The Black Swan

I pulled up the practice tutu an inch more, and felt it flop back down to my hip bones. My toes were tired in my pointe shoes after five hours of dancing in them, and I could feel my right knee buckle slightly as I tried to maintain my posture.

It was my turn to perform the Black Swan solo variation from Swan Lake. I was thirteen years old, and it was the second day of a three-week Vaganova (a Russian ballet technique) Intensive. Mansur Petrov, the director of the intensive, was a Russian Master ballet master teacher, principal character dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet. To this day I still question why he chose to hold a summer intensive in in our small town, when only seven aspiring ballet dancers had auditioned and registered for it. Most dancers went for the “big name” programs – American Ballet Theater, Boston Ballet, and New York City Ballet – resume-building names that would give them a leg-up when they auditioned for companies after high school. But, even with only a small group of dancers to teach, the intensive still ran and would continue to run for three more summers. At this point in my training, dancing in a small intensive with the opportunity for individual attention would have felt like a blessing – but as I stood, waiting for Mansur to push play, there was nothing I wanted more than the company of six dancers to hide behind as I danced for one of the most legendary teachers in Russian Ballet.

I couldn’t feel my knee or my toes anymore. All of my weight was still in my right leg, causing my right foot to cramp and my left leg to feel limp. I glanced over at the small, skinny man whose stench of cigars wafted over to me from across the room, his finger lingering on the button of the CD player. 

“Fix your arms, Mary. They are very wrong.”

I wasn’t used to his heavy Russian accent yet, but he had yelled at me numerous times that day about my arms, so I quickly lowered them and shaped my hands so my index finger was slightly straighter than the rest. Mansur gave a sharp nod, turned to the CD player, and pushed play. 

I could feel my legs shake as I walked to the center of the room, stretching my toes and presenting my heels forward as much as my knees would allow. I took a deep breath, bent my knees, and took a long, deep step forward to prepare for the first step – a pirouette, followed by a fouette attitude turn en dehor – a step that involved turning on one foot, extending my leg out, and whipping it behind me as I continued to turn with my arms above my head. I pushed up to my pointe shoe and started the step, trying to focus on the music rather than my rapid heartbeat.

“Stop, STOP!”

The loud, colossal yell reverberated off of the walls, causing me to fall off of my pointe shoe. The music abruptly stopped. I stumbled for a moment, then placed my feet in a turned out position, clasped my hands in front of me, and tried to catch my breath as Mansur stood and walked briskly toward me, continuing to yell.

“Chert,CHERT!” He shouted, grabbing my shoulders and turning my body so I was facing the mirror, “Oruzhiye, oruzhiye, Proklyat’ye!”

I just nodded, trying to keep my composure as Mansur manipulated my arms down, to the side, and above my head, still speaking harshly in Russian. Arm placement is very specific in the Vaganova Ballet Technique, and I came to realize throughout my training with Mansur that he considered American ballet technique to be wholly incorrect. It took me two years to realize that it was Mansur’s frustration with American ballet, not myself, that made him upset – but in that moment it took all of my willpower to stop from crying.

  Mansur stepped away from me as I stood, frozen with my arms and fingers where he had put them. 

“Alright?” He finally said.

I nodded. 

Mansur turned, stomped loudly – or, as loudly as a small, frail man could stomp – to the CD player, waved his arm at me to leave the floor and said, “next.” 

Elizabeth, one of the other thirteen-year-olds in the room, walked onto the floor as I walked away, slumped slightly in my chest, too afraid to drop my arms from where Mansur had placed them. I turned, my upper arms burning from being held, and watched Elizabeth dance the Swan Lake variation flawlessly, without interruption. 

Marissa, a sixteen year-old ballet student who was also attending the intensive, drove me home that day. She was tall, beautiful, and extremely talented, and had received only compliments from Mansur over the two days of training. As I tried to maintain my composure during that car ride home, saving my crying for my mom and my pillow, I found out that in addition to being a talented ballerina, Marissa also spoke fluent Russian.

“You okay?” Marissa finally asked as I sat silently in the passenger’s seat.

“Yea, yea. I’m fine,” I was amazed that I was able to keep my voice from breaking, “I mean, he totally hates me. But it’s fine.”

Marissa didn’t respond at first. I turned to her and saw that she was biting her lip.

“Uh – Mary,” She finally said, “I-uh… do you want to know what Mansur was saying to you… today, during variations class?”

