Two Nutcrackers ago, Carla Rey finally stopped teaching ballet to Brooklyn preteens, quit her job as a door whore at Tatou, and, for the first time in her life, paid her rent with money she made as a dancer. The Nutcracker is the cash cow for classical-dance companies, nowhere more famously than at the New York City Ballet. But most dancers won't ever look out at an audience from the stage of the New York State Theater. The Nutcracker that Rey performs in is presented by Ballet Long Island, and it's seen mostly during the day, by schoolkids. Rey was 28 when she joined the corps de ballet. "This wasn't a stepping stone," says the petite dancer, who nearly always seems like she's had one too many cups of coffee. "This was a job."
Most mornings, she's out the door of her Brooklyn apartment by five, laying out more than $50 in unreimbursed transportation expenses a week. Her salary has risen from $9 an hour to $11.75, and she was recently promoted from corps roles (mouse, snowflake) to the Snow Queen. But the money doesn't go far; Rey wears out a pair of $84 pointe shoes every week. When she can't afford to buy new ones, she wobbles around in soft shoes, pouring Future floor wax into the toes to keep them hard.
"I was told by a teacher that I would never become a dancer," she recalls. "That I needed to lose weight" -- she is all of 97 pounds -- "that my feet were flat, my legs were two different lengths, my spine was wrong, my hair was wrong, and my leotards were wrong. Everything was wrong."
Ballet Long Island's artistic director, Debra Punzi, says Rey just hadn't found the right choreographer. "A dancer's body is like paint to a painter or clay to a sculptor," says Punzi. "You're looking for a particular texture. My ideal dancer is not someone else's kind of dancer." At Rey's audition, says Punzi, she was struck by her "eye-catching energy."
Rey's apartment at the end of a quiet, tree-lined block is a kind of Red Shoes fantasy. Ballet books share space with photos of dancers, more than 30 Barbie dolls, worn leotards and tights -- and dying pointe shoes in various states of floor-wax repair. "Doing two Nutcrackers a day for schoolchildren is really something," Rey says. "They don't care if you didn't point your foot. They love you unconditionally."