Contest Winner - 2nd Place
Featured as one of “the greatest up-and-coming fiction writers today” in the Amazon description of Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2014, Kendall Klym is a first-prize winner of the Puerto del Sol Fiction Contest, grand-prize winner of the Astra Arts Festival Writing Contest, runner-up prizewinner of the Howard Frank Mosher Short Story Contest, second prizewinner of the Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest, and honorable mention winner of two of The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction contests. He has published short stories in Cooweescoowee, Bryant Literary Review, Puerto del Sol, the Broad River Review, and Hunger Mountain, and poetry in The French Literary Review, Cottonwood, Flycatcher, and Thorny Locust. Dr. Klym received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, in 2010. A former professional ballet dancer, he lectures full time in creative writing, literature, and composition at Kennesaw State University outside of Atlanta, Georgia.
A Professional Male Ballet Dancer in Twelve Steps
Step 1: At the age of five, find a special secret place where everything is good.
Your mommy and daddy are yelling again. Something about money. You know that money is made of paper, and paper comes from trees. Walk softly into the living room and look at the painting—so quiet and beautiful. See the big trees with orange, red, and yellow leaves? The painting reminds you of the picnic, the woods where you and your mother and father sat beside fallen colored leaves. Things were good. When you got home, your parents took the leaves you collected and ironed them between pieces of waxed paper. You said you loved the smell. Daddy said you were smelling hot leaves, and Mommy told you to be careful and not come too close to the iron. Your mother and father were nice to each other, weren’t they? That was in the fall.
Now it’s winter. The leaves are all brown. There’s a bit of snow on the ground, but it’s brown, too. You look at the ironed leaves, but that’s not good enough. Nothing makes the yelling go away. You have to get inside the painting to do that. Look at the path between the trees—right there, where it’s yellow on the ground. Get ready. Now spin around as fast as you can. No, that’s not quite right. You have to take lots of little steps as you spin. That’s better. Now do it faster. See how all the colors come together? You spin so hard you fall down. You get up and try again. When you spin hard and fast enough, you fall down, hit your head, and see stars. The yelling goes away for a second. When it comes back, close your eyes. When you open them, you’ll be inside the painting. Practice going in and out. Learn the exact steps to take, so you can teach them to Mommy and Daddy. Then you can bring them. You can take a picnic, sit next to the colored leaves. No one will yell.
When trying to spin, you fall and hurt your head on the coffee table, and your parents stop yelling. When the tears and blood are gone, they ask what you were doing. You say nothing. They ask again, and you show them your turns. They go away. You stand outside the closed bedroom door but can’t hear what they say. When they come out, they ask if you want to learn how to dance. You say yes.
Step 2: Get used to the words faggot and fag.
You’re eight years old, riding on the school bus, and someone grabs your knapsack. Out go the ballet slippers: white Sanshas, split sole, elastics sewn across the tops in an X pattern to support your arches. Look at the little faggot ballerina. One slipper flies over your head. Twinkle toes, do you dance on the tips of your toes? You try to catch it. Hey, faggot ballerina, are you a girl? Your father paid a lot for those shoes; you can’t lose them. Give that back! Oh, the little fag finally talks. Someone has ripped off the elastics your mother stayed up so late to sew.
Step 3: Discover that the more you dance, the less you are liked.
You have one friend in fourth grade. His name is Brearly. You throw a ball to Brearly at recess, and he pushes it away. The other kids are starting to make fun of you. I can’t be your friend anymore, not if you take ballet. You follow your mother’s advice and ignore Brearly’s comments. You decide to keep dancing and give up your friendship.
