Balletdictorian

By Kristen Bealer

* * *

Jodie Landon tugged nervously on her t-shirt as she followed her father into the ballet studio. Sneakers thumping softly on the wooden floor, she stared with wide eyes at the unfamiliar room. A piano sat in a corner near a small box full of some kind of powder. One of the walls was a big mirror, where several girls about Jodie's age stood in front of a railing, playing and making faces.

Andrew Landon looked down at his fidgeting six-year-old daughter. "You're going to be okay here when I go, right?" he asked.

Wrinkling her nose, Jodie protested, "Daddy, I'm not a baby. I finished kindergarten last week, remember?"

"Of course, sweetheart," Andrew reassured her as he shifted her sister, Rachel, to a more comfortable position in his arms.

Jodie glared at Rachel. She doubted he really remembered her graduation. Rachel's first birthday party had been the same day, and everyone's attention had been on the birthday girl instead of Jodie.

"Why don't you say hi to those girls over there?" Andrew suggested. "I bet they're beginners, just like you."

She nodded, and they walked over to the mirror. "Hi," she said as the girls turned to look at her. "I'm--"

"Awwww!" cried a girl with short blond hair. "What a cute little baby!" Rachel smiled and waved a chubby arm at them, prompting further squeals of delight.

Jodie crossed her arms and sighed. Stupid Rachel always ruins everything, she thought. I wish it was just me and Mommy and Daddy again.

"Attention, little ballerinas!" trilled a theatrical voice. Jodie and the other girls turned to see an Asian woman wearing glasses, a leotard, and an enthusiastic smile. "Please gather around so we can begin our first ballet class!"

Andrew leaned down to give Jodie a quick kiss on the forehead. "Have fun," he said. "I'll be back to pick you up when class is over."

Jodie nodded. She could tell by the distracted look on his face that he was going to go home to work on his coffee cup again. She was glad she wouldn't be there, because he often got mad when he was working. Sometimes he even said bad words that Jodie had to pretend she didn't hear.

She joined the other girls as they sat in a circle around the smiling lady. "Hello," she greeted them. "My name is Miss Angela, and I'm going to teach you all how to dance baaaallet!" She drew out the last word in a dramatic flourish while she stepped back from the class.

As the girls watched, Miss Angela hopped in place a few times while her legs and feet did fancy motions. She then leaped into the air a few times, one leg stretched out in front while the other stretched out behind. She finished by spinning around on tiptoe a few times before stopping and giving a small bow.

The girls all clapped and cheered. Jodie's eyes grew wide again, but this time it was from excitement. I'm going to be a ballerina! she thought. I'm going to wear a pretty tutu and do all kinds of graceful leaps and spins and Mommy and Daddy are going to see that I'm way better than stupid Rachel who can't even walk yet!

Miss Angela had continued talking to the class. "Now, for today we'll just be doing some basic exercises and stretches, so you can wear the clothes you have on. At our next class, though, you'll need to wear tights and a leotard like this," she explained, gesturing to her own outfit. "Anyone with long hair will also need to pull it back into a bun."

Jodie raised her hand. When Miss Angela pointed to her, she asked, "What about tutus? Will we wear tutus next week, too?"

Shaking her head, Miss Angela replied, "No, at practice you'll just wear leotards. Tutus and skirts could hinder your grrraceful movement."

"Oh." Jodie lowered her hand, disappointed.

Miss Angela continued. "Next, you'll need to be fitted for ballet shoes." She held up a flat, plain slipper to show the class.

Jodie's hand shot into the air again. "But it doesn't have ribbons!" she said without waiting for acknowledgment. "And it's flat! Ballerinas wear fancy shoes with ribbons on them!"

Raising an eyebrow at her outburst, Miss Angela calmly explained, "You're thinking of toe shoes. Ballet dancers don't use toe shoes until they're older and can master the complex art of dancing en pointe. For now, you'll be dancing in slippers like these." To the whole class, she added, "But since you don't have slippers yet, today we'll just dance in bare feet. Now, everyone line up at the barre, and I'll show you enthusiastic young ballerinas-in-training how to stretch."

Frowning slightly, Jodie slowly followed the other girls over to the barre. This isn't as fun as it was supposed to be.

* * *

"...and we didn't do any fancy stuff or anything! We just stood in front of the mirror barefoot and did a bunch of dumb stretches!" It was dinnertime, and Jodie had had all day to build up a long list of complaints. Unfortunately, she was reciting them to herself.

Her mother, Michelle, was reading the Wall Street Journal in between bites of dinner. Andrew was feeding Rachel. Neither had heard a word she'd said.

Jodie decided to get straight to the point. "It's not fun. I want to quit."

"Mm-hmm," replied Michelle, eyes still on the paper.

"Sure, sweetheart," Andrew said as he dabbed at a smear of applesauce on his shirt.

