Monday April 16th
At the barre at Miss Allie’s
I lean and dream:
where the spotlight glows,
fears of an audience
scatter like stage dust.
Music flows through me –
it always does
like air and blood
moving my limbs
to dance in ways
that push me out
so close to the world
right up against the edges of the sky.
We plié-two-three, up-two-three
when a new girl comes crashing
through Miss Allie’s door
She flings her bag
flicks her hair
flips off shoes.
She shimmies her skirt off
slides into slippers
hooks her leotard on sharp-edged hips
She says Sorry I’m late
but doesn’t look sorry
hands on her hips.
UP AND DOWN
She’s looking at me
from behind, up and down –
I watch the mirror opposite,
sneaking a look.
Sasha’s eyes run up and down
the back of me.
Miss Allie asks me
to come to the front
and something changes inside
like a tingling frost
on a winter window
that never melts.
Mom says my shyness will pass
but I wonder when.
I slip to the front:
I love it and hate it
and try to pretend
no one’s watching,
I wish I weren’t.
BACKBEND WITHOUT HANDS
It’s quiet now, no music, we’re stretching,
then time for backbends without hands.
One at a time she helps each girl
gently holding her back as she bends.
Now she’s in front of me, circling my back
not touching, but tapping, Right here, I’m right here.
I backward-bend slowly, smoothly,
half a circle down to the floor
and everything seems to disappear
but the strength of my thighs and belly
holding me steady, safe and strong
in the circle of her arms.
YES AND NO
Miss Allie grabs my hand
after class when the others leave.
She looks at me now
her eyes, crystal blue locking on mine
and says the time is here
for me to do a solo.
She says to choose a piece
and choreograph the steps.
She says at Spring Recital
I will be the one to watch.
No, no! I think and cringe
while my heart flies open.
Okay, I say and smile
but am sick inside.
I don’t understand how
you can want something
so much that you fear
I call Beck, my best, best friend
too excited to text her this kind of news.
I tell her what Miss Allie asked,
say I’m terrified – she understands.
You’ll be fantastic, Beck tells me,
She tells me this is my big chance
to be the dancer I’ve dreamed.
Now you can make it real!
Wednesday April 18, 39 days until recital
After dinner Wednesday night
Mom and Dad want to see my dance
I mumble Not yet
and escape downstairs.
When I was four and five and six
I’d show them my dances –
only them, and Jules, but nobody else.
Mom would sing while I spun around.
Little dancing Reeni girl
Sway and swirl, whirl and twirl
Little dancing Reeni girl.
I’d spin across the room and back
but never far from their hugging arms.
In my morning shower –
the new shape of my chest
surprises me more
Mom says I’m growing
becoming a woman
but I think I’m growing
out of my clothes.
MORE THAN HALF
Way more than half
the girls I eat lunch with
talk about food and diets.
I guess I grew up differently
than Alex, Jess, and Morgan
who say what foods are good or bad
and how much of what
you shouldn’t eat
and when and how or even never.
But most of them
don’t seem to like
Beck’s always there at synagogue
where we giggle and talk
when Hebrew School’s over.
We find a cozy couch
and I tell her about my solo –
she’s so proud of me.
We’re eye to eye
in height and friendship
but when we high-five
her little hand whacks half of mine.
We laugh about her shoes
fitting into mine.
Her body isn’t changing yet.
She wishes it would.
I ask Beck
who knows me inside out
Do you think
I’m getting fat?
You’re regular, Reeni,
says Beck, and shrugs.
I say, I don’t look
like a ballerina.
Beck smiles and says,
You dance like one.
Thursday April 19, 38 days
In class on Thursday I can’t help
wondering: will I grow up to look like Miss Allie?
She moves as softly
as water flows, and when I watch her my heart
dances with her –
it’s that powerful,
why she was never
When I was four
I hid in her skirts
a rainbow wound around her legs
tucked up for moving.
She made a place for me at the barre
and touched my chin to lift it up
and said, You’re a dancer, dear,
I can see it inside.
OUTSIDE THE DOOR
I show Miss Allie my solo so far
then go to change.
I hear some giggles
and then these words:
Reeni’s a little chubby
to be a swan.
It’s Sasha’s voice.
Then Dhara says,
Reeni’s the best
dancer in the school.
And how would you know?
You’re so skinny
a pencil would be fat
next to you.
Now I have to walk in
and pretend I didn’t hear.
It circles around me
like the cold wet wind
of Chicago in spring.
Chubby. Chubby. Chubby.
The word wraps and squeezes
like a winter scarf
and hisses in my ears:
Chubby. Chubby. Chubby.
It breaks up and sounds like
Ch. Uh. Bee.
