Image Credit: Jae-Hyun An, design of prosthetic leg for ballet called Marie-T

Many people think they can remember things from when they’re four years old. Truth is, that unless they’ve had a traumatic experience, those memories are fabricated, imaginations with the framework built from someone’s retelling of the incident or even a photograph, with the older mind filling in the gaps.

However, Natalia’s memory of the first day she saw ballet was accurate. It was something wonderful, something that had such an impact in the little girl’s psyche that traumatised her and inspired her at the same time.

She remembers watching the Nutcracker unfold. It was the battle with the mice, the dancers were going back and forth, the music was loud, exciting, making her tiny little heart pound. And then the ballerina walks into the stage again, for the Nutcracker to protect her with his sword. She tiptoes into the scene, with her milky-white leotard and her fluffy tutu skirt. And she’s on her tippy toes, gorgeous, ethereal, majestic.

Natalia knew at that moment what she wanted to do in life. She wanted to dance, she wanted to dance just like her, and she wanted to dance just like her in front of an audience that gasped and clapped and enjoyed the experience.

And then the four-year-old Natalia looked down at her own feet. Or rather, where they should have been. She was born sick, she didn’t understand much, but the point was that she had no feet to tippy toe on, and the other girls did.

It hurt. It hurt her so much that the memory remains etched in her brain.

Natalia was seven years old. She got blades for Christmas, and she could actually walk on them. They were awkward, but she kept trying until she managed to figure it out. She fell so many times. Her father wanted to reach out and help her, her mother grabbed his hand and held him back. “Nyet. Let her do it on her own,” mommy said.

Natalia squealed in delight when she managed a couple of steps. “Daddy, look!” she said and lost her balance, falling on the edge of the table.

Her mommy rushed towards her to pick her up. Natalia felt something wet on her eyebrow. She touched it, her hand came back red. The blood poured out of her cut and they had to rush her to the hospital. Seven stitches. She didn’t care. She was on the blades and trying again on the very next day.

Natalia was eight years old. She asked for ballet classes, her parents turned and looked at each other, communicating with just their eyes. Daddy said, “Yes, honey,” and mommy crossed her arms. “But remember what the doctors said about your bones? Well, you see, all little girls need to grow strong before they can do ballet.”

“I know, daddy, I googled it. It said I can start when I’m eight. I’m eight right now, aren’t I?” Natalia frowned.

Daddy looked at mommy briefly. “Yes, honey, but the doctor said it’d be best if we wait a while longer.”

Now it was time for Natalia to frown and cross her arms in a mini version of her mother. “How much longer? I’ve been waiting ages.”

“When you’re nine, alright?” daddy said.

Natalia huffed out and offered her hand to her daddy. “Okay, fine. When I’m nine.”

Daddy shook her hand.

Natalia turned nine. Daddy took her to buy her dancing kit. The shop was nice, it had so many nice fabrics and Natalia ran around and touched them all. The lady at the store was older than mommy, she looked like auntie. She glanced down at Natalia’s blades and then pinched her cheek. “Well, well, hello my little  ballerina. We’ll need your spandex leotard, you’ll need two of those since you’ll get sweaty a lot. A tutu skirt, would you like this pink one?”

Natalia shook her head. She wanted a white one, and pointed at it.

“Alright then,” the lady said. “White it is.” She turned to a top shelf. “And of course, no self-respecting ballerina can go without a magnificent pair of silk pointes-“

The lady stopped talking. She froze, holding the gorgeous ballerina shoes on her palm, presenting them to Natalia. She glanced down at the blades, then up at Natalia. Her eyes went wide and she started to stutter. “I-I’m so sorry,” she said, turning to daddy. “I wasn’t thinking, I’m terribly sorry.”

“It’s alright,” daddy said, pushing the ballerina shoes away. “Just give us the rest of the kit.”

“Of course,” the woman said, keeping her head down.

Natalia tried them on, they fit perfectly, and she looked at her reflection in the mirror. If she ignored the blades, she could almost imagine herself as the ballerina she saw when she was little.

The lady put the ballet kit in a shiny bag with a nice bow and daddy paid for them. She frowned and said nothing more.

Natalia didn’t care. She couldn’t wait to start dancing lessons next week, it was the only thing that mattered to her.

Natalia got to her first ballet lesson. All the girls were there with their moms, Natalia had her daddy waiting for her. The other moms found that very interesting and kept asking daddy various questions in very squeaky voices, and daddy sighed and answered them all. Natalia went to change, she put her leotard on, and her fluffy tutu, and a bow on her hair, and her white pantyhose and she was ready. The other girls stared at her blades.

“What are those?” one of the ballerinas asked, reaching down to touch the blades.

“My blades, I use them to walk with,” Natalia replied. “I’m Natalia, what’s your name?”

“I’m Marina,” the ballerina said, lifting her nose.

“Do you want to be friends?” Natalia asked, smiling.

Marina laughed. “I’m the prima,” she said, as if that meant something and ended the conversation. She spun around in a pointe turn and walked away.

The dancing class was amazing for Natalia. She loved everything, the feeling, the teacher showing them the five positions of ballet, the tutus, it was heaven.

Until the teacher asked them to try the positions out.

The girls pushed their legs around in the awkward first position, just turning the balls of their feet outward completely. She walked along the line of girls, commenting on their posture. “Correct, nice, karasho, little straighter, don’t wave your hands around, always be aware of them, keep them rigid, nice, da, that’s perfect, that’s good for now, very well, Marina, and… oh.” The teacher stopped in front of Natalia. She put her hand on top of her mouth. “That’s, good enough, yes. What’s you name, sweetheart?”

“Natalia, miss.” She was excited, and kept her legs in the first position. Or, at least an approximation of that position, since she couldn’t possibly do the pose herself.

“Natalia, that’s good enough,” the teacher said and patted her on the head.

Marina snorted loudly, and the girls next to her whispered something.

Natalia didn’t care. She was learning ballet, finally! This was all she ever wanted in life.

Natalia was ten. She had been learning so much at ballet! But she couldn’t do all the positions, in fact she could do none of the basic five positions. Her teacher usually nodded and skipped Natalia, or just paid no attention to her. She didn’t mind, she just stood there at the end, being a pretty little ballerina, dancing away. But she was getting flexible, she could arch her upper body backwards, she could reach down and touch her ‘toes,’ with air-quotes, meaning the tips of her blades. She could spin, she could turn, she could do everything.

Everything except dance with Evan. He was blond, sweet, kind. All the girls wanted to dance with him, but of course during the actual rehearsals only Marina did. He was from a nice family, he had a soft voice, and he could lift you up and keep you there! Evan was so strong.

Evan never danced with Natalia, though.

It was time to refit her blades. They were getting quite worn out and she was getting bigger, so daddy took her to the prosthetiscist. He was a funny guy named Lenny.

“I’m a ballerina,” was the first thing Natalia told the young man as she popped her blades off.

He held her blades in his hands over his workspace and Natalia sat on a stool on the other side. “Well, yeah, you’re using these quite extensively. I can fix them up right away.”

“I’m getting taller!” Natalia said, puffing her chest.

“That you are, missy. We can accomodate for that, don’t you worry. I’ve got some new alloys that will make the ride smoother.”

“I don’t need smooth. I need to be able to do the five positions of ballet. Can you do that?” she asked.

Lenny turned to her daddy. “What’s that?”

“Um, positioning of the feet, you know. Like a ballerina,” daddy explained quietly, showing with his twisted palms.

“Oh, no, sorry, you don’t have any articulation down there,” Lenny chuckled. “Why would you want to do that anyway? Getting a twisted ankle is no fun, Natalia.”

Natalia pouted. “But miss Olga says I need to be able to do them to be a proper ballerina. Without the five positions, how can I be one?”

Lenny started working on the blades, removing the worn parts. “Natalia, you gotta expand your mind. Having an ankle to twist is a structural flaw.” He pointed a screwdriver at her. “Tell me, don’t the other girls complain about their legs getting tired?”

“All the time!” Natalia rolled her eyes theatrically.

