by Maddie Hill
The Russians taught me what it meant to have a body. Sitting under the prop table, half blinded by stage lights, I watched them rehearse. Without warning, the music would stop. “The lift again,” Sasha’s voice called from the distance. Everyone rewound. In silence, pointe shoes struck the floor. She ran toward him, determined this time to get it right. He huffed and grunted, hoisting her into the air. Up close, I could see the muscles in his arms quiver.
My mother always said not to watch them rehearse too many times. “If you know when the lift is coming, you’ll get nervous. You’ll worry he’s going to drop her.” But I loved the worry. I loved knowing it was coming, listening for the swell in the music, feeling the audience gasp. The risk made it feel like a miracle.
Their bodies were perfect from a distance. You could only see what mattered—clean lines, small waists, legs lifted high. From the other side of a theater, it didn’t seem they could possibly be real—leaping, as they did, straight into the air. But whenever we ran into them at Kroger’s or Petsmart, I got a glimpse of their strangeness—their skinny bodies, sinewy legs, their stench of thick perfume and cheap cigarettes seemed suddenly out of place. “The women are ugly close up,” my mother sometimes said. “You can see their bones.”
Sitting under the prop table, I often found myself beside frayed, discarded pointe shoes, carnage of bloody paper towels spilling onto the floor. We had been just seven or eight when Yelena put us on pointe, bound up by the wonder of standing on our toes. We didn’t know enough to grimace when she showed us how to wrap our feet. “You to be wearing cotton toe pads,” she said in broken English. “You need to feel the floor . . . It will not hurt forever.”
Soviet Russia seemed most real to me in Yelena’s feet. Her bones jutted out at impossible angles, pressing hard against the skin. It seemed her skin could barely hold the misshapen bones together. Blisters and bunions and fractured toes left untreated formed gray, painful scars. Now, ten years later, I can no longer conjure her feet exactly. Maybe it’s because they seem so counter to her odd elegance. They didn’t look like they belonged on a tall, thin woman who drove through town at a break neck pace in her tiny red convertible. They looked like they belonged to a refugee, someone whose feet had carried them out of some great tragedy. She often told us she did not want to see pain on our faces. One look at her feet told us she meant it.
Yelena’s husband Sasha’s feet were mangled too, though invisibly so, filled with tiny fractured bones. You’d never know it. He was a master, never failing to hide the pain in his face.
Wrapping her toes in tape, Yelena told us stories of baskets of mismatched pointe shoes delivered to the Bolshoi Academy. Girls crowded, desperately digging for two of the same size. Even as their feet grew and shoes gave out, they crammed into the same tiny toe boxes. “You make them fit,” their teachers had said.
Telling stories in the studio that day, Yelena was so tender with us. We piled around her eagerly, huddled in a mass on the floor. Our feet, still wrapped in soft, canvas shoes, were still soft and unscathed. We could not imagine the ways in which our bodies would change too, that we would become more like Yelena, our bones bending and muscles snapping. We did not yet know the pain of pushing your body past its limits, desperately craving a higher lift, a straighter line. Nor, of course, could we imagine the fleeting glimpse of yourself in the mirror, when you almost have it, closer to right than you’ve ever been before—the agonizing ecstasy. The blessing.
It was almost like an induction, as though once our own feet had become hard and calloused and broken we might understand each other better. In the years to come, there would be blood—dotting the pink fabric of our pointe shoes, kissing our inner thighs the afternoon of our first period. Our bodies would change together under the fluorescent lights of the studio. And we would bear witness to each other, to our reflections shifting, swelling, shrinking in the mirror. But standing at the barre, we could never forgot the Russians who had danced in those same spots just hours before.
For years, I imagined I would grow up to look like them—that my body too would be gaunt and sharp and muscular, capable of something miraculous. The pudgy belly poking out over the elastic band of my tights would pass away to reveal the strength beneath. For years, the Russians were the only people I had ever seen naked. Their adult bodies seemed inevitable. Even still, when I stand in front of the mirror, sometimes all I can see are the ways we are different, my eyes fixed on the softness of my thighs.
But I was unwilling to carve my body into their image, unwilling to do the work. “You fear pain,” Yelena often said, shaking her head. And she was right, I was afraid of feeling my skin peel, my bones warp. The days when she had pressed me into standing splits against the wall or sat on my back to stretch my hamstrings had built a barricade in my mind. Rather than facing pain and seeing that I had survived, I decided I would do whatever it took to avoid facing it again. Even still, I can feel a trace of that shame, the humiliation of my fear.
