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At the Ballet

(by Debra Mittleman)

Elegance personified. Tall, slim, beautiful, with smooth ebony skin. When she walked into the room, my mother owned it. In spite of her many physical gifts, her most compelling traits were her silent strength and exceptional intelligence. For my fifth birthday, she planned a ladies’ night out for the two of us: the ballet followed by dessert and hot chocolate at one of St. Louis’s most posh restaurants. The night at the ballet, my first, was transformational. I was awed by the beauty and grace of the dancers—how they floated through the air as if by magic, the ability to slide across the stage on their toes. After the ballet, I experienced another first: my first cherries jubilee. The waiter delighted us with the flaming dessert at our table. I made up my mind then and there that I, too, wanted to be a ballerina.

In her typical no-nonsense manner, my mother found out the best ballet school in the city. This school had trained many dancers who went on to perform with world renowned companies, so naturally that is where I would go for my lessons. My excitement grew as we shopped for the leotard, tights, and pink ballet slippers I would need for my lessons.

When we arrived at the dance studio, the stern owner peered over her glasses and looked me over. She told my mother that they needed to speak, and the two of them stepped out of earshot from me. When my mother turned around, her beautiful face looked wounded, and there were unfallen tears in her eyes. She abruptly said, “Let’s go.” The serious look on her face let me know that it wasn’t the time for questions or conversation. We rode home in uncomfortable silence.

(I'm holding the teddy bear; Mom is the fashionable one with the bangs.)

A couple of days later, she announced that I would be attending a different school for my lessons. I didn’t ask why but was excited to start my journey as a future ballerina. It would be years later that my mother shared with me that the stern studio owner had pulled her aside that day to let her know that her school didn’t accept colored girls in its classes.

(Mom at age 20)

I have one son, and a month ago, he gave me the best gift ever: a granddaughter. As I hold her and look down on her beautiful mocha-colored face, the images of protesters holding Black Lives Matters signs are in the background. My prayer for my little Rose is that no one will ever look at this beautiful girl and tell me that she isn’t wanted.


Debra Mittleman is a spokesperson and communications professional who splits her time between Chicago and South Florida (an official snowbird). She can be found at Backstage.

Cherries Jubilee

2 T. unsalted butter

1/3 c. white or packed light brown sugar

1 lb. fresh cherries, stemmed and pitted, or frozen pitted cherries, thawed and undrained

pinch of kosher salt

2 T. fresh lemon juice

2 T. bourbon, Grand Marnier, or brandy

1 pt. vanilla ice cream

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat.

Add sugar and stir until dissolved.

Add cherries and salt; stir to coat.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until cherries soften and juices reduce slightly, about 10 minutes.

Add lemon juice.

Off heat, add bourbon, Grand Marnier, or brandy, and carefully ignite with a long match.

When flames subside, serve over ice cream.


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