Essays

Battle Scene

Ballet, trauma, and rebirth

Ian Spencer Bell
Graphic with hands holding ballet slippers, weighing scales, and cigarettes.
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

I was twelve, on my way to ballet, staring at my reflection in the passenger mirror, when my mother said, “Grace Kelly—you look just like Grace Kelly.” Indeed for a moment for some, I was beautiful. Cheekbones and legs. At the barre, in the wings, stoned on the playground at midnight, I prized beauty above all. Beauty, I thought, was power.

I was thirteen or fourteen when I was raped. I can’t remember. It was October. I can’t remember if it happened before or after my birthday. I mean, if I think really hard I can, but I try not to. I hate to. If I go too deep into it, I feel like I’ll fall apart, break into a thousand Giselles. Or worse, I’ll become the villain of classical dance, that old muttering witch. I think that’s why I was drawn to the works of George Balanchine, whose ballets are as much about the music, lines, and energy, as they are about the people who dance them.

Look, I’ve done it. I’ve broken from the rape scene to write about something else. From the ancient studio I hear, Dont break the line—make it round, make it perfect, make it clear.

He had dark eyes, a sly smile, and a strong, small build—from holding his cello, I thought, close to his body. He wasn’t gay. He was bi. He passed. His friends were straight. He chain-smoked Reds, occasionally Strikes, and when I got near him like I’d tried to all that fall, I could smell the smoke on him, in his hair and on his hands. I’d catch a whiff of whisky or weed or wine, or all three, on his breath, behind his ear, in the collar of his button down. Under his shirt, in those jeans, his body was duking it out: rib to heart, knee to gut.

I can still see him, my crush, on the back path, one hand fingering a cello exercise, not quite mastering it, the other hand smoking, flicking the butt to the pines, turning fast on the heels of his bucks to head out in another direction, to the parking lot or soccer field to blow off the afternoon with a bud. My friend, a drag queen, a musician, a modern dancer, told me my crush didn’t have enough talent to be as lazy as he was. (Yes, queen, read.) My crush knew that. We all knew or had started to know what we were—and what we were capable of—those first weeks at the conservatory down South.

I had already learned that I hadn’t worked hard enough and that my gifts were few. I was hands and a pirouette, a pair of hyperextended legs, a pretty face, a moody disposition. I jumped high and fast, but I was no trickster. And I didn’t care to press a ballerina over my head. To be a professional, to remain at school, I’d have to butch it up. And I’d have to make my body marble. At the September examination, the nurse—clunking the measure down on my head, squeezing my fat with pinchers—said, “Shorter, softer, than the rest,” and “You’ll want to get down to about six to eight percent,” speaking of my fat. “We’ll check back. Otherwise, probation.”

I learned to roll out of bed for crunches, to straddle my legs against the wall, to tuck my feet under the dresser, to draw the alphabet with my toes, to roll my calves and arches on tennis balls—to do all this before technique. I learned that a Coca-Cola can be a meal, a hand an ashtray, cologne a kind of performance. I learned that padded dance belts are cheesy and that tights should be worn high up the ass. I learned that movement is the first language and that ballet is always woman. I learned that exhaustion feels right and good and that everything must finish.

And I learned to smoke cigs on the porch before bed because older dancers did and because I could see him then, my crush. “Sit with me,” he said one night, shaking a cig from his pack, lifting his chin an inch, like how I do now when I want to fuck. I was coming up the walk, readying for curfew. Jazz played from the tennis court. Visual artists slept in a pile on the lawn. One sketched. Ballerinas with armfuls of fruit pranced by, hair bouncing, calves bouncing, shoulders broad as wings, with necks that smelled of Angel and Égoïste, and dark batting lashes.

When I confronted my rapist about the bet, he gave me a bag of pot—his apology, I thought, for pinning me down, biting my neck, forcing his cock inside, telling the boys I wanted it bad, telling them I was good.

He had seen me the night before—watching me on my way to the bathroom. I’d seen his door widen, his amber eyes, the hair at the back of his neck when he turned suddenly.

