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