The lightbulb blows in the hallway; a fizz and then darkness, and, without thinking, I feel my way up the blueish gloom of the stairs and retrieve my pointe shoes from the airing cupboard. I tie the ribbons loosely around my ankles, nothing like the strange rituals I used to engage in: holding the frayed ends up to the gas hob, sealing the ends so they became waxy stumps which pricked my ankle bones sharply.
At the weekend someone asked my what my ‘sport’ was. Just as I have finally found an answer for the inevitable ‘and what do you do?’ question, I am faced with another: I do no sport. Nothing. I don’t even do anything casually. When it comes to sport, I got nothing.
“Oh,” I said at the time, as the silence yawned. “I used to do ballet, pretty seriously.”
I was embarrassed at the time: at how stupid I sounded (indeed, a lot of people have done ballet at some point in their lives), at how I was talking about something I had done five years ago, at how I felt I couldn’t say “nothing;” baldly, confidently.
But now, on my landing, in the half-light, I realise it is a part of my past which I had taken for granted, like all unique things we don’t quite realise are unique.
I did ballet Monday evenings, Tuesday evenings, Thursday evenings and for eight hours on a Saturday. I never did any other dance forms. I took two syllabuses, a conditioning class (mostly sit ups and performing ballet moves with ankle and arm weights on) and pointe work. I wore tracksuits over my leotard and carried a gym bag. My hair was almost always in a bun. I dipped my feet in surgical spirit, later, when I was almost exclusively dancing en pointe; taped up my toes with plasters so they wouldn’t bleed. I had surgery in the name of ballet – because it caused the bunion, but also because I couldn’t dance without having the surgery. I had hundreds of pairs of ballet shoes: Griskos with strong backs, Blochs which I treated in calamine lotion to change the colour and extend the line of my leg.
At one time, I knew all the ballet French, of course, but I also knew about my muscles: I knew my rectus abdominis was good, but that my right hamstring was tighter than my left. I knew when I had nailed a pirouette and when I was off-centre. I don’t know those things anymore about my body.
I still maintain that starting ballet at such a young age is the only reason I remained slim during my very sedentary years. I no longer have the ability to raise my leg up by my ear, but I still have the ghosts of all of the muscles. And the memories of all of those evenings spent sweating as I finally mastered the développée, my back trembling as my pointe shoe drifted up next to my face and the satin of the shoe caught the light, still live in my muscles. I feel them waking up as I clomp down the stairs in my pointe shoes.
The ballet classes would loom on the horizon – a perfect, two-hour slice of time at the end of a school day. The quiet of the changing rooms, the dark outside the studio, the distant sounds of the rain, the promise of a tired body and a hot bath later that night.
That’s still a piece of me, even if it is ancient history, right now. I can imagine going back.
I retrieve a light bulb from the cupboard and rise fully onto pointe, feeling my feet stretch underneath me, strong and reliable. With the added height, I slide the light bulb into the socket easily, and I finish with an arabesque for good measure.