You’ve had no friends for three months. In an act of desperation, you throw yourself into a perfect side split. For a brief time, you’re popular. Hey, let’s play with Gumby’s legs. You stand against the green cinderblock wall in Ms. Garggan’s classroom, while big John Sunniti picks up your foot—your knees are both straight—and places it over your head and against the wall. Some of the girls let out a gasp. You feel satisfaction. On your way into the cloakroom, John Sunniti trips you. You fall. Three of John Sunniti’s friends—Bobby Vaughan, Maxie Cooper, and Evan Pablitski—make it a habit to trip, push, and tease you at least twice a day. Ms. Garggan never seems to be around when things happen. When you get home after ballet, you take off your clothes and look at yourself in the mirror. Your legs are getting bigger. The next time Bobby, Maxie, and Evan try to trip you, your legs kick. It’s as if they have a mind of their own. You don’t stop until the three, all a lot bigger than you, are lying on the floor crying. You look at Bobby and Maxie and Evan and feel confused. Having learned that faggots are boys who like boys the way boys are supposed to like girls, you wonder why they think of you as a faggot, when all you feel for other boys is hate.
Step 4: Get used to your body.
At fifteen, your legs are so well developed from dancing that you can no longer fit into any of your dress pants. Your mother takes you to the best department store in town. When you come out of the dressing room, thighs bulging from a pair of Ralph Laurens you have to hold up with your hands because the waist is too big, the clerk asks what sport you play. You tell him you are a dancer, and he says nothing. You try Dockers and Kenneth Coles, but to no avail. Your mother purchases one of each and takes you to the tailor.
All you do is walk into a room, and people get uncomfortable or act strange. When you catch them staring, you turn away. It’s only getting worse as you get older. Some woman follows you down the bike trail and asks you out to Starbucks. You tell her your age, and she claims you are too muscular to be so young. When you tell her to go away, she accuses you of taking steroids. You tell her that’s a lie. A girl at school says that male ballet dancers are all gay; anyone can tell from their butts, which are big. Gay ballet dancers with big butts get AIDS, she says. You hereby solemnly swear that you are asexual and will never have sex with a woman or a man.
Step 5: Leave home at sixteen to study at the School of American Ballet in New York.
Floor-to-ceiling mirrors, barres attached to the walls, and enough space for twenty students to move and not get into each other’s way. A far cry from the studio back home. Here you’re no longer the only boy or the best dancer. You need to catch up. You have lots to do just to get good. Focus. Your teachers like you. Your parents come for a visit—to see how you’re doing, to watch you perform the role of the jealous boyfriend in Pastorale. You chase and toss your partner around the stage. You neither like nor dislike her, so you work hard to convince your audience that you have a violent streak. You succeed by thinking of the times your parents fought. The applause is fantastic. Your parents commend you. During a special dinner at the Tavern on the Green, they let you know how much they love and support you. No football player can do what you do, says your father. You thank him. Is there anyone special in your life? asks your mother. You say no, and your father tells you not to worry if you are gay. You shake your head and ask how things are at home. Your parents say they are doing fine.
Step 6: Worship and pray.
You worship ballet through your allegiance to George Balanchine, the patriarch of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet. You credit the deceased director as the originator of a distinctly American form of dance that celebrates individuality over uniformity and incorporates jazz, modern, tap, contra, and other dance forms associated with the states. You defend Balanchine when others fail to recognize his genius and accuse him of despotism. You believe that these people are un-American and should be investigated by the Department of Homeland Security.
Every night you say the following prayer:
Our Ballet, Who art in motion,
Corporeal be Thy Name;
Thy Terpsichore come,
Thy will be done,
in studio as it is on stage.
Give us this day, our daily class,
and forgive us our missteps
as we forgive those who misstep around us;
and lead us not into relaxation,
but deliver us from disorder,
Merde is what you say instead of good luck, or, God forbid, break a leg, to a dancer about to perform. It’s French and means shit.
Step 7: Accept and embrace contradiction.
You’ve made it—not New York City Ballet, but a City Ballet spinoff company in the Midwest. The director, a former principal with Balanchine’s company, came to watch Men’s Advanced. After class, he offered you a contract. You move to Missouri: fancy suburbs, rolling hills, and strong support for the ballet. You’re about to perform your first principal role: full pas de deux with male solo, top ballerina to dance with—just what you’ve wished for. The curtain is about to go up, and the director is talking to his dancers. After whispering something into your partner’s ear, he turns to you. Those thighs look kinda big in white tights, he says. You say nothing—too confused to understand whether he wants you to succeed or fail. During your solo you think back to rehearsal, when the director told you to imagine your legs as scissors cutting through the air. For a moment you think of Evan, Bobby, and Maxie, how they used to taunt you. When you jump, beating your legs back and forth in a movement called an entrechat six, you picture yourself as a pair of scissors, decapitating the director. You and your partner receive a standing ovation. The director says nothing.
