The Pinch of Salt

Written for English 301: Creative Nonfiction | Davidson College

The first death in our family that I truly felt was our English springer spaniel, Scout, whose name my dad lifted from his favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. My twin sister, Lucy, and I were at a month-long summer camp when it happened. Our parents made a special trip to take us out to lunch and tell us how our veterinarian made sure Scout was comfortable on a soft blanket when she died, at sixteen. We were twelve, I think, and devastated.

That I couldn’t remember our last moments together, if I’d kissed the top of Scout’s head, distressed me then. My only memory of the morning we left for camp was the flurry of checklists and hairbrushes and laundry, steamer trunks, and stress. Sweet Scout probably looked on from her favorite cool spot in the monkey grass next to our door. We would often come home from church or school to find her curled up, sleeping, deaf and unaware of our giggles and pokes and love. Lucy and I had never known a day without Scout. She was the first child, our furry big sister. My last memory of Scout was actually the night before our departure, a warm June twilight when we celebrated both our bon voyage and Father’s Day.

Our dad grilled steaks, while our mother tossed a spinach salad with blueberries and spooned her special lumpy sauce on our sea salt baked potatoes. After dinner we retired to the front porch, our family of five. I sat on the porch swing that we won in a local rubber duck river race, a pity prize because our duck came in second to last. My mom had sanded the swing and painted it black, and Dad hung it from the ceiling. What I remember most is my mom’s warm blueberry cobbler with a scoop of full-fat whipped cream. Scout was lying beneath my swing, and my toes massaged her liver-colored coat as I swung back and forth.

My mom still makes that blueberry cobbler all the time. When she gets too busy with other meal prep tasks, wrapping asparagus stalks in strips of bacon, stirring the hollandaise, she’ll even ask me to fix it. But it’s never tasted sweeter or warmer or more satisfying than the last night we shared as our precious family of five.

Once my mom left me the recipe out on the counter to bake, because she had errands to run and wouldn’t have time before dinner. It was simple enough. Sift flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix with 1 cup sugar. Slowly stir in milk to make a batter. Melt butter in an 8x8 baking dish, then pour batter over butter. Do not stir! My mother’s perfect tidy print was emphatic. I didn’t even need a mixer, just my own hands. Even with my rudimentary baking skills, I executed the recipe flawlessly. Until the penultimate instruction: carefully spoon fruit over the batter. Yes, she assured me, the heat will make the batter rise above the berries and form the crust.

I trusted my mother’s promise and placed the dish in the oven, but as the cobbler baked, I began to doubt. The women in my family are wonderful cooks. They can sauté and flash fry, marinate and poach. They’ve cooked hundreds of meals and fed countless hungry children, cousins, and even family pets. Meanwhile, I can barely feed myself. Moments felt like millennia, as the weight of family legacy settled on my shoulders and the fear of disappointment rose in my chest like the golden crust batter. The timer sounded. I slipped my mother’s worn oven mitts on my hands and pulled the cobbler out. She was right. My cobbler came out just like hers.

My mom usually buys our blueberries from fruit stands and farmers’ markets, but her mom, whom I call Mimi, found hers growing in the backyard. Mimi says she and her siblings—Casey and Marie, Perry and Raymond—picked wild blueberries and huckleberries in the woods behind their one-story, brick, little country house on the outskirts of Trenton, North Carolina. When I asked, she told me they never worried about the berries being poisonous. I imagine they kept them in a bowl on the counter or in jars in the freezer. They often spooned the blueberries over the fluffy white chiffon cakes baked for the spring birthdays by Mimi’s mother, Ethel, and her sister, who was everybody’s Aunt Mabel. It’s a quaint image: two sisters in a kitchen flooded with sunlight, lovingly and delicately folding foamy egg whites into the cake batter. But life and food on the family farm were less like chiffon and more like burlap—anything but delicate. Mimi hesitated to describe the scene to me—the hog killings and the frying of freshly-plucked “biddies”—for fear I’d think them inhumane. On the contrary, the contrast fascinates me.  In my mind, the scene is soaked in golden light and sepia-toned: strong, sun-tanned women wringing the necks of plump, squawking chickens. I buy chicken in tidy, plastic packages on cold grocery store aisles, but my grandmother’s vignette feels much more appealing, gripping and raw and real.

My maternal family cooked “the old-fashioned way,” as Mimi describes it. She says every meal was special, and in rural Trenton, North Carolina, none was more so than Sunday dinner. They served it every week for seventy years, a tradition that’s threaded through each of our childhoods, mine, my mom’s, and my grandmother’s. The butter beans, creamed corn, and country ham connect us. Mimi recalled the barbecue chicken, which was a team effort on the part of her parents, Ethel and Milford Price. On Sunday mornings, her mother, Ethel, woke up and placed the chicken in the oven. Then Milford would make his own vinegar sauce and finish the chicken while the rest of the family went to church. In their household, big breakfasts were important, too. Ethel and Aunt Mabel would make a “big ole pan” of cheese biscuits, splitting them while still hot and slipping in a “good-sized piece of cheese” off the hoop in the pantry. As Mimi observed to me, it must have been a lot of trouble for them, but Ethel and Raymond felt the work was worth it.

Mimi carried this country sensibility with her to the shores of the Neuse River, where she learned to fry seafood from her mother-in-law, the Nana whom I never knew, and where she raised her three children. The middle child, and only daughter, is my mother. Nana had made her home in Stella, a salty coastal town with a little more wealth and a lot more fish than rural Trenton. Nana made softshell crab and crab stew, clam chowder and fried shrimp, and shared these techniques with Mimi, who took them upstream to her sister Marie in New Bern. My mom says that Mimi and her Aunt Marie would buy 100 to 150 pounds of fresh shrimp each summer and store them in the garage freezer, much like their mother and her sister Mabel “put up” homegrown corn and green beans and pecans each year.

When Mimi and my grandfather divorced, and she moved west to Fayetteville, Aunt Marie became a second mother to my mom. Aunt Marie kept making the seafood. My mom says Friday night was seafood night, and she often brought my dad, her beau then fiancé then husband, to partake in the feast. Aunt Marie would fry up the flounder freshly caught by her husband Uncle Sherwood, and she complemented the fish with tiny, chopped potatoes dipped in bacon grease and rolled in an iron skillet. These meals truly were a feast for my dad. Aunt Marie and Uncle Sherwood teased him for his wide-eyed wonder over the food from their childhood kitchens that he thought could only come from a restaurant. Over the phone recently, my mom imitated Uncle Sherwood’s teasing, smoke-strained voice to me over the phone—“Boy, those are hashbrowns!”—and we chuckled to remember our uncle whose voice now is only an echo in our memories. We wondered why some families, like ours, love making food and find such joy and nourishment in the act, while others, like my dad’s family, do not. My mom paused, then remarked, maybe your dad’s mom doesn’t cook because her mother never cooked, and her mother never cooked because she had the “help” to do all the cooking. It was just never something they learned to value.

My mother, like her own mother, taught herself to cook. She says her education truly began once she married my dad, when she felt compelled by love and by custom to take on the cooking. My dad was in law school at UNC Chapel Hill, while my mom was just as busy working three jobs. They lived off my mom’s tiny paychecks and the remains of my dad’s college fund, and in their miniature apartment, my mom learned to scrimp and stretch the little they had. She developed what she calls “an eye for a good recipe,” a sense for what particular combination of ingredients might taste really good, so as not to waste expensive ingredients on a subpar meal. I hope to find I’ve inherited my mother’s knack for making something from nothing, even a nourishing meal from cheap chicken on the bone.

I can sometimes taste the country cooking in my mother’s meals—in her fried okra and the country ham biscuits she makes for UNC football tailgates. But my mom’s style is more healthy, less hearty than her mother’s. Where Mimi pairs white rice with fried chicken, my mom serves orzo with sliced tomatoes and cracked pepper with grilled chicken. My mom’s Sunday dinners usually involve a panini press, sliced avocados, and arugula (to which I can almost hear Uncle Sherwood exclaim, “Arugu-what?!”) in place of Mimi’s rolls, green beans, and cabbage.

The purpose of their meals is the same: nourishment, provision, love. The kitchen is the heart of our family, which sounds too vague and sentimental, like something from a storybook rather than the concrete foundation on which these women have raised me. The best evidence I have is this: a few years back, my mom redecorated our living room, reupholstering the dusty blue couch and installing the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves she’d always wanted, all in hopes we would finally make use of the room meant for socializing. But whenever family comes over, we inevitably end up in the kitchen while my mom stirs risotto or something else, drawn by the smells and the chatter and the gentle undertow of the sizzling, popping, abundant, concrete love.

         We come naturally to the kitchen because it is comfort, nourishment, and security. Because things make sense here. The logic and predictability of cooking counteracts the chaos of loss, of which our family has had a heaping portion. My mother and grandmothers coped by creating. Though they could not fill the empty chairs at our table or the empty places in their hearts, they could at least fill the bellies of the ones they loved with something good. And magically, momentarily, nourishing the body becomes nourishing the soul.  

I’ve recently started collecting our family recipes, the special ones I don’t want to forget, and came across the one for our blueberry cobbler. Flour, sugar, milk. Butter, baking powder, fruit. And a pinch of salt. In such sweet dishes, the salt always surprises me. But as my grandmother says, food isn’t as tasty without the pinch of salt. The reason we bake with salt is to make the other ingredients pop.

 I think about that warm cobbler with full-fat whipped cream all those years ago, and Scout, in the warm July twilight. I remember the sweetness of being a family before we became selfish, sassy teenagers, and I still feel the sting and salty tears of losing our beloved Scout. Within these tiny grains of salt is our family secret, the bittersweet truth my family’s mothers have been showing me all along. My life will taste both salty and sweet, just like all of theirs, but I shouldn’t be afraid, I can almost hear them say. Use what you’ve been given: the simplest ingredients, blueberries in the backyard or chicken on the bone. Use your hands, use your heart. There will be loss, but there will also be time and grace, pots and pans and slotted spoons, risotto on the stove and flour on the floor, and always more hungry hearts to feed.

Consider This Your Invitation

published as guest column in The Herald-Sun, Durham | August 2016

I’m pretty introverted, and I don’t really like parties. At least the stereotypical college version. The thought of spending an evening in a humid frat house with sticky floors and strangers kind of makes me want to cry.

Though I don’t like partying, I do love celebrating. I love planning and surprises and sneaking off to Harris Teeter for yet another standard (but sufficient) birthday cake. In our freshman year of college, my dear friend Julia and I were known to plan elaborate birthday surprises for unsuspecting friends, the best of which involved kidnapping our 6’2’’ hallmate, throwing him in the back of someone’s car, and treating him to ice cream at the shop down the street.

My friends and I rented an apartment last summer while we did psychology research at our college. Rising juniors, we were living through the exact middle of our college careers. These were essentially our final few months before the pressure of preparing to enter the working world really hit.

Our apartment was dusty and unfurnished, but it was the very first place of our own. We had people over often for chicken stir-fries, the only meal we knew how to make, and rushed to clean out the sink before they arrived. Our living room had no lights, so when the sun set, we would be left sitting in the dark. But everyone stayed. No one really wanted to go.

Our friendships formed out of proximity. It was anyone’s guess whether we would have even been friends had we not all gotten jobs in the same geographic area. Nevertheless, there we were, eating cheap pasta from mismatched bowls in the dark, a little less lonely and a little more full.

And it was celebration. Clinging to people like stuffed animals during a thunderstorm so you don’t have to be brave alone. Meeting someone for coffee though you know bombs are exploding elsewhere in the world. For us that summer, celebration was dancing across the no man’s land between declaring our majors and getting our degrees, between our so-called potential and its realization, between one more bowl of cereal and bed. The research world we immersed ourselves in that season insisted we make names for ourselves, preferably in print. But we rejoiced in being a band of nobodies, recklessly choosing to build community rather than our resumes. Maybe it wasn’t wise. But maybe it was just what we needed.

Can you see? Celebration is not so much artful conversation, swept floors, and having enough wine for the feast. I think it looks more like sitting on waterlogged wood porches covered in grace and bug bites and finding the glory of God can light the darkest corners.

I know it feels insignificant and frivolous and counterintuitive in the light of so much darkness, but I think it’s our brightest hope. So let’s throw confetti in the face of uncertainty. Let’s stay up a couple hours longer and leave the dishes for the morning. Let’s believe in celebrating today even as we long for Tomorrow to come. Consider this your invitation.

Paper Faces

Paper Faces

A dancer at the New York City Ballet has mere minutes between her scenes to change costume. She holds her pose as the orchestra concludes, and the arms of the conductor drop, and the audience applauds. Not until the curtain is flush with the floor does she break her pose, and her once-serene expression settles into a look of determination as she pivots for the exit. Weaving in and among the set pieces, the stagehands, the security, and the other dancers, she at last reaches a heavy, dark door that opens to the stairs. A dancer’s rank determines how many flights she must climb. A member of the corps de ballet, the lowest ranking and most common ballerinas, would have to climb two or three staircases to reach her dressing room. A principal dancer, or prima ballerina, however, would find her dressing room on the lowest level. Figuratively, she has already climbed her stairs through hundreds of hours of lessons, rehearsals, and performances. A prima ballerina has reached the end, the goal, the top. But like the mythical Icarus, she is flying dangerously close to the sun.

