Michael has an unusual gift: He can identify and poetically express complex emotions through his music and writing. His first memoir explored the therapeutic role piano has played in his life, and appeared on this blog last year after he won a national gold key for it. In Michael's newest award-winning memoir, he takes the lead in a humorous and poignant dance through the elitest, rigid, girl-dominated world of children's ballet. Please celebrate Michael's wonderful accomplishment by reading:
Tutus, Hormones, and Reality
By Michael Gellman, 14
My father laughed when I asked him recently why I, the only boy in our family, was enrolled in ballet at the age of six. He explained that when I was about five, my sisters took a pre-Ballet class a couple blocks from where we lived on the Upper East Side. My dad and I were out playing catch in the park one day when it was time to pick the girls up with my mom. When we got there, I began imitating the instructor’s steps with precision. My dad was in shock; my mother quickly enrolled me at a serious ballet school downtown.
I will never forget my first lesson.
The winter wind whipped my six-year-old, bright face as my mom and I ran on slippery sidewalks with the futile hope that we wouldn’t be late for my first lesson. Outside, cabs skidded on snowy streets, and passersby walked briskly to various appointments. We were on Thirty-Fourth Street, and, I tried to establish a sense of direction in this unknown realm of Manhattan. As I was already running late, I decided it would be best if I followed my right arm – which was being pulled rather forcefully by my mother – and keep moving.
We walked up to a small brick church, and my mother pressed a button on the intercom outside.
“I’m sorry we’re late,” my mother said uncomfortably.
“Come on up,” the voice quipped with an air of impatience. This was my first signal that this place – wherever it was – was serious. I took a deep breath, and followed my mother, who had already begun ascending the mountain of stairs to what I would realize later was the third floor.
I took a fleeting look around me, and cold stone steps coupled with plain green walls met my gaze. As I ran up the steps for the first time, I felt apprehensive, but why wouldn’t I? After all, I was only six years old. Stomach tightening, face flushing, I slipped my hand into my mother’s, and sharply took in a final breath before she knocked.
A woman probably twenty years my mother’s senior donning a skirt and blouse opened the heavy wooden door. She had closely cropped dark red hair, and green glasses connected to a chain which she wore around her neck. Her red lips were pursed, and she had sharp, angular features. She represented what I thought to be a female-version of the very devil himself. She must be a dancer.
“Hello Michael. I’ve been expecting you.” She talked to me as she would an adult, directing the statement to myself and not my mother. That was the first time in my life that I felt like an individual smart enough to make my own decisions and carry out a conversation on my own. While it was nice to be treated with the respect of an actual grown up, it also shoved me into a limelight I had never before stood in – and in my shock I was rendered speechless. “Why don’t you come in and join the lesson?” She inquired in that soft but icy tone that demands immediate attention as well as a well-delivered, important-sounding reply.
“C-Ca-Can I bring my mom in too?” I sputtered, scolding myself for uttering such juvenile words and sounding so frightened. So what if I was scared to death of this woman. I wasn’t supposed to let it show!
“I’m sorry,” she said curtly, “but if you would like to join this class you must attend it alone.” The finality of her voice reverberated in my ears.
“Go on,” my mom urged with a quick, little push. And so I did.
I followed this mysterious woman pretty closely, for I was worried I would get lost among the sea of white tights and bright pink leotards. I saw girls… So Many Girls! There were girls of every different shape, height, race, age…
And they were all looking at me.
I blushed, I simply couldn’t help myself. Here I was, confronted by this endless ocean of girls, all doing nothing but staring at me. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that Devil Lady had stopped clacking her shoes in that uptight, frightening gait of hers, had joined her kind, and was also staring at me. Although unlike the rest, she favored a facial expression of completely silent rage, eyes like black coals, staring me down. I found myself in the middle of the well-waxed light wooden floorboards, and hastily retreated into the far corner. “Just try to follow along,” she muttered, as though she didn’t expect me to have the prowess necessary but, with mild surprise, would accept it if it turned out that I did.
From that sentence forward, as long as I was in her class, I realized that I would prove to her that I was more than able to imitate and learn every step she had for me. Competitive gears shifting in my head, I undertook the challenge to outdo myself and to outdo the rest: to become a dancer.
After fours years of ballet, my insight into its world, its culture, only grew. Most boys my age thought that ballet was all about the tutus and the pliés. The truth is ballet’s hard-core. We, meaning the girls and me, had to master complex jumping movements, like Tour Jetés and Pas de Bourreés. If you don’t know what those are, just imagine a backwards leap while turning in the air. By the time the class learned this, I had become an exponentially better dancer, and was sometimes even called upon by Ms. Beyer – whom I had previously referred to as the Devil Lady – to demonstrate. This was years after I started, years after my first Ballet at Florence Gould Hall, the company’s performance space, years after I got my first black leggings and black ballet slippers. Slowly, gradually, I had assimilated into the dancers’ culture, and, also slowly, I had grown used to Ms. Beyer.
Ballet wasn’t all work and no fun. In fact when I was nine I met my first love: Helen. And as we twirled toward a working relationship, I learned a pretty important life lesson. Helen and I shared laughs together – real Kodak moments – and she was my first and only dance partner.
