Like so many other young girls, I took the obligatory dance lessons. Ballet and tap classes, commenced at the age of five or so. My first dance classes took place at the community center not 200 feet from the local landfill compactor (thankfully not in operation during the times when I had dance), a cinderblock building whose only salient feature I remember is a large wall of mirrors in a cavernous room where I went for a couple hours a week to spend time with Miss Rita and a horde of other little girls. In retrospect, I find it amusing that both the dump and building bore the moniker of “Mount Hope,” given that hope was the one thing I lacked after those dance classes. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Speaking as a teacher myself, I believe that Miss Rita was something of a minor saint. Yes, she wore outfits that I suspect were disco era carryovers – bellbottomed spandex one-piece jumpsuits accompanied by the long, flowing tied headband. Yes, she had approximately three shows that were recycled for approximately thirty years. But to willingly organize an event featuring nearly a hundred girls in costumes and noisy shoes takes a certain amount of grit. I teach a keyboard class of six first-graders, and sometimes that nearly puts me over the edge. I can’t imagine adding tap shoes and group choreography to even that few students.
Granted, the Bolshoi we were not. One year, the final performance’s theme was Cinderella. Given that I was five at the time, I had no shot at the coveted glass slipper role; instead, I was a tap-dancing mouse, complete with gray cape. Pretty sure there was some hiding behind a foamcore set piece involved, and some sneaking out to shuffle-shuffle-step at the right time. Another year, the show was I think just called “Cats.” Its basis was the eponymous musical, but as with any Miss Rita show, “basis” really meant “held together more loosely than shoelaces tied by an animal without opposable thumbs.” My mouse ears may have been repurposed as cat ears. I know there was a tail involved, and definitely some tears over being stuck with a pink leotard and tutu rather than the blue or purple that my friends got. There is a phenomenal photograph from this recital, actually, in which I have my arms out chorus-line-fashion, but really it looks like I’m a tap-dancing menace to society who’s trying to bash together the heads of the two little dancing kittens on either side of me. The eyeliner-drawn cat whiskers don’t do my devil smile any favors.
The justifications for me leaving Miss Rita’s tutelage are still unclear. I know loads of girls who continued with her and somehow ended up not only being passable dancers, but fully functioning members of society. I don’t recall being especially unhappy there, and goodness knows it’s not as if I showed any preternatural dancing ability that required better instruction. Maybe my mom couldn’t bear the thought of sitting through another Miss Rita production that featured a record player with what I believe were narrations from those Golden Books (“turn the page at the sound of the bell…DING!”). Whatever the reason, I began ballet with Miss Abigail.
In contrast to the semi-oppressive concrete and lingering smell of garbage that pervaded Mt. Hope, Miss Abigail’s studio was sunlit, beige stucco, and overall (from my six-year-old impressions) pretty decent for its southern Maryland location. But no amount of sunlight could shine through the darkness that soon descended upon my career as a ballerina.
Miss Abigail lacked the disco suits, yes. A welcome change to be sure. However, in my mind, she also lacked any sort of warmth, friendliness, or endearing qualities. Her accent (Brazilian) could have lent her an air of mysticism, but it terrified me. Classes were no longer an opportunity to say hello to friends from school. At Miss Rita’s, half my school was in her program, whereas I don’t remember anyone who was in my class at Miss Abigail’s. When you were at Miss Abigail’s, dance was serious. You didn’t just prance around willy-nilly. You were there to learn bal-LEH.
To this day, being singled out in public sends my nervous system into hyperdrive. I blush, avert my eyes, sweat breaks out, and I start frantically searching for the nearest exit. Multiply that by a thousand, and you have my reaction to one of our weekly exercises at my new dance classes.
Here’s what happened: Miss Abigail had this inflatable shark, a pool toy I’m sure, which in its proper context would have been a little creepy, but fine. Put it on a wooden dance floor though, and you have a child-eating monster. In order to teach us (I think) correct form in our leaps, Miss Abigail had us each leap gazelle-like over this inflatable shark, forming a diagonal trajectory across the studio. Most of the kids in my class conquered this with aplomb. For me, though, it was hit or miss, and usually more miss than hit. Or rather, more hit, because I often accidentally grazed a dorsal fin, or even point-blank kicked the thing when I tried to jump over it. The consequences of this, though, were what sent me into paroxysms on a weekly basis.
Miss Abigail told us, in what I’m sure to her seemed like a totally innocuous threat, that when we touched the shark, it ate us. To my overactive imagination, this meant not only chagrin, but also death. My poor little first-grade body was going to be devoured in a bloody mess by a grinning, toothy sheet of plastic that could have been easily vanquished with a pair of scissors. I suspect that my fear was more of embarrassment than actual bodily harm, but nevertheless it escalated to the point where even the mention of the shark jumps reduced me to a groveling, sniffling meltdown. Shortly thereafter, my mom blessedly let me quit ballet. Miss Abigail and her shark had won. My short little legs were no match for her fear-mongering.
To this day I still wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t quit ballet. Sure, I’ve discovered now that I can kind of dance passably (swing dance, at least), but maybe I could’ve been a decent ballerina too. Over the years, I’ve seen some of Miss Abigail’s students dance, and they’ve all been quite good. But as I watch them, deep down I have this sneaky curiosity as to whether inside their pointe shoes they have all of their toes, or if maybe the shark got them too.