socks.  I’d sit at our kitchen counter and pick at the cinnamon sugar toast she made me, and she’d curl my hair.  The curls had to sustain grands jetés and pas des chats, so she’d take one inch sections, spray them with special hairspray we’d bought just for the occasion, wrap the hair around the curling iron, and hold it there while the spray sizzled and steamed.  When she released the curl, it kept the exact cylindrical form of the iron, and after an hour, my head was full of stiff, crunch tubes that swung and bounced like the dreadlocks on a Raggedy Ann doll.  I wore my hair like this to school one day, explaining to anyone who cared and anyone who didn’t that I was a Party Girl in The Nutcracker.  You know that famous show that everyone goes to see at Christmas?  I’m in that.

When I Should Have Known I Was More of an Actor Than a Dancer, Part II

The first year I was a Party Girl, I was in Mr. Alex’s Nutcracker – an important distinction, since Reno was a Nutcracker hotbed.  During one rehearsal, Alex – a tall dancer with slick, black hair whose middle name I might think was Slick if I didn’t know it was Van, gave me a special role.  Clara’s uncle would lead me around the stage on my tippy-toes while I turned my nose up the air.  In the program, I was billed as The Brat – a part created just for me.  When we rehearsed, and even when we performed, I’d have a moment on stage all to myself, and the audience would always laugh – quietly – but still.

When Things Got Serious

In middle school, I decided to make dance my thing.  I signed up with a new teacher, one who had a reputation for being hard-core.  Her name was Brandy. Having come to Nevada in a later wave of Reno showgirls, she was the youngest, fittest, and edgiest of the credible dance teachers in RenoShe didn’t look like a ballerina.  She was short.  Petite.  She had glossy black hair, white veneers over her teeth, fake breasts, and cheekbones higher than her high kick.  (It’s a weird moment when you find out someone you know has fake breasts when you barely have breasts of your own yet.)  She had run away from home at sixteen to dance at Disneyworld, which must have accounted for her inability to comprehend why anyone would skip dance class to study.  She celebrated the girls who auditioned for obscure cruise lines, but took no interest in those of us who eventually applied to college.  Brandy was the only teacher at her studio, the Reno Dance Company, which was rare.  Usually there were different staff members for tap, jazz, hip hop, ballet, booking, billing, and heading a board of directors, but Brandy did it all.  She taught up to four classes a night and ran rehearsals on the weekends.  Unlike other teachers who would tell dancers what to do from a chair in the corner of the room, Brandy did all the choreography with us, and she was better at it.  That was her most redeeming quality – that even with her obvious favoritism and unique ability to intimidate, she was exquisite when she danced.  She made us feel like dance was the only passion worth pursuing, that entire lives could be spent in pursuit of the perfect pirouette. I craved her approval.

Why You’d Have Been in Love With Brandy, Sometimes, Too

At one rehearsal, her ex-husband and former dance partner came backstage, and the two re-enacted, with few words, their famous tricks from when they danced the Arabian number in the Las Vegas Nutcracker.  He picked Brandy up from a supine position on the floor and flipped her into the upside-down splits above his head, where she balanced on one of his arms.  She’d just had her fortieth birthday.

How Your Friends Were Only Sort of Your Friends

There were around thirty-five of us, and with all the time we spent together – sometimes thirty hours a week during Nutcracker season – I always felt like we should have been closer.  But competition makes that hard.  If I missed a class, girls were trained to take note, and more than one would ask the next day, “Where were you last night?” as though she were at once disappointed in and jealous of me.

At some point, my image of a ballerina was overwhelmed by the images of the girls I danced with.  I wanted to be strong like Holly, tall like Jane, thin like Katy, powerful like Anna, joyful like Kiah.  When we were little, our skill was judged by the level of class we were permitted to take.  At one of my studios, our level was designated by the color of leotard we wore.  Some studios required placement exams in order to move up.  Even once we were as far up as we could go at our given studio, our rankings were still determined by our skill and strength.  Were you en pointe?  Could you do a fuete?  Did you take jazz and tap and lyrical and hip-hop, too?  Your popularity depended upon these things.  People might tolerate you if you were funny or pretty and only average at dance.  But everyone was nice to someone who was good.