“Hi,” I said and took his cig. He lit it, and I swear for a moment the world was right, like I was going to be the type of person who’s in one relationship their whole life.

“Smoke you out,” he said.

I said he could. I’d smoked for a year or more, first with hippie friends, then with older dancers at another conservatory.

I said good night to my resident-life advisor and met my crush at his door, helped him lay a towel underneath it to conceal the smoke.

“No getting out,” he said, chuckling, digging his fingers into the folds of the pale blue towel.

I sat next to him on his bed, felt the thin knit of his blanket, saw the hollows in the soles of his loafers kicked off under his desk. We listened to Janis Joplin’s Pearl, passed the bowl back and forth, took deep hits, coughing hits, one after the other. He poured me a cup of wine. I drank it fast. Outside boys shouted. He cranked the window shut.

“Kiss a boy,” he said.

“No,” I said.

His tongue tasted mine.

“Wait,” he said when I got up. He stood then, touched the dial on the stereo, as if to adjust the volume, took my hand, kissed me again, led me to the bed, held his knee between my thighs. His beard cut my face. He yanked my pants down.

In ballet you ask before you dance. That’s the first lesson of pas de deux: The man gives his hand, the woman takes it. I’d learned to turn my wrist to tender my hand. And I excelled at the other part—the softening of the knuckles and elbow, the hover of the pointer, middle, and ring fingers, the drift to the upturned palm. Just today I showed students New York City Ballet’s film version of The Nutcracker, with Darci Kistler as the Sugarplum Fairy and Damien Woetzel as her Cavalier. She barely has to look as she takes his hand. She’s her own instrument.

Another thing I love about Balanchine: Seduction is mutual. Both dancers and audience find pleasure in bodies made for diversion.

Forgive me. When you’re someone who’s been raped you learn to break from scene.

I was down the hall in the middle of the night, locking the door, hiding in my new blue duvet. When morning came, I got down on the floor and started my crunches.

Of course, I thought of going to the infirmary. Of course, I thought of finding my way down the hall to the porch, to the shadows on the tennis court, to the dents in the lawn, to the pine at the foot of the sickroom steps. I thought of punching in the code, slouching on the table for the nurse who’d pinched my fat and seen not only the softness of my body but also the softness of my person, my deep queer Southern softness. I need an AIDS test, I’d whisper. I have AIDS now. Gays are cursed with AIDS.

But I couldn’t be late for technique.

I found my spot at the barre and then a place in the back, my face red from his scruff. After class I avoided the changing room and the boys and their dopey banter. In algebra I read the carvings on my desk, traced my fingers over the quiz, gazed into the white at the top of the page.

By lunch it felt like the whole school knew. “Here she comes,” said one of the older queens, adjusting her halter, climbing down from the cafeteria chair. “Here comes that slut.”

Slut, my first sexual identity. By ninth grade I was mostly out. I didn’t pass. I’d been chased from the mall a month before—Faggot! Pussy! Queer!

I’d told friends. My mother was coming to terms with it. Teachers knew. I was one of three obviously gay male dancers in the program. The others were in college.

Look, I’m doing it again, not saying what happened. The rapist told everyone I was a slut. He said that I begged for it, and he collected on his bet. Men, boys, had wagered to see who would fuck me first. I was humiliated.

And I was thrilled. My body could beguile.

Even children’s ballets are about seduction. In The Nutcracker, Marie, as she is called in Balanchine’s version, is seduced by her imagination. She wishes to be seen in life as she is in her dream: the victor of the battle, the virgin bride queen.

In our Nutcracker, I was cast as the Prince. After the first rehearsal, the ballet master put an arm around my waist, pulled me close, said I was the best the school had had—better than the boys in New York City Ballet. I believed him. I was fourteen.

I believed other teachers, too: “Sleep more, eat less.”

At night in the bathroom mirror, I practiced surprise, courage, joy. All week I prepared for Saturday rehearsal, for my Battle Scene sword fight and Land of Sweets pantomime. The audience would see me as I wanted to be seen: brave, chaste, upright.

