Jennifer Longo's New Book, 'Up To This Pointe,' Ballet Dances Us To The South Pole — EXCLUSIVE CHAPTER REVEAL
Any kind of book can be good or bad, but many of the titles you read will feature familiar plots and characters you've come to expect — the conflicted lawyer, say, or the kindhearted criminal. So understand me when I say that Jennifer Longo's new book, Up to This Pointe , tells a story I never expected to read: that of a former ballerina who finds herself changing careers to go and work at the South Pole. Um, yes, it does sound amazingly unexpected.
Up to This Pointe centers on 18-year-old Harper Scott, a San Franciscan who has dedicated her life to ballet. When her chosen career doesn't love her back, Harper picks up stakes and flies to Antarctica to assist the National Science Foundation as part of a grant program for high schoolers.
If you're thinking, She shouldn't even be there!, you're right. Harper is technically too old to be in the program, but she's a Scott, as in Robert Falcon Scott: the great Antarctic explorer who sacrificed himself and his crew for the chance to be the first team to reach the South Pole. Harper has grown up in the shadow of his image, thanks to her mother's pride in having such a famous and courageous relative, and now she's ready to plant her own flag. Aut moriere percipietis conantur — succeed, or die in the attempt.
After opening with Harper's first time on The Ice, Up to This Pointe shifts back to give readers a look at her life in California. She and her best friend, Kate, have a capital-P Plan; they're going to become professional ballerinas and live together in San Francisco.
But their parents' insistence on formal education might have held them back. Other ballerinas don't graduate high school; they run off to apprentice with big companies. Kate is easily the most-talented student their ballet teacher has ever taught, but she and Harper still languish where they started, in part because their families insist that they receive high school diplomas before they pursue their careers.
For reasons yet unknown, Kate does not travel to Antarctica with Harper. The thick-as-thieves friends are separated, but why did The Plan fail? Did only Kate get a spot with the San Francisco Ballet? Was Harper injured somehow? Did some mysterious boy drive a wedge between them? I WANT TO KNOW.
In Up to This Pointe, author Longo combines her ballerina training with her Antarctic fascination. The results are pretty spectacular. After you meet Harper's quirky family, you come to realize that, no, a ballerina at the South Pole is not the most-unexpected thing in the novel — try a chef father who has to outsource taste-testing.
If you didn't already notice, Up to This Pointe 's cover art was designed by the one-and-only Noelle Stevenson, a tour-de-force in the worlds of YA and comics. Stevenson's the artist behind Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, and she collaborates with Shannon Watters and Grace Ellis to produce Lumberjanes. Oh, and she turned her successful webcomic, Nimona , into a graphic novel last year. NBD.
Stevenson also designed a new cover for Longo's first novel, Six Feet Over It, and it's gorgeous. Seriously, can she just illustrate, like, all the covers from now on? Thanks.
After reading the first two chapters, I think Up to This Pointe is fantastic. But don't take my word for it. Bustle teamed up with Random House Children's Books for the first exclusive look at the first two chapters. Read on below!
- 1 -
The thing about Antarctica that surprises me most? The condoms. They're absolutely everywhere.
I've been in Antarctica a total of eighty-three minutes, so I'm positive more exciting surprises will probably (hopefully) reveal themselves, but for now, the most intriguing thing about McMurdo, the American science station, is all the condoms.
They're on all the tables, shelves, and bathroom sinks. Their abundance, combined with McMurdo's abandoned mining-town/ski-lodge ambience, is giving the place a real frat-house-during-spring-break kind of feel instead of the for-the-betterment-of-the-world vibe the scientists might be aiming for.
I have come here to understand how I got here. Retrace my steps. Sort of metaphorically but, then again, no—actual steps. Every step I’ve taken since I was three years old and first walked onto a dance floor. Since the day I tied my first pair of pointe shoes on my soon-to-be-thrashed feet.
