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Cloud Dancer

After a bad fall shakes her confidence as a ballerina, Sara resolves to get stronger

The thin black straps from my leotard dug into my skin. My feet stung and ached inside my dirty, pink pointe shoes, and the humid room reeked of sweat. The teacher was saying something in Russian, pointing to the corner. Her face was very much like that of a hawk; her sharp eyes speared us one by one.

Today was my second week at a Russian ballet sleepaway camp. Some of the best Russian teachers were brought to Connecticut to train kids in their style. I shifted my gaze to the corner, and my feet scraped the dusty, blue floor as I moved toward it. The words of the teacher passed through the translator, and her words hit me like a bucket of ice water. “Hops, from the corner, one by one!”

I watched as the girls around me bounced up and down. I, however, was struck with an overwhelming sense of fear. In my dance school, we only did pointe on the barre. Now I was supposed to know how to hop on pointe in the center? My feet had reached the corner of the room, and I found I was in the middle of the line. It couldn’t be impossible, right?

When the notes of the song began, the line in front of me got shorter and shorter. My palms got wet and clammy; my whole body felt fragile and stiff with anticipation. Soon, I stood second in line, then first, then . . . I felt a jolt in my toes as I came down from my first hop. The hops were meant to be on pointe, but I fell off my toes so often, anyone looking would have thought they were supposed to be on demi-pointe. There was a big gap between me and the person in front, and I heard groans coming from behind. Suddenly, my shoe came out from underneath me, wind rushed at my face. I felt myself plummet to the floor.

People stopped and eyed me with curiosity. What had happened? One second I was jumping on pointe, the next, I had gotten well-acquainted with the floor. My ears burned like fire, and my eyesight got bleary. A metallic taste lay in my mouth. I quickly scrambled off the floor and stared into my hands. The rest of the pointe class was torture for me. It felt like all the girls in the class were watching me, watching me as I stumbled from pointe during échappé combination.

I wanted them to accept me as a dancer who was as good as them. For that to happen, I needed to get stronger.

In class, the teachers didn’t really notice me. Since I was too shy to ask for help or any corrections, I wouldn’t get any better. Even when I fell from pointe, the teacher didn’t tell me what to do to stop myself from falling in the future—she didn’t even ask if I was okay. I might have even gotten worse at ballet if it hadn’t been for my roommate and friend, Clair. One day, Clair came up to me and asked if I needed help. I thanked her, and she suggested I do one-foot relevés to get stronger.

From then on, Clair was my teacher. She corrected my posture and turnout. In less than a week, I knew I had improved a lot.

“Wow, you’ve helped so much!” I beamed at her one day.

“You’re a great dancer, and you learn really quickly,” Clair replied honestly. “I only had to correct you once and you fixed it right away!” We laughed loudly and chatted in our cold dormitory, eating chips that filled the air with a salty smell much like the sea. The room was comfortable and I felt content . . . almost.

“Am I bad in pointe?” I queried. I wanted to know what others thought.

“No . . . You could always get better though.” Her eyes shifted, and I caught her fingers curling and uncurling like a flower.

“Am I that bad?”

“Well, I think you’ve grown much stronger. I’ll watch you during pointe tomorrow. That’s when the teacher said we’d be doing hops again.”

“But what if I fall?”

“You can always get stronger.”

“But—”

“Hey! Don’t psych yourself out, ’kay?”

“Alright. Good night, then.”

“Night.”

The next morning in ballet, I worked harder than ever before. During our short break, every molecule in my body shook from the effort. My hands felt hot, and sweat clung to my forehead. Before I knew it, I was tying the long pink ribbons on my pointe shoes. What if I fall again? Then I’ll let everyone down . . . me, my friend . . . I need to do this. I slipped into the center of the room and warmed up. The tip of my pointe shoes scraped the floor. The shoes had grown soft from hard work. The sun streamed through the dusty window. The long mirror on the wall glowed luminously in the dark room.

“From the corner. Enter after four counts,” the tall woman translated. I focused on her hair, long and brown. I looked at the chair, the floor . . . anywhere but the corner. The dreaded corner. I felt faint as I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Hundred-pound weights lay on my shoulders, and my muscles were sore from how hard I had worked throughout the week. Slowly, I shuffled up to the corner. The gnarled fingers of the piano player hit the keys as I placed myself in line. Fellow dancers rose onto pointe and bounced like rabbits across the room. I watched the flat tips of their shoes slam down on the floor, scattering dust right and left. I felt my throat close up; I wanted to melt into the floor.

What if I fall again? Then I’ll let everyone down . . .

Before I knew it, I was next in line. I counted myself in, then was hopping up and down with everyone else. My heart raced like a set of drums; I felt sure I’d fall and humiliate myself and my friend. My knees were significantly bent, and my hops were not perfect, but I didn’t look down. I bored holes into the faded blue wall. Closer. . . I might make it! I could almost touch the wall, and my eyes lit up at the thought of success.

Then, my foot twisted, and my knees slumped forward like a sack of potatoes. My sweaty arms flailed in the air as I crumpled to the ground. I grabbed hold of the barre in front of me—my only hope. I held on to it and heaved my body up. I felt tears spring into my eyes but choked them back. I turned around. I hadn’t made it.

Clair ran over to me. I thought she’d tell me I had shown improvement, but I hadn’t; I had failed. When she reached me, her arms widened and then engulfed me in a hug. I smiled weakly. She was probably trying to make me feel better.

“Sara, you were awesome! I mean, sure, you need work, but on Monday, you fell and stumbled dozens of times. In four days, falling once is a big improvement!” Her words stumbled over each other and her eyes glowed with pride.

“But—but I fell!” I whispered. The words came out low and broken up.

“We can work on it, sure, but you learn fast. Your hops’ll be perfect in no time.”

I realized what Clair meant. In less than a week, I had grown much stronger. At the end of camp, I fantasized, my hops would be as good as everyone else’s.

“Sit with me at lunch?”

“Definitely!” I replied. I thought back to the first day, how hard I had worked after that, and how much stronger I had become. I ran to take off my pointe shoes and get to lunch.

Sara Heller
Sara Heller, 12
New York, NY

Sage Millen
Sage Millen, 11
Vancouver, Canada

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