Finally, Mrs. L stops the practice and brings me forward, having everyone else line up on the barre along one wall. “Grey, you’re doing great, my dear, but you need to get this part down. You can do the pas de chat perfectly on your own, but for whatever reason, when you try it with the other girls, you mess up. Why do you think this is?”
Mrs. LeRoux is a tiny woman, barely over five feet tall, with iron-gray hair and pale gray eyes set shallow in her beautiful face. She’s French, having moved to Georgia twenty years ago with her husband, who died suddenly, leaving her in debt. She opened a dance studio with the last of her cash and fought her way to prosperity, one lesson at a time. I’ve seen her dance before, and she isn’t one of those teachers who can’t do what they teach. Mrs. LeRoux can make you cry with a two-minute routine. As a teacher, she’s fiery and fierce, demanding yet fair, and compassionate in all things. She’s never mean in her criticism but she expects you to do your best and she refuses to let you get away with less. I love her dearly.
I stand in front of the class and consider Mrs. LeRoux’s question. “I’ve never danced in a group before.”
“It’s the same as dancing alone, my dear. You must merely be more aware of your surroundings. This pas de chat is simple. Child’s play. You are talented enough to have no problems. Try again alone, please.” She gestures with her hand for me to do the move.
I take a deep breath, set myself into the crouch that leads into the pas de chat. It’s a ballet move, since Mrs. L’s training is primarily ballet, although the studio also focuses on contemporary dance, jazz and modern. Every piece she choreographs tends to have a balletic bent to it, I’ve discovered, which is fine with me. I love the flowing nature of ballet, even if I don’t like the stiffness of it. I dance to be free, to express myself.
I go through the series of steps and leaps, and I know I nail them. Doing them alone was never the problem.
“Very good, Grey. Perfect. Now, Lisa, Anna, Devin, take your positions around her. Aaand…begin.” Mrs. L nods as the four of us perform the section of the routine together.
I get through the first two leaps with no problems and this time, I focus all my attention on Lisa to my left and Anna to my right as we pirouette together and begin the second series of leaps. Devin is behind me for the beginning of the series but ends up in front of me after we pause, readjust our lines, pirouette, and leap again. This switch, the pirouette, is what I’m having trouble with. I’m always too close to Devin, and my arms smack against hers as she and I spin in opposite directions, with Lisa and Anna spinning to either side of us in opposing directions. It’s a beautiful sequence, or at least it will be if I can nail it this time.
It’s not technically a pirouette, according to the balletic definition, since our arms aren’t domed above our heads, but rather are spread apart to create a kind of vortex effect in the center of our four bodies. If it was a simple balletic pirouette I wouldn’t have any trouble, as my arms would be contained within the sphere of my elbows and knee, but with my arms extended like this…
I feel the knife-edge of my left hand brush Devin’s forearm, and although I finish the maneuver, I know I’ve messed it up yet again.
“Better, Miss Amundsen, better. But now again. This time…focus. Watch Devin. Your hands should pass above hers each rotation. Again, go.” Mrs. LeRoux gestures imperiously and steps back.
We return to the beginning position, leap, leap, leap…pause, set, spin…
I nail it perfectly, grinning in exultation. The next series of leaps flow naturally, and at some signal from Mrs. L that I don’t see, the other girls join us without so much as a whisper of interruption. The rest of the piece is effortless. We do it through three more times, and now it’s smooth as silk as it should be.
Instruction period is easy. We learn some basic tumble/floor jazz sequences. After everyone demonstrates the moves to Mrs. LeRoux’s satisfaction, she dismisses us. She calls me aside as I gather my things.
“Grey, a moment?”
I set down my bag and curtsy as I stand in front of her. “Yes, Mrs. LeRoux?”
She smiles at me. “You did well today. I’m proud of you.”
“How is your solo coming?”
I bobble my head from side to side, an unsure motion. “Pretty well, I think,” I say. “I’m kind of stuck near the end, though. I can’t make the transition go smoothly from one part to the next.”
“From the beginning, or…?”
She waves her hand. “Yes, yes. From the top. Let me see it.”
I slide my gear bag to the edge of the room with my foot, and then take position in the center of the room. I’d do better with my song playing, but that’s not how Mrs. LeRoux works. She expects you to know the steps and the moves cold, with or without the music. She says the music should add soul and expression to the piece, but it shouldn’t be a crutch.
I pause for a few beats, sinking into the mental place where I can call up the rhythm and let it move through me. I bend at the knees, extending my arms to either side, then sweep my hands around in a circle, sliding one foot out and putting my balance on the other foot. My extended leg rises, my arms slicing forward to put me into a flat-footed arabesque. I hold it, rise up on to my toes, and then bend at the waist and point my toes skyward, letting momentum pull me into a head-toe-head-toe diagonal spin. At the end of three rotations, I plant my palms on the floor and let the energy of the spin carry me over into a handstand. My feet droop slowly, and I arch my back until I’m doing the bridge, feet planted, hands planted, spine arched, head between my arms. I lower myself to the floor and twist onto my stomach, crawling forward, trying to express desperation. This is a piece that is meant to speak of my desperate need for freedom, my sense of confinement. Parts of the piece are wild and energetic, arm-flung spins, floating across the floor. Other parts are contained, limbs close to the body, gliding across the floor in tripping steps. I near the end of the piece, coming to the place where my choreography is stuck.
I’m in the center of the room, upright, coming off a pirouette, arms clutched against my chest. My palms turn out and push as if against a wall, an invisible barrier in front of me. The barrier gives way suddenly and I topple forward, stumbling as if taken by surprise.
“This is where I’m stuck,” I say, huffing for breath in the middle of the dance floor. “Originally, I’d intended to fall forward, but it just doesn’t feel right.”