I really didn’t want to know. But I wanted to give Marissa the impression that I could care less. That it didn’t matter to me. That I wasn’t reserving the rest of the day to wallow in self-pity, promising to never step foot in front of Mansur again. 

“Sure, I mean – I don’t really care,” I said, not-so-convincingly. 

Marissa paused, then said, “he was cursing – like, a lot. Like, I’ve never heard that many curse words in Russian before in the same sentence.”

I turned my face and stared out the window, feeling my tears pushing harder and harder to the surface. 

“Whatever,” I finally said, with an obvious waver in my voice, “I don’t care.”

Later that day, after an hour of crying and a long nap, my mom convinced me to go back to class the next day. I bought myself a small notebook, and after every class I wrote down the corrections Mansur had given me, trying my very best to understand this foreign technique of ballet that was so drastically different from the American technique I grown up with. Every day I came home from the intensive, I stood in my living room and practiced until my mom told me that I needed to eat something.

I trained with Mansur for three years after that summer, and by the end of that third year he had gone from being a teacher I dreaded to a mentor, then a dear friend. When I was fifteen years old and attending the final summer intensive Mansur would hold in our town, he asked me to be in an instructional video for Vaganova technique – an experience I would never forget, even though the majority of my time behind the camera was spent being yelled at in Russian.

Mansur passed away in April, 2012. To this day, I credit him for teaching me to embrace the beauty of ballet and build the backbone necessary to pursue ballet as a career, despite the harsh realities that go along with it. 

The Best Little Dancer in Texas

I remember the first moment I saw Layla dance. I was eight years old, and it was our big end-of-the year ballet recital. I was standing in the hall, lined up with the rest of my class, waiting impatiently to go onstage. Layla walked by, dressed in a full-body rainbow colored unitard with silver swirls on it and her hair in a tight, slicked-back bun. I had only seen glimpses of her before that day, when I was being picked up and dropped off from dance classes. Layla was tall, thin, beautiful, and the most successful dancer who had trained at our studio; she was a Rockette at eighteen years old, danced lead roles on Broadway, and performed in the Academy Awards for several years. She was also the studio director’s daughter.

I remember peeking through the wings that night from off stage so I could get a closer look at her performing. At this time, I was too young to understand what “good” dancing looked like, but I knew, as I watched her fly effortlessly across the floor in leaps and turns, that I wanted to dance just like her one day. 

Two years later I auditioned for our studio’s dance company, which was directed by both Layla and her mother, Dianne. The company was comprised of 45 girls (and their stage moms) who rehearsed throughout the year and competed in regional and national competitions. I had fallen in love with ballet around the same time as this audition, though it would be another two years until I would meet my first ballet mentor and start my serious ballet training. So, rather than serving the purpose of enhancing my technique, the studio company was where I would learn to perform, audition, and truly understand the world of commercial dancing. Commercial dancing typically involves jazz, contemporary, musical theater, and tap dancing, whereas company dancing is primarily ballet and modern – and as a young dancer, I strived to excel in as many genres as possible.

Whenever Layla was on lay-off or in between dance gigs, she would work, train, and choreograph with the dancers in our studio company. It was during one of her layoffs that she first noticed me. 

She was staging a new piece for the company – a musical theater dance to a Dolly Parton song from the movie “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Me and fifteen other girls in my age group would be dressed in cowgirl outfits and boots with rope lassos that we would, after months of practice, learn how to dance with in unison. Of the sixteen girls, one would be casted to dance the role of Dolly Parton, which would involve lip-synching the song and dancing a solo in front of the other cowgirls while wearing a heavily sequined outfit and a huge blonde wig. 

Layla had already asked two girls to perform the “Dolly” part for her while the rest of us danced back-up. She stood, leaned against the ballet bars that lined the wall of the studio, and stared at me. 

 “Mary,” Layla turned to me, “I want to see you do it.”

I felt an instant wave of surprise, excitement, and nervousness. At twelve years old, I had never heard of Dolly Parton, or a whorehouse, and had no real idea what the words in the song meant – but there was nothing I wanted more than to dance for, and please, the woman who I had been idolizing for years. 

I took my spot, placed my hands on my hips with the rest of the cowgirls, and danced the way that I thought Dolly Parton would if she were dancing with fifteen other girls in a whorehouse in Texas.

Layla laughed. Our director, Dianne, laughed. Holly, our resident choreographer, laughed. When the music stopped, Layla looked at me and shook her head.

“That was great, Mary. Just – great.”

I smiled, filled with an excitement and happiness so pure that I can hardly put words to it, and the following day I was told that I had been casted to dance the role of Dolly. I would perform this role for two years, and though I loved every moment I went onstage, I never quite got used to wearing the heavy, blonde wig that was twice the size of my head. 

It was this role that led Layla to take me under her wing. That same year, she casted me as the lead in three more pieces, and by the time I was fourteen, she had connected me with an agent and gotten me hired to dance in several professional jobs. She worked with me privately, coaching me in jazz and contemporary dance styles, and taught me how to dance, act, and dress in a way that would make me marketable to casting directors.

“I want you to pretend that you’re in bed,” Layla said to me as I was dancing for her one day in a private rehearsal, “pretend that you’re in bed with a man.”

I reached my arms up and rolled to the floor again, this time approaching the choreography in a more seductive way. 

I was fifteen years old and had no personal experience to pull from in this regard – but I had learned over the years how to act like I did. Outside of the dance studio, I was a naïve daughter of concert pianists who was studying ballet, listening to only classical music, and watching PG-rated movies with my younger siblings. Unbeknownst to my parents, I was simultaneously learning how to dress and act as though I were ten years older, truly believing that this was the way to be successful in the professional dance world. 

“Better, that’s much better,” Layla said, “Now let’s talk costuming,” she left the studio for a minute and came back carrying three hangers, “here, try these on.”

I took the hangers from her and furrowed my eyebrows slightly when I saw what was hanging on them. 

“Let me know if anything fits,” Layla said.

“Okay,” I nodded. 

I walked into the small dressing room by myself and placed the hangers on the doorknob. I had just finished learning my new solo – a lyrical dance to a Celine Dion song – and during that rehearsal Layla was supposed to decide on my costume for the upcoming competition. I didn’t have much of an idea of what my costume would look like, but I knew it wouldn’t realistically look anything like what she had told me to put on.

But I didn’t question her, probably because I didn’t know how to – so I slipped off one of the silky pieces of lingerie and put it on. 

Though nothing happened beyond trying on her lingerie, the uneasiness I felt during that rehearsal made the next few rehearsals with Layla uncomfortable. But I quickly learned how to push this feeling aside, because it was Layla who was turning me into a marketable, successful dancer. It was Layla who was teaching me how to act, even when I didn’t have personal experiences to pull from. And it was Layla who eventually sent me to the audition that would shape my career as a dancer and change my life forever. So – the way she treated me, the way she talked to me, the way our teacher-student relationship differed from everyone else’s – it was all fine. 

Wasn’t it?

Broken Parts

 “Is that allowed?” I skimmed my hand along the posts of the white picket fence lining our house, “I thought that you couldn’t be older than eighteen to compete.” 

The moment the words came out of my mouth, I knew that my age wouldn’t be a problem. Layla had lied about my age several times throughout my teenage years, putting heavy layers of makeup on my eyes and sneaking me into auditions and master classes meant for dancers up to five years older than I was. 

“No, it’s totally fine,” Layla said in the assuring tone that always had a way of making things okay, even if I knew deep down that they weren’t, “you just graduated two years ago, so it’s not a big deal. And, you and Alice look exactly the same so no one will know.”

I hesitated, not because I didn’t want to go to New York and compete, but because I knew this was wrong. New York Dance Connection, one of the most well-known national dance competitions, was meant only for dancers 18 years old and younger. 

“We’ll pay for your ticket – that’s no problem,” Layla said, “and it would be good for you to go back to New York.”

I don’t know why I hesitated for another few seconds – I’d never been able to say “no” to Layla, and since the beginning of the phone call we both knew how the conversation would end. 

“Of course I’ll go,” I said.

“Great! We’ll fly you in next Tuesday. Alice can help you learn all the dances – I gave your mom a video of the last competition. You’ll pick it up quickly.”

“Yea,” I said, looking back at my mom who was watching me from the living room window, “I remember some of the choreography, so it’ll be easy.”

“Fantastic. Mary, it’s going to be great to have you with us again. Thank you so much.”

I felt a smile and small skip in my stomach at these words, along with the satisfaction that always came after pleasing Layla. I craved her approval and acceptance, even after being away from the dance company for two years. 

“So, we’ll see you in a few days. Say “hi” to your mom for me!”

“Okay, I will. Thanks Layla, I’ll see ya.”

The few days leading up to the New York trip involved me studying a competition video and Alice sitting on the couch behind me, her foot raised, with ice wrapped tightly around her broken toe.

