Winthrop’s Pearls

14 Aug

This is a “#TBT” post that I want to include in another book of essays that’s in the early stages of development, “Escape From the Ballet Farm, and other stories of an occasional ballerina.”

I own three nice pieces of jewelry.

A diamond set in gold on a delicate gold chain, a gift from my Oma. A necklace from Tiffany’s that I bought myself as an almost graduation gift/congratulations on your new job before I started working for Insight Cuba.
And a pair of pearl earrings on gold posts that, while I’ve lost the original backs, I still keep safely stored in the box in which they were given to me.

In high school, I danced for four years in the Mobile Ballet Company. The artistic director, Winthrop Corey, gives his graduating high school girls pearl earrings as a gift at the end of their senior year. I have no idea when or how the tradition began, but I just remember the moment—during my final bow with Mobile Ballet.

The group of girls that I graduated with from the ballet was tight knit. Although most of us went to different schools, we had become close through the hours we spent in classes and rehearsals. Though it sounds like the sappy conclusion to a cheesy dance movie, I think we really did get over the petty jealousies and competitive cattiness that prevents so many dancers in companies from ever really being friends.

I’m not sure at which point in our sophomore or junior years of high school that we all recognized our strengths— that a certain one of us was always going to get one type of role, while another would always get a different one, and it was better to just be cool about it than get upset. Once we figured that out, we could all be friends. We could all hang out together outside of class and rehearsal. (Yes, a few of us went to see the “Twilight” movie on opening night and ran, actually screaming, into the theater. I can’t say I’m proud).

There were five of us—Caroline, Margot, Shannon, Natalie, and myself—and our honorary sixth, Blair, who, while a year below us in school, was undoubtedly a member of our group.

This is a picture of a picture, obviously.  Back row: Natalie, Shannon, Margot, Caroline. Front row: Me, Blair.

This is a picture of a picture, obviously.
Back row: Natalie, Shannon, Margot, Caroline.
Front row: Me, Blair.

We were Nutcracker snowflakes together, Giselle wilis, La Bayadere shades, white swans, brides of Dracula, and peasant people. Endless, endless gaggles of cheerful, poorly pantomiming peasant people.

Margot, second from left, me second from right, and Natalie far right. Why are peasants wearing taffeta? I never got that.

Margot, second from left, me second from right, and Natalie far right.
Why are peasants wearing taffeta? I never got that.

I think dancing in a company, particularly in a ballet company, is like being in the Marines. You are bonded for life by sharing an extremely grueling, and at times, painful, experience. Bloody feet, ruptured blisters, bursitis, shin splints, general achiness—yep, we had it all.

The last piece we danced together was the “Grand Pas De Quatre” for the Mobile Ballet School’s annual showcase. If you’re not familiar with ballet, the “Grand Pas De Quatre” is one of those legendary and storied pieces that I believe is now performed as a satire on diva-tude. It was created for four giants of ballet in the Romantic era—Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Lucille Grahn.

Supposedly, it was full of snide cat-fighting and the divas all trying to one-up each other—whether by wearing prettier pearls on stage or performing the most virtuosic steps.

It seemed a fitting way for us to go. The version of the piece that Mr. Corey set on us wasn’t as silly or exaggerated as some stagings that I’ve seen, but he explained the story to us and we had a chance to act really, really snobby and prissy onstage. Margot, Shannon, Caroline, and I danced the roles of the respective divas, and Natalie had a chance to shine in an adorable pas de trois that was old timey beach themed (by an early 20th century British choreographer, can’t remember who!).

At the end of the showcase, we all wore white tutus and went onstage to take our last bow. Mr. Corey strode out of the stage right wing, as he always did, and handed us each our pearls, wrapped in tissue paper and a plastic bag, with a note on his embossed stationary.

I don’t remember if we cried, I’m sure we did. I’m sure we had that moment where we actually felt like those Romantic-era divas, being showered with applause and jewels.

Now, every time I wear my pearls, I’m reminded somehow of Mobile Ballet. It was my reason for getting out of bed every day in tenth grade. I was so miserable in school, so unhappy with everything, that I couldn’t wait to hop in the Prius with my mom and make the 50-minute drive to the studio for class and rehearsals. I would sob on the way home from the studio, dreading another day in high school hell. Looking back, I’m sure that’s pretty typical behavior for a 14-year-old girl, but it was dramatic at the time.

My last Nutcracker with Mobile Ballet. Caroline is far left, Blair is third from left, Margot is the lady in the middle, Shannon is in pink, and I'm there second from right. The dude, Bobbie, actually WAS a marine. He always drew on abs with eye shadow and eyeliner, which entertained us to no end.

My last Nutcracker with Mobile Ballet. Caroline is far left, Blair is third from left, Margot is the lady in the middle, Shannon is in pink, and I’m there second from right. The dude, Bobbie, actually WAS a marine. He always drew on abs with eye shadow and eyeliner, which entertained us to no end.

Wearing the pearls reminds me of how my mom amazingly drove me every day to class and rehearsals, spending an hour and a half in transit four or five days a week, occupying herself while I took class. She was incredible and I can never thank her enough for the sacrifice of her time to get me to the ballet.

I’ll wear the pearls for days at a time, reflecting on a big decision I made my junior year: to go to boarding school at the Alabama School of Math and Science so that I could be only 15 minutes away from ballet, rather than 50. I didn’t have my drivers license, so a few days a week, I would ride with transportation that the school arranged, other days a family friend, Chris, who was in college in the area, would pick me up and drive me to and from class. I would sink into the plushy seats of his rattling Monte Carlo and he’d chauffer me to class. Afterward, we would go to Smoothie King, where we had a bizarre ritual of sniffing a large container of what appeared to be horse pills, but were really “natural supplements,” that were sitting on the counter. He would bust into Smoothie King, loudly announcing that he was my sister’s friend and that he wasn’t a pervert or kidnapper. Nobody ever seemed concerned that he was in the first place though.

My pearls make me think of my favorite ballet teacher, Syndey Adams, a talented and energetic woman who took my solid training and technique and turned it into dancing, turned me into a smart and capable dancer who would get compliments from teachers all over the country (and even in Cuba) about my ability to learn and retain combinations. I think of other teachers, Zoe, Kimberly, Paige, Anne, Lori—women who corrected me, supported me, and some of whom are still friends today.

Mobile Ballet was my home for several years. Like all homes, I know there were flaws and that our family, made up of humans too, wasn’t perfect. But while I was there, it was a place for me to learn and grow, to be a part of something bigger than myself, and hell—they even gave me a pair of pearl earrings to remember it all by.

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