"You hold too much reverence for the past."
- Lisa Campbell, Arabesque
It would be gone in a week.
The bed was narrow, but serviceable. The helper who would teach her ballet, Madame Pritzkova, had hair the same iron color as the frame, and she was about as unyielding.
They danced, here.
Of all the facts Lisa Campbell's mind could contain, that was the one she both clung to, for comfort, and surrounded herself with, also for comfort. Well, that thought and a few others.
"We dance here." Madame had said. Shortly. Precisely. Lisa had been given a brief tour.
By 'here,' Madame meant both in the huge building which housed some fifteen other hopeful ballerinas and the gigantic practice room which took up nearly all of the third floor. To a non-dancer, it just looked like a huge, open, floor space with a wall of gigantic mirrors at one end, and a series of horizontal bars bolted to the opposite wall on the other. An old piano sat near another wall, a huge wooden staff leaning against it.
Both the piano and the staff were Madame's. Both were for keeping tempo, keeping time. Touch either without permission, and the penalties could be... severe. Lisa had been assured of that.
But... they danced, here. No other fact was more important, to Lisa. No other sentence held more ... reverence … in her heart.
Fifteen other girls, here. Fifteen other dancers. Fifteen to best, fifteen to beat. Some of them were rich, and had been wearing ballet slippers since they were three years old, and toe shoes, since five. Some had also had lessons in tap, or jazz. Some were very pretty. Not as pretty as she was, she knew, but still. Fifteen. Fifteen to outshine, to outlast, to outperform.
She knew she would.
The practice room was huge. And very, very straight, everywhere. Everything in it was a straight line, even the piano, which was not a concert grand but an upright, shoved as far against the wall as far as it would go.
She'd be allowed to touch the barre. Allowed to dance, here, and see her reflection while she did so. Allowed to make a straight leg straighter, make a graceful plie’ and show the elegance of her arms, of her erect torso. She would echo the room. She would hold herself perfectly straight. Perfectly. A flawless, invisible line, from the tip of her longest finger over her head, to the tip of her nose, to the indent of her navel to the tip of her pointed toe. Ballet was about straight lines. Lines which gave way to graceful curves. It was about respect for the skill it took to produce that. It was about reverence for it.
Very few things in the place she’d come from were “straight.”
In the great practice room, the lines where the walls met the floor and the ceiling were straight, as were the lines of the ceiling itself. Lisa had stared at its rigid perfection, finding it so unlike her home she could have wept.
The floor was "straight on straight" being both perfectly flat and consisting of a series of varnished oak boards, to make up its surface. It kept a coat of wax. You had to pirouette on something, after all. Not just raw wood.
Not sand. Not stone. Not anymore.
The wooden staff was long, and not used for walking. It was not some long cane, to steady an unsteady gait. It was a musical necessity, a tool, a hardwood scepter. And Madame would weild it to keep tempo, ruthlessly. Reverentially.
One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-four. Over and over. The endless mantra of practice. The repetition of excellence. The catechism of the novice, the acolyte, and the prima ballerina, altogether.
Lisa knew she would begin as the former, but she would end as the latter. She just knew.
The inflexible stick would rap a hard tempo on the wooden floor tomorrow, as Madame paced among her many charges. Fifteen of those? Fifteen.
Well, sixteen, now.
Lisa was sweet sixteen. Both in number and in age. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed? She could still claim that. She could. He hadn't kissed her, after all.
No one. No one had kissed her. Not yet. Not ever. She kept the thought firmly in the forefront of her consciousness, then willed herself to think about the beautiful practice room, some more.
Of all the things that fascinated Lisa most about the practice room, it was the mirror that held her attention most completely. Like a longed-for treasure, like a reflective altar.
Floor to ceiling, uncompromisingly polished, it revealed every mistake. Also every perfection. Lisa had longed to pirouette in front of its great, light-reflecting, flaw-revealing, perfection-praising length. But her tunnel shoes had been inadequate to the desire.
"Your foot does not touch that floor in anything but proper ballet shoes," Madame had instructed archly. Lisa understood, instinctively. The floor was holy ground. Offerings would be made on its smooth, polished surface. Offerings. And sacrifices, too.
"And no toes. Not yet. Not for you." The woman had been severe, but Lisa had hung on her every accented word as if it was the wisdom of scripture.
"You have much to learn." The Russian accent had made Madame sound uncompromising. Mostly because she was. A tunnel refugee, for a while, she'd opened the school fifteen years ago. It was rumored that she'd once taught the great Natalia Makarova. That Makarova's interpretation of the swan princess was Madame's inspiration. In the foyer below, there was a grainy photograph of a young Madame standing in front of the Kirov.
If the practice hall was holy ground, the Kirov was a consecrated cathedral. Lisa wanted to dance there, one day. One day.
"In one year, you dance on toes." Madame had held up a bony finger, to indicate the number one. She was regally slender, and her chignon did not have a hair out of place, even at the end of a long day.
"In three, you dance professionally." It was a bold claim. But one Lisa knew could come true. The walls were lined with portraits of ballerinas who danced for the American Ballet Theater, among others.
In five, I dance for royalty, Lisa thought, but knew better than to say it aloud.
"I am told you have a talent. Are you willing to sacrifice all else for it?" Madame had asked. Her voice seemed to actually lose its harsh tone when she posed the question. Just a little.
Lisa's eyes shone with love. Love for what she was about to learn, love for what this woman was about to teach her, to show her. All other loves were consumed by the one love, out of both desire and necessity.
"I am." The words rang with conviction.
