My new dress is white with roses. It was made just for me, stitched precisely to the lines of my body. Each rose is hand painted with pink fabric paint, no fewer than five crystals painstakingly glued to each embroidered petal. White satin ribbons criss-cross the open back. Most figure skating dresses are polyester blend, but mine is pure silk, airy and fragile. The skirt ripples around my hips when I spin on the ice; crystal roses catching light with each turn and change of edge. Right now, the dress hangs outside my closet door, waiting for me.
Sometimes, I hate that dress.
I am four years old, more snowsuit than child. My ankles wobble in dirty tan rental skates as I shuffle around the tiny outdoor rink. The other kids lean on stacks of plastic crates to keep themselves upright, but I refuse the crutch. I will skate on my own shaking ankles, and someday I will dance on ice like the skaters who smile through my television set. I push my blades against the ice harder and harder until velocity forces me down to my knees. I skate backwards and forwards, on two feet, then gliding on one. Later, I beg my parents for lessons, then a coach. I get real white figure skates with clean laces and two crystals on each toe. I am in love.
Like all serious figure skaters, I have a dressmaker. My dressmaker’s studio is a shrine to the creative process — bolts of rich fabrics stacked high in the corners, uncapped tubes of crystals spilling onto tables stained with fabric paint. I know what I want, a white dress with pink roses and ribbons lacing up the back. I tell her my vision, and together we sit hunched over a sewing table with a piece of paper and a pencil, planning and erasing, saying this goes here and that goes there and, “Oh, wouldn’t these look lovely with pink crystals.” Each creative whimsy is etched onto the page until my dream has been realized. Afterwards, I clutch the sketch, smudging my fingers as I trace over the graphite roses and ribbons.
I am nine years old and I am ecstatic. I have landed a double jump for the first time, the youngest at my rink to do so. My coach gives me a hug and an approving smile, and my parents buy me a T-shirt that says “I landed my axel!” from the local skating store. This new jump makes me competitive, a “real skater” instead of a kid who goes to the rink sometimes. Two months later I will wave goodbye to my old coach and make the long drive to the storied Skating Club of Boston. The old coach is replaced with four fancy new ones: one for jumps, one for spins, one for choreography, and one to manage the other three coaches. I skate everyday, I skate until my legs ache and my feet chafe and the tips of my fingers turn purple in the cold.
It takes months to sew a skating dress, to take a roll of fabric and shape it into art. It is painstaking, exacting work, a skill so rare that most coaches have a single dressmaker deemed competent enough to create costumes for their skaters. Each piece of my dress is cut to my measurements, 18.9 inches from knee to hip, 24.6 inches around the waist, then threaded together with tiny white stitches. My dressmaker cuts the bodice from lycra before lining it with silk, then sews more silken fabric onto my hips to create a delicate skirt. The silk is expensive, but we use it anyway. You work so hard, my parents say. You deserve this. The uncut silk is soft as I hold it up to my body, and I wonder if I could ever be sad wearing something this beautiful.
I am thirteen years old, long and bendy. I am a beautiful spinner. I can grab the tip of my left blade with my opposite hand as I spin, then straighten my knees until my legs are extended in a full split, my back arched at an impossible angle. I spin like this at the beginning of each of my routines, soaking in the jealous stares from my rivals, the high marks from judges. Other coaches come up to me after competitions, saying, “I wish my students could spin like that.” I spin like this every day, tip my head back and spin around and around until I get so dizzy that everything goes black and stars dance across my eyes.
My favorite part of my new dress is the ribbons lacing up my back. The lacing starts just under my shoulder blades, ending in a small bow at the nape of my spine. There is just something so romantic about a corset back. I took the idea from a book called The Bronze Horseman, an epic novel with the pretense of Tolstoy and the substance of Cinderella. A Red Army soldier comes home to Russia. He sees a peasant girl in a white dress with ribbons lacing up the back and falls madly in love. It is a silly book, but reading it, all I wanted was to love something as much as those characters loved each other.
I am fifteen and my back hurts. It hurts when I jump, when I walk, when I sit at my desk in school. This is bad, this is wrong, I want to scream. I’m a teenager and my bones ache like I am already worn. When I grab my leg to spin I feel vertebrae rub and crunch, a dull knife sawing at my spine. I stop spinning.
“Not today,” I tell my coaches. “Tomorrow, I’ll be better.” But tomorrow comes and it hurts to get out of bed. So I stop skating. The doctors tell me what I already know: my back is broken. I am broken.
My back brace is white plastic. It squeezes my ribs and pinches my waist, it encases me day and night. If you hit the plastic hard enough through my clothes, I sound hollow.
The most expensive part of a skating dress is the crystals. They are costly in themselves, but one mostly pays for the labor of applying them. Thousands of these tiny jewels must be glued onto the dress by hand, arranged in intricate patterns in order to reflect light and dazzle the judges. My dress has 1,300 stones: clear crystal for the bodice, matte opal for the ribbons, and three different shades of pink for the roses. I pick them out myself, holding each sample up to the fluorescent lights in my dressmaker’s studio, squinting as I try to discern the difference between a 6.2 mm Indian Pink and 4.0 mm Vintage Rose.
I am sixteen and miserable. I am back on the ice, but after being of for months, my knees ache and my hips pull and my weakened ankles wobble like I am four years old again. I must skate slowly now. I must jump close to the ground. The brace is gone, but the knife in my back still saws with each landing. I watch the younger kids land their double jumps for the first time, hopping up and down on their toepicks and shouting “I did it!” with each twirl and trick. I watch my old rivals land triple jumps, watch them fly of for the National Championships and come home with new hardware. My back will bend no more, every stab of pain a firm reminder that I am not what I once was.
I try on my new dress and wonder how such tiny crystals could become so heavy. They weigh on my chest, although the silk skirt lifts effortlessly when I twirl in front of the mirror. I admire the perfect stitches, the painted roses, the corset back, the hundreds of crystals glittering on every open inch of fabric. It is the most beautiful dress I have ever seen, and yet at the same time, I hate it. I hate that I made this beautiful, expensive, useless thing. I hate that I still feel hollow when I put it on.
I am seventeen and tired. I am tired of skating, tired of pain, tired of feeling worn down. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to hang up my skates, to give in to my body and quit. But then I remember the little girl who wanted nothing more than to dance on the ice, who skated every day until her hands turned purple in the cold. I owe it to her to keep trying, to do the thing she loved as long as I physically can. So I decide to keep going, even though every practice is punctuated by pain in some part of my body. I get new music, a new routine ... all I need is a dress. I imagine a white dress with pink roses and ribbons lacing up the back, a dress so beautiful that simply putting it on will make me fall in love.
Today I am competing. My new dress hangs outside my closet door. A bottle of little white pills sits on my dresser, painkillers that will allow me to perform an approximation of my old spins. I do not compete to win a medal, I compete because it is what I have always done. Because I have endured so much to be able skate. And it would be such a shame for that beautiful dress, with its white ribbons softly lacing up my back, to sit in my bedroom unworn.
Ginevra Davis is a 17 year old attending Concord Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts.