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Wednesday
Jun292011

Hippo in a Leotard

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle at the moment, and there’s a lovely section about the narrator as a plump and clumsy child, sent to ballet classes by her mother in one of many attempts to make her fit in. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own experience of dance class... and in the absence of alternative subject-matter, I thought I’d write about it.

I don’t remember how I came to be learning ballet, but I’m pretty certain it was my own decision. I, like many a young girl, had aspirations to be as beautiful and graceful as the principle dancers I’d seen on stage in white tutus and satin shoes. I don’t think I was ever under any illusion: I knew there was nothing graceful about me. I was big and clumsy and I had the coordination of a hippo. But it was nice to dream.

I went to a dance school above a toy shop, a mirrored studio with a bar running round the edge of the room. There was a piano in the corner, played every Saturday by a woman whose face I don’t remember, but who would occasionally rise from her stool and demonstrate positions with the aid of a wooden doll with movable limbs. My dance teacher, Miss D, was ancient and formidable. She wore mid-length skirts in navy blue and her bunions bulged out the side of black ballet pumps. She would prowl the room behind us while we stood at the mirrors practising our plié, barking at us to strand straighter or hold our tummies in. She would press our stomachs in and turn our thighs out, her fingers firm and fearless on our leotards. We were constantly reminded about the turn-out, told to hold bits of ourselves in and point other bits out. The most important lesson I learned from the Saturdays I spent in that room was that ballet was not glamorous.

Most of the pupils at Miss D’s dance school were children: girls who would never be professional dancers. Miss D’s job was to make sure we all knew that. It was her job to teach us how much discipline and commitment was needed, how much pain and hard work. She did a wonderful job. At the age of ten, I was terrified of her; she was strict beyond reason. I think now that she was an excellent dance teacher. She taught discipline and skill, and she gave us the intuition to weed ourselves out before it became something we couldn’t cope with.

There was a small group of older girls, the special few who’d made it through those early stages. I think of them collectively now as ‘The Joannas’. I suppose they must have been about sixteen; in my mind they were some kind of special breed of girl-woman, all grace and beauty and supple limbs. These were the girls with potential, the ones with commitment. At least two of them were called Joanna, and they played the lead roles in all the dance shows. They would sit in their own area of the changing rooms, their chairs arranged in an exclusive corner that blocked off the rows of hopefuls. They had legwarmers and wraparound cardigans to wear over their leotards; they wore white tights and ivory-pink ballet slippers with blocks in the end and ribbons up the calves. Oh how I wanted those shoes! All I wanted was to be allowed to go ‘en pointe’. Miss D was so strict, so measured, that none of us who weren’t going to be at least semi-serious ever got that far. That may have been the kindest thing she did for us.

Every year, we would do a production at the local theatre, always called Dance Flash, and always following the same format: a dance from each of the classes followed by a standard finale. Although I only learnt ballet, Miss D also taught tap, jazz and modern dance, so the show was diverse. The costumes – of the little girls at least – were stitched by committed mothers and we spent many a weekend in rehearsal. At the end of each of these shows, there would be a grand finale, in which – every year – Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba would play and we would walk, straight-backed, as gracefully as possible, down the aisle and filter onto the stage from both sides to perform our curtsey. We all wore our black leotards for this, with a coloured belt to mark our level. The audience applauded steadily, and then The Joannas would arrive to cheers and whistles, followed by Miss D, in a sequinned jumper, her smile wide and her white hair curled tightly. The music recalls that memory so vividly for me now that I’m a child again, the thrill and the fear of the stage bubbling up inside me.



I didn’t realise how vivid this memory was until I read that passage this morning. One of my very favourite things about reading is how it can find hidden corners in you and shine a torch up to things you thought you’d forgotten.

Image by Keitei



Reader Comments (11)

That's lovely but a little bit sad. I don't know, I don't like false praise but it does seem like there could be some room for dancing as a hobby that does not require the rigour of dancing as a profession?

I went to dance class. I was 15, I think.

I signed up for something called "Introduction to Dance" as an elective because I had quit the cross country team in a huff. We did a little bit of jazz, a little bit of modern dance, a little bit of ballet and a little bit of tap dance. My mother was furious at all the shoes she had to buy me but the class itself was great fun. I really enjoyed it. No one was very good.

Then I changed schools and had to choose my free subjects and I needed extra electives (non-core subjects) so I signed up for PE and for dance, both.

But their dance was more like yours, it was serious business. And when processing the paperwork, they couldn't make sense of the dance class I'd had so they presumed I'd passed the "first level" of dancing and was ... well, they assumed I was competent. But then I guess there wasn't room in the "competent" class so they sent me to the top class.

It was full of Joanna's.

They'd all taken dance classes all their lives and they had private lessons outside of school and they did auditions. This was the year that Fame came out as a film (or maybe it was Dirty Dancing?) and the girls in my class were dancing in the aisles of the movie theatres and getting applauded. They were real dancers. And then there was me.

I have no idea why I got my back up - maybe because I was still miffed about not being valued for the cross country team even at the new school (they had no idea of knowing I was any good) but I threw myself into it. The teacher would show us a dance move (we were learning a routine to Madonna's Holiday to perform for some school event). Everyone would do it. I would hang back. Then I'd go home and practice it for hours and so at the next class, I could do the move. But by then, everyone was learning the next bit of the dance, which I couldn't do. None of them needed to practice outside of class - which was my saving grace, because it gave me a way to keep up with them.

I made it through the show and I have to give full credit to the dancers in that class, they didn't make my life difficult. At worst, they ignored me which is kind by 16-year-old-girl standards. A few befriended me. One of the older girls, who was going to be on television and really was an awesome dancer and singer, actually invited me out for a chat to find out more about me. She really wanted to know "Why are you in this class" but she wanted to know in a kind way. I think she wanted to know if she could help me, really.

Anyway, I clearly wasn't a dancer and the next year I stuck to "hanging out around the corner smoking cigarettes" as my main extra-curricular activity. I haven't thought about that year in dance class in a really long time.

And I can *still* do that bloody routine to Holiday, over twenty years later.

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia

Oh, there definitely was an element of fun. I used to love the shows and I loved being able to turn all the steps I had learnt into a dance... but that class did also teach us that serious dancing isn't aways fun - and I think that was an important lesson to learn.

Isn't it funny how someone else's recount of a childhood experience can prompt such a flood of memory in someone else? There was another bit in the same book about Brownies and I, again, found myself remembering things I haven't thought about in years. I'm glad to have tickled your memory!

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ Adamthwaite

This is so like my own experience - except I wasn't a hippo at age 7 (that came later); merely awkward and clumsy, with no ear for music and no sense of rhythm.

I didn't last more than a few weeks. It was obvious to all, even to me, that this was one dream I wouldn't fulfil. I never got to the fun part. Well, for me now, the fun is in watching.

Oh yes, the fun of watching has definitely stayed with me... and there's still a corner of my head in which I dance (so, so much better than I ever could in real life!) when I watch.

July 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ Adamthwaite

Ah yes, me too. :)

That was a vivid memory!

I got roped into attending a dance recital for a friend's daughter a couple of years ago. It was similar to as you describe. There seemed to be 4 or 5 of the older girls who were definitely the "stars" of the production.

Great point about remembering things you thought you'd forgotten. Just starting to write about a memory can sometimes lead me to recalling so many details I'd never have thought of otherwise.

July 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBone

Absolutely. Sometimes the best writing exercise for me is to write a memory blog - it loosens up the joints, so to speak. I'd do well to remember this more often...

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