Pre Pointe Exercises

by Jesse Falzoi

for Javier Carranza & Edwin Mota

I woke up on a doormat, completely naked, with enormous wings attached to my back. And when this young man came out of his apartment, he asked me in English –he had some Eastern European accent – who I was, but I didn’t know.

Aren’t you cold, he went on and I said, No, my wings keep me warm.

He looked at me for a while and then asked me inside. It was a small apartment, with very little furniture, just what you need to eat and sit and sleep. A tiny bathroom with a shower which he offered me to use. I don’t know, I said, maybe it’s not good for the wings. I said, They are new, I don’t want to ruin them.

You’re dirty, he said.

I looked down and only then noticed the streaks of mud. They should be fine, I said, or am I supposed to take them off? Like jewelry?

The young man looked me in the eyes without saying anything, then he nodded and said, Let me bring you a towel.

A little later I stood in his tiny shower and the water washed the mud from my body and when I turned it off, I was cold. But surely my wings would dry soon and keep me warm again. I carefully used the towel, I didn’t want to destroy them; at the age of six I once found a sick bird in a puddle and my mother helped me build a nest which we placed under an infrared lamp. A towel would have killed it, my mother said, its wings are too delicate. In the end it died anyway, but the wings were still okay when we buried it, smooth and strong and ready to take our little bird to heaven, my mother had said.

Where are your clothes, the young man said when I came out of the bathroom. He was sitting on the only chair in the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee. Another one was on the table. I take milk, I said.

There’s no milk, he said. Then he went out and returned with a sweater and pants that looked much too big before he even unfolded them. Put that on, he said.

I reached for the pants. Then I saw the scissors and I cut two holes into the back of the sweater and took it to the living room where he was talking to someone on the phone. Can you help me? I asked.

I call you back, he said to that someone and put down the receiver. He reached for the sweater and looked at the holes, then he sighed and said, Turn around.

I turned around.

Hold your arms up, he said.

I held my arms up.

You should dry your hair. The sweater is all wet. It’s because of the wings, I said.

He sighed again. Then he looked at his watch and said, I have to go. Where can I drop you off?

I shrugged.

I’ll give you thirty seconds. If you don’t tell me I’ll call the police. He reached for the phone again and said, Twenty-five seconds.

I don’t know, I said.


I sat down on the recliner, which was the only chair here as well, and said, Please.

He waited, and I could see him count in his head, until he put the phone down again. You can’t stay here, he said.

Why not?

He looked around. This is not made for two, he said. Don’t you see?

I slipped from the recliner and sat on the carpet. You found me, I said.

I gotta work. Can’t lose my job because of you. He walked to the front door and said, You can’t stay here.

Then take me with you, I said.

He shook his head. Without shoes? Come on, now. I’m not allowed to bring somebody anyway. There’s a police station a few blocks away.

I didn’t move.

Listen, he said, Maybe you had an accident or something. There’s surely somebody waiting for you. Most probably worried like hell. You really don’t remember anything?
I’m tired, I said.


When I woke up I was lying in his bed and he was gone. It was a single bed. Next to it there was a chair which he used as a night table, with a book called Nadia and a glass of water. No closet. Just a few nails at the wall on which hung his clothes. On the floor there was a sports bag. I got up and opened it: sweat pants, a T-Shirt, a towel, everything clean, and a water bottle. As if he packed it and then forgotten to take it with him. But there were no shoes, I thought at first, until I discovered the black ballet slippers.

I went back to bed and slept until he woke me. You must be hungry, he said.

Yes, I said.

There were two boxes of Chinese take-away food on the kitchen table. He removed the lid of one and said, Duck or chicken?

I’m a vegetarian, I said. I thought that you don’t remember anything. He took one of the boxes and started to shovel food into his mouth with a plastic fork. If you don’t eat it, put it in the fridge. He eventually stood up and downed his box and fork into the trashcan. Tonight you can stay, but tomorrow you’ll have to leave.

Where are you going?

He opened the cabinet. It was empty. No cups, no plates, no glasses, no cutlery. The fridge. No food. I’m not here, he said. You can’t be here either. He went to the bedroom and returned with his sports bag.

Ballet? I asked.

He hesitated, then he said, Yes.

Can I come?

He opened the front door shaking his head and banged it shut again. I waited until I couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore, then I went back to the kitchen and ate the rice. The rest I put into the fridge.


That night I lay down on the carpet to sleep, on the side because of my wings, and I used the towel he’d given me as a blanket. When I woke up, I lay in his bed again. I tiptoed to the bathroom. His ballet clothes were hanging in the shower to dry. As I walked past the living room, I saw him lying on an inflatable mattress, his body half covered by a sleeping bag. The room was well-lighted with the full moon outside, so I could see his face, his shoulders, his arms, his breast, and his belly. I tried to imagine him doing pirouettes and jumps. Without clothes it was easier. And with the smile on his face.


In the morning he woke me with coffee. Listen, he said, sitting down on the chair which he used as a night-table. I understand that you’re in some kind of trouble but you can’t stay here.

I didn’t say anything. I just sipped at my coffee, in a position that wouldn’t hurt my wings. I would have liked to thank him for the milk though.

I don’t have money for two, he went on. And you don’t have money either, if it’s not hidden in your wings. He held his cup and looked into it as if searching for some advice there, then he said, They must be looking for you. Missing you.

I finished my coffee and gave him the cup. Thank you.

I don’t even know how to call you, he said. You must remember your name at least. He looked at me and said, Why are you sitting like that?

My wings.

For Chrissake, can you stop that? He’d put the book on the floor.

Nadia is nice, I said.

You don’t get it, do you? I can’t keep you here. This isn’t my apartment. I get into trouble if people start asking questions.

I asked him why he didn’t speak German and he told me that he was from Albania but his visa expired long ago when his contract at the Staatsballett ended. I understand, I said.

The fuck you do. He got up and carried our cups into the kitchen and I followed him, saying, What do you work?


I can help you.

He nodded toward my red toe nails. That job was done by a professional, he said. Not long ago. I bet you’re fucking rich. He shouldered his sports bag. I get you shoes and then you leave. End of discussion.

There was a sandwich on the kitchen table and a glass of juice. Maybe it’s what he always did before he left, preparing dinner for himself, but I couldn’t resist. When he returned an hour later with sneakers, he didn’t say anything though. They weren’t new but in a good shape and he gave me socks too. You can keep everything, he said. The sweater is ruined anyway.

What’s your name?


I couldn’t suppress a smile. He wasn’t a good liar. But Nadia wasn’t any closer to the truth either. Do you dance every day?



He shouldered his bag and said, You can’t stay. Why don’t you get it?

Take me with you. Don’t leave me alone.

He opened the front door and reached for his keys. Tonight I want to have my bed back. My whole body is sore. It’s your fault if I fuck up my training.

I’ll scream. I’ll scream until you come back.

Whatever, he said, and so I said, I’ll call the police.


It was snowing outside. He didn’t have a spare coat. I thought your wings keep you warm, he said.

I’m not cold, I said.

He laughed. So it’s not your teeth I’m hearing?

We had to walk for an hour. I asked him why we didn’t take the subway. You can get us tickets for the way back, if you want, he answered.

You know that I don’t have money.

Neither do I.

When we arrived he took me to a changing room but he didn’t put on his training clothes. Instead he reached for two work coats. You’re going to earn your living for a change, he said.

We had to sweep the floor and the changing rooms and clean the bathrooms, and when we were done, the first dancers arrived and Stephan went into the changing room himself. I was told to sit next to the piano. Then, by and by, the dancers came in and started to stretch, which looked effortless and unnatural and intimate, and I felt uncomfortable observing them but nobody seemed to wonder. Maybe I am invisible, I thought. Maybe only Stephan can see me. Relieved, I leaned back in my chair and cried out when I crushed my wings. But again, nobody looked. Then the teacher came in and put on piano music. They all went to one of the barres and the teacher showed something, and the dancers nodded and copied his movements, which he accompanied by French terms, with a strong, irretraceable accent, and I sat and watched, and when the lesson was over, I said to Stephan, I want to learn that.

He laughed.

I pay you.

He laughed again. Then he put on the gray work coat and passed me the other.

I helped him clean apartments and after a few days he stopped telling me that I had to leave. At the end of the week he passed me his slippers and said, They are a bit too large, so you just leave the socks on. He passed me some leggings and a T-Shirt which looked like a dress on me. Wait, he said, looking around, and in the end he returned with a shoe lace, which he wrapped around my waist. This will do for the beginning. He pointed at my belly button. This belongs inside, he said. Always.

