When I was 3 years old my mum took a job cleaning at the local ballet school and each day I would go with her to work. The school was reached up a windy driveway, edged each side with woods and once you cleared the trees this grand Victorian mansion stood before you like a castle from a fairytale with sweeping grounds to each side. Everything about this place was magical from the fairy woods full of unicorns and animals that could talk ( I swear they were real), to the house with it's grand bay window overlooking the lawn upon which for some reason I often imagined Alice playing croquet with the Queen of Tarts.
The dance studio was inside what must have once been an incredibly grand room with a beautiful wooden floor, and floor to ceiling height mirrors on all but one wall. At the top end was a large bay window flanked either side by a piano and a side table on which always stood a beautiful cup & saucer filled with tea for the teacher. While my mum would tirelessly sweep the floors and clean the mirrors, I would jump and twirl and skip around the room, imagining myself as the Swan Queen herself.
At some point the owner of the dance school must have spotted my exhibitionism and offered me free dance lessons in return for my mums continued service at the studio. Pretty much straight away I started attending both ballet and tap lessons most nights after school and for most every Saturday too. A uniform of pink tights, black leotard and black leather ballet shoes became my wardrobe for most of my childhood as I fell head over heels for my dancing life. All of my closest childhood friendships were born there and the majority of my happiest childhood memories too such as the mini conversations I would have with my BFF Toni as we waited in line for our turn to tap dance our triple time step diagonally across the middle of the dance studio. My earliest ambition was to one day have my own name badge with the white lettering 'Miss Karen' etched on it to show everyone I was good enough to teach others...in fact I think I've had a thing for name badges ever since. Of course my ultimate dream was to dance on stage, as prima ballerina, but inside the dance school at less than 10 years of age those owners of 'Miss' name badges were like princesses to me.
Most classes however were taught by Gwen Wilkins, Mrs Wilkins to her students and owner of the dance school. She was everything you would imagine a stereotypical dance teacher to be. In what I assume was at least her 60's or 70's she stood at the head of the class, with perfect posture, black dance pants and a walking cane in hand. A cane she called Johnny Walker but which she never used as a walking aid, and instead relentlessly tapped on the floor in time to the music.
It was rumoured that she had once danced the cancan with a dance troop at the Folies Bergere, gracing the same stage as Josephine Baker but whether or not this is true makes no matter to me. I was, and still remain, in awe of this amazing woman who's pursuit for perfectionism in dance is greater than any passion I've ever witnessed since. Of course her relentless spirit did sometimes lead to trouble, like the time in the middle of the summer that she decided to teach the class on the lawn and gave all her students heatstroke, and the times she used to stand on the legs of the older dancers doing the splits in an attempt to increase their stretch, but the principles she taught - discipline, respect & commitment - remain more important to me today than any other quality.
Although I never really would have dared to ask back then I wish I'd learnt more about her own story. She was married but I never recall seeing her husband and she remained 'Miss' Wilkins to everyone. Together they had an adopted daughter but whom to my knowledge never danced which I can only imagine was devastating to her. Her younger sister, whom we all called Aunt Elizabeth, lived in an offshoot of the dancing school and looking back it was clear she struggled with some form of mental illness which had meant she'd never gained true independence. As much as I admired Miss Wilkins commitment, I can now see that she had given up a great deal for it...or rather others had given up a great deal in order for her to follow her passion.
But for me? Well her passions did me a great deal of good. From an early age she had obviously spotted something in me and my parents never paid for a dance lesson the entire time I was there. I was constantly singled out in class and asked to demonstrate the 'right' way of doing something; although the time she demonstrated my perfectly turned out foot whilst mid grande battement by balancing a cup and saucer on my ankle was somewhat terrifying! Outside of class I also got little treats, like the Christmas I was allowed to keep some of the fancy dress costumes she'd had in safe keeping from past shows and I spent the whole Christmas holiday dressed as Little Bo Peep, or the time she made me tea in one of her fancy cups and saucers and talked to me of why I should continue my dancing when I'd had a wobble aged 10 and three quarters.
Despite all this my dance career was destined to be cut short. When I was 13 Miss Wilkins announced she was retiring and closing the school. Looking back I do wonder whether her health was a factor as I can't see any reason she would have stopped otherwise. However, so convinced was she that I had a talent that couldn't be wasted she offered to pay the £2,000 a term fee for me to attend another dance school across town. For a few years I continued, catching the bus straight from school each night to travel across town, eating a packed lunch on the top deck and being accompanied home of an evening by a boy student, Peter, some years my senior whom my family trusted to get me safely home. Although I was well into my teenage years by this point my memories of it are limited. This school was much bigger than my previous, taught more types of dance and also theatrical classes. I remember rehearsals for Oklahoma and feeling out of my depth. I don't imagine I actually was but from a school where I knew everyone I was now the odd one out and eventually I made the decision that dancing was no longer for me.
I'd like to say I stopped due to an injury, or something more justifiable than just 'giving up' but that is really all it was. I was too young to know or realise that I might live to regret it and frankly boys were featuring large in my life now so something that would require my ongoing attention be focussed there instead of on potential boyfriends was just not going to compete, and so I too retired at the age of 15.
Not too much longer after that Miss Wilkins died, leaving me several very old ballet books, many authored by Edouard Espinosa, founder of the British Ballet Organisation, which I still have today and a beautiful little ballerina statue. I've no idea of it's origin but it sits to this day on my desk as a reminder of all she taught me.
Now, nearly 30 years after my ballet dancing finished, I still yearn to dance so very, very much. I get 'some' kicks from watching ballets, and now my daughter shares in that passion too, but I can't quite shake the desire to actually dance myself. After much deliberation I recently enrolled in an Adult Ballet class. Completely uncomfortable about how I looked as I am far from being the slender & slight ballerina I once was, I spent the first 20 minutes of my first class watching others, feeling like a complete imposter and convinced everyone was wondering why this fat 40+ year old was attending a ballet class, 'who did she think she was kidding!' But then as the steps, names and positions came flooding back to me, in my mind if not quite in my body, I began to relax and a thought crossed my mind...'just enjoy it, who cares what everyone else is doing, you LOVE ballet' and from that moment on I became the dancer I once was. Obviously my flexibility is limited, and my feet don't move as fast as my mind wills them too, but when the teacher called time on the class after 60 minutes I realised I had completely lost myself in dancing once again and it felt amazing.
Today, I attended the dance rehearsals of the Northern Ballet, a unique behind the scenes opportunity to watch them practise whilst they are touring with the production Jane Eyre, a retelling of Bronté's ultimate heroine with choreography by Cathy Marston. Whilst watching two things constantly flickered through my mind. The first was around how much I wished they'd allowed me to bring my 'proper' camera and photograph the rehearsal...the shots of their feet while limbering up, the dancers chatting between routines, the expressions on their faces. But it's the second thought that is still festering and resulted in me writing this unplanned blog piece, and that was 'could I dance again?' Not just attend a weekly class for fun but could I, with the right diet, with a great deal of practise and no doubt a lot of injuries along the way, could I possibly get to a standard where I could dance in front of an audience? The fact that I'm unaware of any 40+ year old ballerinas suggests not, well certainly not any with a 25 year gap in between classes, but there remains a tiny nugget of belief that this overweight woman in her mid 40's might just manage it.
Who knows? I guess the journey would at least make for interesting reading so watch this space...
A few images from the rehearsal taken at a distance on my phone.