Chapter 1 of ‘Standing Room’ — a memoir about my experiences as a student at American Ballet Theatre school

Diana raced up the stairs and made a sharp right. I rushed to catch up and nearly collided with her, my dance bag bouncing off my shoulder. We stood in a long enclosed catwalk that ran the length of a hallway, above all of the dance studios. On each side large windows gave a view down into each studio. Diana stood rigid, looking down into Studio 2.

Below us a photographer was running crab-like across the floor, shooting pictures. I couldn’t see the target, who must have been in the part of the studio directly under where we were standing. A few seconds later a large black poodle loped out into the open area of the room. Diana took a deep breath and then was completely still.

“It’s Mischa,” she finally hissed. I didn’t understand and she must have sensed that. “That’s his dog.”

I looked down again and as if on cue, the floppy, golden hair of Mikhail Baryshnikov appeared below me, mid-leap. He was unmistakable even at this angle. He wore rehearsal clothes and misshapen black shoes. It didn’t seem real. I felt like I’d opened a door by accident and was seeing something I shouldn’t. He circled the studio in a series of leaps that I would come to learn were a well-known portion of the Albrecht role in Giselle, with the dog bounding after him, almost catching his trailing leg each time.

The photographer was like a machine gunner in the middle of the room, turning, turning, turning to keep up with the fleet movement. Then Baryshnikov came to the center of the room and performed an astonishing series of open a la seconde turns, spinning rapidly, with abandon. His mouth was open in a smile and the dog also circled madly, barking now. Baryshnikov spun to a halt and reached down to grab the dog’s head in both hands, laughing. When he came to a stop I breathed in and heard my heartbeat pulsing through me. I wasn’t sure the last time I had taken a breath. Baryshnikov straightened up and stood talking to the photographer, his arms crossed in front of him, one powerful leg casually to the side, but at the same time just a little bit off fourth position.

Diana and I stood silently for just another minute, finally feeling silly about watching two men talking to each other.

She turned to look at me. “Welcome to ABT,” she said, smiling. She started walking further down the catwalk.

“Tell me this doesn’t happen all the time,” I said, catching up to her. I wanted to sound suitably casual but I couldn’t completely mask my excitement. In the two years or so since Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union and come to New York, the entire population, not just the dance world, had been fascinated by him. The newspapers constantly covered his late nights at clubs, his dates, his favorite foods, as well as giving glowing reviews of his performances, with descriptions that seemed impossible for anyone to live up to.

“I don’t see him all the time. But a lot.” Diana paused. “You see all of them, especially now that the season is starting. Makarova, Gelsey, Cynthia Gregory, Eric Bruhn, Bujones, they’re all here. And people like Jerome Robbins and Oliver Smith. It’s wild.” Her big brown eyes shone.

“Come on,” she continued. “Let’s get ready for class.”

For the tenth time that day, I wondered what I was doing here. But I knew there was no way I was going to leave voluntarily.

I had met Diana at the corner of Broadway and 60th Street about an hour before. I had already taken class that morning at my old ballet school so I was warmed up. I filled the two hours before I met her by walking most of the way across town and eating just half a slice of pizza to try to quell my nervousness. This had the added benefit of saving a subway fare. Diana had taken a jazz class across the street at Luigi’s and she was relaxed and sunny as we walked the block to 61st Street, her wiry black hair springing out from her coat collar. I had met her only about a month before and I still couldn’t believe she had suggested that I come to take class with her. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t a big deal. How different could it be from ballet class anywhere else?

The dirty white stone building stood in the middle of the block with a narrow glass door at the corner nearest Central Park. There was no sign outside to indicate it housed one of the leading ballet companies in the world. The lobby had fake wood paneling and beige linoleum. Diana pushed the button to call the elevator and it churned into action. Even though I was seventeen and she just a year younger, I felt like I did the first day of kindergarten following my mother onto the playground. In a moment the chipped green doors opened to a metal grate with a smiling older black man behind it. A group of girls bustled behind him and spilled out into the lobby as soon as he opened the grate. They chattered out into the sunshine of the mild March afternoon, tight hair buns announcing all too clearly where they had been. The man nodded to us and when we entered he sat on the stool in the corner and placed a hand on the brass handle to start the elevator. We rose, watching the doors of each floor pass by in a steady parade. When we stopped my stomach dipped, from nerves rather than motion.

