Back on the barre

OPINION: Having quit ballet just days from opening night, I long dreamed of returning to the studio.

It's been almost a year since my move to New Plymouth and I've been waiting to bump into the dance teachers of my youth as a sign it's time to return.

Who am I kidding. I was making detours past the Val Deakin Dance School in an attempt to speed up the process.

Ballet is one of those childhood hobbies almost every girl starts but few of us finish as prima ballerinas.

Those of you who have ever had the gall to back-chat a ballet teacher will know exactly what I'm talking about.

My first days of dancing were as a shy six year old with pigtails.

It was adorable, we wore frilly dresses and played toy soldiers, spinning tops and teddy bears to music.

My ballet teacher at the time was friendly enough to us, though she earned the nickname 'the dragon lady' among the mothers for her air of formidability.

Ballet is a discipline but also an exquisite form of movement that's traversed some 500 years.

The position names are in French, the music is classical.

There's a rich history and romanticism to ballet that makes it hard to part with, despite the amount of effort required.

I dropped out of ballet after a year but picked it up again as a teen, this time with another teacher.

Shyness was no longer a trait I possessed.

There's a dance position known as "attitude" and my sassy 16 year old self saw it as a challenge to embody it.

Much to Val Deakin's frustration at the time, I'm sure.

Two years later we were mere days away from performing when the commitment level seemed unsustainable as I prepped for my journalism exams.

Instead of taking my dilemma to Val, I simply chose not to show up for rehearsal.

I left a note, explaining why I wouldn't be back.

Last month I bumped into her and her teaching assistant Jane Roseman in the supermarket.

I saw them long before they saw me.

This is it, I thought, my time to confront my past and offer some small token of amends.

I hovered before heading their way.

They were about to walk past when I plucked up enough courage to catch their eyes and smile, "hello".

"I remember you."

If my teachers remembered anything from having to rearrange a production last minute, then they didn't say so.

A few weeks later, in stepping back into that humble wooden studio for the first time in 13 years, I began to recall everything.

That decision to not properly commit in my youth, dogged me through my early adult life.

I have since been determined to complete what I started and to finish well.

About a decade of journalism, marriage and life experience has sure made up for the lack of commitment I had then.

These days I am conservative about putting my hand to anything if there is any hesitation I'll be able to see it through.

I generally prefer to under-promise and over-deliver.

As I lie on my stomach during warm up exercises, I tilt my head in an upper body stretch and memory returns.

I'm not entirely sure of what I'm doing here, I'm not wearing a leotard and I have socks instead of ballet slippers.

But there was a time when I enjoyed ballet and gained strength from it, and so I thought I would see this through.

The same pictures hang in their places on the walls, the same type of toy dog yaps in its basket and the same classical tunes sound triumphantly from the stereo.

The familiarity is comforting.

When I last performed ballet, I had a flat tummy and was as toned and flexible as a gymnast.

But that is not this day.

Today I'm squishing my post-baby belly into black leggings instead of pink tights and attempting to pirouette with slightly more grace than a circus chimp.

There's another 'newbie' on the barre beside me, my friend who danced throughout her childhood and who also returned to pick up where she left off.

It's been years since we attempted a perfect demi plie or port de bras, but thank muscle memory, it's like riding a bike.

Or a horse, we discover as we ungracefully attempt to dismount our legs from a barre stretch.

Val Deakin, still tracksuit clad, her long grey hair clipped into a ponytail,  hasn't changed either.

Except for one thing.

She is smiling more than I remember.

Or maybe it's just that this time, I'm smiling back.

As we work to point our toes and straighten our bodies like toy soldiers, Val lets on how her prodigal students are doing in a charmingly honest aside to Jane.

"Really, I could have had it much worse."

I smile to myself.

Her words sum up the evening well.

Michelle Robinson is a journalist specialising in lifestyle issues. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading on the couch with her two young sons.



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