One day after class, Helen, my love, came up to me with a bright smile on her face. I was not the same person I had been a year ago, when I had first come to the school, and I didn’t shy away from her. I knew she liked me back. I faced her squarely – I was only a little shorter than she – and took a good long look at her. Her rosy cheeks topping her bright face were adorned with locks of gold down to her collar bone, and her bright blue eyes glistened like sapphires. “I have something I wanna ask you.” Her army of friends surrounded us, eagerly listening to what she was about to say.
“Would you like to join our cheese club?” She inquired breathlessly. I felt my heart beating in my chest, radiating in my throat.
“Did you just say a cheese club?”
“Well…ya, me and my friends really like cheese so…we decided to form a club. It’ll be real’ cool. We’ll get to talk about cheese!” she giggled, her laugh suffocating and paralyzing me at the same time.
I couldn’t breathe.
“Sure.” I whispered, for it was all I could manage. I raced out the heavy wooden door, and was silent all the way home.
A cheese club? They had to be kidding! Who did these people think they were kidding? They didn’t seem like prissy, Park Avenue types. I considered regurgitating my last meal, which had been, like all others prior, sans cheese. I could simply not believe that the girl of my dreams had a passion for cheese to the extent that she deemed it necessary to found a club that’s sole purpose was to celebrate its existence. Don’t get me wrong, I am not picky. In fact, I am sometimes complimented on my adventurous palette. Which does not include cheese.
Even though I did not know what gave these mini, Upper East Side snobs, the audacity to create such a club, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would have to deal with… it. It was inevitable if Helen and I were to save our relationship.
We managed. Both in our dance studies and after class, we not only were on good terms, but flashed one another smiles quite frequently. Finally, when Ms. Beyer had the class in pairs, Helen and I somehow ended up together. She whispered to me, “You take the lead… You’re better.” And when Ms. Beyer complimented us on our performance, Helen gave me a shy smile. This was the first time, I think, that Ms. Beyer recognized the natural chemistry between the two of us, and in performances to come we would be partnered, once even for a duet.
Our relationship advanced to the next level: we began to say stuff to each other! Before then, our messages were relayed through Helen’s protective militia of nine-year-old girls. This was annoying, and I was glad when Helen and I could finally speak face to face.
“Hi Michael,” she said softly.
“Hi Helen,” I said back, blushing.
“Hope it’s not too cold outside, I hear there’s a 60% chance of sleet.”
“I heard the same thing!” I blurted.
“Well… Bye!” And she left me there.
Now for the climax of the relationship, our duet: a Pas de Deux. Translation: a girl rests her arms on a guy’s shoulder with her leg bent behind her, while the guy leads her around in a circle, supporting her. Then, the guy takes both of her hands in his as she lifts her leg really high, both facing out towards the audience with the guy behind. Then comes the most romantic part: the guy puts his hands on the girl’s hips/tush, lifts her in the air, places her back down again, and then stands right behind her as she does an arabesque, hands still on her hips. Basically, it was an excuse for me to touch Helen, and I gladly accepted.
It was by far the closest physically I had gotten to any girl before, and was, therefore, a momentous occasion. And it culminated in an incredible performance.
But the event was the last time I ever set foot in that studio. I wanted to take dance to the next level at New York City Ballet by Lincoln Center. But I quickly regretted that decision.
On my first day, I approached a few girls, but I received only hostile glances and sharp words in response. “Oh. You’re in studio A-47, you probably just started here last week!” And it only got worse.
I might have had the patience to take the new challenge on, if I had not become injured. NYCB’s style favored extreme turn out in first position. My turn-out created a “V” shape instead because I am pigeon-toed. I physically couldn’t make the straight line: the more I tried, the worse my knee became.
My instructor Mr. Handenbury laid down the law: “You will not move up in level until you fix your turnout.” I was devastated. For months, I tried to. I tried as hard as anyone has ever tried for anything. But I physically couldn’t accomplish what he – and all of the other mad, cookie-cutter teachers there – wanted.
I had hit my first wall at age 10.
I was under way too much pressure. Even though I got the steps very quickly, I could never perform them with the satisfactory footwork. Soon Mr. Handenbury would stop at my section of the bar, and wait explicitly as I forced by feet into a straight line. He, probably more than anyone else, caused me to leave that class permanently injured.
Just when I was about to quit, I read the Student Message Board's list of students who were chosen to perform in Swan Lake—and my heart almost faltered. I was chosen!
“Just do whatever the scary lady tells you!” my friend Steven whispered as we stepped into a square, brightly lit room. Her Russian stare bored into our chests, and made us quake with fear. She beckoned rudely to the young woman who had escorted us.
“Why are there three?”
“One’ll be the understudy.” The woman nodded curtly and lined us up.
“I want you boys to go into first position, you know what that is?” We nodded. After looking at us for a while, she selected Henry and Steven, quickly telling me I was to be the understudy. My heart panged with disappointment, but I wanted to act professionally and try to learn the part all the same. It was only after I got home that I cried, because then I realized that she had judged us by our turnout. I only told my immediate family about it, but they could only sympathize. No one really understood my pain.
I was at NYCB for only another month afterwards. One day in class it dawned on me that I shouldn’t continue; I couldn’t do the steps the way NYCB wanted; and I was jealous of those who could.
As I left for good, I stopped to watch the older dancers move like clockwork, floating gracefully just above the ground. These were the ones on the level just below professional, this was the final product.
I would never be good enough.
At ballet, that is.