For all the sparkle of the city and the prestige of its ballet company, the dressing room is unexpectedly unglamorous. The floor is scuffed linoleum, the walls are discolored cinderblock. The whole room looks worn, as if the scores of ballerinas passing through took a piece of its polish for luck as they left, braiding a bit of its magic back in their hair, tying it in the ribbons on their pink satin pointe shoes. 

Lining the walls are rows of rectangular mirrors framed by spherical yellow lights meant to mimic the intensity of a spotlight on a dancer’s face. Beneath a mirror is a countertop with the contents of a ballerina’s toolbox arrayed across it, jars of foundation and makeup brushes, powder pots, and water bottles. At one station, a red rose sits in a plastic tumbler, as if an afterthought. Taped to a mirror near the door is a face chart for each dancer meant to guide her makeup application. Each has an ink outline of a head and neck with makeup painted on to match her specific contours and complexion.

Shelves nailed to the back wall hold rows of mannequin heads mounted on slim wooden pedestals, each displaying an elaborate hairpiece or glittering headband. Two strips of masking tape are stuck to each head where the mouth and eyes would be. On the upper piece the name of the ballet is scrawled; the lower lists the name of a dancer. Around the corner is a small cinderblock alcove with thick coils of electrical cords hung on one side. Opposite these is an open wall smudged with handprints and scuffmarks where ballerinas bang their pointe shoes to break them in and soften the noise they make onstage.

While the orchestra plays, the dressing room is quiet, calm. But once it stops, the countdown until the next act begins, and the ballerinas bustle in, entourage in tow. As the door opens, air rushes in and lifts the paper faces just slightly off the mirror. The performance is Ratmansky’s “Namouna, a Grand Divertissement,” and at this point, 16 dancers have 35 seconds to change out of leotards and into dresses for the next scene. Color, motion, and sound animate the room and its objects. Seamstresses poke in and out among the tutus and tulle, their needles threaded for quick repairs. Makeup artists with brushes loaded hover around the dancers, for blending and touching up. Stylists have started their steamers to straighten out any crumpled costumes. In this classical machine, the ballerinas are twisted, turned, and stretched. There is no audible beat, but the dancers move as if to rhythm. The scene unfolds in measured time and practiced motions, hairspray here, a button fastened there, as if an extension of the performance, another tableau in the choreography of these women’s lives.

The flurry thickens as the time counts down. More spray, more sweat, last looks, and time is up. The dancers hustle out the door and down the stairs in time for their next mark. The residue of foundation, resin, hairspray and perspiration settles again.

 

 

Formation

Formation

On a cold March morning in New York City, 1934, Mr. George Balanchine took inventory. Only seventeen dancers had shown up for rehearsal today at the School of American Ballet (SAB). They were quite unlike the Russian dancers with whom Balanchine learned to choreograph. Lincoln Kirstein, a co-founder of the school, wrote that these American women were “basketball champions and queens of the tennis court, whose proper domain was athletics.” Whereas the classical Russian ballerinas were slim and sylphlike, the Americans were lean but strong. What they lacked in airy, regal grace, they made up for in acrobatic strength. Neither their physique nor their heritage seemed to fit the polished, classical, Russian ballet style, but as of yet, America offered no alternative.

Balanchine had recently emigrated from Russia to the United States to form a school for with business partner Lincoln Kirstein. Though his choreography was renowned in Europe, most Americans had never even heard of ballet, let alone perform it. So the seventeen aspiring ballerinas who appeared today were inexperienced and untrained, but crucially, the Americans desired to dance. And the unrelentingly resourceful Balanchine was about to give them a dance of their own.

Balanchine began by arranging the women in a double-diamond shape, like the number eight with pointed edges, and personally escorted each woman to her place in his design. One of the dancers, Ruthanna Boris, described how revolutionary the double-diamond was: “It was unlike any group placement I had ever seen—the usual, a faceless set of straight lines dancing behind a soloist. Mr. George Balanchine was making lines where everyone could be seen!”

Also in the corps de ballet was college graduate Heidi Vosseler, who would eventually marry the noted tap dancer Paul Draper. Their shared gravestone reads: Paul, “A Dancer,” and Heidi, “A Beauty.” Vosseler would go on to lead a successful career, but today in the studio, she was exhausted and sweaty. Almost symbolically, the hairpins began to slip from her slick ballet bun. 

