Alison Key has been my ballet teacher since I was eleven and decided that this was what I wanted to do forever. Before that, I learned with a woman called Maggie – I don’t really remember that much, only that she made us wear pink leotards and fairy wings for the show, when we were ten.
From my first lesson, Alison has treated me like a real dancer, letting me wear basically whatever colour leotard and legwarmers I want, and treating me the same in private or group classes. In return, I work as hard for her as I possibly can, and go home four times a week so exhausted that all my limbs are shaking. It’s a fair exchange.
Today is Saturday.
I arrive at the studio at five to nine, cutting it fine as usual, but there’s no one there to see me. She’s late. That’s not unusual either. When she turns up three minutes later, her speakers under her arm and her bag hooked over the other, I hurry to hold the door for her. We greet each other as she unlocks the door to the dance studio.
“You look a little tired, Georgia,” she says to me. “Didn’t you sleep well?”
“It’s just a bit early for me,” I joke – we’ve had a class at this time for the last three years and I should be used to it, but I don’t normally stay out so late on Friday nights. A friend invited me to the cinema and it was a later showing than I’d been expecting, but of course she was planning for a lie-in this morning, and I can’t. I’m here by sheer willpower and several strong cups of tea that I’m going to regret when I realise I need the loo and I’m still in my leotard, tights, and warm-up shorts.
The first piece of piano music begins as soon as I take my place at the barre, and I begin with my usual plié. We don’t need to speak for me to know this. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s second nature.
In twenty minutes, we’ve gone through all of my usual exercises, which don’t follow any set syllabus. Alison worked out a while ago that I needed more work in particular areas, so we take things from grades as far back as five and six, though I’ve been in eight for two terms already. Some of the Advanced stuff is thrown in, and she makes me do the easier steps en pointe at the end if we have time.
We move on to some centre work. She hesitates a moment before telling me what to do.
“What’s wrong?” I say.
“I wanted to talk to you about your exam,” she says. “We’ll do that in a minute. First, I want to see your adage. It’s been a while since I made you do that.”
It has, and I’ve been grateful for the reprieve. Even so, I put all my effort into the slow steps, lifting my leg a little higher than I did on Thursday and holding the arabesque for just a little longer, and she declares herself satisfied just before I drop to the floor in exhaustion. It isn’t even half past nine yet and many of my classmates from school won’t be awake, let alone up, by now. I try not to grudge them the lie-in, though I’ve had few enough over the last five years.
She doesn’t talk about the exam now, or after the pirouette steps that I can’t quite master, or when I do twenty four perfect changements for her, until my calf muscles are aching.
“You wanted to tell me something?” I say. I don’t particularly want to discuss my exam now. For a start, it’s not scheduled until July, and it’s only February now. Talking about it makes it seem closer but I’m in no way ready. However, if I can get her onto the subject of variations and what colour I’m to wear, I’ll be able to catch my breath and perhaps even take a sip of water, although she is always telling me that I won’t be able to do that when I’m a professional, on stage.
Alison looks worried. “I don’t think you should take this exam,” she tells me.
The water bottle drops from my hand. “What? You mean, I’m not ready?” I’ve been practising so hard, not to mention the hours and hours of classes. Every day, regardless of how much time I’ve spent at the studio, I practise for forty-five minutes. I stretch before I go to bed, keeping myself supple even over Christmas when there are no classes, and I can’t bear the thought of all of my hard work going to waste.