Every December, like clockwork, I get knocked down by a severe wave of nausea and I think I will drown in the undertow. It has nothing to do with a stomach flu or a bad shrimp dinner. It’s fallout from my days in The Nutcracker.
At the age of 11, I was possessed by ballet. POSSESSED. My parents should have thought to employ an exorcist. I went insane jumping and twirling around our house. I flung my legs into the air and onto any surface that would hold them. It was a low point for my parents. My ballet fanaticism was at best annoying. At its worst, it resulted in both physical injury and property damage. I was responsible for a few broken ribs, a hole in the wall, and the utter destruction of my mother’s wedding china. Dental bills were a concern because, as my mother put it, it was only a matter of time until I knocked out all their teeth.
My ballet mania culminated around my desperation to be cast as a “party child” in our local production of The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker was a legitimate ballet, not some crapper end of the year recital. Party Child. Those casual little words cannot possibly convey the sheer amazingness of the role. If you had a flying car, a brand new pair of Guess jeans, and a lifetime supply of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, you would still be light years away from Party Child.
The party children were the chosen, the beautiful people. They were girls ages 11-13 who could inhale four boxes of girl scout cookies and still look emaciated. They had good hair, didn’t need glasses, and always had cool dance bags. It was a clique I would have happily sacrificed a chicken to join. PARTY CHILD. I was gonna get there if it killed me.
I had been working my tail off in ballet class along with the aforementioned extra practices at home. On the Sunday of the auditions, I threw down some Tammy Faye Bakker inspired cry-praying at church before my parents took me to a pre-game meal at the Olive Garden. I was hopped up on fettucini alfredo and laser focused on my prize. My stomach was in knots thanks to nerves and an overdose of carbs, but no stomach cramp was going to blow this for me. Hours passed and finally a disembodied hand reached through the door and slapped the list to a wall. My classmates squealed with delight as they read their names under that glorious banner. My name was not there. With a kind of cinematic slow motion nose dive, I scanned the list and found my name under, Rats.
I did not see this coming.
When I was 5 years old, my ultra-strict ballet teacher refused to let me leave class to go to the bathroom and I lost charge of my bladder in the middle of the floor. Standing in a pool of my own urine was far less embarrassing than being cast as a rodent in the biggest ballet production of the year. How could this have happened?!
Perhaps because this was me round Nutcracker audition time.
If they had been casting the role of Chunk’s long lost sister in The Goonies,
I would have been a shoo-in.
After years of reflection, I now understand that the girls who were the fatties, basket cases, and nose pickers ended up as rats. I was a fattie rat. I was joined in the rat club by my friend Shelley (also a fattie rat) as well as four older girls no one had ever seen. They had clearly never attended a ballet class and probably turned up for the audition on a dare. But since everyone who auditioned was promised a part, they were lumped into the rat pack with us.
The blessed party girls, unencumbered by pounds, puberty, or vision problems, were fitted for delicate lace pantaloons. I was loaded into a fat suit the color of an expired armadillo. You stepped into the suit from the back and stood still while an ornery old woman jammed in extra padding to fill it out. The end result was a full body diaper carrying the world’s largest foam dump. There is no way to clean years of sweat out of decaying felt, not that anyone had ever tried. We smelled like a rotting corpse that had been stored in a swamp for safe keeping. The suit was heavy, hot, and miserable. And going to the bathroom was a fuggedaboutit once you were strapped in. At least the head was removable.
Oh the rat head. You might as well have eaten a toilet. Breathing wasn’t an option unless you had your hopes pinned on a staph infection. Vision was limited. Without my Sophia Petrillo glasses I couldn’t see my own feet so I was always one step away from taking a header into the orchestra pit. I had to strip the head off every few minutes to avoid suffocation. It was everything I never dreamed of.
Every Sunday afternoon for three months our loser posse rehearsed with the Rat King, a high school dude who, according to 11-year-old gossip, may or may not have killed a guy in the Hardee’s parking lot on Carter Hill Road. The rat choreography boiled down to staying low to the ground, scurrying, and making rat hands. It’s difficult to scurry while inhabiting a sweat sponge but a drunken truck driver could have managed it without rehearsal. There was no ballet involved. None. This worked for the unidentified girls with no ballet training, their lack of elegance was rat ready. But Shelley and I were pissed. We signed up for tutus and hair ribbons and makeup and applause. We did not sign up for endless suffering inside a wearable padded cell.
I know what you are thinking, by the time the curtain was up and the lights were hot we made the best of our characters and had a wonderful time. Bullshit. I would have rather amputated my own leg using Kool-Aid as an anesthetic. We absolutely did not have fun. We did not receive flowers. We weren’t even photographed by our parents, there was simply no reason to memorialize the lack of achievement. If you are an addict working through recovery, I encourage you to find employment as a Nutcracker rat. It’s the fastest track I can think of to rock bottom.
I would liken the whole experience to Hurricane Katrina, except, unlike New Orleans, Shelley and I have never recovered. To her credit, Shelley quit ballet shortly after our public shaming. I, however, was no MENSA candidate. I continued to try to sway the ballet powers that be by my hardcore commitment to the craft. For my efforts, I won myself another stint as rat dung before I was ‘promoted’ to soldier. It was a lateral move. Soldier is the second shittiest role in the ballet but at least your parents can see your face. You wouldn’t know if it was me or Jeffrey Dahmer under that rat dome.
I’m not saying that I’m still bitter. I am. I’m not saying that I still know the party child dance. I do. I’m not saying that our ballet directors were controlled by demonic forces. Obviously. Let me just say this. Twenty years on I am thin, my teeth are straight, and I have had LASIK surgery. According to Shelley, our small town ballet company is still cranking out The Nutcracker every year AND the auditions are still open to the public.