The Choreography of a Friendship

Author’s Note: I offered my children the opportunity to select their own aliases for this essay. Without the benefit of knowing his brother’s answer, one twin picked “John.” The other chose “Wayne.” So there you have it. For the purposes of this essay, my twins are named “John” and “Wayne.”

It’s Halloween night and John and Wayne have two hours to figure out what costume to wear. Last year they dressed as each other, an inside joke lost on everyone except their closest friends. This year the twins hope to dress up as tethered souls from the horror movie Us, an easy enough costume as long as we can find a red hoodie and a pair of red sweats.

In the car on the way to Target, John furiously pecks messages into his phone.

“Jordan is ghosting me,” he says. “When I asked him at school about trick-or-treating, he made it sound like he was going with someone else. He wouldn’t give me any details. Now he won’t answer any of my texts.”

I’m shocked. Jordan has been a best friend since first grade.

“What does Wayne say?”

John shakes his head. “He doesn’t know anything, either. But I heard Jordan and Eli talking to Marcus. I know they have plans.” He looks down at his phone again.

I offer explanations. Maybe Jordan’s phone is dead. Maybe Eli has to check with his parents. Marcus would never leave him out. John counters with more arguments.

“You don’t understand. When you’ve hit puberty you don’t want to be friends with a twelve-year-old who looks like he’s still in fourth grade.”

For my twins, puberty can’t come soon enough. Unfortunately, from the looks of things, it might be a while.

“They’re going to invite Wayne and not me. They don’t want me to come. But they don’t know how to tell me. I know it’s not easy to be friends with twins. Especially when you want to just invite one of them.” He sighs. “Plus, I’ve been kind of annoying lately.”

And then he lists all the ways he has been a pest. Making jokes when they’ve asked him to stop. Sending multiple texts when friends don’t answer right away. The list is extensive.

“Sometimes I’ll go into a game on Roblox and when I get there, they all leave.”

There is a lot to consider here. I can’t imagine his buddies would try to get rid of him, but John has obviously noticed the social cues, even if he hasn’t respected them. What if he’s right? Sometimes friends move on and you have to get new ones. What if this is one of those times?

“You know, when I was about your age, I had a group of friends. We called ourselves ‘The Fantastic Four.’ We did everything together. Then one day, I opened my math book and there was a note. ‘YOU ARE OUT OF THE FANTASTIC FOUR.’ And that was it. My friends wouldn’t talk to me anymore. Actually, there was just one friend — Holly — who wouldn’t talk to me and she told the others not to be my friend. So if she was around, the other girls ignored me.”

John is stunned. “Really? Why?”

I sigh. It’s still a painful memory. “Well, Holly said I was always showing off. I’d practice choreography on the playground during recess. But I wasn’t showing off. I had such a hard time remembering steps. I needed all the rehearsal I could get. After that, I ate lunch in the library for the rest of the school year because I didn’t want to sit in the cafeteria by myself.” My voice brightens. “But I found new friends. Like Sofia at ballet. And my friend Andrea. You know her, the one with all the dogs.”

There is a lot more to the story. But it’s not exactly age-appropriate, even if John and I were the same age when it happened.


The truth is that Holly, Colleen, Lisa, and I were friends in name only. As a group we did little more than discuss the TV shows we weren’t allowed to watch. The real glue of our friendship seemed to be that we spent most of our time in the same place: Mrs. Vogel’s sixth-grade classroom.

One day Colleen came to school with a book she’d found under her parents’ bed. Judging by the cover, you would not find this book in the library at Eastwood Heights Elementary. Under a title in flowery cursive was an ample-breasted woman in a plaid halter top and jean shorts even shorter than the ones Chrissy wore in Three’s Company — which, it goes without saying, was one of the shows my friends and I weren’t allowed to see.

“It’s all about sex,” Colleen confirmed.

“Lemme see.” I grabbed the book and flipped to a dog-eared passage.

There on the page a guy named Derek was stroking his you-know-what in front of an enthusiastic redhead named Candy. By the second paragraph, which was filled with words I’d previously only seen etched on bathroom stalls, Derek and Candy were doing it. Just reading made me feel tingly in a way I hadn’t known could happen.

“Can I borrow this?” I asked, already shoving the book into my lunchbox. Colleen glanced at the door to our classroom where Mrs. Vogel stood guard.

“Don’t get caught,” she warned.