Yes, I said.

He touched my left leg. And this you keep stretched.

Yes, I said.

It’s still bent.

It’s not.

It is. He stood in front of me, his gaze wandering up and down. Head, shoulders, pelvis, thighs, feet. Do you feel the tension? He touched me here and there, and then he told me to copy him. A battement means that you push a leg to the front, do you understand French? Makes it easier. There are many types of battements, and that’s what you care most about in the beginning, that your battements become perfect. The first we’ll do is the battement tendu. This is a tendu, he said, and then he rolled up the sweat pants at his left leg and stretched it forward. Look what I am doing. I brush the floor with my heel, you see? Like this.

I stretched my leg and pointed my foot.

At full power. Like this.

I tried again. And again. And again.

Now to the side, he said, even though I could tell that he still wasn’t satisfied. It’s called en croix, battements tendus en croix. Do it again, en avant, seconde, en arrière. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

I was sweating all over when he finally said, This is a plié. He stood in first position and bent his legs. Like a frog. Then he came up again. Now you, he said.

I bent my legs.

Watch your knees, he said. And he grabbed my knees and turned them sideways.

You’re hurting me, I said.

Do you want to stop? Just say it.

I breathed in and counted to four. And out. In. And out. I’d heard that it helped against the pain, but I didn’t remember in what context.

Where’s your belly button?

I can’t move.

He let go of my left knee and hit my belly. Are you pregnant or what? He pinched me and said, Tension.

I breathed in and held my breath.

He stood up again and went behind me. Keep your back straight, he said, and with his hands he kept me in balance. Bring your arms up, he said.

You’re crushing my wings, I said.

He removed his hands again and I nearly fell to the side. Don’t move, he said, then he walked to the hall to get his sports bag. I heard him looking for something and then I heard piano music. This is how you prepare yourself. Listen to the music. Let’s do it again. Look at my arms. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Tendu. Slower. Use the whole music. One, two, three…Too fast. Do it again.


When he finally turned the music off, there was pain everywhere. I lay on the bed and fell asleep even though my legs still felt as if I were running a marathon. He woke me up in the dark and put a cup of coffee on the floor. The chair was in the kitchen now. You have five minutes, he said.

I can’t move, I said.

He pulled at the blanket and went out again. Four minutes and a half.

I took a sip of the coffee and then slowly crawled out of the bed. He angrily looked at me when I was ready to go. I’ll kill you if we lose that job, he said.Go ahead, kill me, I said.

That day we took the subway. His hands were folded in his lap as if he was praying, but he couldn’t keep his index fingers still. You’re making me nervous, I said.

He didn’t answer.

Why are you doing this?

None of your business.

We got off after four stops. Before, we would have walked even if the place was ten stops away. Are we rich now? I said, and he said, Don’t get too exited. But then he winked at me and I knew that he wasn’t angry anymore.

It was a very big apartment, inhabited by a couple with a little boy, who looked at us from every wall. The three of them together, the boy alone, the boy with the woman or with the man, the woman with a huge belly. Stephan laughed. She looks like you, he said.

No, I said.

He shrugged and passed me the bucket. The sponge is beneath the sink.

She doesn’t have wings.

He took the vacuum cleaner out of the closet and pulled out the cable. Start with the big bathroom.

I can’t bend my legs. It hurts too much.

Just do it.


There were three jobs that day and it was dark when we were home, but he turned the piano music on and said, Repeat what you’ve learned.

I’m hungry.

He threw a pair of slippers on my lap and said, They had a box full of them. The last place, remember?

I yawned.

Come on, he said, pulling his own slippers out of the sports bag. A newspaper clipping sailed to my feet. I grabbed it. Give it back, he said.

I turned it around. There was a photograph of him. With wings. And he wasn’t wearing anything.

He snatched it away from me and said, Get dressed. Or leave. I don’t care if you call the police.

I just couldn’t get up from the chair again, but he stood there waiting, so in the end I positioned myself next to the makeshift barre he’d gotten from some construction site, suppressing a yawn.

Five, six, seven, eight. He stopped the music. What did I say about getting prepared?

You have wings just like me, I said.

Arms first position. Second, left arm on the barre. The right up. Up I said. You look like a chicken. Tendu. One, two, three, four, six, seven, eight. Make sure your foot is massaging the floor.

I straightened my legs and breathed in.

Right leg to the front. Slowly. Massage the floor. Look at me. I looked at his legs that were now covered by sweatpants. But I’d seen them. Naked. I’d seen his muscles and his shiny skin. I’d seen his wings.

Now you.

I’d seen the name beneath the photograph. Bardhyl something. Still smiling, I copied him.


In the morning, we cleaned apartments, afterward he taught me ballet and in the evening he went to his own lesson. I wasn’t allowed to go with him anymore but I didn’t mind. I continued my tendus and pliés, my jetés and grand battements, my passés and frappés; I stretched and extended; I stood in first position for hours, concentrating on the tiniest parts of my body, listening to the piano music until I could recall every note, until he stopped telling me to use the music. I did exercises to stabilize my rond de jambs and pirouettes; I sat on the floor like a frog to get my knees sideward; I walked around with straightened legs. You don’t think that it’s so hard, do you? Most people would say that it’s the natural position of a human leg to be straight. But I tell you, it isn’t. This was hard work. Go ahead. You can touch it.

There were many nights when I couldn’t sleep because every inch of my body was hurting. Sometimes it was so bad that I couldn’t hold back my tears but I made sure that he didn’t see them. I had cramps all the time but when I flinched, he told me to go on. I don’t know when the pain stopped, I got so used to it. During the lessons I was fine eventually, yet the best ones meant that a sleepless night followed. When it was really bad, I looked at the arch that my feet had left on the wall during stretching; I had begun at half a meter above the floor, in the end I was able to reach down. And here’s your split, he finally said with a mocking grin, but I could see that he was proud, too.

If I did something without warming up though, he got very angry. I can’t take you to a hospital, he then started to shout, Don’t you get it? You’re not a private patient anymore. You’re not a patient at all. You and I, we don’t exist. If you hurt yourself, best thing I can do is get a piece of wood and a cloth, you don’t want that, do you?

He used to ask me if I was okay, during jumps for example, and even though I knew why, it felt nice. But he also never stopped yelling, Watch your arms, what the hell do you think you’re doing, you’re a chicken or what? Look at me, how many times do I have to tell ? Once I was chewing gum, which I had to spit on the palm of his hand, and he smeared it into my hair, that’s why I had to cut it short like this. But I didn’t mind. I like it that way.


One evening, while he was away for his own lesson, I found another newspaper clipping beneath the inflatable mattress. It showed him with a woman who was wearing a white dress and pointe shoes. She was standing on her right leg, the left was extended backward, and she had her eyes closed. He stood behind her and reached out for her hands, as if getting ready to lift her. The photograph had been taken at a ballet gala in a place called Durrës two years ago. He caught me while I was still looking at it and started one of his speeches again, but I just left and went to bed. In the morning, while we were cleaning the bathroom of a famous German director who lived in L.A. most of the year – it was a total mess, the richer, the dirtier –, I said to him that I wanted shoes like that.

What shoes? he said, but I knew that he knew.

And the dress.

He snorted. But when I woke up the next day there was a bag hanging on the barre. I jumped out of the bed and opened it. The dress was fine, but the shoes didn’t have the pretty ribbons. You have to sew them on, he said. It’s very special to prepare your first pointe shoes.

Give me a needle and thread then.

Let me sleep. We have another hour.

Tell me where you keep them.

Të urrej, he whispered but opened his sleeping bag, crawled out of it, went to the kitchen, and returned with a small box. You have to try them on first.

They were very hard. In the beginning I wasn’t able to push my foot inside but he showed me how. Then I had to go to the barre and stand in first position. Now come up, he said, still yawning.

Like this? I asked.

Guess so.

I found my balance and let go of the barre. My toes were hurting but not too much. I’d gotten used to pain. It felt more familiar than being without.

Normally it’s the teacher who says when you’re ready.

Then say it.

We’ll see.

But he showed me where to sew the ribbons and the elastics on. The second shoe I did all by myself. I felt that he longed to correct me but there was no reason. Careful, he shouted nonetheless. He grabbed the shoe that was finished and held it up. Look what you’ve done.

There was a drop of blood. I’d pricked my finger without noticing. It doesn’t matter, I said.

