Cinderella swept the floor of a dance studio in the Musical Arts Center.
Her movements were soft and elegant, and her hands held the rickety broom like it was a dance partner. Her furrowed eyebrows and pursed mouth showed disdain — Cinderella couldn’t stand the torment by her evil stepsisters.
Off to the side, another Cinderella loosely mirrored her brushing movements and the small turns. It helped her to memorize the acting, the dancing. She stretched her hamstrings and sipped water, her attention fixed on the movement at the center of the studio.
They would soon alternate, to get equal practice time.
The two Cinderellas were Haley Baker, 22, and Lily Bines, 20, ballerinas in the IU Jacobs School of Music Ballet Department. They were cast as Cinderella, what would have been the biggest role of their lives to date, on Feb. 10.
It also would have been one of their last college performances. Haley will graduate in May, and Lily will graduate a year early in August.
They would have performed “Cinderella” this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Since last semester, they have done the demanding work for the role, spending hours at a time in the studio.
But they will never get to perform this show. They will never go to this ball. Like all Jacobs events scheduled between March 23 and May 16, the department's spring ballet was canceled.
“Some part of me still can’t believe that we ever did it,” Lily said. “It feels like a dream.”
“It does kind of feel like, ‘did it actually even happen?’” Haley said.
Haley and Lily were ready to dive deep into the role of Cinderella. Seeing it all come together — glittering dresses, an ethereal set, a live orchestra — would have added that magical touch of “wow.”
But no amount of training, time in rehearsal or love for ballet could halt the spread of the coronavirus long enough for the two Cinderellas to go to the ball.
Haley Baker was “ponytail girl” before she was Cinderella. She took her first dance steps right before she turned 3, learning tap and jazz. She would jump and turn with so much enthusiasm that her ponytail would dance, too.
“She was just a little jumping bean,” her mom, Beth Baker, said.
As Haley got older, it was harder to show emotion in front of an audience. She had the technical skill of a dancer, but the acting part was a challenge. Her teachers would try to pull it out of her.
Sarah Wroth, co-chair of the Department of Ballet, remembered asking Haley a question during an evaluation at the end of the fall semester of her sophomore year.
“Do you want to be a professional? Because we can’t tell,” Wroth told her.
In an interview, Wroth said they knew Haley was talented, but she needed to work harder, the way a professional dancer would.
"We didn't see that hunger, that thirst to be the best that we knew she could be," Wroth said in an interview.
Haley has always been a hard worker, but she worked silently. She wouldn’t naturally push to the front of the studio. On the inside, Haley knew she loved to dance. But it was harder for others to know that if she didn’t outwardly show it in her movement.
“When others see me dance, they shouldn’t question if I love it or not,” Haley said she realized after the evaluation. “They shouldn’t question if I want to be there.”
Lily Bines found dance later, when she was about 9. In the beginning, her parents, Audrey and Joel Bines, signed her up for a single class. She had participated in soccer, softball, gymnastics and musical theater — all the usual activities, her mom Audrey Bines said.
After the first class, Lily took an interest in ballet and asked to go to another. Soon enough, she would go three or four times per week, and when she was 10, she started dancing at a studio with a stronger focus on ballet.
“She really lit up when she went to ballet,” Joel said.
Lily said while she was comfortable acting, she couldn’t move and bend the way more experienced dancers could. It was hard to straighten her legs, make them look longer. She had to gain strength in her feet. After barre class, when the dancers would practice the splits on the floor, her torso would hover above the ground. Lily’s dance teacher would push her hips down.
Despite this, her parents said they’ve never had to tell her to go to rehearsal, stretch or complete ab exercises to strengthen her core. For 11 years, it was all self-motivated.
Before college, it was hard for Lily to dance with confidence in front of her peers. But after three years at IU she can move to the front and feel good about what she puts out there.
“I think that’s been the biggest growth for me, is finding that confidence for myself,” Lily said.
