Excerpt from an essay in my new book, Gods of Water and Air:
Croix, Four on a Side, Every Day Until You Die
At age thirteen, you need something glorious in your life
just to breathe. My mother was at Long Beach State afternoons earning her
teaching credential, and Dad was at his new apartment. Everything was changing,
so I needed a daily dose of tradition. I found it at Rosalie and Alva’s Ballet
Theatre on Weymouth Corners, next to Perry's Five-and-Dime, where after four
o'clock class I could load up on bubble gum and chocolate bars.
"Raychelle, point your
toe!" shouted Rosalie. Six years of study, and she never pronounced my
name right, but she was like radar on an unpointed toe.
Rosalie pounded her stick on the
floor and bull-horned another order – something about a bent knee. With her
hair tucked under a white turban and her coral-painted lips and hair, she
looked like Rhonda Fleming playing a female yogi. Rosalie raced around the
room, bending an arm here, poking a leg there, shouting. Everything about her
was theatrical and excessive, from her fabulous arches to her rusty garage door
"You have great
potential," she had told me. "You may even have talent, if you can
find the drive. If you want to dance, you can't think about anything
This was a problem for a shy
dreamer with too many hobbies, but I was a faithful student, taking four
classes a week. Rosalie was a model of her own philosophy. Though her dancing
had been in movie musicals and night clubs, not in ballet companies, she was
devoted to high art, and hoped her students would exceed her career of
high-lift ballroom dancing with Alva.
Talent was a potent word, one my
mother shied away from when I showed her my stories and poems. "Very few
people have talent," she said. "It's inborn." Dad said even
straight A's did not mean you could rest on your talent. I was desperate for
someone to discover it had been born in me, talent for something. I knew I had
a destiny that had something great about it. Rosalie seemed to think I might
have talent, which in her view had nothing to do with being born.
In a studio filled with music,
passion and pink satin, springing to my toes on a pliant wood floor, despite
intense pressure on my knees and toe joints, I could feel talent steaming off
my skin. It propelled me into the air. I imagined I might pause in mid-air, as
they said Nijinsky did. So I did my eight en croix, four on a side, figuring I
would do these exercises every day until I died, because satin toe shoes were
levitation devices. With them, I could float onto imagination's gauzy stage, a
soloist at last. The cavernous, raftered studio had once been a warehouse and
still smelled faintly of walnuts, but it was so capacious that I could leap and
spin across it far and fast, feeling myself an object of pure momentum. Ballet
was one thing girls could do better than boys, better than anything in my
father's supersonic world of satellites, apogees and payloads. Music was energy
flowing through me, and I needed no quadratic equation to catch its waves and
Rosalie said I had some physical
defects, but determination could overcome almost any defect. I had just seen
Margot Fonteyn dance at the Hollywood Bowl with that handsome Russian defector
Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet. They
were so perfectly paired and he danced behind her with such reverence that I
felt I could do pliés forever to dance like that.
"Talent will out," my
mother said mysteriously.
I did not know what this meant, but
would rather hear Rosalie say, "Raychelle, you must work, work,
With my tendons stretched so taut
in an arabesque I thought they might snap, I thought, if this isn't talent, I
give up. Rosalie came over and whacked my leg with her stick.
"That's where your arabesque
must be. Have you gained some weight?"
I had no reply, but
she had moved on to her next demolition.