Her palms clasping the ballet barre, Emily Muscaro stood in second position.
She looked at the bulky pink pointe shoes binding her feet.
She looked at her mom.
She looked in the mirror.
It was Emily's 11th birthday, but that wasn't the best thing about this day.
"Oh, my gosh," Emily squealed. "Is this really happening?"
• • •
Ballet is meant to look easy — graceful women flitting on tiptoes — but getting there takes years. All ballerinas start on flat feet and learn the art one strenuous exercise at a time. When a dancer gets her first pair of pointe shoes, it is a coming-of-age moment. She grows 4 inches in an instant.
"Every little girl, when she sees ballet, thinks, 'Oh, I want to go on pointe,' " Emily's ballet teacher, Melissa Stafford, said.
It became Emily's goal at age 7.
She was watching a performance of the Nutcracker. The girls on stage shot their legs out in perfectly pointed échappés and piqués. They turned and leaped as if on wires.
Emily enrolled at the Patel Conservatory Youth Ballet in 2007. She advanced steadily, and this year took four ballet classes and jazz each week. At home, she practices on a ballet barre.
A couple of Sundays ago, on the drive to church, Emily's mother, Ann Marie, told her she had an appointment on her birthday she couldn't miss.
When Emily protested, her mom said, "Oh, well, I guess then you don't want to see Miss Melissa and get your pointe shoes."
After that, sitting in Mass was tough. "I sang the songs, but during the homily and Gospel reading I wasn't really paying attention. I was just like: 'Pointe!' "
This would be Emily's payoff for all the play dates and sports tryouts she missed for ballet. It would be her first step into a life as a serious dancer.
• • •
Finally, it was June 17.
Emily and her mom arrived at the On Your Toes dance store in Temple Terrace just after 3, and Emily bounced back to the fitting station, where her teacher was waiting. Her classmates were already there, getting their feet measured. Some parents had video cameras.
Emily kicked off her flip-flops as store co-owner Sydney Schwartz pulled up a stool.
Schwartz put Emily's foot on a sliding ruler, felt for bunions and told her to tendu, or point to the side. Then she went to the store's massive shoe closet. Emily placed gel pieces between her toes and slipped cushy toe pads overtop.
"Here we go," said Schwartz, returning with a few varieties.
Schwartz, a former dancer, won't sell pointe shoes to girls who haven't had serious training. They could break an ankle or fall. "I've got a conscience," she said.
All pointe shoes are handmade. They must fit snugly, almost uncomfortably so. Extra room can cause blisters and increase injury risk. At about $100 a pair, they are an investment, especially when the dancer is a little girl with growing feet.
After trying two pairs, Emily found her match: Russian Pointe Polette Grandes, size 36, with soft shanks and a wide box. Schwartz clapped, and the other girls cheered.
"They don't hurt at all," Emily said.
"Just wait," said her teacher.
• • •
It'll take at least two more years of training until Emily is strong enough to perform on pointe, teacher Stafford said.
There will be many more missed social events, more late-night homework sessions.
Emily will break in the shoes by bending and kneading them and with tedious barre exercises. The silk will scuff, the insole will stink and the ribbons will fray. They will become a part of her.
Emily leaned into the barre, and with bent knees climbed up to her toes. She turned her feet in and out as Schwartz pinched at the fabric one last time.
In the mirror, Emily saw the dancer she's going to be.
"This is so weird," she said.
Suddenly her left heel slipped out of its shoe. Emily came down on flat feet with her eyes wide, and Schwartz chuckled.
"You still need to sew on your ribbons," she said.
Emily hoisted herself up again.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.