While Maria knew her own steps perfectly, that didn't mean their rehearsals later that day were easier than the previous ones - far from it, and she found herself just as exhausted at the end of it as she had been during her private sessions. There was everything to learn, from moving in unison to using the space, knowing when to come and not bumping into the others ... her musicality made it easier, to be sure, but it was still tough. Fortunately the other girls seemed to understand exactly how she was feeling, and so they were constantly helpful.

"Maria, this way!" was the constant cry as she constantly went in the wrong direction. "Turn to the right! Come towards me!" And although she bumped into them every now and again, they were constantly gracious about her mistakes. They all remembered their first group performance and knew how difficult it was for her.

At the end of an hour the group was working well, and she seemed to be fitting in. Mr Conor smiled at them. "Well done," he told them. "I think it's time for a break. We'll go and work on it further afterwards, but this afternoon is free time. Relax, have a shower, lie in bed ... whatever you want to do. We don't want you tired out for the performance."

The other students grinned at each other, but Maria wondered how she would cope with a whole afternoon. She didn't have anyone to talk to unless Eleanor got off early too, and she didn't really want to spend it on her own. "Go on, half an hour!"

Most of them went back to their rooms, but Anna stayed to talk to Maria who was rubbing her aching feet. "You're doing well, you know," said the girl encouragingly. "You've done awfully well to get this far, I hope you know that. But if it goes wrong, remember that it's only a performance. The parents won't even notice. So just relax."

"It's not like that," Maria told her, and she was suddenly grateful for a confidante. "The thing is, this decides whether I can come to the school. It's supposed to be a secret, but I thought I'd tell you. I ran away from home to come here because I wanted to join, even though I missed the auditions in January. Now I'm trying to prove that if they let me join I'd do the best I could."

"You've proved it already," Anna told her. "But tone it down a little. If you injure yourself, they won't let you come, and then you'd be stuck. Of course, there are physios here, but it's not advisable."

They smiled at each other and changed the subject to lighter things. Maria found herself sharing more than she would have expected, talking about how she dreamed about dance every day and didn't know why, and how she was wondering how her brother would react if she got in. For her part, Anna was a fantastic listener.

When the other girls returned, it was time to begin rehearsals again. Now they were just running through the dance to the music again and again. Every twenty minutes or so they would break off and practise a section by themselves or in groups, with Mr Conor supervising them.

"One more time," he said at last, at around a quarter to one. "One last time and then I think I'll let you go. Although Maria, I need to talk to you for a moment. Oh - and I lied. You don't quite get the whole afternoon off."

There were a few groans.

"It's all right, there are no more rehearsals unless you want them. It's just the costume fitting. If you could all go along to the Wardrobe at around half past two and get them sorted out that would be great." Maria's eyes shone - she was looking forward to that bit.

They danced it one more time and did it perfectly, with the exception of Anna's inelegant stumble in the middle as her ribbons came undone. It wouldn't happen again and they didn't see any reason to repeat the entire dance.

"You're free to go," said their teacher, laughing as they ran out of the room. Maria hung back, wondering what on earth he wanted to talk to her about this time. He didn't - he wasn't about to tell her if she could come or not, was he? 

The End

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