I run through the airport in shapeless tracksuit pants, my hair flying behind me. A screaming toddler stands in my way, and I leap over him in a somewhat graceful grand jeté before pirouetting past a man who’s struggling to carry his giant suitcase.
“Faites attention!” a woman yells at me after I almost step on her foot. Be careful!
The thing is, I can be careful or I can be late, and being late is not an option right now. This American girl needs to get to the other side of Paris tout de suite.
“Sorry,” I say as I race through the Charles de Gaulle terminal, my backpack banging into my shoulder.
The reason I’m late is that there was a crazy storm in New York last night, and my flight was delayed by four hours, then six. I stopped counting after that so I wouldn’t pass out from the idea of missing my first day of school. Well, not school, exactly. School is a piece of cake compared to what’s waiting for me here.
I bump into a group of children straddling the entire width of the terminal hallway and almost fall flat on my face, but I manage to turn it into a pas de basque. Thank you, muscle memory from approximately a million years of ballet classes.
I’ll admit, this is not how I imagined my first hours in Paris. I had a picture-perfect vision of what was supposed to happen: I would get off the plane on a warm, sunny morning, my wavy brown hair bouncing and shiny, even after the seven-hour flight. I’d swing my tied‑up pointe shoes over my shoulder and declare something cute in French with a perfect accent--the result of months of practice--before strutting elegantly toward the best summer of my life: an intensive ballet program at the prestigious Institut de l’Opéra de Paris. Le dream, non?
Instead, I “gently” shove past a few people to snatch my suitcase off the luggage carousel, then search the signs above my head for the word taxi. That’s when something truly wild happens.
Um, what? How does someone in Paris know who I am?
“Mia? Is that you?”
It takes me a second to recognize that voice. I turn around, and there she is, my nemesis. Or she would be, if I believed in nemeses.
“Whoa, Audrey! What are you doing here?” I realize it’s a stupid question only after the words come out of my mouth.
“The same thing as you, I guess,” she answers, looking surprised. When I booked my ticket, I was surprised by how many flights there are to Paris every day. I guess we were on different ones, both delayed by the storm. In any case, I can practically hear her wondering, How did Mia get accepted into one of the most exclusive summer ballet programs in the world?
’Cause I worked my buns off, I want to say.
I’m not going to lie: Audrey is one of the best ballet dancers our age in the tristate area, but, hey, so am I. I know because we’ve competed against each other in every major event in the dance circuit since we were basically babies. I live in Westchester, which is outside of New York City, and Audrey lives in Connecticut, so we don’t go to the same ballet school (thankfully!), but several times a year, I watch Audrey snatch roles, receive accolades, and almost always come out just ahead of me.
“You got in to the Institut de l’Opéra de Paris?” Audrey asks with a perfect accent, one eyebrow raised in suspicion. I can tell she regrets her question, because she adds right away, “I mean, what level did you get in?”
I clear my throat, buying some time. There are five levels in the program, and students from around the world get placed according to the skills they demonstrated in their application video.
“Four,” I say, holding her gaze.
Four is great. I was so excited to get level four. Honestly, I was happy to just get in, especially after being rejected from the American Ballet Theatre’s summer program in New York. I’ve worked my entire life to get into a program like this. Ballet has run in my family for generations--or so the legend goes--and I know my grandmother would have been pretty sad if I didn’t get into any school, though nowhere near my own major disappointment.
“That’s great,” Audrey says. Her hand tightens around the handle of her suitcase, the only sign that betrays her true reaction. Yep, I’m good enough for level four.
“And you’re in . . . ?” I begin, even though I can guess the answer.
“Five,” she answers coolly.
I nod. Force a smile. Of course she is. It’s fine, really. Audrey’s technique is flawless; even I can admit that.
“Are you coming?” she asks in a clipped tone, starting to walk ahead of me. “We should share a taxi. It doesn’t make sense to take two cars to the same place,” Audrey adds like she’s talking to a child.
“Right.” I hate to admit she has a point. “But we’re probably in different dorms?”
