Thursday, 17 March 2016

Madness and obsession: my short life as a ballet dancer

I’ve thought about writing this piece for years, and somehow never quite plucked up the courage. I didn’t talk about my life at ballet school for a long time; when I started talking about it my friends would express surprise at this part of my life they knew nothing about. I too was shocked at their surprise – surely this is something everyone knew about me? It’s so close to me. It was, is, so huge to me. 

So I wanted to write this piece for a long time and then reading Sarah Ditum’s excellent article in the New Statesman today on adolescent girls’ bodies gave me the kick to write it. 

Because I was reading her powerful words about girls becoming divorced from their body, as our body becomes not a subject that does things but an object to adorn, and it made me think: when did that happen to me? When did I start to feel that detachment from my own body? And what impact did it have? 

And I thought about ballet school. 

I didn’t go to ballet school full time. Between the ages of 12 and 15 I think it was, I attended a Russian ballet school after my real school. It started off three times a week and then it was every evening. So by the time the school closed down in a blaze of bankruptcy and misery (and, as I found out much later on, something worse), I was training semi-professionally every weekday and some Saturdays too. 

You can read more about the school, company and its history in this Independent article. There’s also a BBC documentary floating around somewhere. (France Byrnes, if you’re reading this, please please get in touch. I would love to see that documentary again, featuring me, tutu-ed up and pointe-shoe wearing, in Giselle!)

Ballet school was an intense and frightening place. I had two teachers, both who had trained in Russia, who took every stereotype of a Russian ballet teacher to its extreme. Lessons would be spent with being screamed at until I would break down and cry. It was easy to get things wrong, but after a screaming session you didn’t get it wrong again. Sometimes, so angry at my inability to stand in a straight line, she’d scream at me in Russian, remember I didn’t speak Russian, and scream at me again in English. And then I’d cry. 

My mum worried about me. She wanted me to leave. I’d scowl, dry the tears, go back again, and try harder. 

We worked hard. So hard. By the end of half an hour barre work we’d be sweating. Then floor work, where my jumps were especially praised (get me pissed enough and I’ll show you how good I am at jumping!). My arches are high, so when I jumped it looked as though for a moment I was suspended in the air. Pointe work – we would courir until our toes were bleeding right through to the gel pads I used to protect my poor, battered feet. 

Today my posture is great. If I slouched, my ballet teacher would slap me with the side of her hand against my spine. ‘Don’t slouch!’ shouted in a cut glass Russian accent, a sexy villain’s voice. The second teacher cried tears of joy when I first got injured, because she was so proud of me. Our pain, our blood, our twisted muscles and deformed toes were badges of honour that we showed off. To be proud of our injuries! Straining to reach the goal of ‘wearing down all the cartilage in our hips to achieve perfect turnout.’ 

We must have been mad. 

We were mad. There was an atmosphere of madness around it – the madness of absolute obsession. Who could best do the splits up the wall? Who could bend backwards while lifting up her leg to make a circle with her head? We’d take a break from pointe work to try on the beautiful hand-stitched tutus the company attached to the school wore. My favourite was from Le Corsaire, its pastel coloured layers of lace like something from a fantasy novel.

It all has an element of fantasy now. The smell of battered satin and sweat and hairspray. The tape player with its collection of classical scores, the Vaganova method, the wall length mirrors, the stickiness of resin, the flirting with our reflections. 

Ballet school bred an obsession in us (and now I’m going to get to the point that links my odd memories with Sarah’s article) and that obsession was with our bodies. 

Everything was focused on our bodies. My body and what I could make it do was my obsession. I’d go home from class, put an iron (yes, for ironing clothes) in a plastic bag, put the bag round my ankle and do leg lifts. I practised doing the splits every day for three months before I got it right, and then I did it every day for years. I even drank milk (those who know me will know how much that cost me). What could my body do? How far could my body go? Could I stand en pointe for longer, could I stand en pointe without shoes? How long could I stay suspended in air? How high could I hold my arabesque? How pretty could I make my attitude

As a ballet dancer, all my energy was focused on what my body could and couldn’t do. It was about extending my body’s reach – about turning it into something that could achieve amazing, gravity-defying, awe-inspiring things. Isn’t that something? To know that your body can do something wonderful for you and for other people? To work your body so hard because you can do what’s beautiful? Not to care about the pain and the blood and oh-my-god all those fucking tears, because at the end of it, I was standing on stage in Giselle, tutu and corset, creating patterns with my arms, my face smiling under a mask of clumsily applied stage make-up? 

It wasn’t healthy because it was an obsession, and obsessions are never healthy. But it was different to what would come later for me, and what was affecting my friends. As a young adolescent, my body wasn’t an object to adorn. In some ways my body was still an object – the tool of my trade. But at the same time my body was a tool I fully inhabited. I felt every stretch, every bend, every pain and every intense pleasure of getting it right. All my focus was on my body it’s true, but my focus was on what my body could do. When I looked right it was because I was doing something right. And my body could do some amazing things. 

It all ended with Giselle. The school had imploded, and the teachers were on the warpath. We unsuspecting students didn’t know the company had been taken over and we were sent by our teachers to go and perform – to the company’s surprise. They were lovely; they couldn’t let our ballet school hearts down, so they let us dance with them. There it was, my glittering career – for one night only. The next day I dumped my costume on my ballet teachers’ front door step and my life as a ballet dancer was over. I’d never join a company. I’d never master a pirouette. My feet wouldn’t bleed anymore and, luckily for my hips, I’d never wear down my cartilage enough to achieve perfect turn out. 

And so, a little bit later than everyone else, my body stopped being my wonderful body that did. More and more it became the thing that other people (well, men) looked at. The object to the flaneur’s gaze. 

There’s not really a point to this blogpost is there? I’m not trying to extrapolate from my experience of ballet school to make a wider point about girls’ bodies. I don’t think my time at ballet school was healthy and the impact of what was quite a frightening situation stayed with me in lots of negative ways. But I am glad that I had those years of ballet school – those years of realising what my body could do, what my body could mean to me. That for a while at least, my body was a subject before being a girl in a patriarchal society took that full ownership away from me. Losing that ownership led me to some very dark places and some very destructive behaviours that are not to be shared here. And it took a long time before my body became my own again. Before I inhabited my physical subjectivity again.  

I wish I could still make a circle between my foot and my back though. 


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