“Remember to pause a full breath during your transition from the adagio section at the beginning into your allegro, and don’t throw your leg too much on your grande jete.” Madame Jocie took Winnie by the shoulders and gently straightened her posture, then lifted her chin and met her gaze. “You’ve got this. The piece was written for you. Your performance is near perfect. Don’t worry about the audience. Don’t worry about the talent scouts. Don’t worry about that hot football player I know will be watching.”
“He may not get here in time.” Winnie choked back tears. “Indianapolis is four hours away.”
“The game got over at three. That’s five hours ago. If he left right away, he could make it.”
“He’s probably still celebrating with his team.” Winnie dismissed Joel as if knowing he wouldn’t be here. He’d played—and won—the Big Ten Championship game that afternoon. Driving back to Ann Arbor for a ballet showcase wasn’t top priority. “Besides the players have hotel rooms in Indianapolis tonight. The bus isn’t even returning until tomorrow.”
“Did he say he was coming?” Madame Josie was baiting Winnie with her rhetorical question.
“Yes,” Winnie said, squaring her shoulders with renewed confidence.
“Then dance as if he’s in the front row and he’s the only member of the audience who matters. Whether he’s there or not, you’ve given your best performance as if he was.”
“Okay, I can do that.” Before they could converse further, the music shifted, and Winnie’s curtain call beckoned. Her toe shoes thumped delicately across the stage in little beats, and she came to a rest at center stage, chin lifted, eyes half closed, waiting for her performance piece to begin.
This was it. This was what she’d been working toward all these years. This was her moment to shine. She took Madame Jocie’s advice and focused on the proverbial front row, which she couldn’t actually see because of the stage lights. All the rest of the audience didn’t matter. She wanted Joel to appreciate her performance.
If he was in the auditorium at all.
Jarrod Radnich’s fingers began their slow progression across the keys of his piano and Winnie got lost in his song. Muscle memory took over and her body flowed with the undercurrent of the beats, as if they were smooth and connected without individual notes. Forty-five seconds into the piece, Jarrod slowed his strokes to a few graceful sounds and Winnie remembered Madame Jocie’s suggestion to hold a pregnant pause there.
When the music resumed with quick, pounding beats, Winnie leapt into her performance, jumping and spinning and lifting onto her toes as if the whole experience was effortless to her.
In a way, this was effortless. She had incorporated just enough modern elements into her showcase that the line between classical and contemporary dance was blurred. She wasn’t just showcasing her talent; she was showcasing her ability to choreograph and explore different styles of dance while still maintaining the tradition of pointe ballet. This was what she was born to do.
And she wanted to share the moment with Joel.
Winnie danced for Joel and him alone. Everyone else in the auditorium was merely here to observe her seduction. She wanted her performance to bring Joel to his knees.
If he was watching.
During the pounding climax of the song, Winnie launched into a series of pirouettes, spotting that proverbial front row and the man of her dreams watching her from the darkness of the theater, even if he was still popping champaign with his teammates in Indianapolis.
He was there. With her. Every turn. Every spot. Every turn. Every spot.
Rather than landing in the traditional fourth arabesque, Winnie ended her series of pirouettes by extending her leg in a releve en pointe that was nearly perpendicular to the stage. She then used the momentum to transition into a tour jete arabesque finally landing in a simple fourth arabesque closing out the piece with classic elegance. The cheering began before the music ended and Winnie took a series of curtsies, bowing to her audience of one, wherever he was.
Exhilaration radiated from her very being as she travelled across the floor, her face to the audience until the last second when she disappeared into the curtains of stage left.
Right into the arms of her ballet mistress who held Winnie as she sobbed onto her shoulder.
Madame Jocie was always prepared with a box of tissue and a water bottle. For some weird reason Winnie couldn’t hold in the emotions of her performance and the tears just flowed. Happened every time. Thankfully always in the wings and thankfully no one questioned her outpouring of emotion.
“Come on, let’s get you to your dressing room so you can clean yourself up,” Madame Jocie said, pulling Winnie gently away from the stage.
Winnie followed obediently, allowing herself to be pulled along blindly, trusting her ballet mistress would lead her wherever she needed to go next.
Her tears had mostly stopped by the time she reached her dressing room where she was met with a surprise. A handsome defensive cornerback fresh off the field where he’d helped the University of Michigan football team win the Big Ten Championship game a mere five hours prior.
“Joel, you’re here!” Winnie threw herself into his arms and he held her as the tears flowed again. “How did you get here so fast?” she asked through her sobs.
“I took my Mustang down and drove home as soon as we got off the field, well, after a shower, of course.”
“You’d smell almost as bad as I do if you hadn’t,” Winnie joked, knowing she was drenched in sweat.
“Trust me, you smell like roses compared to the way a team of football players smell when we get off the field.”
“Speaking of roses—” Winnie pulled back and met his gaze. “Is the Rose Bowl guaranteed now?”
“It’s official.” He grinned. “We’re heading to Pasadena.”
“Yay!” She jumped up and down like a little girl then realized she was still in her toe shoes and a very restrictive tutu that was getting in the way of any intimacy she was trying to convey in her celebration. She pulled away from Joel again. “I gotta get this thing off.”
Without any other preamble, Winnie tugged the stiff taffeta tutu down over her hips and stepped out from within its constriction.
“Dang, if you’re going to start removing clothes, maybe we should close the door to your dressing room,” Joel said with a provocative whistle.
“Don’t tempt me, young man,” Winnie teased him. “You’re the one who put the brakes on that particular activity. If you’re ready to change your mind, let me know.”
“Come with me to Pasadena,” Joel said suddenly.
“I want you to come with me when we go out to California.” Joel placed both hands on her hips and pulled her close to him. “I want you to meet my parents and family and see where I grew up. Come with me to the Rose Bowl.”
“Really?” She rested her hands on his biceps, giving them a little squeeze. Her heart raced almost as much as when she ran off the stage following her performance.
“And let’s bring your family. We can get them tickets to the game, stay at a fancy hotel, have your family meet my family… and maybe come back for the winter semester and move into married housing.”
“M—married housing?” Her jaw dropped and her head spun with shock. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“I know we just met a few weeks ago, and this has happened really fast, but I can’t think of a better way to cap off this incredible year than to end the year sleeping in your arms and start the new year winning the Rose Bowl.”
“Oh my gosh, you’re serious, aren’t you?” Winnie didn’t know whether to squeal or jump up and down and cry out with excitement.
“I thought about this for four solitary hours as I rushed home to see the most incredible woman I’ve ever met dance the most incredible performance I’ve ever seen, and I just know that I have to be yours forever. I am yours forever. You have my heart. Let me give you all the rest of me too.”
“Okay.” Winnie nodded once, then again with more conviction. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Let’s do this!” She jumped into his arms again.
“Wait, I haven’t even asked you, yet.”
“No.” Joel pushed her away slightly and lowered himself to one knee right there in her dressing room. He cleared his throat. “Edwina Cosette LaFleur, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
“Yes! Oh my gosh, yes!” Winnie bounced with excitement, still wearing her leotard, tights, and toe shoes, feeling more like a little girl than she did coming off the stage for her first recital at the age of three.
She was reminded of her desire just a little while ago to bring Joel to his knees with her performance. Seeing him on the floor in front of her asking her to be his wife brought more tears of joy to her eyes.
Joel lumbered back off his knees, lifted Winnie into a hug and captured her lips with his. Nothing could ever ruin the perfection of that moment.