Star in Studio 6A
Charcoal. No, sulfur--the familiar stench of my arm hair singeing. I correct my posture. One more second and I’ll leave class with an ugly blister, my punishment for having droopy arms and being late--again. My father, Master Geno, pockets his lighter and moves on. I let my elbow drop again, while the Master’s threat terrifies the rest of the swans into perfectly lifted ballerina form. None of the dancers have actually witnessed him burning anyone for real. I’m the only girl with enough balls to test that rumor, even though I like my skin the way it is, the chestnut Mexican in me unscarred by Geno’s infamous red cigarette lighter.
“Rosa, croisé devant,” he barks, stomping his steel-toed cowboy boot way too close to my straying pointe shoe. “Late to class and poor position. Unacceptable.”
Again, I adjust myself, though I know my way is better. Effacé devant would present the dancer. Like, “Hello! You’re about to see something totally rad.”
I swear Geno’s pointy ears twitch, cold ashy eyes piercing through my skull as if he hears my thoughts. I switch it up, and he chills.
The setting sun floods my space and I unravel, losing myself in its midsummer intensity. This ancient ballet studio with its cracked mirrors and peeling paint doesn’t exist. It’s no longer 1983. Gone are the black-and-white photos that line the brittle plaster walls. Dancers past, my mother among them--and my older sister--freeze-framed in moments of graceful elegance. I’m far away from here, adrift in a time when my arms could do whatever they damn well pleased. The piano adagio morphs into a funky keyboard that pulsates my fingertips. My head rolls a full circle as if my long curls are down.
I bourrée out of the sunbeam. The funk disappears and I’m back in the present, just in time to see the side-eye Geno’s giving my midsection.
“Suck it in, Rosa darling. I shudder to think how big your lunch was.” He messes with the collar of his leather motorcycle jacket, then smooths his feathered gray hair.
I do as he demands because he’s a junk-food bloodhound and a sniff away from sussing out the Pudding Pop I’d scarfed earlier. I can smell the chalky chocolate on my upper lip.
Introducing my stomach to my backbone, I roll up to a relevé en pointe, groaning through the shooting pain in my toes. I’d skipped padding them with lamb’s wool. The inside of my shoe is warm and slippery with blood, and I’m pretty sure my big toenail has finally deserted me. Another pair of stained ballerina-pink tights. Geno will be proud.
I’m not even in the company yet, but well aware my skills have become the best in my level. This is according to the whispers in the dressing room and my best friend, Kat, whose sweaty reflection is sticking out its tongue at me--the Master’s daughter, the girl who needs a sunbeam to remember a second of her life before her first pair of pointe shoes.
He nods at my fluid arabesque, and for a quick feathery scale on the piano, it’s as if we’re the only ones in the studio. It doesn’t last. But his rare show of approval pushes me to point my toes until my arches cramp. He leaves my mirror space to torment another sorry swan, and I contort my pissed-off foot into an ugly sickle--so unlike the principal I’m supposed to become.
Principals are the elite, the company’s top dancers, Geno reminds me to exhaustion. Every. Single. Day. On the outside, I have all the pieces. Paris Opera Ballet feet, flexible back, complete one-eighty turnout, and strong tireless extensions. Stuff my genetics get all the credit for. If only I had the heart. I was born with one. I know this because I feel it speeding up as Geno circles back around to me. But only a tiny part of it belongs to ballet. The rest . . . well, this is the reason I’m here. Because she can’t be. The Dominguez-principal legacy rests in my God-given high arches now.
“Save the purple eyeshadow for your school dances. It’s garish and distracting.” Geno flips his hand in my face and I wobble, rolling off pointe. His boots clack over to Miss Stick-up-her-tutu Stacy. He stands behind her, cupping her face. “Ladies, if you’re going to wear makeup to class, this is the proper way to do it.” He glances at me and I’m sorry I hadn’t rainbowed the shit out of my eyes like Cyndi Lauper.
Stacy bats her baby-pink eyelids. But everyone knows I am the baby, the lone sixteen-year-old in a class flitting with eighteen-and-then-somes. I glance around the stuffy studio at the dancers I see more than my own family--the girl with the perfect ballet body, but horrible turnout. The intense scowly chick next to her, the one whose parents let her drop out of high school after she got one callback for the TV show Fame. And the twins no one can tell apart. They even sweat the same, I swear.
