"Winter's Mistress," by Renee Nicholson

Renee Nicholson

Renee Nicholson

Rene K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance. Formerly a professional ballet dancer, Rene is an American Ballet Theatre Certified Teacher, and choreographs for the Morgantown Ballet Company and the West Virginia University Dance Ensemble. She is the recipient of a grant from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, and, since 2007, served as Assistant Director of the West Virginia Writer's Workshop. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, ABZ, Poets & Writers, Dossier, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere.

Winter's Mistress

I had just moved into the new loft, downtown, and my life was still crated up and unsorted. In the mornings I poked through my belongings, not really settling in, but telling myself I'd ease into it. I'd found a box stuffed full of my old shoes. I was able to pick out my first pointe shoes, a garish pink pair of Capezio Pavlovas, the sort that every dance teacher starts their pupils in. I dug around and found several pairs of Chacott Coppelia II's, my last and favorite brand, the peachy fabric smudged with dirt. I remember loving that these shoes were so quiet against the hardwood or marley of stage or studio floors. They whispered as I danced. A pair of Capezio Infinitias, the shoes I'll always remember as my Don Quixote shoes, and which looked beautiful but wore out too quickly.

Most of these shoes weren't even made anymore. Most of the dancers I worked with were wearing Gaynor Mindens, which wasn't even a pointe shoe company when I was performing. Christina, the most promising of the dancers, had told me, “I just couldn't live without them.” I believed her. For a dancer, shoes were serious business.

I pulled out another pair. I saw where I had carefully cut away the cloth on the flat tip of the toe, where, on pointe, the satin would have been slick against the marley. The cleared area was about the size of a silver dollar, not so much that balancing and turning would have been affected. Elastic and ribbons sewn at the heels, which kept the shoes on properly. The back of the shoe was carefully folded down and wrapped with the ribbons tucked in, so as not to show the frayed edges.

Taking each pair out of the box, I arranged them to make a spectrum, from bubbly pink to fleshy peach, some shiny despite the dirt, others smoothed to matte with Carbona, or pancake make up, to give them a powdery look. The pancaked or Carbona-ed shoes would have been for the stage. Most of these were Freeds, which were the most often requested shoes by dancers at National Ballet. I often performed in Freeds before I switched loyalties to the Chacotts. I made the switch during rehearsals of my solo in Graduation Ball, right after I'd been promoted to soloist.

When I found the shoes I was surprised that I didn't want to cry. Five years ago I would have cried. One pair was marked GG. Gloria Grady. Now, Ms. Grady, ballet mistress. And I remember how just a few days ago, when I pulled my hair back to teach company class, it wasn't all strawberry blonde, but flecked with strands of white. Not gray. Pure white. I had let them grow in, and I saw them as I pulled my hair high into a pony tail, braided and wrapped it. Christina started to wear her hair like mine. From the back our heads looked like platters of Danish. Christina was my Winter Fairy.

Outside the snow-slush mix was turning to ice, the road dingy with sleet and salt. Indiana was all ice storms in late February, sheets that formed against the flat. In the Indianapolis Star I read about the city's shortages of salt. I would have to leave early for the studios, because I had to work with the four fairies for our upcoming production of Cinderella. My box of satin artifacts would have to wait. Probably somewhere in the box I would find the pairs for each time I was one of these fairies. I've performed them all, but none as often as Winter.

Seth was still sleeping. He had cocooned himself in the quilt I used as a comforter. His snores were light when I got up, but he didn't stir, so I just let him sleep. I left a note: lock the door, XOXO G. No kiss goodbye.

The studios were dark when I arrived, even though it was nearly nine. There had been a stretch of days when the sun didn't shine, another item tracked dutifully in the Star. Inside, the studios were brisk, and yet there was still the stale hint of yesterday's sweat, the chalky grit of rosin. Joyce would be in soon, wrapped in her long L.L. Bean parka, the one she'd had ever since I came on board with Ballet Indiana to replace Irina Ouchkova, who retired after years of setting the Russian classics—Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Don Quixote. More and more even the regional companies weren't relying on the Russians anymore. I'd come to Indianapolis the year after my contract wasn't renewed at National Ballet. I could count the time by Joyce's coat; she must have had it at least eight years. It had once been puffy, full of down, but now sagged and bulged in odd places—right below the hip on one side especially—and stretched out around the arms. Joyce would hang the coat on the hook on the backside of her door, tuck her gloves in the pockets, adjust the thermostat, turn on the computer, and waiting for it to boot up, she'd start a pot of coffee.

