I just thought my life wasn’t exciting enough.
I read about it in books and articles, see it in documentaries and movies; people who do the impossible and get an article published or movie made in their honor. I was inspired, but not truly touched because I could never understand what it really felt like to have everything you loved ripped away from you because of something you couldn’t control. Then, I did.
I was 3 when I joined my first dance lesson. I was sticky handed, rosy-cheeked and smelled like the afternoon’s apple juice. As I ran into my ballet class for the first time, I knew I never wanted to leave.
The silky, soft pink ribbon in my hair would not sit right, but I felt special regardless. My fingers, with the remains of my peanut butter and grape jelly snack, would grab my hair and attempt to construct the chignons I saw my ballet instructor, Madame Camille, pin. They never turned out right and she would float across the room to help.
She smelled like powdery rose and black tea leaves, and the scent would linger behind and tickle my nose. She would brush my hair until it stuck straight onto my head, then twirl the hair as she held the pin between her teeth. In a movement swifter than the pirouettes we did at the barre, she placed the pin by the hair and secured the chignon. The chignon that I made just chose to flop onto my face.
I went to my lessons four days a week for ten years. I made some of my closest friends there, but greater than anything, I found something I was good at. I put every free moment I had into practicing my foot placements and becoming stronger. Then, something changed.
I had spent my life since age 3 seeing Madame Camille sometimes keep a girl after class. They would speak in a rushed whisper, like a short-lived wind echoing in your ears. The student would prance into the powder room, as if a heavy weight had been on her and was just removed.
The warm light of the powder room and soft balm of vanilla and ballet floor wax filled my lungs with anticipation. She would tell us that Madame Camille had told her that she was ready for her pointe lessons.
In ballet, pointe is the ultimate transition into womanhood. Pointe is the apple pie with vanilla ice cream at the end of Thanksgiving dinner. A thank you note, in a sense. Thank you for not giving up the first time your feet started bleeding or when your muscle spasms kept you up at night.
When I was 12, Madame Camille pulled me aside and gave me the pointe talk.
My shoes came in a worn, creamy yellow box. The edges of the cardboard were soft and smelled sweet. I took the pointe shoes out and ran my finger with chipped pink polish over the smooth, silky, texture of the shoe. The pink silk glowed in the morning light and let off a warm hazy halo. Then I looked inside.
A stiff block of wood with a tight strap to hold your ankle in place looked back at me, with angry glowing eyes. “You’re going to fail,” it seemed to jeer.
But I was ready, and I fell in love. My body was transforming and the swan in my head was becoming more beautiful. My calves became stiff, my shoulders pinned back, my neck stretched. My limbs would pop with my every move. Snap, crack, crack, pop, snap. I had never felt happier. This was the confirmation I needed. I have always been hard on myself and dismissed any praise as an empty comment. Pointe allowed me to rest in my abilities and I felt myself becoming the swan.
A few months after I went on pointe, I was playing tennis during P.E. Someone ran into me and as I fell, my knee fell out-of-place. As I hit the cement, my knee cap fractured. People ask me what I felt when it happened and I wish I had a response. The completely honest answer is that I didn’t feel anything at all and I wish I did.
Everything was moving slowly and I couldn’t get up. The cement was getting warmer and warmer by the second and my eyelids fell. I felt like I was running short of breath yet my heart was speeding and I could feel my pulse in my hands, which were shaking and hot.
I’ve removed a lot of thoughts from the first month after my injury from my mind. I was homeschooled and depressed. I didn’t want to talk to anyone yet I craved company more than anything. I had never felt more alone in my life. After a couple of more months of my knee not improving, I had surgery.
Through all this, I ignored calls and messages from my dance teacher and friends. Ballet was the one thing I had ever been good at, so why was that being taken away from me? I still can’t come to terms with exactly how I felt.
No, I was mad. I was mad because my doctors told me to stop thinking about ballet because I wouldn’t be able to go back and dance. I was mad at my body for not being strong enough. I was mad because I felt like I had been betrayed. The one thing in life I loved more than anything had been ripped away from me and there was nothing I could do.
After my surgery in April, my knee was fixed.
That’s a funny word; fix. Like fixing a clock whose hands stopped moving. Fixing my body part was a little like fixing a clock, I suppose. Fixing everything I believed was anything but that. I had spent months listening to my doctor talk to my parents behind doors that were meant to be sound proof. Believing you are wrong and broken and unable to be fixed. Sure I could walk, but my mind was buzzing.
But don’t worry for me. It was at this time that I found myself. I had spent so much of my life comparing myself to others and putting myself down for things I just couldn’t change. I didn’t have anyone to compare myself to anymore and I was so… joyful. I let my constant critiques towards myself rest and let them go forever.
My knee inhibits me from doing a lot. I can’t run, squat, kneel, or go on pointe. I would be lying if I said I don’t get upset every time I see my silky pink pointe shoes (which I angrily threw to the back of my closet). I still get into a fit of blue devils and I don’t know when I’ll get over my scars and numbness in my right leg. In fact, I’m still not over any of it and that’s okay.
It is true that humans try to make meaning out of experiences. I grew more in those few months than I emotionally had in a while. Still trying to make sense of it, I imagine it would be a lot harder to get better if I never found myself.
Pointe was not the validation I needed. The real validation to me was being happy with myself when I couldn’t do anything at all. It’s ironic to me how the first time I felt proud of myself, I couldn’t do the one thing I told myself was the only thing I was every good at. Now, I know I can do anything because I fixed what I never knew needed fixing: myself.