Doing a demi-curtsy in front of thousands of people, I realize that the universe has a plan for everybody, and one has to simply be in the right place at the right time to savour success and genuinely express happiness with a smile. You must all have a puzzled look, so I am going to take you to the beginning (the very beginning) of this journey.
Three months ago.
It was the last day of summer break. My sister, Ava, jumped out of bed with a lot of excitement. She and her twin, Elle (my other sister, obviously) had the habit of planning their day and squeezing as much fun out of it as they could because they believed it would be their last chance for fun before school reopened. We called it ‘making memories’ and usually gave it our best shot. There hadn’t yet been a single year where I had been as enthusiastic as they were right now, but I sure did have fun on the last day. I knew their routine; this had been played out many times over the years in the Mcawly household.
This was the recurring routine planned for the last day of summer.
- We got our hair done.
- We went to Pilot Cafe for breakfast.
- We went shopping, in case we wanted to buy something extra for the Mcawly girls’ wardrobe.
- We did our yearly Mcawly sisters’ exchange – we exchanged a few gifts from three different categories of things.
- We had lunch at a place our parents picked. They set up a hunt for us every year and we had to crack codes, and sometimes puzzles.
- We had a family game and movie night.
- At the end of the day, with a full heart, we went to bed.
So, like any other summer, we called a hairstylist home. The hairstylist looked like she was very impressed with Ava’s hazel-brown hair, which was very silky and straight. That expression went missing when she did Elle’s hair, even though she had the same hazel-brown hair as Ava’s, but not as silky.
My sisters kept saying they wished they had my dirty blonde hair. We got our hair done and we had to pay a visit to Pilot Cafe soon. We avoided going to Pilot Cafe the whole of summer so that it would be a special treat on the last day of the season, and we could enjoy it to the fullest when we finally went there.
At Pilot cafe, Ava, Elle and I ordered our annual favourites – Ava, a hot cocoa with colourful marshmallows, custard danish and carrot sticks; Elle, a hot cocoa with chocolate dipped marshmallows, a Nutella croissant and salted cucumbers; Me, a hot cocoa with whipped cream, a choco-chip muffin with Nutella filling, and a green salad. We took our frappuccinos to go because sometimes it got very stressful to shop for people, and we wanted a headstart at some of the stores.
We went in different cars to the shopping centres because we did not want to bump into each other while shopping. I was always prepared. I generally bought the gifts in Los Angeles when I was at school. We lived in Toronto, and I went to school in L.A. Ava went to school in San Francisco, and Elle went to school in San Diego. Both of them didn’t shop while they were in the city, so they needed to shop before they went back. While they both went shopping, I visited my grandma and packed some snacks she made to go.
An hour later, we had to start the hunt. This year, my parents had set up a city chase. You might wonder if we do the same hunt every year. Well, the answer is no! Last year, we did a hunt that was like a breakout room. We had to go through a tunnel to get to the restaurant. So, getting back to this year, we had to figure out clues, drive to each place, collect flags, and then reach our destination.
The restaurant our parents picked for us this year was Pizzeria Libretto. We all loved Italian food, so it was clear why my parents had picked it. Our parents booked a private dining area for us most of the time.
This year, Ava gave me a few ballet leotards, new pointe shoes and an Apple watch. Elle gave me a ballerina keychain with my name on it. She had told Ava that it reminded her of Cassie (that’s my name by the way). Then she gave me a few sweats and a necklace with a C on it.
I loved all of my presents. I gave Ava a metronome so that she could use it while playing the piano, a new camera to take better pictures for Instagram, and a new makeup kit.
Elle gave me new gymnastics leotards, new grips, and a pair of Under Armour shoes. My parents loved watching the Mcawly sisters’ gift exchange for some reason. We had mouth-watering food, like margherita pizza, and some pink sauce pasta. After that, we went home and had family game and movie night and went to bed.
The next day.
