Bunheadsby Sophie Flack
In a crowd of beautiful ballet dancers, how can one girl stand out?
As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances, and complicated backstage relationships. But when she meets a spontaneous and irresistibly cute musician named Jacob, her universe begins/i>/i>… See more details below
In a crowd of beautiful ballet dancers, how can one girl stand out?
As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances, and complicated backstage relationships. But when she meets a spontaneous and irresistibly cute musician named Jacob, her universe begins to change.
Until now, Hannah has happily followed the company's unofficial mantra, "Don't think, just dance." But as Jacob opens her eyes to the world beyond the theater, Hannah must decide whether to compete against the other "bunheads" for a star soloist spot or to strike out on her own.
"Flack has written Hannah's story with an insider's knowledge and expertise.
The result is an entertaining read, shedding light on a world most readers know nothing about."
"She [Flack] brilliantly captures the arc from soaring ballerina to exhausted dancer collapsing in a pool of sweat...details have been changed, but fans of ballet will nonetheless relish the inside scoop. A multi-layered and absorbing good read by a promising debut novelist."Kirkus (starred review)"
A measured, vibrant, un-melodramatic account... with a lively cast of literary soloists and corps de novel who present possible ways to survive, or not, as a dancer. Even the ballet-neutral will understand the conflict between career and personal life explored here, but this book will be absolutely irresistible to those who've always felt just one pirouette and years of ferocious training away from Margot Fonteyn."BCCB (starred review)"
Readers, both dancers and "pedestrians" (the corps' term for nondancers), will find Hannah's struggle a gripping read."
Flack has written Hannah's story with an insider's knowledge and expertise.
The result is an entertaining read, shedding light on a world most readers know nothing about."
From the eyecatching cover-a kaleidoscopic overhead shot of tutu-clad ballet dancers-this first-person account of the difficult life a ballerina faces will enthrall readers."Booklist"
At turns riveting, hilarious and bittersweet, Bunheads provides a backstage pass into the world of elite New York City ballet dancers. I got swept up in their routines and habits, their triumphs and disappointments, and their deep friendships, which thrive even in the face of fierce competition. This is at once a romantic page-turner and a thoughtful exploration of just how much true artists are willing to give up for their art." J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Maine and Commencement
must-read for every young dancer! Sophie Flack takes us inside the world of the professional dancer, sparing nothing, and weaving a poignant,
honest coming-of-age story that will keep you turning pages."
Bunheads, author Sophie Flack takes readers into all the drama, camaraderie, disappointment, jealousy,
exultation, and physical and emotional pain in the life of a corps ballet dancer for a prestigious New York ballet company. . . Ms Flack writes with absolutely authority about a lifestyle she herself lived for nine years, and about what happens when lifelong dreams collide with the needs of the heart. "
Hannah has always dreamed of becoming a ballerina and living "the most amazing, wonderful, and crazy life."
Now 19 and a corps member of the Manhattan Ballet (read: New York City Ballet), she is determined to be promoted to soloist. Her life revolves around company class, rehearsals and performances during the fall, winter and spring seasons that she chronicles. Food—or how little of it to eat—is a constant topic of conversation, and exercise classes fill whatever free time remains. Two new boyfriends, one a downtown musician and the other an uptown patron, raise conflicts in her mind. The realization that she has never been kissed or seen anything of Manhattan outside Avery Center (read: Lincoln Center) begins to trouble her. The author danced with City Ballet for several years before being let go in a budget downsize. She excels at label-dropping, describing friendships tinged with jealousy and detailing every step required to break in toe shoes. More to the point, she brilliantly captures the arc from soaring ballerina to exhausted dancer collapsing in a pool of sweat and the crushing disappointment of not becoming a soloist, forever doomed to dance corps roles. Details have been changed, but fans of ballet will nonetheless relish the inside scoop.
A multi-layered and absorbing good read by a promising debut novelist. (Fiction. 13 & up)
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
- Age Range:
- 12 - 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
By Sophie Flack
PoppyCopyright © 2011 Sophie Flack
All right reserved.
My name is Hannah Ward. Don’t call me a ballerina.
Ballerinas are the stars of the company. They dance center stage under the spotlight, and they get their own curtain calls. Their head shots are printed in the program, with their names in large print. Me, I’m a dancer in the corps de ballet, just one of the dozens of girls who dance in graceful unison each night. My mother thinks I’m a star, but she’s biased.
Besides, the word ballerina sounds too pink, too froufrou. Yes, we wear tutus and tiaras, but only when we perform each night. We spend most of our time hidden from the audience, working as hard as we possibly can to strengthen and control our bodies so that when we step onstage, everything we do looks perfect and effortless.
We rehearse in old leotards, threadbare tights, and torn leg warmers. We rarely buy new dance clothes because we know that most ballet careers are short-lived. Today, for example, I’m wearing a faded navy cotton leotard and black, slightly less faded leggings. There’s nothing pink or froufrou about that.
“Throw yourself into your dancing now,” one of my teachers once said, “because the life span of a dancer can be as short as a fruit fly’s.”
“Five minutes to curtain, ladies. Let’s shake a leg!” Christine, the stage manager, stands in the doorway with her hands on her hips. Her headset crackles, and she hastily barks something into it, then turns back to us. “Adriana, you don’t even have your shoes on. Am I going to have to hold the curtain?”
Adriana wrinkles her pointy, powdered nose and holds up her shoes, plus the needle and thread she’ll use to sew herself into them. “See, I’m doing it,” she responds. “Anyway, there’s plenty of time. I have the whole overture.”
