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



Thursday
Apr142011

Sea Set

This time last year I was working on the first draft of a novel in sea-side isolation. It was wonderful. And I came away with a complete first draft (give or take a few thousand words) and a head full of good intentions for the year to come.

Since then we’ve moved house and gone through a year of normal-life routines. And I’m still working, ever-so-slowly, on my second draft. Luckily, I’ve come far enough in this project not to give up; luckily, I still believe in this idea. And so this Easter holiday I’ve crammed all my distracting household jobs into the first couple of days, and I’m readying myself to plough through the next stage of redrafts.

I will try to remember how timeless life became last Easter with its incredible sunsets and roaring coastline. I will close my door and remember the sound of the sea against the garden wall. I will write.



Saturday
Feb052011

‘Work’

 I’m not the most efficient writer I know. I find it very hard to achieve a lot of work in an evening. But I do try. My evenings are planned and timetabled week by week: there’s a certain amount of work I aim to get done.  I might waste a lot of time staring at my computer screen or reading Twitter (which is where the inefficiency comes in) but generally by the end of the week, I’ve met my target one way or another.

I refer to this process as ‘work’. It’s misleading. I don’t get paid for it; no one makes me do it. It’s work that I’ve chosen to do for no reason other than that I want to ‘be’ a writer. Which is a hard thing to explain to the average non-writer.

Occasionally I get asked to do extra work at school in the evenings and I find it difficult to turn it down. I’m one of the few support staff without children and therefore a solid reason why I absolutely can’t do anything else in the evening... so I’m often an early point of call when cover is needed.

When I do extra paid work, my writing time suffers but I find it hard to justify my writing as being ‘work’. Indeed there’s no payoff to speak of and it’s very difficult to explain why I think it’s important to maintain my commitment... particularly when someone’s stuck and needs support to cover an absence.

If I had another paid job in the evenings, I would have to turn things down more regularly than I currently feel able to. Is it really any different, I wonder? Is a commitment made for oneself less of a commitment than the ones made to other people?

Image by Ildar Sagdejev.

 



Sunday
Jan302011

Things I Would Have Forgotten

I raided my ‘unused posts’ folder to find today’s post, and I found this little snippet of my life from sometime last year. The thing is, I have absolutely no recollection of this happening. It’s frightening how much of our lives (well, of mine at least) disappear into the forgotten. It’s a blessing that I write some of them down.

Twice last week I had a strange encounter on the way home.

The first time, a man rolling a cigarette with one hand and gesturing to me with the other approached me as I walked down the street. Nervous about what he was doing, I looked down at the pavement and noticed how the leaves were beginning to turn, determined not to make eye contact.

Once he was within earshot, he said to me – very earnestly – “Excuse me, babe, you’re psychic, you know that? Don’t you ever lose it, alright?”

I nodded blankly.

“Alright?” he said firmly.

“OK,” I said and nodded a bit harder.

He nodded, apparently satisfied, and went on his way.

The next day, I had to stop at the supermarket on my way home. As I was walking back across the car park, I felt someone match my pace with theirs and say, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

Normally when people approach me like this, I know them. There are several people I know who find it amusing to begin a conversation in this way, when you’re not even aware that they’re there. So I assumed I knew this guy, and I said, “Hi!” hoping to buy myself some time while I figured out who it was. Then I realised I didn’t know him and everything became a bit weird.

He walked with me all the way to the end of the road, chatting about the weather and about the local area, talking about where he’d lived in the past and where he’d like to live in the future. And then he said, “Listen, I’m going to have to cut off here, I’ve got to meet my friend. Sorry!” Bemused, but pleased that he was leaving me, I said goodbye. He asked my name, told me his, shook my hand. And then, in a step way too far over the line, he kissed my cheek.

Image by Forest & Kim Starr

Sunday
Jan232011

Mystery

This weekend's to-do list tells me I need to write a blog post, and I've been panicking a bit because I'm low on time and ideas... and then I came across this video. Three minutes of fascination from Robert Krulwich... and who can resist three minutes of Robert Krulwich?

A Mystery: Why Can't We Walk Straight? from NPR on Vimeo.

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