Apparently I’ve been walking all my life on shifting ice, falling snow covering any trace of the path I’ve made, so now I look back and I’m panicked because I’ve left no trail. I’m frozen, paralyzed, no clue behind me to find the way back. How did I get so horribly lost? How, when I was never alone? All this time, people have been beside me, helping me walk straight into this blizzard.
How did I get here?
I told a lie and got on a plane. Four planes. Ninety minutes from San Francisco to LAX. Fifteen hours from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia. The National Science Foundation sprang for Virgin Atlantic, so I had Seinfeld episodes on the tiny seat-back screen the whole way. Then three more hours to Christchurch, New Zealand. No . . . sleep . . . till Christchurch. Overnight in a nice hotel, and the next morning, they handed out sack lunches of cheese sticks and granola bars for the five-hour cargo plane flight to The Ice.
We landed inland, far from the water, on the solid polar ice cap. (Less solid every day. Thanks, Global Warming.) Five hours of roaring engines whined to a stop, and our ears rang. We breathed a future-familiar jet-fuel smell and stepped out onto The Ice. And it was quiet.
Deep, heavy, loud silence in a world of white and blue and black and red. White-blue sky, white snow and ice, black mountains, and our huge shocking-red National Science Foundation parkas.
We slipped and slid all over the ice. Treacherous grooves carved into the ice as texture for the landing strip were so wide I tripped in one and nearly broke my ankle. Weeks ago that would have been a tragedy, but now it wouldn’t matter at all. Now I can sprain all the joints and break all the bones I want. Bring it, Ice.
An hour-long ride in a giant red Terra Bus to McMurdo and we stepped onto The Ice once more, and a precise spot of pain, otherworldly cold, flared in my forehead. Oh my God, it’s like being stabbed with an icicle. Yes, I know—Antarctica, so what did I expect?—but I’m telling you, this is not regular cold. This is . . . it is unreal.
McMurdo is a town. Buildings, muddy roads, tractors, snowplows, trucks, and metal sheds. A winter population of two hundred. The scientists (Beakers, they’re called here) go their way, and I am ushered into bright royal-blue Building 155 with the other support staff. We are janitors, line cooks, research assistants, and flight schedulers. We support the important people. We are mostly Americans and New Zealanders. Kiwis? All this slang I’m picking up already from eavesdropping, and I am the lowest of us all. I am a fingy. (Fucking New Guy. Charming.)
We’re here together for six months. Soon we will watch the sun disappear into the gray cold of the Ross Sea. No planes in or out. No way on or off The Ice until winter ends in September. Which is why we have all undergone stringent medical and dental exams before arriving, and explains all the condoms; conditions like this surely encourage certain warmth-inducing indoor activities, and getting knocked up here in winter would be a dicey, life-threatening thing to do.
Two hundred people at the frozen, dark bottom of Earth: scientists, researchers, support staff.
I am one of three pioneers: high school students, seventeen and barely allowed on The Ice but for a coveted National Science Foundation grant for high school seniors looking to enrich our scientific education. (The aforementioned airplane lie.) We are Wintering Over. We are the Winter Overers. On purpose. We have willingly given our two hundred lives to The Ice and the dark for two hundred reasons. Ninety-nine problems, what?!
See, I’m already delirious.
The huge mittens encasing my hands make it a chore to pull out my earbuds blasting hits from the London Symphony Orchestra, the music of My People, but I do when a McMurdo staff member walks forward to shake our hands. Everyone but me seems to know each other, and no one else looks seventeen. They’re hugging and laughing and talking, and I suddenly really want to lie down.
“Scott!” the guy in charge calls through a humongous beard. “Harper Scott. Scott.” The party is quiet as I raise my huge down-encased arm.
“Scott Scott?” someone calls from the assembled mass. All dudes. Bunch of dudes and me. The three women we flew in with must be scientists, already off to their science dorm building. Beard nods, and I think he smiles, but I can’t tell, because giant beard.
Now everyone turns and looks at me. So much for not being known.
