There I was, on the 4:55 a.m. train to New York City -- the only train that would get me to the 10 o'clock Saturday audition for the two-year scholarship program feeding into the Alvin Ailey dance company.
I arrived at 9:30; a long line of girls snaked ahead of me and soon behind me back into Times Square."They look so young," said the girl next to me, a new high school graduate. They were young, as young as 14, and they were already dancers: narrow-hipped and long-legged, in miniskirts, chic sandals and a myriad assortment of hairdos and pierced-ear arrangements. My turn came to give my name and age. I was told that 22 was the limit. "Then I'm 22," I said, shaving the true figure only by one, and pinning my number, 79, to my leotard.
"You will be auditioned in ballet, modern and jazz, in that order, in groups of 25," the head of the program announced. "What we are looking for is both potential and an attained level of technical proficiency. You might as well take off those sweatpants and leg- warmers and T-shirts. We need to see your bodies, and we don't want to see any excess weight." The skinny little girls peeled off their layers and so, reluctantly, did I.
I recognized two young women from dance classes here in Washington. We pulled our legs over our heads and told each other stories to stave off intrusive nerves. I overheard one girl, just out of a North Carolina arts high school, talking nonchalantly as though this audition didn't matter all that much. But she had moved to New York to dance: that was what she wanted to do and that was why she was there. In the month since graduation, she'd answered telephones, posed for a photographer and catered bar mitzvahs to earn money to live and to dance.
My group was called. A panel of eight sat at a long table in front of us. I felt a bit like a stalled car, but when the familiar instructions came out -- "jete-glissade-assemble-changement" -- and the familiar music started to play, I was back in my home of 15 years: the ballet class. Even if I was older, less lissome and out of constant practice, there remained an ingrained logic that let my mind hear instructions and translate them into movement. That is what I remember each time I go into a dance class: that I love to dance.
"The people whose numbers I call, go to studio one and wait for the modern audition. Those who I do not call, leave your numbers on the table in front," said the program head. He paused. "78, 80, 85 . . ." No 79. I was not surprised, but still my stomach churned. I went to change.
"See you in D.C.," I said to the two from Washington as I left the dressing room, reminding myself that an entire, complete and even interesting life awaited me somewhere else. I walked out of the studio and was another 23- year-old in the middle of Times Square, one who had her toes turned out and carried a bag filled with tights, but another 23-year-old, nonetheless.
On a front wall of the Ailey studio there is a picture of one of my mother's old dance teachers, the one who told her, at age 16, that she had to choose whether she was going to get the best grades in the school or be a dancer. My New York pilgrimage had been meant to work this choice out of my system, to find an acceptable way to shelve a dream that sparkled in my youth. What is so lucky is to be able to choose. I remember in my heart, muscles and bones how it felt to spin four times en pointe and to catch a glimpse of my parents in the audience when, at age 5, I danced my first role, as a troll.
A few nights after returning from New York, I went back to my own dance class here, to my friends. The teacher grew sick of our bleating that a dance combination was "too fast." "I don't want to hear about 'too fast,' he said. "In New York, this is simple. Those children are dancing in New York." So we danced a little better, here in my class of dancing friends in Washington, where I am the baby of the bunch and where we are lucky enough to be able to dance, still, in the midst of other lives.