Madame nodded, accepting. Lisa Campbell had just sold her soul, though not to the devil. To a very, very demanding god. One who transformed "dance" into "grace," and "grace" into "elegance." One who made idols of swans and nutcracker princes. One who had little use for the elderly, but had an almost endless appetite for the young, the talented, and the beautiful.
One who also demanded an early bedtime. Earlier than it was, now.
"Go to bed, then. Sleep. Tomorrow, we start. Will the wound to your shoulder keep you from practicing?" Madame asked.
No. No wound could do that. Nothing could do that. Not a scratch, not a sprain, not a broken heart, nothing. And Lisa had only one of the three of those. Maybe.
“No, Madame,” the young girl answered. She shook her ponytail in the negative.
"Very well then.”
It was all the information Madame needed, and all Lisa wanted to part with. “Put your things away,” the older woman instructed. “Breakfast is at six. Stretching is at six thirty. By seven, the true work begins."
Six! Six o'clock! She had to wait eight whole hours to start her life? How could she bear to wait so long? And nine to truly begin it? She was both frustrated and obedient. She knew there would be no bargaining with Madame. Not yet, at least. Not until she'd proven her worth.
"If I wake up earlier..." Lisa tried.
"Six." Madame said shortly as she opened the door to the dormitory style room with four other beds in it.
Four other girls she'd barely bother to get to know. Four others she would best, and would beat.
And befriend, at least at first. There was no sense making enemies, outright. Lisa knew she had no money. Charm would be her currency, then.
They'd soon learn how good a dancer she was. They'd soon learn to give her her due. But for now, it might be best to wear a beguiling smile. For now, it might be best to ask questions which made you sound like you were interested in the answers, made you sound like you were curious about other people. Many of the girls had wealthy parents. Those contacts might serve useful, one day. Or not.
"Yes, Madame," Lisa inclined her head as she said it. She'd bow and scrape a bit, here. Now that she was in this harsh heaven.
A dresser held old clothes she'd be allowed to use, both for practice and for just wearing. She unpacked her second-hand suitcase quietly, putting her tunnel things in the bottom drawer. The one least likely to be used.
Madame waited by the door. Waited, while Lisa put her things away and took herself straight to bed.
There was no candlelight, immediately near, and that did seem odd. No softly diffused glow of flickering fire to light her way if she stumbled. No helping hands, either. No hands of any kind.
That was all right. Lisa had all the fire she needed, inside. She planned to burn very brightly. Very brightly, indeed.
The harsh, incandescent lights of the practice room could shine down on her like an interrogator's tool, if they wanted to. It didn't matter. She would show those lights, show that mirror. Show all the straight lines that she was the straighter. Show them the controlled line of her leg, of her back, of her neck, of her arms. Show them nothing but dedication, nothing but perfection and perfect devotion. The huge mirror would reveal her from every angle, and it would see nothing that was not splendid, was not devout, was not glorious. The mirror would revere her. She’d see to it.
In five years, I dance for royalty.
Maybe four. Maybe even less. Ambition burned in Lisa like it always had, like a flame of sacrificial offering, and now it burned even hotter, if that was possible. It was consuming every regret, and every doubt. It was doing what Lisa needed it to do. Ambition felt good. Ambition felt wonderful. It blocked silly things, like sadness, or homesickness.
She set her brush on the top of the dresser. It held a small, vanity mirror.
Not everyone liked mirrors.
As soon as the thought entered her mind, she banished it, throwing it as far away from herself as her ambitions would hurl it.
There were straight lines and mirrors, here. Incandescent lights and an exacting task mistress. A catechism to master. One-and-two-and-three-and-four. Fifteen to beat and fifteen to best. There was no place for anything else. Or anyone else. None.
She lifted the blanket to tuck herself in as Madame waited, a long, backlit shadow in the doorway. The twin-sized mattress was firm, against her back. Athletic bodies needed an unyielding place to sleep, and support for the lumbar muscles. Lisa had never felt anything more solid against the planes of her young body.
Other than his young chest, against it.
And that thought followed the first, hurled into the abyss of things Lisa Campbell could not afford to look at too closely, right now. Or ever again.
"Six o'clock," Madame intoned. "Be dressed in a fresh leotard and tights, and keep your legs in leg warmers. You do not want to sprain anything on the first day. Cold muscles get strains. Warm ones stay healthy."
"Yes, Madame," Lisa whispered as loudly as she dared. “I will do as you say.”
The shrewd woman in the doorway sensed that was true. At least, for now. It was all she needed to know of her newest charge, for the moment. Time would tell her more. Time would tell her everything. Time was almost as demanding a god as dance was.
"Sleep. Tomorrow your life begins, soon enough."
The hall light was turned off, and Lisa stared up at the shadowed, ceiling, thinking of the future. Nothing but the future. Lisa had fond memories, to be sure. But she had no reverence for them. For any of them. They were the past. And what had Lisa Campbell to do with that? Especially now?
“I am told you have a talent. Are you willing to sacrifice all else for it?”
There was nothing for her back there, nothing she could claim, behind her. How easy to leave it, then? It was here, in this place, where her life would truly start. Here, and nowhere else.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow my life begins.
Her shoulder was a little sore. Best she sleep on her side, then, she realized, as she turned. Father had put antiseptic, and a bandage on it, and declared that the scratches were not deep. They wouldn't keep her from what she wanted to do. Wouldn't keep her from what she loved. From what she revered.
Nothing would do that. Nothing and no one. Her borrowed leotard would cover the worst of it.
It would be gone in a week.
No matter where you are in your own fairy-tale, I wish you love.~ Cindy
Illustration supplied by the author