At home, under the covers with a carefully balanced flashlight on my pillow, I read about this Derek guy. He was a well-endowed gigolo who was a bit of a workaholic. I imagined he looked like one of the Village People — the construction worker, maybe. Derek was on a quest for true love. He agonized that women only liked him for his foot-long manhood and he kept searching for Mrs. Right. At the Laundromat. The grocery store. The beach. The bus stop. Derek satisfied women everywhere he went. But none of it was true love. So he kept looking.

I was appalled and fascinated. The bodies I knew — the ones that could do triple pirouettes and pique arabesques — weren’t sexualized. They were instruments of movement, sensual in a different way. In ballet, an arched back wasn’t a reaction; it was intentional. Legs lifted and spiraled as part of leaps and turns. They were never just “akimbo,” which, as far as I could tell meant “just lying there.”

I wrapped the book in lime green shelf paper and wrote “TINA AND TONY GO TO THE ZOO” across the top in block letters. It seemed the safest way to circulate the book around Mrs. Vogel’s class.

It was October. I was still taking ballet classes with Renée, who had explained to Dee Bee and me that the four teenagers who’d been cast last year as buffoons in Ballet El Paso’s Mother Ginger variation had grown too big over the summer. She’d widened her hands as she described the kind of growth spurts they’d had — inches in widths and curves, not just in height. I had never been in the Nutcracker before and if I could do cartwheels and walkovers, I had a good chance at the part.

Cartwheels were easy. You just had to keep your legs straight. But a walkover required flexibility, strength, and coordination. When Dee Bee did them, she looked like a slinky going down the stairs. When I did, I looked like I was purposely trying to fall on my head. I practiced every chance I could get.

On the day of the audition, Ms. Heuser stood at the front of the studio, frowning as always. Her crimson red hair sat on top of her head in a tangle.

The other girls didn’t need to suck in their flat stomachs, but they did anyway, holding their chins up, just the way Ms. Heuser directed: “Like you’re wearing a diamond necklace at a fancy party.” We were all the same age but they looked like four miniature ballerinas while I looked like a little kid. All knees and elbows.

One of the girls pointed to the white bulge under my tights at the base of my leotard.

“What’s that?” She chided in lieu of a greeting. She didn’t introduce herself, but I knew her name was Sofia.

I turned red. “It’s my underwear.” My mother called them “panties” which sounded like a word either for little girls or sexy women — like the lady on the cover of Colleen’s book — but not for people in between.

“Why do you wear underwear?” Sofia made a face and looked at her friend, who raised her eyebrows. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement: “You are a loser because you wear underwear under your tights.”

“You don’t wear underwear?” I made a face, too. But unlike Sofia, my question was an actual question. This might explain why I was the only person in ballet class whose underwear showed through the tights no matter how often I pulled my leotard down. Was that the solution? No underwear?

Sofia wrinkled her nose. Only babies wear underwear. Only she didn’t say it out loud.

I grimaced back. That’s so gross that you don’t wear underwear. Which I didn’t say out loud, either.

Five of us auditioned for four positions.

It wasn’t like the placement audition that Sofia and I would take years later at San Francisco Ballet School. Nor was it like the cattle call auditions that Dee Bee and I would attend as professional dancers. This audition was simple: the four dancers with the best walkovers would be cast as Mother Ginger’s buffoons.

In some versions of Mother Ginger, the dancers are very young children. They skip and wave and look adorable. For Ms. Heuser, cute wasn’t enough. If she put dancers on stage, they were going to dance.

The first three girls flipped from one side of the studio to the other, Dee Bee among them. They easily passed the test. But Sofia, long and willowy, lacked the strength to push out of her backbends. She didn’t get to cross to the other side of the studio. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much better. Without the coordination to look graceful, my walkovers thudded on the sprung floor.

Ms. Heuser let David do the talking.

“Half the time you’ll rehearse.” David pointed to Sofia. “The other half will be your turn.” I nodded. “Ms. Heuser will choose the dancer with the best walkovers for the fourth slot. You have one month.”

Our first Mother Ginger rehearsal was scheduled on Halloween night. Company dancers still sweaty from class filled the narrow brown hall. Sofia shuffled a deck of cards for another round of Crazy Eights with her friends. I scratched out some math problems in a spiral notebook.

David bounded down the hall with a tape recorder in his hand. He wore a bumblebee costume complete with springy antennae affixed to his head with a headband. He even had a stinger. Something about his brusque manner let us know that the costume was part of a joke that was not for us. Perhaps he had some mysterious grownup party to go to after rehearsal.

