Buying Ballet Shoes as a Grown-up

One of the struggles Emma Claire and I face when we compose our profiles on each month’s literary pair is how to condense many years of friendship into just a few hundred words. Interesting episodes and key details about each woman’s personality often have to go by the wayside for the short-form writing we do here on Something Rhymed.

Marianne Moore’s commitment to lifelong learning, well into old age, was an aspect of her life that almost failed to make the cut. Moore’s enthusiasm for dance and even creative writing classes, though intriguing, didn’t seem to be quite relevant enough to her friendship with fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop.

But when we thought of the great affection with which Bishop had written about this aspect of Moore’s character, we decided it was something we wanted to explore through our writing this month.

The subject of adult education had, in fact, been floating around my mind ever since February’s Something Rhymed challenge, when I took Emma Claire to see a gallery exhibition about the Russian ballet The Bolt.

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

Ballet has been a love of mine for many years, and – having previously had lessons from the ages of four to eighteen – I took it up again as a hobby a few years ago. Like Emma Claire’s morning yoga sessions, it is an activity that hovers around the fringes our friendship. I’ve occasionally met her before or after an evening at the studio, and have mentioned class to her in passing, but a lack of shared vocabulary means I’d never thought to talk of it in detail, thinking it would be boring for her.

That trip to the gallery made me rethink my reticence, though – its costumes, rehearsal photographs and choreographer’s notes sparking questions from Em, not just about the exhibition itself, but also my own long-held fascination with this dance form. I was soon recalling the elderly babysitter, Mrs Tomlinson, who had enchanted my imagination at four-years-old with her crayon drawings of the Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy and the sad story of Swan Lake. I told Em of my childhood (highly unrealistic) dream of becoming a professional dancer, and also the rewarding but humbling experience of returning to ballet as an adult after such a long hiatus.

An idea for a story about dancing had pushed me to take the plunge and buy a new pair of ballet shoes. I’d wanted to immerse myself in that world again, because I wanted to write about it.

But taking class has, in fact, enriched my life in other unpredicted ways. It’s a part of the week to which I now always look forward. An hour-and-a-half of ballet makes for a wonderful way to change gears after several hours at my desk. The concentration required to try to master the steps empties my mind of any work-related stresses, and afterwards I feel refreshed and more enthusiastic about whatever I have to do tomorrow.

Being an initially extremely rusty student has also helped me in my work as a teacher. The experience of being unable to remember where to place my arms, and finding my feet no longer seem to work as they used to, has served as a great reminder of how daunting it might be for one of my adult writing students, who finds themself sitting in a classroom again after many years out in the world of work.

Though it’s unlikely we’ll ever find ourselves standing together at the barre, I’d been wondering, since our visit to the Bolt exhibition, about other ways in which Emma Claire and I might enjoy ballet again together. Then I heard about the Royal Ballet’s new production Woolf Works – based on the writing of Virginia Woolf – which opens in London this month.

Emma Claire and I have just bought tickets, and I’m excited to go and see a performance with her for the first time. Not only should it give me the chance to share with her something more of my love of ballet, but the subject matter will surely open up new conversations about one of Em’s own great passions, the writing of Virginia Woolf.

4 thoughts on “Buying Ballet Shoes as a Grown-up

  1. I envy you the childhood years of ballet training, Emily! I was always fascinated by ballet as a kid. When I left college, I thought I’d give it a try. I was laughably incompetent, though the teacher was amazed that I managed a pirouette first go. (That was because of school playground attempts to reproduce the moves I saw characters do in Bunty. Who says comics aren’t good for the education?)
    Many, many years later, I went to Pineapple dance studios. I didn’t try ballet this time, but commercial jazz, and found adult beginners’ lessons. I even got booted into a tougher class for having mastered enough of the moves. Now I’m in a class with a mix of abilities – the people who trained from an early age and have all the right shapes and vocabulary, and the people like me who simply love it and sometimes surprise themselves.

    1. Thanks for getting in touch, Roz. I’m equally impressed that you managed a pirouette first time. Turns have always been my weakest point! It’s great that you have found a dance form that really suits you, and that brings with it those happy surprises.

  2. Woolf Works was amazing – I wanted to go and see it again immediately, until my son (who had booked the tickets) said it was the last performance. . . I found it incredibly moving – particularly the first and last acts. It was fascinating to go with my son who loves Woolf and my daughter who loves (and does) ballet. It also inspired me to write – I’ve been struggling with a new novel and not able to find the right voice. The next day I was able to sit down and write a whole scene I was pleased with!
    I hope you enjoyed the ballet too!

  3. We also really enjoyed the ballet – and our first experience of watching dance together. I agree that the first and third acts were the most moving, although we both remarked that the theatrical feel of Orlando makes it a good choice for a ballet – something I had never considered before. Thanks for getting in touch, Ali. It’s so good to hear that you are now back on track with your writing too.

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