Unlike the rest of the building, the seventh floor lobby looked sleek and modern, if somewhat beat up. Matte white walls rose up two stories from low pile grey carpet but there were dark scuff marks a foot above the floor in several places. The man at the reception desk was the only person in the lobby. We approached the desk and I hoped Diana would show me what to do. I didn’t know her very well. She was a friend of a friend and we had been introduced because of our mutual interest in ballet. She had been taking class at American Ballet Theatre for a few months and had encouraged me to come along with her to try a class.

Diana smiled at the receptionist. “Hello, John.” He was around thirty and had thick dark hair and pursed lips that looked ready to say something surprising. Diana picked up a form from the desk.

“I need a new card today. Let’s make it for forty classes.” I tried not to stare as she pulled out a fat spray of twenty dollar bills from her bag and handed them to John. “And this is my friend, Kathleen. This is her first time here so she just needs a single.”

John nodded at me with a serious but comic air. “Welcome. That will be eight dollars.” I pulled the five and three singles that I had cajoled from my mother that morning from my jeans pocket.

As I handed John my money, he cocked an eyebrow at Diana. “You might want to take a peek in Studio 2 as you go upstairs.” His voice was low and casual.

“Oh?” Diana said. She looked at me but I didn’t understand what John was trying to tell her. John nodded and handed her a new card for forty classes, with the first one punched out.

Diana jerked her head sideways to show me I should follow her to the open staircase that led up from the doorway to Studio 2. As she passed she peeked in through the window and then shot up the stairs, leaving me no choice but to follow her and get my first unexpected glimpse of Baryshnikov.

After we peeled ourselves away from the window of Studio 2, we went down the stairway at the furthest end of the walkway and Diana pushed open an orange door. Inside it looked like any other locker room and we found empty lockers side by side and started to strip off our outer clothes. I was glad I had left my tights and leotard on under my jeans and sweater. I didn’t like having people see me without clothes, especially at ballet school and even more so at this ballet school. My waist was a little too thick, my hips a little too wide. But somehow the thin nylon of the leotard and tights was enough of a disguise. We slipped on our soft pink ballet shoes and went back into the hallway.

The door to Studio 7, where our class would be held, was closed. Through the window in the door I could see that a class was just finishing but it was unlike any ballet class I had ever seen. All the students were male, ranging in age from mid-teens to thirties. They took turns across the floor doing pale imitations of the turns that Baryshnikov had just finished down the hall. A few boys came to the Manhattan School of Ballet, where I had been taking class for the last year, but they were all younger brothers of girl students or boys looking for some basic training so they could pass musical theater auditions. Here was a hardcore group reaching for the ceiling, or at least the light fixtures, as they did grand jetes across the floor. I felt another little surge of excitement.

Out in the hallway, Diana and I spread out on the floor to stretch along with the other people waiting for class. The students were mostly teenage girls but there were some women in their twenties and a handful of men and boys. Even though the setting was more serious and sophisticated, with the possibility of famous Russian émigrés wandering down the hall at any time, the sidelong looks and showy stretches of the girls in the hall were just like any dance class I’d been to. We rocked from side to side in splits, we placed nose to knee, we bent backwards from the waist in a broad port de bras to study the person behind us in a disturbing, unblinking way. Even though I didn’t have anywhere near the desired shape of a ballet dancer, I was fairly flexible and felt I could hold my own in some things. But when the door of the studio opened I felt pangs of fear. I’d been so taken by seeing Baryshnikov and watching the dancers around me that I’d forgotten that I would need to dance myself and see how I would measure up. I knew I wasn’t in the league of the people strewn on the floor around me. All of a sudden it didn’t seem like a good idea to have come after all. I felt foolish rather than brave. My lunch turned over in my stomach and I thought about going to use the bathroom. The idea of just staying in the locker room while class started, hidden away, was appealing. But what would I say to Diana?

