Richard Avedon, Ballet Dancers, 1948

When she dreamt of something, she dreamt of ballet. Plies, leaps into the air, pirouettes that went on forever, dancers floating and spinning around like tops, a flurry of pink slippers and long legs. The dancers existed in no particular space, their bodies moving freely between backdrops, performing in front of whatever scenery her unconscious mind decided for her. Sometimes her brain did not even fill in the details of their faces, and she saw only disembodied feet. She hadn’t taken a ballet class since she was very young, so she wasn’t even sure if most of these steps were real, or were just her mind’s image of what ballet looked like. The ballet began to get fuzzy around the edges her mind ran out of the steps that she could recall; ballet gave way to waltz which gave way to tap dance, until finally all she was left with was the feet that were moving to music that wasn’t even there.


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She was never much of a dancer herself, even when she was younger. She tried, though, taking ballet, tap, and jazz, three classes in a row each Monday evening throughout elementary school. It was the same scene each week: standing at the barre in her black leotard and pink tights like every other little girl there, trying to remember what Miss Jen told her to do, and then trying to get her body to cooperate. Her reflection in the mirror never had quite the right balance, and she never could reach her leg high enough, point her toes enough or step in proper time. But it was tradition to go to class and try her best, and tradition for her mother to take her to eat at Friendly’s every week after class, where she could temporarily put any worries about her body aside and eat chicken fingers and drink a strawberry Fribble. The pink reminded her of her ballet slippers.


She was in The Nutcracker once (maybe twice, it all sort of blurred together), assigned the role of “young party dancer” along with countless other little girls who she guessed were like her, neither pretty enough nor talented enough to be given roles with actual names. She remembered watching in awe as the Sugarplum Fairy spun and spun, as if she were being pulled by some unseen force, her feet barely even touching the ground. But she was never going to look like that. Her costume, like that of all the other party dancers, was a pink and red satin dress and fake curls that looked more like ribbon than hair and had clips that dug into her scalp, she remembered tearing the curls, along with a clump of her hair, out before taking the stage.


*  *  *  *  *


When she had one of those beautifully choreographed dreams, she always prayed that it would last, and not jerk her back to reality just as she was beginning to get a sense of the rhythm. Every once in a while, one of her dreams of dancing would bleed into another dream: the dancers would turn and then suddenly it was back to her. She was in the supermarket, filling up her cart with low-fat ice cream and whole wheat pasta and soy milk. She’d load the groceries into the back of her car. Sometimes she would get hit by a truck driving home. Then she would plunge into the past and she’d be in school, sometimes naked (though she never actually saw that she was naked, just felt it, and she often wondered if she looked down what sort of body she would see), learning multiplication tables or reading quotes from The Great Gatsby aloud.

In her dreams, the dancers could twirl for hours, or at least what felt like hours, without getting dizzy, and could leap and kick in unison as long as her brain would allow before waking her up or showing her something new. They could go where she could not, running across traffic-ridden streets in Manhattan without getting hit, weaving between the taxis or grabbing onto the backs of trucks like they do in the movies while remaining perfectly balanced and graceful. When she dreamt, at least when she dreamt about other people, her world had order, the random movement choreographed into something beautiful.


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A few years after she quit dancing, she was suddenly overcome with the urge to start taking ballet classes again. She wasn’t sure why. At least that’s what she told her friends—really, it was because of Marissa. Marissa looked exactly like her naïve image of a ballerina: she always wore airy little dresses to school, often paired with pink tights and slippers. Her hair was typically in a tight bun on top of her head, and she spoke perpetually in a soft whisper. Marissa, like so many of her other classmates, had invaded her dreams too. She recalled one where she stood at the barre, her legs long and straight, her toes perfectly pointed, only when she looked again she realized the person dancing in perfect form was Marissa, and not her, who stood in the corner trying desperately to emulate her movements. She wondered what Freud would have said.


Nothing which we have once psychically possessed is ever entirely lost


Often the same dreams haunted her for months: her sleeping self was apparently not one for too much originality. She used to have another recurring dream, a nightmare perhaps, where she fell down a well. Who knows where she got this idea from: she must have heard about this happening to some child on the news, or perhaps in an urban legend. Though she knew with certainty that the probability of actually falling down a well was virtually nothing outside the dream world, that did not stop her from being terrified every time she peered into the well’s depths. It was always the same: she would lean over to look into the well, catching sight of her reflection in the bottom, and suddenly she would slip somehow, lose her balance, and begin to plummet. She always woke up just as her body hit the water, never seeing what happened next; she wondered what her mind might have been protecting her from.


This memory the dream, as compared with the rest of the psychic content, seems to be something alien, coming, as it were, from another world


Another dream she had once: she was running through the field near her house, or what was once her house when she was young. All of a sudden, fire began raining from the sky, like something she had seen in a melodramatic war film. She felt the heat on her skin, heard distant screams and the sound of people fleeing. It wasn’t like dancing at all. When she woke up and the movement stopped, she laid in bed for another hour, trying her best to remain perfectly still.


*  *  *  *  *


She never did sign up for another dance class, and doubted she would do so now that she had permanent bags under her eyes and aches in her back. She could never shake her self-consciousness, too, with a constant the fear of being watched, judged, criticized. With every year that had passed she had surely gotten more terrible, so instead she just practiced in her bedroom when she felt like dancing. She stretched, she leapt, she pranced across the floor, weaving between the bed and dresser and trying her best to move throughout the narrow space. Her body fought her with all its limited might, refusing to stretch far enough, afraid it might break. But she closed her eyes and listened to the music in her head, stepping in time to those beautiful dancers, forcing her mind to let herself be like them.


He who dreams turns his back upon the world of waking consciousness


She refused to look in the mirror when she danced: she preferred to imagine how she looked, how high she leapt, how far her legs stretched out behind her, feeling her body’s resistance yet still pretending it wasn’t there. She couldn’t remember the last time she had danced anywhere besides her locked bedroom: at a party, around the kitchen, or even in the shower as she sang.  All of this was for her room at night, and the realm of dreams: the dancers twirled in space, and she moved along with them, until finally you couldn’t tell who was who anymore.