I sat on a wooden bench waiting for the ballet class to let out so the next class could go in. Several young girls came in and sat nearby, yanking off their boots and pulling the familiar pink slippers out of their bags. I noticed their slippers had two crisscrossed elastics instead of the one I remembered carefully stitching on by hand when I was 10.
Inwardly, I groaned every time another 12-year-old girl took her place beside me and after putting on her slippers, bent her head over her phone. What am I doing here? The woman on the phone had said the class was mixed. “Everything from 10-year-olds to 70-year-olds,” she’d said. All I saw were the young girls.
Soon, a parade of purple leotarded girls came barreling down the steps from the studio, signalling the end of their class and the beginning of the next. The purple leotards reminded me of the pale blue leotard I used to wear, with a matching elastic around the waist (so the teacher could see your waist) and pink, almost white tights. The outfit was regulation Royal Academy of Dance, and I remembered the excited trips to the Capezio store in Toronto to buy them, along with the pink slippers that each came with a length of pink elastic that I had to sew myself into the shoes, folding down the backs, and sewing the elastic where the back met the sides.
I trudged up the steps behind a slim, ponytailed girl in tights, her boots unzipped. A blonde woman wearing black workout tights and a white t-shirt was my saviour. I watched her place her things in the corner of the room and did the same. We smiled shyly at each other. Two portable bars were moved into the center of the room, perpendicular to the mirror, which I found odd. I was used to the bar being attached to the mirror so that you mostly faced it. Perhaps tonight I would be grateful to not have to watch myself so closely.
The man teaching the class was older than I was, which comforted me somewhat. He’d be understanding when I fumbled, though after a 35 year hiatus from ballet, fumbling was the least of my worries.
“We don’t use 3rd position anymore,” he said, clearly for my benefit. “So it’s first, second, fourth and fifth.” He demonstrated each position, plié-ing at the end of the sequence. The familiar piano played and muscle memory took over. I felt like laughing. My knees crunched with the plié, but it all came back. I had to work harder to remember each sequence, in part because the instructor’s demonstrations were a little haphazard, stopping as he did in the middle of each one, to explain some nuance of form and then forgetting where he left off.
I followed a young girl in front of me, who wore a black leotard with sparkling straps. I smiled at her young, flingy form, still so new to ballet, that the solid, controlled form was not yet developed. Her back swayed with each backward leg lift, arms a kimbo with each fifth position bras bas.
I surprised myself with each new exercise, realizing how ingrained each was into my brain. “Does anyone know what “Frappé” means? Whipped, I thought. The ball of my foot magically hit the floor in a quick tap, and then quickly curled itself back around my ankle in response to the word.
During a break, I approached my ally. “I think I’m going to be very sore tomorrow,” I said. She smiled. “Yes, I’m sore for two days after every class.”
“I am surprised how much this is all coming back to me,” I said. “Have you taken ballet before?” I asked her.
“For a year when I was in fourth grade.” She had a slight accent. Perhaps French. “And you?”
“Yes, quite a bit actually. From age 6 or 7 till 9th grade.” I hadn’t really thought about how long I had done ballet before. It seemed quite a while. I took classes on Saturday mornings at Canada’s National Ballet School, a rather prestigious private bilingual school that used their Saturday morning classes for recruiting purposes. I remember the harshness of the classes: sitting with legs straight out, pointing toes, trying to touch the floor with them. If they didn’t touch, the teacher came around and pushed the tops of our feet hard until they did. At the time, my feet were dry and cracked from cold, wet winter boots, and the act was painful and I cried.
Still, I took an exam one Saturday, along with hundreds of other tiny ballerinas, each in our blue leotards pinned with a number. I was one of the few accepted, and, despite the trauma of cracked feet, longed to go, but my family could not afford the tuition. Years later my mother told me their assessment of me was that I would be too tall and have trouble with my knees as I got older, which amazed me in its accuracy.
Back at the barre, we did some exercises facing the mirror and I was horrified to see a big woman’s body in place of the child-like waif I expected to see there. I averted my eyes, watching one of the unruly girls instead, mentally critiquing her form and trying to make mine better. I had forgotten too, how competitive I used to be.
We practiced pirouettes, something I still did from time to time in the middle of my kitchen. The teacher was again confusing everyone in his demonstration, so we whirled around like dervishes, hopping on toes, landing with thuds. I was relieved to be in good company.
As I slipped into my rubber boots after class, I felt as if I had claimed and old piece of myself, a little girl in a pale blue leotard and pink tights with one strap hand sewn onto her slippers. I am glad she is back. I’ve missed her.