My ballet teacher’s studio wall featured a black-and-white photograph of her dancing as the prima ballerina for Boston Ballet in the 1960s. Edra Toth was captured in one of her favorite positions, écarté, which translates from French as “separated” or “thrown apart” because of the way the dancer’s body seems pulled in two different directions. The image was striking in its softness—the elongated L shape of her arms, fingertips floating above her extended leg and curved foot; the profile of her head, slanted down, eyes tracing past her lower arm into the shadow. The fluid lines of her arms and legs glowed white against the black backdrop, and perhaps it was the old camera’s quality, but it was as if she were dancing as a mist, rising up out of the darkness.
I followed Edra out of the studio after an adult ballet class in Dover, New Hampshire. She wore an old fleece and a purple fuzzy hat that resembled an oversized sock. She was carrying a floral bag full of clothes and CD cases, a music player, and a box of tickets for her upcoming production of The Nutcracker.
“Let me help,” I said.
“Oh, don’t worry, I have it,” she said, letting me take the box anyway.
The air cut deep into our lungs, and our breath billowed as we walked across the lot to her car. Now in her sixties, Edra still carried the hard-earned posture and physique of her Boston Ballet days, walking everywhere as if crossing a stage.
I set the box down in her trunk. Edra had her cigarette lit before I looked up—an American Spirit with a plastic tar filter attached, stained brown and red from tar and lipstick. Her thin fingers were layered with rings, and she had long, painted nails that curled at the ends. She puffed daintily, clouds of smoke fading into the night.
Edra had cast me in The Nutcracker as of one of the dancers in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” The show was a couple of months out, and I was nervous. I was twenty-four years old and had never performed en pointe before. But mostly I was excited. I thanked Miss Edra for giving me the part.
She hugged me tight. “I’m your biggest fan,” she said. “My biggest regret with you though—just one regret.” She took another drag, squinting as she blew out. “All those years.”
“In high school?” I asked.
“Yes. All those years you could have been dancing.”
She exhaled her last puff, crushing her cigarette with the toe of her shoe. “And you listen to me,” she said, her eyes locked on me. “Don’t you ever give it up again. Things are going to change. But that barre . . .” She pointed back to the studio. “That barre will always be there.” She hugged herself for a moment in the cold. “And when you walk into the studio, you leave your crap at the door and you dance straight through a ninety-minute class, and at the end of it all your baggage doesn’t feel so heavy anymore.”
I nodded, and she looked almost angry. “Because ballet is not a sport. It’s not a game. It’s not athletic.” Her tongue clicked with the word. “It’s about the heart. It’s about the soul—because ballet touches your soul.” She poked my collarbone. “You can’t hide who you are at that barre,” she said. “You can’t hide who are you in class. And you certainly can’t hide yourself on the stage. It’s as clear as day who you are. Everyone can see it.”
The wind grew harsher against the white warmth of our breath, and snow started to fall and spin, flakes sparkling on our sleeves.
I first met Miss Edra when I was twelve. My family had just moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, and shortly after settling in, my mother began her search for a ballet studio to continue my training. I had started taking dance lessons when I was three, and back then ballet was all about being a princess. It was about the tutus. The crowns. The smooth slippers that came out of the pink box, wrapped in tissue paper like a magical gift from some fairy world far, far away. It was about the slightly intoxicating self-awareness that comes from dancing with your reflection in the mirror.
But at twelve, I didn’t feel much like being a princess anymore. I didn’t feel much like doing anything anymore. I had been abused by my fifth-grade teacher the year before and was still caught in the trauma of it all—trying to make sense of something that didn’t make sense. Her sharp voice and soft hands were still haunting my dreams. I was tired—not only from the year-long abuse and grooming, but also from the lawsuit we had filed against the school and the miles and hours we had spent on the road driving to depositions and counseling appointments. I was sick of sitting in cold leather seats, talking to men in stiff suits whose nods only made me feel more alone. And by the time we had moved states, my life had lost the sense of wonder that fuels childhood. The fire that had once burned inside, motivating me to try, to take chances and risks, had faded.
But my mom kept going on about this new ballet teacher she had found. One who taught real, classical ballet. And because I didn’t have anything else to do, and because a small part of me still hoped—still believed anything was possible—I gave it a try.
