Why Her & Not Me?
Picture this: You are 19 years old with your sights set like steel on joining a particular company. Every class, workshop, and audition you’ve taken for the past few years has been a calculated step towards being seen by the choreographer and hopefully invited into his company. One day the choreographer comes up to you after a two-week workshop and says that not only would he like you to join his troupe, but that the first dance you will perform is a duet for you both in his New York City season.
This was the beginning of my professional career. The choreographer/ dancer whom I had admired most in the world looked me in the eye and invited me to dance alone with him onstage. My newly sprouted career instantly blossomed into that tiny heaven-on-earth reserved only for miracles and first loves. I thought he and I would dance the duet together forever.
Now picture this: It’s about six months later and you are on tour in your hometown resting on the couch at your childhood home before heading off to the theater. The phone rings. It is the choreographer saying that his back went out and he will be unable to perform the duet that evening. In addition, when his back recovers, he would like another dancer in the company (one who happens to be five inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than you) to take over your part in the duet.
And this was the beginning of the most shamefully immature and vengeful period of my life as a consuming jealousy plagued me for the next five years.
I joined the company at the same time as a particular dancer, whom I will call Bernadette. Because we were the two newest members, Bernadette and I were assigned to be roommates on the road. She was put into much of the repertory right away, as she was replacing a dancer who had recently left. I was an addition to the company without many open roles to fill, so I was mostly performing the duet. There were many times that I sat on my hotel room bed watching her dissect videos of choreography, rewind and play pieces of music on her Walkman, or silently mouth steps that were jotted down in her notebook. She had many dances to learn. I was envious of her then, but being able to perform the duet with the choreographer was my redeeming gold nugget.
Bernadette and I were very different dancers. She was a spitfire: fast, ferocious and eye-catching. She reminded me of a Thompson’s gazelle—those pint-sized, lithe antelopes who can outrun powerful cheetahs at a moment’s notice. She could take off from one corner of the studio and be at the other corner one second later with movements that barely stirred the air around her. She seemed to have bones of balsa wood as she danced phrases where I could swear she only touched the ground once. Although petite, she was endowed with a model’s body—long, sinewy arms; six-pack abs; a perfectly heart-shaped bottom; and legs that begged for miniskirts.
I too had a strong body, but one less model-esque and more athletic. I was taller and weighed more than she. I naturally had a more muscular and deliberate movement quality. We were not obvious replacements for each other except for this particular time when the choreographer needed a significantly lighter partner.
When the choreographer told me about the new casting, he tried to reassure me that it was his back and not my size that was the problem. I responded with flippant “uh-huh’s,” but only because if I had tried to speak, a tidal wave of tears would have flowed. Despite his words, I believed his chronic back problem was an excuse to get out of performing the duet with me. I figured I must have been a dreaded partner to have to lift; one of those women who makes male dancers secretly commiserate and massage each other after rehearsal. I had already been trying to quiet gnawing insecurities that I was not a very feminine dancer, that perhaps the choreographer would not know how to use me, or would realize that I was too inexperienced for the professional stage. Now those insecurities rose to a deafening pitch in my brain. I felt rejected and oafish. Where Bernadette was a gazelle, cute and eagerly prancing to center stage, I was the rhinoceros being pointed off to the wings.
I never admitted that I was feeling jealous to anyone else in the company. As a new member I was too frightened about appearing as though I couldn’t handle the harsh realities of a professional career. I made an effort to seem impervious to casting decisions. When it came time for her to dance the role, I smiled a lot and gave her an enthusiastic thumps up. Inside, I hated her.
Jealousy is one of the most complicated and potentially destructive of the emotions. It is a natural response, as primary and reflexive for us as fear or joy or sadness. No one is immune to feeling jealous. But the true villainy of jealousy lies in its ability to masquerade as inexplicable hatred, uncontrollable bitterness, or incurable depression. To admit we are jealous is to admit that we have insecurities; that we need to be reassured; that despite all appearances to the contrary, we are vulnerable. In order to weather it well we would have to recognize that the pain we are feeling is from our own fears of inadequacy. More often it is easier to point the finger at someone else as the cause of that pain. And that is when jealousy can tempt even the most compassionate people to pull each other down into the muck of human behavior.
The jealousy I felt toward Bernadette fermented inside, seeping out of my pores in random acts of impoliteness. I became a company gossip, using the most mundane information about her as an opportunity to gather people around to listen to what I had to say. Somewhere inside I knew it was wrong, but the stronger emotion was the thrill of knowing that people in the company would give me their undivided attention. If she could have my part, I could have more friends I thought, not realizing that those were hollow connections, built with hatred instead of love. Of course Bernadette was aware of my backbiting and responded in turn with rude remarks, razor-sharp glances, or blatant disregard for me. For the entire time we were in the company, the other members joked about our notorious rivalry. But underneath the humor, Bernadette and I were really hurting each other.
It finally ended on a hill in Athens, Greece. It was the night of Bernadette’s final performance with the company. We were having a midnight meal at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the lighted ruins in the ancient city below. Much of the evening was lost for me in the overflow of ouzo, but one memory remains vivid: hugging Bernadette in a corner of the restaurant, away from the rest of the company. Somehow we had found ourselves face to face at this moment of goodbye, and a conciliatory embrace seemed appropriate. As I held her I could feel her stomach begin to convulse uncontrollably with sobs. I’m sure she could feel mine doing the same as I began to release all the pain we had caused each other for five years. The moment she was chosen to replace me in the duet was a poison dart straight into my chest that was not extracted by anything that happened later—not by any of the featured roles, the critical acclaim, the applause, or the choreographer’s praise that I received over the years. It was only extracted by admitting, finally, to Bernadette, in the gentle breeze of Athens, with my voice choking in tears, that I was jealous.
Rosalynde LeBlanc has danced with several New York companies.
Illustration by Clare Mallison