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The Joy Of Doing Something Badly

Ballet for Beginners

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

For the past few years, I have been going to ballet classes. Despite regular attendance I remain in the Absolute Beginners’ class and have accepted that I am unlikely to progress to the dizzy heights of the Beginners’ level. But although, reluctantly, I’ve grasped the fact that I possess no natural aptitude for it I have also found, to my surprise, that it makes no difference to my enjoyment of it.

My much-read copies of Ballet Shoes and the Ladybird biography of Anna Pavlova attest to my childhood passion for ballet, but I didn’t begin lessons until decades later, when I was researching a book about Vaslav Nijinsky, the great star of the Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1913. I wanted to experience a little of the discipline by which dancers are governed, and to dip myself in however small a way into the routine in which Nijinsky was immersed throughout his life, until he became too ill to practise. Dimly recalling that as a little girl I hadn’t been invited to continue with the ballet classes I adored, putting aside troubling memories of aerobics sessions in the late 1980s, I found a class and summoned up the courage to go in.

At first I was enchanted by the teacher’s casual use of the French words and phrases which had become so familiar to me during my research but retained an air of unimaginable glamour: plié, fouetté, pas de chat, glissade. Reflected in the studio mirrors, my classmates, of all ages, shapes and sizes, wore legwarmers, chiffon wrap skirts and (in one memorable case) red satin shoes. Soon, after a thrilling foray to the dancers’ outfitter Bloch, I braved a black leotard and pale pink tights. After every class the music echoed in my head for the rest of the day.

But the exercises were another matter. I struggled to keep up and keep in time and hoped that with effort my turnout – how widely the legs and feet can be opened from the hips – would improve, but it became clear that the extraordinarily rigorous process by which nine year-old Nijinsky was chosen for the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg in 1898 was strict for a reason. It’s not so much that there’s one body shape for dancers – think of the differences between willowy Sylvie Guillem, athletic Darcey Bussell and ethereal Sarah Lamb – but that they have to begin with strength, flexibility and turnout. The ideal for which they’re aiming requires so much that they need a strong physical foundation to support their superhuman training and dedication.

Not having turnout, it turned out, was the least of my challenges. My creaky spine, distant toes and abysmal coordination were only ever going to allow me to go through the most basic motions; using the word elephantine would be a gross misrepresentation of elephants. When our Russian teacher told us to imagine an audience on the other side of the mirror, I pictured a crowd of gilt-epauletted, lavishly bewhiskered, balletomane Grand Dukes, diamond bracelets at the ready in their breast pockets, gaping in horror at our performance. Jealously fascinated, I watched as new students arrived, with an equal lack of experience but better coordination and flexibility, and the teacher admired their open hips and arched insteps before waving them onto the Beginners’ class. At last, someone for the Grand Dukes to lavish their jewels upon.

And yet I found the classes as compelling as they were satisfying. The physical challenge of trying to hold my head and arms with the right combination of poise and softness while I attempted crisp jetés or a long, agonisingly high developpé was one thing; remembering new sequences en croix (a series of leg movements at the barre to the front, side, back and side) kept my brain scrambling equally desperately to keep up. At the end of a class my muscles burned – my aching writers’ back rapidly becoming a thing of the past – but more than that I had been concentrating so hard for the hour that I had forgotten any worries I might have gone in with.

Dancers, I learned, need dazzling mental as well as physical skills – memory and musicality for a start – but what was almost more impressive than these was the attitude, which filtered down as far as the Absolute Beginners. Everyone tried as hard as they could; there was no daydreaming out of the window. Even if the teacher wasn’t watching, everyone was pointing their toes and straightening their knees and keeping their shoulders down and their elbows relaxed as hard as they possibly could. As I knew from researching ballet, it is the pursuit not just of excellence but of perfection; to experience that directly, even at my level, was intoxicating. Neither at school nor university (both eminently respectable academically) had I even glimpsed similar commitment.

Sometimes books arise out of existing passions: I wrote about the 1920s in the United States because of a high-school course on the influence of The Waste Land on American literature. Sometimes they spring out of a lack, the desire to read a book that doesn’t exist. But they always leave their residue on you after you’ve finished them. Anne Fanshawe, the Civil War matriarch and skilled herbalist who was the subject of my most recent book, bequeathed me an interest in wild flowers and herbs and I now take great satisfaction in identifying the usually quite humble plants she used in her remedies, nearly four hundred years ago.

My interest in the Ballets Russes was sparked by the description of a party given to celebrate a preview of the modernist ballet Les Noces in 1923 by the glamorous Americans-in-Paris Gerald and Sara Murphy on a barge in the Seine. Picasso was delighted by the colourful children’s toys from a Montparnasse bazaar, with which Sara had decorated the table; the artist Natalia Goncharova, who’d designed the sets, read the guests’ palms; and at dawn Igor Stravinsky jetéd down the centre of the cabin. Nijinsky’s sister, Bronia, was the choreographer and he had watched the premiere, but couldn’t go to the party; he’d already succumbed to the madness that dominated the rest of his life. His absence haunted me.

Researching and writing about Nijinsky left me with an interest in watching ballet, particularly contemporary ballet, which reminds me of how influential Nijinsky was as a choreographer as well as a dancer. Every time I am saddened to think of how his talents and ultimately his sanity were undermined by the envy and ambition of the people closest to him.

Nijinsky also led me to the ballet classes that have brought me so much pleasure in recent years. They’ve made me less attached to the idea of needing to succeed or achieve, shown me the satisfaction of being in the moment without thought of results and allowed me to observe an almost unattainable art form not because I can or will ever do it well myself, but because merely the act of trying has let me begin to understand it. Getting up close to the pursuit of perfection has taught me a lesson I had no idea I needed to learn: the importance of doing something badly, not because one day it might be useful or you might get better at it, but simply because you enjoy it.

Lucy Moore is the author of seven biographies, the sixth of which was about Vaslav Nijinsky. She is at work on a book about anthropologists in the early twentieth century — sadly, with very little dancing involved.

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