By Jody MacPherson, Unpublished
April 26, 2003

Her dark blonde hair is pulled severely back from her face and tucked into a tight ballerina’s bun.  Her eyes are thickly lined. Her lashes enhanced by layers of mascara. Her eyelids are a mask of colour, the blue and mauve hues contrasting with chocolate-brown eyes. Her lips are painted a shade of dark mahogany red.

She stares intently into the audience seeing only one pair of eyes upon her. Her gaze is focused on the familiar face and as she moves mechanically around the stage, she never loses sight of her mother. She curls her lips back over her gleaming white teeth in a large synthetic smile. She knows she must do her very best or the price will be high.

As the youngest member of the dance team, Madeline is aware that she must match the stride of girls much taller and stronger than herself. They have practiced endlessly, hour after hour in the studio, lit by artificial light and smelling of sweat and leather slippers. Her coach counting out the beats, while the lithe dancers stretch and contort their bodies in a tightly choreographed sequence of lyrical movements.

“Maddy, make those movements more dramatic. Arch your back more and straighten those arms,” her coach’s words echo in her head.

She had nodded eagerly and promised to do better. She had lots of practice trying to do better. It seemed to her that she spent most of her time conforming to expectations, twisting and stretching herself to some imaginary line she had been dared to cross.

A musical cue snaps her back to attention as she counts the beats in her head and moves through a series of steps before the next crescendo. The song is a spirited composition of African drum beats and lilting flutes. She had stopped listening to the music long ago. She didn’t know it but she had now absorbed it into the nerve endings and muscle fibre of her body.

Madeline is in the front row, as always. It hadn’t really taken much convincing on her mother, Diane’s part to get her there. She is a talented, committed dancer who performed well under pressure. Diane’s determination was also well known in the dance academy’s inner circle. The coach, a tired woman who had recently given birth to her second child and whose husband worked construction jobs that kept him out of town for weeks at a time, did not put up much of a fight. She didn’t have the energy to argue, even though other dancers had not been given as many opportunities as Madeline had, to shine in the front row. She knew Madeline would not disappoint.

The music slows to a more relaxed tempo and still Madeline’s eyes are locked on her mother sitting five rows back from the front. Diane leans slightly forward in her seat, clutching a wad of tissue. A slightly overweight woman, she is impeccably dressed nonetheless, her blonde hair curled up saucily at the ends. She is holding her breath and staring wide-eyed at her daughter on stage.

Suddenly, Madeline notices that her mother’s face has twitched in annoyance as she looks down towards an object on her lap. Madeline can see the neon green face plate on her mother’s cell phone pulsating. She’s getting a call! Madeline tries not to panic, to focus on the next movements leading to the all-important conclusion of the dance number.

Diane stands up suddenly, turns to the person sitting next to her apologetically and squeezes awkwardly by three people on her left to the main walkway leading up and out of the auditorium.

Madeline stares at her mother’s back, her smile faltering. She can’t believe that her mother is leaving before her routine is finished! How can she? After all of the hours spent practicing, with Madeline dancing as an anchor for the whole team in the front row.

It must be someone calling about one of her damn listings, Madeline speculates. Diane is a realtor and the market has been “soft” lately. She has been unable to sell a single home in the last 10 months. Madeline knows that her mother’s boss has not been pleased with her sales record, but still, she is furious with her for leaving.

Her mother has reached the upper level of the auditorium and is speaking softly into the cell phone as she nears the exit. At the last second, she turns towards the stage.

Madeline’s smile has been replaced by a grimace and a furrowed brow. She is glancing nervously at the other dancers on the team, as if she has forgotten the movements they practiced together with such devotion. The other dancers appear confused by Madeline’s nervous glances. The slip-up is barely noticeable to the audience and lasts only a few seconds, but the judges and the coach lower their heads to make notes.

Diane shakes her head and pushes roughly on the swinging door of the auditorium as light from the lobby streams in and exposes floating dust particles in the air. On stage, the dance team performs a final crescendo of leaps and twirls while Madeline moves hesitantly, staring blankly as she bites her lower lip nervously.

At the upper level of the auditorium, the door swings closed abruptly as they finish with a flourish and then gallop in unison from the stage.

After the performance, Madeline changes out of her costume and meticulously packs her duffel bag while the other girls chatter and dance freely around the dressing room, relieved that the competition is over. She wraps her dancing shoes, neatly folds her tights and her costume, before adding her cosmetic box to the bag. Some of the other mothers have come into the room to congratulate and  hug their daughters. Madeline doesn’t speak to anyone, grabs her jacket from the hook and quietly slips out from the room with the silver medal stuffed into her pocket.

She hurries out the back stage door and scans the parking lot for her mother’s white sedan. Diane honks the horn and pulls forward to pick Madeline up.

“You know what you did, don’t you?” says Diane quietly as she heads for the freeway and the long drive home to the suburbs.

Madeline nods her head in affirmation and stares at her hands in her lap.

“You let the whole team down, you let the coach down and you let me down,” Diane says firmly. “You’ll never make it as a dancer if you don’t have nerves of steel, total concentration and absolute discipline.”

Madeline starts to drift away as her mother lectures her. She thinks about her bedroom at home, her collection of Goose Bumps books, her Barbie dolls, the bright pillows and comfy down quilt on her bed. And of course, she thinks about Bunnikins the rabbit. She wishes she could fly out of the car and land in her bedroom like Harry Potter on his broom.

“Of course, you’ll have to be punished, you know,” her mother was saying.

Madeline looked out the passenger window at the concrete barrier in the centre of the freeway whizzing by. She didn’t answer.

“No television or movies for two weeks,” her mother was saying, but Madeline wasn’t listening. She felt incredibly tired. She lay her head back against the car seat and closed her eyes for the rest of the drive.

When they finally arrived home, Diane eased the sedan into the garage and silently climbed from the car. She was worrying about her daughter’s dance career and how she could get her back on track before it was too late.

Madeline made her way around the car and as she went past the garbage can, she quietly lifted the lid and tossed the shameful silver medal in with the blackened banana peels, Styrofoam meat trays and crumpled plastic.

Another day in the life of a nine-year-old suburban dance prodigy.

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