“Mother Ginger!” he announced. His antennae bounced up and down. “Follow me.”

Sofia put her deck of cards away. I packed up my homework, pulling my leotard down as I stood up, hoping to hide my underwear. We marched behind David like little ducklings.

Ms. Heuser’s choreography for Mother Ginger was a story. One by one, we emerged from Mother Ginger’s skirt in a series of chaînés, posing with our arms outstretched while César, who was so beautiful he’d been Miss Gay El Paso three years in a row, wobbled above us on stilts and beamed as our proud mother.

For the next several phrases of music, we stage-fought over center stage. When the tone of the music changed, so did our stage-mood. Peace was made between the buffoons. With partnered lifts and cancan-like emboîtés, we grinned and romped in formation, circling Mother Ginger with the most challenging steps we could manage at eleven years old.

Usually, ballet felt like a game whose rules I understood but couldn’t follow — like the difference between a dictionary definition and using the word in a complete sentence. In the ballet studio, I was constantly doing the wrong thing. My elbows sagged when they should have been lifted. When the rest of the class would chassé to the right, I’d end up galloping to the left. But the steps we danced for Mother Ginger were different.

Nobody needed to tell me that I’d look even more mischievous if I raised my shoulders and tilted my head. Or that I could feign staged innocence if I batted my eyelashes. Dee Bee was my partner for much of the dance. She was just as much of an actress as I was. The more we rehearsed, the more creative we became. We could be angels or we could be naughty. Suddenly it was fun to dance. Nobody came out and said that I was doing well, but that’s something else I figured out. Silence was praise.

Ms. Heuser played favorites. It was evident in how she looked at some girls and ignored others. She favored her company dancers over her students and she favored her own students over dancers from other studios. My only chance to be cast in Mother Ginger would be if I mastered walkovers before Sofia did.

Our front lawn was perfect for practicing. The grass was more forgiving than the blacktop at school or the Marley floor at ballet. And no one was watching or judging — unless you counted my mother. I knew she was trying to help, but it was annoying. None of her comments made sense.

“You need to reach out with your leg,” she repeated for the tenth time. She never used the right ballet terms. She said things like “stand with your foot out” instead of tendu and “kick your leg high” instead of grand battement.

I took a deep breath and stretched toward the sky. Tumbling forward, my legs landed with a double thud. I pushed to stand. Technically, it was a walkover but I was too slow getting up.

I tried again. Thud. Thud. Stuck.

“Don’t let the right leg come down. Make it reach up into the next walkover.”

It sounded ridiculous. That would be like a one-footed backbend. Surely I would fall if I tried that.

“One more time,” my mother coaxed. “You can do it.”

I stood at the edge of the lawn. From tendu front I stepped forward and let my legs fly behind me and over my head. My left leg landed. My right leg reached out into the next tendu and then I stood up. It happened so quickly. As if it required no strength at all. Just faith.

My mother clapped her hands. “You got it! That’s it! That’s how the other girls do it!”

I scampered to the edge of the lawn to practice again. It wasn’t like a slinky clunking down the stairs at all. It was like a pinwheel blowing in the wind with one rotation propelling into the next. With a broad smile and a tendu to the front, I propelled myself across the grass.

Sometimes ballet’s learning curve is like a jagged line, like finally getting the hang of a double pirouette. After your first perfect double, it might be a while before you land the next one. Other times it’s like a light switch, with speed and strength working in tandem.

Once your brain figures out how to do a perfect walkover, you never do a bad one ever again.

The switch had been flipped. I could do walkovers both backwards and forwards. I could do a fast walkover. A slow and controlled walkover. I could even do them to the left.

At some point between Thanksgiving and our first Nutcracker, I reached under my desk to pull out my math book. As I opened it to the assigned page, an index card fell out onto the floor. It read: “YOU ARE OUT OF THE FANTASTIC FOUR.”

My face stung and I knew I was turning red. I looked over to Holly. She jerked her head away, pretending she hadn’t been watching me.

At lunchtime on the blacktop, the other girls ignored me.

“Hey, guys. Stop playing!”

“Do you hear anything?” Holly asked Colleen, who shook her head. They linked arms and walked away. It was not unlike Ms. Heuser calling to César to show Mrs. Armendáriz who was in control.

After school I caught Lisa’s attention. What happened? What did I do?

