We, the ballet dancers Frieda L. Johnson Academy of Dance, reached together, across the warm air of the auditorium, sweat sliding gently down our temples, and as I followed the line beyond my fingertips that unfurled over the audience, I allowed myself one secretive peek at the front row, their mouths agape, forming plunderous smiles of joy. There was always one in that first row whose gaze penetrated the guise of the performance, who saw the truth of the ballet. This time it was a young man, not much older than twenty, with skin that looked as soft as a ballerina’s lace. He appeared to be in a trance, mesmerized by our movements, our thin, muscular legs and arms, our identical pastel lavender costumes and taut, pulled back hair, the lightness of our steps on the creaking black plastic-covered wood of the stage. His wide eyes sparkled with awe, and I found myself drawn to him.
Yet, my gay-dar shot through the roof. There was something about him, his atmosphere, his aura, which let off an effeminate vibe, an out-of-sync-ness I could smell from a mile away—and of which I was severely acquainted.
I leapt forward across the stage with the next lift of the music, as it had been choreographed, sending my energy through the fibers of my outstretched legs and out my pointed toes. I heard the audience’s blissful intake of breath while I hesitated in the air, and then the exhale of their pleasant sigh as I landed gracefully with a delicate, extended arm on the last note of the piano’s melody. Though my gaze was centered beyond the tips of my fingers, I could discern from the direction of the sound that it was that epicene young man in the front row who began the round of applause, his hands meeting each other first, before any other member of the audience had lifted theirs. I could not cede control of the enlivened smile I found emerging from my lips.
An audience of enthusiastic ballet-lovers like him elevated the act of performing to new heights: we weren't doing it for ourselves, for our choreographers, for the pianist, for our parents—we were doing it for those who observed and absorbed themselves into our art, who saw beauty and meaning in our expressive movements. The only meaning our distant yet proud parents could derive from a perfect dance was a sense of achievement, that the being to whom they gave life could give life to others.
Far across the reaches of New York, in a small, quiet, green community, my parents sat on their wooden kitchen table chairs, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee and dreaming of a mystical land beyond the hills, where their one and only child glided and whirled across a stage. They remained there, attending their office jobs and going to dinner parties for friends, only vaguely aware of the greatness their sixteen-year-old ballet dancer was achieving.
Flitting behind the curtain, I found my greatness, my skill. I hid myself behind its velvety gloss and escaped into the blackness. Darkness swept over the stage as the lights edged on over the clapping audience, exposing to them the truth of their voyeurism. The dancers navigated the dimly lit backstage, their exalted whispers and the brushing of their soft soles kissing the floorboards supplanting the fading clatter of applause. They zipped through the thin corridor, anxious for light and the privilege of the dressing room, where, secluded from the audience, they could bolster their chatter and talk excitedly about the successful performance. But I embraced the darkness; in it, after the dance, I could see myself for who I truly was.
As soon as the dancers entered the dressing room, even before the heavy door was closed, they began stripping down to the essentials, preparing for the arrival of the family and friends who had come to see them. Bones were exposed through transparent skin, muscles’ sinews ebbing just beneath the smooth, pure layer that separated their flesh from the world.
The diet of infinite salads and the constant intake of lean proteins prevented us from accumulating excess body fat, from losing muscle mass. The hours of rigorous practice did things to the female body that any common woman would be repulsed by. Menstruation was scanty, though most dancers were relieved by this: no blood to seep through the thin layer of the leotard, no cramps to cripple them during rehearsal. Calves and quadriceps and biceps became bulky, masculine. Breasts shrank, hardened, disappeared. Most girls were regretful of this latter effect. They could deal with pain in the toes and hunger for birthday cake or chips, but when the thing that revealed them to be a woman withered, they no longer felt attractive to the opposite sex. They had to embrace the different sort of appeal in ballet.
I, however, was never comfortable with those things on my chest anyway. When they first began to grow, I danced them away. They didn't feel like they were a part of me. They didn't belong on me. Ballet was my outlet, my conduit to beauty, the thing that made me feminine. I didn't need breasts to reveal my femininity to the world.
But I did need the tape.
And the tape, I could feel, was slowly coming loose. After thirteen years of practice, I had perfected the process of taping, but this performance, that final leap, had exerted just enough force on my groin, had stretched my legs just enough, that the tape came undone, and the thing slipped out from my leotard, just as I rolled the fabric over my hips. It flopped out like a fish from a pond. I felt the warm flesh brush against my upper thigh.
A sharp gasp pierced my left ear, followed by my fellow dancer and dorm roommate, Miranda’s definitive voice spurt, “Nicola! What?” Her hushed query flushed my cheeks red. I turned to her, witnessing her terror, no doubt akin to my own. Curling over to hide it from any of the other dancers, I yanked the leotard back over my hip bones to remove the thing from view. I puddled to the floor, reaching into my bag to locate my shorts, avoiding Miranda’s eye.
“Nicola,” she whispered, leaning in close. “What are you?” Still sifting through my bag, my hands shaking, I swallowed my fear, only to find all my saliva had dried up. I averted my gaze, but Miranda’s quick arm squeezed my shoulder, urging my face toward hers. “Are you a boy?” Her eyes were wide, darting over me in horror, though pulsing with a secretive curiosity I could recognize in her quiet voice.
“No,” I said harshly. “I’m a girl.”
Through her teeth: “But you have a … a penis.”
“I just have both.” My fingers found the soft cloth of my shorts, which I ripped from the bag and placed in my lap. “Please don’t tell.”
She hesitated, then nodded, and I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I pushed my legs into the shorts and stood. As I looked down at her to judge her reaction and her promise, I did not see an expression of understanding but rather a look of sly, internal inquisition, as though she were sharing a secret joy with an invisible best friend whose identity I would never know.