Rachel still doesn't know what she did to provoke Cassandra July's wrath, but as soon as she walks into the dance studio, those icy blue eyes home in on her like a heat-seeking missile.
"Lose the leg-warmers, Schwimmer - unless you want me to start calling you 'Stumpy' instead?"
Rachel bites her lip, knowing it's not wise to react to her instructor's maddening smirk. She usually relishes being the centre of attention, but now she's desperate to slip under the radar. She's tried every tactic she can think of to win this woman over – appealing to her better nature (apparently, she doesn't have one), standing her ground in the face of endless criticism, even playing Miss July at her own game, but her teacher still maps her every move with an expression that vacillates between amusement and disdain. Rachel has always strived to be the best, but right now, she'd settle for the barest hint of approval.
She hastily kicks off her leg-warmers, and then scurries to the nearest corner to start her warm-up routine, trying her best to appear impervious to the weight of her instructor's reproachful gaze. It's bad enough when Miss July watches her from afar, but when she closes the distance between them, Rachel's heart skitters inside her chest and her stomach starts performing the kind of acrobatic feats her body will never be capable of.
She self-consciously undertakes her usual set of stretches, and then eases herself into the side splits, feeling her groin wrench with the strain.
"Schwimmer, it's not a split if there's a gigantic god-damn gap between your pelvis and the floor."
Miss July's tone is scathing, and Rachel stifles a gasp when her instructor illustrates her point by wedging a perfectly polished shoe between her legs, flexing her toes against Rachel's crotch, which is hovering barely an inch above the floor.
Blushing furiously, Rachel scrambles to her feet, and her hands feel clammy as she assumes a white-knuckled grip on the barre. She fumbles her way into third position, and tries not to shiver when Miss July reaches for her hips, correcting her posture.
"Class has barely started and you seem awfully... hot and bothered, Schwimmer. Is there a problem?"
Rachel stares dumbly at her teacher, trying to think of an adequate response.
"I'm fine," she says weakly, through gritted teeth. She lowers her foot from the barre, which is set just above waist-height, and then makes a show of wrapping her hand around her calf and extending her leg until her toes are nearly touching her forehead.
"Better," Miss July concedes, although she seems to find the grimace on Rachel's face more than a little satisfying, "But you should really consider investing in some cod liver oil for those decrepit joints of yours. It's like WD-40 for the flexibly-challenged."
She's standing so close, Rachel can feel the warmth of her teacher's breath against the back of her neck, and even the faint whiff of rum can't eclipse the alluring scent of her perfume. Miss July radiates sensuality; from the way she saunters across the studio wielding her cane like a whip, to her risqué choice of leotards, to how she compels the room's attention with a wave of her hand.
Now, she's circling Rachel with all the feral grace of a cougar waiting to pounce on its prey, and this is why Rachel finds it impossible to concentrate in class; why she forgets the steps to routines that she's spent days perfecting. Miss July's proximity is unnerving, and exhilarating, and Rachel doesn't know if she's terrified or turned on.
She dares to meet her teacher's mocking gaze, and suddenly she's floundering, hopping on the spot and blindly reaching for the barre.
Miss July snorts derisively. "Looks like balance isn't your strong suit, either." She points to the floor. "Sit down."
"W-what?" Rachel stammers, and she hates that she sounds every bit as apprehensive as she feels.
Miss July heaves an aggrieved sigh. "Park your perky little ass on the floor, Schwimmer. Now."
Rachel does as she's told, and her eyes widen a little when Miss July reaches out to grasp her foot.
"Lie back and straighten your legs," she commands unceremoniously, and Rachel licks her lips, casting a furtive glance at her classmates, who seem only half-interested in her ritual humiliation.
Reluctantly, she obliges, and she stifles a whimper when Miss July's hand comes to rest against her bare shin.
"Mmm, smooth," she observes, running her fingertips over Rachel's leg with an insidious smile, "Thank God for wax, huh? Otherwise you'd probably look like Sasquatch."
Rachel bites the inside of her cheek, because sometimes the sheer joy this woman takes in taunting her is almost comical.
"Holler if it hurts," Miss July informs her with an unrepentant wink, right before she guides Rachel's left leg towards the ceiling and then pushes it back towards her body. She anchors Rachel's heel against her shoulder, moving closer for better leverage, and Rachel tries not to moan as her teacher settles between her thighs. She knows it isn't perspiration that's dampening her leotard, and she sends up a silent prayer that Miss July won't notice the way her muscles tense reflexively, or the hitch in her breath.