Slouching down in her chair, Jodie glowered at everyone else. She wasn't surprised by her parents' lack of attention. In fact, this was a rare evening because her mother had come home from work in time for a late dinner.

Michelle worked at a company called U.S. World, where she told Jodie she was "climbing the ladder." Jodie thought that sounded fun, but knew it must be a very tall ladder because her mother was at work a lot and always came home very tired.

Andrew, on the other hand, stayed at home with Jodie and Rachel during the day. He didn't play with her very much, though, because he spent most of his time trying to invent things. Some days he was excited, which meant he'd had a good idea. Other days, which were most days, he was as tired as Michelle because the good idea ended up leaking hot coffee all over his hands. Those were the bad word days.

Sometimes Jodie wished she could climb ladders and invent stuff, because then she could help her parents and they'd be less tired and notice her more. That was why she'd asked to take ballet classes over the summer, but it hadn't done any good.

But maybe today was just a bad word day, she thought. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Maybe if I work hard like Mommy, I'll be the best ballerina and then they'll both see how good I am. Maybe.

Jodie sat up in her chair again and pushed the scowl off her face. "Well, I guess I'll stay in ballet for now," she amended.

Andrew glanced over, confused. "Did you say something, Jodie?" he asked.

She sighed. "No, Daddy."

* * *

A couple of weeks later, Jodie smiled at herself in the big mirror as she stretched and practiced before class. She had learned all five arm positions and all five leg positions, and she could see from her reflection that her plié was almost perfect. Miss Angela was going to be so proud of her!

Her smile slipped a little as she remembered that she still hadn't learned how to do any of the fancy steps Miss Angela had done the first day of class. She hadn't even gotten to wear a tutu yet.

Becky, the blond girl who had made a big fuss over Rachel on Jodie's first day, stumbled as she tried to do a plié of her own nearby. Jodie hid a smirk. Maybe if you didn't spend so much time thinking about stupid babies, you'd be better at ballet, she thought.

On the far end of the barre, Hanna was frowning at herself in the mirror as she slowly worked through each of the positions. Hanna, a redhead with freckles and two missing front teeth, had struggled with ballet at first but was finally mastering all of the steps. Good for her, thought Jodie. Maybe soon she'll be as good as me.

"Greetings, ballerinas!" Miss Angela called out as she entered the room. "I have some thrilling news!" The girls eagerly turned toward her. Miss Angela always sounded enthusiastic, but today she was extra excited. "In a few weeks, we're going to put on a ballet recital. I wrote and choreographed it myself, and I've assigned you all parts based on your level of skill and ability."

Jodie didn't know what Miss Angela meant by core-ree-whatever, but she understood the last part: the best dancer would get the best role in the recital. And she was the best dancer.

Miss Angela began reading off names and parts. Jodie could tell that she was starting with the smallest parts and working her way up, because Becky's name came first. Becky was a frog, a girl named Katie was a mouse...Jodie tuned out until she heard her name called. "...Jodie will be the mysterious witch, and Hanna will be our fairy princess!"

Jodie had to grab the barre to keep from falling over. Hanna?! she thought angrily. Hanna gets the lead, and I'm stuck as a dumb old witch? That's not fair!

Turning back to the mirror, she half-heartedly continued her exercises. Mommy and Daddy aren't going to notice me as a stupid witch, she realized sadly. And I bet witches don't wear tutus, either.

* * *

At home that night, Jodie sat on the couch while Michelle read some papers from work and Andrew changed Rachel's diaper. After a few minutes of silence, Michelle set aside her papers with a sigh and began wearily rubbing her eyes.

No longer distracted, she noticed Jodie and asked, "How was ballet today?"

Jodie was startled at the unexpected attention, but recovered quickly. "Uh...fine," she replied, eager to keep her mother's attention for as long as possible. "My pliés have gotten really good."

"Mm-hmm," Michelle replied, glancing toward her discarded paperwork.

Suddenly desperate, Jodie seized on the only thing she could think of. "And we're having a recital in a few weeks!"

"That's nice," Andrew said, looking over his shoulder at her as he finished fastening Rachel's diaper.

Now riding a wave of giddiness at having both parents at least partly focused on her, Jodie grinned. "And I'm going to dance the lead role!"

Michelle smiled at her. "Congratulations," she said before picking up her papers once again.

Andrew gave her a thumbs up. "Good job," he commented as he set Rachel in her playpen. Giving her one final smile, he pulled out a notebook to work on his coffee cup. "These da--darn creases are killing me," he muttered, catching himself just in time as he made a few sketches.

As her parents lost interest and her initial rush began to fade, Jodie started to worry. What if they find out I lied about getting the lead? she wondered. What if I get in trouble?

As she looked at her parents, both intent on their work, she added, What if they don't even notice?