“All righty then, Scott. Let’s find your room. . . .” He flips through the stack of papers on his clipboard and hands me a key stamped 1123. “Right here, main building, second floor. All yours. Bathrooms near the stairs in each hallway. They’ll bring your stuff up later. Welcome Dinner’s at six, so you’ve got a couple of hours. You’ll meet your supervisor then. You’re with . . .” He searches the pages again.
“Charlotte,” I say. She is a marine biology grad student who was once Mom’s research assistant, a favor called in to get me here. Bunch of lying liars who lie. For me.
“Charlotte, right. So I’m Ben, Building One Fifty-Five gatekeeper, personal point person, security. Check in with me when you’re in or out. Here if you need anything whenever. Whatever. Want me to take you up?”
All the dudes are just standing here, listening. I shake my head. “Thank you.”
I walk to the door marked STAIRS, and some of the guys take no care to whisper, “Amundsen’s straight-up grandkids were here last year” and “Never heard of her.”
Yes, being a Scott helped the lie along; I applied late. Not the strongest science résumé. Okay, no science résumé. But I’m here now, so screw off!
Delirious and cranky.
I follow Beard’s directions to the concrete stairwell lit with fluorescent bulbs to another long, dingy hall to the door marked 1123. Home. For six months. Tiny dorm room with a three-drawer dresser and a small desk with a CD player on it that someone probably left behind, because who even has CDs? There is a rack to hang my giant, wet parka on and two single beds, one against each long wall of the rectangular room. During Winter Over there are so few people that we each get our own room. I drop my small backpack and the rest of the cargo plane bagged lunch on one bed and peel off four layers of clothes: hiking pants, yoga pants, leg warmers, wool long underwear. I pull two ski beanies off my head, unwind my long braid of brown hair. I’m numb. That can’t be good.
There is a mirror above the dresser. My clavicles are sharp. No boobs at all and a shadow beneath every single rib. My fingernails are blue. But then again, they often are. Which is its own special issue. Jesus. Me and all my issues.
I kneel on the other bed, beneath the only window in the cinder block walls. The view is mostly of the sides of other buildings, but those black mountains are closer. I can see the tops in the blue-gray-white sky.
I pull my T-shirt and yoga pants back on, and two of the four pairs of socks I’d worked into my giant NSF-issued boots, and crawl beneath the bed’s wool blankets. My teeth chatter. My pajamas are somewhere in my two big duffel bags still being unloaded from the cargo plane. When I get my hands on those pajamas, I’m never taking them off.
There’s a letter somewhere in those bags, too. Unopened. From a person—a guy—I’ve only just met, but who I might miss more than anyone else. Maybe it will stay unread.
There’s a hum in the walls from the central heat. In the phone book–sized employee handbook the NSF gave us, I learned that waste heat from the generators in McMurdo’s power plant heats glycol, which is pumped into the various buildings, and all that means to me is that Beard was wearing a T-shirt and no coat. So once I warm up, I bet it’ll feel pretty nice in here.
Out of the blue, the noise of the warmth running through the pipes makes my heart hurt, because it sounds like the dishwasher at home. One of us always starts it as we’re all heading to bed. At last, days of noise and cold and travel done, alone and quiet, I feel how far away home is. Mom and Dad are thousands of miles—oceans and continents and a hundred degrees of warmth—away. I roll over and face the empty bed across the room.
I may have made a terrible mistake.
- 2 -
140 Days Earlier
Snow is in my eyes, I blink it from my false lashes, but still it falls, first scattered, floating and then insistent, swirling: a blizzard. Our toes drag paths through the drifts, making patterns and circles. Our feet disappear beneath the white, but we keep on, sweating, absolutely boiling under ice-blue lights. Music, urgent as the snowfall’s impetus, swells and races. I can’t see past the dizzy cyclone, nothing but white, and still I point, prepare, whip my head around, and pirouette, turn, turn, turn—
My name called from the darkness beyond the storm trips my concentration. I slip and fall. Hard.
"Oh, honestly," the voice sighs. Madame Simone. Pissed.
The music stops and the snow lets up.
I remain, stunned, on the floor.
