© Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

A Very Young Dancer

Jay Neugeboren
June 27, 2024

© Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

My sister Claire died of bone cancer when she was 12 and I was 16. At the cemetery, which was on the far side of a wildlife preserve that bordered the western part of our Connecticut property, my mother, holding me close to her while I sobbed away, was stoic. My father wept inconsolably, and continued to do so, intermittently, when friends and family came to our home to comfort us during the week of shiva.

Then as now, bone cancer was not an uncommon cancer in children. During the last year of Claire’s life, her body, from the waist down, was covered always with a blanket following the amputation of her left leg so that I never saw what I both longed to see and was frightened of seeing. Instead, we spent most of our time together reminiscing about our years on the road, and talking about shows we’d been in—Babes in Toyland, The Mikado, and Showboat were favorites—and about performers we’d known.

One afternoon she asked if I remembered the time she’d asked if I thought she was old enough to let boys kiss her. Several boys had tried to kiss her, she said, and others, including one who claimed he’d already kissed me, had asked if they could. She said she was inclined to let the boys who asked to kiss her do so, but she wanted to know—she was ever a direct and uncomplicated child—what the best ways of kissing were. Some of her friends said that boys would try to put their tongues in her mouth, and she wondered, were this so, if she should let them, and what doing so would feel like.

Later, at a time when she was failing rapidly, she told me she had let three boys kiss her, that she liked being kissed, and that she was grateful to me for helping her experience what she regarded as a precious gift. Before that, and a half-year or so before her 11th birthday, Claire had been accepted into the New York City Ballet School, where young dancers were trained to be in the Corps du Ballet for Balanchine’s New York City Ballet Company. If not quite the prodigy dancers such as Gelsey Kirkland and Suzanne Farrell were, Claire was nevertheless a superior talent, and was being prepared for becoming a member of the ballet company, and eventually, or so our mother claimed Balanchine had told her, for principal roles.

Our mother, who was a gifted singer and dancer, and often played the lead in the touring companies we were part of, had placed us in a ballet school in Westport, Connecticut when Claire was 4 and I was 8. It was at this school, after a visit by Allegra Kent, that Claire and I first shared with each other our hopes to become world-famous ballerinas.

By the time she visited our school, Allegra Kent had retired from the New York City Ballet and had become a teacher of ballet. The fact that she singled us out from the dozen or so young girls in our class on that day, and told us we showed, in her words, “unique promise,” thrilled us. More telling, however, was the fact that, when we were all assembled after doing a set of barre exercises, she confided in us the fact that she was Jewish and that her true name was Iris Margo Cohen. She urged us not to err as she often had: that, in dance or life, we should never hide our true selves and desires.

Before Claire was accepted into the New York City Ballet School, I suffered a serious horseback riding accident where I broke three ankle bones and my tibia—which meant that the possibility of ever being as good as Claire became a physical impossibility that served to free me from any remaining hopes I’d had for a career in classical dance. Claire’s illness—the fact that she would leave the world before she fulfilled the dreams our parents had for her, and that she had for herself—probably removed whatever vestiges of envy or jealousy I still felt toward her while also giving me predictable feelings of schadenfreude: secret frissons of happiness. Still, her illness and death, while making part of me rejoice—a part of me I despised because I rejoiced—also deprived me of whatever small measures of affection I’d been receiving, or hoped to receive, from our parents.

Claire was not only the center of their attentions, but her condition brought with it daily accusations of imagined acts of meanness I’d committed—as intelligent as our parents were, they were devoid of anything resembling psychological sophistication—and they would ask, bluntly and repeatedly: “Why are you still alive when Claire is dying?”

Only once did I find the courage to reply. After my father had put Claire to sleep one afternoon for a nap, he asked me why the hell a no-good little slut like me was still alive when Claire would soon be gone. I replied—with what I now think of as remarkable sangfroid—that there were several familiar sayings that might explain the situation: The first, of course, was the commonplace about only the good dying young; and the second was the equally common notion that people like me—or him!—were probably too mean to die.

He slapped me across the face, to which not unforeseen act I responded by telling him that no matter how many times he hit me, I was not going to die before Claire did, and that he could bet his last dollar on the fact that no matter how many times or how hard he hit me, I was not going to cry. And I didn’t.

Jay Neugeboren’s 23rd book, After Camus, was published earlier this year.

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