Age: 18, Grade: 12
School Name: Professional Children’s School, New York, NY
Educator: Shellie Sclan
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Orange in Honor
It was a regular sunny Thursday afternoon when Brooklyn walked through the glass door with her grey Broadway Dance Center sweatpants, short sleeve shirt, and ponytail trailing down below her back. She hobbled in with her worn tennis shoes and we surrounded her like a spider closing in on its prey.
What happened? Is it that bad? How long will you be out? Our questions and empathetic statements shot at her. She had been watching class for many weeks now, her left foot propped up on the flimsy folding chair, buried in instant ice packs. Brooklyn was our studio’s prized jewel. If a teacher asked the class try something, Brooklyn did it immediately, humbly, and effortlessly. She always stood at the end of the silver barre parallel to the mirror in the front of the room, serving as a leader for her row of dancers in the event that they forgot the combination. In some classes, Miss Caroline would call on Brooke to show a combination she hadn’t even said or shown herself. After she danced in her group center floor, the Miss Caroline always pulled Brooke off to the side to give her additional corrections, deliberately moving her further along than the rest of us. But it was no secret. Brooke showed the most promise in a successful dance career than anyone who had and will pass through that school and everyone knew it. I always stood in the middle of the row at the wooden barre furthest away from the mirror. I loved this spot, because I could follow the dancer in front of me, since let’s face it, no one ever remembers the combination after the instructor says it. You just nod your head in agreement, because you’re still caught up on how well you did on the last combination. Unless your name is Brooklyn; then you do actually remember the combination. This spot gave me a panoramic view of other student’s artistic choices, but specifically a direct shot of Brooke. Whenever we learned a center combination, I positioned myself in a place where I was insured to be in the same group as Brooke. It was a fool proof system.
It was impossible to be jealous of Brooke. She always tried her best in class, genuinely asked how people were everyday, motivated and talked to every member of our class, even if they were labeled as ‘weird’ by the rest of our 13 year old standards. Brooke attended extra classes at every available opportunity, assisted younger levels, hosted pool parties and sleepovers for us, always showed a positive attitude regardless of the situation, and had the archies feet, the longest lines, and a modeling worthy beauty. Even though I was in the same friend group as her, I often got that butterfly feeling whenever I talked to her. She was my inspiration to keep dancing; if not for myself, than at least for her. Brooklyn was flawless in every way.
Our crowd around Brooke slowly transitioned into the studio, tripping on each others feet along the way, much more concerned about the state of our leader than being in class on time.
Miss Caroline spotted our beehive and began to slowly walk toward us. As she did, the group parted down the middle creating a direct path to Brooklyn. Miss Caroline didn’t even say a word, but gave Brooke a knowing look.
I’m getting surgery, she announced with a smile, trying to maintain her notorious optimism. A gasp followed by immediate silence took over the room. Miss C. gave her a motherly hug and walked back towards the piano. Two or three students ran out of the studio door, returned with a flimsy folding chair, and demanded Brooke use their bodies as her crutches as they tip-toed over to the corner, unfolding the folding chair and gently resting her left foot upon it. Our queen bee had injured her wing and it was now the hive’s job to repair it.
I was heartbroken. Brooke was my source of strength and I now felt vulnerable. We began class with a somber tone, everyone glancing towards Brooklyn at the end of each combination as if to assure themselves that she hadn’t evaporated from their tears.
The next day I returned to class, having dug up enough courage to recite what seemed like a soliloquy, but was barely a phrase, regarding my sympathy for her situation only to find her not in her corner with her wing propped up on it’s branch. I walked over gloomily to my regular spot with the panoramic view and a direct shot of where Brooke usually stood. Who was I going to follow now? I did a 360 look around the room, mentally profiling each of my classmates to see who the lucky contestant would be to replace Brooke. But then it hit me. I couldn’t replace Brooke. No one could replace Brooke, she was on her own level. Suddenly, Miss Caroline’s commanding voice interrupted my thoughts: “regular plies, let’s go”, and the confident silver barre dancers set up their barres. Miss C. hit play and the music echoed through the speakers. I bent my knees on the first note to imitate a plie, but quickly realized I didn’t know what it was I was imitating. Brooke wasn’t there for me to imitate and the student in front of me wasn’t dedicated enough to even show up to class 80% of the week, so there was no hope following her either. I bent my knees again upon another musical cue. I looked towards the gap where Brooke would have been and closed my eyes, overwhelmed by all and yet none of these choices. I moved my right foot out the side to a second position I couldn’t control. I didn’t have very much turnout, but that’s what Brooke’s second position usually looked like, thus mine had to look that way too. Then there was a tag in the music and the tornado inside my head suddenly subsided. The next set of 8 counts started in the music and I took a deep breath, my eyes still closed. I adjusted my second position so my toes were more forward than they were before and I opened my eyes. It wasn’t a perfect position, but it was my second position. The music signaled the first count and I did another plie, not paying any attention to what other students were doing. I tilted my head towards my hand that was curling inward and stayed in my plie a whole count longer than other dancers, let my arm float up and down as it pleased, and allowed my placement to be what it naturally was. The movement was my own. I did a couple more leg bends like this, a few more head tilts, and an expressive arm when I was feeling frisky. When I finished the combination and turned to the other side, I was greeted by Miss Caroline’s smiling face in my direction. My face, on the other hand, stayed blank, anticipating her sarcastic congratulations towards the student, now behind me, for showing up to class for the first time all month. But no, she was staring at me and like a domino effect, other student’s heads turned my way.