Mr. Balanchine, though, was in fine form. A dancer himself, he communicated with motion, embodying the movements he envisioned for his dancers. Balanchine jumped, twirled, spun, and dove onto the floor, modeling each step and then blending them together. Ruthanna Boris described his choreography as feeling like improvisation, not the typical technical practice. “He often looked like a kaleidoscope—fluid, flexible, free,” she said. Balanchine danced with them, for them, through them.

His energy was as palpable as Vosseler’s was fading. Her metatarsals ached from absorbing the shock of her full body weight with every jeté. Balanchine balanced on one of his own metatarsals, making tiny jumps while inching backwards with the other leg outstretched. He demonstrated, she imitated. Balanchine darted between two dancers, his back arched, arms outstretched, legs in a snappy scissor kick. As he led, she followed, though exhausted, until at last they reach the end of the section, dancer and choreographer together. At Balanchine’s direction, the seventeen ballerinas fluttered offstage, arms open and heads tilted upwards, except for Vosseler, whose legs gave way. Her knees buckled and her hip angled awkwardly out, her body forming a line like the edge of a diamond. Her right arm extended and curved to catch her fall, and the pins at last came loose from her hair. Her body rocked like a crashing wave, her hair cascading around her shoulders like salty foam. Humiliated, Heidi Vosseler began to cry.

George Balanchine was no stranger to sorrow. The first shots of the Russian Revolution of 1905 were fired on his first birthday, January 22. At the age of nine, his parents had him audition for the Imperial School of Ballet and Theater in St. Petersburg, though he had never even seen a ballet. Balanchine was accepted, and his parents left him at the school. He found it very lonely. Nevertheless, Balanchine eventually found his niche in music, dance, and choreography, the creative realm where he found his first two wives. (Fascinatingly, Vosseler would understudy the second wife, Norwegian ballerina Vera Zorina, in 1940 in a Broadway musical choreographed by Balanchine himself). As the Russian political situation deteriorated, Balanchine fled his homeland in 1924, and a decade later, found himself choreographing on this dim stage in New York City. Heidi Vosseler sobbed in frustration on the floor, surrounded by the troupe of tired, sweaty, hopeful ballerinas. With her, with them, Balanchine empathized.

 “Do not move!” he cried with his heavy Russian accent.

I imagine the paternal Balanchine falling on his knees beside her and tenderly touching her cheek. I envision his small, sly smile.

“We use this, too,” he might have said.

In a moment of brilliance, he immortalized her fall by incorporating it into a new ballet. Balanchine transformed her fallen figure into a symbol of longing and loss. Thousands of spectators since have witness Vosseler’s fall in Serenade, which became one of Balanchine’s most beloved ballets.

Headlights and Hindsight

It’s just a car. Metal, plastic, and rubber painted charcoal grey, my Volkswagen Jetta. My dad stuck a cherry red bow on top and stood smiling proudly beside it on my sixteenth birthday. At the time, Volkswagen offered three Jetta models: the basic GL model, the swanky GLS, and mine in between, the Wolfsburg edition. The Wolfsburg offers the luxury features of the pricier GLS—leather seats with warmers, a sunroof—and the same surprisingly big engine but without the maintenance demands of the GLS’s non-turbo motor. It’s in the middle, just right and just enough. I knew none of this, however, as I slid into the leather seat, turned the key, and backed out of our driveway. My Papa, now deceased, was my first passenger, and we tooled around the same block he used to push my little red tricycle around. The oohs and ahs said, hugs and thank yous given, I rolled back the sunroof and pulled around the corner to pick up my red-headed friend Carrington. We cruised over to the Wendy’s drive-through down the block, I nervously going 10 miles under the limit, and ordered Frosties. The first song my car played was, to my distaste, The Black Eyed Peas’s “I Gotta Feeling.”

My car was always clean but always full with the excess of my many extracurriculars—potted ferns for the assisted living home, bulletin board decorations and a stapler for the Public Health Department, slightly burnt cookies for my AP history class after another 2:00 a.m. stress-relieving baking session. The driver’s side door kept all my Taylor Swift albums, for easy access, and the glove compartment held several pairs of sunglasses, red shutter shades and cheap gold aviators, for my unprepared passengers to slip on. Loose pages of homework and church bulletins usually piled up in the passenger seat, and a Bible rested in the backseat pocket. A few tennis balls, leftover from hundreds of hours of private lessons and school practices, rolled across the floor. Shiny, white dog hair coated all of it, because, as the only one of our family who openly admitted to liking our finicky chihuahua Princess, I wound up taking her to the vet. My backseat was just long enough to drape my glitter-streaked prom dress across and wide enough for my graduation gown. More often, though, it held my tennis bag or salty beach towels or the kids I babysat.

