Christmas. A time for Santa, presents, infrequently Jesus, and for a number of tortured souls, rehearsals. This is a time for Tchaikovsky to be dragged out of mothballs and another production of The Nutcracker to be mounted. Tights, tutus, costumes, and a humbling garment called a “dance belt” for male dancers—that some thought to be a collaborative effort between Victoria’s Secret and the Marquis de Sade—were donned to bring the odd story and unforgettable music back to life.

He was from the blue-collar part of town. The dance studios in the city had a venerable dinge to them. It was not the dinge of neglect, but rather the dinge of the ages. The floors did not gleam, but they were sound and comfortable to use. The hardware that held the barres in place was from a different age. The walls looked tired. The mirrors were clean and clear, but something about them told a story of the many thousands of students attempting to achieve the nearly impossible: becoming a well-respected dancer.

She was from the north, perhaps even horse country, where people’s yards are measured in acres, not square feet. The studio was spartan in comparison to the studios in the city. The floor showed little signs of wear, and it was buttressed by a concrete foundation which had no give. This was the kind of floor which will launch a thousand shin splints. The lights were unnervingly bright because there was no dinge to suck up unneeded photons. But it was a dance studio, and amazing things can happen in a dance studio.             Upon entering the studio of light and unforgiving floors, he and she were introduced to each other. Within the community of those who are in charge of the “creative” aspect of dance and are small-minded and jealous—which seems to just about all of them—she would have been considered fat by some and zaftig by those who didn’t want to appear small-minded and jealous. By any sensible human being’s standard, she was breathtaking. She was Barbie. Not the Barbie that had been crossbred with a greyhound or the Barbie with an unnerving Teutonic austerity; she was real-life Barbie with a warm smile, a gracious nature, and someone who, despite her appearance, was well liked by all the other girls in the studio. The blonde hair, blue eyes, and a bust line that in no way resembled that of Fonteyn, or Markova, or Misty Copeland combined in such a way that any description I can offer will be insufficient, or worse yet, trite.

He had been dancing in the dinge with dancers who deserved a better partner. The rough-handed treatment of briskly hoisting young ladies over his head and yanking them here and there was not behavior that was in his wheelhouse. Ladies were to be treated in a way that was comforting, not tossed about like weights in a gym. But given the exhortations of the people witnessing his rehearsals in the dinge, that was how female ballet dancers were to be treated and expected to be treated. He never quite got the hang of it.

She was a dancer in need of support and she was very nearly half his age. He tried hard to pretend that this was not at least a little creepy. Although childless at this stage in his life, he felt like something of a father figure or at least a big brother. Her balance was just a touch wobbly, the extension of her legs was not as full as she would have liked, and it was his job to make her look Fonteyn or Markova. Her self-effacing comments about the how the rehearsal was going made it obvious that she was well acquainted with her modest shortcomings. She was beautiful, self-effacing, funny, and smarter than he would have guessed. He hoped she didn’t marry a jerk in the years to come.

The rehearsal was over and at least one of them felt as though the time had been insufficient. He feared that the director was satisfied and was dooming their performance to a most insidious—and often inadvertent—sabotage: low expectations. There were other performances planned for this run of the ballet where other girls would take the lead role. The performance where she was to be Clara was looming, and the time they had to work out timing and idiosyncrasies was short, to say the least.

On the day of the performance, he was sitting on a couch thinking that he was in so much pain, he would have called in sick to an office job. Rut tonight, he was expected to spend a significant portion of a ballet performance in mid-air. Apparently, even a 29-year-old body can only take so much. He had a very physical job during the day, then regularly put his groin muscles and hamstrings at great risk by tossing himself so high in the air that he had time to look at the faces of those present and appreciate the expressions. The mid-air splits and turns and scissoring of legs to make the turns look more dramatic, and then landing these jumps on hard floors—and often on one knee—had taken a toll. He hurt. A lot.