“Ladies, if you were under the impression a pirouette would be any easier in a snowstorm beneath a hundred and twelve degrees of Fresnel light, I have no sympathy for you. I will not tolerate this laziness! Spot. Spot!”
From the audience she pounds the floor, her scare-the-crap-out-of-the-students stick probably bending, about to snap. So is she. Were the lights up, we would see the vein above her left eyebrow pulse. I glance at the backstage clock. Ten-fifteen. We’ve been at this for nearly three hours. I close my eyes.
"You’re killing me! Killing your beloved professeur. I am physically dying! It is very simple: single, double, arabesque, plié! Clean, finish it, use the floor! Direct your energy down and up, from inside. Harper, stop turning those feet out! Use your hips. How many times must I say this? My God, it’s like you’ve never seen a dance floor in your lives! Why must you torment me this way?"
The stage lights buzz and click in the snowy silence. Simone rents one of the smaller San Francisco State University theaters for our yearly Nutcracker (performed in November to get a jump on the season, and also it’s way cheaper). Though compared with her studio, it feels huge to us. Especially now.
“Let us attempt to achieve competence this time, shall we? From Kate’s entrance. And, ladies? I will not stop you again. If you bring shame upon yourselves and your families, I wash my hands of it. Music!”
Kate grabs my hand, pulls me up, brushes the snow from my rehearsal tutu.
“Oh my God,” she whispers. “What the hell?”
We hobble offstage and regroup, rotate our ankles, stretch our feet. The music starts, Tchaikovsky’s couldn’t-be-less-subtle Nutcracker.
I rub my poor hip. “Be careful,” I whisper to Kate. The stage is now three inches deep in coconut flakes. White and floaty, it doesn’t melt. Smells like Hawaii. Looks like the South Pole.
Kate exhales, pulls up from her core, lifts her head, prepares, and runs lightly to center stage to start us again. I lean into the light and watch her from the wings.
Any yelling Simone does is definitely not directed at Kate. Endless extension, every turn precise, perfectly executed. Her pointe shoes make no sound, even landing jetés—I could happily watch her forever, even in this tropical snow, which Simone has always said we could never afford, but a bunch of parents donated the money for it this year. We’ve been jonesing for this night. What ballerina in her right mind wouldn’t want to dance the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” with snow really falling, just like the San Francisco Ballet? It takes your breath away, synchronized ghosts moving through the blurry storm, stunning to watch—but clearly a giant pain in the ass to actually dance.
Kate is nearly ankle-deep in the coconut, the snowfall revs back up, and from the shadows, four of us wade through the slippery drifts to join her, our Snow Queen. I concentrate; muscle memory takes over. We watch each other and let Kate lead us in this most painful beauty. The burning in our legs and arms; the raw, open blisters on our feet; the blackened, missing toenails—they all go away. Our breath comes hard and fast, but we smile, sweat and snow in our eyes. We make it look like floating, flying. Effortless.
I turn out from my hips—shoulders back, arms strong—and let the melty joy wash over me. I land my turns. I don’t fall. My heart races.
In all the world there is nothing better, no brighter joy, than this.
The music ends. We are still. Arms crossed, feet pointed, panting chests heaving with restraint, our smiles bright. Snow falls. Silence.
“Well,” comes Simone’s disembodied disappointment. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
- - -
Kate and I sneak down the dark corridors of the science building, where I dump the contents of my dance bag—shoes, hairpins, makeup, medical tape, scissors, hair spray, Bengay, tights—to find the keys to my mom’s office. She is a marine biology professor here at SF State and keeper of a mini fridge full of water and iced tea, and all kinds of delightful snacks.
“Oh, hurry, hurry,” Kate moans. “I’m dying!”
“You are not, you big baby. Just hold on. . . .” I find the key and scoop my junk back into my bag, and we fall inside onto Mom’s futon sofa.
“Thank God,” Kate sighs. She leans over my lap to raid the mini fridge stash. “Chex Mix!”
“Gross.” I drain a liter bottle of water in, like, ninety seconds, lie back against the whale-shaped pillow I sewed in third grade for a Mother’s Day present, and open a bottle of iced tea.
