(This story won the Inaugural Asheville Moth Grand Slam at Diana Wortham Theatre on Monday, October 30, 2017 . Here is the audio:
I always knew I would grow up to be a great ballerina. I had tights and tutus and leotards. I had a picture book about a girl that danced with the New York City Ballet (I’d memorized it). I had a black patent leather ballet box with a strap and a slot in the bottom for my ballet slippers. They had a magic name—Capezio—and smelled wonderful, like new leather and show business.
My future as a prima ballerina was, perhaps, less obvious to everyone else. I wasn’t a natural dancer. In fact, I wasn’t a natural anything that involved concentrated physical agility. I was a tumble of bruises in perennially ripped tights, with so many scabbed knees and elbows and shins, adults mistook me for some variety of tomboy when, in fact, I was just the kind of klutz that could hardly descend a stair without injury. That’s probably why Mom didn’t enroll me at the dance school with pageant girls and “Nutcracker” auditions, but in classes with a nice, patchouli-scented white lady with cornrows, who taught neighborhood girls in the ballroom of a grand old resort hotel since gone to seed and inhabited by some ghostly cadre of shuffling old people who may or may not have been actual ghosts. We did plies to Joni Mitchell and willowed like a willow. And even there I was hopelessly out of step. I would fail to stay upright doing an arabesque and then take a forty-five minute bathroom break, so I could disappear through racks of dazzling, tulle-skirted costumes and out the other door, which provided Narnia-like access to the ruined hotel.
My ballet teacher was wise to my tracks. I think she was frankly relieved. Because if I was following a semi-feral cat through the old second floor smoking lounge or contemplating the depth of the empty swimming pool, I wasn’t demoralizing the class by falling down and asking why we couldn’t just spend the hour trying on tutus.
Our yearly recitals were named after the oldest and most proficient dancer in hotel ballet classes. Her name was Kendall. She was eleven and the most impressive person I knew. And after a dispiriting show as a seagull in “Kendall’s Trip To The Beach,” during which I literally sat down and wept in the middle of the performance, my dance teacher pulled my mother an told her she was a fool to pretend my interest in ballet went past costumes.
She was right.
That should have been the end of my ballet career. It probably would have been, but lack of non-sporty extra-curriculars clears the mind. And after a couple of years, I found myself enrolled at the Dance School with the “Nutcracker” auditions and pageant girls that shuffled off to buffalo in ruffled, sequined hot pants. My new ballet teacher was tall and thin, with a perfect Dunkin’ Donuts coffee roll of a ballet bun, and absolutely zero time for shenanigans. That was fine. I had nothing to explore on bathroom breaks save looming adolescence via skinny thirteen year olds smoking cigarettes out the dressing room window and talking about how fat they were. So I did the exercises, the same ones every class, to the same old Tchaikovsky record in the same old damp basement studio and told myself it would only be a few years until pointe shoes and then I would transform from a chubby klutz and into a swan princess gliding across the stage at Lincoln Center.
But that seemed so far away, and after a year, I was only closer to our recital piece, which was also sad and boring. Even the costumes sucked.
The night of the recital, my mother dropped me off at the Civic Center, and I entered a green room smogged with Aquanet and thronged with girls in heavy eyeliner that made them look frozen in surprise, and not at a good thing. My class was act 23 on a 44 act bill. We played crazy eights while we waited and I noted that every single costume that went on stage was better than mine. At five minutes, our teacher gathered us together and reminded us to keep rhythm, to smile and to not lose our nerve in the big, big stage in front of all those people. We filed up to the wings to watch a bunch of teenagers with mall bangs do a snazzy jazz number to “Maneater” by Hall & Oates and I saw, for the first time, the audience, that sea of bodies in the darkness, the huge stage, the brilliant warmth of the lights. And I knew with absolute clarity that I’d never wanted to be anywhere more than on that stage and this was my time to shine.
Our music cued, Single file we came onto the stage, each girl doing the same steps, the same boring choreography, but not me. As soon as I cleared the curtain, I was on. And by on I mean off choreography and into leaps and jumps and spins and Flashdancing and Footloose-ing and whatever the hell Molly Ringwald did in “The Breakfast Club.” I did ever every move I had in my wheelhouse, and a whole lot I really really didn’t. I didn’t care about the other girls. Or my teacher. Or my old teacher. Or Kendall. Or pointe shoes. Or the New York City Ballet. No. This was bigger than that. I would be bigger than that. I would force those people out there to watch and love and let me stay in the warmth of those lights forever because already it felt like home. I gave it everything I had and it is a miracale I didn’t fling myself into the orchestra pit.
I remember thunderous applause. But all applause sounds thunderous to a nine-year-old high on greasepaint and self-regard. I followed the rest of of my classmates down the green room, giddy, buzzing with excitement. This was the greatest thing I’d ever done. I expected a hero’s welcome. Our parents intercepted us at the bottom of the stairs with hugs and cellophane-wrapped supermarket roses. The other parents gave me a stony side-eye and mother gave me a Well . . . sort of smile. And before she could expand, my teacher furiously stalked, parted the crowd and said, “Alison is not a dancer. Alison will never be a dancer. I will not have her in my class again.” It wasn’t exactly the I’d expected. But critics, you know? Sometimes they have a hard time recognizing that something transcendent, something paradigm-shifting has occurred on stage. I thought she would go on, but she didn’t. And as I watched her flounce away, I suddenly realized, no more ballet might mean no more stage. And the cruelty. To deprive me of a thing I so loved at the moment I just discovered it. I started to sniffle. That might have been what provoked my ballet teacher to turn back and look at me. Her face softened, for a flicker and she said “Alison does have a certain theatrical presence. You might look into acting classes, you know, instead of ballet.”
My mom and I walked out the stage door together into the cool spring rain. She comforted me, which confused me, because I was feeling all the feelings—every feeling I had at the same time—but I didn’t think I needed comfort. When we got to the parking deck, she looked down as asked what I thought about the night’s performance.
I was stunned for a moment. Then I thought it might be okay if I never went back to ballet. But honestly?
I think I fucking killed it.
In preparing this story, I learned that said old resort hotel (since renovated as apartments/condos) was built in response to an early no-kids policy at my hometown’s far more famous resort hotel. It was family friendly and the swimming pool was a particularly popular location. Local gossip has it that a visiting John Phillips Sousa, in town for a performance once summer in the early part of the 20h century, provided impromptu swimming lessons to the hotel’s youthful guests.
Feeling generous? I’m shamelessly accepting spare change, tips, trades, wages, gifts, donations and generous offers from rich people to live, fully supported in their scenic villas in the Italian Alps and write terribly droll little somethings that don’t reflect too badly on the aristocracy here: