When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a ballerina.
I started ballet lessons purely because of my best friend Jenny. You know that thing your mum always says to you when you’re young and stupid, and way too impressionable? That thing about how, “If so-and-so jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?”
I would totally have jumped off the cliff after Jenny.
Because of Jenny, I was absolutely elated when I was told I’d have to wear glasses. Jenny wore glasses, you see, and if they were good enough for Jenny, they were MORE than good enough for me.
Because of Jenny, I begged my mum to let me get the same ugly, orthopaedic-style school shoes Jenny wore. I can still vividly remember those shoes: they were a murky brown colour, clumpy and hideous, with a round toe and a double-buckle t-strap, which looked just AWESOME with my white school socks. Jenny wore those shoes for medical reasons: she had flat feet, and needed the extra support. I meanwhile, wore the shoes for Jenny reasons: I could only DREAM of having flat feet, but hey – I’d FINALLY got the poor eyesight I’d so envied (They were thick, NHS frames! They had a little case! And a little cloth to clean them with! SO. COOL.), so who knew, maybe flat feet wouldn’t be too far behind?
Because of Jenny, I also started ballet lessons. Now, Jenny herself hated ballet: she thought it was boring and hard work, but the doctor had told her mum that it would help raise her arches (Those darn flat feet again! Why did people with flat feet get ALL the fun?), so she was stuck with it. She couldn’t understand why I would actively CHOOSE to take ballet lessons when my feet, in their hideous brown shoes, needed no extra help with their arches, but of course, I knew better. I knew, for instance, that ballerinas were the most beautiful women in the world. They wore big, tulle skirts and pink silk shoes, and they danced on their tiptoes, as graceful as swans. I would be like that.
Well, I started lessons, and it didn’t take long for me to realise that Jenny had been right: it WAS a bit boring, and it WAS hard work, and there was no dancing on our tiptoes, or wearing tutus. In fact, according to our teachers, Miss Carrie and Miss Rose (Who were, as it happened, The Most Beautiful Women in All the World: I’d got that bit right, at least…), we would have to work very, very hard, for years and years and years, before we would get to do ANYTHING fun at all. It was a bit of a bummer, to be honest.
Worst of all, there were exams. Well, OK, there was ONE exam, and I don’t think “exam” is even the right word for it. It was… a grading? I guess? Can you tell this was a very long time ago? Anyway, for this grading, we were taken to one of those big, Georgian houses in Edinburgh, where we little ballerinas stood giggling in the hallway, waiting for our turn to go in and be, er, examined. By the time my turn came, I had whipped myself up into such a frenzy of nerves and excitement I could barely remember my name, let alone the little routine I had practised, but I pushed open the door and walked into the room, where I found myself face to face with my future. Yes, I was THAT dramatic, even as a child.
At one end of the room: me. At the other end, a long table, at which were seated a row of very old, very stern looking people. It was like the X-Factor, only with ballet dancers. And as soon as I saw those unsmiling faces, I forgot every last thing I’d ever known about ballet: and I hadn’t known much to start with, trust me.
That’s not the only thing I forgot, though. For instance, I’ve completely forgotten what I said to that panel of judges: honesty compels me to report that it was more likely to have been something horribly stupid than something terribly witty, but whatever it was, it made them all suddenly burst out laughing. (I know, it’s kind of an important detail to forget, huh? In my defence, I had no idea I would one day be writing about the experience on the internet, so…) And with that, I relaxed. I did my routine, I re-joined Jenny on the other side of the door, and I forgot all about it…
… until a few weeks later, when Miss Carrie gathered us around her at the start of our ballet lesson, and told us she had the results of our grading. There was a collective intake of breath as she shuffled the certificates importantly, and then smugly announced that we had all passed. Phew! “And,” said Miss Carrie, enjoying the drama, “you all got a Pass Plus, too!” We had no idea what “Pass Plus” was, of course – we had paid little to no attention to the details of this grading we were to undergo – but it was obviously a bit better than a mere “Pass”, so this could only be a good thing, right?
