by Nina Rubinstein Alonso
First dance class in six months as I’m in grad school, sitting at the library, sitting at seminars, sitting, sitting, doing barre holding onto a bookshelf, until Dahlia pulls me back to class. Didn’t notice friction with Jazmine, big group, many moving bodies.
“Rude, showing off her arabesque, sniffing at Arthur’s corrections. After class she’s bragging about apprenticing with SeedLight, but I say, ‘New York gigs can be tricky,’ and she gives me this bitchy, ‘how would you know?’ Told her we performed with Magnolia to shut her up.” Dahlia shakes out her braids, tosses red barrettes into her purse.
“Three years, until my ankle, your knee… ”
“And my baby,” Dahlia’s zipping her dance bag. “Jazmine better watch her step or someone’s going to kick her ass.” Squints at the clock,“Got to pick up my boy,” out the door.
Ankle’s slow healing, can’t dance. Met Sam at a party, offered a ride, then, “Forgot papers at my office,” where there’s a gray couch, though I dodged him that time. He lands a job in DC, wants me, and I’m tempted though his brother Ben says, “Leah, you and Sam are nothing alike.” Too bad that didn’t stop me. We’d been dating off and on, no one more interesting around, bored, needed change.
Banford’s graduate program accepts DC courses, but soon I’m calling Dahlia complaining I can’t stand Sam, bossy, boring, lousy in bed.
When I try talking, he shuts me down,’You’re expectations are romantic and immature,” so if I’m miserable, it’s my fault?
After exams, I fly back to Boston, crash on Dahlia’s couch.
He wants to ‘try again,’ but to hell with that, as I’ve found a lawyer. Finally signs papers, claims he’s met ‘someone,’ which I don’t believe, sends a box of ex-wedding gifts mom puts on consignment. Sam’s brother Ben doesn’t say ‘I told you so,’ but introduces me to Tim.
Getting back in shape when the director, Felicia, says, “Arthur’s moving to London. Do we want another pricey New York teacher? I’ll call Harry as he’ll know what’s happening.”
“Not the dull dude who subbed today,” Dahlia says.
Snapshot of Harry: stocky, balding white guy, performs with Zodiac/NYC, manages Dancers, Inc., and is Jazmine’s boyfriend. Dahlia sighs, “Since when does sexual attraction make sense?”
But Harry’s in touch with New York teachers, offers to share his space across town, splitting expenses, and everyone agrees except Dahlia, who skips classes, claims she can’t find a good sitter, then, “Joe’s moving out, we’re done. I’ll use my exercise bike.”
Hard to hear from my Magnolia roommate who coaxed me back to class after my crappy break-up and sprained ankle.
Money’s tight but I buy a new leotard, know I won’t starve as Tim cooks. He’s housemaster at Hopewell, calm when students throw tantrums, but keeps hinting about ‘settling down,’ says “I think of you when walking by the river.” He’s better than Sam, but I know what ‘not in love’ feels like, can’t get out of his blue MG fast enough.
No wheels, get to Banford with Carrie, who says her doctor husband is masculine perfection, “except for a low sperm count. If IVF doesn’t work, we’ll go the donor route or adopt.”
I’m light years away from risking marriage again, never mind babies.
My Shakespeare teacher, James Vincent O’Malley, was an army chaplain before turning academic and looks it wearing priestly black, white hair parted down the middle. He’s condescending and dismissive, claims “Most people can’t copy a row of twelve numbers from a blackboard without error,” so mere graduate students are duds on Hamlet.
Magnolia dancers came from everywhere, but Banford’s tenured professors are older white men, one woman from India teaching contemporary novel, a Chilean poet—male— leading a writing group, that’s it.
Professor Abby Kane, also an artist, is sympathetic about my dancing and writing. Seeing an exhibition flyer in her office, I ask, “How do you balance things?”
“Balance? Forget that. Banford believes great artists are men, preferably dead for decades.”
At dinner I tell Dahlia, “Not sure Abby’s tenure track.”