* * *

The following weeks went by quickly. Jodie came to every class to learn her steps and practice them, but mostly she glared at Hanna. Still, every day at home she reminded her parents of her big, important role as the fairy princess. They always smiled and said nice things when she talked about it, so she wasn't willing to give up the lie. Not yet.

Finally, the night of the recital arrived. Jodie's parents dropped her off at the studio, then took Rachel to Jodie's grandparents' house to be baby-sat while they were at the recital.

All of the girls changed into their costumes in the dressing room. Wearing a gray leotard with rags sewn all over it, Jodie watched as Hanna admired her pink tutu and tiara in a mirror.

Then she looked over at a nearby bench and noticed Hanna's shoes. Pretty pink slippers with ribbons on them. Jodie looked at her own plain, gray shoes and frowned. Hanna even gets better shoes than me, she thought. I don't even get ribbons.

Barely even thinking about it, she glanced around to make sure no one was looking and grabbed the pink slippers. Stuffing them quickly into her bag, she put an innocent expression on her face as Hanna returned from the mirror.

"Where are my shoes?" Hanna asked. Jodie pretended to concentrate on pulling her hair into a bun. Louder, Hanna said, "Has anybody seen my shoes?"

Acting surprised, Jodie asked, "You lost your shoes?" Hanna nodded, worried. "Here," Jodie said, holding out her own gray shoes. "You can wear mine. I don't think anyone will notice they're different."

Hanna's brow furrowed slightly. "But what will you wear?"

"I have a spare pair in my bag." It wasn't technically a lie. Jodie wouldn't be onstage until after Hanna, so she'd have plenty of time to put on the pink slippers before dancing her own part in the recital.

I might be an ugly witch, Jodie thought with satisfaction, but at least I can have pretty shoes.

Hanna put on the gray shoes and left the dressing room to practice in the studio. As Jodie was finishing her hair, she suddenly heard a lot of shouting and running. First making sure her bag and the precious slippers were safely tucked away, she went out to see what was happening.

Several girls were gathered around Hanna, who was sitting on the floor. One of the gray shoes had come off and was lying near her. "Owwwww," Hanna groaned. "My foot hurts."

Miss Angela rushed over and gently examined her ankle. "Oh, dear," she muttered. "This is bad." Seeing the frightened faces looking at her, she quickly added, "Bad for the recital. Hanna, I'm afraid you've sprained your ankle. You'll be okay in a week or two, but you absolutely will not be dancing tonight."

"Noo!" wailed Hanna. Some of the girls patted her shoulders or gave her supportive looks.

Glancing over, Miss Angela noticed the gray slippers. "Hanna, these aren't your shoes. Why were you wearing them?"

Hanna sniffled and kicked off the other slipper. "I couldn't find my shoes, so Jodie let me use hers."

Miss Angela sighed and shook her head. "Those shoes are the incorrect size and shape for your feet," she explained. "That's probably why you fell. What happened to your own shoes?"

"I don't know. I left them on a bench in the dressing room, but when I came back to them they were gone."

"Maybe someone stole them!" Becky called out. The other girls began whispering among themselves.

"I'm certain that's not what happened," Miss Angela said quickly, but the look on her face said she thought that was exactly what happened.

Jodie shuddered a little as she thought about the shoes in her bag. She needed to make Miss Angela think about something else, fast. "Miss Angela?" she asked. "What about the recital?"

Miss Angela helped Hanna to her feet, and two of the girls helped her limp back to the dressing room while another ran to find Hanna's parents. "Well, I suppose we will have to cancel it. We cannot have a recital without a fairy princess, and Hanna is the only one who knows the part."

"No, she's not!" Jodie replied, forgetting that she didn't want to draw too much attention to herself. "I was paying attention to Hanna at all the practices, and I could dance it instead!" She decided that "paying attention" was close to the same thing as "staring at with envy and loathing."

Miss Angela thought for a minute. "Well...perhaps Becky could play the witch. It's not too complicated, and I suppose we could manage with two frogs instead of three."

"Sure!" Becky agreed, eager to play anything other than a frog.

Picking up the gray shoes, Miss Angela handed them to Jodie and said, "You will still need to wear these, but I believe Hanna's outfit will fit you." As Jodie returned to the dressing room, Miss Angela began showing Becky how to dance the part of the witch.

After Hanna had changed her clothes and left with her parents, Jodie stood in front of a mirror in the pink tutu and tiara. Her shoes still didn't have any ribbons on them, but she didn't care.

Remembering, she looked around to make sure all of the other girls were out of the room before grabbing her bag and pulling the pink slippers out of it. She scanned the room in search of a good place to hide them, then finally shoved them into a garbage can and covered them up with some paper towels.

There, she thought. Now no one will know what I did. When the recital is over, all they'll know is that I got to dance the lead, and I was the best dancer of all!