We sit and breathe for a while in the quiet office, dark but for a sea star night-light and the ten-gallon aquarium bubbling on Mom’s desk, guppies and mollies darting through waving grass. Maps of Antarctica and photographs of seals and penguins cover the walls. Kate searches for peanuts, tossing pretzels back in the Chex Mix bag.
"I know it's a pain," she says, "but 'Snow'—don't you love it?"
I nod, drain the tea, and open another bottle of water.
“Plus, if we get trapped in the theater, like if there’s an earthquake or something, we can eat it.”
“Harp,” she says in her mom voice.
“Come on. It’s like running on ice. I’m amazed all of us didn’t fall.”
“Neither is Simone.”
“No, seriously, she’s insane! We get one rehearsal with it and it’s off to the races?”
I love her for saying it. Still, her kindness doesn’t help. I look up into the eyes of Robert Falcon Scott. Explorer. Scientist. His black-and-white image in a place of honor on the wall above Mom’s desk. He is our third cousin’s aunt’s great-grandfather. Or something, I don’t remember. It’s all cross-stitched on a pillow at home if I need to follow the genetics. His blood is Mom’s, the reason for her life of science. His blood is mine, the reason I know I will not fall again.
In the photograph, my ancestor is standing on the Antarctic ice in 1912 at the geographic South Pole before a British flag planted in the snow. He is surrounded by his weary crew, all nearly dead but at last where they intended to be. Inscribed on the photograph’s frame is Mom’s personal version of Scott’s do-or-die spirit: AUT MORIERE PERCIPIETIS CONANTUR. “Succeed, or die in the attempt.”
“You are a beautiful dancer,” Kate says. “You are.” She chews in the silence. “Ashley Bouder!” she shouts. “Thank God ! I couldn’t think of her name; that would have driven me insane—New York, she’s a principal, she falls all the time and no one cares—she’s amazing!”
"Harp. You think Nureyev never fell? Yuan Yuan Tan? Baryshnikov? Come on, that guy probably spends more time lying on the floor than he does dancing.”
“That’s because of the vodka.”
She grabs my foot and shakes it. “Everyone falls.”
What I want to say is, You don’t, but I am a Scott. Self-pity is absent in the double helix strands of our do-or-die DNA, so instead I sigh. “Coconut is too expensive to practice with more than once. She wanted it perfect.”
“Which is her own problem.” Kate goes to the aquarium, sprinkles some dehydrated worms on the sleeping fish. “Just, if she gets on you about it, scream Ashley Bouder in her face. She’ll love it. So listen—aside from your falling and ruining the entire rehearsal—really, how fun was tonight?”
I give in.
“Right?” She sighs. “Cross that off the life list: dance ‘Snow’ with snow? Done!”
She’s right. She is.
“Okay.” I yawn through my smile. “Ready?”
She catches my contagious yawn and stretches. We pull on sweats over our tights and leotards. I write a note to Mom on a Post-it and stick it to the aquarium glass.
Thanks for the sustenance.P.S. Water your spider plant.What kind of heartless monster are you?
I pour the last of my water into the parched soil of the struggling plant, root-bound in a clay pot my older brother, Luke, made for Mom probably also in his third-grade class—such a crafty age.
“Shall we?” Kate smiles.
San Francisco fog is never more beautiful than when we’re boiling hot after rehearsal. I yank my knit hat off my head and shrug out of my hoodie.
“Don’t,” Kate says. “You’ll get sick.”
“That’s a myth. Cold doesn’t get you sick; germs do.” The mist winds around the cypress trees and lampposts of SF State’s rolling green campus, just a few blocks down and across 19th Avenue from the ballet studio and both our houses in the West Portal neighborhood.
“All right,” she says. “Your funeral. Lie in bed miserable and miss the show. Miss graduation. Miss auditions. Just remember I told you so, dummy.”
I pull my hat back on.
The Muni train rattles past, and we cross the tracks against the red.
