The ballet barre was a Christmas present. It was matt black, had a slightly bevelled appearance and was made of the kind of material that would never warm up and this was its greatest advantage; as a hot sweaty pre-teen then teen, I would spend hours pressing different parts of my face and cheeks against its implacable surface as balm to my feverish hormonal outbreaks.
Thinking back, it was probably actually a dress-rail on its lowest setting. It was stand-alone with little feet on wheels. Yes, it was a dress-rail, something that became more obvious once we started plonking discarded shell suits and training bras on top of it. My mother still uses it as her ‘holiday rail’ because of its ability to hold an inordinate number of white linen trousers without crumbling.
The point is, it was purchased as a gift for me, as a ballet barre. At the time, I consumed dancing, aiming always to be on the cover of The Dancing Times, a magazine which consistently featured a dancer mid – feat on its front cover. I wanted to be photographed en pointe, in attitude, my leg an impossible curve reaching up between my shoulder blades. And I would go to dancing lessons three or four times a week to help me achieve this. and because I was young and there was bit less flesh between my waist and thigh (and I don’t just mean buttock here, I mean that spread of flesh which creeps up round the sides towards the middle), I could fling my legs back and strike a pose that could pass for a Dancing Times Cover. But I didn’t practice at home. The ballet barre, like the stereotype of every ballet teacher that you have ever come across in film or fiction, remained in the corner, aloof and imperious but unused except as a cool resting place for my cheeks or temporary (read permanent) clothes hanger.
Aged 16, I got thick. That aforementioned bit near my middle , though by no means as prodigious as it is now, suddenly toughened up and refused to budge for arabesques or attitudes and jumps, any jumps, took a nano-moment of effort and consideration before execution. In response, I did what some girls would do in this situation; I cried, ate more, felt bad, tried a detoxifying seaweed wrap, ate cottage cheese, ate more then ate nothing. And still my body failed to live up to expectations. And now the ballet barre offered little cool comfort to my fired cheeks, displaying all the summer dresses, flimsy playsuits and bandeau tops that represented my attitude-flinging, floaty-jumpy past self.
Yes, I’m equating body size and success – not because it’s right, but because it;s how it was.
If only I’d listened to the ballet barre, i think I would have made some different decisions. After all, I was talented, but not resilient. I should perhaps have taken it up on its silent challenge and practised. Working on my technique and strength may have kept me in attitude for a bit longer, but I felt at the time a bit silly on my own and besides Golden Girls was on.
But that’s working on the assumption that I wanted to strike a pose badly enough. the humiliation of not being ‘good’ anymore was great, but not so great that I would switch off Rue McClanahan. I didn’t do anything to change the situation, except starve myself, which felt like control and looked to me at least, like success. Maybe the ballet barre was begging to be a full time clothes rail, that I should give up, if giving up was what I wanted to do.
The choice I made, my vanishing trick, was a semblance of choice. I punished myself by not eating and I’m still negotiating this terrain today. i could have built up my resilience, kept practising, gone for it and felt that transcendent joy that comes from working hard at something. Or I could have made a damn decision, sacked it off, filled my life with other, better things (like food). But my vanishing trick was successful at the time; I was thin and I had no energy so I could fall between the gaps. And it felt lovely for a bit. But now when I see young women (mostly) making that false equation between success and silence, both physical and mental, I hope that they have a ballet barre or a clothes rail or just somewhere to lay their hot heads in the summer and think again – and reflect – and that they decide to make a choice and not pull a vanishing trick.