Most rehearsals I sat under piano with the principal girls while we waited to dance. The girls either hadn’t heard the gossip or didn’t care. They busied themselves with their hair, sewed ribbons on shoes, stretched in splits, skimmed The Scarlet Letter.

I watched the Sugarplum Fairy. She had slept through the first act so she could get through the second. When Act II began, she sat up from her bags, sweats, and coats and began to do Pilates. When she finished, she pinned her hair into a twist, painted her lips, and made her entrance. It was then that I danced the pantomime. I’d tell the court about the Battle, how Marie saved my life by throwing her slipper at the King of Mice, and how together we travelled through the white forest to The Land of Sweets. At the end, we’d bow to one another, and the Sugarplum would tell her subjects to dance for us, Marie and me, and exit stage right for a barre before the pas de deux.

The older queens never warmed to me—the fat ones hated me for being thin, the ugly ones for being attractive. All the queens hated me for having been chosen by the rapist.

By the time the Sugarplum took her Cavalier’s hand, she’d already danced more than two hours of technique and warm up. She was taffy. And at ninety pounds her partner easily carried her around the stage. After their first bow, he danced his forty-five-second variation while she hung over her legs and heaved, swore she’d smoke less. And then it was her solo. By the end she struggled to stay in the air. She fell from her turns.

“I’ll cut it,” the ballet master shouted one Saturday. “And I’ll cut anyone who does not lose at least five more pounds.”

The Sugarplum’s bloated belly contracted and expanded as he listed her faults, then ours. I watched the floor, the dust rabbits in rosin, the pointe shoe scrapes, the hair in peeling tape. I wished for a cigarette, a banana, a half a bagel with strawberry jam. I wished the ballet master would fall over dead.

There are two deaths in The Nutcracker: the King of Mice and Marie. The King’s death is quick. Marie throws her shoe and the Prince plunges in his saber. For Marie, however, it’s slower—the full length of the piece. In the first act, she experiences a prolonged petite mort: The walls of her house swell, the Christmas tree shoots to the chimney, and her beloved nutcracker becomes a man-child sword-fighting Prince. At the conclusion of the second act, Marie and her Prince depart The Land of Sweets on a flying sled. She leaves behind her dream. It’s the end of childhood.

And now we arrive at another death, the end of the ballet. The curtain goes up and reveals dancers as they are: dripping makeup.

When I confronted my rapist about the bet, he gave me a bag of pot—his apology, I thought, for pinning me down, biting my neck, forcing his cock inside, telling the boys I wanted it bad, telling them I was good.

Good, an essential element of classical ballet and another reason I live for Balanchine. Balanchine dancers practice being good at dancing, not playing to an audience. A Balanchine ballerina told me once that the hardest part of being onstage is being yourself. After I was raped, I didn’t know how to be myself anymore. A prince or a whore, a child or a man? My body held the legion: Isadora, Vaslav, Martha, Merce, Alvin, Rudi. But I had no idea. I looked down at my feet and saw broken nails—not emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. I never felt uglier. And hadn’t I done what ballet demands, used my beauty to make men, boys, want me?

I smoked. Marlboro Lights, Benson & Hedges, Dunhills, a pack of Camels now and then, and weed—in blunts, bowls, bongs, and joints, in cars off-campus after school, in my bedroom with the door toweled and locked.

It was a matter of weeks before I was caught. It happened the night of a school dance. I stuck my head out my window and took a few hits, laced up my green suede Dr. Martens, lit a cig. At the commons I leaned over the rails, looked down on the revelers. Dancers kicked, turned, jumped, and were lifted, in glitter, hair dye, boas, wigs, heels, fans, and kilts. Under my jean jacket I wore a bowling shirt from the Salvation Army. I bought it that day after a tromp through the kudzu with a bottle of strawberry wine and my new friend, Roach. She was meeting me there with her metal pipe and another baby bal, as we were called. We planned to go the edge of campus to smoke. On the way we talked about Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. A friend of the rapist ran up from behind, a dirty boy with long black hair. He asked for weed. “I know you’ve got it,” he said. “He told me he gave it to you.”