Christine smiles then, looking affectionate but also a little tense. It’s her job to make sure that every performance of the Manhattan Ballet goes the way it should. This means worrying about everything from the placement of the spotlights to the egos of prima ballerinas. With one last glance at us, she turns and scurries out, her short, platinum blond hair sticking up in all directions. “Places,” she calls.
I sympathize with Christine: It looks chaotic in here. We’re backstage in the Green Room before a Friday night performance, and all around me dancers are being fastened into their pristine white tutus. The room is a tangle of satin, tulle, and long, lean limbs. Some girls look deep in thought, while others chat loudly with one another. On the floor are discarded bits of clothing, lone pointe shoes, leg warmers, and half-empty water bottles.
“I took, like, eight Advil today,” a dark-haired dancer named Olivia says as she smacks her gum. “I hope I don’t die before the curtain comes down.”
“You’d better not let Christine see that gum or she’ll grab it right out of your mouth,” Adriana says as she sews into her pointe shoes. Her legs are long and almost skeletally thin.
But as I step into my own circle of ridged white tulle, I leave the chaos behind. It happens every time I dress for Waltz Variations: I feel as if I’ve time-traveled to a past, more glamorous era. Fake diamonds drip down my sternum, and my false eyelashes seem as large and as dark as butterfly wings. Laura, one of the dressers, fastens the hooks on my bodice as I pull on my ivory gloves.
As soon as my costume is secure, I scurry out through the Green Room curtain and into the hands of the hairdressers. My friend Zoe is already there, impatiently tapping her foot in its pink pointe shoe.
“Hurry,” she growls as a flustered hairdresser attaches a diamond headpiece to Zoe’s pale blond bun. “No, that’s not it!” She pushes the hairdresser’s hand away.
Because there’s hardly any time, I decide to secure my headpiece myself. And apparently Zoe has decided to do this as well, because she shoves the hairdresser out of the way and steps in front of me, blocking my view of the mirror.
“I’m on before you,” I tell her, but she’s too busy with her bobby pins to listen. I place the diamond-encrusted tiara around my bun while trying to peer around Zoe, who refuses to relinquish her place before the mirror. I stab myself in the scalp with a bobby pin. “Ouch,” I yelp. Then I sigh loudly. “Z,” I say, “you know, you’re totally in my way.”
“What? Oh, hi, Hannah.” Zoe whirls around as if she’s only just noticed me. Her green eyes feign surprise. Her mouth, like mine, is full of clips and pins.
“Hi,” I say, putting my hands on my hips. “Do you mind?”
Zoe grins, turns back to her reflection, and scoots about a quarter of an inch to her left, so now I can almost see myself in the mirror.
Just as I get the tiara fixed, I hear the intro to my music. I run down the dark hall toward the stage, a piece of loose blond hair trailing behind me. I tuck it up into my bun and cross my fingers that it stays. My partner, Jonathan, is waiting for me in the darkened wings, a reassuring smile on his strong, handsome face. I lean back into his arms and allow him to support my back as he lifts me into the bright lights of the stage.
There I join the dozens of corps dancers, and as we swirl together, it seems as though we are an undulating sea of white. I am lifted off my feet, and it feels like flying.
“Whee!” I exclaim to Jonathan, who giggles.
Above us, chandeliers illuminate our twirling bodies, and I wonder if this is what a prom must be like. I didn’t go to my prom, because I was already performing with the Manhattan Ballet. I’ve seen Pretty in Pink and 10 Things I Hate About You, though, so I can imagine it well enough: There would be limos to ride in, and hidden flasks of liquor; the girls would be dressed in strapless satin gowns, and the boys in rented tuxedos. They’d slow-dance under spinning multicolored lights and make out in dark hallways.
Sometimes I think I must have missed something great. But then I tell myself that things experienced onstage are usually more exciting than things experienced in real life anyway.
The music swells, Jonathan lifts me again, and there’s a surge of applause as Lottie, the aging star of the Manhattan Ballet, enters stage left, her auburn hair in a slick, tight twist and diamond studs sparkling in her ears. I can’t see the audience members in the darkened house, but they’re out there in their velvet-cushioned seats, watching us with anticipation and delight.
And I don’t feel like a teenager onstage—I feel like a princess waltzing with her prince.
I wanted to be a dancer for as long as I can remember. When all the other little girls in my neighborhood were riding around on their pink-tasseled bicycles or comparing the latest fashion accessories for their Barbies, I was taking ballet classes at the local studio and fantasizing about dancing the role of Marie in The Nutcracker.
Every day after school, my mom would pick me up and drive me to dance classes in Boston. I’d change into my leotard in the backseat of our minivan and do my bun in the mirrored sun visor. I didn’t fit in with the other kids at school, but when I got to the studio, I felt completely at home. I loved the discipline of the practice: There was always some step to improve upon, some position to perfect. And the adrenaline rush I got from dancing—it was intoxicating.
When I was ten, I told my mom that I was going to be a professional dancer. Instead of smiling and patting me on the head, as if that was just another silly idea from a headstrong fifth grader, she took me seriously. Maybe that’s because she’s an artist herself—a pretty successful ceramicist, to be specific—and so she values the creative impulse over just about anything else.
We began taking road trips to New York City so I could train with some of the best coaches in the country. The summer I turned fourteen, I studied at the Manhattan Ballet Academy, and when August came I was invited to enroll full-time. It was an amazing opportunity, a dream come true. The hitch? It meant moving to New York—alone.
