Dad stayed in the hospital for a while that time, and when he came back, he was a different person. He was still my funny, loving dad, but now the cancer had gotten ahold of him, and it never let go again. He got skinnier and skinnier. When he was awake, he spent most of his time on the couch talking to our minister, Pastor Lee. They spent hours together every week. Sometimes I stayed and prayed with them, but more often I sat in my room with the door open so their conversations would drift in. I wanted to hear their voices, but not the words: no death, or heaven, or sickness, just the comforting sounds of two of the most important men in my life talking. Sometimes, I could almost forget what they were talking about. But it always came rushing back eventually.
I was itching to intensify my study of ballet. I wanted to show Dad that I’d taken what he said to heart, and I knew time was short. Michael offered ballet and technique classes, but her studio focused on competition and jazz dancing. If I wanted to be the best dancer I could be, I needed teachers who specialized in ballet. After all, I wouldn’t expect a math teacher—even a brilliant, talented genius of a math teacher—to help me with my writing. In dance, it’s the same way. It isn’t enough to have a good dance teacher. You need a good dance teacher who concentrates on the right kind of dance.
Leaving Michael’s studio was hard. She was almost family, in a way, especially after Dad got sick. I think she was a little hurt that I needed to move on, but she understood. If I could have continued doing dancing with her while learning ballet, I would have. But ballet isn’t like that. It requires all of your attention, all of your time. It is the most difficult and rewarding kind of dance there is. My father was right: God had given me a gift, and I needed to live up to that responsibility.
There were basically two big dance studios in Iowa City: the National Dance Academy (where I studied with Michael) and the Nolte Academy of Dance. Nolte wasn’t as grand as National Dance Academy back then. But it was starting to be known for its rigorous ballet training. The school had recently brought in a prestigious new teacher named Tad Snider. It seemed like fate that he would appear right when I needed him—yet another sign that this was the path I was meant to be on.
“This is especially good,” Mom said as we toured the studio, “because you need a male mentor.”
Up until now, I’d had only female dance instructors. They were fantastic, and the dance education I’d received was top-notch. But in ballet, men and women have very distinct roles, and they come with different skills that you need to master. If I was going to be an elite ballet dancer, I needed male teachers in my life. Tad seemed like a godsend.
From the beginning, Tad singled me out for special attention. I’d been training for only a few weeks, and I’d already been cast in Nolte’s production of The Nutcracker. I was sitting on the sidelines during rehearsal one day, stretching. Ballet, more than any other kind of dance, requires that your body be able to assume certain positions. Your feet have to be able to point, your hips have to be able to turn out. If you can’t mold your body into the right shape, then your first, last, and constant job is to stretch until you can. Sitting, standing—even sleeping—you should be stretching.
“Hey Alex,” Tad said, squatting next to me as I tried to arch my foot farther than it wanted to go. “Do you know how to do a tour?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. To be honest, I wasn’t even certain what a tour was, or why I needed to know it.
Tad nodded, making a mental note. He was a serious teacher. Occasionally he joked around, but he was very focused on the work. Perhaps because he looked so young, he needed to be more serious in order to get people to listen. With his big eyes and floppy brown hair, he could easily have been a teenager visiting his younger brother at our rehearsal.
“I’m going to teach you,” he said. “Come on.”
He gestured over to a quiet corner of the rehearsal room. As I walked, I watched my reflection in the big front mirror. A dozen girls in tights and ballet slippers were lined up against the barre, practicing. Nolte was a small school, so there were only about twenty of us in the room.
“Sit,” Tad said, pushing his hands together in front of him and gesturing at the ground. He stood straight and peered up toward the ceiling, in his teaching pose. “Let’s see, how to explain a tour? The word’s actually French and is short for tour en l’air, which literally means ‘turn in the air.’ It’s one of the basic jumps that all male ballet dancers must master. Jumps and lifts are the two most important skills guys have in ballet. Now watch!”
Suddenly Tad leaped into the air. His body was fully extended down through his toes, like a human pencil. As he reached the peak of his jump, he seemed to float in graceful slowness and spin in a lightning-fast full rotation at the same time. He landed, but he stayed on the ground for only a split second before he jumped again. This time, he spun around twice.
“That’s a double tour. Some dancers, like Nijinsky, could even do triples.” He paused, a rare smile lighting up his face. “But we’ll start you with the basics and work our way up. To begin, assume fifth position.”
In ballet, there are five basic alignments for your feet, with corresponding positions for the hands—first through fifth position. Fifth position is when your feet are parallel, one in front of the other, toes pointing in opposite directions so that the heel of one foot touches the toes of the other—if you can stretch that far. It took me a while.
After I got in position, Tad explained that in order to do a tour, I needed to jump, point my feet while I was in the air, do one full rotation, and land back in fifth position.
“Make sure you spot before you jump,” he said. “You know that, right?”
I nodded. Gymnastics had given me a leg up in ballet. Because of all the tumbling I’d been doing, I knew a lot about jumping, spinning, and keeping my balance. One of the big tricks is to spot before you turn. Spotting means staring at a point on the wall that you want to end up facing. When you spin, you move your head as swiftly as possible, so that you only take your eyes off your spot for the briefest moment. Your head should rotate much faster than the rest of your body. This keeps you from getting dizzy.
For the rest of rehearsal, Tad had me assume fifth position, spot, jump, and land, without any rotation. We never did any full tours that day, but from then on, whenever we had a free moment, Tad drilled me. Until I had those parts perfect, he didn’t even want me to try the rotation. Instead, we built the skill up slowly, piece by piece. It took weeks for me to learn how to do perfect tours. Those little tips from Tad evolved into private lessons, and soon I was studying with him almost constantly.
I’d been pretty dedicated to dance before this, but now I was at a whole different level. I had my father’s blessing, which had been the last thing holding me back. And I had only a short time to prove that I was taking ballet seriously. So I studied constantly, wanting to show Dad what I was capable of.
But it wasn’t enough. I needed years of training before I’d be a great ballet dancer, and my father didn’t have years. He had months, maybe weeks—maybe days. I felt like an invisible timer was hovering over my head. I could hear it ticking, but I had no way of knowing when it would hit zero.