Julia finished a fluttery bourrée and everyone started clapping. Her sixty seconds were over . . . which meant that mine were that much closer to starting. I pulled my knees up to my chest and pressed my thumb gently into the flesh of my right ankle. There was a dull ache—not unusual, but troublesome. I’d been dancing hard all through break, prepping for the audition, but I hadn’t been resting enough and was starting to get the feeling that something was off with my foot, the way you can feel a cold coming on. It didn’t seem like there was any time to stop, though; when I wasn’t dancing I was studying, tutoring, writing papers, submitting essays to Barnard and Brown and Wesleyan so that I would have something to fall back on if everyone else was right, and I wasn’t good enough. I pointed and flexed my feet, feeling the blood race up my legs toward my thundering heart.
Lolly went next, and when Mr. Stratechuck announced her selection, my head nearly exploded: she had chosen the same music as me, the Kitri variation from Don Quixote. I had picked it because Kitri is one of the few leading female roles that’s technically supposed to be nonwhite; she’s a Spanish flamenco dancer type, which is frankly as close to black as anyone can get in classical ballet unless they feel like playing an evil Muslim or a character called “the Blackamoor,” who prays to a coconut. We were supposed to showcase our strengths, and I had been planning on owning everything that supposedly made me so different by embodying a character who was more peacock than swan. But now Lolly had gotten there first. And she’d even brought a fan as a prop, which she popped open with a flick of her dainty wrist as she launched into her routine.
I wished Liv had been there to give me one of her pep talks, or even just to whisper something bitchy, like that Lolly was about as Latina as Taylor Swift eating an empanada—which is a real thing she said once after peeking in on our ballroom class the day we learned merengue. But all I had was the back of Eunice Lee’s head, so instead I focused on deep breathing as I watched Lolly triumphantly rise into a series of perfect arabesques, flapping that fan like she was fighting off a bee. She got more applause than Juliet, and I even saw Ms. Adair clapping discreetly against her notebook. The instructors were supposed to be neutral; that was not a good sign.
One by one the auditions came and went, as my nerves soared, panic rising slowly but surely in my chest, each second unleashing new tangles of branches, like the big reveal of the Nutcracker Christmas tree. I distracted myself by counting how many times people did passés (eight), sauté arabesques (ten), entrechats (eleven; Ana Kulikov did four in hers alone), grand jetés (thirteen), and pirouettes (seventeen). And that was only A through M. It was kind of amazing, actually, how similar all of the dancing looked given that we had supposedly choreographed our steps in isolation. Then again, we’d all been trained to give the ballet masters what they wanted. So while Ms. Adair had asked us to show them who we were, it made sense that most people were showing them who they thought they should be instead.