The final minutes before a performance are some of the slowest on earth. Standing in the wings, I take in the stage before me: the set design is a fantasy land of snow-covered mountains, a royal palace, and the fog machine sends a light roll of mist across the stage in ready anticipation. On the other side of the curtain, I can hear the din of the last few ticket holders taking their seats. A mini-bus full of family members will be out there somewhere, Dad in his best suit and Mum in her special ballet dress (the shimmering black one she only ever wears on opening nights but should wear more often because it looks great). Then there’s me, in a gold threaded, white tutu that flounces around my hips and a bodice that holds everything perfectly in place.
Nervous chatter from other dancers fills the empty space around me.
I push up my toes, en pointe, and feel the familiar stretch in my calves. I hope I’ve warmed up enough.
‘Thirty seconds,’ comes a loud whisper from behind me.
Below the stage, the first strains of the orchestra come to life with notes of music I’ve practically spent the last few months dreaming about A hush falls over the auditorium and my body vibrates with excitement as I have an end-of-life type flashback of all the things I needed to do in preparation for tonight. Breakfast, water, sugar, stretch. Rehearse. Warm up. Have I done enough? Am I enough? Too late, the curtain rises with the crescendo of the orchestra.
‘Ready?’ Sebastian murmurs into my ear.
My stomach roils but I smile at my dance partner in his princely costume, covered in the same gold threads as my outfit, and looking like the navy fell into a spandex factory. With his dark hair and eyes, it suits him perfectly. A Disney prince come to life. I adjust the tiara on my head, feeling the tell-tale pricks of bobby pins searing into my scalp; a grounding reminder
‘As ready as I’ll ever be.’
‘You’re going to be spectacular.’ He leans in to press a featherlight kiss to my cheek. ‘Princess.’
‘My prince.’ I fold myself into a deep reverence before him, the tulle of my tutu scratching the back of my neck as I do. We giggle out the last of our worries.
He’s right. Rehearsals have gone on for months now, through late nights and blister covered weekends. We’ve danced in the same fevered way a reader promises themselves they’ll read just one more chapter before lights out. There was always one more lift, one more angle, one more piece to try before dashing off to whatever late-night café was open nearby for coffee and cake. Every possible scenario has been discussed and accounted for and, while it’s my first lead role and I am deathly nervous, I trust Sebastian implicitly.
I’ve missed nights and weekends with family friends just to get this right. In the corner of my eye, I catch the eye of the director, poised in his black-tie suit. Rhett Tomlinson was the one who plucked me out of the corps de ballet at **insert her ballet academy/school here** and gave me a soloist position with the East London Ballet. As he stands proudly at the back of the troupe and rakes his fingers through his tousled blond hair, I’m hoping he’s so impressed by my performance tonight that I get an offer to move up the ranks to principal dancer. Right now, though, he’s busy offering encouragement to everyone else as they wait for their cue.
It’s the first night of our three-week run at the Royal Albert Hall. I pinch myself constantly when I spot its grand Italianate design on walks through Kensington Gardens. Even more so when I cross the road and climb the steps into the building. I can only hope I don’t wake up tomorrow morning from some elaborate dream. Throughout rehearsals, we’ve taken turns to sit in the plush red velvet seats of the stalls and soak up the atmosphere while understudies learned their parts. It still blows my mind that I’ve made it here, all the way from rowdy beginnings at Dagenham Ballet School
The first troupe of dancers scatters past us in a tapping of pointe shoes and the bounce of tulle, fairies with their sparkling costumes and butterfly wings. Each step they take brings me closer to my own, and I can’t help but be swept up in the magic of it all. Another curtain draws back to reveal a further set, and we’re up.
Settling into fifth position, I take a deep breath and dive off the metaphorical ledge. Seb waits behind for his mark. I tinkle a wave to him as he shrinks in my sight, vaguely repeating my own moves back to me.
Fluttering across the stage, I drink in the smattering of applause as I emerge. It’s exhilarating, and I’m filled with a raw excitable energy that threatens to launch me into the atmosphere, even if my brain is marching orders at me: pique turn, arabesque, pirouette, rond d’jambe and hold, hold, hold! Moments later, I relax, and my body takes over. She knows what to do.
A clique of photographers stands in the front row by the sides of the stage, press passes dangling and lenses trained. I do my best to get as close as I can, working to give them the perfect shot. Not only will it increase the chances of them not snapping me mid-blink or with a deep sleep, Beyonce meme-making expression, but it also makes the Company look good. The shutter tics are heady and addictive, and I won’t deny the thrill of adding another page to my scrapbook when the red tops are out tomorrow.
Teals, pinks, and blues pirouette around me as Sebastian finally emerges and we fall in sync with each other. Our routine works perfectly, even if my vision is spinning in a carousel of colours. This is everything I’ve ever wanted, ever worked towards.
The Saturday morning drives in the family Cortina to a freezing ballet studio when I could barely tie my shoes properly, endless pounds spent on my ever growing feet, and relentless scouting of notice boards and theatre groups, begging anyone who’d so much as look at me for stage experience. None of that compared, however, to throwing myself into the daunting prospect of auditioning for the Royal Ballet School.
Years later, the East London Ballet Company, courtesy of Rhett, has given me this amazing opportunity. I catch sight of my family, a few rows back. They’re sat beside some Colgate-smile television celebrity who barely looks able to smile. Mum is ramrod straight, drawing the pendant of her necklace back and forth like a metronome. My older sister, Diana, should have brought pompoms with her, hands balled by the sides of her head. Dad is sitting as he always does, thumbs twiddling in a way that says both ‘you got this’ and ‘please don’t ruin this’. My brothers look slightly bored, but they all promised they’d be here. And they are. I appreciate that.
I can feel the hum of music vibrating up through the stage, and it’s strangely revitalising, pushing me through the end of our routine and towards first intermission. Twenty minutes to stop and recharge, drink, adjust and get ready for the rest of the night. It’s the precursor to the afterparty; press, celebrities, champagne, and finger food in a function room upstairs. My stomach growls at the thought of eating.
Sebastian appears behind me, and we fall into a rhythm of intricate leaps and lifts, the audience gasping with each movement. I perch for a moment on his shoulder before I’m back on the stage, sliding into a new position away from Sebastian as we get ready for the final lift; a combination of Sebastian lifting me into the air while en pointe in arabesquebefore twisting into a fish dive. It’s a move we’ve practiced over and over again, intimate to the point I’m sure I have grooves on my hips that fit his hands. The music builds to a roaring crescendo and, for just a second, I can’t think of anything that could be better than this moment.
Here I am. I’ve done it. This is my Leo and Kate on the front of the boat moment. The blisters, pain and sprains have been worth it. With raucous applause, I’ve made it through the first part of the night.
In that fleeting moment, spotlights in my eyes and the world at my feet, I feel something, something I shouldn’t. As we move into the twist, Sebastian’s grip slips, and so do I. I hear the shift of the ruching of my costume and, before I can catch myself, my world tips on its axis. I can see the upper levels of seating, the sound dampeners on the ceiling, and the lighting guys watching on in wide-eyed horror.
With a heavy thud and a crack, it’s all over. Pain shoots from my knees to my hips and lower back and around again, like someone’s flipped the switch on a Tesla circuit. There’s a dull sensation that my tiara has broken against my scalp, and I can’t move. I can’t move.
In that moment, my dream has become my worst nightmare.
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