The Year I Got Cast as a Snowflake

I saw my name on the same list as all the girls who were better than I.  Brandy had given me a chance, and I took the opportunity to improve faster than I ever had before.  I felt myself get physically stronger.  I got to dance in the corps for the first time.  I got to wear a tutu for the first time.

The Waltz of the Snowflakes came just before the intermission curtains closed. My friend Sara’s mom cried every year when she watched it. The music would soften and fake snow would fall, and audience members would widen their eyes and sit forward a little. Pieces of white fluff would drift from the rafters and alight on our false eyelashes as we posed, with our arms in circles above our heads like the ballerinas in musical jewelry boxes.

For the Sake of Being Candid

1) There were some steps in the Snowflake dance I still wasn’t strong enough to do, so I sort of pretended.

2) My nose used to run on stage a lot, and one time, it ran like crazy when I was posed at the foot of the stage and wasn’t allowed to move my arms from high fifth.

3) Once, when we formed a horizontal line and were meant to seamlessly burré off-stage, I fell.  Imagine a carnival game with sixteen white bowling pins in a pristine line, and then imagine your goal is to shoot one of them down.  I was that one.  Sara’s mom swore she saw me slip on a fallen feather.

The Second Year I Got Cast as a Snowflake

All the Snowflakes also got cast as Something Else.  Except me.

What I Remember Most About The Nutcracker

I think of opening the door of my dance studio and exiting into October afternoons, where the silver sunlight and cool air worked in perfect harmony and seemed to say, How have you been inside this whole time? I think of pulling my hair from its tight knot at the back of my head and peeling my ballet shoes off my red feet, which would turn ice cold from the sweat meeting the chilled air.   I think of finding my dog sleeping in the kitchen.  I think of my dad watching college football in the den and me falling asleep to its lullaby:  the announcers’ voices all blending into one and the whistles keeping an arrhythmic beat.   I think of going to my own high school football games with tights still under my jeans.  I think of turning down invitation after invitation, saying, I can’t.  I have Nutcracker.

One Reason I Didn’t Quit Earlier

It’s hard to quit the first thing you remember starting.

The “Superiority Complex”

Ballerinas speak French.  We have injuries you’ve never heard of.  We wear clothes from stores you don’t even know exist.  Little girls dress up like ballerinas at Halloween and buy ballet flats when they’re teenagers and say I always wish I’d learned ballet when they’re old.  Ballet is an elite club, and once you’re in, you’d do anything not to give up your spot.

The Whole Thing About Ballerinas Not Eating

It occurred to me that some of the girls seemed fearful of food, but anorexia and bulimia were, for me, still just abstract terms in a health textbook.    Still, as we got older, the girls talked explicitly about their bodies.  “I feel so fat today,” someone would say, eliciting the response from another:  “Are you kidding?  You’re so much skinnier than I am.”  I was naturally petite, but like everyone else, I fixated on my flaws.  My thighs were too big.  I was muscular, but in all the wrong places.  I tried all kinds of different skirts, shorts, and legwarmers to offset the problem.  Then there was that bun:  that universal ballerina hairdo which never ever looked right on me.  Especially when I started to sweat and my bangs curled to the side.  And there were mirrors everywhere.

During the rehearsals in the weeks right before opening night, eating became a sensitive issue.  Brandy became attentive to our eating habits and any slight changes in our bodies.  If she saw us eating something sweet before class, she’d make a joke – point us out – and say, “Just wait until you have to put on a tutu.  That’s all I’m gonna say.”  More than once, she gathered us on the floor of the dance room to talk about our health, making a few girls in the audience squirm since she most certainly was not speaking to everyone.  She’d say, “If you can’t fit in the costume, you can’t be in the dance.”

Certain foods were acceptable for public consumption.  Small cups of yogurt and energy bars were trendy, until one girl trumped everyone by bringing gallon-sized bags of chopped carrots and celery, also known as rabbit food.

