Miss Liu's Gracious Ballet School Number 2

Peggy did not impress when she first stepped into Madame Schkaff’s school. A dark-haired, dark-eyed girl, with large feet and stout legs, and in control of neither. Madame Schkaff, imperious by nature and profession, took one look at those feet and legs, and declared that they were an eyesore: “It is worst I have seen! Feet like butter, can’t dance a step!” 

A daily torrent of corrections followed. "The feet Peggy! Lift the feet! The eyes up! Not on floor! What you see on floor? Is interesting? If you look at floor, how do you know direction you are going? How you live life? Look up! Da!" 

Madame Schkaff would impatiently yank Peggy's chignon or slap the back of her neck, and once, in a fit of exasperation, she yanked so hard the chignon came undone. The pins fell to the floor making soft clicking sounds. Peggy's fingers, white-knuckled, clenched the barre. 

"Pick up, then back to position and do exercise!“ instructed Madame Schkaff, already clapping her hands in the pianist’s direction. Peggy crawled between the girls in search of pins, her long, loose hair dusting the floor. The piano trilled cheerfully, goading legs and arms into their more or less precise orbits. One girl, whose standing leg she was circling, bent down to help.

"I am Louise," the girl whispered to Peggy. 

Madame Schkaff's eyebrows telegraphed disapproval, but she didn't interfere. Louise tip-toed after Peggy, who slipped into the cold hallway, and stood there sticking the pins back into her hair, using a window as a mirror. She was doing so methodically, but Louise observed a faint trembling in the fingers. She watched as Peggy parted her thick, wavy hair and wound the sections into a tight coil. 

"Here," Louise held out the rest of the pins.

"Thank you," Peggy said, not turning.

"Do you need help?"

"I am quite fine," came the firm reply.

Louise took a few steps back and paused. "She always picks on the new girls. Then she gets tired and suddenly stops. You will see."

Peggy tilted her head and gazed up sideways at Louise, while her fingers deftly fastened the bun.

"Your jumps are good," she said, and Louise felt it was meant as a compliment. "I have never seen a Chinese girl dance ballet before." 

"I am only half," Louise said.

"Half what?"

"Chinese."

Peggy assessed her. "Which half?" she asked.

With her hand Louise drew a line straight down the middle of her face, splitting it into equal halves. Both girls broke into giggles. The next day they stood side by side at the barre. Madame Schkaff, striding into the room, silk scarf and velvet coat trailing from one elbow, stopped at the new line up. Her sickle-shaped eyebrows rose. 

"Chignon is fine again, today?” she addressed Peggy. 

Peggy bit her tongue, but mid-class she tossed off a series of unusually crisp petits battements, faster than anything she had ever done. Madame Schkaff registered it with a blend of interest and amusement. “Ah, liuk gierls, Peggy is waking up!” she cried, and the girls dutifully looked, a touch sullen, careful not to interrupt the rhythmic thrust of their own limbs.

"You must work,” Madame Schkaff admonished daily, “glory is not dropping from sky on your head, this is nonsense. Maybe your mother tell you how good you are, how perfect you are, but I tell you, you are not good! You are not perfect! And you must work. And maybe if you work, you will get better. Or maybe not. But without work, how do you know what body capable of?”

MISS LIU'S GRACIOUS BALLET SCHOOL NR 2, a short story