“You all got a Pass Plus,” said Miss Carrie… “Except Amber.”
Every head in the room swivelled in my direction, a bit like the little boy in The Exorcist. I quaked in my ballet slippers, wondering what was coming, instinctively knowing it wouldn’t be good.
“Amber got a ‘Commended'”, said Miss Carrie.
There was a gasp of horror. It probably came from me. I didn’t know what “Commended” meant, but I knew it didn’t have the word “Plus” after it, and I ALSO knew that all the little ballerinas were staring at me with a mixture of pity and schadenfreude, so it wasn’t hard to deduce that I had messed up royally, and I would never, ever live it down.
Everyone else got Pass Plus. I just got a stupid “Commended”. Everyone else was better than me. I was the worst in the class: quite probably the worst in the WORLD. I had never been so humiliated in my life, and I resolved then and there that this would be the last ballet class I would ever take. Also that as soon as it was over, I would persuade my parents to move far, far away from here, where no one knew the shame of The Girl Who Only Got a Commended.
It was only when the class ended, and Miss Carrie approached my mum to tell her how pleased she was with me that I found out the truth:
‘Commended’ was actually BETTER than ‘Pass Plus’. (Which was stupid, because if that was the case, why not just call it “Pass Plus-Plus?” to avoid confusion?) And, OK, it was still fairly mediocre, as far as ballet gradings go – I was never going to be the next Darcy Bussell, let’s not kid ourselves – but the fact remained: I was NOT worse than everyone else. Actually, I had done BETTER than everyone else. Me. Amber. The one the judges had laughed at. It was hard to comprehend – I don’t think even Miss Carrie had expected it of me – but I had somehow managed to get the best mark in the class.
I’d like to be able to say that this news changed me: that it gave me a new confidence, which turned my young life around, and that I am, even now, a prima ballerina who dances on her tiptoes with the greatest of ease. It didn’t, though. The thing was, although I knew I wasn’t quite the spectacular failure everyone had assumed me to be, no one else did. They all still thought I was the dunce of the ballet class, and there was no real way of convincing them otherwise. Even at my young age, I knew it wasn’t the done thing to rock up to class one day and be all, “Hey, bitches, how does it feel to be totally owned by the ginger with the ugly brown shoes?” so instead I did absolutely nothing.
I DID tell Jenny the truth about my shameful ‘Commended’, but I could tell she didn’t believe me, so rather than sharing the news with the rest of the class, I said nothing, and continued to re-live that horrible moment when they’d all turned their pitying looks of horror on me instead. And I know it’s stupid – I think I knew it even then – but for the rest of my short-lived ballet career, I would gladly have exchanged my “Commended” for a “Pass Plus”, purely so I could be the same as everyone else, and no longer the odd one out.
It took about 30 seconds for me to realise that Jenny may have suited her glasses, but I certainly didn’t suit mine, so poor eyesight clearly wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
It took roughly two weeks for me to start hating those hideous shoes (which I had to keep wearing anyway, because as my mum reminded me, we weren’t Made of Money, and I HAD cried to get them…). You could keep your flat feet, thanks: I’d be wearing pretty shoes from now on. (Or from such a time as the ugly ones wore out, and my mum dropped her strange insistence on choosing my shoes based on comfort rather than on style.)
My ballet career lasted about a year: I quit immediately after the dance recital we’d been working towards, at which point I realised that all that tedious barre work really wasn’t worth the two minutes of “fame” it got me, and that “Showjumping Detective” would probably be a better career move for me after all. And I never did get those pointe shoes, either.
It took many, many long years for me to realise it was OK to be the odd one out, and that I didn’t HAVE to be the same as everyone else. They could jump off the cliff if they wanted to: I didn’t have to follow them.
Jenny moved to England a few months after our final ballet class. We wrote to each other until we were teenagers, and then lost touch when we went to university. Our parents still exchange Christmas cards every year. I’m not sure what Jenny’s doing these days, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t ballet…