I pull up the dorm address on my phone, which Audrey reads over my shoulder. She lets out a deep sigh. “That’s where I am, too. Please don’t tell me they put all the American students together.”
“Seems like it,” I say as we make our way to the taxi stand, not bothering to hide my annoyance. There are over a hundred girls and boys aged fourteen to eighteen attending the ballet summer program, and the dorms are scattered all over the city. The minute I received my admission packet with the address of where I’d be staying, I thought I’d won the Paris lottery. Now I’m not so sure about that.
“Boulevard Saint-Germain,” I tell the driver once we’re seated in the back of a metallic gray car with leather seats. Even the taxis in Paris are chic.
The man frowns at me in the rearview mirror, and I don’t know what else to do but frown back. I have no idea what’s happening. My thoughts feel like they’re trapped in a cloud. Even if I had slept on the plane, Audrey’s presence would be enough to throw me off my game.
She shakes her head, then hands the taxi driver her phone, which is open to the map with our dorm’s address. My newbie mistake hits me right in the face. I’ve researched Paris so much that I should have remembered that Boulevard Saint-Germain is one of the longest streets in the city. It snakes across most of Rive Gauche, the side of Paris south of the Seine. Basically, it’s like telling a New York City cab driver that you’re going to Fifth Avenue.
Audrey gives me a pointed look that seems to say, Lucky I’m here.
Her phone rings just as we get on the freeway: a FaceTime call from her mom. I’ve never met her, but I know who she is--a retired principal dancer who spent her entire career in Moscow with the Bolshoi Ballet. As I listen to Audrey go on and on about how her flight delay almost ruined her life, I realize that I haven’t even told my parents I’m here yet. I send a quick text saying that everything’s fine. Dad responds immediately.
Good luck at orientation! Show them who’s boss! Love you.
I smile and respond.
I’ll try! Love you too.
And then nothing from Mom. I keep staring at my phone, hoping, wondering, wishing. She’s still mad at me. Grandma swore she’d get over it by the time I left for Paris, but clearly she hasn’t.
Ever since I was little, dancing has been my whole life. To my mom, however, it was just a hobby, something fun I did on the side, an extracurricular activity to keep me busy on weekends. I kept telling her I wanted to become a professional ballet dancer, and that I would do whatever it took to make it happen, but she always shrugged it off, like it was something I’d outgrow. Luckily, between Dad and Grandma Joan (Mom’s mom), there was always someone to drive me to classes, help me sew costumes for my shows, and cheer me on during important performances.
But things got really tense with Mom when I started talking about applying to this program.
“You didn’t get into New York. Why would you try again in Paris?”
I’d just received my rejection letter from ABT and was doing my best not to show how devastated I was. I always knew how competitive it would be, but I figured that, after a lifetime of dedicating myself to my art, I had a real shot. But Mom didn’t agree with me. “So many girls want this; there just aren’t enough spots for everyone,” she’d said with a sad face. It hurt a lot to realize that she was right.
“Paris is every aspiring ballet dancer’s biggest dream,” I’d said.
To be honest, that’s not exactly how I felt at the time. Even though it’s true--the Paris program is just as well regarded as the New York one--I only ever dreamed of attending ABT, and of joining their company one day. But that wasn’t going to happen this summer, and I couldn’t allow myself to accept defeat. Everyone knows everyone in the ballet world, and borders don’t really exist. If I made it in Paris, then I’d find my way into ABT eventually. They couldn’t get rid of me so easily, even if I had to cross an ocean to prove it to them. At least that’s what I told myself.
Mom shook her head. “It’s your last summer of high school. Don’t you want to see your friends, go to the pool, to the movies, and just, you know, do other things?”
“They have pools and movies in Paris, too.”
She ignored my snarky tone. “Mia, there’s more to life than ballet. You need to have a plan B. Everyone should have one, especially when they’re only seventeen and chasing an impossible dream.”
She’d never put it so plainly before. An impossible dream? Thanks for believing in me, Mom.
