Real Stories

5, 6…5, 6, 7, 8

Before, like now, I adjusted at the ankle, adjusted at the hip, straightened my spine, straightened my knee by pointing my toe at the exact spot on the wall, pointed my chin while I spotted a turn.

Before I practiced a double pirouette ‘til my shoe thinned, practice makes perfect little girl ballerinas, thin little ballerinas who curve only when they bend. I sat in my splits with the TV on, wincing whole commercial breaks, teaching my body to break.

My body adjusted with time⁠—like the time I held up my shirts for a boy who made a birthday present of my tits. I curved so unlittle girl, so unballerina. I split, lost my spot, and quit.


I quit in a twirl of anger. At the hour I was supposed to be on stage, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed. I watched my toes point and flex in her full-length mirror. They’re the only part of my body I understood anymore.

I think about the gap of me in the formations my troop has run hundreds of times. I was the only one who can do the left leap.


The Radio City Rockettes have to be between 5’ 6’’ and 5’ 10’’. They aren’t allowed to touch each other on stage. The gap between their hands and their costumes only makes them seem connected.


I stepped into Corinne Lee Dancers studio as a three-year-old. It was the kind of studio I imagine exists in all small towns: one teacher (THE Corinne Lee), one black-and-white chessboard dance floor. The kind of place 3-year-olds learn the same hula song as 3-year-olds before them, and next year, they learn the 4-year-old routine. The recital full of the same tap sounds and shimmy shakes every year.


The centerpiece of every dance studio is one wall of mirrors. Practicing choreography over and over again, I could see every angle of my body, all the places I bent and straightened, every roll in my leotard.

I could see other girls’ bodies too. All their napes of neck, and extended elbows, and turned-out feet. We were cookie-cutter kids, frosted in black spandex and pink tights, until we weren’t anymore.


This year, I buy the right shoes. The kind with a rubber heal, a thin, solid sole. They bend in the middle. I put them on and, instinctively, my toes point, my knee straightens.

I know, soon, the toe will start to wear. I’ll be able to tell which shoe belongs on which foot by the lightness that appears at the tip.

I pirouette, try to keep my balance.


At some point, I had Pineapple Princess’d like all the 6-year olds before me. I had tapped across the checkered floor at Corinne’s more times than I can remember. I wanted a new challenge. I wanted real dance teachers.

My new studio was run by two former NFL cheerleaders. At SS Dance Express, you could buy t-shirts and duffle bags and hoodies with their logo on them. Everyone had them, bedazzled them and puff-painted them and trucked them around to practice (and sometimes to school). This type of dancing was serious business.


I stopped growing at twelve. In sterile room, Dr. Wong explained to me that, usually, when a woman’s breasts are “fully developed,” she’ll no longer get any taller. I was 5’ even. I thought he couldn’t possibly be right. I couldn’t possibly believe him.


In the About section of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes’ website, it says this: From the moment they first appeared in 1925, the Rockettes have been American icons. They are symbols of what you can achieve if you move with passion, dream big, work hard and, most importantly, believe in yourself.


I’d always been a little round around the edges, and at ten years old, here came the hips. Then the tits. Overnight, it seemed, I had the body of a 25-year-old woman. But I wasn’t 25, I was 12.

And a dancer.

And you know what isn’t good for 12-year-old dancers to have? A 34DD chest and a love of pizza.


No amount of practice or belief could change my body. The pirouettes practiced on the hardwood in the kitchen, the hours in the splits, the way my body moved naturally at the hips, it didn’t matter.


In the years since I quit, I’ve broken my body so many ways. A scar on my elbow traces the time I had too much champagne and mixed it with roller skates. My toes curl in my shoes. I ran miles and miles until my thighs chafed and my feet bled. I let a boy break my heart, then a man.


That year, our teacher was mean. She was herself curvy, and only a few years older than me in reality. But at the time, she seemed so much older, bigger. She teased us, often digging a finger into the bulges poking out of our leotards.

I was stubborn. I gave her lip. I was old enough to tell her to fuck off and mean it. I told my mom I wanted to quit. I stuck out the whole year of competition, mostly because it’s expensive and paid for ahead of time. On the day that’s most important to the studio, Recital Day, I quit.

I didn’t call. I didn’t give notice. I just didn’t show up. I spared no dramatics. I’d been broken.


I turned back to a dance studio, seventeen years after I quit. My exercise clothes weren’t right: sports bras too heavy-duty, leggings that didn’t stretch in the right places. I’d spent these years running a different beat into my bones. That night, I slipped into my running tights and my lungs expected that sharp pang of breathing in January air.

I drove toward something familiar: vinyl floors, walls of mirrors, wooden poles mounted against the wall. My body remembered instantly the shifting of my rib cage, the rolling of my shoulders, the flattening of my back. My kicks not quite so high, my turns not quite as clean, but there⁠—stored in my muscles⁠—the memory.


I want you to know that this begins and ends with angels⁠—two teachers who watch me mess up the footwork and say ‘again’. It begins and ends with new faces, friends, spinning across the floor and using my eyes as their spot. It begins and ends with buying jazz shoes and studio leggings. It begins and ends with watching our reflections in the mirror and knowing we’re connected, not by cookie-cutter selves, but by the way the music finds its way to our fingertips all the way from the floor.

It ends and begins with my trying to find that center of balance.


But mostly, ends and begins in my body, which is strong and awkward until I get the moves right. I post the videos on my Instagram feed to see my progress. I make them black and white because it feels historic, my return. Last night, I did double pirouettes in the mirror, over and over again. I’m teaching my body to heal.

by SageCurtis

Sage is a Bay Area writer fascinated by the way cities grit and how women move through the world. Her work has been published in Vinyl, Glass Poetry, Juked, burntdistrict, Yes Poetry, Vagabond City Lit and more. She was a 2017 Litquake Emerging Writer and finalist for the Rita Dove Award in Poetry and the Gigantic Sequins Poetry Award, as well as an Honorable Mention for the Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series. Her chapbook, Trashcan Funeral, is avaialble from dancing girl press.


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