He tried to remove the stain with spit but couldn’t. They were expensive. You won’t get other ones. But then he calmed down and showed me how to bang and break them to make them softer. What about the dress? he said, Does it fit?

I went back to the bedroom and put it on, and then I returned to the kitchen where he was preparing our coffee. What do you think? I said, turning around.

It’s just clothes, he said. A ballet dancer should look good even naked.

Like in that picture, you mean?

We gotta go, he just said, and I reluctantly untied the ribbons. In the afternoon, when we came back from cleaning, he pretended to be tired. I made him coffee and a sandwich and I waited standing next to him until he finally got up and said, Just an hour, not a minute longer.

Yes, my lord and master.

You first have to build up your strength.

Yes, my lord and master.

Stop saying that. He got up and I followed him to the bedroom where he told me to grab the barre. I can’t show you though.

Why don’t you have pointe shoes? I asked. It’s a thing for female dancers. My teacher always said that it comes from their wish to be an elf. He grinned. There’s a lot of work in front of you.

We have plenty of time, don’t we?

Instead of replying he turned on the music. We’re starting parallel. Plié, push over those shoes, feel that arch. One, two. Rolling up, push over, feel that arch, roll down again. Four times. Good. Now the same thing in first position. Up, push over, stand and down again. How does it feel?


Second position. Plié, rolling up, over the shoes, and down. Go ahead with that in first and second for a while. He left the room and a few seconds later I heard him sinking onto the mattress. Then he returned and said, First position, let’s do tendus: to the front, push over that shoe, feel the arch, and back. The whole program, en avant, à la seconde, en arrière, until I’m back.

Where are you going?

Getting us food. He opened the door, saying, You want something in particular?

Something special, I called after him.

He snorted but returned with ice cream for dessert, and before going to his own class, he passed me his tablet and said, I thought you might like this music.

I listened, using my hands to indicate possible steps and jumps. It came automatically by now. Whenever I heard piano music my hands went up and created a possible combination. If we took the subway, which happened more often nowadays, I used my fingers. Once, a man started playing a violin, and we both sat there, our hands folded in our laps, completely still, apart from our index fingers, which were moving simultaneously.


I don’t know how much time passed. I should know because of the sun and the falling leaves and the snow or what clothes I put on in the morning but it was never for long and even the apartments seemed all alike in the end. We’d reached Giselle by now, which was very difficult, and at one point I sat down on the floor and said, If we don’t do something else, I give up.

Listen, he said, and I said, No.

He touched my shoulder. Imagine a cemetery. Imagine this guy going there despite his fears in order to ask for forgiveness, to honor his dead lover, who is supposed to become one of the wilis. He goes there even though it’s very dangerous, because that’s what wilis do, kill men. And now he is at her grave and he starts feeling her presence, like a wind, and there she is, transparent, she’s a ghost, remember? But he starts feeling her, he is shocked at first, then he recognizes her, he wants to touch her, she goes away, he’s following her, the wilis find him and want to kill him, she comes to his rescue, he wants to touch her, she flies away, he tries to hold on to her, she breaks the spell so he is not cursed anymore, and she can finally go to heaven. It’s what all of this is about.

I can’t do it, I said. Don’t you get it, Bardhyl?

I’d never called him by his real name before. I did it again: Don’t you get it, Bardhyl?

He took off his slippers, grabbed his shoes and coat and left the apartment. I jumped up and ran after him. With the pointe shoes you’re not very fast, so he was gone as I stepped onto the street. But then I noticed his hood among a group of business people and when I’d reached him, I lifted my arms and my left leg. Do you know Giselle? He’s kneeling on the ground, and he looks down, deep in thought, remember? I lifted my left leg again, and he looked up but this time he didn’t say that it wasn’t high enough, he just watched, like everybody else, and I danced around him, you know the music, do you? But then this man in the business suit came toward me and he started to tell all these lies, like being my husband and stuff you wouldn’t want to know, terrible things, until Bardhyl stood behind me, just like on that photograph, and then he held me by the waist and I was ready to fly.

Jesse Falzoi lives in Berlin, Germany. Her German book on craft came out in 2017, the novel Das Geheimnis der Welt was published last winter, and her first collection of English short stories, A Place to Be, will be launched soon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College and teaches creative writing at a secondary school and a community college.