First, everything I did I did because I wanted to be a Radio City Rockette. What did I know about anything? I could not imagine an occupation more glamorous. They were all kept in a women’s hotel with pink Lucite furniture and their names spelled out in tiny light bulbs above their headboards, which were all in one very long row like in a nursery. I had seen this on a television special. It showed them all cutting paper snowflakes together on the floor wearing these white fur headbands; it showed them doing a kick line in their pajamas. Can you imagine?
So I was a little more than six feet tall, I placed second in a fourth of July leg contest that was sponsored by some small time hosiery company. They gave us all pairs of nylon stockings and then we paraded behind the mayor down Main Street tossing candy and pantyhose at everybody on the sidewalk. I was eating nothing but boiled cauliflower and canned tuna fish. I was drinking fifteen glasses of ice water a day and gluing sequins onto everything I owned, even the handle of my toothbrush.
I had a dance teacher, the only confirmed homosexual in town, and he had actually seen the Rockettes in person and had actually gone to New York City. I felt crushed with relief and embarrassment when he informed me that my dream was not an unreasonable one because my face was not quite homely, but very plain, and well-suited to the uniformity a dance team like the Rockettes demanded. “The idea,” he explained, “is to move as one lean, glittering leg.”
After six months I took a bus to the auditions. You wouldn’t believe how much Vaseline I had on my teeth. My hair was shellacked into a gleaming, impenetrable dome. I did not buy a return ticket because neither myself nor my dance teacher nor the first place winner of the fourth of July legs contest nor the people from the small-time hosiery company expected me to return. When I left, they gave me a velour headband with plastic reindeer antlers fixed to the top. My god, I said, I am going to get some use out of these. They said, We love you, Debbie.
I got through three high leg kicks and a full split before being stopped by the preliminary judge, a stern, imperial looking woman who had probably been described as handsome since the time she was sixteen. I prayed she would not be our house mother at the women’s hotel with the pink Lucite furniture and the paper snowflakes. “You’re a giant,” she said in a flat, severe kind of way. “Didn’t you check the height requirements? Didn’t anyone tell you? You can’t go through to the next round, you should go to the circus.” I thought she was pulling my leg. “You are pulling my leg right now,” I told her. She started to laugh, and I started to laugh too and then couldn’t stop, and I thought about my suitcase full of pantyhose with reinforced heels in the shade of Sun Kissed, and I thought about my plain, blendable face and how I wanted this woman to comb my hair gently, but I also wanted to knock her teeth out. I still couldn’t quit laughing. I started doing high kicks, at first kind of half-heartedly, but then I saw this exasperated expression on the handsome woman’s face which made me irate, so I really put all I had into it. I kicked furiously, did twenty-five in a row, I was breathing like a champion horse. I kicked so high my knee was back behind my ears, I was eight feet tall and then sixteen feet tall and then my head was sticking out of the roof and I was licking the raindrops off the Chrysler building. “Go home,” the woman said. “Please, just go back to where you came from.”