“But you don’t. See? It’s already better your way.” Lenny smiled and continued working on the blades.

“But miss Olga…”

“Miss Olga’s mind is very limited,” Lenny said. “Tell her that your very clever and awesome prosthetiscist said that she should adapt your plies and your turns or whatever to what you can do, and stop trying to force you to do what you simply are not equipped to.”

Natalia frowned at him. “Those are too many words. Can you write them down for me?”

Lenny laughed. “It’s okay, I think your dad can carry the message for me.” He finished screwing new blades, they were shiny. “Here, try these on.”

Natalia wiggled the stumps of her legs in anticipation. Daddy helped her pop them on and she hopped on her feet, balanced like a proper ballerina, then gave it a spin. Then another, then another. She finished with a flourish, her hands opened delicately in a ballerina’s pose.

“Wow, Natalia!” Lenny clapped his hands. “That was awesome, see? Let me get some pictures of you for the website, if that’s okay with your dad?”

Daddy nodded.

Natalia performed her turns and Lenny took video and some pictures to put online on Agora. She was really proud to be able to help Lenny, because he was helping her and all the kids just like her.

Natalia was eleven. It was the casting call for Nutcracker. Maxim Kumarov, the famous choreographer needed a few children ballerinas for his ballet.

The girls were anxious. “I can’t believe we’re getting this chance!” one said.

“It’s certain Mr. Kumarov will pick you, Marina,” another said.

Marina simply raised her chin and carried on with her workouts.

Evan was across the dancing hall, stretching in his ballet tights. He looked magnificent, and all the girls stared at him when they could. “He’s a really good dancer, it’s a safe bet that Mr. Kumarov will pick him for the part.”

The auditions were the scariest thing Natalia had ever experienced in her life. One after another, miss Olga called the names of the little ballerinas and they walked on stage, bowed, and performed in front of Mr. Kumarov. He sat on the front seat, smoking. He’d express discomfort, or clap, or give another instruction. Or, he’d simply say, “Next! Davai, davai,” and the girl would hurry off the stage and go crying into the embrace of her mother.

“You can do it, Natalia,” daddy said and gave her a kiss on the forehead.

“Really, daddy?”

“Oh, definitely,” he said. “Daddy knows everything.”

Natalia was left for last. Marina was the one before her, looking smug as always. Perhaps miss Olga wanted to keep her best ballerina till the end, surprise the famous choreographer. Everyone kept saying it wasn’t a sure thing, after all.

Marina walked on stage, looking wonderful, stepping on pointe, being magnificent. Of course, Mr. Kumarov had a keen eye, he could see faults and details where others couldn’t. He pointed out one such mistake as soon as Marina stepped in front of him, and all the girls smiled. Natalia did not.

Marina turned her lips into a line and performed for the demanding man. He nodded, stippling his fingers, his attention on her. He gave her a few more instructions, she performed beautifully.

Mr. Kumarov waved. “Bring the boy, please.”

Miss Olga pushed Evan onto the stage and all the ballerinas sighed as he walked past them. The music started. He got on the mark and followed the instructions of Mr. Kumarov, dancing with Marina.

Every second that passed, the previously bored Mr. Kumarov became more and more animated, leaning forward. “Da, da. Excellent,” he mumbled.

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The girls peeked through the stage curtains. “Of course he’d pick Marina, she was born to be a prima,” one of them said and the others agreed.

He lifted her up by her delicate waist, she kept her perfect posture and landed with the barest hint of touch. They truly were amazing together. This was ballet, this was how it was supposed to be performed. Mesmerising, beautiful, ethereal. In other words, ballet.

A few minutes passed and miss Olga stepped on stage. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kumarov, there’s one more girl for you to see.”

“But I don’t really need…” he started to say and stopped himself. “Of course, bring her in.”

Miss Olga looked apologetic. “Mr. Kumarov, this ballerina cannot move in and out of the pointe position.”

He sucked in his cigarette, making the tip burn. “What’s the point then? Ha, funny. The point, not the pointe.”

Marina and Evan started to leave the stage.

“Nyet, you, the boy, stay. Dance with the last girl, eh? I wanna see some more of your moves.”




As if the audition wasn’t stressing enough, she had to dance with Evan as well? Of course she wanted to, but not right now! Daddy pushed her on stage, she stepped awkwardly with her new blades.

Mr. Kumarov stared at them and frowned deeply. He lit another cigarette. It seemed to Natalia he had made his decision already. Truth was, that her blades were ugly. They had no place in ballet, that’s what miss Olga said. But Natalia was here to audition for a real production of the Nutcracker with a world-famous choreographer, so she wasn’t going to just give up.

She gulped audibly and walked up to Evan. He smiled at her, but he too seemed to feel awkward around her. Natalia realised that she was the only girl Evan had never danced with during their lessons. Natalia stood opposite of him, bowed in a proper ballerina pose, and the music started.

They danced wonderfully, it was only natural since Evan was a wonderful dancer himself and Natalia had been dreaming about this moment for a year now.

Mr. Kumarov spoke on the phone. Natalia knew she had lost the audition to Marina, but she didn’t really care right now. She was dancing with Evan, and she felt loopy, like she was flying around him.

And then it was time for the lift. He grabbed her by the waist and lifted her up, Natalia heard the girls gasp as he did so, and Natalia kept her posture as best as she could and waited for him to bring her down.

She touched the floor with her blades and opened her hands in a flourish.

“Ouch!” Evan cried out.

Oh no. Natalia looked down, horrified.

“You cut me,” Evan said and held his foot. Blood seeped out into his white costume. His mother rushed in, miss Olga, everyone.

Natalia stepped backwards on top of her blades. She wanted to rip them out, throw them away, crawl on her hands out of there, never to be seen again.

Her daddy came in and hugged her, but she didn’t feel better. The damage was done.

Natalia was twelve. Marina went on to dance for the Nutcracker, just like everyone expected her to.

Evan’s injury was much worse than they thought, a tendon was cut and it snapped when he tried to dance again. He needed surgery, the tissue never healed right and he abandoned the ballet. Her mommy and daddy argued a lot about this and they didn’t take her back to the same dancing school ever again.

Natalia kept practising on her own. She put on her tutu, turned on her ballet music, she watched YouTube videos, she kept learning and practising every single day.

Mommy sometimes told her it was pointless but then daddy would whisper to her and they’d leave her to her dancing. Natalia kept reliving that wonderful dance with Evan, his blond hair, the way he picked her up, the way she flew in his arms. She went through her steps again and again. She should have just dropped this way, she thought, crossing her legs in the proper way, and not this way. She shouldn’t have tried to mimic the way a ballerina with all her limbs could land. She simply was limb-different, she had accepted that. Why couldn’t the rest of the world accept it as well? If miss Olga had taught her how to land the way Natalia should, there wouldn’t be an accident. Natalia wouldn’t have injured Evan, wouldn’t have ruined something beautiful.

But, maybe miss Olga didn’t know how to teach her that. That’s what Lenny said, anyway. Maybe she hadn’t even tried to figure it out. But Natalia had figured it out, see, it was just like this. No big deal. Natalia landed properly again and again. Her blades made the landing even smoother than Marina’s.

Natalia was thirteen. Lenny called, daddy said he was really excited. They went over to the prosthetics workshop, Natalia always liked seeing Lenny.

“My favourite ballerina!” he greeted them, clapping his hands. “I have very good news for you.”

“What is it, Lenny? Something new for my blades?”

Lenny pointed a finger at her. “Actually, yes. But that’s not all. Remember those pics we took a few years ago for my website?”


“Well, one of my maker friends online, he’s in Australia but it doesn’t really matter right now, saw your pics and had an epiphany. He sent me the 3D schematics for this and I printed them for you. Ta-da!” he said, and opened a case with an amazing pair of new prosthetics.

Natalia reached out and touched then with her fingertips. They were different. Straight, like bullets, made of a weird, foamy white stuff. They curved as they went down into rubbery tips, they looked like a ballerina’s leg on pointe, completely straight. “But Lenny, I can’t walk with these.”

