Recently I assisted a small friend who was dressing for her ballet class. As I helped Lily change into her dance costume, I told her about those long-ago years when I was a ballerina myself.

When I was growing up, my weekly ballet lesson was in the city 20 miles away. My sister attended with me, as well as other girls from our neighborhood. Our mothers took turns driving us to the studio while we all chattered, giggled and ate cookies. Upon arriving, we raced up the three flights of stairs, clutching our black practice shoes to our chests, then each laid down $1. Yes, that’s what an hourlong dance class cost in the early ’60s.

After the mother of the week helped us pin back our hair, we lined up against the wall, waiting our turn to enter the classroom. Who knew what amazing dance steps we would learn that day? Perhaps we would practice the jeté, my favorite. I still recall the butterflies in my stomach when the heavy double doors opened, and the younger girls spilled out into the foyer, their faces rosy and damp, hair springing from their buns.

The year I remember most, my sister and I were 7 and 8, relieved we were no longer in the “Bumblebee” class. We were “Daisies” and next year, God willing, we’d be promoted to “Swans,” a dream come true.

Curtsy for Madame

At the beginning of every class, our instructor, Madame Stuart stood by the door and greeted each of us by name, “Good afternoon, Mademoiselle Schneider.” I curtsied and answered, “Good afternoon, Madame,” before warming up at the barre.

A teenage student was always on hand to assist us. Although her teeth were clad in braces, she had a beautiful smile and was very kind. Her name was Mademoiselle Clark, but we called her Barbara when Madame was changing the records on the player or engaged one-on-one with another student. If Madame heard us talking she slapped the riding crop she always carried against the polished floor. Mes demoiselles!” she would shout as she stood especially erect and flounced the filmy skirt she wore over her black leotard. “Taisez-vous!” It was easy to figure out that she was ordering us to keep quiet.

The older girls I carpooled with didn’t care for Madame Stuart. “She’s so mean. She isn’t really French,” they whispered. “And what’s with the riding crop? We’re not Lipizzan stallions.” I didn’t join these conversations. I admired Madame greatly and watched her every move; her graceful walk, the manner in which she sipped her tea, even how she subtly handed her riding crop to Barbara when she needed to demonstrate arm positioning to the class.

I loved the way Madame twirled across the room on her toe shoes and leaped into the air without the least bit of effort. I was sure it felt like flying; I was equally sure I would never be able to dance like that.

A mistake?

That spring we had a recital at the local high school. Oh, the preparation, the hours of dress rehearsals, the phoning to invite everyone. My mother made my glimmering white tutu, trimmed with silver sequins. She bought us white tights and had dance shoes dyed silver at the shoe store. It was terrifyingly wonderful.

At the performance, when I executed my jeté, I was scared to death, but I flashed a big smile at the audience and leaped into the air … only to realize it was my sister’s turn for her jeté. We nearly collided upon landing at center stage. “Madame is going to have a fit!” taunted my classmates in a whisper.

In the dressing room afterward, as Barbara tissued off our makeup and wiped my considerable tears, Madame Stuart marched up to me sternly, tapping her riding crop on her palm. In front of the whole class, she snorted, “Mademoiselle Schneider,” then hesitated before a slight smile tugged at her lips. “A magnificent jeté! You looked as if you were flying! Brava!” With her words still hanging in the air, she jauntily swung her riding crop to part the crowd of girls around me, and walked away.

Karen Carlton is a freelance writer living in West Bath. She may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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