Miss July grasps her knee, forcing it to remain perfectly straight as she uses her body weight to hyper-extend Rachel's leg, pushing it well beyond its natural limitations. Rachel feels a tugging sensation that runs from her calf to her hamstring, but the discomfort is negligible compared to the intoxicating rush that comes from being this close to her dance instructor. For a moment, they're breathing the same air, and Rachel's leg is sandwiched against Miss July's chest, which seems to be rising and falling a lot more rapidly than usual.
"Just say when," Miss July rasps, finally pulling back so she can switch legs. Rachel's eyes dart towards her teacher's face, and she sees a mixture of arousal and amusement in her unapologetic gaze. They resume their earlier position, and Rachel forces herself not to shy away from the challenge in her teacher's eyes, because she knows Miss July gets off on this; that she relishes every second of toying with her emotions and, apparently, her libido. Rachel's done with being the blushing schoolgirl, though, and she isn't about to cry 'Uncle.'
"Push as hard as you want," she says, levelling her teacher with a defiant smile, "I can take it."
Miss July looks taken aback for a moment, but then she starts to laugh.
"Careful what you wish for, Schwimmer."
Rachel can't stop her eyelids from fluttering shut when Miss July's fingernails pointedly rake over her inner thigh, but when she opens them again, her instructor is looming over her, holding out her hand. Rachel hesitates before reaching out to take it, half-expecting Miss July to relinquish her grip and send her sprawling back to the floor. Surprisingly, though, she doesn't. Rachel watches her instructor's biceps flex as she hauls her to her feet, and finds herself more than a little enamoured by her effortless display of strength.
Rachel can tell from the knowing smirk on Miss July's face that she's been caught staring – again – and she knows she has to stop giving her this kind of ammunition. If she's completely honest with herself, though, a twisted part of her is starting to enjoy seeing that predatory twinkle in her teacher's eyes.
Rachel would never admit it, but sometimes she feels as though she's out of her depth here, treading the hallowed halls of NYADA. It was easy to feel special when she was the Glee Club's shining star; it was easy to believe that her talent was extraordinary when she was surrounded by the likes of Finn and Sugar, but here... here, it's going to take so much more than an emotive solo to stand out from the crowd. Rachel should be loving every moment of this - being surrounded by people who share her passion for performing - but as she watches her classmates move with the kind of grace and fluidity she's still struggling to master, as she listens to their well-conditioned voices ring every bit as true as her own, she realises that perhaps, she isn't one-of-a-kind, after all.
It doesn't help that Miss July seems determined to crush her self-confidence beneath her 4-inch stilettos. She tells Rachel that she's devoid of sex appeal, that she doesn't have what it takes to succeed in the industry, and there are times when Rachel almost believes her. Then she remembers what she endured to make it here in the first place, how her self-belief saw her through high school and years of ridicule, and she won't let herself give up. If she has to work harder than everyone else to ensure that she's not destined for mediocrity, then so be it.
She tells herself that Miss July is only trying to hinder her progress because she's jealous of her potential; that her antipathy doesn't stem from Rachel's inadequacies, but her own. All Miss July has to cling to is a fleeting moment of notoriety, whereas Rachel has the ability to achieve what her teacher never could. Pitying Miss July makes withstanding her scrutiny a lot easier, and Rachel's determined to keep on pirouetting her way through the constant barrage of insults. Still, as much as she tries to convince herself that Cassandra July is the product of broken dreams and missed opportunities - that she's so bitter and pathetic she can't make it through the day without drowning her sorrows in a vat of alcohol – Rachel can't deny that her teacher is one of the best dancers she's ever seen. Miss July has the kind of stage presence that can't be taught - the kind that makes her utterly mesmerising to watch - and Rachel could learn so much from her, if only she was invested in building her up instead of bashing her down.
Rachel's immeasurably grateful that Miss July seems to be the only teacher who's immune to her talents, though. Receiving one of Miss Tibideaux's coveted Golden Tickets gives her a much-needed boost, and Rachel can't help but feel a little smug as she enters the dance studio - smug enough to walk away from Miss July when she sidles over to her, sporting that all-too-familiar sneer; smug enough to answer back when Cassandra tries to make an example of her in front of the class. She knows she's on probation, but when Miss July challenges her to a dance-off and invites her to prove how good she's become - clearly expecting her to back down - Rachel decides to step up to the plate and come out swinging.
