Saturday, 14 May 2011

Dance, dance, dance

My life as a ballerina began at age 4, when Mum took me and my bouncing blonde curls to a Saturday morning class at the Villenuva Dance Academy. I will always think that sounds like a school for dancing ice-creams.

Ballet age 4 is all about good toes, naughty toes, and various mimes that transport you far away from being a four-year-old with bouncing blonde curls. Once upon a time I was a naughty imp stealing apples from a garden, or a graceful swan soaring high. Sometimes, us little ballerinas had to be a witch who drinks a deadly potion, but I was scared that pretending to die meant dying in real life, so I never was the witch.

Forever ready to put on a show (with brother Jonathan)

Growing up meant more serious exercises: tendus, fondues (dancing cheeses?!), grand battements and jet├ęs. Age 11, I was selected for a special advanced class for students with "distinction". I wore pointe shoes for the very first time. Dancing en pointe is painful, thrilling, and so very grown up. Though the lasting legacy is that I have baby-sized feet: at 5 feet 9 inches tall I wear size 4 shoes, because dancing on your tippy-toes four days a week during puberty doesn't allow for much growth.

Being an adolescent ballet dancer is tough. Suddenly, you're too big, your legs are these great long levers that you're supposed to lift at impossible angles to your protesting body. Training for my second major exam, I tore my left hamstring, and six months later, the right. Thus ended my career as a ballerina. (Although it was always clear I would be too tall. Even Darcey Bussell, a "tall" ballerina, is only 5 feet 7. And anyway, I was too "clever" to go into dance, a career in science beckoned...)

The injuries, and subsequent back problems, were tough, frustrating, but made be want to dance even more. To overcome my injuries would be a great achievement. Age 17, I won the Senior Prize for Achievement at the renamed Poole Academy of Dance. My trophy was a treasure for one year, and then I had to give it back, and leave for University College London.

UCL owns the Bloomsbury Theatre and as such has thriving arts societies: Dance, Drama, Stage Crew, Musicals. I joined Dance. Going to university coincided with, or perhaps forced, a darker side of me. Out went the blonde curls, in came jet black, poker straight locks and gothic tendencies. My studies of the history of madness led me to learn of the mediaeval witch-hunts and then I thought: why not, finally, dance the witch? So in 2005 I choreographed Sabat, named after the witch's gathering, for the UCLU Dance Society show. If I thought dancing en pointe was grown up, conceiving and birthing this expression of my imagination was almost ancient. Three ballet dancers and five tap dancers envoke the persecution of women that was rife for three hundred years.

Click the image to see the video of Sabat on YouTube

It's six years since I performed that dance. Five years since I went to a ballet class. Boyfriends, work and apathy get in the way, don't they? But it's no excuse. So on the 117th anniversary of game-changing choreographer Martha Graham's birth, I went back to the barre, back to ballet class. Today I can hardly walk as my muscles scream out in protest once again. But I'm not going to stop. Ballet is not just in my bones, but in my ligaments, my tendons and my muscles. And since three years ago, tattooed into my skin.

Ballet dancer tattoo
Ballet dancer tattoo on my left wrist, inked November 2008.

I'd love to hear about anyone else's experiences of going back to dance as an adult, or even starting from scratch. I'm going to adult classes at the Central School of Ballet because it's just round the corner from my new office. But there are loads more studios around London offering classes for grown-ups: Danceworks, City Academy and Expressions to name a few. Many more across the country, I'm sure.