Lisa shrugged. “Well, you’re always dancing. It’s like you think you’re better than everyone else. Like you’re always showing off.”

My jaw dropped. I wasn’t showing off. I was trying to keep up.

The next day during the hustle before school, Holly said in a voice louder than necessary, “Look! I made a new cover for The Book!” She held it up for all to see. My lime green cover had been replaced by a shocking pink one. She’d kept the title: TINA AND TONY GO TO THE ZOO was written in block letters — suspiciously like the letters on the index card I’d found inside my math book.

Our class clown grabbed it out of her hand. He was in mid-sneer when Mrs. Vogel came up behind him and deftly snatched the book away. She didn’t ask any questions. She just put it on top of her desk and opened her roll book as if nothing had happened. I was grateful the title wasn’t in my handwriting anymore.

Every day after lunch Mrs. Vogel would sit on the corner of her desk and read to us books like Charlotte’s Web and Watership Down. But that afternoon she stood, holding The Book in its original form, revealing curvy flesh on the cover.

We sat as still as possible, unsure what tirade would follow. Would she call our parents? Could we get expelled?

“This book!” Mrs. Vogel shook it at us and then shook her head, dabbing at her eyes. She was crying. “Oh, children! Making love is something very special and very wonderful. It’s not like what’s in this book.”

Holy frijoles. Mrs. Vogel has had sex.

Momentarily forgetting I was friendless, I tried to catch Colleen’s eye. Mrs. Vogel has been naked with Mr. Vogel! But not like Derek was naked with his landlady.

Colleen was scrunched down at her desk. Her face was bright pink, not unlike the pink on the cover Holly had made. If Mrs. Vogel hadn’t known before whose book it was, she certainly knew it now.

“Making love is a treasured experience between a husband and wife.” She choked between sobs. “Children, this book is trash. And it is my job to make sure that you know that the real world is not like that.”

Oh! That was truly disappointing to hear. I knew stuff like this didn’t happen in real life, at least not in El Paso. Maybe in a more exciting city, like Albuquerque. I knew it was fantasy in the same way I knew that spiders couldn’t spin webs with words in them. But just as I believed that Charlotte and Wilbur exemplified true friendship, I wanted to believe that sex was exactly the way Derek experienced it: exciting, fun, and leaving everyone breathless afterwards.

That afternoon in the dressing room, I watched the company dancers change. Like superheroes, they shed the costumes of their ordinary daytime identities as waitresses and substitute teachers. They donned colorful Lycra leotards that pinned in the front and ripped black tights with runs that looked like battle scars. Their curves were calf muscles and quadriceps, not hips and bosoms. These were the people I wanted to be like. Not Derek and Candy. Not Holly or Colleen.

Inside the studio, David practiced double tours from his Russian variation. Sometimes he landed in a perfect fifth position. Sometimes he wobbled. But regardless of the outcome, he took a deep breath and tried again. Renée rehearsed the pique turns from the coda of her Sugar Plum Fairy solo. Everyone was trying to be the best they could be.

In some ways the older dancers were just as uninhibited as Derek and all the other naked people in Colleen’s book. They stood in the nude in the dressing room as they discussed a difficult step or a juicy nugget of gossip. And I’d seen firsthand last year during Sleeping Beauty when one of the soloists had a quick change. She took off her whole costume in a corner near the prop table. Even though she was in plain sight of everybody backstage — even the stagehands — nobody stared or said a word. She peeled off one tutu and donned the next as nonchalantly as my mother changed her earrings.

If this had been Derek’s world, that ballerina would have succumbed to her animal instincts with a stagehand up against the prop table. She would have been late for her entrance and her bodice would be missing some hooks. But of course, no one I knew in real life seemed to struggle with the same impulse-control issues that Derek and his lady friends contended with. It was ridiculous to imagine. A pig talking to his spider friend was more believable.

Normally I came to ballet already in my class uniform but that afternoon I wanted to know what it would feel like to change in the dressing room, in front of everybody else. I crouched in the corner, pulling off my underwear when I pulled off my jeans. I stretched my pink tights over my bare skin. It felt different, like I was still naked. I didn’t feel brave. I just felt exposed. When it came time to put on my leotard, I faced the wall, even though I knew the rest of the girls were too busy chattering away to notice.