Despite everything she’d said, I kept rehearsing for my video, checking the requirements--an introduction to explain my experience and credentials, a showcase of each of the key steps, then a personal routine of at least two minutes. Grandma Joan even surprised me with a new leotard in a beautiful shade of dove gray.
“It’ll be your Paris leotard,” she said as I dashed to my room to try it on. It fit perfectly and complemented my blue eyes.
“I haven’t even been accepted yet,” I told her as I adjusted the straps over my shoulders. My hands shook as I imagined myself practicing pliés in a light-filled Parisian studio.
“But you will be,” Grandma said, her voice firm. “How could they ever say no? It’s in your blood.”
“Mom!” Mom said to Grandma Joan as she walked into my bedroom. She cast a skeptical glance at the Degas poster hanging over my bed. “Can you please stop saying that? It’s not even true.”
Grandma sighed, then turned to me. “Of course it’s true. You come from a long line of ballerinas, Mia.” She gave me a wink. “You believe me, don’t you?”
Grandma Joan has told me the same story since the day I put on my first tutu. The first part of it is definitely true: My great-grandmother was French. She met an American man in Paris when she was twenty-three, fell in love, and moved to the U.S. soon after their wedding. But before that--and this is when things get a little murky--she practiced ballet. Like her mother before her, and her mother before her, all the way back to the late 1800s, when my great-great-great-grandmother was a danseuse étoile, a principal dancer, the highest, most prestigious ranking in the Paris Opera. Supposedly, this was around the time Edgar Degas created his world-famous paintings of ballerinas.
Grandma insists that Degas painted my great-great-great-grandmother, and that she was the subject of one of his masterpieces. The nonspecifics of this family legend drive Mom crazy. She doesn’t believe this story, and whenever Grandma Joan brings it up, she’ll happily point out that no one actually knows which painting our ancestor might be in, or even remembers what her name was. If she was a ballet dancer at all. Mom never lets me forget that it’s most likely made up, and that there’s no way to know for sure. She doesn’t want me to believe in fairy tales.
But I do.
The myth itself is proof enough that ballet is my destiny--how could anything as strange as this get passed down from generation to generation if it weren’t true? This story has always been part of me, of how I dance. When I’m performing, I sometimes imagine my ancestor twirling across the stage, spotlighted by gas lamps, while Degas sweeps his oil paints and pastels onto canvas and paper. I like to think she was part of his inspiration, that he watched her spin in a sea of color and light.
I wore my new leotard for my audition video, which Camilla, my best friend from ballet school, helped me film. She’d decided to only apply to local summer programs, and swore it had nothing to do with the fact that she didn’t want to be away from her new boyfriend--an aspiring musician named Pedro. I think Mom wishes I had a boyfriend as well, but my dating experience so far has only proved that no one can make my heart flutter the way ballet does. To go with my leotard, I put my hair up in a tight bun, my face fully made up. And two months later, I got into the Institut de l’Opéra de Paris, just like Grandma had promised.
I close my eyes for a moment, and when I reopen them, one of the most famous churches in the world stares back at me.
“Notre-Dame!” I squeal to Audrey, who doesn’t react. I press my face against the window, soaking in its beauty, the two towers disappearing off behind our taxi, the arched structure revealing itself in the back, and the grand majesty of it all. My first look at Paris! But I don’t have time to revel in the moment, because our taxi makes a right turn, and, a couple of minutes later, we pull off to the side of a wide street packed with cyclists, buses, and pedestrians.
“Finally,” Audrey says, looking out the window.
The driver slams his horn as a bike zooms past, and I’m definitely awake now. The cyclist turns back and yells what I can only assume is an insult. Though, because it’s in French, it sounds almost pleasant to me. Our driver just shakes his head in response as he parks in front of a white stone building, about six stories high, with small double windows all with matching gray curtains--our home for the summer. Thanks to my Google Street View research, I know exactly where we are--a stone’s throw from the embankments of the Seine, and the lively student neighborhood called Saint-Michel.