Lenny brought them out and down to her height with a grunt. “They’re not meant for walking, Natalia. They’re meant for dancing,” he said.

“Oh, you mean she can just swap them?” daddy asked.

Lenny shrugged. “Sure, why not. Ballerinas put on their shoes, right, whatchacallit?”

“Silk pointes,” Natalia said, popping her blades off on the stool.

Lenny helped her put the new prosthetics on. “Right. So, you’ll just put on your pointe prosthetics when it’s time to dance. Big deal.”

Natalia stood up. She wobbled, and her daddy held her up. “Nyet, let me,” she pushed him away. She wobbled again, walking on tippy toes for the first time in her life. It was weird, and to think that a ballerina moves in and out of pointe position fifty times per performance on average…

Natalia had it, she smiled wide. “Bring on the camera!”

And then she fell flat on her face.

The men came to help her up, she pushed them away. “Nyet! Let me do it alone.”

It took her two endless hours of non-stop trying to get it right. She was tired, she was sweaty, she was bleeding, the new prosthetics chafed because they needed some wearing down and perhaps some olive oil on the contact point, but she wasn’t gonna give up.

When she managed to keep the pointe position and perform just like a proper ballarina, her daddy started crying uncontrollably.

Natalia went back to miss Olga’s classes. Her mother pleaded with her to just go elsewhere, but they were both adamant about their own opinions. Her daddy grumbled something about them being both bullheaded and just drove her up there.

The ballerinas whispered to each other, the news got around. Some girls were new and some old girls weren’t still with the ballet class, but gossip was gossip.

Natalia didn’t care. She put on her shiny pantyhose, then her spandex leotard, it was bigger now, she was getting quite tall and strong, and then put on her tutu skirt. Finally, as the other ballerinas put on their pointe shoes and rubbed chalk on them, she put on her pointe prosthetics.

Every single girl stared.

Natalia tiptoed into the dance hall, not a care in the world. This was what she always dreamed of.

Miss Olga didn’t object this time when Natalia changed up a few of the standard moves to fit her particular limb difference. Natalia had practised everything on her own a million times, she knew her body perfectly, she adapted everything that she couldn’t actually do into something that she could do and that looked as wonderful as standard ballet.

Miss Olga had an urgent phone call and left them alone to practise. She came back with a sorrow-looking Marina. Natalia couldn’t believe this was the same girl as before, her eyes were sunken, she was thinner, her ribs protruded out of her torso and even her beauty had been tarnished.

“She’s doing cocaine, they say,” a ballerina gossiped to Natalia.

“What? No, can’t be. Marina is a prima, she’s the best,” Natalia argued.

“That’s exactly why, it’s too stressful. They say she can’t take it. Miss Olga helps her out, but what can she really do?”

A few weeks passed and both Natalia and Marina kept going to the ballet classes. Marina only glared at Natalia, not even acknowledging her presence in the room. Natalia didn’t really want to confront her. She knew she had ruined a pretty good thing for the prima. She wasn’t naive, it would probably have been ruined some other way, Natalia knew first-hand how life threw curveballs at you, but that didn’t mean she wanted to be the one to actually be at fault.

Feeling the guilt, one day she just walked up and told her. “I’m sorry for Evan,” she blurted out before she could change her mind.

“What? Oh…” Marina said, seeming out-there. Perhaps she really was doing drugs? “Da, whatever.” She started to walk away.

Natalia didn’t know what came over her. She grabbed her shoulder and stopped her. “No, I really am sorry. Things could have gone different between you and Evan.”

Marina stared daggers at her now. “Never. Touch me. Again. You freak.”

Natalia pulled away. “Alright. I just wanted to say I was sorry.”

“You did, three times already,” Marina snapped at her. “I’m not deaf. Now get out of my sight and stay there.”

Natalia raised her hands in surrender and left the prima alone.

Natalia was practising on her own in her usual corner of the dancing school. Nobody really bothered her, and daddy wasn’t waiting around anymore because mom found some messages sent on his Agora profile and said the other mothers were ‘skanks’ and added a couple more profanities after that.