Geno homes in on Kat, and I want to dive in front of her, take the bullet. She flicks her eyes at me, crossing them. He pokes a sharp finger beneath her chin, adjusting her head, like, a millimeter.
He’s on a roll today. No one escapes Geno’s wrath. He’s a tough, Harley-riding genius choreographer with his tight ass shrink-wrapped in torn Levi’s. He smells like smoke and gasoline and looks like a piece of bacon with eyes. And he’s brutal with a capital B. All those years of perfect pirouettes beaten into him and now he’s finally found a reason to pass the slap. Maybe this is why he’s so unforgiving. But I swear right here and now, banish me to hades if I ever become like him when I get old--feared, prancing around in shredded jeans, abusing starving stomachs and looking like some kind of ancient David Lee Roth.
He smacks my stomach and I pooch it out more. MDC worships him because he’s the best. And the best are toughest on each other. He spins around on his heels like he’s going to leave me alone, then snaps back, jabbing my middle with a sharp finger.
I let out a defiant grunt and pull in my center like I should’ve the first time.
Stretching my arm overhead, I arch back into a deep cambré derrière. If only I had Superman’s laser-beam eyes, I’d zap through the ceiling and flee to the studio above. Because while I’m sweating through another of Geno’s impossible adagio combinations, a private dance class is happening, the kind with the rhythm that lives in my soul. I’ve tried, and failed, to crash it--four times this week, a decision that’ll cost me fifty extra jumps at the end of the hour, maybe even a closed-door lecture from Geno.
Totally worth it. Because for one perfect evanescent moment, mid-sashay, the dancer in studio 6A noticed me when I’d peeked inside--my weepy brown eyes fusing with his smoldering dark irises. And Jesus-Christ-on-a-stick my withered heart surged to life, proving resurrection doesn’t only happen on Easter. Of course, an enormous bodyguard wasted no time shutting me out. But the man behind the giant will remember me, Rosa Dominguez in the rose-colored leotard. And no one, not even dream-killer Master Geno, can smother the scent of lavender lingering in my nose.
Sweat trickles down the deep ravine between my shoulder blades, my face flushing hot like the flame from Geno’s lighter. I turn a perfectly lifted promenade, but inside my head I’m releasing my center to gyrate my hips. My daydreaming dulls the ache in my feet and I risk a glance at the cracked ceiling, every hair wound in my godforsaken bun desperate to escape and show floor six what I can do when freed of these pointe shoes.
Born legacy isn’t the only reason I torture myself at the Minnesota Dance Company. Master Geno isn’t the only genius parading around in high-heeled boots.
Studio 6A--Prince, the Purple One, is in the house.
Pizza and Teacups, Hamstrings, Sweat and Slam
The entire class is a collection of sickly wheezes, some doubling over before the end of our final combination. Geno is especially brutal, demanding it again and again until I’m freaked Kat might hurl on my back. She’s every shade of cadaver pale as she leaps across the floor in my wake.
I finish my last grand jeté in the corner, soaking wet and sucking in the sour hot air. Prince’s lovely lavender is gone, smothered by the musty varnish off-gassing from the hardwood, earthy rosin, and sweat--smells that have taken up residence in my nose hairs since the womb. Legend is, when Mom was pregnant with me, she danced full-out until her water broke on this very floor.
“Nice work, ladies,” Geno praises, with a heavy clap.
The pianist wipes her brow and collects her music. The studio is without air-conditioning in the middle of a soupy Minneapolis July, something I suspect Geno has everything to do with. More sweat equals leaner dancers.
Baby-Pink Stacy is all in, already pulling on her plastic pants to suffocate more ounces from her sleek body.
Kat hip-checks my side, pointing out the giant wet bloom on the butt of our accompanist’s khakis. “Would it kill her to play some Fleetwood Mac, or anything remotely cool by someone non-dead?” She lets loose her blond Stevie Nicks hair. “Come on. Pizza?”
The sun makes a last-ditch effort before giving in to the night. I gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows. Back in the eighteen-hundred-whatevers, MDC used to be a Masonic temple. The same ornate Roman-like architecture on its exterior frames the windows inside. I run my finger along a dusty line of columned trim, watching the naked bulbs race around the XXX theater marquee below.
