Back in the days before self-esteem was a Thing, my childhood nickname was “SuperKlutz.” I came by this honestly, I must admit. One of my more notable achievements was falling out of the car, sideways, landing on the pavement – with both feet still in the car.
Another was the time when I was hanging upside down on the monkey bars by my feet (I know, bad idea). My weak little ankles let go and I fell to the pavement (this was when playgrounds were still built over asphalt) and landed on my head, which some people say explains lots. I still remember the feeling of falling and the fleeting thought, “This isn’t so bad.” Then I hit the ground and changed my mind.
After a number of years of such escapades, my parents thought a ballet class might be good for me. After all, ballerinas developed swan-like grace and poise, another quality I was severely lacking. Mom and Dad thought that the terpsichorean art might be an antidote to my rampant accident-prone-ness. So I was enrolled in Norma Noble’s School of Dance. It sounded classy and was within a mile of our house.
It turned out that I loved ballet. Although tots nowadays wear tutus with any outfit including wee motorcycle jackets, our spangled costumes were reserved for actual recitals, which took place at a local grade school auditorium. My mother lovingly sewed my costumes from satiny synthetics and scratchy netting, with judicious accents of sequins and spangles and sweetheart necklines intended to simulate nonexistent physical attributes.
I remember the years by the costumes – the blue year, the lilac year, and most thrillingly the yellow year when we had the long sweeping net skirts of yellow and green that billowed past our knobby knees and seemed more grown-up and elegant than the frilly puffs that usually graced our nonexistent hips. (My sister took hula and was forever doomed to wear unnaturally colored plastic grass skirts and tropical flowers covering her nonexistent bosom.)
I also remember the first year we were allowed to have toe shoes, though my weak ankles did not thank me for them, nor did my toes which, despite wads of lamb’s wool, really took a beating. Criss-crossing those satin straps was a mesmerizing ritual, though. This was the stuff of real ballerinas.
As the time for the annual recital rolled around, we young divas got more and more excited. There were fittings for the costumes. There was extra practice. There were posed pictures like the one above, awkward yet endearing souvenirs of a more hopeful time. (That’s me in the above picture, back row, second from the left, in the year of the blue costume. You’ll have to trust me on that, but I recognize the pattern of sequins.)
Perhaps most exciting of all, for our debut – and only – performance, we were to wear makeup. Bright red lipstick, which could be seen from the cheap seats. Never mind that it clashed horribly with the blue, lilac, and yellow costumes. Red it would be.
The only thing was, the day before the recital, I was cutting climbing roses from a very tall bush, standing on a chair. And naturally, that being the way of things, as I was carrying the chair and the flowers back into the house, I bumped the chair on the door frame. Bam! I hit myself in the face with the back of the chair.
My lip swelled up and bruised, but what could I do? Red lipstick was mandated. Hence the audience saw at the recital one ballerina, decades ahead of her time, apparently wearing purple lipstick.
Evidently, ballet did not improve my grace or erase my clumsiness. I went through the rest of childhood with an assortment of bruises, scrapes, scratches, fat lips, and scars. I gave up on ever shaking the nickname.
It’s still appropriate, even today. Just the other night I was opening a bottle of wine and managed to pull too hard on the corkscrew. Needless to say, it hit me right in the face. But I had learned at least one lesson from my ballet experience.
I no longer wear red lipstick.