Summer before sophomore year
“I realize this is upsetting news,” said Ms. Daniels, watching me and Olivia across her enormous wooden desk.
There was no way I was letting her see me cry. I bit my lip and stared at the wall behind her.
It was hung with photographs of ballerinas—on stage wearing elaborate tutus; in leg warmers and cutoff T-shirts, draped over the barre; at dressing tables, the lights around their mirrors casting a halo as they stared soulfully at their own reflections. Across the bottom of each was a scrawled message and an autograph, the first letters of the signatures dwarfing the rest of the name like principle dancers before the corps de ballet. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t decipher all the names. If you had been dancing as long as I had, if you had been in the ballet world your entire life, each of the women on Ms. Daniels’s wall was as recognizable as the president of the United States.
Olivia and I had dreamed that one day our photographs would be on Ms. Daniels’s wall too.
But apparently, they were not going to be.
Ms. Daniels had called us into her office immediately after the final class of the summer intensive, and now she sat and fussed with a heavy-looking silver pen that lay on the center of her immaculate blotter. We had known it probably wasn’t good news she was going to deliver when she asked to see us; girls who met with Ms. Daniels after class almost always walked out of her office crying. So we’d been ready to hear we hadn’t performed as well as we should have this summer and that we were going to be repeating a class in the fall.
But not this.
We’d never imagined this.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Olivia’s bare arm. The strap of her leotard had slipped off her shoulder, and as I watched, she slid it back up. I would have done the same thing—as NYBC dancers, we’d been warned for years about the ramifications of looking sloppy at school—but suddenly the gesture struck me as insane.
Who cared if we looked sloppy anymore?
Ms. Daniels abruptly put her pen in the drawer and glanced at her watch.
Olivia cleared her throat. “We both . . .” Her voice caught, and for a second I thought she was going to start crying, but she just swallowed and went on. “Zoe and I worked very hard this summer.”
“I realize that,” said Ms. Daniels. “Unfortunately, hard work is not always enough.” She touched her tongue to her lip, then slipped it back into her mouth when she saw me notice.
Olivia and I had been dancing with the elite NYBC—the most competitive ballet school in the country—since we were nine years old. The year we’d auditioned, eight hundred other girls had tried out for twelve spots. We’d planned on auditioning for the studio company when we were juniors in high school. If we’d been accepted, senior year we would have left Wamasset High to take dance classes at NYBC full-time, earning our high school diplomas by correspondence class. We’d get our own apartment in Manhattan and have glamorous tours through the capitals of Europe, brilliant reviews in Dance Magazine and the New York Times, thrilling romances with visiting dancers from Moscow and Paris.
Little girls would put posters of us on their walls.
“I appreciate that this is difficult news to process, so I want to make sure what I am saying is completely clear,” said Ms. Daniels, looking from me to Olivia. “There is no longer space for you at NYBC.”
If I even tried to answer her, I was definitely going to start bawling. For five years, Monday through Friday, we’d come into Manhattan from New Jersey. Saturday mornings, while other girls were sleeping late or shopping at the mall or playing sports or doing homework or going to birthday parties, we went back to the city and danced some more.
And now, according to the school’s director, we were finished.
Did she really think her message might somehow be unclear?
“We understand.” My voice was shaking, and suddenly I felt Olivia’s hand on mine. It wasn’t until she touched me that I realized how tightly I had been squeezing the arm of the chair.
For a second, I took my eyes off Ms. Daniels and looked at Olivia in the chair next to mine. She was still staring straight ahead, and as I watched, her profile morphed into Olivia in the dressing room at the New Jersey ballet school where we’d met when we were four. Can you help me? she’d said, walking over to me with the barrette that had slid out of her long blond hair.
Well, there was no way I was going to be able to help her with this.
I looked back at Ms. Daniels. She adjusted the pin shaped like a toe shoe that held her elaborate silk scarf in place. Once again, her tongue flickered at the corner of her mouth.
The silence deepened. Finally, Ms. Daniels stood up. Then we did too.
“I hope you will both see this not just as an end but as a beginning.” She gave a small, sad smile. “Dance is one thing to do with your life. But it is not the only thing.”
The words were professional. Smooth. I imagined her polishing them semester after semester as she spoke to girls just like me and Olivia. Girls who had worked hard. Who had worked so hard they had done nothing but work. Girls who had given everything they had to dance. But who were still never going to be good enough.
I made this weird noise, half laugh, half cry. It must have sounded as if I was choking, and Livvie slipped her fingers into mine.
Ms. Daniels didn’t acknowledge the sound, just held her hand out to me. Not knowing what else to do, I shook it with my free hand, then turned away and walked across her office to the door, my toe shoes silent on the thick beige carpet.
“Good luck,” said Ms. Daniels. “Keep in touch.”
“Thank you, Ms. Daniels,” said Olivia as automatically as she’d adjusted the strap of her leotard. Then she followed me out of Ms. Daniels’s office and pulled the door shut behind us.
We looked at each other. Neither of us spoke.
This is the worst thing that will ever happen, I thought, and as I stared into Olivia’s enormous green eyes, I knew she was thinking the same thing. This is the worst thing that will happen to us in our entire lives.