My ballet story

Usually when I tell people that I love ballet, the following conversation happens:

– Oooh! Did you use to dance it then.

-Yes, I did it for many years as a child.

-That’s nice, at what age did you stop?

-12

-Oh why is that?

-Oh you know, dodgy knee, lack of talent.

We chuckle, and people sometimes try to prod, assuming a tragic story, assuming my knee got on the way of my dreams. But I don’t have a tragic ballet story. I don’t share it with you because it is tragic, or grand or self-agrandising. I share it with you because it is mine, and I love reading and hearing about yours. I share it because it makes me smile.

*

I started when I was 3 years old, just like almost every little girl. I just loved all things girly and pink, and at that age, you cannot get more girly and pink than ballet. My mum says I looked very uncoordinated and sloppy, but very happy. She says I took it very seriously, and loved every minute of class.

I was 7 when I saw my first ballet. It was the VHS version of Balanchine’s Nutcracker. At least I think it was Balanchine’s… You know the one, with Macauley Culkin? Has anyone else seen it? I watched it over, and over, and over again. I rented it so often from the local video store that, apparently, whenever the owners saw me coming, they took it of the shelves and handed it to my dad (apparently I had Gone With the Wind, Cleopatra and The Nutcracker on rotation, of course I couldn’t follow the plot of those movies, but I just LOVED the costumes).

 

 

I absolutely LOVED The Nutcracker! That was real ballet, that was why I did all those exercises at the barre, and why we had to dance on our tippy-toes, and why my teacher insisted on perfecting my port de bras and my turnout.

It was around that time that my dad started travelling to Russia, and he would tell me on his return about watching the Kirov ballet. He still tells me about seeing The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. These experiences have stayed with him and with me.

In short, I was in love with ballet, and silently, to myself, I decided I wanted to be a ballerina. So I worked very, very hard in my ballet classes. I also took Jazz and Rhythmic Gymnastics. ( I had lots of extra-curricular activities, including English classes, swimming classes, and I seem to remember once taking  a Tennis lesson,failing to hit a single ball, and walking back to the ballet studio).

Alas, life had other plans. My port de bras  was awful. Whenever I held my arms in fifth, instead of a graceful circle, I would get something resembling a square. (come to think of it, I looked a lot like one of the nymphs in L’après-midi d’un faune). I distinctly remember being mocked/corrected by my friends as I bourréed  across the stage in a golden tutu. I also could never get the perfect ballet hands and fingers (witness the claw), never enough turnout, and very poor coordination. But I didn’t care. I more than made up for it in enthusiasm.

 

Little me during a ballet recital.

 

We all looked up to the older girls, who were already dancing on pointe. And we knew that when we hit 11, our teacher would start preparing us for it. I turned 11, the teacher selected the girls that would continue on to pointe.  And I wasn’t one of them.

I was distraught. I refused to believe it. My mother, who always knew in her heart I wasn’t a dancer, bought me my first and only pair of pointe shoes. I remember it so well… that special store in Rio de Janeiro that sold the pointe shoes… the feel of the air-conditioned room. I felt so guilty telling her I needed the shoes, because in my heart of hearts, I knew I didn’t…

My ballet teacher was not a monster. In fact, he was fantastic. He had spotted something else though, on top of my lack of talent. He saw that I was having trouble with my right knee. Grand pliés were becoming painful, so was any balance on my right leg. I actually had to move away from the barre on occasion… But I didn’t care.

I started taking private lessons. But even my private teacher chose to keep me away from grand pliés. Which is not a good thing.

I remember once putting on my pointes before my private teacher could see me, not even breaking them in, and crashing around the studio. I was so happy.  I only wore my pointe shoes twice. That time, and the day after I bought them, lacing them up alone in my room…

 

Image Copyright: Jim Kelly

 

But like I said, life had other plans. I stopped ballet classes, and a few months before I turned 13, my family started the preparations to move from our tiny village in Rio de Janeiro, to Vienna, Austria. I don’t know where my pointe shoes ended up. I think they got lost in the move.

I wasn’t unhappy, I wasn’t pining for ballet. Like I said, this is not a tragedy. I loved Vienna, I loved my new school (once a nerd, always a nerd). The school offered an after-school ballet class, but I had put that behind me even before I left Brazil. I was happy, studying, learning English, snowboarding (my neighbour and good friend Ike fell on me when we were on the T-Bar lift. He fell on my right knee as our snowboards got tangled and we were dragged up the mountain. IT HURT). I loved living in Vienna, and the city still means so much to me.

But ballet was not really behind me. Whenever it somehow reappeared in my life, I reacted strongly against it. Once, a Brazilian friend of my mothers announced that her niece was moving in with her for a few years. She was my age and had gotten an apprenticeship with the Wien Staatsoper ballet. I felt all these ugly feelings and emotions rise. I met her only once, and she looked gorgeous…. She looked like a ballerina. Even standing around she had perfect posture, perfect turnout, when she moved her arms to get a glass of water, it was a perfect fluid movement. I smiled and said hello, but deliberately avoided her. I am still quite ashamed at how silly I was. She must have been so lonely, not speaking a word of German… But I avoided her… I got home that night and cried.