He had no understudy. Had he given into the sore muscles, it probably would have fallen to his genuinely brilliant teacher to fill his roles. The pity of it was that he wondered if the audience would have appreciated a performance by a world-class ballet dancer that made everything look easy. He danced as though they he was always on the edge of disaster, but managed to finish and land everything. He thought this to be more of a football and NASCAR audience and believed that dancing on the edge would be more entertaining than the calm, cool, controlled perfection of his teacher. He sucked it up and got to the theater early.

The theater was big and modern. The stage was huge and to fill this house with the electricity generated by performing humans was a daunting task. He ran wind sprints in the lobby and ran the stairs in the theater and hoped endorphins would mitigate his ailments. Although the warm-up for the performance was not even close to the sort of energy and precision needed for the actual performance, he knew he’d be ready for Tchaikovsky.

There was no good moment to go over some of the rough spots in the pas de deux. She was always surrounded by a gaggle of joyful young ladies, and he was off imagining all of the things that could go wrong and what he’d be able to do to save the performance if something went wrong. This was an exercise that he would practice every time he would go on stage, regardless of what sort of performance it was. All the catastrophes he imagined never occurred, but when a surprise such as a missed entrance or a misplaced prop did happen, the mindset that the show must go on and his character would know how to fix it always prevailed.

The performance started as usual. There were no mishaps or mistakes; nothing surprising happened. When it was time for their pas de deux, he was on stage and she emerged from what seemed like nowhere. He offered his hand to her and she took it. She didn’t seem nervous; she seemed relieved to see him because she knew she needed help and help was there. He made a solemn resolution to himself that he would die on stage rather than let her fall. And in that moment, something happened.

Oh, it all sounds so terribly contrived and fairy tale-ish, but he will swear that IT happened. Maybe IT happens all the time. Maybe IT happens when a drowning swimmer is thankful that the lifeguard showed. Perhaps in a time of war, when a man is charged with doing something insanely dangerous and he turns to his friend and the friend says, “Don’t worry, I got you covered,” IT happens.

IT, in this instance, may seem trivial, but when you’re on stage in front of a large audience, wearing things you otherwise would not be caught dead in and are charged with protecting someone’s dignity and reputation, IT seems very much like a life and death situation.

Their hands clasped, their eyes locked, and suddenly, IT happened. Magic happened. He could hear nothing. He saw nothing but her eyes. The audience disappeared. The off-stage cast mates looking on went away. The lights, the stage, the scenery, even Barbie; all of it gone, except her eyes. It was eerie and raw and should have scared the living daylights out of him, because he was zoning out in the middle of a performance where he was responsible for someone else. He couldn’t think—he didn’t need to think—and after a moment or two, he didn’t want to think. The music was so well ingrained that it didn’t need to be heard. Her practice with other partners and his practice with other partners and the paucity of practice between them made this dance feel fresh and brand new. And for just a short time, he and she were the only people on the planet. She had found trust in him and he was ready to slay dragons for her. The rest of the pas de deux is a complete blank for him. Even the recollection of his performance during the solo section of the pas de deux is gone.

What he experienced on that stage was enough for him to be satisfied that he had done all he was to do in dance and walking away was going to be easier. They never talked about IT. He didn’t know if she felt the same way, but he would never believe she didn’t. Then the people witnessing the pas de deux came backstage afterward and told him something palpable had actually happened. They saw something special between the two of them. They felt IT.

Even his infinitely patient wife, who is nothing but honest and is not likely to hand out unwarranted compliments, said she saw IT. The world-class ballet teacher came back stage and was excited beyond words and told him that he had finally found a partner he could dance with. An earlier rehearsal with another really wonderful, smart dancer devolved into a suggestion by the teacher that he should go to one part of the stage and do spectacular things, and she to another part and do spectacular things, but the two of them should never dance together.

IT was a moment that filled a theater in a way he did not know was possible. He’d filled theaters with emotion before by risking life and limb, but the idea that two people could create a much more remarkable moment with just a single glance would have seemed foolish two hours earlier.

He never saw her again, and that was okay. They were in very different stages of life. She would have college and decisions and many forks in the road, while children were on his horizon. They both needed to go their way and face different challenges.

If a recording of the pas de deux exists, I’m sure that the performance would seem completely pedestrian. You had to be there.