Maybe the middle way wasn’t about what a body could say but what a body could do. Evidently both Derek and the Vogels did the same stuff with their bodies — at least in a general sense. But Mrs. Vogel seemed to think that a naked body could only talk to one’s spouse — everything else was shameful — while Derek’s body yammered on (and with) to anybody who would listen.

Sitting on the bench in the dressing room, I watched the older girls. Their bodies radiated. But unlike the women in Colleen’s book, they did not beckon. As if each dancer was a sun basking in her own glow. I tugged on my leotard, forgetting that there was no underwear to hide.


In my story to John, I leave out the part about Colleen’s book. I leave in the part about the walkovers.

“Holly never talked to me again. Not even at our 20th high school reunion.”

His mouth drops open. “Really?”

I’d seen Holly from across the room. Her eyes passed over me as if I weren’t there. I’d wondered if she was one of the ones in high school who knew of me as “the One Who Went to San Francisco.” But maybe she hadn’t kept tabs on me at all. Maybe our friendship had been one-sided, something that had meant more to me than it had to her. I did see Lisa at that reunion. We’d become friends again in ninth grade and Facebook friends as adults but I never asked her if she remembered what had happened in Mrs. Vogel’s class.

“So you never got your revenge?” John asks.

“No,” I say a little too sadly. But that’s not exactly true, either. Mrs. Vogel knew I’d been ostracized by our friend group and I think she suspected Colleen’s book had been the reason. After the Book had been discovered, she was uncharacteristically lenient with me while increasing her impatience with the rest of our class — special treatment I readily took advantage of. Ms. Heuser’s late rehearsals meant that I was always behind on homework. To cover up my lateness, I submitted history homework with math exercises or attached math problems to my spelling quizzes, hoping Mrs. Vogel would just think of me as disorganized. It worked to the extent that my grade never suffered the way it would have if another student had turned in late work. At the time I thought Mrs. Vogel felt sorry for me. But looking back, a more plausible explanation is that she thought of me as the moral compass who stood up to the sexual deviants of sixth grade. I didn’t question the favoritism but I knew Holly was responsible for it.

To John, I give a different side of the truth: “Those girls weren’t my real friends. I practiced walkovers because doing well in ballet was important to me. And my work paid off. Know what else? Sofia never held it against me that I got the part instead of her. That’s a real friend.”

We buy a hoodie and sweatpants at Target. Now all John needs to complete his costume is a pair of scissors. Unless he’s just going to stay home and watch TV, in which case his outfit is complete. Jordan still hasn’t responded to the barrage of texts and neither have any of his friends. John scrolls through his phone and fights back tears.

“Look, if we get home and it turns out that Jordan and Wayne and all the guys have already made arrangements, we’ll make a great night of it, just you and me. We’ll watch The Shining and I’ll let you eat all the candy you want.”

John squeezes my arm. “Mom.” He looks at me and gives my hand a little pat. “No offense. But that is so lame.”

At least we have the laughter that follows.

I wish I could be the kind of parent who reassures her kids by telling them everything is going to be okay. But I’ve never been able to do that. When the twins were born, they were so tiny. Matt and I spent hours standing over their isolettes. The hours became days. The days became months. We watched as they were hooked up to the machines and monitors that kept them alive. Sometimes their hearts beat often enough and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they breathed deeply enough. Too often they didn’t. I knew I could not make any promises about their future. I still won’t make promises.

But I do know about resilience. I know about loyalty. I know how to listen to your heart and take deep breaths when things get tough.

At home a bemused Wayne confirms: Radio silence from the group text. It might be a night for The Shining after all.

Then: a ruckus at the door. Pounding. Yelling. It doesn’t sound like trick-or-treaters. It sounds like a riot. I open the door to an Elvis, a Dementor, a ninja, and a thing in a pink feathered hat and rhinestone sunglasses (Elton John, perhaps?) — all taller than me. They yell over each other. Their fragments form a story.

“John! Wayne!”

“I got locked out of my phone — ”

“Come on!”

“ — faster to just run here!”

“We didn’t want you to think we left — ”

“Let’s go!”

The gang’s all here and ready to go.

John’s gaze locks onto mine and his eyes glisten with relief.

“Mom! I’m not ready!” He grabs his hoodie out of the bag and pulls at the tags. Now it’s my turn to give him a squeeze.

“It’s okay, honey. Don’t worry. They’ll wait for you. They’re your friends.”



“Choreography of a Friendship” is excerpted from The Nutcracker Chronicles, forthcoming from She Writes Press in Fall of 2024.

Image: photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.