Annika an Afrikaanse- Ballerina: The Masquerade Ball
The moonlight splashed down, its white-silver glow sparkling across the deep, calming waters of Manhattan’s harbor. In the distance, the cool breeze swept through the bustling streets of the city. The city streets become arteries of light around the heart of New York. A beacon of light pierced through the skylight, bathing the empty room’s floor in a crisscross of a cinnamon-chocolate color, brightening the studio. A young dancer turns elegantly, her body gracefully leaping into the air in tune with the slow music.
She waltzes out pirouettes and grande jetés, the studio’s open windows as wind ripples through her skimpy gown. Dancing in front of the studio mirrors, she starts a fouetté, pointe shoes scratching on the floor as her arms glide in the sky above her. She whirls around. The young woman had a sort of harshness to her, like she was someone who shouldn’t be underestimated.
Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? She swings backward, whipping her head around and scratches out a pirouette soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her… the young dancer turns, reaching a rapid speed on the hard floor. The young girl flowed gracefully as a swan., It was the only way her body truly knew how to speak. Verbally, she appeared guarded. Physically she would shrink and fade into the background no matter where she was.
On stage, her personality, her sensuality, burst through into the most vibrant picture of a beautiful soul. Moonlight streams silver waves through the window in a well-mannered announcement of the night sky. Millions of stars sprinkle behind it as a twinkle caught her eye.
The young dancer gazes at herself in front of the studio mirrors. The music playing on the iPad Mini dissolves, melting into images from another time, another place. Her eyes stare blankly at her reflection, dancing gracefully, blinded by her memories.
A lithe and beautiful dancer chisel out jumps atop the brick turret crowning the studio loft. Dancing on that edge, the woman starts a fouetté, blue pointe shoe scratching on the floor as her arms glide in the air. She dances out pirouettes, completing every turn and leap with confidence and grace.
She starts another pirouette, then another, elegantly spinning her head around, her body soaring into the air. Her arms flail in the sky above her. She whirls around as a smile graces her lips into the sweat-stained air. Foot backwards. Another foot forward. She knew the stage under her feet is the only applause she ever needed, to feel that vigorous support beneath those blue pointe shoes. Though she loved the crowds and fame, her true love was always the act of dancing, the feeling of being able to make those leaps and twirls look so easy, as if they cost her nothing at all.
She starts another pirouette, turning her head as a small child stands in the turret’s corridor. The girl’s eyes and mouth froze wide open in an expression of utter shock. The words knocked every wisp of air from her lungs, and she stood there struggling to inhale, to exhale, to say anything.
She didn’t quite care at the moment. Was it because she was falling in love with the beauty of ballet? The girl’s innocent eyes seen that dancing heals, speak in another language of emotion, a language that is so much more ancient than words. Her heartbeat was growing steadily, along with the woman dancing. Her dance was perfect, everything from her breathing to how her pointe slippers glided on the floor.
The little girl yearns for that stage to dance. She could envision dancing as her freedom. The little girl’s eyes catch a glint of the woman’s blue slippers. “Mommy.”
The woman flashes a smile as she ends the dance with a pirouette. “My sweet, pretty girl. I’ve got something for you. Come, lets go downstairs.”
The streams of sunlight pierced through the solarium window, casting a shadow as the door quietly opened. The little girl and her mother enter the room, taking in the view of the towering mountains in the distance. Family portraits displayed across the wall, each hanging on the side, and mapped out in a circle. “Close your eyes. No peeking,” said the woman.
The girl flops down on the love seat beside her mother. She closes her eyes. The woman grabs a small box from enclosed compartment in a desk. She touches the cover, tracing the foreign symbols with her fingers. The woman opens the box and pulls out a Porcelain African Ballerina figurine and a pair of blue pointe slippers.
“Open your eyes.”
Tears embrace as the little girl’s brown eyes covering her smooth and beautiful mocha-caramel skin staining the porcelain figurine of the African ballerina and blue pointe slippers.
“Before every dance routine and showcase this beautiful porcelain African ballerina figurine served as my pre-dance ritual. This figurine is your talisman. Now these blue slippers were the first pair of ballet pointe shoes I ever received.”
“Why are the slippers blue momma?”
“They’re blue because that color connected me to my emotional landscape and released my ability to talk through dance. In ballet nobody really listens to the words you say but you learn how to express your deep self in other ways, and for me and for you that is dance. The stage under our feet is the only applause we ever need, to feel that vigorous support beneath those silk blue slippers. In ballet, that connection to dance lets the soul speak volumes and tells a deep and moving tale straight to the heart. Ballet is an art cutting a path right to your heart. Never let no one to define who you are…”
She throws her arms around her mother as she holds onto her tightly. “I love the figurine and blue slippers but you’re still the best luck I’ll ever have, momma.”