She hugs me in the pool of streetlamp light at the bottom of her driveway. “It’s a gorgeous dance. You’re gorgeous in it. We’re almost there. Okay?”
“Coconut snow is slippery as snot. Everyone knows that.”
“Gross. Why would anyone know that?”
“It’s known!” She holds my shoulders. “Harp. It’s Friday. We get to sleep in tomorrow!”
Sometimes it is hard to tell if she really forgets things or maybe doesn’t listen in the first place.
“Class,” I say.
“Not till ten!”
“Not ours. I’ve got kindies to teach.”
“Ugh, Saturday morning? Since when?”
“Three years, dude. Sunday, too.”
"You just taught a class before rehearsal!"
“Those were the babies. Tomorrow’s the kindies and first graders.”
“Whatever. Simone can teach them by herself. Sleep in!”
The luxury. She knows I would if I could—teaching makes my own classes possible. I start the walk to my house, waving backward over my shoulder.
“Oh, wait,” I call. “Breakfast! Nine sharp!”
“I’ll sleep till eight-forty-five,” she says. “Hey! Be careful. Walk in the light!”
“Got it, Mom.”
“Good night!” She chaînés all the way up to her door, waves, and shuts it dramatically behind her.
- - -
West Portal hums with Friday night–ness. Loud, drunk SF State kids stumble in and out of bars. Neon lights in bar windows buzz lazily. Upstart little restaurants representing the cuisine of practically every member of the United Nations line both sides of the street. Date-night heels click on the gritty sidewalk. A Muni train clangs on the tracks and disappears past the library, beneath Twin Peaks’ red-and-white Sutro Tower along the rails into the tunnel. My driveway curves up a steep incline to a narrow, two-story white stucco house crawling with night-blooming jasmine planted long before I was born, before my grandparents left the house to Mom, the only reason we’re able to live in this beautiful, overpriced neighborhood. Our porch light burns a perfect circle for me in the foggy dark; I turn one perfect double pirouette.
The house is warm and smells of cinnamon and yeast and cream cheese in the oven—Dad up late baking. HarperCollins published his first cookbook a month before I was born, providing baby-naming inspiration for him, a lifetime of explaining “No, not To Kill a Mockingbird” for me.
I shuffle to the kitchen, drop my bag and myself on a stool at the counter, and wince, shifting off my painful hip.
“What are you doing?” I yawn. The guy gets up at four every morning. He can’t be awake at eleven.
He shakes his head. “What are you doing? It’s a million o’clock.”
I rest my head on my arms. “Rehearsal. ‘Snow.’ ”
“Ooh, really? How was it?”
“You were so excited! Didn’t it work?”
I untie my shoes and let them drop, pull my left foot into my lap and start working at the tape wound tight around the callused ball. My middle toes are black-nailed and fused together by dried blood and a weeping blister. Looks worse than it feels and totally worth it for the eight perfect rond de jambe turns I executed this afternoon before my fall in the snow rendered them meaningless. I pry the scabbed skin apart and watch Dad ease a sheet pan from the oven and set it gingerly on the counter. “If these things collapse one more time . . .” The sink is full of hardened dough disks.
"What is up?" I ask.
“I don’t know,” he whispers. “Yeast is being stupid tonight.” The rolls on his tray are as big as my face, sodden with cream cheese frosting, and they stand tall and pillowy. He sighs. “I wish your mother would get up and taste these for me. I can’t tell anymore.”
Poor man. His own bakery, three cookbooks, and he gets stuck with my brother, Luke, who’s allergic to gluten and nuts and dairy and just about everything else in life, and me, who won’t eat anything, ever. It’s pretty hilarious when people ask if, as a ballerina, I eat like a horse night and day. I have no idea who started this asinine urban legend, but I have personally been on a diet since I was, like, twelve. Thirty hours a week dancing, and still I cannot remember the last time I tasted a real cinnamon roll. I slide off the stool, lean in close to the frosting, and inhale.
“Yeah,” I sigh. “Pretty sure you’re good.”