Ava, Elle and I had packed our bags two days before we had to leave, so we didn’t have the trouble of last-minute packing. I could see my mom’s eyes fill with tears, and I could tell that my parents were a little happy, but also a little sad. My dad was his cheerful self, making his dad jokes while he could.
I felt unusually homesick while leaving the house. The three of us went to the airport together. Our parents didn’t come to drop us off for the first time in years, because they had to go visit a colleague. My sisters and I took a cab to the airport. Of course, we had to part ways at the airport. We bid farewell and went our separate ways. Ava’s flight was the first to leave, and mine was the last.
I finally reached my school, On Pointe High, the most prestigious dance school in the whole world, and the hardest to get into. It was a huge school with quality facilities like gymnasiums, swimming pools, six dance studios, four performance halls, and one spacious room per student. My room number had always been No. 3 on the eighth floor.
My room was decorated with pictures of me, my family, my friends, a bunch of posters I liked, and a nice little wall hanging that my grandma had given me. My room was spacious but very cosy. I had a queen-sized bed with a furry quilt and a nice little carpet that lay next to my bed, so I could feel it when I woke up. I had a dance corner where I had organised shelves to hold my dance equipment, and a normal corner where I kept everything else. My room always smelled a bit like hairspray and oranges.
I was in year two. I was the only 18-year-old, only a year younger than the average age of the rest of my class.
I might have been the youngest, but I was also the best dancer in the whole school. I had just won the Bolshoi Ballet Award the previous year. It was an award given to the best dancer in our school by the headmaster. It was a pointe shoe on a small music box that played the Nutcracker theme. It was one of the most precious and valuable things I owned. People were very surprised that a first-year student had won the award. No first-year had won the award in the last 20 years.
This year, I had an exam called DAMP – Dance, Art, Music Profession. If you were in year two, and if you were chosen to take this exam, it was by invitation only. I needed to work twice as hard at passing it. If I passed this exam, I would have loads of career opportunities. My teachers and all the students regarded me as a very smart, hardworking and talented student. Their trust in me boosted my confidence.
School started in June, and August has just arrived. I have been working extremely hard over the last two months. I have been following the same healthy diet and training with every free hour I get. I even train on weekends.
I was mastering the movement of ten pirouettes on a regular practice session on Saturday, when I fell flat on my ankle, just as I was about to land on my feet. It was extremely painful and was the first time I had experienced such pain. I waited in the same position I fell into. I knew that the first-years had their performance rehearsal in a minute, and they were usually on time. I knew they would be able to help me.
The first years entered with our teacher, Miss Blackwell. Miss Blackwell is one of the best teachers in the world, and she is a very strict person. She can get people to do what she wants.
Thankfully there were only three first-years who came in with Miss Blackwell, because I didn’t want anyone to see the best dancer (an inspiration) to be sitting on the floor because of a bad landing. As soon as Miss Blackwell saw me, she rushed out and called for a stretcher. The nurses put me onto a stretcher and took me to the campus doctor. He said I needed to get to the hospital to get my ankle checked.
While the headmaster was calling my parents to inform them about the situation, a nurse iced my ankle to make it numb, so I didn’t feel the pain. My parents instructed the headmaster to take me to the family doctor who had recently moved to L.A. He worked at Kindred Hospital. Luckily, Kindred Hospital was only 20 minutes away from our campus. Once we reached the hospital, the nurses rushed me to my family doctor who was also an orthopaedist.
She said that I had an ankle ligament tear. I was lost for words. I have never had an injury before. I had always been strong. My main worry was missing the DAMP examinations, and so I asked my doctor, Mrs Kendrick, a very important question.
“How long will my ankle ligament take to heal?” I asked her, expecting to hear something good.
“Three to six months usually, but I have known you since you were born and I think you are very strong. You can recover quickly from almost anything. So most probably, your ankle could heal in two and a half months!” she said, with a glimmer of hope in her eye.
I hate the smell of hospitals because it smells like chemicals and plain steel. However, this hospital smelt like lemons and sanitizers. This hospital gave me hospital vibes (or that familiar scary feeling) even though it was a children’s hospital. Everything around looked very fragile and delicate, but obviously, all of this was in my head.