“Yep, that’s right,” Alice encouraged, “then turn to stage left. Exactly.”

How I ended up with such an incredible sister is beyond me. This was Alice’s last dance competition in New York, and she was going to spend it sitting at home with a fractured toe. I don’t think I ever heard her complain- not once – that her older sister would be competing, illegally filling her spot. 

“Is it a triple time step, or a double?” I asked, squinting at the television.

“It’s a double,” Alice said, “three doubles, a break on the left, then we walk to the final kick line.”

Flying into New York to compete a few days later felt surreal. I had danced in conventions and competitions for eight years, and the level of stress and anxiety that I had affiliated with them started to flood back immediately. I could hear the high-pitched voice of Dianne, our company director, in my head, screaming at me for missing a turn. I could hear Layla’s words, pressuring me to out-dance the others in my age group in order to win the “Dancer of the Year” title.

Every American dance competition includes up to five days of convention – master classes with nationally-renowned teachers of tap, ballet, jazz, contemporary, and hip hop. Every dancer walking into these classes is given a number, and with that number, the teachers are asked to award scholarships to the most talented dancers in each age group. I began winning these scholarships when I was 13 years old, which set the expectation that I represent the company by winning them regularly. This expectation, along with the pressure from my coaches to win a platinum medal for every piece I danced in, lay at the core of my anxiety throughout my years as a young dancer. I was told to wear revealing outfits, push myself to the front of every convention class, and wear heavy amounts makeup – which I never chose to wear outside of my dance life. This convention, however, would be different. I was supposed to be as invisible as possible until I was onstage. 

When I arrived at the Sheraton hotel on West 53rd Street, the hundreds of dancers who I would be competing against that night had been taking master classes since that morning. I was to stay away from the convention hall and spend the rest of the day in the hotel room until our call time.

By call time, I had my face covered in competition makeup – dark eyeshadow, glitter on my cheeks, fake eyelashes, and bright red lipstick – with my hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, and beige tights with fishnet stockings beneath my sweatpants. I would be competing only one number that night – a trio that I had danced many times before I graduated. As I took the elevator down to the green room, I was expecting to be welcomed with open, gracious arms by Layla, Dianne, and my old dance friends – but the moment I stepped out of the elevator, I heard people shouting my name from the lobby.  

“Mary! Mary!” Was all that I heard for a few seconds, then the words, “red light… taxi… hospital…” Both Layla and Dianne were walking briskly toward me, with phones pressed against their ears.

“Chelsea -” Dianne put down her phone and placed her hand on my arm, “Chelsea was hit by taxi cab this afternoon.” 

As I dropped my dance bag to the floor, my stomach dropped with it. Chelsea Martin was one of the sweetest dancers in the company – a girl who brought light to some of the dimmest moments in our company rehearsals. I opened my mouth to speak, but Layla turned away from her phone and spoke before I could get a word out.

“She’s fine – she’s in the hospital. Her mom was hit too. Stupid New York taxi drivers,” she pressed her phone back to her ear and walked away.

I looked to Dianne, slightly less panicked.

“We need you to dance Chelsea’s parts this week,” Dianne said, “All of them.”

I nodded quickly before stating the obvious problem, “But… I’m dancing Alice’s parts. They dance in the same pieces so…”

“We’re flying Alice in tonight,” Dianne interrupted, “she’ll be here in time to perform tomorrow.” 

“Uh…” I spoke slowly, “but – Dianne, Alice’s toe is still broken. I really don’t think she can dance on it.”

“She’ll be fine,” Dianne said with a small hand gesture, “Pushing through the pain is part of being a dancer.”

Dianne had told me this multiple times before, and I had truly believed that pain was part of taking my art seriously. I used to say these words to myself over and over again when I sprained my ankle and danced on it for so long that the muscle literally fell off the bone. Hearing those words toward Alice, however, angered me and made me realize how stupid that mindset really was. 

But dancers are meant to listen, to agree, and to never talk back to their directors. So I picked up my bag and asked, “How many pieces was Chelsea in, and how long do I have to learn them?”

Dianne pulled a crumpled-up program from her bag, paused to read it, then answered, “You’ll have to learn six pieces total, and three by tomorrow afternoon.”

Typically, hearing that I had less than a day to learn and compete three new dances would have made me panic. But there was no time to waste that kind of energy. I nodded, adjusted my heavy dance bag on my shoulder, made my way to the green room, and put on my first costume.