 

Image Copyright: S.M. Tunli

 

The Wien Staatsoper is my favourite place in Vienna. I always felt such a strong pull to it, and would walk around it (IT IS MASSIVE) and sit on the fountain next to it for hours. I once went on a guided tour and got to stand on the stage. I never associated those feelinsg with ballet. Maybe they are related to it, maybe not. But I love and miss that building so much. I never saw a ballet there. I actually only went once, to see Wagner’s Parcifal with my English teacher. (I still have NO idea what it is about btw!)

I moved to England for my undergraduate, and while I lived in Bournemouth, I started researching ballet classes, but never went through with it. I took ballroom dancing lessons instead. I moved to London, and never gave a thought to the Royal Ballet, until one day in December, 6 months after having moved to London.

For some reason, I have no idea why, I went on youtube and googled The Nutcracker. I don’t remember if I wanted to find clips of the old movie, or if I wanted to listen to some of the music. But I found clips from the Royal Ballet’s production, with Alina Cojocaru as Clara. I watched the entire show on youtube. And I can’t describe what I felt. I cried, I laughed, I was hypnotised.  I watched it a second time that night in bed. I scoured youtube for more ballet clips, and I watched everything hungrily. It feels as if I didn’t even blink.

 

 

The next day, I ordered Romeo and Juliet from Amazon. First class delivery. Then I bought La Fille mal Gardee. Then came Giselle and something clicked in me a. I asked only for ballet DVDs for Christmas (Rob asked if I had developed a fetish). And I allowed myself to truly love ballet again. Or for the first time.

A year passed, and whilst I watched ballet DVDs and youtube all the time, I still did not go the The Royal Opera House.  I bought lots of ballet books, read lots and lots of ballet reviews online, ballet blogs (a massive thank you to the Bag Ladies at The Ballet Bag. You played a huge role in me finding ballet again. You ROCK). But I didn’t go see to the ballet.

My friend Sameen and I bonded over our shared love of ballet (and mutual loathing of game theory), and she encouraged me to come see the Royal Ballet with her. I always got out of it, until she just went ahead and bought tickets for the two of us, so I had to go. It was La Fille mal Gardee. I was a bit nervous before it started, but I shouldn’t have worried. Ballet only made me sad when I was being a silly teenager. In reality, it was – and is –  something that fills me with joy.

Yes, sometimes I get those silly ugly feelings, but I know that it is not my life. I am also making up for lost time. I go to the ROH whenever I can and I am trying to get back to classes, but it seems so difficult to find classes near me at a reasonable price… But I still do some DIY ballet.

Rob has walked in on me many times rehearsing a few variations. Just yesterday I was demonstrating a balance, when I attempted a pirouette and knocked something off the table. He calls me his clumsy ballerina. (Best reaction was when I was trying to reenact some moves from Macmillan’s Rite of spring. He walked in on me and asked: ARE YOU OK???).

I am really not a dancer.  I am a ballerina only in my head, and occasionally,  my kitchen. And I am more myself today than I have ever been.

 

My ballet mess.

 

I occasionally dream I am a ballerina… These dreams are very real. I can feel the floor under my toes, I am on pointes and every muscle in my body feels the movement, I can feel the roughness of the shoe against my feet, the satin ribbons around my ankles, and I dance…  These dreams always feel like gifts, and they are enough for me.

*

So this is my ballet story. As I said, it is no drama, or nothing really special. But it does make me smile.  What is yours?

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21 thoughts on “My ballet story

  1. Nina, you just made me smile and I got a little teary.
    I felt very identified with you; I also had some kind of “anti-ballet” feelings at some point. As you say, it was not a tragedy, but when I thought of ballet it always reminded me the good moments when I was a child (which I missed a lot), as well as the bad ones (I knew I couldn’t go to class because of my studies).
    My ballet teacher told me the other day that she started ballet when she was 3, and she also had those I-don’t-want-to-go-to-ballet-class feelings. But in the end she told her mum she wanted to dance and to teach young dancers. She looks happy now and even though I am not a ballerina “either” (if only in my head =D), she makes me happy too.

    Wow, you’ve lived in so many places… It must have been cool, but also difficult. I have always lived in this village. Well, I have lived in London for five months, but not with my family; I was just studying there, like in Salamanca. I can’t imagine my family out of Carrizo, but I certainly see myself living out of here… hopefully in London or in Paris (?). Near a nice Opera House =D

    I loved the ending of your story. I also have those dreams and they are AMAZING. I feel so well when dancing en pointe! And it is true: you can feel the roughness of the shoes, and even the pain on the tip of the toes. But most of all the freedom of dancing on a stage… the joy. (The other day I was Odette and even though it was a dream, it felt so true that I won’t ever forget it).