My parents weren’t thrilled at the prospect: My mom worried that I was too young, and my dad worried that I’d get mugged. They had qualms about the academy dorms—were the doors locked at all times, were the floors coed?—and they wondered whether the high school I’d attend, the School of the Arts, offered classes in creative writing, my favorite subject. They realized that, even after I’d made it so far, there was still no guarantee that I’d actually become the professional I wanted to be. That’s why I had to tell them, over one of my mom’s hippie dinners of baked tofu and mashed yams, that this was the chance of a lifetime and that I was willing to take the risk.
I could see them struggling with the idea as they chewed (though my dad may have been struggling with his dinner, too; he’d never liked tofu). They understood that I’d be miserable if I stayed home in Weston, Massachusetts—that every day I’d wish I were at the academy, working toward a chance to be a part of the Manhattan Ballet, which was one of the best companies in the world.
After a few moments I saw my dad nod his head, ever so slightly. My mom turned to me, and her smile was happy and sad at the same time. “All right, then,” she whispered.
Today, five years later, I’m a senior corps member with the Manhattan Ballet. We perform three to four ballets a night to packed houses in New York City, and when we go on tour, our audience can fill five-thousand-seat amphitheaters.
I’m a ballet dancer, but I’m not a ballerina. And it’s the most amazing, wonderful, and crazy life I ever could have imagined.
“Monique’s dress was so busted,” Daisy says as she pulls her silky dark hair into a bun. “It would make Gisele Bündchen look like Susan Boyle.”
I laugh as I sip a venti drip. It’s nine forty-five in the morning, and I’m in the dressing room—my home away from home—listening to two of my three best friends in the company dissect the most recent episode of Project Runway. “Was it really that bad?” I ask.
“I mean, it was a total potato sack,” Daisy says. She leans toward the mirror with her mouth agape as she applies mascara.
“Well, you would know about potatoes,” I smirk, pulling on my black Repetto leotard.
Daisy rolls her eyes and sighs. “God, Hannah, for the last time, it’s Idaho that grows all the potatoes.”
I grin because of course I know that; I just like to tease Daisy because at sixteen she’s the youngest in our dressing room and she’s been in the company for only six months. She’s a total bunhead: She lives and breathes ballet. “Idaho, Ohio, Iowa,” I say, waving my arm dismissively. “They don’t call it flyover country for nothing.”
“I’m from Nebraska,” she says, her dark eyes flashing. Even though she’s from the Midwest, Daisy looks olive-skinned and exotic because her mother is Jordanian. She’s five foot three, with tiny bones, knobby elbows, and a wide, infectious smile. “Nebraska is known for its corn.”
“Oh, riiiight,” I say, smiling. “My bad.”
She sticks out her tongue at me.
“I thought the dress was all right,” Bea says as she pulls her bright red hair into a high ponytail. “I mean, it was kind of baggy, but what she did with the pleating was interesting.”
“Oh, Bea,” I say, “it’s just like you to find something nice to say.”
Beatrice Hall—Bea—is from Maine. Like me, she’s nineteen, and she’s been my best friend since we roomed together at the Manhattan Ballet Academy. She was brought up ultrareligious (as in going to church all the time and praying before you eat and all that), and she’s the youngest of eight kids, so she had to learn patience and diplomacy early on. But Bea has a wicked sense of humor, too. She has huge, beautiful blue eyes and pale, freckled skin. Her ears stick out slightly, and she has incredible coltlike legs that seem to go all the way up to her armpits.
“My mother raised me right,” she says, nudging me with her toe.
I giggle and push it away. “Get your gnarly foot off of me.”
“My gnarly foot? Have you looked at your bunions lately?”
Then the door bursts open and Zoe Mortimer leans in the doorframe, a Diet Coke in her hand. She’s wearing her new cropped Prada blazer and skinny jeans. She looks haughty, as usual, but it’s not on purpose; it’s just the way her face is. She grew up on Park Avenue and is as rich as anyone I’ve ever met. That kind of privilege just shows.
She puts her hands on her narrow hips and grins, looking like the cat that ate the canary.
“What?” Bea demands as she braids her ponytail. “Are you going to tell us why you’re smiling like that?”
Zoe tosses her long blond hair and steps delicately over Bea’s clothes, which are scattered on the floor in piles of tights, leg warmers, sweatpants, and leotards. “Yes,” Zoe says. “Just a sec, I’ve got to get changed.” She slips off her jeans and very slowly roots around in her theater case for a fresh pair of tights.
“Take your time,” I say sarcastically. “Keep building the suspense.”
She grins slyly at me but doesn’t say anything. Then, after she’s changed into a gray Lycra leotard and shell-pink tights, she turns to face us. “Adriana heard that Otto’s going to start rehearsing his new ballet.”
Otto Klein is the director of the Manhattan Ballet, the man who selects the ballets and decides who will dance them—in other words, the man who determines our futures.
“Whoop-de-do,” Bea says, sounding bored. She puts the finishing touches on her hairdo and opens one of Zoe’s old issues of Vogue magazine. “Does Gumby think that’s news?”
“Who’s Gumby?” Daisy wants to know.
Bea smiles. “Adriana! Because she’s freakishly flexible. Gumby—that green rubber guy who can bend… oh, never mind, you’re too young.”
I giggle. “Yeah, but we dance, like, forty different ballets a season. So what’s the big deal about this new one?” I yawn and twist my hair into a high bun.
