A Dancer’s Notebook
by Nina Rubinstein Alonso
My summer sublet’s on West 16th Street, a tiny third floor studio with a steel bar built into the door so it’s harder to kick in. Walking to morning ballet class during this garbage strike means avoiding steaming trash bags, pawed, bitten, ripped and chewed by stray dogs, cats, rats, pigeons and whatever scavengers.
Armando’s ballet studio is above a hamburger joint, pliés and pirouettes in a fog of frying meat. His gold chain displays a cross, a crescent, a star of David and a Buddha, as it’s New York, everyone from everywhere. You’re green oceans away in Australia.
Hot, but toss a jacket over my jeans and t-shirt, as men stare, suck their teeth to be especially disgusting.
Friday Miguel arrives in his rattling green Oldsmobile, holds me when I can’t sleep, buys chorizo down the avenue, heads back to Cambridge Sunday afternoon.
Afternoon class is 83rd and Broadway, four flights up, Richard and Barbara Thomas’ high-ceilinged studios. While changing into leotards, dancers check each other out, one emaciated girl counting six almonds for lunch.
In Boston last summer, high nineties, no fans, no water bottles, we’re doing fast petite allegro, when things go foggy, and I pass out. David, a Brit from the Royal Ballet, pounds his cane, chain smokes, accuses us of ‘deliberately destroying the art of ballet,’ kicks people out who annoy him, his voice in imperial command mode, and this time he’s yelling at me.
“What are you doing down there? Stand up! That’s what you get for being vegetarian. Eat something substantial!”
Somehow, blur-headed, I stand up and keep jumping.
Late June a Cadillac rear-ends my VW Bug, shortening it a foot —whiplash, ankle sprain and stiff neck—but I take class anyhow. August David decides to close the Boylston Street studio and move to Florida. With parting rage he takes his cane and bashes studio mirrors, one sharp crack each, so they’ll be useless to anyone else.
Hard to sleep here, too much coffee, cockroaches scrambling even in the refrigerator, blast them with Windex.
Yesterday Miguel called complaining of back pain, seeing a doctor.
Richard Thomas is starting class when a woman rushes in—black leotard, black tights, black ballet slippers, black sunglasses, white cotton gloves—and squeezes herself between me and another dancer at the barre. The studio’s bright, but not sunglasses bright, and gloves mean she won’t touch the barre like the rest of us, avoiding who knows what lethal contamination, or maybe she’s got a rash?
Richard notices she’s nuts, turns away. What else to do with the grab bag of types that show up for open class? He studied with Nijinska, performed with Ballet Russe, danced with his wife Barbara in Alicia Alonso’s company in Cuba and Balanchine’s in New York. Yesterday a choreographer from American Ballet Theater was here, but it can be anyone, including some with marginal sanity.
Richard’s in his usual short-sleeved sport shirt, plaid Bermuda shorts, white socks and white ballet slippers, demonstrating combinations with intricate footwork, telling jokes to lighten the mood. He teases Twyla Tharp, “What’s that stuff you’re putting on stage,” but she smiles and keeps dancing. When his daughter’s in class, he scolds that she’s forgetting corrections he’s ‘told her a thousand times,’ typical parental headache.
Sundays most studios close, but Madame Ekaterina has class at noon. Elderly, small and stiff, she sits in a chair and shows steps using ballet finger signals. The studio is full, a crush of bodies, the style classical Russian, strict and severe, no whining, no complaining, hide what hurts, get past it or get out.
Tonight I’m exhausted. Wish we could talk, as you know me and would understand, but you’re in Victoria, painting visionary canvases, left the States years ago with your daughter after a divorce. I’ve got an ice pack on my left ankle, aching from jumps in Barbara’s class, no idea whether it will calm down enough to let me sleep tonight or dance tomorrow.
Miguel called, back pain worse, another doctor doing more tests.
Air conditioning cranked high, I still smell rotting street garbage.
I’m waiting for something to click, not sure what to do next, too jittery to enjoy performing.
I’m worried about Miguel, so when my sublet ends late August, I move back to Boston, look for a teacher I can work with. Not Shana, an anorectic filter-tip smoker whose chihuahua sleeps through class, never barks, stretches a doggy bow and follows her out of the studio.
Some of us hear her puking in the bathroom battling whatever she puts in her mouth. One winter day she arrives in a big mink coat. Mrs. Harrington glances from her desk, “Nice fur.”
Shana says, “Gift from my ex to make up for throwing me through the living room picture window, a few bruises, nothing broken but the glass.” Sickening, but I pretend I’m busy reading, heard nothing. Mrs. H. lights a cigarette, blows a balloon of smoke, sighs, as if that’s the way things go sometimes.
Shana corrects three students, ignores twenty-seven others, tells Mrs. H., “Can’t make me look at them, too short, too tall, too clumsy, too fat, can’t move.”
Thursday another teacher, Bob, calls in sick, actually hung over. Mrs. H. asks me to teach for him, and it goes well. Soon the school gives me four classes, then four more, and it turns into a job, lousy pay, but free ballet tickets and classes. I think of teachers I’ve had, narcissistic, scolding, impatient, demeaning, and the few decent souls who give of themselves, really teach.
One afternoon I park my old VW Bug, bumper duct-taped from last year’s crash, and see a puppy whining on the sidewalk, dumped like a fuzzy brown piece of trash. I take him inside, and Mrs. H shakes her head, “You softie,” but brings a bowl of water. I never owned a dog, have two cats, but take him home, spread newspapers, buy puppy food, not sure how Miguel will react.
I remember your dogs, Micah, a mellow black Lab, and Loki, a hyper Weimeraner. Still have the chair you gave me because Loki wouldn’t stop chewing one arm. Covered it with a shawl, repaired it years later.
Miguel looks at the puppy, laughs and starts patting him, amazing, as we don’t smile much now that we know how sick he is, chemo starting next week. The cats sniff the puppy, somehow accept him though he’s no fancy dancer, just a scruffy bit of life.
Not sure what to call him until a friend says the planets were aligned with Jupiter the day I found him, so he’s Jupiter, a mutt with a name suggesting cosmic realms.
For three years I drive Miguel, my love, back and forth to the hospital for treatments, until July 18 when, incomprehensibly, it’s over.
People talk about ‘getting by loss,’ say whatever they need to survive, but I find no comfort in greeting-card platitudes about suffering and death.
I’m still teaching ballet, crying while I drive to and from classes.
Today snow’s piling up outside my window, and your email describes blazing summer, drought and wildfires. You ask how I’m doing, and I’m not sure how to reply, what words to choose, because I can’t make things better than they are, can’t lie.
* * * * *