It is December 1997. I am two-and-a-half years old with honey blonde hair and the tenacity of a toddler, which I never lose. My Mum takes me to a baby ballet class at the village hall. I wear tiny red ballet shoes and frilly socks. 22 years later, I am still dancing.
I have been through a lot of different phases. I’ve been scene, emo, goth, indie, and everything in between. My hair has been black, blue, green, brown, red, bleach blonde and various other questionable shades that looked like pond water. My portfolio of interests has included everything from weightlifting and boxing to swing band and embroidery. But throughout all of this, I’ve always danced. I never left ballet, and it never left me.
Why was it ballet that stuck, and not something else? I tried out plenty of other hobbies, and I’ve done other styles of dance that came to me far more easily than ballet ever did. Physically, I am not made for ballet. I’m naturally inflexible and I build muscle easily on my thighs, which makes my lines look broken. My hips are inwardly rotated so I lack turnout, and my spine is twisted (scoliosis) so I never look entirely symmetrical. My body lends itself more readily to contemporary and commercial – both of which I love, but they’re not my first love.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when I fell in love with ballet. I just know that I don’t make sense without it. So much of who I am is ballet. It’s in the way I hold myself, the way I penché down to pick up a hairpin from the floor, the way I brush my teeth standing in relevé. It’s so deeply rooted in my physicality that it saved my body from becoming dangerously twisted. When I was 15, my contemporary teacher noticed that my ribcage looked slightly crooked during a floor sequence. I saw a spine specialist, and he said that if I hadn’t been doing ballet for my whole life, I would have needed major corrective spine surgery. I might not have been born with a natural ballerina’s body, but now, ballet is literally in my bones. It’s in the very essence of my being. I think I was born with a resilient streak, but ballet took that and turned it into the unyielding strength that makes me who I am.
Ballet is hard. The simple steps are harder than you think, and you spend a lot of time doing them. It’s not all double fouettés and grand jetés. There is no such thing as fudge-stepping or styling it out – there is a right and a wrong way to do things. A head inclined towards one foot instead of the other isn’t a nice way of making it your own, it’s just wrong. Your body has to morph into shapes that frankly, the human body isn’t designed to make. The only way to get there is to practice tirelessly. You don’t give up and you certainly never sit down. You repeat combinations over and over again until either you get it or your teacher tells you to stop. If there’s music playing, you’re dancing, my teacher used to say.
There is no place for apathy in ballet. It requires commitment, persistence, and a willingness to show up and give it everything you’ve got and a little something more. Try for a triple pirouette, even if you think you won’t land it. If you fall flat on your face, get up and finish with a smile. If your costume comes undone, keep dancing and ignore it. If you go wrong, own it. (Or as my current teacher puts it, Wrong and strong, ladies, wrong and strong). If you’re injured, come to class and do whatever you can, even if that’s only stretching and making notes. Just show up. And try.
Ballet instilled within me a kind of quiet determination – less an overt desire to triumph and more a stubborn refusal to concede. It was this mentality that got me through my first year of university, which went all kinds of wrong. I felt entirely disconnected from my body; I was walking around campus but I never felt my feet touch the ground. I had no friends, no emotions and no idea how to make anything better. My brain had been scrambled beyond recognition. But in all this, there was one thing that made perfect sense. Chassé pas de bourée, glissade, grand jeté. Développé á la seconde. Chaînés. Ballet. Of course. Going to ballet was not a decision I needed to make with my head. As my old teacher once said to our class, Even if your head falls off, you keep dancing. So I did. I put one hand on the barre and pliéd. I did bad pirouettes, average grand allegro and half-decent frappés. I showed up. I kept showing up. And slowly, I started to feel okay.
The order and discipline of class comforted me. It always has. I like knowing that I could turn up to a ballet class anywhere in the world and it would start with pliés and end with révérance. I like the feeling of pulling my hair back into a bun, taking off my fussy jewellery, putting on my leotard and placing my hand on the barre, purposefully, gracefully. I like the respectful quiet that fills a ballet studio, the unspoken understanding that this time we have carved out of our day is for ballet and ballet alone. It is surprising that I enjoy this disciplined environment, considering what I was like growing up. I wore black nail polish, played the drums in angry bands, got my nose pierced and spent my Friday evenings in the boxing ring. Even now, nothing has really changed. Outside of my Thursday evening ballet company rehearsals, I spend most of my time stomping around in Doc Martens, listening to shouty bands and reclaiming the free weights at my gym from sweaty men. I like to question things, push boundaries, live outside of the lines already drawn for me. My personality doesn’t exactly sound like it would get along with ballet.
Or does it? Ballet is about pushing boundaries. It’s about defying your own limits and constantly questioning what your body can do. It’s living a life outside of society’s prescribed norms – ignoring the kids at school who tease you for being a weird bunhead, choosing a quiet night at home with a foam roller instead of a boozy night out. The very art form that taught me discipline and control was the same one that taught me how to rebel. It gave me the inner confidence to choose the path less trodden, to say no firmly, to be bold and unapologetic about the decisions I make and the opinions I voice.
Bold. This is the word I associate most with ballet. Not floaty, frilly or pink. People usually picture tutus, soft hands and slow, dreamlike movements when they think of ballet. This is all part of it (yes, I have indeed danced in a pink tutu), but it doesn’t even begin to do ballet justice. I have never been particularly fond of this sweeping, adagio-focused choreography anyway. I’ve always preferred the more audacious kind: jumps, grand battement, strong arabesques and anything with a good dose of épaulement. I find this much easier than holding my leg up for hours on end while I try and sweep my arms around gracefully in an adagio style. Ballerinas might look like they’re floating around on stage, but I can assure you that they don’t feel like it. The slower the movement, the harder it is on your muscles. (I am still haunted by a centre exercise from my Grade 6 Cecchetti exam which involved The Slowest Grand Plié In The Universe, where we had to plié down for four counts and up for another four, then développé to second in eight counts to music that was about 45 BPM. My quadriceps have never stopped screaming). Ballet is about making very difficult things look very easy. You have to keep your face light, your upper body relaxed and open, while your legs are dying and your toes are bleeding. It is, after all, a performing art. You must do everything in your power to keep the grimaces off your face and the blood from seeping through your pointe shoes. Ballet is beauty and pain. Learning how to show one and conceal the other.
This is something else that has spilled over into my everyday life without me noticing. People tell me I’m hard to read, that I keep my cards close to my chest. I take it as a compliment. Can this sometimes be detrimental to my mental health? Yes, absolutely – as can many personality traits if at the extreme end of the scale. But this ability to maintain coolness and poise has helped me through a number of difficult situations. Tough work meetings, disrespectful comments, bad dates, awkward conversations. Whenever I am in need of a little strength and composure, I think of ballet. Roll the shoulders back and down, neck long, stomach pulled up, voice even. We are fine. We can do this.
Ballet is at my core. It’s in everything I am and everything I do. Our relationship has never been perfect – there was a time when I thought my body was not small enough, not symmetrical enough for ballet. My heart wasn’t in it for a while, and I stopped trying. But I couldn’t let ballet go, and it wouldn’t let me go. There are frappés in my feet, arabesque lines in my arms, and petit allegro combinations in my head. I am always in the wings, ready to dance at any moment. I may not have been built for ballet, but I was, undoubtedly, built by it.