There's an almost dangerous intensity in Miss July's eyes as she crosses the room, glowering at Rachel over her shoulder, and Rachel feels a rush of adrenaline spiking through her veins as she hears the jaunty opening chords of 'All That Jazz.' It's a song she perfected in grade school, and she decides to catch Miss July off guard by taking the initiative, sauntering her way into the middle of the room.
She opens her mouth to sing the opening line, but Miss July beats her to it, shooting her a sultry look that makes it clear this performance is solely for her. Rachel's stomach clenches with anticipation, but she chokes out a laugh, hoping that her blasé reaction will go some way to hiding her embarrassment. She knows all too well what it feels like to be on the receiving end of her teacher's unabashed sexuality, but she isn't going to cower in the corner with her mouth agape this time, she's going to try and emulate it.
She watches the provocative placement of Miss July's hands and the seamless undulations of her hips as she belts out the first verse of the song, and it takes all of Rachel's acting skills to feign indifference when Miss July sinks to her knees, arching into the floor and eyeing her suggestively. Rachel's resolve slips even further when her teacher rolls into a mid-air split, giving Rachel a deliberate and unprecedented view of her crotch.
Rachel bites her lip, digging her nails into the palm of her hand, and tries to drag her eyes away from the captivating spectacle playing out before her. She knows she can't compete with this, so she decides to embark on another mission to prove that - while she may lack her instructor's natural pizazz – she still knows how to work a crowd.
When her turn rolls around, Rachel gyrates against the barre like an oversexed pole dancer, trying to match Miss July's finesse with carnal passion. If the look on her teacher's face is any indication, it's having the desired affect, and Rachel suddenly finds herself struggling to remember lyrics that have been ingrained in her subconscious for years. Miss July's eyes rake over her body and, for once, they're not remotely critical. Rachel impulsively grabs the nearest girl by the hips, hoping to provoke a reaction, and feels giddy when she sees the desire written plainly across her teacher's face.
"Find a glass, we're playing fast and loose. And all that jazz," Miss July sings in her melodic alto, and Rachel decides to capitalise on a golden opportunity.
"Right up here is where I store the juice, and all that jazz," she counters, throwing a sly look in Miss July's direction as she mimics downing a shot.
Miss July's eyes narrow, and she stumbles to her feet with a little less grace than usual. Rachel feels almost dizzy with triumph, until her teacher sneaks up behind her and wraps an arm around her waist, propelling her across the floor at a break-neck pace. Rachel loses all sense of rhythm as the warmth of Miss July's hands seep through her leotard; she's still stuck on the implications of her teacher grabbing her at the exact same moment she started singing, "come on, babe, we're gonna brush the sky..."
Miss July spins her in and out of hold, and Rachel teeters precariously on her now decidedly wobbly legs. She stops moving altogether when Miss July performs a high-kick inches away from her face, because Rachel can practically smell her now. It's heady and distracting and, at this point, Rachel knows she's lost the war. To add insult to injury, Miss July rounds off a perfect turn by falling into her arms, and Rachel has no choice but to support her, feeling her cheeks burn as her hands settle against the underside of Miss July's breasts.
She's virtually vibrating with need by the time Miss July pulls away from her, but being inadvertently groped doesn't seem to have fazed her teacher at all. With the aid of some male students, Cassandra proceeds to pull off a move that demonstrates the kind of skill and flexibility Rachel can only dream of possessing.
The only weapon Rachel has left at her disposal is her voice, and as they circle each other for the grand finale, she uses it to her full advantage, drowning out Miss July with the sheer power of her vocal range. She still can't help but notice how well their contrasting tones blend together, though, and Cassandra makes a valiant effort to match her note-for-note. When they finish, Miss July is practically panting, and the look on her face is so far beyond propriety, Rachel finds herself rooted to the spot, torn between apprehension and arousal. For a moment, she actually thinks Miss July is going to kiss her - right there, in full view of everyone. Well, either that, or slap her silly.
She's almost disappointed when Miss July rapidly regains her composure and, within a matter of moments, goes back to critiquing her performance. Rachel isn't going to let this woman cow her into submission anymore, though, not when she knows she has the capacity to get under her skin, too. She may not have triumphed in their battle of wills, but she put up a damn good fight, and she can see that her resilience is starting to unsettle her teacher. Cassandra July isn't used to her students standing toe-to-toe with her and meeting her blow-for-blow, and Rachel wonders if she's imagining the burgeoning sense of respect that's starting to peep through her teacher's scornful bravado.
She walks out of the room with Miss July's words ringing in her ears: "you're not good enough... yet."
