It’s a Friday night and I’m skipping drinks with my friends to go to a production of The Nutcracker with my Grandma. I find her near the main entrance with our tickets, a programme and a cast list. We hug and make our way inside the theatre, chatting about her difficult train journey into town. An usher shows us to our row and we find our seats. The lights dim and the red velvet curtain rises.
I stand in the centre of the upstairs studio. Bare feet, leotard and shorts. I’ve just finished cleaning both upstairs, downstairs, and the stairs. Sweeping, mopping and dusting. In a week, I will move into my first flat and my best friend will move to London. In a month, I will take my last class and perform in my last production. I am eighteen and I’ve been dancing after school and on weekends for ten years. I am choosing to give it up.
Originally, I was set to be a swimmer. Afternoons spent soaked in chlorine, learning to dive and perfecting my backstroke. Instead, when I turned eight, I had an operation on my head that prevented me from getting skin cancer but left me with a badly healed scar that didn’t mix well with chlorine. In my first class back, putting my head under water was so painful but I couldn’t find the words to explain what was wrong to my coach – I just cried. So, I swapped out togs and goggles for leotards and slippers.
Even if I hadn’t stopped swimming, I like to think ballet would’ve still found its way into my after-school routine. My Grandma fell in love with the craft when she was young and for as long as I can remember, she’s been reviewing shows and taking me along as her plus one. When I think of her, I think of being nine years old and imitating the way she would clap so elegantly after a witnessing a beautiful pas de deux. I think of our discussions over various intervals about sets or costumes or how well we thought that particular dancer was doing at this new role. I think of how we stood up and stamped our feet and cheered at the end of a show that moved us both to tears. It’s hard to imagine being eight to eighteen without that. It’s hard to believe that ballet wasn’t an inevitability.
I sit down on the cold speckled-grey floor. Soaking in this space, usually so full of life, in its silence. I am nostalgic for here before having left it. Is there a word for that? I’ve been feeling it a lot lately. The knowledge that change is around the corner makes me eager to soak up what is happening now. I don’t want to forget the way the mirrors are covered in those black spots that old mirrors always have; the exact dark blue of the benches and cupboards in the changing room; how the crammed costumes racks explode with tulle and colour, and the narrow staircase, steep and smooth from the years of feet running up and down it.
I know ballet makes most people think of pink fluffy tutus, bitchy girls and painful dance mums, and to some extent you’re right. My first studio was the epitome of every stereotype you can imagine. The air a heavy mix of hair spray and sweat. Girls standing in perfect straight lines outside of their classes; waiting to be ushered in with a bell. Mums scurrying around with hair pins and ribbons. But that classic rigidity was what I needed when I first started dancing. During the whole head operation debacle, my parents had also separated, and at home I’d been thrown into a world of uncertainties. Ballet truly was mine. I entered the studio and it didn’t matter anymore. All that did was that I got the steps right. For a while anyway. But I wasn’t very good at doing my own bun when I first started. On the days when Dad was looking after me I had to figure it out myself and it was always too low or not neat enough. Eventually, the other girls offered to help, only to get grossed out by the scar that ran the length of the left side of my head and the bald patch surrounding it. I don’t blame them but I started to dread going to classes. I felt ugly and alone and stupid, sitting by myself in the changing room while they laughed and gossiped in the opposite corner.
My second studio, the one I’m standing in and loving as though it’s an animate building that has a concept of my existence, was the line in the song, At the Ballet: ‘it wasn’t paradise, but it was home’. Here, the paintings nailed to the wall are going mouldy in the corners and in the winter, we dance around buckets collecting drips. We don’t always spray our hair into oblivion and maybe two or three of us once half considered the possibility of pursuing it as a career. But we all care deeply for one another, growing from buying pick and mixes and chips from Mr. Bun’s to op-shopping before class to sitting on the worn-out sofa in the downstairs studio, crying over our latest crushes. In the classes here, I was introduced to a new version of ballet. One that felt like a friend who acknowledged the shit bits of life and then asked you to turn it into something beautiful. At eleven years old, I fell deeply in love with trying to make my shit into something beautiful.
But when I turned fourteen I decided that as free as ballet made me feel, it wouldn’t feel like that forever. I wanted to write and travel and maybe go to university. I didn’t want to commit myself to the heartbreak of trying to have a dance career. I’d watched too many girls be rejected by professional dance schools too many times. Ballet had looked after me when I needed it to but I wanted my life to be bigger than that, even though I still loved it. A lot. I realised that loving something isn’t always the same as wanting it. I remember crying and crying and crying into my mum’s shoulder while I came to terms with that. And once I did, I felt so free and it terrified me. Ballet was my thing. All of my friends had theirs – art, science, maths – and now I had nothing. I was just Vita. I don’t know why I didn’t just quit then. It didn’t come from anyone, no adult told me I had to keep going, but I did. Something about it felt right. Even if it was just for the routine: the talks before class, the friends, the gossiping at the barre and Callum playing the rickety old piano while we stretched, hanging out in downstairs studio where Footnote would rehearse during the day. We’d take over in the afternoons, trying on costumes and sliding around in our socks on the wooden floors. Coming in over the holidays to practice solos, gruelling barre classes and fighting for a role in the end of year production. Falling to the floor after rehearsals, my back slick with sweat, all my muscles aching, but deciding to stay late anyway, to take the contemporary class because I don’t want to go home to a passive aggressive step-mother. I guess I still needed an open escape route.
I stand back up, walk over to the left-hand side of the studio and take classical position. I move through the adagio I’m currently learning and remember how we first taught ourselves to balance by pretending our year eight boyfriends, who we desperately loved, were holding us up. I smile, and release my leg back to the ground. There is no reason for me to be practicing this, but there’s a priceless satisfaction to nailing a hard exercise. Working towards an unnecessary perfection because it feels good. Which might be another reason I’ve stuck with ballet for as long as I have. This pain in my muscles that tells me I’ve tried my best. That and the end of year productions. Working hard all year to be given the reward of a weekend at the Opera House; mucking around in the wings and the dressing rooms upstairs. Dancing on stage is like breathing. Pretending you’re someone else, acting out music, in a perfect world that will end with applause, is heavenly. I love the precision and the delicacy. I love sitting offstage and watching the drama. Those quick changes with the stress and frustration at tricky costume fastenings, followed by the sudden shift back to calm and poise just before you step back onstage. Teachers organising props and sewing last minute ribbons onto headpieces. Stretching in the dark, the glow from the stage spilling onto your toes and legs. Mothers shepherding the younger children out the hidden door and into the front rows of the audience. The way the dancer’s face changes again, the minute they step out of the light. For that weekend, I exist in a different world. One that belongs to me.
Onstage the dancers stand in lines and curtsy and bow, curtsy and bow to our applause and stamping feet. The red velvet curtain lowers and the lights are turned back up. I turn to Grandma and smile. She gathers her notepad and bag and we make our way out onto the street. We hug goodbye and she hurries off to the internet café where she will write her review of the show. I wander in the general direction of my bus stop, muscles remembering what it felt like to dance like that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vita O’Brien lives in Wellington, New Zealand, where she recently completed the IIML workshop in Creative Nonfiction. Her writing has previously been published by Headland (Issue 11).