Chubby: now it sounds ugly.
And it’s about me.
There’s Mom grading papers.
She’s up from her chair to give me my hug
but I can’t hug today–I’ll be right back, I say
then I race up the stairs, lock my door behind me,
a huge pressing lump inside my throat.
There are the posters on my wall,
They’re old-time ballerinas a gift from Grandma:
I’ve studied their positions, arms, legs,
muscles, necks, faces, and arched, pointed toes.
I’ve pictured myself in a poster someday.
I always thought I’d look like them
when I grew up.
While Dad’s stirring soup
I search how to diet
on the computer
in the family room.
It’s written by someone
with a lot of initials
who says there’s a way
to lose weight fast.
Eat less, exercise more.
I don’t understand the calorie part.
Limit salt and starch.
Note to self: what is starch?
Oh my gosh, what can I eat?
Focus: fruits, veggies, egg whites, soy,
skinless chicken breasts and fish.
Nonfat dairy, very lean meat.
Then more instructions for the diet:
eat vegetables to feel full
More vegetables than I already eat?
drink lots of water
I already do.
get tempting foods out of the way
Don’t know what you mean.
I already am.
eat from a plate
I already do.
don’t skip meals
I don’t skip meals.
write down what you eat
make a note how you’re feeling
I already know: I feel hungry before I eat.
Dinner is Dad’s steamy, spicy
perfect for cold and rainy
creamy grilled cheese on crisp
everything I shouldn’t
I blurt out, I can’t eat
I have to lose weight before
Mom says your body’s changing,
you eat well, you dance every day
your body will take care of itself,
Mom’s roast chicken with carmelly carrots
and slithery onions
and Dad’s homemade challah
baked every week
after cartoons meet the deadline.
The smells, the warmth
mix and surround me
with soon-to-be-Shabbat quiet
Mom lights the candles
I watch the flickering
Jules rushes in
and our heads bow together
to get Mom’s and Dad’s blessing
at sunset Friday night.
We’re not Orthodox
but we observe the Sabbath
each week, tonight and tomorrow.
We kiss each other and say
and no one notices
I leave my potatoes and challah
untouched on my plate.
I usually don’t do homework on Shabbat
but tonight I write in my journal before bed:
now I understand what “tempting food” means:
those are the foods you’re not supposed to eat on
that you start thinking about
eating all the time.
Monday April 23, 34 days
Sasha’s full of advice for me
cheering me on:
you’ll feel so much better
and be less shy.
And she says, besides
it’s not just about dancing –
Thin gets you everything,
that’s what my Mom says.
The words feel like
some new language
I don’t understand
but also they feel
like a ladder out
of a hole I’m in
SHE SAYS, I SAY
Wednesday April 25, 32 days
When I tell Beck all about Sasha,
about wanting to change my shape and size
She says, that’s stupid.
She says, What do you think you’re doing?
She says, You better stop.
I say, you don’t get it.
I say, just leave me alone.
And when she does, alone eats up
all the space inside of me.
DIET, WEEK ONE
Thursday April 26, 31 days
The only good thing is,
I feel as light
as a feather
and fly downstairs
to whirl my solo.
but that doesn’t
matter right now
I feel a million times
just knowing I’m on a
I suck in
in the mirror
my new breasts
but I’m sure I
Sasha steps into the boureé turn
feet not pulled tight
her elbows out, her turns not whipped–
she spoils the line.
I’m in sous-sus, half-pointe, feet tight
and elbows in
I feel the rush and choose my “spot” –
Miss Allie’s smile,
My third time ‘round my whizzing head
spots Sasha there waiting
eyes right on me, I stumble, hop
then try to spin
the floor’s like water and I thud
Miss Allie catches me and moves
me to the barre.
You can’t turn right when you don’t spot
Sunday April 29, 28 days
I practice my solo on and off
I don’t remember how many times.
I want not to think about Beck or food
I want not to think about me in the mirror.
I try to get to the magical place
where I dance and dance and have no thoughts
but by the time I dip my curtsy
to the imaginary audience out there
I realize that half my brain
was thinking about what I could eat
and missing my time with my best friend—
we haven’t talked in such a long time.
TOO HUNGRY TO SLEEP
Every time I close my eyes
my stomach growls and keeps my brain awake.
Dinner was stir-fry. I didn’t have rice
and nobody noticed my one chunk of chicken.
I’m so empty, I’m out of bed in a quiet minute
and Jules’ bedroom light shines under her door.
Down the staircase two steps at a time
but softly, toe-touch, heel-light into the kitchen.
The fridge hums to me. I pull the door
and a package of cheese seems the perfect thing.
One slice. Then Sasha’s voice: don’t eat that stuff –
It’s fat! Resist! Resist!