I liked having this time in the studio alone. The slush had been thick and stuck to my boots. I had a tiny office, with no windows, which I also used as a changing room. I took off the boots, which had already started to shed the slush, melting into a grimy puddle. I always wore a pea coat in winter. Every five years I bought a new one, always navy blue, the current one I shed and hung on the back of my office chair. I slipped off the cashmere gloves that Seth had given me for my birthday. They were robin's egg blue but dirty from wear. I said out loud, “Everything wears out too soon.” My hip hurt, and I knew the weather was going to change.


“Think ice maiden. Sparkling, but cold,” I said to Christina. She was really lovely—chestnut hair and big blue eyes, pale pink complexion, and strong but flexible feet to die for. I set Ashton's Cinderella, the version we performed at National Ballet. Christina was a little more Balanchine than Ashton, but she took on the choreography. She was enamored with speed, moved her feet as fast as any dancer I had known. But her footwork was also crisp, thinly slicing the air.

In rehearsal Christina attacked a series of piqués traveling diagonally downstage. “No,” I said, “too heavy.” She twisted up her mouth, as if she were knotting her lips. Puzzling it out.

“Ms. Grady, I don't get it,” she said. “How is it heavy?”

“You're mashing your foot down. Resist.” I couldn't demonstrate, so I had to rely on words. Christina continued to mash her foot in her shoes.

“Don't think about the foot,” I instructed. “Pull up from your thigh through the hip, under the rib cage. It will force you to pull up out of your shoes.”

She tried again and it was better. I didn't say so, just asked for her to do it again. That's how I was taught, and it worked. Repetition until it was muscle memory. Christina would do a combination or step over and over and over until I said she could stop. She would never question why she had to repeat, only try to understand how a step or combination worked. Sometimes I worried she thought too much, but a few weeks ago when I saw her with a new boyfriend, giggling, I worried, wanting to say, “Oh Christina, you don't think enough.”


I also rehearsed Gina, a loose limbed blonde; my Summer Fairy, Anna, a whipper-snapper Autumn; and Lexi, was the perfect Spring, flighty and perky. Lexi felt dancing more than she understood technique. Anna had a lovely sense of line, and could move through a leap, but her face was so round that it made her look chubby. Lexi was lazy, and talked about going to college.

Gina had more promise than Lexi or Anna. A couple of months before rehearsals, Gina had her ears tucked. She was working with an outside teacher, Magda Famosa, who had told her that her ears stuck out too much, that they diverted attention from her line. I didn't know this Magda, but many of the company dancers and promising Academy students worked with her. They took her word as gospel, and Magda's words were “You need to do something because your ears look like a bat's.” Gina had her ears stitched closer to her head by a plastic surgeon, one Magda had recommended. She had ideas about moving up, or moving on. She often questioned me about National Ballet.

“How long were you there? Fifteen years?” she asked after one of our rehearsals.

“Since I was 18,” I answered, trying not to look peeved. Gina was too close to the truth.

“Yeah, but how many years, Ms. G?” She'd put her hands on her hips.

“That's not polite to ask,” I said. “I'll see you tomorrow.” Perhaps I should have told her that I didn't see her as a dancer who could move up to National Ballet. Instead I said, “Tomorrow we'll work on the phrasing. It's off.”

Gina and Christina always wanted to know about my past as a dancer. If I told them, I would have to say that I was labeled “a clean dancer,” one with precise technique, especially en pointe and during complicated passages across the floor full of turns and little jumps. When I thought about my own dancing, I imagined myself skimming across the top of a lake, like a skipping stone. I could have brought in my box of shoes—or at least shown them the Infinitias I wore for my first solo variation. They were a soft shoe, which cut down on noise, and if a dancer had high, strong arches like mine, they looked great. But they wore out quickly. Capezio quit making Infinitias not long after I stopped dancing. The first pair I owned was for Winter Fairy, but I didn't want to admit this to Christina. I didn't want to tell her about Coppelia, Paquita, or Graduation Ball, either. I wanted the shoes and the roles for myself.

“I have you pegged as an Autumn,” said Christina, after our rehearsal. She smiled at Gina. I had rehearsed them together; and teased them about the sing-song rhyme of their names. They were friends, as much as any two dancers in the corps of a company will ever be friends. My reason for rehearsing them together was that I wanted them to watch each other, thinking they would push each other along.

