I threw myself to the floor again, it’s not a typical thing for ballet but I was playing the part of Mulan and it was definitely necessary. I got up as awkwardly as I could, but it wasn’t enough. I had learned too well to throw myself around gracefully. “You look like a ballerina!” Prima Donna called from her seat at the mirror. I gave her a look; I am a ballerina.
I went home and practiced falling over and over, by this point my knees were collages of purples and browns but I had to get this right. I had been selected as the main dancer in the production number, and I was going to do it to my best ability.
The tops of my feet scabbed up as I continually rolled through them to try and take the blow off my knees. In my front room, I practiced my landing over and over, trying to force my body out of the habit of being graceful. I’m sure anyone who saw me through the window would have thought I was insane: falling, getting up and doing it again in an even more horrendous fashion, I must have looked like a nutcase.
At the next rehearsal the choreographer added to the number, and with the new addition came more falls and more pain. Near the beginning, the other dancers were supposed to fling me to the floor. While I’m sure they meant well, their efforts never did enough and I was forced to slam myself to the ground harder than humanly healthy. On these occasions I would often get a good gasp from the younger girls in the room. They looked in awe at me, the lead, just giving all she had to her part. Each little girl saw me, purposely putting myself in pain, and they envied me. I know, because I had been one of them.
I had seen the older girls taking off their pointe shoes, and I wanted them more than anything. Yes, I knew my feet would bleed, that if I landed wrong once I would break bones and never be able to dance again, that I had to commit to the art. I chose that path. I lost all outside friends, I had my studio girls, the ones I would dance with for hours on end. Of course I loved them, even though all I knew was their first and last names and how many pirouettes they could land from fifth. I knew what it was like to look into the mirror, and see only the imperfections: knees too bent, leg turned in, bun too far to the left. It continued on: butt too big, neck too short, arch too low. But it was the life I choose. It was the life I wanted.
The first performance of Mulan came closer and with it so did the tension. Regardless of all the practices, the pieces were not ready. That day, I had fear beating through me; it happens sometimes, I just fear the shoes, the floor, the teachers. This was not a good time. I tried my best to do my dances but I literally shook with terror. I would not look at myself, I would not eat the pizza they brought to rehearsal, I just continued to dance. The studio director pulled me aside. She told me I was not doing well enough, that if I didn’t step it up, I didn’t deserve the part. She told me to fake confidence, even if I had none. I told her I would try harder, that I would live up to her expectations. I went home and cried, for my own faults, for her harsh words, for the fear that I would ruin the performance for everyone.
Then it came, the first number. No one else cared as much as I did, this wasn’t a life changing event. Just another dance, we had done thousands, why was this one any different? I stood backstage, full of happiness. I know it sounds crazy, that after all of that, I still loved to dance. I still looked forward to getting on that stage. I rolled through my pointe shoes one last time and took my spot in the light.
I danced. I smiled. I lived the part. I was Mulan, I was that girl who no one thought was good enough, who didn’t even recognize her own reflection. I lost myself in the dance, and I loved every second of it. My heart was pumping and my face was beaming. I was doing what I loved.
We won first place with a 99%. I was thrilled, but it was nothing to compare with how it felt. That moment changed my life, it shaped who I was. It made me happy, it reminded me why I danced. It made it all worth it.