A LIE LIKE A SANDWICH
Don’t skimp on lunch, Mom says.
I won’t! I turn my face away
and hide my sandwich from her view,
a hollowed out bagel cut in half
a slice of turkey so thin it’s in pieces.
With fumbling hands and a pummeling heart
I wrap the thing and stuff it away.
My lie like my sandwich
will never satisfy and leaves
Mom’s eyes asking for more.
MATH IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Wednesday May 2, 25 days
Mr. Avery’s talking about
least common multiples
and how math can be useful
in everyday life
It’s true: I spend my time
adding calories for the cheese I sneak
subtracting weight I think I’ve gained
from what I thought I lost
I’ve told Mom and Dad
dividing days left
into diet and dance.
One still seems strange,
and the other used to be heaven.
Miss Allie scolds
Reeni, are you sick?
I’m worried about you.
I’ll call your mom to let her know.
I tell her no, that I’m okay –
just tired from homework,
too much math.
Thursday May 17, 10 days
Mom’s late –
Was there a meeting at school? –
but her hands reach tickets out to me.
They’re for Swan Lake
for you and me.
A New York company, Tuesday night.
I can’t believe it.
We’ve never been
to a fancy ballet in downtown Chicago.
flying sitting down!
Tuesday May 22, 5 days
I’ve never seen a place so grand
with ceilings several stories high
and crystal lighting shooting rainbows
golden trim around the walls.
No wonder Mom said to wear my best,
the blue silk dress with jacket to match,
synagogue shoes and a blue-green pashmina
Mom bought to match my eyes and dress.
Mom squeezes my hand and slides her arm
around my shoulder while we move through the crowd.
It’s hard to stay mad when I’m with her like this.
We wind our way around small groups.
I notice pink tights on some of the girls
as if they’ve just come from ballet class
and want us to know they’re special somehow.
I can’t help noticing that they’re thin.
The stage and walls shimmer
with blues, greens, aquamarines
as if we are in water.
Lush with deep glimmers
dark shadows surround us
tucked into our velvety seats.
I know the story, the curse of the princess
becoming Odette, the beautiful swan.
To break the curse she needs undying love.
Mom chatters to me about the stars,
Here’s a picture of the ballerina dancing Odette.
I only half-listen, tighten my pashmina.
Lights darken, mystery settles, the music begins.
The Sorcerer’s behind the curtain
and a shadow princess becomes a swan!
The Sorcerer brings the swan onstage –
its huge wings open. It tries to fly.
I grab the edges of my seat as the Sorcerer disappears.
The curtain rises!
My heart leaps out anyway and whirls onstage.
Oh, the costumes! the greens and the purples
split in front so the whirling shows legs and
and leaves room for leaps, kicks and arabesques.
Oh, the music, and the twirling
WHAT I SEE
Then something grabs my eyes,
forcing them toward the bodices
above the whirling skirts.
One, then another, ten and twenty,
and suddenly all I see
is the upper half of ballerinas
flat and hard, straight across,
no breasts, tiny waists, strong
arms and shoulder to shoulder bone.
My breath sounds fast –
my eyes zig-zag from one
to the other, looking and looking
for signs of roundness anywhere
breasts, thighs, anything.
All I see is no one like me.
And the screams in my head
Silent on the car, then stomping, slamming
to my room, locking myself inside.
I rip my clothes off, grab my flesh,
hiss, I wish I could cut you off!
I scream at the mirror I hate you!
I poke and pinch and push
pound, pound, punch.
I hurt myself, I hate myself, squeeze flesh
’til I leave marks all over,
then I wrap myself inside a robe and collapse
in the corner, sobbing, sobbing.
Reeni, we love you, please open the door.
They call in again and again, jiggle the lock
again and again, but I can’t answer.
The ballerinas on my wall look down and laugh.
You’ll never be like us.
Never. Never. Never.
They leave me alone when I say I’m asleep
and promise I’ll come out in the morning for school.
But I wait for the quiet, tiptoe down the stairs.
Refrigerator open, air cooling my face.
Pulling out leftovers from Shabbat,
casserole into the microwave,
opening the door before the timer dings
burning myself with the steam pouring out,
pot roast hot and tender, juice dripping from my fingers.
Carrots, onions, potatoes and meat –
scooping it straight from the casserole
into the empty cavern of me.
I slump, sickened with too much food
and Sasha’s warning voice
and with knowing she’s right:
I can’t dance the way I am.
And there’s not enough food in the world
to take that away.
Mom’s voice outside presses in through the door,
soft and warm. I roll away and let her in
and she drops to the floor to crumple me gently
in her hugging arms.
