On Her Toes
On Tuesday afternoons Catherine and eight other seven year olds from South Philadelphia took classes in toe, tap and ballet in Gloria’s basement. One wall was completely mirrored reflecting the wood paneling on the other three and the harsh fluorescent lighting on the ceiling. The floor was covered in brown and gray linoleum squares. The setting was sparse but when the music began Gloria’s students were transformed from chatty little girls into baby swans flapping their wings, unsteady on their feet.
Catherine walked around the house in her toe shoes stuffed with cotton. Sometimes her toes bled. With the wisdom of a second grader, Catherine thought it worth the price. The girls were reminded to practice at home during the week. She was more than diligent. Catherine begged, without success, to have her name changed to Katerina Ballerina. She impressed her parents, Bill and Margaret, and little brother, Michael, with pirouettes and graceful arabesques. Spinning around in a tutu though was her very favorite thing. She was a princess then.
Catherine was small and solemn for her age. Already a frown line was beginning to grow across her forehead. She had blonde curls, sparkly, green eyes and an extensive vocabulary. People always thought she was extra smart when she spoke. Maybe it was the glasses. She felt graceful when she danced.
After much repetition, the girls learned the steps of the week and put them to music, the best part, unless you forgot the steps. If she looked out of the corner of her eye, Catherine could peek at Michele Anderson, who always remembered the proper sequence. Catherine was quietly resentful.
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Gloria had bright red, wavy hair. She moved like a swan in one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The girls’ teacher was tall, lean and had a very long neck. Her arms were like branches moving in a gentle wind. She was patient, correcting mistakes with a smile. “And 5 and 6 and 7 and 8,” and the girls were off.
The children participated in a recital once a year. The event took place in the vast high school auditorium. There was much ado about who would stand where. It was obvious that the girls on the front row had the best form and the best recall. There were tears. Dismayed, Becky Rosen and Susan DeDario, threatened not to show up at all. But of course, everyone did.
Catherine was flattered that she had been awarded a solo. She had another costume to wear replete with a rainbow of colorful sequins and feathers.
On the night of the performance, Catherine waited in the wings while two other students took their bows and exited the stage. She’d practiced and polished her routine to perfection. She rehearsed it over and over with her parents as an approving audience. Finally, it was her moment. She tip-toed onto the stage and curtsied. The music started but Catherine was so anxious that she couldn’t remember what came after the second arabesque. She froze in the spotlights for a few seconds and began to spin and twirl until the music stopped. She paused briefly and then toppled over. Everyone applauded. Some people laughed. Catherine picked herself up, curtsied once more and scrambled awkwardly off stage in tears. She wished she could just erase herself.
Catherine was self-conscious during dance class the following Tuesday. She tried to ignore the giggles and whispers, held her head high and executed three perfect cartwheels across the floor. No one else could do more than two. Sandra Carter couldn’t do any.
Catherine kept on taking lessons until she was about eleven. She’d added back flips, tumbling techniques and several fancy tap numbers to her repertoire.
Eventually, Leon Houser became much more fascinating than classical ballet. The two would meet after school in the park behind the school. Catherine loved how he bounced when he walked in his high top sneakers. She loved his crystal blue eyes, glossy black hair and his pompadour. She even liked the small space between his two front teeth. He could run the fifty yard dash in 6.5 seconds. Leon carved their initials on the tallest oak tree, pressed Catherine against it and kissed her. The kiss was wet, but sweet. They didn’t know what to do next so they did it again and again. Catherine gave up her dream of ever joining the ensemble at the Pennsylvania Ballet. She was going to marry Leon and raise his children.
She became an architect, married Edward Martinson and raised their two boys instead. On weekends, she taught little girls to dance.
Her feet are arthritic these days. She gave her tutu and tap shoes away long ago but those shiny pink toe shoes still hang en pointe in Catherine’s closet.
This story first appeared in The Screech Owl, in November 2013.