He will not give up until the rolls are perfect—I know. He is not a Scott by birth but took the name when he and Mom married. Because Scotts are badasses.
He plucks a big hunk from the center of the biggest roll and chews thoughtfully.
“Huh. All right.”
It’s actually not too scandalous he’s still up, given that Thanksgiving, four or so weeks away, is the busiest time of the year for the bakery. You’d think it’d be Christmas, but Thanksgiving is really out of control. He wraps the rolls in a shiny blanket of aluminum foil and tucks them in for the night.
I make my painful way upstairs to get in the shower and soak my injured ass. And my pride.
“Hey,” he calls. “You okay?”
“Because you’re walking like you’re a hundred years old.”
“That’s because I am. Good night.”
“’Night, Benjamin Button.”
I wave from the top of the steps and hobble off.
- - -
Oh my God, a hot shower is the greatest thing ever invented. I let the nearly scalding water run over my head and aching body, rehearsing the “Snow” choreography in my mind again and again. I’m perfect every time. Crap, it is going to be hard to wake up to teach in six hours—no, five because I still have geometry homework I have to do tonight. With rehearsals all weekend, it’s sort of now or not at all. But I will, because Kate is right; we’re so close. We’re graduating in December, one of the main action items of The Plan.
The Plan has been in place since sixth grade. We’ve followed it religiously, and one fall isn’t going to screw it up. We’ve been in ballet class together since we were three years old, devoted to it and to each other. Twelve years old is the magic hour for ballet—by then you either understand this is what you want for your life or you realize it isn’t.
Our parents insisted that we must graduate from high school—real graduate, not GED graduate—which is ridiculous because there are girls who leave home to be apprentice company members all the time in their freshmen or sophomore years. They have tutors or are homeschooled and use their extra time to take private lessons. They have stretching coaches, and it makes me jealous. Even Kate’s private school schedule is flexible enough to allow for some of that. But none of Simone’s dancers have auditioned for San Francisco. And none of them, not one, has ever been as good at Kate. Everyone knows this.
So now Kate and I are Simone’s oldest students, which makes us panic. A ballerina has only a precious few years to put her body through what it must do. We already feel old. Simone’s students either fall away from ballet in middle school, when the lure of soccer or swimming or boys becomes inescapable, or they audition and leave for companies in other states. But never New York, never San Francisco, and always before most of them have even started their periods. While Kate and I slog through high school and dance with Simone. Year after year.
Our urgency, at this point, is palpable.
In the face of this unfair “diploma madness,” Kate and I, after school one day in our sixth-grade year, made a pact. We used sewing needles for a blood oath and drafted our Magna Carta. The Commandments.
The Plan1. Graduate from high school early so when we2. Audition for the San Francisco Ballet, we are ready to go when we are both3. Offered spots in the school or corps de ballet or even straight-up company positions, which would necessitate4. Finding a cheap loft apartment downtown together that has hardwood floors and mirrors and barres on every brick wall so we can5. Live forever in San Francisco and eventually besoloists, maybe even principals, in the company and entertain our fabulous dancer friends and our families in our amazing loft—being ballerinas!
We don’t bother including details such as how there is no such thing as a loft in San Francisco cheap enough to afford on a dancer’s fifteen-dollars-per-hour salary, or the part about the second jobs we’ll have to take just to have enough money to live, loft or no loft. We don’t want to rain on our own parade. Aim for the moon and all that.
Kate and I are a rare breed—native San Franciscans. No one is from here; people like Dad abandoned their East Coast lives to move here because it is the most beautiful city in the world. And the San Francisco Ballet is the best ballet company in the world. It was the first professional dance company in America, and it gave the first American performance of The Nutcracker.
This is our home. This is our company.
Aut moriere percipietis conantur.
Auditions for new students, apprentices, and company members are on January 3. We’ll have our high school diplomas mailed to us and our bags packed, ready to accept our company positions and start our ballerina lives in the loft on Market Street. Or Fillmore. Or Grant. Or at home with our parents until we’re eighteen and can sign a lease. Details.