In the blink of her eyes, the memory fades. The young girl starts another fouetté pointe shoes gliding on the floor as she turns. The gentle sound of the music playing on her iPad mini sounded like a lullaby.
Her eyes travel to the mirror in front of her. Admiring the blue slippers and porcelain figurine of the African ballerina next to her iPad mini. She closed her eyes, nestling deeper into her routine, taking in a deep breath of fresh air as a small breeze blew in from the skylight by her face and tickled her nose. Her footsteps echoed sharply around the deserted studio as she reflected on why she loved dancing.
I was a ballet dancer, yet only when I wore the blue slippers. I was a natural, they say, a prodigy like my mother. I learned from an early age that my emotions were a thing to suppress, and so when the ballet teacher asked for them they came forward as an untapped stream and took all by surprise.
They called this my gift. I called it my release.
Yet the ability left me when my heart broke by the loss of grief and pain. Why dance if there is so much pain stirring inside? To whom are you communicating and what are you saying? When nobody really listens to the words you say, you learn how to express your deep self in other ways, and for me, that was ballet.
That was the proverb my mother used to say when I was a child. Perhaps that’s why I danced again, why I rediscovered my blue ballet shoes. I needed to speak, and this is how my soul talks. I guess the average person simply opens their mouths and lets words spill out… my soul is wired differently… maybe all dancers are.
Why the shoes were blue? They were my mothers, but blue connects to my soul in a way other colors can’t… it’s a sort of emotional ‘on switch.’
She starts a tour en l’air and another pirouette, then another twirling and whipping her head around. On her final pirouette she glides down, touching the floor again and in the split-second she turns her head…
A woman appeared in the shadows, watching her move to the music filling the studio. Mostly, that music was her only audience, watching her with the emotion in her eyes was fathoms deep. They had a thousand hues of blue and a small touch of hazel radiating in softly swooping arcs. As the young dancer turned, her eyes caught her standing there, the woman less adept at hiding in the shadows than she. The woman lowered her eyes momentarily before looking. Her head tilted to one side, and a hopeful smile graced her lips.
The young woman finishes with an assemblé skidding to a smiling, breathless halt.
“Bien! But I have seen better Petit Rat.” A petite woman with porcelain skin and curly blonde hair applauds, sauntering up to the young dancer. “It’s passed 3 o’clock in the morning danseuse.”
“I am sorry.” A single tear slid down from her warm, brown eyes, followed by another one, and another one, as a stream of tears flowed its way down her cheeks, releasing hurt and sadness.
“All danseuses and danseurs are to be in bed at 10 o’clock as curfew starts at 10:30pm sharp. Now return to your room Petit Rat.”
Silence echoes through the studio as the young dancer leaves the room. She walks down several hallways heading towards her empty bedroom. There was so much that she didn’t understand.
She had so many questions to ask. Why am I not good enough to dance ballet? Why does the Hall Monitor constantly ridicule me? She crawls into bed. She presses her head down on the fluffy pillows on her bed, the young girl thought. Am I just an ugly duckling to them? A black young girl who they perceive doesn’t belong in the world of ballet?
She laid there, eyes dripping with tears. As warmth and darkness wrapped around her, a million thoughts were swirling around in her mind, wondering why her heart was breaking into thousand pieces. Her stained eyes became weary as she fell asleep.
A beacon of light pierces through the skylight of the studio. Later that mid-afternoon, a group of students are in the major studio warming up with with pre-rehearsal stretches, rolling arches, taping their toes, and tying up their pointe shoes. The young dancer walks into the studio for dance class, garnering stares and snarky comments. It made her uncomfortable being judged because she was the only black ballerina in an all white school. She passed two lines of male and female dancers performing synchronizing movements on the portable barre.
The other dancers fluttered past her. It’s the thick of May, and the dancers were chatting about things like Summer break and the latest upcoming fall showcase. All things familiar, but since I moved here from Sengula, it all feels so foreign, the young girl thought.
She closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath of fresh air as a small breeze blew in from the skylight by her face, rubbing her porcelain African ballerina figurine, allowing her to center herself and clear her mind. Footsteps echoed across the studio floor. A lean and handsome Choreographer wearing angular glasses strode into the studio.
“Good morning, students. I hope you all enjoyed your brief break. Welcome back to our returning students. Those of you who are visiting welcome to Excelsior Ballet Academy. Now everyone, let’s get started.”
“Each of you will do a short routine to audition for the upcoming speciality showcase of Sleeping Beauty at the Lincoln Center. You will each do your own personalized combination twice before the next dancer begins from the corner.” There are indistinct murmurs.
“Miss. Traore you are up first.”
She gazed across the wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped into the center of the studio floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, as she gracefully tiptoed on pointe gliding across the floor as if the young dancer was in a dream. Her gown draped loosely in the air as she slides across with poise.