“You don't know that I was even in Cinderella,” I said, smoothing a stray strand of hair behind my ear.

“It's in National's repertoire,” replied Christina.

She does her homework, I thought. That was something I would have done, followed the careers of dancers, the repertoire of other companies. Gina only raised an eyebrow, then rifled through her bag for a Snickers. Gina would starve herself all day and treat herself with candy bars. Christina would never do that. There was a quality about her that was sharper, and I think that was why she was cast as Winter. I didn't cast; my job was to set the choreography and coach the dancers. As artistic director, Léon Currant decided. But if I had a say in the casting, I would have cast Christina as Winter, too.

After rehearsal, I scraped frost and ice off my windshield so that I could drive home.


At the loft, Seth was there, awake this time, and making beef stew. I could smell his cooking down the hall, the beef broth heavy and salty, as I walked towards the door of my new place. It was like he had never left, but I knew he had. He was supposed to install a dryer outlet for a house in Castleton and do an estimate on a cottage in Broadripple that had some issues with aluminum wiring. “It's a fire hazard,” he'd said. “Some of the old homes have brought up to the current code.”

That's how we had met. I'd been renting a townhouse on the west side near the reservoir and had called the landlord about a problem with outlets not working and my landlord had sent Seth out to fix them. He didn't look like an electrician, what I expected an electrician to look like—the kind of man with sloppy hair and a gut. That was probably unfair. But Seth had honey-blond hair clipped close and was trim and athletic. He had a nice smile. It had been so long since I'd been asked out by a man, that when he blundered the invitation to dinner, I said “yes” too quickly.

“Hi Beautiful,” he said when I came in. I felt my face scrunch, annoyed, but turned my head so that he wouldn't see. There was something in the way he said the word beautiful that came out misshapen, like it didn't fit me and it didn't fit his voice either.

I dropped my bag and then closed the door, locking it. “Did you leave today?” I asked, trying to sound funny, but my voice curled at the edges with annoyance.

“Oh, sure Glo,” said Seth, emerging from the kitchen red-faced from cooking. “But it was a light day.” He came over and kissed me. Seth was the kind of man who knew how to kiss; never just the little brush of the cheek, but always a full-on smooch with lots of pucker.

The loft was thick with beef smells. I breathed it in, my nose wanting to run from the cold I'd left outside. “Looks like ice storms,” I said, but Seth was on his way back to the kitchen.

“Uh-huh” he answered, but I wasn't sure he'd heard me. “Hey,” he yelled back at me as I took off my coat and hung it up on a hook by the door. “What's with all the shoes across the floor?”

The loft was large, with some partitions for different living spaces, and I scanned across an expanse of wooden floor to see where I'd made my pink spectrum of pointe shoes against one wall. Even though they were frayed and up close they were dirty, from where I stood I was struck by how soft and almost charming they all appeared. Fairy tale slippers. Pointe work, I knew, was not this soft and delicate business. To make it look that way, I'd toughened my feet with blisters and rubbing alcohol, corns and bunions. My stomach had been taut—good feet started at the core—and my legs and ankles strong like metal rods. I ached for the pain of pointe work.

“Glo? Did ya hear me?” Seth turned his head over his shoulder.

“My old shoes,” I said, pulling off my boots. “I found them in a box. Must have been in the basement of the old place.”

“If you want,” said Seth, “I can store them at my place. You don't have much storage here.” His voice was edged with hope.

I knew what Seth meant; he wanted to start moving my things into his house. He'd not been happy with my idea to relocate to a new place. If I were going to relocate, it was supposed to be his place, a fixed up cottage in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, about a ten minute drive north of my new downtown loft. He'd restored the floors and put in new fixtures in the bathroom. But I hadn't lived in a city since National Ballet, and I liked the idea of it.

“No, I think I'll keep them here. I'm going to go through them.” I padded in socked feet into the kitchen. “Hmmm. Smells good.”

“Going through them for what?” asked Seth. “They're old, used-up shoes.”

“I need them,” I said, and then kissed him behind the ear before slipping away to strip and shower, savoring the steam and hot water.