The boys filed out from the class and everyone pulled themselves to their feet. I let the idea of escape float away. We passed into the studio and I waited to see where Diana would go, to see what the pecking order of the class was. Diana headed to the far side near the big windows. Three of the walls had double barres, serious looking affairs with heavy brackets. The front wall was covered in mirrors and in the corner where Diana headed was a small piano. A tired looking woman with an untidy bun stood there and stacked and restacked piles of music. It looked like she would be staying for our class. I’d never been to a class with a live accompanist before.

It was late winter and the tall windows were opened about a foot at the bottom. I could see the back of a brick apartment building across the way with tangles of cables and air conditioning units hanging out of windows, like cigarettes on the lip. The windows of the studio looked like the unblinking ones in the abandoned industrial buildings that lined the shore of Staten Island.

I stood next to Diana, watching her twist her back, trying to think of yet another stretch to do to keep myself occupied. Diana was a few inches shorter than I and while she didn’t have a traditional dancer’s body either, her shoulders perfectly framed her neck and her legs were nicely proportioned and well-muscled. There were about twenty people in the room by now, evenly placed along the barres on three walls.

The array of leotard colors surprised me. Elfrieda Merman, the teacher I had been studying with since I was eight, had very strict rules about clothing. Students wore a long sleeved black leotard, pink tights, and pink slippers with satin handsewn ribbons. Nothing else was permitted, although we did add a little sheer pink skirt for our once a year “open class.” Now, the room swam with hot pink sleeveless leotards, torn T-shirts over black camisoles, purple unitards, a garish array of color and cut that made the studio look like the opening scene of A Chorus Line, which was in its first glorious run about fifteen blocks down Broadway.

At the stroke of two, the door flew open and an older woman with blond hair and perfect posture strode into the center of the room. She looked a little older than my mother and she wore a robin’s egg blue leotard and a filmy ballet skirt in a bright floral pattern of blues and pinks that came to just below her knee. She was tanned and wore a glittery gold necklace that caught the light as she walked. She clapped her hands twice and with a broad smile said, “Good afternoon, everyone. Let’s get started.” Her accent was like Boris and Natasha in the Bullwinkle cartoons. This must be Madame Merinowa. Diana caught my eye and raised her eyebrows as if to say, “See what I mean?”

Madame Merinowa turned and almost skipped over to the pianist in the corner. She said something in a low voice to the dark-suited woman, who smiled and sat to adjust the piano bench. Even though I could hear each heartbeat pounding in my chest, I had the feeling that this would be fun. As Madame Merinowa returned to the center of the room and stood still, every molecule in the room came to attention and waited to begin.

Without another word we all stood and placed our left hands gently on the barre. I straightened my spine and placed first one foot and then the other in as good of a first position as I could achieve. Turnout was not one of my strengths but I was in the ballpark. I felt the thrill I did every time my heels touched properly and I pulled up the front of my thighs to stand as tall and as perfectly placed as I could. I didn’t look around. I didn’t want to know how good the turnout of the others was.

The pianist played the two introductory chords that begin any barre exercise. First, a lingering seventh chord, meant to feel unfinished, as we all raised our right hands from our hip to the front, and then the longed-for major chord, at which we swept our hand to the side, to indicate we were prepared for the exercise. No one had said a word and yet we all knew exactly what to do — what dancers have done for at least two hundred years to begin their daily routine — two demi plies in first position. So far, so good.

After the first two bends, Madame Merinowa chimed in to provide a welcome if unnecessary direction. “Grand plie.” Her full, warm voice pushed her words into the air, where they hung as we dropped down toward the floor. I hoped my knees wouldn’t crack as I got to the bottom of my sweep. I found my balance fairly easily when we went into releve after the first side of plies, raising up on the balls of our feet to balance for a few seconds, and I began to relax a little. I could do this. Madame Merinowa walked slowly around the room, about ten feet from the barre, watching each of us and stopping from time to time to push a hand a few inches higher or move a shoulder a bit further back.