The two dancers' sleep schedule has to be consistent. Their diets of nutrient-rich grains and proteins have to sustain hours of conditioning, technique class and rehearsals. They pack resistance TheraBands in their bags to strengthen their feet and toes, and they have traded weekends of downtime for auditions.
For Lily and Haley, performance makes the challenges worth it. Getting to perform after weeks and months of intense focus is an emotional high.
“The feeling of getting to dance is so special,” Lily said. “It’s hard to say exactly what it is. I just love doing it.”
The dancers said in class,Wroth pushes students to find their light, both by lifting their heads up while dancing and by finding positivity in life and embracing it.
But sometimes finding light is hard to do on a hard day.
“It’s fun,” Haley said. “But sometimes you’re having a really bad day and it’s like —”
“I don’t have any light!” Lily finished.
It helps to dance alongside their best friends. Both Haley and Lily lived with dancers who go through the same thing they do. There’s a special kind of bond formed in the trenches of the MAC.
“It’s really good to have a friend there to make you laugh,” Lily said.
Haley and Lily competed against other dancers for the role of Cinderella, and they have even competed against each other in the same company auditions. But by now, competition is normal. They don’t let it affect their relationships beyond the studio.
The department wears matching T-shirts with nicknames on the back on special occasions such as opening night. Haley's is "Halley Backer," which sounds like "hollaback girl," and Lily's is "Buck." It’s a physical sign of belonging. The dancers all chose to wear them on their last rehearsal.
“The camaraderie, that’s what made it special,” Haley said.
When Wroth posts the cast list, nobody ever wants to be the first to look. It’s such a tense moment, Haley said. Squinting from afar where things feel safer won’t cut it. The print is too small.
In mid February, the role of Cinderella was on the line. Back in Texas and Pennsylvania, Lily and Haley’s parents waited anxiously to hear the news. They knew it would happen any day now.
Lily didn’t know the list was up Feb. 10 when she left her ballet class in studio 305. She needed to blow her nose. In the hallway, an underclassman walked up to her.
“You’re Cinderella!” the younger dancer said.
For a moment, Lily was in denial, and then felt a burst of shock. She had to contain her excitement as she returned to the far corner of the studio.
Haley was dancing close to the door. She could see the underclassmen congregating near the bulletin board. She knew what that meant and glanced at the clock overhead.
There were 30 minutes left. Maybe she could hold it off. She really tried to stay focused on the class.
But there was another distraction. Students mouthed “It’s up!” from the doorway, which was open. So close. She left to get a drink — a perfect excuse to peek at the cast list on the way to the fountain. She couldn’t handle the wait.
“I was so distracted,” Haley said. “I had to go look.”
She was excited but knew there would be pressure to execute the role.
Lily and Haley talked about it later, discreetly. They were grateful, overwhelmed and excited and knew it would hurt others if they made a big deal out of their accomplishment during class.
Haley tried to hold it together. “I didn’t want to come back in and yell across the room like – “
“I’m Cinderella!” Lily joked, finishing the sentence in an obnoxious, nasal voice.
Lily told her proud parents in a text message written in all caps and followed by multiple exclamation marks. Haley's family would reply to the news with memes and GIFs of Disney princesses and mice.
Looking forward, they could see it coming together — Cinderella would accept pointe shoes from the fairy godmother and wear a glittering dress to the ball. She would dance alone to the live orchestra. Patrons would pay to see her.
But Cinderella was also a massive responsibility. Lily and Haley would have to prepare for the most consecutive dancing they’ve ever done. They would go to the gym after six hours a day in the studio for cardio and strength to keep up with it all. Heavy breathing doesn’t look good on stage.
They also had to act, advancing the plot without words. Haley and Lily would learn to show deep compassion for the mice, contempt for the stepsisters and love for the prince.
Haley and Lily felt the pressure. In rehearsals, they would turn to each other with a look that said: “How are we going to do this?”