Seth, as he did most nights, stayed over. He performed a tender ritual, kissing along the scar from my hip surgery. It loosened me, this brush of lips against the seam left from my incision. He wanted me to be okay with my body the way it was, but without his touch, this tantalizing diversion, I never accepted the form I had inherited.

“Do it again,” I instructed. Then I placed my hands on his and moved them along the curve of my body.

I was glad to have the sanctuary of skin on skin, to press myself against him, the wet parts of our bodies like adhesive, the soft incantation of “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria,” a fluttering whisper in my ear. I liked how I rocked my body on top of Seth's, felt his hands against my back, my legs, my ass. Everything I needed to know about a man I could tell from the way he touched me; Seth's touch was sure and firm with a certainty that was a little like faith. Most men I'd known didn't know how to touch a woman's body. Partners in the studio grasped too hard, leaving bruising marks, bristling at suggestions, preferring their own leaps and turns to the delicacy of pas de deux. Lovers fared better, but their hands were about want and lust and couldn't express themselves in gratifying touch.

Because of the way he touched me, I wanted to love Seth. But I couldn't. And yet I took satisfaction in his body because it made me forget I wasn't whole.

When Seth fell asleep, I got up from the bed and walked to my row of shoes. I could see them through the light of the window, the streetlights of the city outside casting a dusky shaft through the panes of glass. There were still shoes left in the box, and I pulled out a pair, surprised to see that they were like new—old, but never used, never worn, never even broken in. I held them in my hands, turning them over and over between my palms, and before I could stop my tears, they dripped on the satin surfaces. I heard the uneven wheeze and rasp of Seth's sleeping, and I hated him for it. I should have gone back to bed and curled my body against his. Seth was always a better man than I would let him be.

In the morning, he woke early and made eggs. “Sunny side up or scrambled, Glo?” he asked as I wandered from the bed to the kitchen.

“Neither,” I answered. Instead, I ate toast and drank coffee, my morning ritual since I was fifteen. The coffee was hot and bitter and I drank it without cream or sugar.

After he finished his eggs, I caught Seth looking at my row of shoes. He didn't touch them, but hovered over the slippers, staring. There was no reason for me to feel this way, but I felt the shoes were in danger. So I went over, and gently pushed him back, and then knelt down, feeling the tight sting in my hip as I eased into the crouch, and started putting them back in the box.

“I can take them,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Just leave.” My voice was flecked with annoyance.

We didn't kiss when we left my loft, him first, excusing himself with an early appointment, and me not saying anything. I slipped the old new pair of pointe shoes into my bag before my own departure, and relished the cold snap of air as I left the lobby of my building. There was something in me that liked the cold.


Christina showed up in the studio decked out in white: white leotard, white chiffon skirt, little rhinestone studs in her earlobes. Her fairness against dark hair showed off white well, and I was struck how many dancers I had known had looked just like her, and why so many ballets featured women in white. She'd become quieter, and if the company gossip could be trusted, she'd also stopped seeing her boyfriend. Christina would be moving on soon. She had that certain something, the thing that made an audience look at her. I showed her my own affection in the only way I knew how: by correcting her.

“You really need to spring up into that arabesque, and the bourrées aren't crossed enough,” I said. I did not smile. I wasn't smiled at when Yelena Artychemova had coached me, and if I were to make Christina successful, I couldn't smile. It had to be uncomfortable.

She tried the bourrées again, the low stipple-sound of her feet across the floor allowing her to look almost as if she floated. “Like this?” she asked.

“Not quite,” I said. “Crossed more from the back foot. And faster.”

In truth, it was close to the right effect. One of Christina's best attributes was her work ethic. Even as a member of the corps de ballet, she was always prepared like a soloist. So this tiny role was given to her, she must have seen it as a chance—her opportunity. That's how it had been with me. Make myself perfect and through hard work, get the steps better than right. Christina had this same inclination, and all she needed was someone to nitpick, to break apart her technique and help her put it back together again. She showed up ten minutes early to every rehearsal for Winter Fairy, in her Gaynor Mindens, ribbons laced around her ankles, the ends tucked under.

The others didn't show Christina's promise. Even Gina, with her sumptuous legs that made beautiful extensions, lacked. She just wasn't made for New York or the big regional companies.

I had told Anna, Lexi, and Gina that in these variations, they each had a different personality based on each season. “Summer's sensual, Spring's light, and Autumn's fiery. But I told Christina something much more pointed.

“You are to be imperial.”

Artychemova's exact words.