Tendus were next, in which we slowly and precisely stretched one foot in each of the three directions that make up ballet exercises — front, side and back. Madame Merinowa came to my side of the room. She stood and watched my rear tendus, a move I found challenging because I couldn’t see what my foot looked like when it was stretched out behind me. A surge of energy came off her, unfamiliar yet welcome. She gently touched the end of my hand, and curved my index and middle fingers a bit more towards my palm and raised her chin, showing me I should look up a little higher. I did so and she smiled, a broad, shining smile that brought out an array of small lines at the corners of her sapphire blue eyes. “Yes,” she said. “Beautiful.” My face got hot. She wasn’t looking at my feet, so what did she think was so beautiful? My face? Unlikely. And if she was thinking about my face, was that the only thing she could make a positive comment about? This was not good. I wanted her to let go of my hand and move on.

“I am Mrs. Merinowa,” she said, in an odd sing-song fashion, pronouncing her name “Merry-KNOW-a” instead of the much more exciting “Mair-IN-ova” that I had heard everyone else use. I nodded. I didn’t know what to do. Under no circumstances should you ever speak in class, especially during an exercise. She remained next to me, still holding my fingertips. She lifted her chin to the right, creating a perfect curve down the side of her head, through her shoulder and down to the hand that was holding mine. “And you are?” she said.

“I’m Kathleen,” I said in a low voice. By now the exercise had ended for that side and everyone stood, waiting for the next exercise and listening to our exchange.

“Kathleen,” she repeated, in the clenched, delicious Russian pronunciation that sounded like “KETT-lin,” which would become so familiar to me. “Welcome to my class,” she exclaimed, nudging my arm over my head before turning to walk to the middle of the room. “Other side.” We all turned and started our tendus in the other direction.

We went through the rest of the barre exercises. I worked hard and I felt a glow from doing good work. I didn’t look around me to see what anyone else was doing, other than watching the girl in front of me to check that I was following the directions properly. During the frappes, Madame Merinowa had us turn and face the barre. When I looked out the window I saw a woman across the way wearing a robe as she pulled down a shade in her bathroom. I didn’t know why that small moment of voyeurism did it but I felt a shiver of excitement. Here I was in class at the American Ballet Theatre school and beyond not being asked to leave, the teacher had welcomed me. This was wonderful.

When we returned to the barre for the final exercise, the grand battements, the quick, controlled leg lifts that the rest of the world would call chorus line kicks, Madame Merinowa called out, “Valya, find something fun for us for grand battement.” The woman at the piano rummaged through her stacks. She found whatever she needed and raised her hawk-like profile to Madame Merinowa to show she was ready. Madame Merinowa nodded and Valya leaned down on a huge uncomfortable chord. It took me a few notes and then I recognized it — the scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet where the Capulets display their warlike attitude at a family gathering. It was one of the fiercest pieces of music I’d ever heard and it put shivers down my spine. Usually I was tired by the time I got to grand battements and needed to steel myself to get my leg up past my nose, my own personal measuring point of whether I was having a good day or not. But today, with this stirring music, I was ready to perform the grand battements for an audience. What fun. At the end of the exercise, everyone burst into discussion and laughter at the joy of getting to move to such wonderful music.

We arranged ourselves in the middle of the room for floor exercises. I lingered toward the back to see how this was going to shake out. The best dancers should be in the front row, usually with the strongest one in the middle, in an unspoken arrangement that just seemed to work out correctly every time. The front row of dancers went into position, leaving an appropriate gap between each person. This was not just to make sure no one would be hit by a flailing arm during a turn but also to give those in the second row, who, depending on the class, could also be extraordinarily good dancers, an adequate view of themselves in the mirror. I followed Diana’s lead and took my place in the third row. I wondered whether she would have gone to that position if she were here by herself. I’d been too busy worrying about myself during the barre to pay much attention to the level of the other dancers in the class, but I knew that my skill level would be near the bottom and that the center exercises would prove it. Here, in the middle of the floor, there was no barre to lean on to correct an incomplete balance, and everyone in the class could clearly see what everyone else was doing in the mirror. My enthusiasm had always outpaced my accomplishments as a dancer and there was no reason it would be any different here. Well, I would just have to do the best I could.