My parents had just come into the hospital room. They looked a bit tense because it was the first time I had experienced an injury. They had a talk with Mrs. Kendrick about my injury and asked her about the recovery and the medicines I needed. Mrs. Kendrick took 10 – 15 minutes to put a cast on my leg. It wasn’t very comfortable, but if it helped me, I wasn’t going to fuss about it.
A few hours later, Elle and Ava showed up. They wanted to check on me. We had a video call with my aunts, uncles and cousins that night. They all would call me “Tough Ballerina” because I never got injured or upset easily. They still called me that, but I don’t feel like it after the injury.
My sisters are the craziest people I know, and you might have figured that out by now. They posted a hospital reunion with me on Instagram. They called it the ‘Mcawly Sisters Hospital Reunion’. Even though it was crazy, they got a lot of likes! It brightened up my mood a little. The other doctors and Mrs. Kendrick said that I needed to stay overnight, in case I felt a lot of pain. My mom bought me some restaurant food because the hospital canteen was shut, and also because the food from there wasn’t too great. I had some tomato soup and two slices of pizza. My mom also gave me some Nutella ice cream. She thought I needed some comfort food. Also, I had not eaten any junk food in the last two months, since I had been practicing so rigorously.
Finally, the day had arrived. I had nightmares about missing my DAMP examination. My mom and dad stayed overnight at the hospital, and Elle and Ava spent the night at a hotel called Viceroy L’Ermitage, Beverly Hills. They were planning on flying back to San Diego and San Francisco after visiting me. Ava only took three to four days off in a whole year, so she had to fly back. Elle had an exam she couldn’t miss.
They said goodbye to my parents and me, and then left for the airport. I was going back to OP today, and I was extremely glad. I could finally go back and sleep on my comfortable bed with my crazy picture on the wall. My parents brought me back to my dorm. My parents, Miss Blackwell and the headmaster, Miss Sierra Mantechula, discussed the examination which was coming up, and the yearly show. They discussed my participation in all of this.
They decided that I could take part in these activities after all! It had been four months since my injury, and the doctor said I should’ve recovered in two and a half months. I had had good enough time to heal.
My parents wished me luck and left to catch a flight back to Toronto. I had mixed feelings. I can’t describe it. I went for dinner and walked back to my bedroom when I saw a bunch of year 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students crowding around the pin-up board at the elevator. When students started clearing off, there was enough space for me to see what they were all looking at. My face lit up as I saw the poster. The poster was an invitation for an audition to take part in the La Perle show that happened every year in Dubai. My parents had taken me to every single one of this company’s shows.
It had been my life-long dream to be part of one of these shows. But my expression changed when I looked at the dates for the audition. It was on the 5th of September. I was devastated, but I was the kind of person who didn’t display her feelings in the open. I only showed my feelings in front of my sisters and parents. There was another girl in the elevator, so I couldn’t change my expression till I reached my room. Luckily, she got off on the 7th floor. As soon as she got off, I called my mom. My dad answered the phone and I started telling him about La Perle. I was almost in tears, but I always controlled them so I didn’t break down. My parents calmed me down and told me to think of an alternative way to take my mind off of La Perle for a while.
Looking on the bright side, I was a bit glad that I got more time to study for the exam. All of my free hours were used to dance, and I only studied 45 minutes each day. My scores in dancing and other academic subjects were equally good, but I wanted to spend more time on my academics. This was an opportunity of a lifetime, so this was something I couldn’t give up on.
The next day, I went to speak to Ms. Blackwell. Ms. Blackwell told me to choreograph the dance for the selections because she thought that I was a very good choreographer and that I could easily help our school team to get selected. She said that practice was going to start the next day. A part of me was happy that I could do something to help my school team to participate in the magnificent La Perle show.
The day of the first practice arrived. I was a bit anxious inside, but obviously, I didn’t show anyone how I felt. I couldn’t prepare anything before the rehearsal because Miss Blackwell was still deciding on the music and had told me that she would let me know only during rehearsal. A few dancers from year two and three entered. You might expect them to ask how a girl their age or younger could choreograph an amazing dance and lead them to victory, but they didn’t say a word. All of them had complete faith in me.
Miss Blackwell gave me a pen drive which looked like a pointe shoe and told me to play the music out loud, so that everyone could hear it together for the first time. The song was a nice hip-hop, contemporary and ballet number. However, I had a lightbulb moment! I could choreograph a fusion of all three styles. I was very pleased with my idea and I asked miss Miss Blackwell for her approval. She said that it is my choreography, and she was okay with whatever I decide.
Practice went on for a month, and before we knew it, the day of the audition had come. The whole team and I were extremely nervous. Miss Blackwell herself was not as nervous as we were. The auditions were held in our school because the company had wanted to hold auditions in L.A, and we were the only L.A. school that had been invited. The other schools were Dancing Dream, Truth Tours, Creators, and Dazzling Danze. They weren’t as good as our school, but they were some of the best.
They all started showing up slowly. They were all two hours early. Only five dance schools were invited to audition, including us. We got to practice in dance studio one, where we always practiced. The rest of them got a room each, and the spare dance studio we had was for bags and belongings.
After we practised for an hour, the La Perle dance crew leader and the founder arrived. They were pleasant and charming people with calm and composed expressions. They were escorted to the performance hall by the principal, Miss Mantechula. The auditions started and the judges had their poker faces on, so we couldn’t figure out how they felt about each dance. We were the last ones to go. The dance went perfectly. It was just like the vision I had about the dance. I was extremely happy for my team, but I was still a bit upset that I couldn’t take part in it.
We were waiting for the results and soon, the trash-talk started. Our schools don’t have any rivalry, but this time, all the teams wanted the same thing, and only one team would win it. The judges still had their poker faces on.
Finally, the results were out. We were the ones who got selected!, I was so happy that my dance and my team won. It was amazing to hear them say “On Pointe”. They also said that the dance was the best choreography they had seen in many years. They asked the faculty who was in charge of choreographing this magnificent dance, and asked the person (me) to come on stage.
I walked up to the stage. The founder of La Perle gave me a brooch which had the lead brunette and the little girls who danced behind her in 3D.
I was delighted that I got some recognition from the founder of my favourite show. I did a one-legged demi curtsy, thanked her and left the stage. That night, we celebrated our win in the performance hall and Sierra told the chef to set up a feast for us. We had a blast that night. It even made me forget about my injured ankle. It was midnight when I went back to my room. But for some reason, I couldn’t sleep. I had a conference call with my sisters and told them about my day. I would have called my parents, but they usually slept early.
We had a nice chat and Elle and Ava told me things that were happening in their schools. After our call, I dozed off. The next morning at the breakfast hall, our La Perle dance team called me to their table and told me that they need to go to another location to practice with the La Perle crew, and that Miss Blackwell wanted me to go along with them. I was still very happy because I could watch the rehearsal of my favourite show.
It was the weekend, so I didn’t really have to cut any classes. They also told me to come to the entrance of our school by 11:45 am to catch a bus to the location.
We reached the location. It was a huge dance studio. It had a smooth floor which was perfect for dancing. I saw the beautiful dancers practising and the costumes on hangers. The dance crew leader came to escort us inside. She took us to the costume room; the dancers from the OP had their measurements taken on the day of the auditions.
The costumes looked very pretty. I loved those costumes, and reality started drifting away from me. I kept imagining myself in the costume over and over again. I was brought back to reality when the dance crew leader, Jessica, told our dancers to come up on stage and practise with everyone else. All the dancers there were extremely talented and were dancing perfectly. The people from our dance team were very impressed too. They all started practising the dance together, and it made me feel like I was missing out on something huge – but I resolved not to show that I was even a little upset.
One and a half months passed in a jiffy, and it was time for me to remove my cast. With all of the La Perle sessions happening, I forgot that I was going to remove my cast soon.