I always appreciated Cinderella for its small roles. In this ballet, an effort was made to integrate them into the plot. Bright Spring hopped in and deposited flowers for Cinderella's hair. Summer stretched her legs like a thick haze and gave Cinderella her lavish golden ball gown. Fall breezed in with splits and leaps to cover her shoulders with a cape. But Christina, the collected-cool Winter, commanded the stage with each piqué. Then, she gave Cinderella the glass slippers, the gift with the most magic.

I thought of my own slippers in my bag, but I didn't pull them out. Instead, I offered Christina advice. “You need to think of yourself as a remote kind of beauty. Float. You need to think of yourself as a dancer whose feet are too good to touch the floor.” Recycled from what had been given to me. I hoped that a little bit of me, and my training, would go on to wherever Christina's next company would be, that I would have at least a little of that success, that what I had to offer wasn't done.

At the end of rehearsal, Christina kissed my cheek the way she said hello and goodbye to the other dancers. “You're a really good coach, Ms. Grady,” she said. When she said it, I swear I felt my heart squeeze, from guilt, from selfishness, and a little from pride.


Seth did not come back over, and I can't say that I was surprised. While there would be no fight, he would sulk and stay away, then return until we played out again. I reheated a bit of the stew he'd made the night before, but didn't eat any of it. I listened to Don Giovanni and sipped bourbon. Then, I fished my shoes out of my ballet bag.

My body was now anchored to the Earth, and I understood the pull of its gravity, down through the joints. Limbs that once soared in perfect split leaps were grounded. Even coaching put a strain on my body. I iced my hip with the same old-fashioned icepack I'd used during my time with National. It was decorated with little blue stars that had faded over the years of use.

As I iced my hip and sipped my drink, I remembered the office of David Berkshire, National's artistic director. It was nothing like my own, a bare-walled closet. In David's office one wall displayed pictures from his own dancing days. On the other were two drawings. The first was of a wolf—limber with lean muscles, not unlike a dancer. Its eye was sharp blue and it looked like he was hunting. Below and to the left of it was a nude woman whose fullness and ease betrayed her as not a dancer. But she was, in her way, very beautiful. I had always thought of the wolf as prowling for the nude, but she was too far removed from his line of sight, below and to the side, a turned over L. And yet, there was something vulnerable about this lopsided pairing, as if he might have found her, cornered her, pounced. I never asked David about these pictures except to inquire about who drew them. My own body was easing from the dancer's shape to the softer fullness of the nude, a transformation that I couldn't ignore. But if I was the nude, I was also the wolf. I would have devoured myself. I poured more bourbon, drinking it from a cleaned-out Welch's jelly jar.

I found my aborted pair of shoes in my bag, and held them a while. Back when I had gotten serious about pointe shoes, about finding the perfect pair, I also perfected break-in rituals. Nothing was quite perfect right out of the box. In the kitchen, I found a meat tenderizing mallet, like the one I used regularly on the stock of shoes the company allotted me. I worked the box, hammering away in brisk strokes, concentrating. I slipped the shoes on, stood, went up en pointe, flexed halfway down onto the ball of my foot, the heel still up in élevé then raised myself back en pointe again. My hip flared and ached, but the pain appeased me. A dancer could rely on her pain, and I wanted enough that I would go numb from it. Besides, the shoes were still too rigid. So, I hammered again, tried them out, working each one to my liking. “I should help Christina make her shoes noiseless,” I said. Of course she would already have her own break-in rituals, specific to her needs as a dancer. As I kept working, I remembered a story about the dancer, Marie Taglioni, the first ballerina to dance in pointe shoes. In 1842, she gave her last performance in Russia, in the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and her shoes were auctioned off to a group of balletomanes for 200 rubles. I considered the worth of my own shoes, rinsing up and down from point, savoring the sweet stabs in my hip. The rest of the myth: the balletomanes that bought Taglioni's pointe shoes had them cooked in sauce, and, wanting to pay homage, these men served up and ate her shoes.

If only all of us who danced were so celebrated. Or, perhaps, the bourbon made me sentimental.

When each shoe felt right, when they felt like I could have used them for a class or a performance, as if that were still a possibility, I set the box by pouring a half a cap of Future floor wax into the inside of the toe of the shoe, swishing it around for an even covering. Then, hoping that they would turn out just the way I wanted, I set them on the windowsill to dry.