I took off then with Roach and the baby bal to the music practice rooms, running all the way, crazily doing grand jetés. In the padded piano cell—one I knew the rapist used for practicing and smoking—we puffed a bowl fast. I remember staring at my jean jacket, thinking how perfectly it fit in the crack under the door.

And I remember the bang and shout, “Campus Police. Open up!”

It was the baby bal’s first time.

“You’ll be charged,” the officer said, “as minors.”

In my room I took a Valium I’d been saving, given to me by my family doctor. I sobbed into my pillow. Around midnight, I tried to get a message to Roach and the baby bal: I love you. Im sorry. Its my fault.

Was it the next day that my name was struck from the call sheet? We were sent home, suspended—not kicked out. “If you weren’t a boy, and if those girls didn’t have perfect bodies . . . ,” other dancers said.

The Sugarplum met me at her emerald Taurus and drove me through the decaying city blocks to the mall for frozen yogurt. “They’ll forget. And there will always be another Nutcracker,” she said, paying for the yogurt, handing me another cig, and on the way out, showering me in Eternity. There will always be another Nutcracker.

Not a week later I was on the edge of the examining table, kicking my heels against the base, waiting for the doctor to return so she could draw my blood for an HIV test. But first she had to ask my mother to pay for it. I was a minor.

I didn’t tell her I’d been raped. I didn’t tell my mother, either. I didn’t tell anyone. Who’d believe me? Who’d care? I was a faggot minor.

I was at home in bed reading, waiting for the doctor’s call, when I heard about the drug bust. Had I said anything? Roach and the baby bal wanted to know.

I hadn’t. Not a word about the weed, acid, or speed. Nothing about the Captain Morgan or Colt 45. Before I’d left, my stepfather, an attorney, said, “You don’t have to say a word.”

The dorm was still abuzz my sophomore year. (Good thing that slut’s pretty because no one likes a narc.) Most of the school hated me because they lost their pot supply. I’d been busted first.

The older queens never warmed to me—the fat ones hated me for being thin, the ugly ones for being attractive. All the queens hated me for having been chosen by the rapist.

I told everyone I was celibate. And I stopped drinking and smoking.

But I was called into the assistant dean’s office. “Come,” he said, closing the door, gesturing to a chair, sliding back onto his desk, spreading his legs wide, showing off his dancer thighs. I sat—not touching the back of the chair, sweating in tights and a T, having just come from class. “I hear you’re the ringleader for sexual activity in your dormitory,” he said. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

The fluorescents chattered. The cinderblocks throbbed.

“Let’s take a look at your horoscope,” he said, gathering the paper from behind him, edging forward. “I think you and I should meet here more often, no?”

I don’t remember speaking. And I don’t remember going back, except when I was reprimanded, which was regular enough: “Dancers don’t wear their hair that color.” “Take that ring out.” “It’s called mens class.”

My junior year a new teacher arrived. His body was small like mine. And he was lively, like how I’d been. He looked at me like he’d known me his whole life. In class he seemed to like that I was wired—awake to the mirror, the music, my body, his.

My senior year he followed me into the theater. I used it as a cut-through. The house and stage lights were out. Glow tape lit the stairs and dotted the passage behind the orchestra seats. I heard the door click. I heard his walk. I’d come to know it. And as he got close, I took off for the exit and the bright outdoors.


The last ballet I performed was Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was a courtier. After the dress rehearsal the director approached. “I see what you’re trying to do,” he said. “Make it smaller.”

He was talking about my hands and wrists and neck. I was trained to be generous. I was trained to dance big. That’s the Balanchine way, to give your whole body to the house.

I see flashes of the final show: the bald heads of musicians bobbing in the glow of the orchestra, the crashing curtain, the work lights exposing wet, crying dancers. I remember cleaning off my dressing table, strolling out into the post-matinee light, feeling at home in the city, meeting friends for martinis, flirting with a bartender when he asked my age—I was twenty—flirting harder for a second and third drink, and stumbling in the spring dark to the toilet, holding myself up by the rack of postcards to find my face, my dancer’s body—me—in the silvery, spotted mirror.

Ian Spencer Bell is a dancer and poet based in New York City.
Originally published:
October 18, 2021

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