I can’t remember how old I was when I gave up ballet. When I was a ladybird, at the theatre a town over from where I now attend college, my mother was pregnant. The red ballet shoes stained my feet. My father brought me roses. By the time I quit I had a sister, named Rosie. Of course, this was all pure coincidence, and besides we were only half-sisters, although I’ve never understood the concept of half-siblings. Step-siblings I see fine, the point is established that they came into your life at some later date, two people already half-grown trying to mesh together. Surely biological sisters either are or aren’t? But I digress.
Ending my ballet lessons was a concession, a confession of gracelessness. It took far longer than I’d imagined. I think it was the first shoddy investment my parents had made in me. People, people I loved, had paid good money on the pretence that I wanted to be a dancer, and I could see, gawky and awkward as I already was, that I never could. I was a bundle of stage fright and disobedient limbs. At seven, the course of my youth was well set: I wanted to be someone else. Those slippers from my sole major ballet performance, that spread my blush of self-consciousness to the tips of my toes, had some other girl’s name in them. It’s difficult to become another person. Every costume is a self-portrait, after all. I had wanted to be a butterfly, beautiful and extravagant and the only insect most little girls can stomach (or as far as they care to admit). I was actually rather fond of ladybirds as a child. Having no friends in primary school, I would commune with nature when the weather allowed, sat cross-legged and grazed on the tarmac in front of the hedgerows. Ladybirds will let you catch them; crawl up your arms and between your fingers. Butterflies are elusive. And everyone knows if you touch them, they’re ruined. Few pay much attention to the caterpillar it used to be. The butterfly is magnificent and ephemeral and nothing else matters. You treasure it while it lasts. Butterflies are becoming more and more of a rarity, at least in the UK. Or so I hear. I wanted to be a butterfly.
But I wasn’t. Eventually, my mother told me that she hated sitting in the waiting room at the ballet studio. She was waiflike and lonely and, as such, couldn’t bear or be bothered with the other mothers’ near constant conversation topic of diet and weight loss. She felt they loathed her. How true this was, I don’t know. We have similar neuroses, but people are harsh. And I realised that drawing out the termination of my dance career would only make the inevitable failure worse. Climbing higher certainly doesn’t ease the fall. I told my mother I didn’t want to go back. I don’t remember well, but I suppose I cried. I always do.
My next skill-honing endeavour was gymnastics, for which I was far better equipped. It was very much like ballet, except strength was one’s beauty, rather than beauty being one’s strength. It didn’t last. I am neither beautiful nor strong. However, I’ve always understood how best to throw myself at the ground. I can still bend over entirely backwards.