Black swan. Petite rat. Those were the nicknames given to me because the color of my skin was different compared to my white classmates. In the world of ballet society has valued the privilege of the blonde/blue-eyed beauty.
I had my own demons. They tried to hold me back. The constant ridicule of my skin made me feel imperfect… To them, a black ballerina didn’t belong here, the young girl thought.
She starts a fouetté, blue pointes skimming on the floor as her arms soared in the air. She dances out pirouettes. Every angle seemed to be planned with such poise. She starts another pirouette, then another, elegantly spinning her head around, her body fluttering into the air.
The young dancer keeps her focus, yet still, she felt nothing forced as if she was in a dream. She starts another pirouette, turning her head as her classmates look on in awe. On her final pirouette, she moves down scratching the floor and in rapid speed she turns her head…
A petite receptionist with steel-gray eyes and short brunette bob saunters briskly up from the studio corridor. “Je m’excuse pour l’interruption. Miss. Traore has a visitor in the student lounge.”
The receptionist ushers the girl out of the room, walking down the empty halls. Silence echoes through the halls as the young dancer’s footsteps echoed around the deserted hallway. Every step she took, she inched closer to the hallway’s stairwell leading to the student lounge doors.
The woman opens the doors to the student lounge escorting the young girl to the chairs and love seats. “attendez ici s’il vous plaît. Your visitor will join you momentarily.” The girl takes a seat on the love seat, patiently waiting for her visitor to arrive. She pulls out her bag and scrolls through the Instagram app on her phone.
A man’s voice breaks through the girl’s concentration, forcing her to look up from her phone. An athletic and handsome business executive wearing a tailored three-piece suit walks into the student lounge. “Annika! I apologize for the impromptu visit. I-I have something to tell you…”
The words fumbled out of his mouth, and he refused to look away from her, even as his lips trembled, and his shoulders heaving with agony, unwilling to back down. His dark, thick lashes overflowed with tears. His hands trembling as he continues to weep, as heavy sobs rip from his throat.
“Uncle Noah, is everything alright? What are you doing here?”
Tears well up behind his eyelids, sliding down his cheeks without resistance. The tears flowed unchecked down his cheeks and dripped from his chin. “It’s your dad. He had a heart attack last night and died in his sleep…”
Her eyes and mouth froze wide open in an expression of utter shock. The words knocked every wisp of air from her lungs, and she sat there struggling to inhale, to exhale, to say anything. She kept quiet to hide her pain and from any sound that wanted to escape from her small, fragile mouth. Her eyes become a pool of tears, sliding down her high-cheek bones. One gasp, then a heave.
And another heave. As she fought for breath through a throat clogged with grief… She was beyond comfort. She could not breathe; it was if someone was sucking the air out of her lungs. The tears dripped from her chin as her hand glides down to her collarbone, her fingers following the chain down to her gold heart locket pendant.
Four weeks later…
Queens, New York City, New York
Thursday, June 11, 2020, 7:30 AM, JFK Airport
The airport terminal was a hub of bustling activity. Many passengers coming in and many others leaving, there was a constant movement of people and planes. After Annika and her uncle cleared the security check, they headed to the waiting area.
The aircraft belonging to Sengulan Airlines had just landed. Though it was quite fast, and the sun rose above the horizon, the company emblem was clearly visible. As the wheels slowed down considerably, it glided from one end of the runway to the other. Many maneuvers later, it took that one last turn and started moving towards the airport terminal, towards the departures side. A man dressed in an orange work vest guided the plane to its rightful spot, vigorously signaling with the lighted batons he held in his hands.
“All boarding Flight 215 Sengulan Airlines can now board.”
Their family members woke many who were asleep up. Those who were reading quickly put their newspapers, magazines, and tablets away. There was excitement in the air.
Those traveling got up from their seats and gathered their belongings. Many people had formed a long line near the designated boarding gate. As the staff at the counter checked the boarding passes, one mobile staircase it attached each to the front and the rear doors of the plane. Luggage, boarding pass, and passport in hand, Annika boards the plane with her uncle. The remaining passengers walk through their designated seating area, disappearing behind the classified sections of the plane.
Some flight attendants and other passengers discuss their travel plans and vacations. The air echoed with the whirling sound of the plane’s wheels. As the plane boards for takes off, Annika and her uncle slip into some seats in First Class in the aisle section of Business Class and other passengers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Captain has turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign. If you haven’t already done so, please stow your carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you or in an overhead bin. Please take your seat and fasten your seat belt. We remind you that this is a non-smoking flight. I am Alexis Rose, your chief flight attendant.”
“On behalf of Captain Michaels and the entire crew, Welcome aboard Sengulan Airlines flight 215, non-stop service from New York to Sengula. Thank you.”
They settle in for the twenty-five hours and thirty-minute flight across the Atlantic ocean. She shifts in her seat, gazing out the window. What awaits for me, she thought as her journey back home begins.