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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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“Welcome to hell, ladies,” he says in an Eastern European accent. I grimace as he presses down on my stiff upper back, attempting to coax out an extra millimetre of flexibility. I’m finally ticking adult ballet class off my bucket list, but now I’m wondering what possessed me to do this.

When I was a little girl in the 60s, I begged my mother to let me take ballet class. I loved the pink tutus, the pretty buns, the dreams of gracefully dancing across the stage like the Swan Princess. She sent me off to figure skating and Brownies and yet, for some reason that’s still a mystery to me, she wouldn’t budge on ballet lessons.

With the distractions of teenagehood and then the demands of adult life, thoughts of taking ballet lessons were put on hold. But every so often, usually while watching an inspired performance of Swan Lake, those little pangs of unfulfilled desire would speak up and say: You should take lessons before it’s too late.

And here I am – more than 50 years after pleading with my mother – finally taking the plunge.

The class is called Absolute Beginner Adult Ballet, and I’m a good 30 years older than the rest of the participants. Our instructor (Mr. C) is trained in classical Russian ballet and has had an illustrious dancing career.

I’ve got my hair in a slicked-back bun and I’m wearing second-hand pink ballet slippers. Sadly, the tutu-wearing window has closed for me.

We start with warm-up exercises. The precise, controlled movements are so different from what I’m used to in my regular aerobics and strength training classes. I’m in pretty good shape, but this warm-up is killing me. Based on the groans, my younger classmates are faring no better. “Did I tell you to stop? Keep going, ladies,” says Mr. C with a devilish grin, revelling in our agony.

This brings me a disturbing flashback to elementary school gym class in suburban Montreal. For years, I had an evil gym teacher who hailed from somewhere in the former Soviet bloc. He delighted in beaning timid little girls with dodgeballs and mocking our feeble attempts at hoisting our scrawny bodies up on chin-up bars. I’ve since had a lifelong disdain for dodgeball. But I’m a mature adult now, confident, not easily intimidated. I can even do a chin-up (sort of). Ballet and Mr. C don’t scare me.

“OK ladies, hands on barre, stand up tall,” he instructs. How hard could this be? One by one, Mr. C critiques our posture. He points his finger at various body parts while sternly giving feedback: “Head up, neck long, chest proud, stomach in, back straight, buttocks tight…” I’m last in line and have taken note of every previous adjustment. I’ve got this. He looks at me and I know instantly that I’ve missed something. “Breathe!” he says. “It must look effortless. No one wants to see clenched face. It’s ugly.”

Mr. C has us doing a little routine at the barre. “Pointe, demi-pointe, plié,” he cues. I’m concentrating hard, trying to master the terminology while executing the corresponding movement. I’m sure it doesn’t look pretty, but he fails to notice as he admonishes another lady for not keeping her head up. “You must look proud, like a rooster.” Thankfully, he doles out feedback in equal measure.

We are practicing port de bras, a ballet term for movement of the arms. Mr. C tells us that our shoulders must be strong and our lower arms soft and graceful. I flutter my arms, channeling my inner swan. “Your hands, they look like claws,” he chides. “No one wants to look at that.”

I get nervous when Tchaikovsky begins to play. Not only do I have to remember the terms, the steps, the graceful arms and the breathing, now I also need to keep in time with the music. “Just listen, feel the music,” he implores.

Mr. C sees our perturbed expressions. “I’m not here to tell you how wonderful you all are, I’m here to teach you the fundamentals of classical Russian ballet,” he proclaims. He launches into a monologue about how we’re all too soft in this country, too in need of constant praise. I actually agree with him on this one.

After a few sessions, I find myself looking forward to ballet class in much the same way that I looked forward to roller coaster rides when I was a kid – with a mix of angst and excitement. Between classes, I check my posture in every window I pass, and indulge my fantasies with grands jetés between kitchen and living room. I’m progressing, albeit slowly. My hands are marginally less claw-like and my posture a little more erect.

Mr. C is still a tad intimidating; nonetheless, I’ve come to appreciate his demands for perfection, his discipline, his passion, his directness and his sense of humour. Maybe my elementary school gym teacher had these qualities too, although I doubt it. He was just plain mean.

We’ve progressed to the middle of the room. Mr. C demonstrates a beautiful diagonal pattern across the floor. I summon my inner swan once again and pretend I’m on stage dazzling the audience with my grace. “Too much drama,” he yells. I smile. It’s not exactly a compliment, but it’s a whole lot better than ugly.

Learning ballet as an adult has been a much bigger challenge than I expected. I know that I will never master a grand jeté (or even a petit one for that matter), but I’m thrilled that I finally took the initiative and that ballet still holds the same allure for me as it did when I was a little girl.

Sadly, after only a few months of lessons, COVID-19 restrictions put an abrupt end to my blossoming ballet skills. I know I’ll eventually return to my lessons – much like the roller coaster, I simply can’t resist being tortured and delighted by the fundamentals of classical Russian ballet.

Caroline Helbig lives in West Vancouver.