Step 8: Profess your sexuality and act upon it.
The gay men in the company give up on trying to seduce you. You begin to comprehend your sexual orientation during a rehearsal for Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. One man—that’s you—and a bevy of ballerinas. You dance with each but feel nothing for any of them. The director bitches at you for not emoting. You try your best. When you get to the solo that ends with pirouettes—multiple turns executed while standing on the ball of one foot—you feel a sudden burst of energy from deep in your chest. You realize that you have fallen in love with turning. You revel in balancing on one leg and whipping around like a corkscrew. Nothing else gives you so much excitement, peace, and happiness. You feel relieved, having known all along that you were never meant to be intimate with another human being. When you turn, you leave the earth and enter heaven. Dance is your religion, pirouettes, your lover. You honor your lover, your country, and yourself by performing Balanchine’s choreography. Just talking about turning makes you feel like you’re headed to the top of a roller coaster. The more turns the better. Turning is sex and a whole lot more. It starts in the ballet studio or on stage and lasts until you lie in bed naked, touching nothing; that’s when you finally let loose. After a show, you get home, take a shower, get into bed, and close your eyes. Then, lying still, you reenact the time you danced right through the tornado sirens, not long after you joined the company. The sky turned green, and a funnel-shaped tail dipped down from the clouds. Your stomach fluttered. The director ordered you down to the basement. You looked at him and kept dancing. He told you to suit yourself. The tornado hit—knocked part of the roof in. You were turning when you fell. You relive these moments every night.
Step 9: Stay out of politics; relinquish your right to vote.
This is an extremely wise and insightful move because it serves as evidence that you are training yourself to deny democracy, which does not exist in any successful ballet studio or company. Think dictatorship. The artistic director is king or queen, or, in the case of your ballet company, both. If you obey the dictator, you may succeed; if not, you won’t. Never join a group of dancers attempting to improve working conditions. If it’s cold, put on a sweater. If it’s wet, slip into a pair of plastic pants. Accept your place as a peon and do everything in your power to persuade the dictator to make you into a star. If you happen to be accepted into an AGMA ballet company, pay your dues, smile, and stretch your hamstrings during union meetings.
If you really want to play the role of the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, refrain from envisioning a world in which humans are created equal. If you wish to become royalty, you must accept the monarchy. Without Louis XIV, ballet would fail to exist. The very essence of ballet lies in the French king’s royal desire to create a method of movement that would show off the definition of his calf muscles. You must honor the king.
Classical ballet celebrates class distinction. The best dancers do not waste their time thinking about human rights. Instead, they focus on allowing their bodies and minds to be used for higher purposes by directors, choreographers, and others in charge. Twentieth century composer Igor Stravinsky, when working with Balanchine, put it best: He referred to dancers as pigs snouting [sic] mushrooms.
Step 10: Develop a working relationship with physical pain.
If you are to achieve long-term success as a professional male ballet dancer, you must accept and endure physical pain. Whether you know it or not, physical pain lives inside, outside, and all around you. Unless you go through physical pain, and physical pain goes through you, you will not succeed as a professional. Physical pain pushes, pulls, throbs, burns, stings, stabs, penetrates, and emasculates. Feel it riding your nerves like a racecar on a track. You can’t escape physical pain. It thrives in beauty. When the audience gasps with pleasure as you perform a powerful press lift, it is physical pain that sees you through. You listen to it.
Stand directly behind your dance partner. Place your hands on either side of her lower back. Your knees are bent. In one powerful count, straighten your knees and arms, lifting your partner high above your head, causing your spine to bend backward as you turn her in a circle. Feel that piercing shimmer in your skeleton, like a wave full of sand scraping your spine? That’s physical pain. Feel that throb pulsating between your biceps and shoulders, like rats gnawing on your muscles? There it is again. You are grateful for physical pain because you’re willing to do whatever it takes, feel whatever is necessary to truly dance.
