'Dancing in the wings'


April 18, 2001|By Debbie Allen

* Editor's note: The Ugly Duckling gets an urban makeover in this story about a girl who wants to be a star ballerina.

My mom calls me Sassy, 'cause I like to put my hands on my hips and 'cause I always have something to say. Well, if you had feet as big as mine, you'd understand why.

"You should join the swimming team, since you got those long toes and don't need any fins," my older brother, Hughie, teased.

I shot right back, "At least I don't have that big forehead lookin' like a street lamp."

Mama said, "Stop all that bad talk! You act so ugly sometimes. Hughie, your big head is a sign of intelligence. And Sassy, your big feet will make your legs look longer and prettier in your ballet shoes.

My legs were longer, all right. So long that when I went to tendu, point my toe, at the bar, I tripped Miss Katherine, our teacher, who was coming down the line, looking the other way. SPLAT! She landed under the piano, her legs up in the air. Ooo! It was so funny. Even she had to laugh.

I was taller than the rest of the kids at school, even the boys. At our recitals all the other girls got to dance solos and duets, and wear pretty tutus. I was too big for the boys to pick up, and too tall to be in line with the other girls. So I watched from backstage, dancing in the wings, hoping that if I just kept dancing and trying, it would be my turn to dance in the spotlight.

One day at the end of ballet class Miss Katherine announced, "Mr. Debato from the Russian school is coming next week to look for talented young people for the summer dance festival in Washington, D.C. "

The whole room turned into a whirlpool of excitement as the sign-up sheet was posted. Everyone wanted to try, especially me.

But as I wrote my name down, I heard two girls, Molly and Mona, giggle. Mona said, "Oh please, she'll never make it. They said talent, not a tyrannosaurus."

My heart seemed to stand still. For once I had nothing to say.

I couldn't hide the tears I felt welling up in my eyes, so I just grabbed my dance bag and ran to the parking lot.

I heard a familiar horn honk, and turned to see my uncle Redd in his bright green pickup truck. Uncle Redd had the whitest tight curly hair, smelled of cigars and every day wore something red.

I told him what had happened. "I'm just so much taller than the other dancers, Uncle Redd."

"Sassy," he said, "you gotta look at that as a gift. Being tall means you can see all around, so you can always find that right path to take."

By the time I got home, Uncle Redd had cheered me up, had me laughing and feeling better. As I got out of his truck, he waved good-bye, callin' out, "Make your mark, gal."

On the day of the tryout kids came from all over the city. And instead of standing in the back, I squeezed between Molly and Mona, right in the front row. I ignored their snickering. Miss Katherine came in and introduced Mr. Debato.

By the end of the day there were only seven of us left. Mr. Debato called out everyone's name except mine and asked them to step forward.

Standing alone, I really had to fight to hold back my tears.

Then I heard him say, "Thank you all for coming today. Keep working, keep trying. You are dismissed."

Jumping and shouting, I ran to the parking lot. "I made it! I made it! Mama, I made it!"

One month later Mama and I boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. She held my hand as my heart pounded when we landed.

In class the first day Mr. Debato introduced me to his 12-year-old protege, a boy named Dwight who was five feet 10 inches tall. "Dwight, I think I have found you a partner. Meet Sassy."

Mama was right -- being tall wasn't so bad after all, and neither was having a big head.

By the end of the summer Hughie had won the grand prize at space camp in Alabama, and I got to dance a duet with Dwight in the summer concert. When Dwight lifted me high in the air, I felt like I was dancing on the Milky Way.

My and my big feet making my mark on the world.

From DANCING IN THE WINGS by Debbie Allen, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Text copyright c 2000 by Debbie Allen. Pictures copyright c 2000 by Kadir Nelson. Published by arrangement with Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

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