Recently I have started to watch ballet for the first time in decades. I’ve tried to write this blog post many times, but each time I try, then I end up becoming far too upset to continue. It shouldn’t be like that. I should face these things rather than brush them under the carpet. A few nights ago, I started to tell my husband about something that had happened to me when I used to do ballet. It was about how I became a scholar with the Royal Academy of Dance. “That’s such an interesting story.” My husband replied,” I really think you should try and write about your ballet. “ So, today I finally sat down and decided to tell you about me and my ballet. I won’t be able to tell the full story because some of it is still upsetting but…well, I’ll give it a go as sometimes writing can be quite cathartic.
Unless you have been given a gift in life then you can never understand how it feels if you waste a gift. The disappointment and lack of fulfilment that remains in your life, even if you have made that decision yourself. My gift was ballet. The trouble was that it was also my Mother’s dream to be a ballerina and she had never been allowed to have lessons. So, in a way when she had this little girl who had a gift. then it became a dream come true for my Mum.
I started lessons at the Sissie Smith school of Dance on Derby Road in Nottingham at the age of three in my carpet slippers. Sissie Smith was the best ballet teacher in the East Midlands. She had been a close friend of Dame Adeline Genée and Sissie Smith taught ballet in the Russian style- yes there are different styles of ballet. Today, ballet is very different to how I was taught. It has become far more gymnastic and I think a lot of that came from when ballerinas became taller. My Dad took me to my first lesson and began his very long stint of waiting around for me to finish my lessons. Sissie Smith was about sixty years old at that time and yet to me she seemed about a hundred. She had a very wrinkled face and she was always so stern. I was pleased that my first lesson was given by a very beautiful, young lady who we called Miss Carol. She was incredibly gentle, and kind and I enjoyed my early lessons. As I progressed onto the Primary syllabus, I was taught by another young lady who became my Godmother. Her name was Miss Jacqui.
I was six when I took my first ballet exam. I looked a lot younger because I was so tiny. For our exam, Sissie Smith provided us with these beautiful white lace dresses. You really felt special wearing them. I can remember that the dance at the end of our exam was with a Jack-in-a-Box. I had to press the button at the end of the dance and look shocked when the doll jumped out. Of course, my button was somehow jammed, and I can remember I kept pushing the button and nothing happened. So, in the end I pushed it and the box went tumbling all over the floor. I thought that I had failed and when I came out, I told my mother that the exam had been a disaster. She always asked me about a thousand questions after exams and I always told her that I had failed. I think that my Mum must have been hugely disappointed by this and perhaps she decided that it was best that I stop lessons.
A few weeks later, we went into ballet and Sissie Smith would always write the results up on the board. I looked at the categories, going from the bottom up as I was too small to see the top of the list. I couldn’t see my name in the pass category and so I assumed I had failed. My mother kept on going upwards pass-plus, commended, highly-commended, honours. “Oh, my goodness!” My Mother shrieked,” She’s got Honours.”
“Is that bad?” I asked. In those days it was very rare to receive honours. The Royal Academy of Dance usually just handed out passes or at most commended. I still have my ballet certificate and examiner notes today. The note says, “A delightful interpretation, excellent dance quality and strong technique.” So that was when things kind of changed. Ballet went from being a once a week hobby to something far more serious.
I started to have private lessons with Sissie Smith. She didn’t give many private lessons. Sissie Smith was terrifying and she only once told me that I was good. She ruled with fear. I could never speak to her and I think that in all the years I had private lessons, then I probably only said about three words to her.
Sissie Smith pushed me incredibly hard. There is a thing in ballet called turn-out where your legs must always turn out whether jumping or bending or in lifting legs or pirouettes. Everyone has a leg that turns out more than the other. Sissie Smith used to tell me that my left leg was very lazy and if I was bending and the left leg was not as turned out as the right, then she would hit me on the left leg with a stick. I always loved ‘elevations’ which is where you jump. My natural elevation was high but Sissie Smith wanted it to be higher. She would hold onto my leggings as I jumped and push down on me as I lifted. Thus, making me work twice as hard, so that when I eventually jumped without her pulling me down, then my elevation was even higher.