The day of removing my cast arrived. My parents flew from Toronto and my sisters flew from San Diego and San Fransisco, just to see the cast off my leg. We went to the hospital together and Mrs. Kendrick was waiting for me inside. As soon as I went into surgery, Mrs. Kendrick asked me how I was doing, and if I had felt any pain over the last few months. I told her I was doing fine, and that I hadn’t felt any pain.
She said that this was a good thing, because if I had felt pain, I would have had to keep my cast on for the next month too. My cast was removed from my ankle and it felt as though a heavy burden was off me. My parents and sisters dropped me back at school and went back to Toronto. Elle had a 15 day break, and Ava had a 10-day break. They hopped on the flight with my parents too.
I was glad that I was back to normal. As soon as my family left, I ran to the dance studio to dance for a while. I had a 15-day break too, but the break was for all of us to prepare for the show, or DAMP, or La Perle. I didn’t have to start preparing for the DAMPS examination because I had started working on it at the start of the year, way back when they announced that I was going to take that exam. I just needed to practice a little more, and try landing those 10 pirouettes. Generally, people are scared to do something that hurt them in the first place, but I am not that kind of person. I took that fall as a challenge.
When Sierra and Blackwell heard that my cast was off and I was back to normal again, they were delighted. Their plan was for me to join the La Perle performance. The other dancers from our school had been struggling a little, and they thought I would do it easily and make them proud. I had never thought of getting another chance to take part in the show, but if Sierra and Blackwell were going to make me take part in it, then it was going to help me.
Sierra called Jessica that evening to check if I could join the team, and also suggested that I would audition if they needed me to. Jessica said that she would check with the founder and let her know. I was right next to Sierra when she called them, so I heard the whole conversation. 10 minutes later, Sierra got a call. I was still there because Sierra and I were talking about my ankle incident. She answered the phone and Jessica said that the founder had told her that though my choreography skills were terrific, they weren’t very sure of my dancing skills. They couldn’t take auditions this late. Sierra thanked Jessica and cut the call. She apologized to me for bringing my hopes up. I told her that her intention was pure, so it didn’t matter.
I was a little upset that I didn’t get a chance to show my skills for them to judge me fairly. I wouldn’t have been upset if they had seen me dancing and then rejected me. I was just upset that they didn’t give me a chance.
Later, I had this idea of posting a video and sending it to them, talking about my dream to be a part of the show and telling them that I was willing to audition. At the end of the video, I performed a dance that I choreographed.
I emailed it to the founder and Jessica. Later, I got a WhatsApp message from Jessica saying that she and the founder wished to meet me. They asked me to be at the rehearsal location an hour earlier than the rest. I agreed and decided to get ready at the thought of getting a shot at this.
One hour later, we met at the location. Jessica and the founder said they thought my dancing was as good as my choreography. I was delighted and thought I had a chance, but I was wrong. They said that I danced well alone, but they didn’t know if I would be as good while dancing with a troop. I begged them to let me dance with my troope and prove to them that I was a team player too!
Luckily, they were willing to give me a chance. Later that evening, I performed the dance with my troope and everybody voted for me to be a part of the show, including the founder and Jessica.
Two months passed, and the day of the show finally arrived. My whole family came to watch me perform. I could see how proud they were that I was part of this lovely show. The audience even threw flowers at us at the end of the show.
Ah! There we have reached the beginning of my story, again!
Aasritha Koneru, a 12-year-old ballerina, was born on January 3rd, 2008, in Cuddalore. She lives in Chennai and is a grade 7 student at KC High International School. She loves weaving stories and has been entertaining her sister, friends and cousins with her animated narration of incidents and interesting anecdotes from the time she could talk. She has an amazing memory, and attention to detail that brings her settings alive. Her favourite day is her birthday and she usually has elaborate plans to celebrate. She enjoys being in the limelight, reading, music and food. She is mature for her age, and is forever counselling her friends through their angst.