The Sugarless Plum

A Memoir

by Zippora Karz

Copyright © 2009 by Harlequin.

Reproduced with permission from Harlequin.

For more information or to order this book, please visit

At the end of my solo I have a series of turns on the diagonal. I’m supposed to end up right at the wing where Jerry’s standing. I run across the stage. Just as I begin turning toward him, I see him walking away while I’m still dancing. I’m performing for more than two thousand people, but the only one I can think of is Jerry. I’m smiling for the audience, but my heart is sinking. I try not to think about Jerry as I take my curtain call with the rest of the cast to enthusiastic applause.

An hour later, the stage is bare, the audience has long since gone home, and I’m leaving the theatre with Romy, cradling a bouquet of roses from Peter Martins. As we’re walking out, I notice a message tacked to the bulletin board: “Zippora, urgent. Call your doctor.”

I know I should call her, and I promise myself that I will—just as soon as the season is over, which is in just three weeks. I get through the remaining five performances of Les Petits Riens on sheer strength of will. But a few days later I receive an unexpected wake-up call in the form of a dream.

I’ve always believed in the significance of dreams, and this one is particularly frightening. I dream that I’m in a car. The car isn’t moving and the windows and the doors are open, but the engine is running. Suddenly, the windows roll up and the doors lock shut. Then the fumes from the exhaust start coming through the vents in the dashboard and filling the car. I can’t breathe and I can’t get out. I wake up just before I suffocate.

As I lie there, trying to catch my breath, the dream seems to me like a portent. The car is my body and the exhaust is something happening inside me that is life-threatening. I realize that something is not right.

That afternoon I phone the doctor during a five-minute rehearsal break, and she tells me I have to come in immediately. A few hours later, I’m in her waiting room. It’s cold and sterile. It gives me the creeps. It’s six-twenty and I’ve been waiting for an hour. To get there, I had to skip my final rehearsal of the day for a ballet I was scheduled to dance the following week. Now I have to get back to the theater by seven-thirty to put on my makeup and get ready for this evening’s performance. I don’t have time to sit here, but I need to know what’s so urgent and she wouldn’t tell me over the phone. Finally, the door to her office opens. She invites me in. She’s a tall, thin, attractive woman in a tailored white doctor’s coat. She’s smiling, but I see pity in that smile and it puts me on edge.

She looks as if she’s about to tell me she ran over my dog. She studies my chart for a moment, then tells me that my blood sugar levels are 350. Normal levels, she says, are 120 or under. I ask what this means. She says it means that I have diabetes. Diabetes? I’ve heard of it. It’s one of those charity diseases, the kind they raise money for. She hands me four pamphlets that describe what may happen to me: heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, foot and/or leg amputations.

I can’t take it in. I refuse to take it in. Instead, I try to figure out how long it will take me to get back to the theater. If I get out of here soon I can make it. Even if I don’t get a cab, I can walk it in twenty minutes.

She says we can discuss a treatment plan during our next appointment. Another appointment? Why can’t we discuss it now? I want to know what to do. I want everything to go back to being the way it was. But all she will say is that she doesn’t want me to feel deprived of food; that feeling deprived could cause me to go overboard eating the wrong thing. She says it’s not okay to eat a whole cake—as if I don’t know that—but it’s all right to have a little piece of cake. What is she talking about? I’m a dancer. I’m disciplined. I wouldn’t eat a bite of cake if I’m not supposed to. Anyway, I don’t eat cake. Period.

I hate this doctor. She’s talking to me as if I’m a child or an idiot or both. I don’t trust her. She has no idea whom she’s dealing with. She doesn’t know me. I’m in her office no more than fifteen minutes, and I’m so turned off by her condescending attitude that I don’t even bother to make another appointment. Finally, I get back to the theater. Now I can focus on the ballet I’m dancing tonight, Balanchine’s Piano Concerto No. 2. For dancers in the corps it’s one of the most demanding ballets. Even the strongest corps dancers have problems getting through it.

The section that worries me most comes in the third movement. It’s tired me so much in rehearsal that I’ve wanted to run off stage and fall to the ground in an exhausted heap. Instead, I have to execute one of the most difficult and controlled sequences of steps. How I am going to manage it, especially now?

Losing limbs…. going blind…I hate that doctor’s voice. I want it out of my head. As terrified as I am to dance tonight, I need the stage right now. Onstage, I feel alive. I feel safe. What happens onstage isn’t real, of course, but it’s where I can enact, experience and connect to the grandest human emotions, from exultation to despair. In that sense, being on-stage often feels more real and immediate than life. There are just twenty minutes until the performance, and I have to warm up my muscles. But the more I try to get warm, the colder and clammier I feel. Backstage, I put resin on the heels of my tights and the heels of my pointe shoes so they won’t slip off. Next to the resin box there’s a big bucket of water. I’ve dipped my heels in this water hundreds of times to keep my shoes from coming off. Now I can’t. The water’s too cold. I’m too cold. I’ve got to calm down.

I sit in a corner and, as dancers do before a performance, take a few minutes to sew my toe shoe ribbons together so they don’t unravel. The wardrobe mistress helps me hook up my costume. I look in the mirror to make sure the picture is complete: costume, shoes, hair, makeup.

“Dancers, the call is onstage,” says the stage manager, his voice booming through the loudspeaker. Oh, no. I have to pee! How is this possible? I went to the bathroom less than half an hour ago. But I have to go again. And I really have to, because when you need to pee there’s no way you can dance for thirty-five minutes.

I have just a few minutes until the overture starts. I race to the bathroom closest to the stage followed by the wardrobe lady, who has to unhook my entire costume and then hook it all back up again. Thank God the overture for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is long. The orchestra will play for several minutes before the curtain is raised. I’m back onstage, going over the sequence that has me so worried. I do it over and over, reminding myself to hold my stomach tight. The overture becomes louder, stronger, fiercer. Three more minutes until the curtain goes up. I take my place. I love dancing to Tchaikovsky’s music. It’s passionate and bold. It always awakens my deepest feelings.

Suddenly, I begin to shake. To my horror, I start to cry. I try to stop, but I can’t. I hate public displays of emotion. I don’t cry easily, but I can’t help crying now. One of the male dancers hurries over and puts his arm around me. He asks what’s wrong. I’m sobbing uncontrollably as other dancers gather around me. I have to pull myself together. I need to lighten the tension. “It’s a good thing my makeup is waterproof,” I say. The others exchange looks. I know what they’re thinking, “Why is she freaking out?”

I wipe my cheeks and pinch my false lashes to be sure they’ve weathered the storm. The curtain rises. The ballet begins with a line of eight corps de ballet women positioned in a diagonal line facing the audience. We wear blue costumes with flowing chiffon skirts and sparkles across the neckline. Facing us are eight corps de ballet men. Their backs are slightly to the audience. The music becomes gentle and soft. The men walk toward the ladies. The dancing begins. Tears flow down my cheeks throughout the entire performance.

As I dance, my mind is racing…losing limbs, kidney failure, heart disease, stroke, going blind. I just need rest, I tell myself, and my blood sugar levels will go back to normal. The long winter season has been too demanding. It’ll be over in two weeks. Then I’ll have three weeks to recover before the spring season begins. Anyway, I’ll bet the diagnosis is just a lab error. There’s no way I can have diabetes. I’m a twenty-one-year-old dancer with the New York City Ballet. Things like that don’t happen to people like me.

Last Modified Date: November 28, 2012

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