We started in with the same ritualistic order of exercises, but for the floor portion of class Madame Merinowa had more freedom to innovate and she gave us different steps for each variation. She described what she wanted and at first I found it a little hard to understand her Russian-accented French as she described the variation — “Glissade, assemble, pas de chat, pas de chat, prepare and turn, entrechat, entrechat!” As she talked she demonstrated the steps, using each arm as a substitute for a leg, as she marked the steps she was describing in the air. Everyone nodded and followed along in a watered down way, cementing the arrangement of steps in our minds before we began.

When she stepped to one side of the room for the group to perform the exercise she had marked out, I could finally see how everyone else danced. The students in the front row were incredibly steady and used the floor in a forthright way, brushing and digging their feet in as if it were a tool for their use. Their turnout was almost 180 degrees and their landings from jumps were soft and clean. I knew my cheeks were red, not from fatigue but from chagrin over my poor turnout and mediocre extension. I was glad I was in the back of the class where no one could study my wobbly arabesques and single turns. I began to wonder how exactly they went about telling you not to come back. I hoped Diana didn’t regret inviting me now that she was actually seeing me dance. I studied Diana out of the corner of my eye and while I couldn’t conclude much, she seemed closer in skill to the direct, assured people of the front row than to me. I continued, trying not to grit my teeth, trying to breathe, urging myself to be invisible. But through the adagio exercise no one paid any attention to me. I unclenched my stomach muscles.

When it was time for small jumps Madame Merinowa stopped a moment and stood studying the floor. Then she clapped once and turned to face us. “I’m so sorry boys, but I am going to make you all be Giselle today.” The boys, a handful of males ranging from my age to some who looked like they might be on a break from a Broadway show, groaned and laughed. “We do Giselle’s opening variation.”

She clapped again once and Valya started to play music familiar to any ballet student. Madame Merinowa turned to face the mirror and started to mark and explain as she had done before. Then halfway through, Valya picked up the speed a little and Madame Merinowa began to fully dance, her strong, tight leg peeking out from her frothy skirt as she finished one small, controlled jump after another, showing us how to hold back and extend at the same time, making the viewer wait to see the full extension of the pointed foot. I studied her reflection in the mirror and her face, already friendly and approachable, looked even more inviting and joyful, and I couldn’t believe I was there having her show me how to do this. I’d never even seen Giselle performed before and now I was learning how to dance it. She finished and turned to us and briskly said, “OK, you now.”

We took our places. Valya gave us the preparatory chords and then we began. As I took one tentative jump and extended my leg in front of me and then did the same in reverse, I forgot all about my uneven balances in the earlier floor exercises and felt my body responding to what she had shown us. I allowed myself to fill up the straightforward steps with the feeling of being in character. As I went on to the next set of eight measures and finished with the small jetes forward, I felt my heart soar. I could do this. I was doing real repertory and I could do it, maybe not very well, but I could do it and feel it fully. All I needed was a dirndl skirt and a crown of harvest flowers in my hair to make it complete. It didn’t matter that I would never be on stage. I was being given the secrets of something I barely understood my desire for and it was something I could hold inside me long after we stopped. I wanted to know more, to find out how to feel like this all the time.

Class ended, as all classes did, with reverence, a series of choreographed bows, perhaps designed to accustom dancers to the overly orchestrated tradition of taking curtain calls. As I sank into as deep of a plie as I could in the middle of the floor, Madame Merinowa strolled over to me.

“KETT-lin,” she said. “Where did you study before.” It was not said as a question but as a declarative sentence.

“The Manhattan School of Ballet,” I said, finding it a little hard to get it out in one breath. “With Elfrieda Merman.”

She looked as if she was thinking and then she nodded. “Ballet Russe?” This time it was a question.

“I think so.” Mrs. Merman was a more reserved but equally elegant version of Madame Merinowa. It wasn’t like she and I went out for ice cream after class and discussed her dance genealogy but I did know that she had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before coming to New York.