Zoe raises an eyebrow as she continues. “Adriana said Otto wants to cast a corps girl in the lead, and that’s why he’s been watching class.”
Now, this is news. Daisy puts down her eyebrow pencil, and Bea closes the magazine and sits up a little straighter. I take another sip of coffee and wait for Zoe to continue. Now that she’s mentioned it, I realize that Otto has been around a lot more lately. Usually we see him only two or three times a week, but he’s been slipping into the studio during our center work nearly every day recently. He lingers at the back of the room, along the mirrored wall, his jaw clenched as he taps his fingers on his thigh.
“I saw him giving you the up-down in class yesterday, Hannah,” Bea says. “The day before, too. Maybe you’ve got a shot at it.”
“You think?” I ask, feeling a little shiver of excitement.
“I doubt it,” Zoe snorts under her breath. She leans toward the mirror, retouching the lip gloss on her full, pouty lips.
“Excuse me?” I say.
She turns to me and gives me one of her special Zoe smiles, the kind that’s only about 10 percent sincere. “No offense, Han, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up,” she says. She carefully lines her lipsticks up in a neat row. “There are a lot of corps girls for him to choose from. He might have someone else in mind. Like Adriana herself, say. Or like…”
“Or like you?” I ask.
Zoe nods. “Yes, like me. I mean, I’m just trying to protect your feelings, Hannah.”
“Yeah, right,” I say, suddenly annoyed. “Of course, you’re only concerned about my feelings.”
“Absolutely!” Zoe replies. She blots the corner of her mouth with a tissue and then makes a kissing face at her reflection.
Daisy and Bea pretend to be absorbed in whatever they’re doing. They’ve learned to stay out of it when Zoe and I have one of our occasional spats.
I meet my gaze in the mirror. Staring back at me is a hazel-eyed teenager with high cheekbones and dark blond hair that sometimes, on rainy days, gets a bit frizzy. I set my jaw and straighten my shoulders. I can feel Zoe looking at me from across the room, but I ignore her. Each of us knows what the other is thinking: That part is going to be mine.
Otto encourages competition between his dancers, as if there weren’t enough already. He likes to put Zoe and me together because we’re both blond and tall, and no doubt he’d get pleasure out of causing a rift between us over a new part. Otto’s of the Nietzschean “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” school.
“Anyway, I’m going out for a puff.” Zoe gets up and throws on a loose cable-knit sweater over her leotard. She’s headed up to the roof, where the smokers like to gather. “Don’t miss me.” The door slams behind her.
“We won’t,” Bea mutters under her breath as she throws a pair of pointe shoes into her theater case. Bea has no patience for Zoe’s attitude; she tolerates her mostly out of loyalty to me. “God forbid someone suggest that Otto was looking at something other than Zoe’s bony behind,” she says when Zoe’s safely out of earshot. “Her ass is so concave, I could eat soup out of it!” She mimes ladling soup into her mouth, and Daisy succumbs to a fit of giggles.
I laugh so hard I nearly spit out my mouthful of coffee, but there’s a part of me that wonders what gets said about me when I leave the room.
“I don’t care what you say,” Daisy sighs, starry-eyed. “I would love to look like Zoe.”
I rest my head on my hands for a moment. Even though she’s kind of a brat, I never like fighting with Zoe. I still have ten minutes before company class, so I decide to go clear the air with her.
I take the elevator to the top floor and hurry up the stairs to the roof. The heavy metal door that says EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY groans as I push it open. There aren’t any windows in the theater—not in the studios or the dressing rooms or anywhere—so the bright September sun makes me squint.
I look around for Zoe, but for some reason she’s not up here. An empty Starbucks cup rolls toward me in the slight breeze. The building’s huge air-conditioning unit makes a loud humming noise and spews hot air over the flat black roof.
I walk to the edge and look down over the plaza. Below me is the vast courtyard of Avery Center. There are clusters of tourists here and there, and I think I see Jonathan, late as usual, hobbling toward the theater because he pulled his ACL in rehearsal yesterday. Behind him the fountain at the center of the plaza sends up sparkling jets of water.
I close my eyes and breathe in, and all thoughts of Zoe vanish. The first autumn bite is in the air, and it marks the beginning of another year with the company.
Is Otto really looking for a corps girl to dance a new lead role? If so, then maybe he’s looking to promote one of us to soloist.
The life span of a fruit fly. “What am I waiting for?” I ask aloud. “This is my year.” I look up at the sky, and the wispy clouds seem to dance overhead. “This year,” I tell them, “I’m going to be promoted.”
I walk to the other side of the roof and look out over the traffic on Broadway. Two taxis are having a honking war, and on the corner of Broadway and Sixty-Fifth, a man in jogging clothes is doing jumping jacks as he waits to cross the street. A yellow school bus disgorges a group of high school students on a field trip to Avery Center. I watch them walk single file up the steps to the plaza, their mouths open in awe at the grand architecture of the buildings.
I spend most of my waking hours in the building directly below my feet, but beyond that lies a whole bustling world. I think of all the neighborhood sights that I never actually see: the lights and crowds of Times Square, the restaurants and bars of Hell’s Kitchen, the galleries of Chelsea, the tree-lined streets of the West Village, and the shops and rock clubs of the East Village. If I weren’t a professional dancer, maybe I’d feel more a part of New York City. But for now this theater is my entire world, and I don’t miss the outside one bit.
I turn and walk back toward the door, scattering a flock of pigeons that had settled on the roof. My pledge will be my secret. “You can do this,” I whisper.