But they found a way. On a rough day, they knew how to lighten the mood. Instead of being competitive, they cheered after each other's accomplishments and would have a water bottle ready when Cinderella came running off the dance floor.
“For me, I realized it was okay to be afraid of a role, as long as it didn’t affect how I tackled it,” Haley said.
Wroth has worked with Haley and Lily for three years, and said this year they took their dancing from solid technique to artistry. Instead of pretending to be Cinderella, they became her.
“They took the character of Cinderella and made her a human being,” Wroth said.
Haley said she thinks they both surprised themselves with how strong they became in the process, both mentally and physically. It was the first opportunity they’ve each had to find themselves within a character.
“We’re both Cinderella, but we’re Cinderella differently,” Lily said.
It was time for the fairy godmother to wave her wand over the two ballerinas. Then unfortunately, reality took over.
Ballet dancers have to make strength, beauty and athleticism look easy, even when they’re exhausted.
In the same way, the ballet department had to believe the show would happen, even as the threat of canceling “Cinderella” became more real each day. They began to practice with the intention of performing.
Lily and Haley were cast Feb. 10. A day later, the disease that had already killed a thousand people in China got a name: COVID-19. Seven weeks until showtime.
Around two weeks later, on Feb. 28, the coronavirus claimed its first death in the U.S. Five weeks until showtime.
Eleven days after that, on March 10, IU President Michael McRobbie announced online teaching for the two weeks following spring break. It would end right after the last performance of “Cinderella" was scheduled to take place.
Wroth, holding out hope, scrambled to reschedule dates for the show.
On March 13, the air in the studio felt heavy and the dancers knew it might be their last rehearsal together. Wroth had to believe there was a way forward, and the dancers wanted to perform. But the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus a pandemic two days earlier.
“You could tell everyone knew it was going to be the last time in the studio together for a while,” Lily said.
It was a hard day to navigate, because it marked the end of the “Cinderella” production as well as the last semester for the graduating class. Dancers cried.
The final blow was sent March 15 in an email from President McRobbie.
Lily’s parents had planned to fly up from Texas for “Cinderella.” Mike and Beth Baker had scheduled their Airbnb for this weekend, too. It wouldn’t be used.
Haley was watching TV on the couch with her parents in Pennsylvania when she saw it. She didn’t want to open it. She knew what it said.
Classes would be virtual for the rest of the semester.
Haley and Lily sobbed that night. It felt like something was taken from them.
The realization that “Cinderella” was canceled sunk in over time. No ballet, no Cinderella. No pre-show nerves, no audacious stepsisters, no endearing mice, no prince charming, no standing ovations from strangers. No final curtsy.
Today – April 3 – they would have prepared for opening night, maybe wearing their matching team T-shirts.
Now, Lily and Haley are back home in Texas and Pennsylvania. Virtual ballet classes help establish a sense of normalcy.
Dancers can attend ballet class in their hometown bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens. Zoom classes can’t offer the same open space as dance studio 305, but it can transmit live pointe class to keep dancers trained up.
It brings the department back together.
“It’s kind of fun because you have all your friends on the little screen,” Haley said.
For dancers Haley and Lily, a day without ballet would feel unnatural. A week without it would be uncomfortable. When COVID-19 subsides, Haley and Lily need to be ready for the studio.
In the future, Haley will take more risks. She’ll push herself to the front. Nobody will question her love for dance. They’ll believe it.
Lily will approach auditions and roles with confidence. She’ll remember her friends that would have wanted her to shine, too.
For now, they’ll click into Zoom, and find more ways to be active outside of class. The next step for Haley and Lily is to join a ballet company, where they would get paid to dance instead of paying to dance.
Changes happen every day. Hopefully, the company auditions canceled during the pandemic will be rescheduled.
When it’s time, Haley and Lily will find new ways to tilt their heads a little closer into the light.
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