I grew up in dance studios. Rooms full of mirrors. We were told to watch ourselves in them, head turned toward our reflection during pliés to ensure the line between shoulders and hips remained straight.
For my first dance recital, we wear blue tulle skirts edged with pink ribbon. I keep playing with mine, fluffing the layers and watching them bounce and settle, the ribbon reflecting the stage lights. I’m so preoccupied that I don’t notice the music starting. The other girls walk forward in a line like we’ve practiced and I have to run to catch up.
After I run offstage, my mom and I slip into the dark auditorium and sit in the back row, my skirt billowing around me on the chair, pink-slippered feet not touching the ground. Older girls in stiff tutus and satin shoes dance across the stage to delicate piano music. They look so grown up, like real ballerinas, something I am only pretending to be.
I get my first pair of heels not long after my first pair of pointe shoes, convincing my mom that if I can balance on the tips of my toes, I can manage the two-inch wedges without breaking an ankle. I walk lightly in them, my weight on the balls of my feet, and if it hurts to wear them for hours at a time I don’t notice.
I always dread the first summer day warm enough for sandals. My feet are never prepared. There are always places where blisters from my pointe shoes have thickened into callouses, dark purple splotches where blood pools beneath my nail bed.
The only faults to find with my reflection in the studio mirrors are technical ones: an ankle drooping towards the floor, an overextended elbow, hips misaligned, something I can fix. Before I hear the older girls complaining about having to take their sweatpants and t-shirts off, worrying about exposed skin or bra straps, it doesn’t occur to me to be self-conscious in the tight-fitting clothes that dance requires. Being in the studio in only a leotard and tights is somehow better than getting dressed for school in front of the mirror in my bedroom, is a way of being in my body that doesn’t feel wrong.
For a while I am constantly changing my hair: getting highlights or dip-dyed ombre, cutting off the ends when they fade and become brassy in the sun, coloring it reddish burgundy that turns orange next time I bleach it. When I decide to stop coloring it, I keep growing it out and cutting it short again. I like the dramatic transformation, six inches of hair dropping to the salon floor all at once.
An inevitability of dance recitals: quick changes. Stripping off one costume, exchanging it for another, adjusting hair, reapplying lipstick in the wings just beyond the reach of the stage lights. An act performed dozens of times, but still exhilarating—that I could run off stage and reappear unrecognizable.
A friend tells me that sometimes even at my most genuine I seem like I’m pretending, acting the way I think I’m supposed to. She says she knows this isn’t true, that I am less fake and performed than I sometimes seem. I wonder if she’s wrong, if maybe I’ve been pretending the whole time, so well that even I haven’t noticed.
The first time I go to Los Angeles my boyfriend takes me to a coffee shop a few blocks away from his house. We sit in a narrow loft above the main floor, where tall windows overlook a dance studio in the other half of the building. The students are drilling grand battements, flinging their legs into the air. I keep getting distracted from the conversation, losing myself in the scene below.
I spend that week constantly touching up my nail polish, which keeps chipping at the edges. I fixate on what people are wearing, how they choose to present themselves in certain spaces: coffee shops, classrooms, museums. I wonder if they feel like they are dressing up as a different person in every room they walk into. I think about when I started choreographing my own dances, getting to choose my own costumes, all the dance apparel catalogues spread out around me on the studio floor.
Stage makeup is meant to exaggerate your features so they can be seen from a distance, to counteract how the stage lights wash you out. Stark white-and-gray eyeshadow, eyeliner drawn below the waterline, bright unblended blush. From a distance this caricatured makeup looks right. It’s only afterwards, in the bright light of the lobby, that it becomes clear how overdramatic it is.
It takes two makeup wipes and twice the usual amount of cleanser to clean my face after a show. Scrub off layers of powder reapplied between numbers to absorb sweat before it smeared lipstick. Peel away false eyelashes, wash glitter down the sink drain. Step into the shower and try to shampoo out all the hairspray. In the morning I’ll grant myself a rare day off, go out for coffee with no makeup on.