“Hannah, you on next?” a low, gruff voice asks.
It’s Harry, one of the stagehands, lingering in the backstage area where I wait for my entrance. He’s about six foot three and probably weighs almost three hundred pounds, with kind eyes and no visible neck. Harry has worked at this theater longer than I’ve been alive. His grandfather and his father were stagehands, too. At this point in his career, Harry knows as much about ballet as anyone I can think of.
“Hey, you,” I say, rolling my neck to give the muscles a final stretch. “I’m on in a few minutes.”
“Break a leg.” Harry smiles. His nine-year-old daughter, Matilda, appears from out of nowhere, wearing a half-torn tutu and a battered pair of Nikes.
“Hannah!” she says breathlessly, her chubby cheeks bright pink with excitement.
Matilda doesn’t come around the theater often—backstage isn’t the best place for a kid—so I’m always surprised that she remembers my name and that she seems so excited to see me. I guess she’s what they call precocious.
“Hey,” I say, “I see you’ve got your tutu on. Are you dancing in one of the ballets tonight?”
She giggles. “I wish! But I have a recital coming up. Do you know the Delancey Dance Academy? That’s where I take lessons.” Her voice is proud, and her little chest puffs out.
Harry ruffles his daughter’s curly dark hair. “Mattie wants to be a ballerina, too, when she grows up.”
I look down at this smiling little girl in her pigtails and dirty tutu. Her face shines with delight. The theater must seem like a magical world to her—I know it did to me. When I first became an apprentice, I wanted to sleep on the stage, under the rows of lights that glittered like far-off planets. Sometimes when no one was around, I’d sit on the edge with my legs dangling into the orchestra pit and look out in awe at the vast, empty house with its carved, gilded ceiling and crystal chandeliers.
“I want to dance in Swan Lake,” Mattie informs me.
“Good for you,” I say. But I can see already that she has her father’s body, and this does not bode well for Mattie’s future ballet career. Harry is not built like a dancer; Harry is built like a Mack truck. “That’s wonderful.”
“We’re going to do The Nutcracker this year, though,” she adds.
“Wow,” I say. “You know, we’re rehearsing The Nutcracker now, too? We dance it every year starting the day after Thanksgiving.”
Harry smiles indulgently. “It’s not the real Nutcracker,” he whispers. “They’re just going to have Sugarplum Fairy costumes. My wife is slaving over the damn thing already.” He laughs. “But Mattie loves to dance. Don’t you, girl?”
Matilda nods happily. “I want a costume like yours someday,” she whispers. Her pink cheeks flush even pinker.
I glance down at the silvery satin costume and touch one of its hand-sewn pearls reverently, protectively. “I hope you get one,” I whisper back.
Then Luke, my partner in Four Winds, appears, wanting to practice the pirouettes we do together in the first section. He doesn’t acknowledge Harry or Matilda but reaches out and grabs my hand. To a lot of dancers, the stagehands are simply invisible, like familiar pieces of furniture. Those dancers don’t appreciate that without the stagehands, nothing—and I mean nothing—would work as it should.
“Please,” Luke says. “I’m nervous.” He blinks at me with his large, slightly watery green eyes.
I feel sorry for him, and so I nod. “All right, come here. Hold your arms out.” I’ve danced this ballet dozens of times, but it’s not easy, so I can sympathize. I step into his arms.
Matilda’s eyes grow even wider. Now she’ll get an impromptu performance.
I count off four counts, just to give Luke time to prepare, and then I start to turn. I fall to the right on the first pirouette, though, because Luke has me off my supporting leg.
“Hold me more firmly,” I tell him. “You won’t hurt me.”
The second time he keeps me on my leg, and I rotate three times. Matilda applauds.
“Good! You’ll be fine,” I say reassuringly.
But right at that moment, Otto Klein glides by, frowning slightly as he sips from a bottle of Evian, and Luke visibly pales. “Is he watching tonight?” he whispers.
“I doubt it,” I say, shaking my head, because I know Otto’s presence will only make Luke more nervous, and then he’ll forget what I told him about holding me right.
Of course, Otto probably will watch, and the thought of it makes my heart beat a bit faster.
I wave to Harry and Matilda, and then Luke and I go to join handsome Jonathan and gangly Adriana, who are waiting in the wings. The lights from the stage stream through the wings in pink, yellow, and blue beams that look like the sun shining through the clouds. We count our eights to make sure we come in on time. It might be overkill, but I like to count them on my fingers so I don’t lose track.
On the end of the ninth eight, we walk onto the stage in unison and into our formation. As soon as I make the transition from wing to stage, I grow about two inches. I listen to the music and it cues my muscle memory. I tombé-glissade-piqué into Luke’s arms. Then, preparing for the pirouette, I take a breath. On the first rotation I’m off my supporting leg, but I use my core strength to put myself back over my toe for the second turn.
“Sorry!” Luke whispers.
“Don’t worry,” I whisper back, even though I’m annoyed at him.
We run into formation and he lifts me high and quick for the pas de chat as we cross with the couples on stage left. I pose on the side in B-plus (one leg gracefully crossed behind the other) and then curtsy to the couples on the right and the left of us as if to greet them: “Hello, Adriana. Hello, Olivia.”
Onstage we’re all on the same team; worries about competition, casting, and promotions vanish, and we revel in the dance itself.
When the music stops, the audience erupts in applause. As I curtsy, I feel the adrenaline coursing through me.
