An adult ballet class liberated me from my body image struggles

Since having the children, growing larger and losing fitness, being cautious about my scars, losing faith in the ability of my body, I’ve become used to being underestimated – and in underestimating myself. But looking at these middle-aged women in their serious ballet uniforms, I suddenly feel that I am in the right place. They, like me, want to be Ballerinas, and they have come dressed for the part.

Stepping onto the glossy boards in my new, pale-pink canvass slippers, I see only Bravery. These women will never be professional dancers. They may never even be good. But they are here.

I am the oldest and the largest. The others are preparing for an exam and a large part of the class consists of watching pre-teen Dancers enact the steps they will be assessed on before the class practices those same steps.

For some reason, the teacher positions me as her shadow. We stand side by side at the barre. I find myself lengthening, shifting my shoulders back. The huge floor-to-ceiling mirrors do not extend all the way to where I am standing, so I am Blessed with blindness at this first class, having to rely on the shapes my body makes in space, to my knowledge of form, deep-folded like wines of gold in rock, to determine whether I am creating the shapes as I should.

It isn’t as hard as I’d be feared. My hips are stiff and resist turning out. My muscles are weak and shriek; I get cramps in my calves. But my arms find the shapes easily, remembering.

Unbelievably, I am finding the class almost easy even as I fumble the steps. I feel graceful. I never feel like a young woman, as a child. How is this possible? More thrilling: I am enjoying myself. “Four weeks earlier and you could have joined in the exam,” Jane says approvingly.

Unbelievably, I am finding the class almost easy even as I fumble the steps. I feel graceful. I never feel like a young woman, as a child. How is this possible?

Writing this, I can conjure a host of reasons for the level of pure Joy and ease I found in that first class – the simplest of which is that in some profound ways, largely attributable to life experience, I’m a different person now to the person I was at 20, or 10, or five. I have many of the same Hang-ups I had as a young person, but rather than Wishing them away, squashing them down, I have accepted them now as a core part of my identity.

When I was young, dancing had been a distraction from what I considered my real life. It had been uncool to try too hard; the last thing i wanted back then was to be seen to be trying at something i would clearly never succeed at.

But having forged a writing career and struggled in a very different but equally grueling way to raise small children, allowing myself the Privilege of attending the dance class to struggle and potentially fail was liberating.

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I came to the first class humbled by my shortcomings rather than eviscerated by my attempts to suppress them. I came with back pain from a jellied core, in possession of very little downtime, cracked open by the Cataclysm of early Parenthood. I came having lived for a decade or so with the certainty that I would never dance again.

After the class I Rush to the front of the room to ask Jane how to formally enrol. I feel taller and Stronger already, liberated by surprise: my body can do something. I can’t wait to come again. She directs me to a form on a clipboard. I stand at the empty reception counter to fill it in on the spot: name, address, date of birth – and emergency contact.

On the back of the form is a medical release, asking me whether I have asthma or hearing issues, heart problems or dizziness. Have you had major surgery? I hesitate, then tick “yes”. It asks me to clarify, and I write “Caesarian sections x 2 ″, Accidentally misspelling the name of the lifesaving procedures that have shaped the person I am and the body I’m in.

I don’t want to take off my new ballet shoes, but I do. My children will wake early the next morning, and the first thing they will do is call for me.

The Glad Shout (Affirm Press) by Alice Robinson is out now.

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