After driving forty-five minutes through winding country roads, we arrived at the brick building in Wolfeboro where Miss Edra held her classes. My mother walked me up the stairs, the cold wind folding in behind us as the door shut. The hallway was dark and wide, and my mother’s heels clicked as she led me to the doorway where Miss Edra stood.
She wore black pants and a shirt that wrapped around her small waist, and she had on masterfully large earrings—red gemstones that covered nearly her entire ear. Her hair was short, light brown and gray, and it lifted off her face as if a constant wind held it back.
She bent down and held out her hand. “It is good to meet you,” she said, soft wrinkles appearing in the corners of her mouth and eyes as she smiled.
But I felt nervous. It was hard to trust a teacher’s face so close to mine.
“I’m so glad we found you,” my mom said, shaking her hand next. “Good ballet training is harder to come by in New Hampshire.”
“Oh, yes,” said Miss Edra. “That’s why I moved here in the first place. I wanted to teach where the level of training I was given did not exist.”
Miss Edra had grown up in poverty, but at ten years old, she received a full scholarship to train under the founder and director of Boston Ballet, Ms. E. Virginia Williams. At thirteen, Edra entered the company’s corps de ballet; at fourteen, she moved up to soloist; and at sixteen, she became principal. “On the stage, I came to life,” she often said, eyes glowing. She danced lead roles in countless ballets across the country and even performed for President Johnson at the White House. After a decade-long career with Boston Ballet, Edra traveled the world as a dancer for various companies and began teaching ballet before meeting her husband and moving to New Hampshire in 1998. Eventually, she founded her own company, Northeastern Ballet Theatre, with studios in Dover and Wolfeboro.
The old gym made the class of four young girls look even smaller. I shuffled around in my ballet slippers, remembering what the floor felt like as I slid my foot against it, inhaling the sweet scent of leather and sweat. I looked up at the stage and pictured the heavy curtains opening. It had been only six months since my last ballet class, but I felt behind watching the other girls warm up. They seemed a couple of years younger than me, shorter, their faces softer. But as they stretched, their legs reached all the way up to the barre. I couldn’t even do a split anymore.
“Okay, dancers, let’s begin. Left hand at the barre,” Edra said. The first half of all ballet classes is spent at the barre, doing exercises to warm up your muscles and mind before coming to the center. I stood tall in first position—heels together, toes apart, pushing my toes back more to make it look like I had a bigger turnout than I did.
“Tuck your tailbone. Pull your tummy in,” she said, elongating her body. “Remember, dancers, tendu means ‘to stretch.’ Stretch your foot out, point it as much as possible, and then some more!”
She walked around us at the barre, her bracelets jingling with her steps. “Don’t grip the barre,” she said. “You should be able to let go at any time.” I loosened my hand, and my weight shifted the wrong way. “See!” she said. “That shows you where you really are. That’s good: test yourself.”
I smiled even though I wanted to stop. I didn’t like testing myself. I looked back to my mom, who was sitting on a folding chair, nodding me on with a thumbs-up as the song ended and we stood still.
“Now, who remembers what dégagé means?” Edra said.
I felt stupid for not knowing. A short redhead waved her freckled hand around before answering, “Disengage!”
“That’s right.” Edra smiled. “It is a tendu with a baby lift.” She demonstrated the next exercise, stretching her foot out so hard it had to leave the ground.
At the end of class, I thanked Miss Edra with a proper curtsy. My mother handed her a check, and we walked back to the car.
“What’d you think?” my mom asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You did so good, sweetie,” she said.
“No, I didn’t,” I snapped. “The other girls are way better than me.”
“It’s just because you’ve had a little time off. Nothing you can’t overcome.”
“Well, what if I don’t want to dance anymore?” I said.
“If you really don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
I wanted to cry. Of course I wanted to dance. But I was tired. Tired of long commutes and trusting teachers. Tired of being strong—of having to start my life all over again. So I quit.
“You’re only a decade late,” Edra said the first night I came back to her class.
I laughed because it was true. But as I pulled on my ballet slippers and stood tall at the barre, I felt my face grow flush with shame over all of the years I had wasted, which I knew deep down was not funny at all.
High school had come quickly after quitting dance, and soon I was a teenager who spent most of her time running from pain. My mother was full of rage and remorse over what had happened with my teacher, leaving her knee deep in documents, digging up the past I was trying to forget. My father was a recovering alcoholic, his next relapse looming over us like a storm cloud—bolts of violence waiting to strike. My darkest memories followed me around like shadows, growing more conspicuous as the war in court waged on. So I medicated.
I spent most afternoons on some guy’s couch in a circle of greasy-headed, red-eyed kids puffing and passing the day away like tomorrow wasn’t coming. Marijuana offered me a sweet release that was addicting. The liquid rush of downing alcohol found in a parent’s liquor cabinet was satiating, the vivid wonder and awe that came from eating just a small bag of fungi, enchanting. My next escape was always on my mind, and, like many victims of abuse, I lost faith and quit trying. I stopped believing and got hooked on getting high. In college, I only spiraled further into trouble, digging myself deeper into a pit that I never planned on climbing out of.
Oddly enough, it was at my lowest point that I first heard the sound of hope again. And it didn’t come from anywhere inside of me or my life. I was full of hate and controlled by my addictions, a criminal with a record. Mental hospitalization was on my horizon. But on a winter night when I was alone in my room and most wanted to give up—surrender to that voice inside that told me I was nothing and that I’d never change—a stronger voice shot through. It came from the Bible sitting next to my bed. I hadn’t opened it in ten years, but that night I did. I read about Jesus paying for all my wrongs, descending and dying to rise from the dead. I read that if I took God’s hand, I could get up, too. He told me He loved me, that I was His. And for the first time in my life, I truly believed Him. Everything changed.
I was a sophomore in college when I sobered up. I soon gained a supportive community, but I knew that after graduating I would need a physical outlet to stay on the right track. I wasn’t afraid of being uncomfortable anymore. I had already wasted too much of my life chasing pleasure and ease and was ready for a challenge. So, when I found Miss Edra’s adult classes in Dover, where I was living, I dug out my old tights and drove.
Taking her class woke something in me that I had let fall asleep; or rather, that I had intoxicated into a coma. The butts I had been chain-smoking my whole life, and the lingering temptation to cave in and light up again, were no match for the sixty sets of jumps we’d do in class. Ballet brought air back into my lungs. Dance became a tool God used to build my character, bless my soul, and illuminate spiritual realities. Miss Edra’s studio became a holy testing ground where I began to learn, in a very physical way, that anything good did not come easily. That life’s pain was not something to escape, but rather to embrace.
Miss Edra believed ballet to be a constant striving, an art form that reveals your intestinal fortitude “and how much of it you really have.” Like a drill sergeant, she’d fire off combination after combination, forcing us to fight against the parts of ourselves that kept the dance from surviving. She taught us not to submit to our bodies, but to make them submit to us.
“You are driving the car,” she’d remind us. The goal: for our bodies, minds, and souls to no longer be adversaries, but to work in tandem. And this, Miss Edra told us, was when art could be made. “Because you’ve mastered something you didn’t think was possible,” she said. “You’ve made your body do something it told you it could never do.”
A couple of years after coming back to the barre, I was eager for more. I asked Edra what she thought about my trying out for The Nutcracker. “I am not God,” she said. “I can’t determine what you can and cannot do.” She told me that anything was possible; I just had to want it badly enough.
Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “People eat nails if they have to.”
We stood before Miss Edra in lines in the center of the Dover studio, dancers ranging from fifteen to forty years old. I stood in the second line back from the mirror, wearing a black leotard and skirt; my pink tights had a slight but growing tear on my upper left thigh.
“Fifth position, dancers,” Miss Edra called, watching us as she walked to the back of the room. Her sleeves draped beneath her hands like dark calla lilies, accenting her movements.
We crossed our feet and flattened them on the floor with our legs turned out. She stopped and turned back toward us. “A real fifth please! Get into a good fifth now.” We pushed our toes back and heels forward even more.
