I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I stepped into that studio almost a year ago for my first adult ballet class.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to be dancing in a show just six months later. When my teacher mentioned that she was choreographing dances for a summer showcase and everyone was welcome to perform, I wasn’t expecting the rest of my class to grimace and say “no way!” while I grinned and said “hell yeah!”. I can’t really explain my response other than to say that, deep within me, a sometimes agonizing shyness vies with a rather flamboyant streak of exhibitionism, so when someone offers me the prospect of dancing on stage in a sparkly headdress and feather boa (we did a showgirl routine as well as a ballet routine), I’ll feel terribly self-conscious while doing it—but I will do it. I’m not someone who’s comfortable in either the proverbial or literal limelight, but I seek it nonetheless. The sparkle of stage lights on sequins is irresistible.
I wasn’t expecting to get the performance bug, either. But for all that the summer showcase was really hard work and made me a nervous wreck, it was also one of the best things I’ve ever done. Spending a day in the warren of dressing rooms backstage at the Old Market, with tap dancers and Bollywood dancers and show-tune singers all running around in stage makeup and glitter, and people with clipboards actually shouting “five minutes to curtain!” and “showgirls to the stage!”—well, it was like The Muppet Show come to life, and I adored every minute of it. And when our showgirl routine finished with a last blast of “C’est Formidable!” and we stood in those stage lights sweating and gasping for breath, maybe it was just the adrenaline, but I felt more empowered than I ever had before. I felt like I could do absolutely anything. We had some pictures taken of ourselves in our costumes after the show, and I’ve had them enlarged and printed out so I can hang them by my desk to remind myself of that feeling of strength.
I wasn’t expecting to join the Brighton Ballet Company, not least because it didn’t exist. At our first ballet class after the summer showcase, my teacher proposed the idea of forming an all-inclusive company to work towards more performances, and I thought my heart was going to explode with excitement. It was one of those things I didn’t even know I wanted until someone articulated it—and then I realized I wanted it more than anything. Thursday nights are now our “company class”, where we work on technique and rehearse pieces of repertoire. For the past few months it’s been all about the Nutcracker as we worked up to our first in-studio show last Sunday, when we danced the Waltz of the Snowflakes and the Sugar Plum Fairy solo for a crowd of goggle-eyed children and their parents (and our respective indulgent husbands and partners—poor Jeremy probably never wants to hear me say the words “Sugar Plum” ever again). My Sugar Plum tiara is now hanging on the wall with my showgirl headdress, tucked into the unworn pointe shoes I bought so ambitiously at the age of 14.
I definitely wasn’t expecting to be entertaining the possibility of finally going on pointe nearly 30 years after first buying those shoes. But as I took more and more classes this year (working up to four classes a week in the run-up to the Nutcracker show), and I felt myself get stronger, and I watched other women close to my age and stature go on pointe for the first time, I started thinking maybe, just maybe…? Young dancers are required to ask their teachers if they’re ready for pointe, and I felt that etiquette (and common sense) dictated the same for me. But even as my classmates encouraged me and supplied me with the names of pointe shoe fitters in Brighton and asked me week after week whether I had bought my shoes yet, I hesitated. I have the most wonderful, encouraging ballet teacher, and I didn’t want to put her in the awkward position of having to disappoint me. Also, I just didn’t want to hear “no,” or even “not yet”. But after one of my last classes this year, as I was putting my dance stuff away and chatting with my teacher and a few other women who were taking off their pointe shoes, I finally blurted “I desperately want to go on pointe!”—and my teacher said “You should!”—and thought I would float right out of the room. I know it’s going to take a lot of work, and I know I’m going to have to be very careful not to hurt myself, but oooh the idea of putting on those satiny pink shoes is just thrilling.
Basically, I wasn’t expecting ballet to take over my life—in the best possible way. I don’t know how long this obsession will last, I don’t know if I’ll get disheartened or I’ll lose interest at some point, if I’ll start looking around for something else (I’ve already been eyeing up flamenco classes—in addition to, not instead of, ballet, of course). All I know is that, right now, ballet brings me so much joy. Even when class is hard and I can’t get the hang of something, even when I have bad body image days and the nasty little voice inside my head tries to convince me I look ridiculous, I still feel happier doing ballet than not doing ballet. I’m optimistic about it in a way that is quite alien to me. I’m an impatient perfectionist who is easily frustrated and discouraged (just ask me about the piano lessons I was forced to stop taking as a kid). Ballet does frustrate and discourage me sometimes. But I still always look forward to the next class because I always think “I’m going to do better this time around.” I don’t know where this unfamiliar optimism comes from, but I welcome it, just as I welcome the odd motivation to keep doing something I’m never going to be really “good” at. Maybe I’ve been able to stay motivated because I know the perfection of ballet is totally unattainable (for anyone, really), and yet it’s a pleasure to strive for it nonetheless. It really is a “the journey is the destination” kind of thing. The journey may involve a lot of clumsy pirouettes, but even a clumsy pirouette can dizzy you with delight.