The hot water is gone. I step out of the shower and wipe fog off the mirror.
Fantastic. Already, a blue-green shadow covers a palm-sized area of my left hip. Hurts to even wrap a towel around me. But I do. And I floss and brush my teeth and comb the tangles from my hair, which falls, straight and dark, way past the bruise, almost to my knees.
I get in bed, and my heroes look down on me from posters tacked to the ceiling, San Francisco Ballet soloists and principals midleap, midturn, dying as Giselle, as Swan Lake’s Odette. And in the center, my own black-and-white portrait of Robert Falcon Scott in a fur-lined coat beside a supply sled at the geographic South Pole.
Mom has regaled us all our lives with the stories of the three main explorers, men who wanted so desperately to be the first in the world to reach the South Pole. Amundsen, Shackleton, and our Robert Falcon Scott.
Shackleton tried, failed, tried again, and was trapped in the shifting ice. It crushed his ship, the aptly christened Endurance, and he and his crew wound up in tiny wooden lifeboats, hiking mountains, and eating penguins for a year to survive and return home. He rescued his entire crew, but he did not cross the continent, the entire point of his expedition. Antarctica won. Mom speaks the least of Shackleton.
Our Scott was the heartbreaker. He and his crew struggled against ferocious windstorms, suffered snow blindness, and reached the South Pole at last—to find Amundsen’s Norwegian flag already planted.
“The worst has happened,” Scott wrote in his journal. “All the day dreams must go. . . . Great God! This is an awful place.”
I think he was wrong; Antarctica is not awful. Antarctica is Antarctica. Scott knew that going in.
Scott and his crew began the freezing, hungry walk hundreds of miles back to their base camp, dying one by one, until, at last, in a canvas tent, the remaining few men gave in. Scott wrote one last entry: “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”
So how did Amundsen march in, plant his flag, and escape with glory and his entire crew’s lives intact? How did Shackleton and Scott make such faithful efforts and still fail?
Why do some people train all their lives to be professional dancers and end up performing interpretive “creative movement” at Renaissance Faires?
Mom worships Scott because he gave his life in his attempt and because he was, to the end, first and foremost a scientist. His insistence, in fact, that experiments and data collection continue as the team struggled to the pole slowed their pace and is possibly one of the reasons why they all died. Nobility.
Succeed, or die in the attempt.
I secretly love Amundsen. He knew how many dogs he needed to pull the sleds carrying food for the men—the dogs themselves dined on fresh penguin. He did not bring a huge, heavy supply of people food, because as supplies were consumed and the sled loads lightened, fewer dogs were needed to pull, so the surplus dogs were killed and eaten.
Studying Amundsen’s and Scott’s nearly tandem journeys reveals what Amundsen would claim the rest of his life is the only truth of his success: “I may say that this is the greatest factor . . . the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it.”
He had a Plan.
For me and Kate, the Plan is all we have ever worked toward since before preschool. Luck is bullshit. What people refer to as “luck” is actually opportunity meeting preparation. Opportunity will come if you invite it. If you are prepared. If you work your ass off and don’t go to parties or screw around with classmates at the beach on weekends. If you babysit and teach Simone’s beginning ballet students so you can afford your tuition. If you take extra high school classes each semester to graduate early, never eat cinnamon rolls, dedicate your entire life to what you truly love and put all you have into it, then there is no way it will not happen. It is, in fact, impossible that it will not happen.
It’s nearly midnight, but I pull out my geometry notes. The Plan will not be derailed by something as stupid as a failed math test. Amundsen in my will, Scott in my blood, I will plant my flag.
The odds of being the first person to reach the South Pole? One in one billion seven hundred thousand.
The odds of becoming a professional ballerina? One in 0.00532 percent of the world’s seven billion population.
I like those odds. Those odds are not luck. To become a ballerina, it is understood you are taking on Antarctica. You’ve got to prepare accordingly.
And you must be willing to eat your dogs.
You can preorder Up to This Pointe today from your favorite retailer. Longo's sophomore novel pirouettes into a bookstore near you on January 19.