“You expect them to sing Kumbaya and give an artsy woman a permanent slot?” Dahlia’s working in commercial real estate, struggling because Joe rarely sends child support. “Can’t afford lawyer fees to chase his ass.”
My worst course is ‘Exploring Shelley’ with visiting British professor, Neville Rogers, hair yellowish-white, face piggish-pasty. First class he runs plump fingers down the student list (all pressured to take the class by the department head), presses fleshy lips together, frowns as if to pronounce a pearl, and chooses Damian to read a poem.
Damian has that ‘I’m about to be skewered’ look, as he starts, “Arethusa rose/From her couch of snows.” But before the third line, the professor’s eyes close, chin sinks into its cushion of fat, pen slips from his fingers, and we hear snoring. Damian finishes Arethusa, and, stymied what to do, reads the lyric, Love’s Philosophy, jazz style.
‘And the sunlight clasps the earth, woo-wah
And the moonbeams kiss the sea, baby baby,
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me, woo-wah?
We mock-analyze ‘If thou kiss not me, woo-wah’ until the professor resurfaces, having heard nothing. The next class Carrie's reading Adonais when the professor nods off. She blinks near-sighted brown eyes behind round glasses while Damian snarls, “What’s this stupid fucking shit show?”
Department head Bob Mayer urges us to be patient as the professor’s got narcolepsy, so we bumble along while he snoozes until he puts insulting B+ grades on papers he hasn’t heard or read. Damian says, “I’ve had rotten professors, but this is beyond ridiculous.”
We sign Carrie’s letter: “Professor Rogers clearly needs medical care.” But our second meeting with Bob is worse than the first as he lifts his cleft chin and says, “The department’s not adding to his troubles,” turns on his blue-eyed power gaze, forcing us to accept the ludicrous situation. He can cancel our fellowships, so we’re flattened, powerless, the academic version of human sacrifice.
Damian, adjusting his Rasta beret, “Pity-party, sending him to his next gig without mentioning he’s useless, easier than the truth.”
Harry introduces a new Circle teacher, Claire Marconi, a petite brunette with a balletic-modern style. After the first class she asks about my performing background and invites me to assist at Crane College. Their studio’s a high-ceilinged barn, the pianist, Dominic, tall and narrow, a Giacometti sculpture in black turtleneck and jeans.
Claire pushes dancers to “just do it,” reminding me of my ballet teacher, Virginia Wills, hollering, “You’ll be in the grave a long time, so move now,” or, “Something’s wrong with every one of you,” or “No one’s going to pay money to see legs shaking on stage!”
When a fourteen year old landed four pirouettes, she yelled, “You look like a plump Polish peasant,”not caring whose feelings or ethnicities she clobbered, as she considered the girl fat no matter how many pirouettes she could do. Everyone wanted to be chosen, no one dared complain, even when ordered to dye her hair as “red looks better on stage.” Virginia was thick-bodied in shapeless outfits, impossible to imagine as any kind of dancer, but built the company from nothing, raised funds to buy a building for studios and offices.
One Saturday a new dancer’s in class, and Virginia asks her name.
“Dagitta? Krista’s better for the stage,” laughs her elephantine guffaw and takes a bite of strawberry Danish. Dagitta doesn’t blink, accepting her new name like a soldier ordered into battle though named for her beloved grandma. I was sidelined with another injury when Krista Joyce signed a company contract.
My advisor Allen Goldman adjusts rimless glasses as I hand in a Yeats paper and three poems. “Paper needs editing,” he says, shuffling pages, then, “Nice poems, bring more.” Unprepared for praise, I’m blinking tears.
“Thanks, and I dance, too,” but his attention’s gone, so I head to the library. During orals I’m in a straight-backed chair opposite a row of unsmiling white men, the examining board. Allen’s there, but as my advisor, not sure how much his voice counts. The hour’s a blur of questions and my nervous answers. The men confer behind closed doors, then department head Bob Mayer appears, shakes my hand and says, “Congratulations.”
Over a glass of wine, Allen adds, “Went well, though you seemed rather tense. Time to choose a thesis topic, not wise to change direction so close to finishing your degree.”