“Thanks for not dropping me,” I whisper to Luke as we take our bow.
“Anytime,” he says with a grin.
Still trying to catch my breath, I walk backstage to check tomorrow’s schedule. The schedule tells us which ballets we’re dancing in, which ones we’re rehearsing for, and which roles we might have a chance of getting. Dancers study it as if it’s the word of God. If your name is printed under a soloist or principal part, it means that Otto sees potential in you, and your career is in the ascendance. Continually being cast in smaller corps parts, though, means the opposite. Since we perform so many different ballets in a season, each ballet is, in theory, an opportunity for a great part. So we’re always hopeful—even if we’re often disappointed.
All the lights are off except for a single blue bulb that burns dimly above the bulletin board, barely illuminating the schedule tacked there. I scan the paper for my name, and when I see it, my breath catches in my throat: I’ve been called to understudy Lottie Harlow for the lead in Otto’s new ballet—the part that Zoe and I were angling for.
I feel a rush of excitement. Okay, so I didn’t actually get the part, but Otto wants me to learn it! If something were to happen to Lottie, he trusts me to carry the ballet in her place. I smile and give a happy little hop. This could be a sign of good things to come.
Bea hurries up next to me, still breathing heavily from her performance, and looks for her own name. “Are you serious? I’m dancing Unraveling in G again?” Her red lips look black in the dim blue light, and her pancake makeup covers her freckles completely. “It’s like I’m still an apprentice,” she says grimly.
“That sucks,” I say. Then, unable to help myself, I blurt, “I’m understudying Lottie in Otto’s new ballet.”
“Really?” Bea immediately brightens. “Good for you.” She reaches out and gives me a quick squeeze. “See? Otto was watching you.”
Then Daisy and Zoe come over, eager to find their own names. Zoe pushes past us, knocking Bea off balance.
“God, Z,” Bea says. “Shove much?”
Zoe ignores her and two seconds later gives a little yelp. “I’m understudying Lottie,” she says, turning to us and smiling, her teeth white and perfect.
Immediately my heart sinks a little. Of course Otto put us together again.
“I guess Otto was giving me the up-down, too, huh?” Zoe says slyly.
“Uh, yeah,” I mumble.
“Hey,” Daisy says. “You guys? Where am I?” She tries to catch a glimpse of the schedule, but we’re all in the way. She jumps up and down, attempting to look over Zoe’s shoulder.
“Looks like you’re in Symphony in G and Haiku,” I say.
“Yes!” Daisy pumps her little fist. “I’ve always wanted to dance Haiku.”
Zoe leans over and whispers in my ear, “What a dork. That’s, like, the lamest part in our rep.”
“She’s oblivious,” I whisper back. “But at least her delusion will keep her happy. You know how she stress-eats when she freaks out.”
“It’s so cool you guys are learning Lottie,” Bea says loudly, trying to make sure Daisy doesn’t overhear us calling her a dork for being so excited about an apprentice ballet.
But Daisy doesn’t even notice; she bounces off toward the Green Room, her dark hair unraveling from its bun.
Zoe turns toward me and speaks with deliberate casualness. “You know, Otto will probably rehearse a second cast, which means one of us will dance it.” She thrusts her shoulders back and gives me a little smile. “I wonder which one of us he’ll choose….”
I shrug and turn away, although inside I’m practically seething. We all want bigger and better parts. It’s ingrained in us—the drive to succeed is as natural to us as breathing.
Behind me I hear Zoe snickering. I guess she thinks she’s funny.
Honestly, I don’t think Zoe and I would have been friends if she hadn’t sought me out when I first came to the Manhattan Ballet Academy. Like me, she was one of the youngest girls in Level C, and she stood next to me in class. I was too shy to talk to her much, but I was happy to have an almost-friend.
Over the course of a few weeks, we started talking more, and eventually Zoe invited me to dinner at her apartment. Since I’d been surviving on the slop they tried to pass off as food in the dorm cafeteria, I was thrilled at the idea of having a home-cooked meal. And I was also—though I would never admit this to Zoe—aching for a mother figure, even if it wasn’t my own. I was fourteen and on my own in New York City. It wasn’t easy.
As I entered Zoe’s Park Avenue foyer, a yappy Pekingese nipped at my ankles.
“Hello, Hannah,” Zoe’s mother cooed as she leaned against the doorframe. “I’m Dolly. Zoe has told me so much about you.” Dolly’s hair was a darker shade of gold than Zoe’s, but mother and daughter had the same striking green eyes. Dolly wore a crimson velvet robe wrapped snugly around her tiny frame. When she reached out to hug me, holding me tight to her bony sternum, her perfume overwhelmed me. Then she stepped back and craned her neck.
“Zoe!” she shouted down the hallway. There was no answer. “She is so lazy.” Dolly sighed. Then she smiled broadly and picked up a martini glass that had left a circle of condensation on the hall table. “Her room’s the fourth on the left.” She rested her elbow in the indentation of her hip and swirled the liquid in her glass while looking me up and down. “If you’ll excuse me.”
As I later found out, Dolly was the daughter of a Texas oil tycoon and, according to Daisy, a big donor to the Manhattan Ballet. Her partying and bed hopping made her a regular on Page Six. Dolly was hospitalized for stress twice, but everyone said it was anorexia. Once, and only once, I saw her eat. It was a single stalk of celery that she retrieved from her Bloody Mary.
I remember walking down the hall to Zoe’s bedroom and knocking hesitantly.