I order almond-milk lattes and take pictures to post on Instagram, quickly, so no one around me notices. I don’t want to seem too focused on what my life looks like when it’s been posed, framed, filtered.
But the hyper-constructed nature of these images is in some ways reassuring. I don’t have to have a pretty, put-together life. I just have to know how to create the appearance of one. Instagram never has to see me without lipstick, the messy corner of my room, the coffee stains on all my white shirts.
Sitting in traffic with Tom Petty on the radio I realize the strangeness of this place is not because it’s different than I’d imagined, but because it’s exactly what I pictured. I arrive in L.A. and it looks just like the movies, which makes a certain kind of sense—it’s what they do best, after all.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as fake, inauthentic, but it’s all so convincing. If there are cracks in the façade I can’t see them. It’s almost as if the real, imperfect thing never existed in the first place. The performance so pervasive, the imitation so lifelike, that if you took away the pretense there might be nothing else there.
Eventually I stop answering when people ask me what I think of Los Angeles. They’ve already made up their minds about it, whether they’ve been there themselves or not. I’ve started to think that it’s a city that will show you whatever you want it to.
In the nineteenth century, artists and tourists carried Claude glasses, small, tinted mirrors that would simplify and harmonize the colors of whatever they reflected. People would face away from the landscape they’d come to see and observe its image in the mirror, knowing that it would appear more picturesque if they didn’t look directly at it.
Later I go back to the same table in that coffee shop and try to write. The dance studio below is empty and out of curiosity I open Google Maps, ping my own location and find the name of the studio. Their website tells me who to contact if I’d like to use it as a filming location. Of course everything in this city doubles as a movie set, but it leaves me wondering if the last time I was here I watched a real ballet class at all.
Dance is about repetition, muscle memory. Thinking about every part of your body at the same time: toes pointed, knees locked, back straight. Until you don’t have to think about it anymore. Until you’ve trained your body so well you can fling it into a routine and know it will do what you want. Being on stage requires complete control and complete abandon all at once.
Sometimes people ask how I walk so fast in heels, apply eyeliner evenly when I’m in a rush, put on lipstick in the passenger seat of a moving car. I shrug and say I guess I’m just used to it. If you practice anything enough, you get good at it. Like everything else I do, this has been carefully rehearsed.
We take a winding road through the hills and go inside and I stand in my nice clothes and say nice to meet you over and over. Everything here starts to feel like an audition and sometimes I get it right, am witty and engaged and polished. Then my endless, anxious habit of fiddling with my jewelry finally breaks the clasp on the gold bracelet and it drops to the floor and everyone notices.
I spend the afternoon at the L.A. County Museum of Art staring at the Degas paintings, dancers in an impressionist blur of color and light. One of his sculptures sits in the center of the room, bronze body frozen in arabesque, uninhibited by the layers of tulle covering the girls in the pictures. I want to reach out in touch it. Instead I settle for the photograph, diffused sunlight reflecting in patches off the dancer’s back.
Degas preferred the uncanny flatness of the mirror to the deception of trompe l’oeil, preferred images that made no claims to share the viewer’s reality, prized the image in the mirror for its refusal to be part of our three-dimensional space.
I still check myself in mirrors, evaluate my posture and appearance, ensure that I look like I think I do. Shoulders down, chin lifted, everything elongated, every muscle engaged. Maybe this habit I can’t break comes across as self-absorbed. Maybe it is. Sometimes I think I’d rather watch my life from the outside than have to live it myself.
Art galleries remind me of dance studios: long, rectangular rooms with gleaming wood floors, everything of interest around the edges. Only instead of mirrors the walls are lined with images, so I don’t know what I look like while I’m looking at these paintings.
Caroline Miller is a poet and essayist who writes about art, landscapes, and femininity. She has an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Wyoming, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DEAR Poetry Journal, The Baltimore Review, Yellow Arrow Journal, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @_caroline_hope.