Winnie raced down the last few steps knowing she would be late again if she didn’t hurry. She bumped into the wall at the bottom of the stairs as she tried to take the corner too quickly, ignoring the way the movement gave her vertigo. She dropped her bag in the corner of the practice room and hurried to the bar.
The company had already begun warmups and Winnie received a pointed look from across the room from Madame Audrey. Winnie already felt like she was under a microscope and fought a yawn, not wanting anyone to know how tired she was. She’d only been with the company a few months and wasn’t sure how long she’d feel like the new kid. She had to be perfect for now.
She and Joel had been on the phone late into the night planning for Thanksgiving break. Having performances with Nutcracker and Swan Lake gave Winnie the excuse to stay in New York City over Joel’s holiday so he was flying here. As an added bonus, Winnie had an excuse to miss Thanksgiving at her mother’s house for the first time since she was born. That made her smile as she bent her legs in grand plié.
Down, and up, and down, and up, and relevé, and return to demi plié. Winnie could do warmups in her sleep and got lost in the stretching and bending and reaching, warming her body from the chill outside the studio.
Her body craved the soup she’d planned for lunch and she fought against her hunger, knowing the sooner she warmed her body, the sooner the soup would seem less desirable. She wouldn’t need to drink something warm because she’d already be warm. She would though. She would force herself to drink the warm, vegetable soup with savory broth. Her stomach growled but she ignored it. Not time for lunch yet.
In the back of her mind, Winnie could hear her former ballet mistress, Madame Jocie asking her every day, “When was the last time you ate?” No one asked her that anymore. In the company, she was responsible for her own health. She had control now. As long as she showed up on time, put in the work, and performed at her best, no one paid any attention. Not that they didn’t care. They did. They just didn’t know. She wasn’t going to tell them.
After forty-five minutes at the barre, the members of the company split up into various practice rooms to begin rehearsals. Winnie would practice for three ballets that day in addition to a performance that evening, a total of about eight hours of dance. She had to reserve her energy in order to peak at nine-thirty that evening. Her performance had to end even stronger than it began, or she wasn’t satisfied.
Winnie was one of six understudies for the part of Sugar Plum Fairy but unless five other girls, all of whom had been in the company a year longer than she had, all suddenly couldn’t dance for whatever reason, she would be dancing the part of one of the Spanish dancers or Flowers. She needed to be ready at a moment’s notice to step into whichever part she was needed.
At University of Michigan, she’s been the elite dancer, at her performing arts high school she’d been the best of the best, but in her first year at the Ajkun Ballet Theatre company, she was lowest on the totem pole. That was okay. Everyone had to start somewhere. She was honored to have this opportunity.
Throughout the morning she threw herself further and further into her head, focusing on feeling the dance rather than remembering the steps. She knew the steps. She’d studied them all her life.
If the ballet masters or mistresses told her to perform a fouetté rond de jambe en tournant, she could extend her working leg to the front, whip it around into a spin, retract the toe to the knee of the supporting leg and complete the turn before they told her how many rotations.
Unfortunately, the number of rotations that morning was infinite, or so it seemed to Winnie’s increasingly fatigued body. She didn’t want to admit weakness and request an early lunch, so she kept spinning. They would make some correction. One of the dancers in the front row was out of time and they’d start the whole sequence over. Someone else had their arms in the wrong position, someone else had the wrong facial expression, someone else started too slow, someone else started too fast, someone else didn’t spot in time with everyone else, someone else… someone else… someone…
Someone said her name softly amidst beeping and darkness and haze and she tried to force her eyes open because she recognized that voice except Joel wasn’t scheduled to fly to New York until Wednesday afternoon and it was only Monday. She let the darkness pull her under again. The world was more peaceful in the darkness.