“Come in,” Zoe called. She sat on the floor blowing on her freshly painted toenails. A music video blared from a wall-mounted flat-screen TV. “You want to order some sushi?” she asked. She tossed a menu at me. “It’s the best in the city. I like the spider rolls.”
I looked around at her huge bedroom, with its expensive furniture and its modern art (I saw one of Andy Warhol’s panda screen prints by the window). Zoe fit in perfectly there: Even her upturned nose and pronounced cheekbones seemed like evidence of a genetic predisposition for wealth.
I picked just a few things off the menu, but still I could see that I was ordering more than sixty dollars’ worth of food. “I’ve got Mom’s credit card,” Zoe said. “Order more.”
“Should we order something for her?” I asked.
Zoe shook her head. “She’s going out. Robert De Niro is having a party at Ago.”
“Oh… okay.” What else could I say?
As we waited for our sushi delivery, we heard Dolly clattering around, getting ready to go out, but she never knocked on Zoe’s door to say good-bye. It was as if they were roommates rather than mother and daughter—roommates who didn’t even like each other much.
We ate in Zoe’s massive living room, with the lights of Park Avenue twinkling far below us. We left a pile of sushi trays and soy sauce wrappers on the coffee table. “Don’t worry about it,” Zoe said. “Gladys’ll get it in the morning.”
“The housekeeper,” Zoe said matter-of-factly. “Can I have some of your salmon skin roll?”
Obviously, I didn’t get my family dinner that night. And I never did, even though I went to Zoe’s house dozens of times and sometimes even spent the night.
I haven’t been invited over in a long time, but then again, we’re not kids anymore. I don’t need a mother figure. I just need to dance that part in Otto’s ballet.
In celebration of being selected to understudy Lottie, I decide to go downtown after Saturday night’s performance. I forgo my usual post-dance body-maintenance routine and just rub arnica gel on my bunions. Then I slip into a pair of boots and a wrap dress that my mother used to wear in the seventies. The cab takes me south on Seventh Avenue to Gene’s, which is my cousin Eugene’s West Village restaurant. I skipped lunch and I’m starving.
It’s raining, and the streetlights seem to bleed yellow-and-white streaks on the windows of the cab. I see a few people hurrying along the sidewalks, their black umbrellas hovering above them. Puddles gather at the curbs, gathering little boats of newspapers and coffee cups.
When I first came to New York City, it was impossible for me to think that someday it might feel like home. Though I put on a brave face, during my first few weeks of school at the Manhattan Ballet Academy, I was scared to leave the Upper West Side or to go outside after dark. Still, New York was thrilling. Sure, people on the sidewalk were sort of pushy, and they rarely made eye contact, but that was because they were ambitious and driven. The city’s energy was palpable. Just to be outside, to walk down Broadway, was like drinking a shot of espresso.
It’s probably how all the new kids at MBA feel right now. They’re fresh enough to look around themselves in amazement and awe. And I envy that.
But I envy Zoe, too, who was born to all this. She grew up practically around the corner from the Met, and she started at the MBA when she was eight years old. She’s as ambitious and as jaded as a nineteen-year-old possibly can be, and the attitude seems to be working for her.
I wonder if it’s the city or the ballet world that toughens you up. It seems that either could do the job.
“Seventeen forty,” says the cab driver, jolting me back to reality.
The receipt prints out noisily as I fumble for a twenty. “Keep it,” I tell him, and dash into the warm dimness of my cousin’s restaurant.
Trudy, the bartender, waves in my direction and starts pouring me a glass of red wine, even though she knows I’m two years away from being legal. I look around nervously, just in case there’s someone who might ask for my ID, but there’s only a group of silver-haired old men drinking wine and arguing about baseball in the corner and a young, laughing couple in the back.
I sit down at the bar and take out my copy of Frankenstein, which I’ve been trying to finish since July. But I’m still amped from the performance, and I can’t concentrate. I’m watching the couple without thinking, and then suddenly the guy turns and catches my eye. He has dark hair and pale skin with the shadow of scruff along his jawline, and he’s incredibly cute. He holds my gaze for a moment as his blond date texts on her phone, and then he smiles at me—a big, warm, surprising smile.
I duck my head and feel the blush climb up my neck to my cheeks. I’m too embarrassed to smile back.
“Here you go,” Trudy says, passing me a large goblet of wine. “Drink up.”
“Thanks.” I take out a few dollars to tip her, but I don’t pay for the wine. Eugene gets mad if I do; this, plus his laxness around the matter of drinking age, is one of the reasons he’s my favorite cousin.
I want to look at the young couple again. Because I wonder, are they actually a couple? They seem like they should be—they’re in a romantic Italian restaurant together, after all—but the look the guy gave me would seem to suggest otherwise.
“Haven’t seen you for a while,” Trudy says, interrupting my thoughts.
“Yeah, it’s hard to get away,” I say. “Otto doesn’t approve of ‘field trips.’ ”
I laugh drily. “It’s what he calls any sort of activity that takes place more than ten blocks from the theater.”
“Yikes,” Trudy says. Then she eyes my clavicle as she sets a plate of breadsticks in front of me. “Eat, eat. You’re too skinny, my dear.”
“Really?” I ask. Actually, I’ve been feeling sort of bloated lately, but I haven’t weighed myself because I don’t own a scale—and because I don’t really want to know.
“Well, compared to me you’re skinny,” Trudy says. She pinches her stomach. “I’ve got enough gut for both of us.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I say, smiling. “Can I have a bowl of the pesto rigatoni?”