Step 11: Meet injury.
You’re turning. Subtle as a pinprick, physical pain enters your left foot, causing your cuboid to split ever so slightly. The hairline fracture gives your foot just enough extra width to execute six flawless pirouettes—slicing windmills, perfect in their uniformity—no hopping, no falling in one direction or the next after the fourth or fifth. The pain increases as you practice—from pin jabs to piercing needles. Physical pain begets injury. The sensation the injury gives you is what enables you to do the turns. Yes, you can mask physical pain with drugs, but the injury will not go away. You get used to the injury roaming around, reshaping your foot. You get the part: Don Quixote. Your dancing has never been better. The pleasure the injury allows you is so great, you don’t need painkillers. You no longer feel the presence of physical pain. As long as you don’t deny the injury, as well as the pain that brought it on, you’ll be fine. Before the season’s over, physical pain will resurface, and you’ll feel it enough to take time off, let the injury run its course. Acknowledge the injury with reverence, and it will let up. The stress fracture will heal. Any male dancer worth the salt of his sweat knows, feels, respects, and acknowledges his relationship with injury.
Step 12: At the age of twenty, face what hurts the most and keep dancing.
Although your foot is injured, you still must dedicate yourself to pirouettes. You find a way of doing it without dancing every minute; the stress fracture has to heal. As soon as the season ends, you go storm chasing in Oklahoma. As you’re driving you see funnels coming toward you from three directions. The sky reminds you of your grandmother’s health drink—avocados, celery, and carrot juice whirling around in the blender. You remember the summer you stayed at her house, worked in her garden. She told you to eat well and ignore the crap. You stop the car on the side of the road. No one is around. The air is heavy, textured. You try a few turns à la seconde as the lightning dances above your head.
The rain begins, and your foot starts to throb. You let yourself feel the pain. It reminds you of nettles, stinging your skin as you played barefoot around your grandmother’s brook. You get back in the car and head in the one direction you don’t see funnels. You find shelter at the Y, next to a mother and father, holding their young son. Around the eyes, the boy looks a bit like Brearly. When the storm passes over, you get back in your car and stay overnight at a cheap motel. You dream of dancing in the middle of a tornado’s funnel. The experience is shockingly boring. You feel nothing from turning. When you wake up, you drive a few miles—past the remnants of a town demolished by a rotating force you thought you understood. You stop at a diner and fill up on bacon, eggs, and biscuits. You chat with the waitress, who wears a yellowish scar above her left eyebrow—a reminder, she says, of the last tornado that ripped through town. Her hips are wide, and she walks with her head down and shoulders concave. Her irises make you think of fallen leaves, after the colors are gone. She’s probably never even heard of ballet. You like her. More biscuits? You look like you could use it. Sure, why not. Come down from the city to help out? No—just passing through.
You use your muscles and strength to lift fallen beams, dig through the rubble of a demolished school. You recover a dead child, a boy, no more than five. His arms are reaching up, hands splayed, not unlike a pose from Balanchine’s Agon. A woman comes running. That’s my son, she says. She grabs the corpse and kisses it, begging God to let the boy wake up. When he doesn’t, the woman throws up on your feet. When you return home, you go to physical therapy for your injury, three times a week. As the therapist massages your foot, you get a call from your mother. She asks how you’re doing, says she saw on the news that people were killed in a series of tornadoes. You tell your mother you met a nice woman, a waitress with brown eyes. She says, That’s wonderful. When the therapist packs your foot in ice, you turn off your phone and think about the upcoming season, what you will dance next.
“ ‘A Professional Male Ballet Dancer in Twelve Steps’ is a short story written in the form of a process analysis that subverts the concept of a twelve-step program. As the burgeoning male ballet dancer moves from one step to the next, advancing in his career with each step, his life becomes more complex and rankled with conflict. This story is part of Step Lightly, a recently completed collection of 14 dance-related stories, from which seven are published and two more promised for publication. ”