Rather tense? After more wine than I’m used to, I take the drunk bus home and cry myself to sleep. Are there university jobs anywhere I’d want to be? I need to make money, but dance can’t be a ‘later’ thing as the body won’t wait.
I stretch before dance class reading Sophocles, hoping Dominic will compose something for my choreography. He’s six three, large hands, strong angled nose, a dark mop of hair, a face impossible to read.
Watching rehearsal his expression’s so blank I figure it’s useless, but he says, “Multi-tracks, some layering,” starts improvising, and it fits.
At home, my answering machine blinks with messages from Tim: “Dinner tonight?” I keep saying ‘no, too busy,’ until he stops calling.
Sunday there’s a guest teacher at Crane, print turban and tunic, cinnamon complexion, angled green eyes, Jazmine, now much heavier. She remembers being in Arthur’s class with Dahlia and me but keeps her distance. There’s a gold band, on her left hand, and I ask Claire.
“Hurt her back, months in a brace. She and Harry married in New York and started a youth program.”
“Married?” But we’ve got rehearsals, can’t talk.
Dominic’s score weaves Tibetan chants with wailing train whistles, right for my moody piece, but one dancer’s out sick so I’m filling in, getting through weekend shows.
Tuesday evening Claire introduces a choreographer for a studio presentation, Lily Hanover, who lights candles on glass plates, turns off the overheads, leaving us in the shadows. Soon we hear harp music and Lily enters wearing nothing but a translucent wing-cape, a naked dragonfly sprite, evanescent as a soap bubble until harps fade and she melts into the dark. A few minutes later she’s tying her robe, merely mortal again, gesturing for us to blow out candles as she snaps on fluorescents, and the suspended flow of time returns. Claire wipes tears saying, “See what a dancer can do!”
June Damian’s in my flat as I’m staying in a sublet on West 16th Street. Magnolia’s gone to LA, so I’m exploring other New York studios, writing poetry, considering quitting grad school to dance before it’s too late. I’m interested in Wind-Motion as the style’s balletic-modern, similar to Claire’s.
Megan, twenty-seven, shares the sublet. I’m ballet trained, switched to modern after injuries, difficult, but Megan started ballet late, much harder. One evening she’s wrapping an ice pack on her ankle, ‘Wrenched it in pointe class,’ won’t say more.
Two a.m., I hear noises, sit up and see her throwing pink satin pointe shoes out the window.
“Stop! You’ll hit somebody,” but she keeps tossing until they’re gone, and pointe shoes are damned expensive.
“I’ve had it, can’t compete with amazon teens,” tears flooding. We talk, and she goes downstairs to gather pointe shoes, but two days later she’s gone, left a note on my bed with a copy of Zelda, passion for dance bordering madness.
Mid August Brittany, director of Wind-Motion invites me to join the group, explaining their budget only covers rehearsals and performances. Dancers share apartments, work in restaurants or offices, keeping evenings free to dance, they way we did in Magnolia, except now everything’s more expensive.
“Thanks, need to figure things out,” hugs.
Back in Boston I tell Abby, “I may quit grad school to dance,” but she hands me ‘Guidelines for a creative thesis.’
“One student wrote a novel, another a story collection. You have enough poems for a book, though, as Allen says, jobs are tight in the creative market.”
“I lucked into one big magazine, the rest small potatoes, no scholarly articles, and what about dance?”
She’s pinning up her long red hair, coiled like a Danish pastry. “You’ve passed orals, put in all that work. Fine to dance and write poetry, but consider what you’re throwing away?”
Dominic invites me for pizza, not sure why until he says, “There’s a factory in Somerville converted to condos for artists and musicians, and I’m considering a space. Take a look and tell me what you think?”
“Sure, let’s find a time,” and we head to class.
Friday Allen announces, “Got something for you, freshman comp slot at Hopewell, and their dance group needs an advisor!” When he assures me Tim’s not involved, I take it.