Driving home from class, my mother told us stories of Soviet Russia, of the world the dancers had escaped. “The Russians used to wait in bread lines, you know.” I imagined a dreary, snowy place that existed only in grayscale. Down the breadline, people huddled in masses, standing barefoot in the sludge. But the hardness of it all had made them beautiful. Sasha, perhaps, most of all.
My mother said Sasha had the best legs she had ever seen on a man. “You oughtta take a look next time he comes by the house,” she’d say. There’s a photo of him nestled in an album from the year I was ten and my sister was eight. He sits, legs spread, in a bright blue speedo. Smiling wide at the edge of the pool, he throws his arm over our yellow lab. One leg dangles gracefully in the water. He is effortless, reveling, it seems, in his own perfection.
When I knocked on the door of his house to pick his son up for freshman homecoming, Sasha wore his Bolshoi t-shirt the way my father wore a Texas Rangers Jersey, slouchy and with palpable ease. Only, if you looked more closely, you could see that the face of the dancer printed on the fabric was Sasha’s—head thrown back, arms splayed wide. My father’s office was decorated with pictures of presidents and baseball players, men my father idolized. Sasha’s home was decorated with pictures of himself, sweating—triumphant—in the final leap or turn or bow. He didn’t need an idol. He had found one in himself.
Sasha seemed most himself when he played God. The ballet was The Creation of the World. A simple white robe hung from his shoulders. His hair was sprayed white. The stage stood empty, expectant, as he conjured something from nothing. He commanded our very breath, the audience seeming to inhale only at his command. Just when we thought he was finished, he hovered at the edge of the stage, holding up one single finger. Smiling wryly, he seemed to say, “Wait. Watch. Something incredible is about to happen.”
In one of my last Nutcrackers, Sasha and Yelena tried to teach me to do a cartwheel. He could not understand my incompetence – why, each time I threw my legs over my head, I fell with a crash to the floor. “We show you.” Yelena guided my hands to the floor. Sasha grabbed first my left ankle then my right, lifting them slowly over my head. “You see,” he said, “so simple.” They smiled at my reflection upside down through the mirror before bringing me up to standing. “Now you cartwheel,” Sasha invited, opening his arms as though he were on stage, leaving no room for the possibility of failure. When I crashed again to the floor, this time harder than the last, Sasha and Yelena looked at my mother and shrugged. “She cannot.” Their grace, apparently, was nontransferable.
God was one of the last roles he danced before his retirement—a night when rose petals rained down on the stage. He later revealed that his whole body ached as he moved through that fifteen minute creation solo, the fractured bones in his feet sending shooting pain through his ankles. Over forty years old, he found himself long past the expected end of a dancer’s life.
His decay, though, was internal. While Yelena’s body was marked and mangled, Sasha’s remained outwardly perfect. It was hard to understand the ways his body had failed him. Watching him soar through the Creation of the World, we did not know that it was all about to end, his career, the company, the decade of our lives caught up with the Russians. For just a moment, we all believed it could go on forever. The dancers had a way of making us feel as though they had always been there—as though every East Texas family had a troupe of Russian dancers who picked their kids up from school. It took years for me to understand how extraordinary they really were.
The ballet fell apart and my family went back to church. It became hard to imagine the Russians had ever been there. Apart from a few photos in my mother’s study, they didn’t leave much of a trace.
After the Russians, the incarnation never seemed like much of a miracle. If our bodies could turn on toes thirty two times before coming to a perfect stop, could lift one another with a single hand, why wouldn’t God want some part?
In church, I found myself enchanted though unamazed. That God would come into the world in a body only to have it beautifully broken for us seemed like the most natural thing in the world, one of those inevitable truths. Standing at the altar for communion felt like sitting under the prop table, coming close to holiness through the body of another, a visible sign of something mystical. I knew that I could be blessed by the body of another, but only in its bending and bowing and breaking.
As the curtain fell, I caught a glimpse of the Russians as they passed from the light of the stage to the darkness of the wings. Suddenly they pitched forward, gasping for air, coughing and cursing. The air in the wings grew damp in the stench of their sweat. Watching them like this felt like a violation, like staring up at an image of the crucified Christ, his eyes bowed low in weakness.
The Russians showed me that a body was something to work for, a gift not freely given. If pushed, if broken, it could bless you—but it was no guarantee. You can break without a blessing but you cannot bless without a break. You cannot leap into the air day after day, hanging for a moment in suspended air, without eventually landing on fractured bones. The lift means nothing if there is no chance she will fall to the floor.