“Good.” Madame Merinowa said it as if that was all she needed to know and she went back to the front of the room. Either Mrs. Merman or I had passed muster. I imagined it was Mrs. Merman. I took a deep breath and we finished our reverence. As we applauded, Madame Merinowa ducked her head in thanks and swept out of the room leaving the impression of the flowery gauze of her skirt lingering in my vision.

I couldn’t believe it was over. I stood, not sure what to do next, even as the other students bent to pick up their dance bags. Diana came next to me and said, “Let’s go.” We joined the crowd making their way through the door and I was still in a fog as we went to the locker room and I pulled on my jeans.

We climbed back up onto the catwalk to make our way to the front and as we passed Studio 2, Baryshnikov sat on the floor, his legs stretched wide on each side, the poodle on the floor in front of him. He was chatting and looked relaxed. A woman was at the barre at the window turned away from me. She was wearing an elaborately tied patterned scarf over her hair and as she raised her hands over her head I could tell who it was. I recognized the shape of her back from photos. “Is that Makarova?” I was tired from two classes and all the adrenalin pumping through me. There was just too much to take in.

Diana looked down into the studio. “Yeah. I think they are doing Other Dances tonight for some special performance. But we should go so we can get the 4:30 boat.” She nudged me along, all business now.

Then Baryshnikov stood up and walked toward the door. Diana was off like a bullet, as she had been when we first arrived, pounding down the stairs to try to be in the lobby when Baryshnikov emerged from the studio. It took me a second to propel myself into action and I was afraid of falling down the long flight of stairs. Diana was alone in the lobby but as I hit the bottom step, the door of the studio flew open and Baryshnikov emerged. I pulled myself up short, barely able to keep from plowing into him. I sucked in my breath as I succeeded in finding my balance. He turned to me. On the stair, I was a half head taller than him. He smiled and a little wrinkle appeared at the edge of each eye. He knew exactly what had been going on. I felt too hot, too breathless to do anything. He raised an eyebrow and backtracked into the studio, closing the door behind him.

I turned to look at Diana, frozen twenty feet away. Neither of us said anything. She pressed the button to call the elevator and I joined her, silent, trying to process what had just happened. We entered the elevator, nodding to the operator, who looked like an old friend now. Diana asked, “So, will you be back next week?”

I found my voice. “I think so. You think I did OK?”

“You were fine.” She smiled. “And Madame Merinowa sure seems to like you.”

I felt like she was teasing me, but I didn’t respond. We both knew I wasn’t a strong dancer. Madame Merinowa was just being nice. She hadn’t urged me to attempt a third pirouette or nudged my extension higher as she had done with some of girls in the front row. Maybe she could just sense how overwhelmed and joyful I was to be there and so long as there was room in the class it was okay for me to stay.

On the ferry I quizzed her about the teacher. Diana was knowledgeable about everyone at the school and told me that she thought Madame Merinowa had just joined the Maryinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg at the time of the Russian Revolution and that she had left when Balanchine and so many others had in the 1920’s. For whatever reason she didn’t end up at the New York City Ballet or teaching at the School of American Ballet, Balanchine’s school in Lincoln Center.

I did a calculation. “That can’t be right,” I said. “The Russian Revolution was in 1917. So even if she was just 15 when the revolution started that would mean she’s over seventy. That just can’t be.” I had such a clear vision of Madame Merinowa’s flowered skirt and she didn’t look like any seventy year old I knew. She barely looked fifty.

Diana looked at me. “Well, do you have any doubt she’s Russian, KETT-lin?” she asked, using the adopted pronunciation of my name.

“No.” I didn’t want Diana to think I was stupid.

“And after the Revolution, how easy do you think it was for classically trained dancers to leave Russia?”

We all knew the answer to that, having just absorbed the addition of Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in the last few years through darkened night defections. Diana was right.

“They all left at around the same time. Besides, I can show you. I did some research on her when I started going to ABT.”

“Research?” What did she mean? I had my own copy of “Stories of the Great Ballets” that my parents had given me one Christmas but I didn’t remember mentions of specific dancers other than truly historic people like Nijinsky and Pavlova.

“At the performing arts library at Lincoln Center. They have everything. I’ll take you one day.”

We fell into silence for the rest of the trip home.