I was grateful I could bring my Jetta along with me to college, because a car on campus meant freedom and friends. I neither knew nor cared if those friends were just using me for my car. We squeezed four people in the backseat, and my Jetta carried our brave band of frightened freshmen on innocent back road adventures and escapades into the city. Inevitably, people would leave trash behind, straw wrappers and greasy receipts, frustrating me to no end. I was embarrassed when my car was dirty and I had passengers, especially when those passengers were boys, especially one particular boy. I soon mastered steering with one hand, freeing up the other to hold his.

It’s just a car. More accurately, it was just a car. But then I gave away my keys, and he forgot to hit the brakes. We were fine; it was not. I left my beloved car in a lonely junkyard littered with cars that looked like no one had ever cared about them. Mine looked no different. The wipers had snapped off, and a deep, jagged crack divided the windshield in two. Scratches laced the lovely exterior. The entire front was smashed in, the hood all curled up, just like I wanted to be.

It’s just a car, I repeated to myself. Just a car, my mother reminded me. Just a car, my daddy assured me. But it wasn’t just a car. Maybe to the insurance agents who later came to condemn it, but not to me. My car carried a thousand memories of my grandparents and tennis matches and school dances, piano lessons and volunteer days and freshman year. It carried the story of first loves and losing them. It carried me. 

I have a new car now, and it’s wonderful. It works. But I can’t remember the first song it played.

A Golden Thread

An interview with Ms. Chris Cooper for English 401: Reported Creative Nonfiction

(Part of a longer project on ballet)

            “I would drop that idea if I were you,” recommends Chris Cooper, the former public relations and marketing director of the Charlotte Ballet. The idea she refers to is my vision of a pure, perfect, and pink ballet. A ballet that is traditional, classic, and clean, like a French antique preserved through centuries and presented to us now as living, resilient art. For me, an unschooled but eager admirer, ballet connotes swans and a grand orchestra, velvet seats and opera glasses, an abundance of tulle and a big red curtain.

            But this kind of ballet, Ms. Cooper explains over the phone, is only one of several ballet forms; two others are modern and contemporary. She elaborates, “I don’t think there are any pure classical ballet companies anymore.” Almost all ballet companies now have expanded their repertoires beyond the traditional, typical dances choreographed by Petipa—The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker—to incorporate edgier, inventive pieces.

            Ms. Cooper, a marketing specialist, wastes no time in selling me on one of these modern performances. She suggests I come to a performance of Innovative Works, a contemporary compilation at the Charlotte Ballet, which she has attended for years. She enjoys the work their dancers and choreographers do—it is powerful, funky, and strong. I will love the piece set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” she assures me. Cooper continues to explain: even when modern choreographers put on a commonly known, classical ballet like The Sleeping Beauty, they usually add their own “twists” to the dances. The finished result, she says, is more a product of the new designer and the cultural moment than old, antiquated style.

            Cooper is matter-of-fact, realistic, forward-thinking. She has her finger on ballet’s pulse. She bursts my pretty pink bubble. Though we talk on the phone, I imagine she wears dark skirt suits and always has neat hair and painted nails. Her voice is quick, eager, enthusiastic, and in command. If anyone knows where ballet is going, it is she, with her many years of experience attending, packaging, and promoting successful performances. And for classical ballet enthusiasts like me, she paints a grim, futuristic picture. Indeed, she nearly writes its eulogy.

            I had actually called Ms. Cooper for a portal into ballet past, but she almost makes me wonder if such a thing even exists anymore. She helpfully begins listing people I could connect with to get a sense of ballet present, but there was one name, one old dance I recognized.

            “Katie Hanlin danced in Serenade…” Ms. Cooper continued.

            Serenade was one of legendary George Balanchine’s most beloved creations, and I happened to have watched it online just hours earlier.

            “Oh, Serenade!” I exclaim. “Did she portray the Waltz Girl?”

            Serenade involves an entire corps of ballerinas but features three principal dancers: the Russian Girl, the Dark Angel, and, the coveted Waltz Girl.

            “You know it?” Ms. Cooper almost squeals. Her manner instantly changes, from coolly professional to positively gushing. It is as if my words have turned the key to unlock a treasure trove of history and a former dancer’s love. I realize that behind the flash and blur of contemporary lies the steady, still strong tradition of classical ballet, like a golden thread inside a string of beads.