It was a small, faint-pink square box with a rumply, bumpy texture to it. I could close it by its gold clasp, snapping it shut tightly, and carry it by its well-worn pink vinyl handle from room to room. Or I could open it up in its primary resting spot on the floor of my room, yawning like the apron of a stage, ready to be dived into with full-body relish. The container of my dreams, its needle inevitably poised over a 45-rpm record that was the same color as the box, with a little picture on the label highlighting its title, "Nina the Ballerina." How many times I must have heard that song. I played it over and over again, as if it were, well, a broken record.
I must have stolen myself from its spell at least once to watch TV, because I do have a visual recollection of seeing a Grecian ruin on the black-and-white screen. It was some sort of educational-type show, I suspect, describing the ruins. It was a vision so intense, it gave me a memory in color and the freedom to add an image of that very same Nina, pirouetting with abandon through the stone fa&ccedil;ades against a steel-blue sky in her pink tutu. That image was soon replaced with one of myself, dancing just as freely there.
I wanted to be that ballerina.
Every Saturday morning, I climbed into our blue station wagon with my sisters as my dad drove them to ballet class. I remained with my father, since I was much younger than my sisters. I ached to join them.
Years passed, and I was the age at which my sisters had begun their classes, but I was still tagging along in the car to drop them off. No one had asked me if I wanted to take lessons, too. With my new maturity, however, I began to realize I could speak my mind. One day I was finally ready to voice my desires. I decided the dinner table was the place, and I anxiously awaited an opening one night over the din of family. But that evening I began to sense a growing tension from my father in his thronelike chair on the far end of the table, and before I had a chance to speak, he hemmed, hawed a bit, and then said:
"Well girls, you're getting a bit older now and ballet was fun, but I'd like you to think about how important it is to the both of you. It seems we can't really afford to pay for two classes anymore. If one of you feels more inclined to get serious about dance, perhaps we can cut down to just one of you going."
My heart sank into my mashed potatoes. I lost my appetite, along with my voice. I said not a word.
I was 9 then, and I managed to keep my wishes to myself for about seven years. I spent late nights in my darkened room with little but a burning candle's light, dancing to the music in my head, trying to teach myself to limber up my limbs, all on my own.
When I turned 16, I immediately got a job. I saved my hard-earned pennies and paid for my own dance classes. I went to a college that, despite its strong arts program, was not enough for me. I transferred to a theater school. As a transfer student without dance credits, I had to cram a four-year program into two years. It made me an even stronger dancer.
My next step was to dare to audition in New York City, alongside dancers who had - as I had so longed to do - immersed themselves in dance study since the age of 4. But I recognized a difference: They had danced for so long that they seemed to have lost their sense of being Nina the Ballerina.
I, on the other hand, was finally getting the chance to bring my dreams to life, and I believe I brought a joy to dancing that those self-proclaimed "bunheads" lacked. I often was hired before they were, and I danced professionally for many years, getting paid to do cartwheels that I could barely do at the age of 9.
It could be said that I'd started late for a dancer, but I always knew that, within the world of my little record player, I had indeed started dancing at the age of 4, as any serious ballerina should.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society