None of this felt wrong. My parents and even I, believed that all of this was necessary to make me the best that I could be. Ballet was and still is, an incredibly competitive world and I believed Sissie was doing this to make me the best. I remember once after I had done an exam, Sissie Smith called me over during a lesson and said, “Do a pas de bourrée” I did it. She then told the rest of the class that “The examiner has said that she has never seen anyone do such a well-placed pas-de-bourrée ever!” I thought she was telling me off and I was terrified that she would tell my parents.
I had some amazing experiences with ballet. Many things that people could only dream about. I became a scholar and part of this involved going to London a great deal to the Royal Academy and being taught classes and repertoire by professional ballerinas or teachers. I loved repertoire, where you would learn sections from ballets. To me that was real dancing and I enjoyed being able to show my own interpretations. My Mother relished this aspect and she would beam with pride if a ballerina or teacher came to tell her that they had seen me dance and they thought that I was incredibly gifted.
The trouble with having a gift is that you never really appreciate it. I wasn’t encouraged or rewarded with praise. I was just told by my mother that,
“You will go, and you will be the best and people will come up to me and tell me how beautiful you are as a dancer. “
I hated my Mother watching me dance because she would pull faces at me and look daggers at me if I put a step wrong literally. In the end, Sissie Smith became aware of this and my Mother stopped being allowed to watch me dance. I loved dancing but I didn’t enjoy all the hours of long hard classes and intensive exercises. I preferred it when a teacher at the Royal Academy would do a free class and we would have to think on our feet, listen to what they had instructed us to do and then dance it. I could turn on my dance quality when I wanted to. To me it was incredibly easy.
If I had been encouraged and praised more then perhaps, I would not have come to resent ballet as much as I did. When all my friends were going into town, I was on a stage somewhere being, ‘the lovely little redhead en pointe’ who could dance beautifully. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be with my friends.
It seems ridiculous now, but I had an almighty job to allow my Mother to let me go to University instead of becoming an adult ballerina. I was made to feel as though I was letting so many people down because I chose French and literature instead of ballet. As I left to go to university, I’d really had my fill of ballet. I had terrible feet that were mangled from wearing pointe shoes and my back was frequently in pain. “You’ll regret it” My mother warned,” And you’ll be back soon from university wanting to get back to ballet. Mark my words.” She was surprisingly correct. I had only been at University a few months when someone found out that I had all my major ballet certificates. She wanted to get into a dance school after her degree and so I agreed to give her ballet lessons to help her.
I do regret giving it up and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I have never found as much happiness in my life as I did when I was dancing. There’s a video on YouTube from 1979, which is a Dame Adelaine Genée Port-de-bras. When I watch that, I remember Sissie Smith teaching it to me and using me to work out her choreography. But in 2009 I had to have major back surgery which was a result of being en pointe far too early at the age of nine and possibly from stretching myself far too much and trying to make my legs do things that they were not meant to do.
Surprisingly I’ve been able to use my ballet in adult life. I did my teaching certificate whilst also training to be an academic teacher. When I worked in schools, I would do dance shows and musical productions. I’ve been able to pass on my ballet knowledge to other girls and that has been incredibly rewarding.
I had some amazing experiences from ballet. I met many famous ballerinas, danced with them and worked with them. I was once on the front cover of The Times and I can recall journalists making a point of telling my Mother how much they enjoyed my dancing. Ballet is still within me and it always will be, as well as an amazing capacity to know how to use London’s underground from all that time spent in the Capital! My Mother keeps all my ballet photos on display in her home and tells anyone who might be interested how,
” Elisabeth was such a beautiful dancer. She would make you cry and touch your soul.” Perhaps if it had been a different era when I danced then I may have carried on with it but like most dancers my ballet career would have been over by the age of thirty.
So there you go. I feel quite proud of myself. I’ve managed to share something that I thought was best left unsaid. See, it wasn’t that hard after all.