    Nerea.

    PS: you said in my blog that it’s difficult to find some good ballet classes in London. Yeah, I’m sure it is… anyway you have many studios to check out. In my case, I have to go to the only studios in Salamanca… and now in summer it’s just impossible, because little villages as my own still don’t have dance studios. Something must be done, haha!

    • Nerea! Thank you so much for commenting. I must admit I got really teary when you mentioned your dream. There is something about those ballet dreams that are just pure magic, don’t you think? And I am so glad someone else has them, which means I am not insane in saying that they feel so real…

      My family lives in Madrid now, we have moved around a lot, but somehow Vienna is the place that feels the most like home to us. I mean, London is my home now, and I love it here, but when I feel homesick, I feel for Vienna. I have never been to Salamanca, but so many people I know studied there and loved it! I grew up in this village in the middle of nowhere in Brazil… I remember village life very well hehehehe,

      And I know I sound silly complaining about dance opportunities in London. It is mostly the price that annoys me. I mean, this ballet studio have recently said they would charge £33 for a single 45min lessons! That is slightly mad!!!

      • It is mad, indeed. That’s the problem of living in such a high-level city!
        But it’s a lovely place to live and of course you can have a walk in Covent Garden whenever you want (I love the bohemian style over there).
        The Opera is kind of expensive too, but there are always some discounts waiting for us =D

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  3. P.S. Did I ever tell you how my parents made me take classical dance classes as a kid? I hated them because I was clearly just not a good dancer, and being the nerd I was, I didn’t like not being good at something = P

      • A couple of years I think. I was forced into a summer school for it too. I remember wanting to do the more fun stuff my friends were doing – sports or computing. But no, I had to do classical dance. I love watching, kathak is a gorgeous art form, but I never had the commitment or the precision for it = )

        Oh and there was a further attempt to send me down an artsy path – I learnt how to play the keyboard. For about a year. Hahahaha, I was such a book worm though, nothing stuck!

      • Yes, I do. My work schedule is nutty right now, or I’d tell you exactly when! It’s a pretty strict Vaganova syllabus, for the record.

        It looks like the scheduling for August is a little off because various teachers are on holiday so a beginner class might spontaneously turn into an open class, which can be intimidating. But things should be back to normal after the August Bank Holiday.

        • I was only thinking of starting there in October, then I would be able to take the morning classes. When you say it is a strict Vaganova, what does that means for the adult beginner? A friend of mine when to a ‘vaganova’ beginner class and came out feeling like utter rubbish. They also forced her turnout and extension to such an extent that she never went to that studio again.

          • For the adult beginners, they won’t force you to do anything (grand plies are, for example, at your discretion if you have bad knees), because they figure you know the limits of your body better than they do–they ask when you show up, what injuries or problems you have). On the other hand, if you come regularly, once the teacher has an indea of what your ranges are, they will correct you to that limit. For example, there’s no physical reason I can’t point my toes just a little bit more, but I often don’t–so I get the correction.

            They’re really good with adult beginners, managing to treat them like serious students while accomodating the part where we are, well, not elastic anymore. If you can make an Absolute Beginner class (I think they’re all in the evening though), that will take you through everything, slowly enough to process it all. The Beginner classes are a little faster and assume some basic knowledge.

            The Vaganovaness just means that you’re immersed in a *very* specific style, I believe the big difference at this level is head and arm motions; you won’t be forced into anything but after a few weeks you will start to understand what it *should* look like even if your body can’t actually *do* it.

            Does that help? It’s fun, I promise. 🙂 Email me if you want more specific coments, I’m not inclinded to ramble about my specific problems here.

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  5. I started ballet 20 years ago when I competed in roller skating (same deal as ice). After about 10 years I quit skating and took way too long to realize that I could and should do ballet. It really was my first dream when I saw my older sister take the stage. She got to pointe shoes and I was so jealous. I tried a class as a VERY little girl of about 4 or 5, but was already self conscious if you can believe that.

    But, this adult beginner (re-ginner?) is lucky enough to have moved to a town with a nearby studio that just happens to be ADULTS ONLY! I love it and I’m even starting to take private lessons.

    I will never be a pro. I may never even make it on any stage, but I love doing it. It’s in every ounce of me now. I feel so free with I flounce across the floor. What’s a shame is that I really DO have a natural talent for it. Yes, there’s a little regret in there. Shoulda done it, shouldn’t have gained 20 pounds, yeah, yeah. There’s nothing to be done about that now except dance! So I do!

  6. Wow this truly connected with me. Those ugly feelings I know them all too well being a former rythmic gymnast an injury and not being the best prob stopped me. I stopped 2 years ago when I was 15. I’ve always been intrested in ballet since I was little. My parents never got around to put me into it. It was always gymnastics or swimming. I recently started taking a beginner class at BAE. I love this art form and love watching documentaries on it. I hope to one day become a level acceptable for myself. Great story 🙂

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