© Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo of Ann en pointe.
“Point your feet! Rotate! Don’t stick your butts out! Stay out of your heels.” I looked up from where I was sitting. There was no music—only the thump-thud sound of the dancers en pointe and the ballet master shouting. “Dance to the tips of your fingers and toes! Plié! Spot!”
Ann obeyed; sweat ran down her face. “Tours chaînés déboulés,” the master barked. She struggled as her sleek muscles quivered with exhaustion. I’d never seen my aunt rehearsing. So, the contrast between seeing her stage performance—where she glided effortlessly on the tips of her pointe shoes—and seeing her studio rehearsal baffled me.
“Rond de Jambe en l’air and Frappé.” The master paused; the dancers gathered at the barre. “Fifth position, preparation sur le cou de pied. Single frappe en croix each position getting two counts.” He strolled around the dance studio.
“Close Fifth position front.” Ann panted for breath. “Single rond de jambe en l’air en dehors twice at 45°.” Her corded tendons stood out like insulated cable. “…Now close to sous-sus front.”
But when the curtain rose later that winter evening, there stood my aunt—her feathery light body rose en pointe. Ann lifted her arms and breathed in the music sending it through her torso, arms, and legs. She surrendered to the music gracefully spinning like the wind across Swan Lake—her tutu fluttering like the wings of a bird at dawn. Dancing became her body’s song, and Ann sang it beautifully as her body told the story of Odette, the Swan Queen, and her love for Prince Siegfried.
Backstage afterwards, I cringed when Ann removed her pointe shoes revealing calluses, misshapen toes, black nails and reddish-purple flesh. The contrast between her beautiful pointe shoes and her battered, ugly feet startled me.
“I didn’t know how painful ballet dancing could be!” I searched her eyes. “How can you endure so much pain?”
Without saying a word, Ann walked over to her dressing table where she wrapped her pointe shoes in soft tissue paper and placed them in a pink satin drawstring bag. She pulled a piece of paper from her dressing table drawer, scribbled a note, and tucked the note inside the drawstring bag. “I’m not quite sure how to explain it to you. But take these. I want you to have them. One day, you’ll understand.”
As I left the performance hall that winter evening, I pulled open the drawstring bag; ran my fingers over the pointe shoes’ pink satiny smooth surface; and read her handwritten note. “Each time you see these, remember life, like dance, is a beautiful art form. It’s hard work. It’s painful. It’s ugly. You sweat. You fail. You succeed. You try again. You push. You fight. But always remain graceful.”
At the time I didn’t understand the profound wisdom in my aunt’s hand-scribbled message. Now, though, I recognize that my aunt’s gift that winter was not her pointe shoes; rather it was her enduring words that served as a turning point in my young life when I learned that life, like ballet, is a battle between beauty and pain.