That night, Rachel performs a soaring rendition of 'Being Good Isn't Good Enough,' frantically scanning the crowd in the hopes of seeing Miss July's reaction. She's singing it to spite her, she's singing it to prove a point, but she finally resigns herself to the fact that her dance instructor isn't there to see it, and she'll have to abandon her plans to belt out "I'll be the best" while gazing directly into Cassandra's impassive blue eyes. Swallowing her disappointment, Rachel gives herself over to the music and becomes lost in the performance, but even the thunderous standing ovation that follows doesn't provide her with enough sustenance to cushion the blow. She tells herself that she's crying because she's happy, but the acclaim isn't really helping to assuage the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach.
When Kurt finally wins his hard-earned place at NYADA, it's enough to snap her out of her melancholy mood, but her beaming smile starts to falter when she sees a mane of silky blonde hair and impossibly long legs disappear through an exit at the back of the room.
Kurt looks somewhat perplexed when she squeezes his arm, plants a kiss on his cheek, and then takes off at a full-blown sprint.
"Miss July! You came!" she exclaims breathlessly, stopping in her tracks when she sees the stunning red cocktail dress that her teacher's wearing. Rachel doesn't know where to look first; the plunging neckline that's affording her a breath-taking view of her instructor's cleavage – the one part of Miss July's flawless physique she isn't already intimately acquainted with - or the provocative slit that stops just below her teacher's perfectly toned derrière.
"You look beautiful," Rachel blurts out, a little too earnestly, and Miss July's lips twitch with amusement.
"It's a faculty event, I figured I'd better show my face. I didn't come here to see you, Schwimmer, if that's what you're implying," she informs her acerbically.
"But you did - you saw me, right?" Rachel asks, wincing at the eagerness in her own voice.
There's a flicker of something inscrutable on Miss July's face, and then she leans close, prompting Rachel to await her teacher's verdict with bated breath.
"Did anyone ever tell you that you look constipated when you sing? The faces you were pulling up there... Jesus Christ, Schwimmer, it was almost enough to make me see the merits of botox."
Rachel feels winded; like she's been punched in the stomach, and she can't stop her face from crumpling. She turns on her heel so Miss July won't see that she's finally succeeded in breaking her, and hopes the sound of her defeated sniffle won't carry across the space between them.
When a dainty hand reaches out to clasp her shoulder, Rachel frantically swipes at her eyes.
"I'm not going to let you ruin this for me," she asserts in a tremulous tone, shrinking away from her teacher's touch, but Miss July pulls her close, until Rachel's back is sandwiched against her chest.
"You didn't let me finish," she murmurs into Rachel's hair, and Rachel's knees come close to buckling when she feels her teacher's lips graze the shell of her ear; when she feels Cassandra's breasts pressing against her back.
"What?" she demands, turning to face Miss July with as much dignity as she can muster.
"Aside from all the... gurning..." Miss July's features relax into what looks suspiciously like a smile, "Not bad, Schwimmer. Not bad at all. You left Alexandra Blasucci in the dust."
Rachel turns puppy-dog eyes in her teacher's direction, hardly daring to hope. "Really?" she beseeches, and it kills her to know that she can walk away from an auditorium full of accolades and still crave this woman's validation.
"Don't make me say it again," Miss July says sharply, but then her expression visibly softens. "Come here," she murmurs, beckoning Rachel closer, and Rachel's breath hitches when her teacher reaches out to gently wipe away her tears.
"You look like a panda, Schwimmer," she observes, and Rachel holds perfectly still while Miss July smooths away her smudged mascara, licking her thumb to chase away the more persistent blotches.
Rachel stares at her for a moment, astounded that her teacher has the capacity for this kind of tenderness, and she wonders why it has an even more potent affect on her than being leered at from across the room. Rachel briefly meets Miss July's attentive gaze, and then her attention falls on her teacher's rouged lips. She realises then, that she's seconds away from throwing herself to the wolves, but Miss July steps back before she has the chance to close the distance between them.
"That housemate of yours put on quite a show, too," she observes, and Rachel hears the way her voice catches before she clears her throat. "Tell him I can't wait to see him in my class. After all, any friend of yours is a friend of mine, Schwimmer."
The devilish glint is back in her teacher's eyes, and Rachel's mouth goes dry when Miss July winks at her, turning to leave. Rachel watches her walk away, uncomfortably aware of the ache between her thighs, and realises that this stupid crush of hers just became something so much more than she's equipped to handle.