Not everyone was skinny, and not everyone was pretty.  It just helped to be at least one of those things.

How Some Of Us Were Too Hungry to Care

On our lunch break during one particularly brutal dress rehearsal, Angel and I found an empty dressing room, like prisoners planning an escape.  We called her mom and whispered,  “We want Jack in the Box.”  She asked for our order.  We said, “One of everything.”   When she arrived, we met her at the stage door and found a spot outside, behind a low wall, and tore open the grease-stained bags of fast food ambrosia. With a mouthful of curly fries, I asked Angel ironically, “Want to split a Power Bar?”   Then Hillary emerged from the stage door.   She was hungry.  We had enough.  She joined our circle, and we said with smiles, “No one can know of this.”

When I Knew I Was More of an Actor

or

A Special Ballet Moment

During one Nutcracker dress rehearsal, we sat slumped in our dressing room chairs with our tutus fluffed up around us, dreading the musical cue for us to arise on our aching feet and drag ourselves to the wings.  A few girls stared in the mirrors lined with bare light bulbs, adjusting their lipstick for the fifth time or batting their false eyelashes.  Teenagers shouldn’t be allowed near so many mirrors.  I leaned into the mirror, and, with my finger, wiped the saliva from my teeth.  With my black eyeliner pencil, I smeared waxy pigment all across the enamel so that, when I smiled, it looked as though I was missing a very important tooth.  In school and around my other friends, I suppose I was known for my sense of humor, but among my ballet peers, I was more like a second-rate class clown.  And my sense of humor rarely worked on the dance crowd.

But to my surprise, all the other girls began to copy me.  They all picked different blackout combinations so that one girl looked like a kindergartner with missing front teeth and one looked like a pirate who had fewer white teeth than black ones.   “What if we went on stage like this?” I asked.  Everyone must have been feeling just bored and frustrated enough to go along with it, because even the girls I wouldn’t have called my friends joined the effort.  We hurried behind the curtains, hushing giggles and trying not to accidentally lick off the eyeliner.  On stage, we must have looked like we were drunk, our laughter numbing our feet and throwing us off-balance. It was the only time Brandy didn’t have to shout at us to smile.  Moments like that could almost make a girl forget about quitting.  Almost.

How I Quit Ballet

I sent a really long e-mail.

How I Knew I Wouldn’t Be Missed

I received a short e-mail back.

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15 thoughts on “How I Quit Ballet

  1. Amusing, memorable and scarily reminiscent of my own relationship with the world of ballet. Loved it!

  2. Poignant, funny, and sincere with a strong, clear voice. Such a lovely piece. I want to read it again just to make sure I didn’t miss any of the subtleties.

  3. Hayley, you are an artist of the first degree. I keep thinking of you hitting it at the Improv Competition, and I’m extra happy you went with the acting and not the ballet! Love you and your writing, Leigh

  4. What a great and fun history of what was at times a rather serious pursuit! The Nutcracker – if I ever see it again – will never be the same for me.

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  6. Wow! I am a 19 year old thinking seriously about quitting ballet but at the same time it crushes my heart. Recently, I’ve felt exactly like this…I have no life, everything is stressful in rehearsals except for some fun things, my friends are not really friends, and well I kind of lost the passion I used to have for it. I was thinking about putting it on pause for a semester.This fall I went through most of the things you wrote about here! I live in Houston and danced with an intense, pre professional company. Still, I find it very hard to let go I do feel as if I’ll be cut off the elite ballet club and will lose all of my years’ efforts. Do you have any advice? Did you really miss it/regret it at any time? We had the nutcracker season in december and we didn’t even had vacations for winter, so I just stopped going after christmas until now. I really appreciated your article and hope you can answer my question, thank you!

    P.S: So far my decision is quit it, but I keep going back and forth. and what is worst is everyone that knows ballet is a big part of me and I love it (or used to) keep saying things like OMG WHY, don’t leave it ever, etc and I feel even worst. Yet when I think about going back I feel stressed.

    Sincerely, Lorena

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