I cuddle close. I can’t dance anymore.
I cough out the words. I’ll never be thin.
Mom wipes my face, my hair. She’s crying now.
No! She’s mad, but not at me.
No, no, no, no, Reeni!
She holds my face between her hands
and I can’t escape her eyes.
I won’t let you do this to yourself.
She holds me tighter, then I pull away
and find the place in her lap
that’s always been mine, and sob ‘til I sleep
Mom’s hand soft on my head.
But even her hand can’t find all the hurt
and the broken pieces inside me.
HOW MUCH I LOST ON MY DIET
Wednesday May 23
Mom and Dad trusting me,
my best friend,
and my ballerina dream:
these are what I’ve lost
instead of weight.
THOSE BLUE EYES
After school I run to Miss Allie’s house.
The little kids bounce out from movement class.
One girl’s dressed in pink and black, I bet
already dreaming about spotlights and applause.
Miss Allie’s blue eyes find mine and ask
What’s wrong? I can’t.
After the silence, when I do, I tell the truth –
about feeling scared, then fat,
about Sasha and my diet
about Swan Lake and flat chests
and never being the right size for a ballerina.
When I say I’m quitting she steps away
her hand still holding mine
and says things about don’t and can’t and shouldn’t
and how I should let myself be special
but all I can feel is the hurt in my throat
and I pull away and run because
those blue eyes stare and I can’t stand
NO MORE DAYS
No more days for me,
no more waiting, no more diet
no more being afraid of my solo.
Instead of dancing I remember dancing
when it was like taking deep breaths
of clear mountain air.
Once on vacation
we stopped by a field
high up where our ears popped.
The field was flat
like a rest between mountains
with a pine forest at the far side.
The air gushed through me
and my deep breaths came fast
and faster as I ran for the trees.
Dad said he couldn’t believe
how I’d run without stopping
in that thin mountain air.
But I did it – I loved it.
Dancing used to be that way,
At dinner tonight
I tell Mom and Dad, I’m sorry I lied
Jules watches me without saying a thing.
Dad says, Reeni I’m proud of you.
I feel better now
but I don’t feel right.
Mom says she’s taking me somewhere tonight –
that I don’t have a choice, and she’s smiling.
But I’m sick to my stomach when I see tickets
on the seat of the car that say DANCE!
Wider than the opera house,
not elegant, but chocolate-colored walls
instead of gold and velvet.
I’m cozy and warm in jeans and sweater.
The stage is right here,
No glowing blues, greens and purples.
No lake, no swan,
High school kids and families
settle into seats and it’s noisy
until the lights dim down.
The music’s not Tchaikovsky
but it’s music all the same,
rap and pop and folk and blues.
Group after group of girls and some boys,
all sizes of kids in dance after dance
slithering, tapping, leaping across the stage.
Ballet, modern, Irish, jazzy
and I can’t help it – I bounce and sway.
I’m in the music, and the music’s in me.
JULES TELLS ME
That night I tell Jules all the things I’ve wanted to say
about bodies and ballet
about me and my solo.
She talks about girls in high school she knows
who diet and binge, or who starve themselves thin.
But she tells me Mom’s right,
that my body is just the right size for me.
I can’t say what you saw in Swan Lake isn’t real –
but if you’re a dancer, how can you not dance?
I wish I knew the answer.
Mom says questions are part of growing up.
If I am a dancer, how can I not dance?
And if I am a friend…what should I do?
I decide to call Beck and apologize,
say she was right and I was wrong.
My hands are sweaty and shaking
but when Beck says, I really missed you
it’s all worth it and we plan
to meet on Shabbat.
I am braver
than I thought.
SHE SAYS YES
I call Miss Allie, ask what she thinks:
Yes, she says, your name’s on the program.
Yes, she says, I’m sure you can do it.
Yes, she says, I know you’re still scared.
BACKBEND WITHOUT HANDS
Sunday May 27
Before I dance, before I’m on,
she stands in front of me
face to face.
My hand is right here,
and she circles it around
just an inch
away from the catching place,
and I bend, arch back,
and she taps, taps lightly.
Her deep voice reminds me,
I’m here, right here,
and my head leads the way.
In an arc, my hair, eyes, nose, mouth
continue downward, backward
And in the safety of her circle
I forget chubby, forget ugly.
I’m Reeni again,
arching backward, then up again,
gently, gently with a guidance
never touching, always safe.
Darkening stage, the audience softens
and curtains open. The spotlight glows,
carving a space for me, for my solo.
It took me this long time to know
I don’t need to be thinner.
I need to be brave.
One breath, and I dance. Brave,
light overflowing like a shooting star
streaking above, sparkling itself
into fingers and toes, hands and feet