Natalia didn’t mind, she was old enough to stay at the lesson on her own. She took the bus home too. As she stretched her limbs far beyond what someone thought was comfortable and into the realm of painful, she smelled a familiar stench. At first she didn’t quite place it, but then it hit her. Auditions, Evan, Mr. Kumarov, cigarette smoke, blood.

She felt woozy and ran to the bathroom.

When she got back out, Mr. Kumarov was at miss Olga’s office arguing with her. Marina was sitting on the chair, arms crossed and pouting like a proper teenager should.

The helpful gossip girl showed up next to Natalia again. “She’s not doing well, and the rehearsals are about to start next month. You know, for the Nutcracker.”

Now she had Natalia’s full attention. This was her dream. “Really? Where are they playing?”

Mr. Kumarov kept sucking one cigarette after another.

“Oh, all over Europe. It’s a tour, such a big deal. That’s why they’re shouting, I guess,” the gossipy ballerina said.

“Wow…” Natalia said. She let her mouth hang for a while, but at some point she stopped staring at miss Olga’s office and just went to finish her exercises and stretches at her usual spot.

Natalia simply focused on Tchaikovsky’s music, her eyes shut. She was on pointe position, and she casually went through the entire first act on her own. She knew it all by heart.

She simply danced.

Natalia smelled cigarettes at some point.

She opened her eyes to see Mr. Kumarov right in front of her, mouth open, the cigarette burning down to the filter between his fingers. He looked stunned.

Natalia blinked from the smoke. And the shock, really. She never expected to have his full attention. “Yes, Mr. Kumarov?” she asked politely.

“Do that again,” he said with a small voice. His cigarette burned all the way and reached his skin. “Ouch!” he cursed and threw it on the dance floor, ruining the parquet. He didn’t seem to care. His eyes were fixed on Natalia. “Do that again,” he said, falling on one knee. “Please.”

Natalia stared at her prosthetic feet. “You-You mean dance for you?” she stuttered.

“Yes…” he said, eyes wide as if he was seeing a miracle.

Natalia danced. No biggie, it’s just what you’ve practised all this time, dummy. Don’t mess it up now. What was this? An audition? Every ballerina knew that a since word from Mr. Kumarov could get you straight into the biggest ballets of the world. And even if it didn’t work out, the mere fact he showed any interest in you was enough to get you on their radar.

Natalia simply did her thing. She imagined she was at home, her daddy in the next room watching some streaming show, her mom making dinner. She listened to the music in her room and simply danced for nobody but herself.

This time she kept her eyes open. She saw Mr. Kumarov fall on the floor, looking up in awe. His eyes darted from her pointe prosthetics to her hand movements, assessing a million things per second, she knew that.

“How long can you stay on pointe?” he asked, still excited.

“Well… Forever, I guess,” Natalie shrugged and carried on her performance.

“Forever…” Mr. Kumarov breathed out the word. He suddenly pushed himself up and Natalie jerked back, spooked. “This changes everything. Everything!” he said, and ran back to miss Olga’s office. He grabbed some paper and a pen and ran back to Natalia, scribbling furiously all the way. He looked manic, a choreographer in heat. “Again.”

“Again?” Natalia asked, not actually arguing about his command. She glanced at miss Olga, who looked happy, holding her hands in front of her body. And Marina, who stared daggers at her, again. “She cheats! Can’t you see? That’s cheating!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. Nobody agreed with her, they simply stared at her. Marina walked out of the dance school like a proper drama queen and slammed the door behind her.

Mr. Kumarov turned to look and then carried on with his scribbles. “Da, again. From the top, I need to think. A prima that can stay on pointe all day long! I need to think, I need to absorb this. Come on, dance, ballerina!”

Natalia couldn’t stop crying from her elation. She just performed, crying all the way.

Natalia was thirteen. She was the first prima ballerina ever to perform the Nutcracker on pointe for the entire show. She performed all over Europe, with plans for an even larger tour. She was a revolution, and her moves were studied all over the world. Her parents couldn’t be more proud.

Her dream had come true.

The End

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