The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Ballerina of the Neighborhood by Jeanne Lupton


Mother drives me to ballet class every Saturday morning. She has so much to do. So I’m always late. The door is right there in the front of the classroom. When I go in, Mrs. Dineen, who is beautiful and strict in black, her black hair tight in a bun, stops the class, stops the music, and scolds me for being late again.

“Jeannie, you disrupt the entire class. Tell your mother you must be here by 9:00 o’clock every Saturday, in your place in class by 9:00 o’clock. Do you understand?”

“Okay. Sorry.” All the other girls stare at me. I feel mortified. Doubly so because of what I have to wear. A hideous grey tunic with a pink rope belt. It makes me look fat. The material smells bad and sticks to my skin. I feel so ugly, I want to disappear. I can’t wait to get ballet class over with so I can go home and watch the circus on TV.

We didn’t have ballet class yesterday, even though it was Saturday. Because the recital was last night! It was so exciting. All the girls from Mrs. Dineen’s School of the Ballet practicing backstage, having our pictures taken, mothers adding last-minute touches to our costumes. Aromas of netting, makeup, glitter and paste, summer sweat.

I was nervous, but when the time came for us to do our dance, it was thrilling to be on stage, in the spotlight, dancing to the piano music. My class was the youngest five girls. We did our plee-ay, our turn and turn, arms curved up. All the applause of the audience. I can still hear it. The fathers cheering. Mrs. Dineen hugged me. It was a wonderful night, so much more fun than ballet class.

All day today I think about the recital. During Sunday School. During family dinner in the afternoon. Then I go up to my room and change into my adorable fish costume. Which I love. A powder blue quilty sleeveless leotard, with large shiny sequins, to be the scales, of course, and little bunches of netting for the fins. It is quite cute with my pink ballet slippers.

I am going out into the summer afternoon so that the neighborhood can enjoy my fabulous beauty and good fortune to be a ballerina.

Mother looks up from the Sunday paper to witness me floating my way toward the kitchen door and the waiting world.

“Don’t wear your costume out to play. Go back upstairs and change clothes if you’re going outside.”

“Oh, Mother. Daddy?” I lean on his knee where he sits in the armchair reading the funny papers.

“You heard your mother.” He puts down his paper. “Change your clothes. Don’t be a showoff.”

“Oh, no. But why?”

“Do as you’re told. Now!”

“Because I said so,” says Mother. “You’ll get it dirty.”

I feel discouraged as I go back upstairs to my room, but then I figure it out. I put on my red shorts and shirt over my leotard. I glide downstairs, past the parents and out the back door. I take off the red outfit and leave it on the porch. There I am, the ballerina of the neighborhood.

The sun is hot on my arms and legs. I start out up the sidewalk, around the corner, and across the courtyard, doing bits from my recital fish dance, looking for anybody. I dance up past the swings, past Naomi’s apartment, but she isn’t out playing. I twirl along through the next courtyard, past David’s apartment, but I don’t see him. I shimmy and sway along through the connecting back courtyards. Past Miko’s apartment. I knock gracefully on Peggy’s door, but nobody answers. Plee-ay, turn, turn, arms curved up.

I bravely dance past Ellen’s apartment. She might see me from the window. Ellen is a beautiful dancer, thin, blonde, a year older than I. Ellen’s mother brags to my mother about all the compliments Mrs. Dineen pays Ellen.

Now I am the beautiful dancer, whether anybody sees me or not. I’m a ballerina who has just last night been applauded and cheered for my dancing. I’m not playing in my costume, after all, I am dancing. I was born for this, to be beautiful in the world, for all to see. I hold my curved arms out and bow deeply from the waist, pointing my right foot out in front of me.

I feel a little tired. I’d like a Coke. I start back, plee-aying down the sidewalk in my fins and scales and little blue body, making my fluttery way toward home. As soon I round the corner I see Mother standing on the back porch, her arms folded. She’s watching me. Then I don’t feel like dancing.

“What did I tell you?”

“Not to?”

“Not to what?”

“Wear my costume outside?”

“Come in the house.”

I go in the back door. Daddy’s in the kitchen.

“What’s the big idea?” he says.

Mother comes in the back door carrying the clothes I left on the porch. She hands them to me.

“No supper for you tonight, Miss,” Mother says. “Go up to your room and stay there.”

“Oh, Mother.” I’ll be okay without supper. But I don’t know if I can bear not going outside again. I so love being out in the summer evenings. Never mind the Coke.

“And take off that costume!” Mother says. “Get into your PJs.”

I cry when I get up to my room, but only a little. It’s very boring here. Summer comes in through the window, taunting me. I try to ignore it and look at my books. I lie down for a minute in my costume. I don’t mind at all the little prickles of the netting on my skin as I doze off.