Summer intensive programs suck. We dance more hours than we sleep. It’s Sunday and I’ve been here since ten a.m. Another day has happened without me while I pray for flawless piqué turns in the church of classical ballet. It’s not like I don’t know every single piece of the company’s repertoire already. But Geno insists on my participation. And yeah, I’m even worse at defying him than I am at avoiding the sixth floor.
“Let’s go, chica.” Kat pulls the last of her bobby pins from her hair and then starts on mine.
I wave her off. “Can’t. Punishment jumps.”
For the rest of the students, one second late means watching the entire class from the corner with the dance bags. But Geno’s no dummy. He knows forcing me to skip class is the opposite of penance for me.
“Besides,” I say, “no chance of sucking in my gut if I’ve got Slice of New York stewing in it.” I shove my bobby pins back in. My legs are quivering, but I’ll choke out more jumps. I always do.
“Like a pancake, even after pepperoni,” Kat says, brushing her fingers across her flat stomach.
How she manages to stay so skinny and eat whatever falls on her plate is a mystery I wish she’d bottle and sell to me. Just thinking about melted mozzarella softens my abs.
Geno eyes my grumbling midsection and I hug myself.
“Ladies, I have an announcement.” He doesn’t have to wait for silence. When the Master speaks, dancers shut up. “As you are aware, the apprenticeship auditions are in six days, Saturday.”
I groan and reach for the ceiling, pretending to stretch. Another audition where I’m expected to kick ass. I’m too tired to even--
“And I’m sure all of you know,” he continues, “our very own Prince has been rehearsing upstairs.”
Umm, okay. He has my attention.
Some girls giggle, probably reminiscing hard about the dirty thoughts Prince plants in their virgin brains every night. My dreams since discovering his song “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” belong in the XXX.
Geno claps the studio into silence again. “The announcement is this: Prince has offered to do a benefit concert for MDC. He and our director, Joyce, are good friends.”
My head snaps to Kat. Her mouth hangs open so wide her forbidden gum rolls off her tongue and onto the floor.
Prince. Friends with our director? Only a brainless mosquito could space how much I totally live for the man. Geno keeping such a juicy detail from me is so deliberate and nasty, I see purple first--and then red.
“In two weeks.” He holds up two fingers as if we need clarification. “He will perform at the First Avenue night club.”
I squeal. And Geno doesn’t give me a flicker of a glance, which makes me shuffle uneasily in my pointes.
Mother Mary, please let me have this. I rub my cross necklace, the only piece of jewelry Geno allows me in class. I’ll wear the tarnished thing until it rots off my neck.
He lights up a cigarette, making us pine for the rest. Because there’s more--lurking behind the tiniest tug of a grin. “A few select dancers, company and otherwise, in addition to those awarded an apprenticeship . . .” He takes a long drag, the paper sizzling off his Marlboro. “Those individuals will be performing a piece onstage--with Prince.”
I claw at Kat’s arm. My body doesn’t know what to do first--puke, or jump up and down like everyone else. One second. That’s all it takes to change everything. I know that better than anyone.
The rest of the girls swarm each other, Stacy the glowing nucleus.
“I’ll be like a . . . a Korean Friday Night Videos vixen,” she brags, as if she’ll rule the stage, smoothing back her glossy dark hair.
I guess we all feel entitled to our hometown royalty, like a birthright. But where was Stacy and her gaggle of posers when I snuck upstairs? Not that I don’t want Prince all to myself. I’ve totally earned it. None of these suburban mall rats have a speck of inner city in them. Me--born and raised in Minneapolis, just like Prince Rogers Nelson.
Geno stops our freak-out with a commanding boot stomp. “Attention, ladies!”
Everyone shuts it. Kat and I cling to each other in prep for another bitchin’ announcement.
“Back to business. Dance bags down. You’ve all got jumps to do.”
“What?” the class blurts in panicked unison. Only half drop their bags, hoping he’s joking, I’m sure.
But Geno doesn’t know how to joke.
“Rosa was late. And when a dancer is late, there are jumps.”
My damp skin ices over and I shiver in the ninety-degree room. I despise him. And hate myself even more because all I do is stare at the floor while twenty pairs of ballerina dagger-eyes shred my perfect throbbing feet. I stop myself from pleading, or whining--the kiss of death. Things are bad enough for me at MDC. But this is a new manic low for Geno, dangling Prince in front of everyone and then punishing them for my mistake.
Copyright © 2022 by Vanessa L. Torres. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.