I tell myself I won’t eat the whole thing—and anyway, I missed lunch, so I need some calories.
“Sure thing,” she says, giving me a little salute. “Coming right up.”
As I sip my wine, I look to the back corner of the restaurant, but the guy and girl are gone. I can’t help feeling a little disappointed; even if he was on a date with someone else, he was good scenery. I open up Frankenstein and stare blankly at the pages. Then I open my journal, which I always have with me, and do the same.
I’m still sort of spacing out when I hear the strumming of a guitar. I turn around and look to the small stage that Eugene installed against the far wall of the dining room. Sitting on a stool, holding a battered old Sigma acoustic, is the cute dark-haired guy.
From this angle I can see him better, and I can tell that he’s my age, or maybe a year or two older. He’s wearing faded Levi’s, a V-necked sweater, and a pair of Adidas sneakers that has seen better days. His fingers move quickly over the frets of the guitar, and then, a moment later, he opens his mouth and sings. He has a deep but breathy voice that reminds me of Nick Drake’s.
“Saw you at the Guggenheim / shivering outside in line / wondered if you’d have the time / to turn around and see me,” he sings.
The blond taps her foot and mouths the words along with him. She’s moved to a closer table so she can take pictures.
“Across the park the leaves are red / the hawks have put themselves to bed / The snow will come the old man said / So please be with me…”
The melody—or maybe it’s his voice—gives me shivers. I stop trying to pretend I’m not staring.
“Here I am so far from home / and I don’t want to be alone / Do you want to be my own / my lovely girl…”
As he finishes, he looks up, and our eyes meet again. I feel a flutter in my stomach that is not unlike the one I feel the moment before I step onstage. It’s like a surge of nerves and anticipation. Hello, I think, who are you?
He sings half a dozen more songs as I sip my wine. I don’t pretend to read my book or do anything but watch. Sometime during his set the blond vanishes.
He comes to the last verse in a song about California and then sets down his guitar. There’s a smattering of applause from the table of old men. A moment later he’s coming toward me, and then he’s sitting down next to me at the bar. “Can I have a Brooklyn Lager, please?” he says to Trudy.
I can feel my heart thudding in my chest and a blush creeping into my cheeks. He’s sitting next to me, I think dumbly. He’s sitting right next to me. What do I say to him?
Trudy raises one tweezed eyebrow and says, “Done already? Because I didn’t hear that song I like, about the river.”
“I’ll dedicate it to you next time,” the singer says, flashing her a grin.
“It’s a deal.” Trudy reaches for the tap and nods in my direction. “Her name is Hannah. She’s the owner’s cousin, so if you plan on hitting on her, you had better have the best of intentions, or else he’ll hunt you down and break your legs.”
I laugh, in part because I’m mortified and in part because Eugene is about 110 pounds soaking wet.
“Duly noted.” He grins.
Trudy gives the cute guitar player his beer and then slides my pasta down the bar so I have to catch it before it careers off the end. She always does that.
“That looks good, too,” he says to me with a smile. “Is that pesto?”
I nod as I grind some pepper over it.
“That’s a lot of pepper,” he observes, watching the dark specks cover the top of my pasta.
I look down. In my nervousness I’ve ground way too much pepper onto my dinner. “Uh, I really like pepper,” I say, and surreptitiously try to push some of it off onto the bar.
He smiles again, revealing a row of straight white teeth and two matching dimples. His eyes are blue, with lashes as long as a girl’s. I have no idea what I should say to him. He seemed perfect from far away, but now that he’s next to me he’s just making me nervous.
“I’m Jacob. I understand you’re Hannah.”
He extends his hand and I shake it, and in doing so I nearly spill my wine on my lap. “Oh,” I gasp as I catch the glass just in time.
“Excellent reflexes,” he says.
I can only nod. I don’t know how to flirt with guys—I’ve been insulated inside a dance studio for the last twelve years of my life. When was the last time I had a conversation with someone who wasn’t a dancer? Does the cashier at my corner deli count?
I stab the rigatoni with my fork while watching Jacob out of the corner of my eye. He’s lanky tallish. His hair is tousled, and there’s a tiny cut on his chin where he must have nicked himself shaving. I have to repress a sudden urge to reach out and gently touch it.
He eyes my book, my journal, my pen. “So, do you go to NYU?” Jacob asks, looking at me over the rim of his pint glass.
I shake my head for a long time, long enough to get my vocal cords working. And then I say it. “No.” I think, Come on, Hannah, is that really the best you can do?
“Okay,” he says. “The New School? That’s where Sasha goes. She was here earlier? She’s my brother’s girlfriend, and she’s more loyal to me, apparently, than my own brother, who called five minutes before my set to say he couldn’t make it. But anyway, do you go there?”
I say no and shake my head again. I’ve become virtually unable to speak. Thank God no one else is here to see this humiliating display; Zoe would never let me hear the end of it. But at least the blond isn’t his girlfriend.
“All right, then,” Jacob says gamely. “We can make this twenty questions. So, you’re not a student.”
I shake my head.
“Are you a spy?”
And this is so absurd that I’m shaken out of my vocal paralysis. I laugh and say, “Nope, not a spy.”
Trudy shoots me a look—is this guy bothering you?—but I smile. Jacob is definitely not bothering me. I hardly even care what he’s saying; sitting next to him is making me feel giddy.
Excerpted from Bunheads by Sophie Flack Copyright © 2011 by Sophie Flack. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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