“I hope you know I don’t make you do these things because I like to inflict pain. This is how it has to be done, and it’s for your benefit. So be vigilant, don’t do . . .” She put her feet in a sad, opened-up third position and made a dissatisfied noise. “Eh—I don’t know what that is, but it’s not ballet.”
The music started, rapid piano notes filling the room. We jumped and jumped as she called over the song, cutting a path through our lines to the front.
“Stretch the feet! Rebound! Juicy demi-plié!”
We bent our knees at her command again and again, finally landing our last jump in fifth position. Our legs straightened, stomachs in, shoulders down, chins high and tilted to the corner of the room. No movement except our chests, heavy with our breath at the song’s end.
“Dancers.” Miss Edra paused with her hands together in front of her mouth as if in prayer, her green eyes peering at us through her glasses. “Plié is movement. It’s not about stopping. The end of the plié is the beginning of the next step. If you stop, that’s dead weight.” She shook her head at the thought. “And in order to go up, you must first go down.” She told us to communicate with the floor—to go deep into the ground.
I thanked God in my head as I nodded back at her, and I wondered if Miss Edra was also aware of her past in that moment. If she remembered a time when she went down and almost didn’t come back up.
“Do not stop moving, dancers. Ever,” she said.
Edra’s rise to stardom was a long road that began in darkness, surrounded by death as a child refugee of the Hungarian Revolution.
I had arrived early to the community center before class to learn more about Edra’s past. Most dancers in the studio, including myself, had heard snippets over the years and had read her biography online, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to hear her story straight from her lips. See the impact of it in her eyes. Be inspired by the person who escaped war so many years ago, ended up beneath the spotlight on the stage of Boston Ballet, and now stood tall before me as my teacher.
“Have you ever heard a bomb drop?” Edra asked me, her thin arms crossed over her chest. We talked outside of the gymnasium, down the hall and around the corner from the ballet studio, where another class was still in session. The lights in the hallway were off and the air was cool as the chill slipped through the door nearby.
“It whistles,” she said in a whisper. “It whistles against the wind. And then the next sound you hear is the incredible explosion. Then the ground shaking.”
I could barely hear her over the noise from the gymnasium. The loud whacks of basketballs smacking the floor and the boys’ yelling nearly drowned out Edra’s voice and the classical notes drifting out from the studio. I stretched my leg up on the railing to stay warm, leaning further into my split and closer to Miss Edra as she shared hushed words about Hungary and the war that had changed her life.
Edra had lived with her family on the busy road of Ulloi Utca. “The only way into Budapest, proper,” she told me, adjusting her glasses, pinky raised. Edra, her mother, Terézia, and her father, István, had shared a small apartment with her grandmother, whom Edra called Nagymama. She told me how their home had been full of laughter and music, the aroma of sweet and spicy chicken sizzling in oil, and her mother’s famous lard-and-green-pepper sandwiches. Edra had danced around the apartment from the time she could walk, twirling and jumping with a smile that lit up the room. And then, the laughter stopped.
In October of 1956, when Edra was four years old, riots broke out in Budapest following a student protest against Stalin and the communist government of the Hungarian People’s Republic. Days later, thousands of Soviet tanks flooded the streets, ostensibly to restore order. Instead, the Soviets, along with agents of the Hungarian government, fired upon the protestors, killing more than 100 civilians. Enter: The Hungarian Revolution.
“I remember being a little girl looking out the window and seeing these green things—these machines—and my mother screaming at me, ‘Get away from the window!’” Edra said. Her parents hurried her down into the basement to hide. “Be a good girl for mama,” Terézia said as she let go of Edra’s hand and left her sitting alone in the dank basement. Bombs continued to drop—dirt showering down on her as the ground shook with violence. She tucked her small head deep into her chest and clung to her knees for comfort in the dark.
“I remember seeing these things hanging from trees,” Edra said. They were the dead bodies of Államvédelmi Osztály (ÁVO) agents. These secret police agents were Hungarians who, in a sense, had sold their souls to the Soviets, arresting anyone in blatant opposition to communism. Hungarian revolutionaries hanged the ÁVO agents, stuffing their mouths with money. As destitute and impoverished as the country was, no one would take the money. “It was blood money,” Edra said. “I saw things that no human being, let alone a child, should ever see.” She paused, looking beyond me. “I didn’t have language for what I was seeing back then.”