* * *

Jodie stepped onstage as gracefully as she could, concentrating on the piano music. Okay, start with a plié in first, then a relevé...or was I supposed to start with a plié in second?

Trying hard to recall exactly what Hanna had done in practice, Jodie moved on to a clumsy arabesque. In her nervousness, she could feel her legs shaking. Moving her arms from fourth to fifth position, she realized that her posture was all wrong. She straightened her back and leveled her chin, then immediately forgot her next step.

Oh, no! she thought desperately, frozen in place. She could hear quiet murmurs in the audience and tried not to think about what her parents would say. She tried to relax as she began a pirouette. Because she was distracted, she forgot Miss Angela's instructions about keeping her eyes on a fixed point as she spun. She quickly became dizzy, stumbled, and wound up sprawled on the stage floor.

* * *

The rest of the recital only got worse. At the end, Jodie heard polite applause as she took a bow, but she knew better. Even Becky danced better than me! She got cheers from the audience, and she was a witch!

Blinking away tears, Jodie hurried backstage as soon as the curtain closed. She ignored the excited chatter of all the other girls, raced to the dressing room, and quickly changed into her regular clothes again.

As she was pulling on her sneakers, she heard the door open and looked up to see Miss Angela come inside. At first Jodie thought she'd come in to yell at her for dancing so badly, but then she realized Miss Angela hadn't even noticed her yet. Instead, she was looking under benches and searching every corner.

"Miss Angela?" she asked.

Her teacher looked over at her, surprised. "Jodie? Why aren't you out there with the other girls?"

Jodie shrugged. "Didn't feel like it," she replied.

"I see." Miss Angela wasn't paying as much attention as she continued to search the dressing room. "It all started with those damn shoes," she muttered quietly. "Hanna sprained her ankle, and then Jodie ended up dancing like a--" She froze, realizing Jodie could hear her.

"It's okay," Jodie assured her. "I was awful."

Although it was nearly imperceptible, Miss Angela hesitated a little before rushing to say, "You weren't awful. Just a little..."

"Terrible?" Jodie suggested. "I mean, how many girls fall like that at something as important as a dance recital?"

"I'm sure you aren't the only one," the instructor argued gently. "But if my suspicions are correct, it wasn't your fault, anyway. I have reason to believe that someone sabotaged this recital."

"What's sabotage?"

She paused in the middle of opening a locker. "It means that some unknown person--or persons--took those slippers on purpose to make the recital a failure."

Jodie swallowed nervously. Uh oh.

Pawing through the garbage can, Miss Angela gasped and held up the slippers in triumph. "I knew it!" she cried. "It is impossible that these shoes were simply lost. Someone stole them and hid them in here!"

Now Jodie took a few steps back, partly from fear of getting caught and partly from nervousness at the strange look in her teacher's eyes.

Miss Angela frowned and began looking around the room. "Next time will be different," she decided. "Next time I will post a security guard in the dressing room--perhaps two, just to be safe." She looked at the walls and ceiling. "And I wonder if a closed-circuit camera system..."

As Miss Angela continued to mutter to herself, Jodie took the opportunity to leave. As she walked out of the dressing room, she heard her father call her name. She looked up and saw her parents hurrying over to her.

"There you are!" As they reached her, Andrew immediately dropped to one knee to look her in the eye. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."

Leaning down next to him, her mother added, "I hope you aren't too upset."

Jodie sighed. "I guess not. But I feel really silly."

Andrew gave his daughter a hug. "You shouldn't feel silly at all! We're the ones who were silly."

Her mother nodded, and Jodie looked at them both with confusion. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, honey," Michelle said. "We truly meant to get here on time, but your father got sidetracked by an idea for his coffee cup and insisted on stopping at home for," she paused to add finger-quotes as she finished, "just a minute."

Slowly Jodie began to put things together.

"Not just an idea, Michelle! A breakthrough!" Andrew interrupted.

Her parents had only just arrived.

"We were on our way back when it suddenly hit me."

They'd missed the entire recital.

"I saw this piece of paper blowing around in the street, and--"

They hadn't seen how badly she'd danced at all.

Michelle poked Andrew with her elbow and he stopped talking. "Anyway," she told Jodie, "the important thing is that we're both very, very sorry we didn't get to see you play the fairy princess."

"That's, uh, okay," Jodie stammered.

"How did it go?" Michelle asked.

Jodie paused to pull herself together. "Great! I got every step right and everyone said I was the best dancer! You should have heard how much all the people clapped for me!"

"Congratulations!" Andrew exclaimed. "I knew you'd blow everyone away!"

As her guilt-motivated parents showered praise down on her, Jodie's disappointment faded. I suck at ballet, she decided. But I don't care now. She marveled at her newfound discovery--the secret to gaining her parents' love and attention.

It's so easy. I just have to be the best.

* * *


Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.