When I was five, I started ballet lessons at the most prestigious ballet school in my hometown. I’m not sure what moved my mom to send me to dance classes or why we picked that school, full of very wealthy white girls, but for the next ten years the only place I spent more time than school was the ballet studio. By the time I quit, I was taking five classes a week, for an hour and a half minimum every day.
Ballet was my life, and the people at the studio were my social scene, at least during the hours I spent there. When I came out at age 20 — five years after I’d stopped dancing seriously — a whole new element of that social scene made sense. All those pretty girls I’d been excited to hold hands with during choreographed partner dances and all the authoritative women I’d been afraid of but desperate to please and all the professional ballerinas who I crowded around tiny windows to watch in rehearsal…all of those were crushes.
Obviously, the queer ballet drama has its place in the canon, often as psychological thrillers and ruminations on obsession. But in a more wholesome way, I think spending that much time around that many gals was a recipe (and a pretty safe place!) for me to experience some extremely strong baby queer feelings without realizing that’s what was happening.
There is, apparently, a ballet child to queer adult pipeline, and I want to come out as a person of ballet queer experience. And I want to recognize those feelings for what they were, now that I can, so this is a love letter to all of the girls and women who had my young heart in a tizzy.
Kaylee played Clara in The Nutcracker the year that I played one of the boys who attends her family’s winter party. She had extremely long blond hair that was curled into ringlets for every performance, and I got paired with her to be her dance partner for the party scene. I remember counting off the way our choreographer had lined us up during partner assignment, and the thrill I felt when I realized, if my calculations were correct, I would get to hold pretty, popular, nice Kaylee’s hand during that whole two minutes. I also made a character choice to pull her ringlets during one of our turns around the stage, letting them spring back up after I released them. This made her laugh every time, so of course I kept doing it, even idly in rehearsals.
A fun fact about me is that I have only ever dated brunettes in my life, and I do wonder sometimes if Kaylee is the only blonde I’ve ever loved.
Marilyn was also Clara one year, so maybe I just had a type. She was a few years older than me, playing the lead the year I played an angel or maybe a soldier enlisted to fight the Mouse King (never forget: the plot of The Nutcracker is that a United Nations of candy is convened to celebrate a young girl for being accomplice to the murder of a mouse). I left her notes in her cubby, telling her she was the perfect Clara, and she signed a pair of ballet shoes for me and gave me candy for Christmas. Receiving that encouragement, I actually started to leave notes for any girl I thought was a good dancer, which is what I called having a crush back then, telling them how pretty and talented they were, though I soon aimed my affections toward more age-inappropriate crushes (classic queer behavior, am I right).
Jennifer was the first company member (aka professional ballerina) I ever left notes for. She played the Sugar Plum Fairy the year I played an angel, so we shared all of my stage time, and I remember being furious when I heard she almost hadn’t gotten the role on account of being the “wrong build” for the part. I don’t actually know if that is true or how I, an 8 year old, would have heard that professional gossip, but I had to let her know she was the perfect Sugar Plum Fairy, maybe the best one to ever exist.
Jennifer was extremely lovely to me and my clumsy affections: She started to write back to me, kind and, in retrospect, maternal notes. When she left the company to dance in Hong Kong (devastating), she sent me letters and souvenirs from overseas, some of which I still have today. When she returned later, she sometimes took me to dance shows, exposing me to culture I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. She was practically a celebrity to me, and even still I can’t believe how kind she was to take me on as a mentee at such a young age.
Skyler was an apprentice, so not quite professional but nearly there, with long brown hair and the prettiest smile I’d ever seen. She always looked genuinely excited to see me, and she lit up the room when she was excited. When she was in the flower and snow corps of the Nutcracker for a couple years, I would try to watch for the wings and pick her face out of the moving ensemble, following her through the rest of the dancers like a dream ballet shell game. In college, years after I’d quit ballet, I went to my old school to take an open level drop-in class, and when I saw that Skyler worked the front desk there, my stomach dropped clean out of my body. I forced myself to make eye contact despite my intense embarrassment at how clearly I had a crush on her as a child. She realized who I was immediately, and I got to see that killer smile one more time. She was still excited to see me.
Another professional dancer, Breanne had the most gorgeous arches I’d ever seen. When she was on pointe, it looked physically impossible that she wasn’t falling over. I wrote her notes and spent hours looking through every photo available of her on Facebook and Google Images. Definitely was old enough to recognize this one as a crush at the time, but compulsive heterosexuality is a real menace I guess.
The biggest doozy of all: my long-time ballet teacher. She was goofy, loud, and had the best calf muscles of anyone I’ve ever seen in my life, to this day. As a kid, I would often complain of my hip hurting or a stomachache so I could sit next to her for the rest of class, sharing the vanilla Tootsie Rolls she liked to snack on between giving out corrections. As I got older, I took ballet slightly more seriously and turned my attention toward being her favorite student: playing with her daughters when they accompanied her to the studio, helping move the barre before class, anything to get her to nod at me approvingly.
The year I quit ballet, I invited her to my quinceañera, and she arrived to the church portion late, about two seconds before I had to walk down the aisle in front of every family member I had. She kissed me on the cheek, leaving behind a red lipstick print and the scent of her perfume. Then, horrified at the mark she’d left, she reached out and tried to thumb it off my face. I did a whole walk down the aisle, a speech in front of everyone, and I’m sure many other important, life-affirming activities in that church that day, but the only thing I remember is Ms. Sanders’ face close to mine, and her hand pressing soft but firm into my cheek.