Fleeing oppression, Edra’s family and thousands of others walked and walked until they reached the Austrian border. They made it through just before December, when the Soviets took notice of all the refugees getting away. Edra said that when she crossed “there were no fences, there were no bright lights, there were no dogs, there were no sirens.” Instead, there was a ditch that looked like a dark moat, stretching for miles. Refugees poured out of the thick Hungarian forest, down into the pit. “I’ll never forget that night or the story my mother told me about it,” Edra said.
Terézia lifted her daughter into the air to István, who then passed her up to the frantic Austrian hands reaching down. As Edra’s little body was pulled up, out of the pit, her mother noticed that the soles of Edra’s shoes were completely gone.
“That’s how far I had walked,” she said.
The studio was warm with body heat, thick and damp. It was the second half of our two-hour rehearsal for the “Waltz of the Flowers.” The five other flowers were in high school, about ten years younger than I was. They were stronger, more flexible, and fluent with the steps. Our leotards had sweat stains, the bright colors changing to a deeper shade at the bottom of our backs and across our stomachs.
Miss Edra instructed us to get in place for our bourrées around the Dewdrop Fairy. Bourrée is when a dancer’s feet flutter across the floor en pointe, the back foot leading the front in beating steps, creating a floating effect. Our pointe shoes knocked against the floor as we walked to our spots.
“Relevé, dancers!” Edra told us to rise.
We fluttered around in a collision of movement and sound. A gripping sensation locked onto my calves. My quads burned.
“Faster feet,” Edra called out.
We pounded harder.
“Good, good! A flurry of feet—a flurry!”
I felt the skin on my right foot ripping open. The top layer on my baby toe slid around, piercing hot against the shoe’s box. I started to mark the steps, merely going through the basic motions of the choreography, catering to the pain. Edra stopped the music.
“Victoria, what’s the matter?” she asked.
“My toes are splitting open,” I said.
“So what if it hurts? Of course it hurts. Tell yourself to do it, and do it.” She told me to wrap it up with moleskin, that new skin would grow in, hard and calloused, ready to dance.
“Don’t take your shoes off again,” she said, as I finished wrapping my toes. “You need to learn how to dance through the pain.”
Edra told us about the night when she had performed the lead in a show for Boston Ballet. She had danced for hours on the stage, variation through variation, the pas de deux, the coda, and at the end as she took her bows, she saw that she had bled right through her shoes.
“But you know what?” Her eyes widened, and she bit her lip. “I didn’t even feel it. I didn’t feel a thing, because I was dancing.”
Opening night was a few weeks away, and the only progress I saw was the blood stains on my pointe shoes expanding. By the end of the six-minute dance during rehearsals, I’d be panting, body cramping, as I collapsed again and again over my right foot, which couldn’t seem to manage the last four relevés of the dance. Discouraged and full of doubt, I decided I would tell Edra that I didn’t belong anywhere near a stage.
One afternoon, I caught her outside in the parking lot before class.
“Edra, I don’t think I can do it,” I said. “If I drop out of The Nutcracker now, one of the girls who was a flower last year could take my place, and it’d probably be a lot better.”
She reached into her car to grab a cigarette and stood against the open door to block the wind, lighting it in the cup of her hand. “You need to get that thought out of your head right now,” she said.
“I just—I don’t think my feet will push through.”
“You will be fine.” She blew out smoke and waved it away.
“I just wonder if I even have it in me,” I said.
“This is your problem,” she replied, pointing at me with her cigarette. “When it gets hard, you give up. When you get tired, your technique goes out the window! I know—I watch you during rehearsals.” She raised her eyebrows.
“I know. I just don’t know if I’m strong enough.”
“I’ll take care of that,” she said, closing the car door. “You have nothing to fear. Right now the dance is controlling you, and you need to control the dance, that’s all.”
“I’m pushing you out of your comfort zone. If you want to stay there your whole life, go for it.” She looked off and then back to me with a slight smile. “Or, you could be great.”
“What if I vomit?”
“We have buckets backstage.” She smirked.
“But Edra—what if I fall?”
“You get up.”