“I’ve warned you about that creative thesis idea. Everyone has poems in a drawer or half a novel. Scholarly work gives you a better chance for a job.” I nod, knowing I can’t do ‘scholarly.’
Friday Claire cancels class, sits in her office wrapped in a red Mexican shawl rereading an obit: “Jazmine Page, twenty-five, Zuri Dance Center, Seedlight New York, Ekendayo Collective.’ Her late mother’s opera singer Rebekkah Page, husband, Harry Ames, of Dance, Inc., Boston, and Zodiac, New York. Private funeral. In lieu of flowers, donate to Jazmine Page Foundation.”
We’re looking at her photo in arabesque. “Pill overdose,” Claire says, avoiding the word ‘suicide.’
We know what it’s like to be slapped down so hard it feels impossible to get back up, those times when nothing helps, but whatever we’ve been through, we’re still breathing.
Dahlia also sidesteps ‘suicide.’ “Maybe lost track of meds? A friend had a back injury, miserable getting off opiates. But Felicia called as I’m in commercial real estate, says Circle and Dance, Inc. are merging, need more space. Harry’s mostly in New York, nothing about Jazmine.”
Teaching at Hopewell is busy, classes, grading, staff meetings. At the first dance group, six girls and three boys stretch on the floor, sizing me up.
“First position,” I say, and the energy’s good, but the pianist’s not.
At Crane Dominic asks, “Pizza later, see my new place? ”
“Sure, but can you play for my Hopewell dance group,Thursday at 4? Good money.”
“Check my schedule,” sprinting upstairs.
I hurry after him as Claire’s sprained her knee, needs help. After class she teases, “New style?” pointing to my leotard’s frayed seams,” limps away grinning.
Dominic says, “Playful since the new boyfriend. Thursdays should work okay, but any time tonight to help carry stuff to my place?”
“Great about Thursdays. I can help tonight, but what new boyfriend?”
“Guy from the architecture department,” and we carry boxes up to his condo in a renovated factory building, high ceiling, kitchenette, tiny bathroom.
A new tenant moved in downstairs from my attic flat, nice hearing Cuban music instead of blasting rock. When my deadbolt’s stuck, Miguel helps, says he manages a restaurant and is starting a design business. Sunday he invites me to a barbecue at his friend John’s weedy back yard, someone playing guitar, the menu whatever people bring, salads, hummus, pita. Can’t remember when I’ve been this relaxed, takes a while for me to recognize the feeling. We get to know each other, no connection to work or school. He’s easy to talk to, to touch, dark hair, hazel eyes.
Dahlia warns, “Take it slow, make sure the sex is good, don’t get knocked up and screwed over like I did.”
We’re back and forth between apartments, more or less living together, talking about buying a fixer-upper. No pressure, just love.
Claire says WindMotion’s booked for a residency at Crane, and Brittany’s asking about me.
I’m stirring tea when Miguel says, “Well?”
“Can’t picture being in New York again, the stress of touring, injuries, and what about finishing grad school, teaching and us?”
“Negative list. Don’t let them push you, but if you decide, I’ll drive there.”
He finishes his espresso, kisses me, leaves for work. Dahlia’s found a good baby-sitter, is dancing again, and we’re considering starting our own group in the just finished Dance Circle space.
Would be nice to make a decision without feeling pressured, but that’s not the way things seem to go. I take Brittany’s class, like her style, but don’t want to give up everything for New York. She says,“Okay, keep in touch, maybe a residency next summer?”
Shifting direction is like a big ship turning, dealing with forces of wind and water, requiring massive energy to redirect. But it’s the self, heart-center, trying to choose without making another blunder. If we were filming, there’d be a close shot of my hands gripping the rail.
* * * * *
Nina Rubinstein Alonso’s work appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, U. Mass. Review, Ibbetson Street, Bagel Bards Anthology, Black Poppy Review, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Muddy River Poetry Review, Constant Remembrance, Wilderness House Literary Review, Broadkill Review, etc. Her book This Body was published by David Godine Press, her chapbook I is upcoming from Červená Barva Press Press, and a story collection is in the works.