I took ballet classes in one form or another from 6 to 22 years of age. My parents could really only afford for us to have one dedicated hobby as children – mine was a focused attention on ballet with a taste of netball. We didn’t have a car; neither mum nor dad drove; so activities had to be within walking or cycling distance.
Some of the outcomes of taking ballet classes which shaped me were unexpected. Going to ballet led to me learning something about Masonic Lodges at a very young age! The ballet classes I attended were held in the ‘Order of the Buffalo Masonic Lodge’ at the Buff’s Hall in Clayton. I remember dancing with buffalo heads and masonic memorabilia looking down at me from the walls as I worked through ballet exams from preliminary to Grade 5.
How often do we hear about the value of being part of team. At ballet I learnt a lot about ‘team work’. I remember working incredibly hard with my dancing friends in Swan Lake’s ‘Four Cygnets’, to synchronize our movements which had to be exact.
Through ballet I learnt a smattering of French - ‘devlope’; ‘coupe chassis’; 'grande battement', ‘port de bras’ and more! I learnt about the major ballets and to love classical music. Because each exam had a folk dance element , I learnt dances such as the Tarantella; even some flamenco dancing and had exposure to castanets. When I lived in Spain, I haunted Spanish flamenco bars! Another element involved learning minuets and other English court dances which I later enjoyed watching in historical dramas such as Henry VIII and Pride and Prejudice.
There was exposure to the theatre industry - costume and costume design, including practice in helping my mother sew sequins on tutus and other costumes. Lighting, stage management, make-up and front of house were involved. I also enjoyed working with younger children and choreographing ballet with my friends to beautiful music including Limelight and Ravel’s Bolero
Through ballet I learnt about examination pressure at an early age ! While we didn’t have ‘exams’ in primary school, at ballet we had exams which involved dancing in front of a trio of Royal Academy accredited examiners and answering oral questionning. The exams involved getting feedback; being graded from pass to honourable mention to honours; being awarded medals and even failing and repeating. I can remember the fear and anxiety involved before entering the examiners room, and the feeling of relief that it was all over. Whatever I think about exams – and I’m so glad we don’t have exams or marking in U3A – surviving ballet exams did increase my resilience when facing exams at school and university.
And I can remember other aspects of succeeding and failing – realizing that I would not get the part I’d longed for in the concert as I wasn’t really the best dancer in the class.
In later adolescence I began to work towards the ‘Elementary’ RAD exam. Sadly I wasn’t suited physically to continue classical dance training; with overdeveloped arches and well developed breasts making it difficult to do ‘point work’, or dance on my toes. So I guess another area of being shaped by childhood ballet classes was learning to cope when I effectively was forced to retire from something which I really enjoyed doing. Perhaps the realization of changes caused by physical changes helped me to accept retirement in other capacities throughout my life – even now? Food for thought.
My love of dance also taught me that there are benefits in seeking out alternatives. At Monash University I joined the Modern Dance club which involved learning Martha Graham’s dance movements which were very expressive and did not involve dancing ‘on my toes’ – dancing in bare feet was a welcome thrill. We danced in an innovative ballet ‘Once’, choreographed by Jack Manuel, a work choreographed for contemporary music in which various sized metal pipes were 'played' while an opera singer sang an improvised, non language based, aria in the background. Not long after the Light Opera club needed dancers for their performance of ‘Kiss me Kate’, a musical based on Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. I found myself dancing on stage to Cole Porter’s ‘Another opening, another show', with its final line, ‘Let’s go on with the show’.
My choice of career as a high school teacher seemed to some quite odd as I was a relatively reserved child. However my ballet training had given me the capacity to ‘take a leap of faith’ that I could manage and a capacity to ‘go on with the show’, whatever happened! It also taught me to learn and remember routines – and that following a routine would lead to a result.
An added bonus - in my first year of teaching at Heywood High School in the Western District, I was asked to choreograph the school’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Patience’.
So a love of classical music, contemporary music; the music of Cole Porter and Gilbert and Sullivan; came into my life because I had once attended ballet classes!
Over time I stopped dancing – though I always loved dancing at parties with lovers and good friends. I wish I’d kept dancing – now my knees make this virtually impossible. I envy other U3A members who are still able to follow their passion for dance in various ways. Even line dancing would be a challenge for me.
Now in my third age, I sometimes wonder whether the physical challenges of some exercises and choreography may have affected my knees. When I go to the podiatrist I certainly know that dancing on point affected my toes!
In the early months of belonging to U3A I found myself in the Music Appreciation class at U3A. Attending W4 on the wrong day, the group invited me to stay. I’m still attending. It’s all because of attending ballet classes. I find myself recognising the music even though I can’t always name it, and find myself imagining the type of choreography which would suit the music.
And, just as when I danced, when I listen to music in Music Appreciation, I find myself losing myself in the moment. Something which was wonderful to experience when attending ballet classes, and is wonderful to experience now—in this very room!