I stand at the barre, my leg on the smooth wooden pole as though it's the most natural position in the world, turned out, perfectly straight, and my hands reached towards my toes encased in pretty satin shoes tied with ribbons as though they are my salvation. I stand up, take my leg down, and do the same with the other foot, until my muscles are crying out in pain and I have to stop.
Then it is pliés and tendus and grand battements; then it is centre work and studies and choreography, for four hours solid until I collapse, and Madame tells me that I must go home or I will not be fit to dance again tomorrow. And I groan, because I have the same thing all over again tomorrow, the same four hours of muscle-clenching, spirit-breaking work.
I was coming to the end of my endurance as I practised one of the routines with Anna-Marie, such a gentle, quiet girl, helping me. She held my arms and tried to make them higher, supported me as I stretched forward and went into a deep arabesque...and above all, she forced me to keep going, pulling in my stomach and bottom and stretching, always stretching, until I was taller than ever before.
Madame entered and dismissed her kindly. I stood waiting, and she told me to fetch my pointe shoes. When they were correctly laced she held me as I wobbled up onto my toes, shaking with the effort and the pain. But the room was lined with mirrors, and as I looked at myself I saw not a young girl on pointe for the first time but a professional dancer. Just maybe.
"You're doing well," she said, as I cried out in agony. My toes were hurting. 'Ouch pouches' and 'jelly toes' hadn't been invented yet, so I was stuck with lambs' wool--all very well for those that were used to it, but I wasn't, and so it hurt. A lot.
"It hurts," I told her, and she replied that she knew. It was just too bad. I had to grit my teeth and bear it. Those were the things I caught in the undercurrent in her voice, and I heard them as though she'd spoken them aloud, so I listened. I could bear it. I would bear it.
When I thought I was about to break my ankles she allowed me to take the shoes off and lace instead the black leather shoes she had bought me. They were custom-made, an unusual style for this time, but I loved them more than anything. I pulled them on and tightened the laces, looping them around and around my ankle as my first teachers had taught me.
"Now dance," she said. There was an audience: Margaret, Jane and Anna-Marie had come to watch. So I danced my very best, the new Reel step that Madame and I had put together, and they clapped and cheered. This is what I would do in the show as my solo, but we hadn't yet decided what I would wear. I couldn't wait to find out.
"Go, go, go!" whispered Jane, looking out through the glass panels in the door. "Your mother is here, Elizabeth. Go and change out of those shoes; she must not know!" I nodded and skipped lightly over to my satchel of shoes, changing back into the flat ballet slippers. Grace knocked and entered.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Madame Lejeune, but I was wondering if I could speak to you for a moment. Alone," she added, looking at the four of us standing in the room. Madame nodded and left the studio with Grace in tow. We were left to wait and wonder what on Earth they could be talking about.