Devin, that was beautiful, she said in a genuine tone. I smiled back at her, while a celebration of someone winning the lottery filled my soul. I didn’t need anyone to validate the individuality I just felt in that simple plie combination, but it certainly made it even more special.
At the end of class, Brooke’s second in command, Georgia, walked up to me and complimented all that I had just done. I was in awe that someone so high up on the food chain had even noticed a peasant like myself. She mentioned that she was talking with Brooke and found out when exactly her surgery was scheduled. She continued by telling me of an idea she’s had during class to ignore the black and pink dress code on the day of Brooke’s surgery and dress entirely in orange, Brooklyn’s favorite color, in her honor. I smiled in compliance, grabbed my bag, and trotted off to tell my classmates of this event. But as I did, Miss Caroline stopped me in the hallway to tell me that she was very impressed with my work in class and that I should never go back to the old me. She said the work I had shown in class was the work of someone who could become a professional dancer. I agreed and nodded, unsure of what to make of all of these compliments. I loved the new artful, individual, and leading dancer I was now becoming.
A few weeks went by. Brooke occasionally showed up to say hi, but never long enough to watch class; never enough to see the new me and all that I was accomplishing without her leadership.
Then the day came. The dreaded day of Queen Brooklyn The First’s surgery. Even though I loved and was proud of the confident dancer I was blossoming into, I still missed my inspiration. I remember feeling like an avocado when I walked toward the studio that day: with a pit in my stomach and an outer skin that didn’t portray the true sadness that lay within. I opened the door with a fluffy orange scrunchy in my hair, orange ribbons tied around my wrists, my dad’s baggy orange shirt, and socks with oranges on them; and I thought I was being over the top. I entered the studio to find orange streamers circled around the barres, random splotches of orange confetti on the marley, and all of my classmates covered in orange tutus, facepaint, and unitards. Even Miss Caroline dressed up for the occasion, her subtle orange nail polish distinguishing her fingertips. We held class as normal: did the same plies, the same trickey jump combo, and attempted the same impossible fouette variation. At the end of class, we called Brooke’s mother to check in on her physical and mental state. Cheers of happiness and joy filled the room when we heard the procedure was successful and that Brooke was doing fine. We held a brief dance party in celebration. It didn’t matter who was friends with who or who had fallen out of their double pirouette earlier. Instead, we were all there to support the most important person in our community.
In the coming months, Brooke dropped into class when she could. Most often she was on her non-human crutches (although my classmates and I insisted to carry her around the studio as much as we could), but sometimes she would try to do plies with us or attempt a releve while putting all of her body weight on the barre. On those rare days when she would come “take” class, she would arrive with her usual overflowing dance bag, perfectly slicked back hair, and spaghetti strap leotard that, unlike the rest of us, was in dress code. But the most meaningful part of those days was that when she had done all she could manage for that class, she would sit and watch the rest of us, sending her support our way, just as we had her. After one of these days, I heard her approaching me, her crutches ticking across the wood hallway floor, as I was putting on my shoes to leave. She got closer and closer and my eyes nearly dropped out from my eye sockets in astonishment. She was about a foot away when I felt her arms embraced around me and my face turned cranberry red. I looked up at her out of curiosity for what triggered this generous gesture.
I am so proud of you, was all she said. We locked eyes for an instant and I could feel some sort of magical moment happening between us. She had been regaining her strength in the last few weeks and in no time would be back and better than ever. She was older than me and was now entering a new stage of her life, the next level of dance training that would take her to whatever future she could ever dream of. What I didn’t realize until many weeks later when she moved up a level or two, while I remained in mine, was that that simple compliment was her way of passing down the responsibility of being the Queen Bee to the new dancers in my level. It was now my turn to carry on her legacy.
Even though I attribute much of my artistic growth at the time of her surgery to a simple change in focus, I realize how important it is to have someone to look up to, someone to support, and someone to eventually replace. Had it not been for Brooke, I would likely still be following the mediocre dancer in front of me, blending in with the crowd. Brooke’s absence sparked something in me. Sometimes all you need in order to do great things is for someone to believe in you. And that someone is you.