IV. Dancing School

As a motherless, working-class girl in South London, my mother had longed to attend her local dancing school. However, her father, a London bus conductor, could not afford to pay for any outside activities, and her ambitions had been frustrated. She was determined that we would have the opportunities which she had missed, and I therefore began dancing lessons as a small child in the local Women's Institute hall, where I learned ballet and, for a short time, "tap". Later I went to lessons in the local Church of England hall, organised by a friend of my mother's, and by the time that I started High School I was taking lessons at a "proper" local dancing school, in a purpose-built studio at the back of the teacher's house.

In this I needed no prompting by my mother. I was musical, creative and liked physical exercise, and generally enjoyed the lessons enormously. I was also fascinated with the romance surrounding dancing; my imagination fed by books by Noel Streatfield and the endless ballet stories in comics such as Bunty, Judy, Mandy and Tammy. The child dancer of fiction was both economically independent and extraordinarily talented, creating a fantasy of artistic invulnerability. While I was still at primary school I begged to be sent to a residential ballet school, although I knew really that it was never an option financially. Instead, when I was 13 I began lessons at a well-known dancing school in the seaside town to the south of us, later joined by my sister. This school had a formidable reputation, with students frequently going on to residential schools and colleges at the age of sixteen before becoming professional dancers. Some students went on to the Royal Ballet School, and in the mid-1970s one old girl was an up-and-coming soloist with the Royal Ballet.

The school was owned by a middle-aged woman who bore no resemblance to the dancing teachers portrayed in ballet stories, being short, plump and shapeless. However, she was a superb teacher, well-known in dancing circles across the UK and beyond (she was also a qualified examiner, and sometimes travelled abroad in this work). Her daughter, who bore a great physical resemblance to her mother, taught the younger children. Initially a third teacher shared responsibility for the older students, but she was dismissed after the head discovered that her husband had been watching our classes (the implications of this went way over our heads at the time). This teacher was replaced by a very competent young woman, who had graduated head of her year from the Royal College of Dancing and who had the classical dancer's slim build and long hair.

The school was based in a collection of halls next to a local church, linked by a common cloakroom where we changed into our dancing uniforms. We carried these uniforms around in small cases, together with the necessary deodorants, talcum powder and hair dressing materials (long hair had to be worn in a bun trimmed with velvet ribbon, short hair had to be put in a net). In fact, the uniform policy was as strict as the High School's, but my attitude to it was completely different. Whereas I regarded the High School's policy as rigid and inflexible, to me the dancing school's policy merely reflected the self-discipline required of any dancer or performer. And while I hated having my straight, brown hair tied back for High School and longed for a fashionable hair style, at the dancing school it came into its own as it went "up" easily.

We wore black, sleeveless leotards for ballet, over pink nylon tights which were held up by an elasticated jock strap known to us all as a "tight top". Over our leotards we wore short, black nylon half-skirts, with black knitted "wrap over" cardigans which tied behind our backs. Our ballet shoes were made of pink satin, and we darned the toes to make them last longer and, in the case of pointe shoes, to prevent us from slipping. For national dancing we removed our ballet shoes and skirts and put on very full green skirts trimmed with embroidered tape and black Cuban-heeled shoes; for modern ballet and jazz dancing we wore coloured leotards with three-quarter length sleeves and matching footless tights (held up by the ubiquitous "tight top") with bare feet. As we usually had more than one class on the same day and often ran in off a late bus or train, we learned to change clothes very quickly.

For the next few years my life revolved around the dancing school, which I soon attended for three nights a week after High School as well as on Saturdays. This meant that I had very long working days, leaving for the High School train just after 7.30am, then travelling to the dancing school instead of home at the end of the day. After my dancing class I would have another half-hour bus journey before arriving home, when I had to eat and to do my homework. However, the hours which I spent at the dancing school allowed me to escape from the boredom of school life and my home town into a romantic, highly charged world, with my storybook fantasy experiences appearing to become real. Initially I found myself behind the others, but with a certain amount of talent and a good memory I soon became proficient (although my shyness spoiled my presentation), and I was rewarded when the head of the school praised my improvement.

I then became a "student" as opposed to merely attending classes, studying ballet, modern, jazz and national dancing. However, when I was 14 I fractured my elbow during a fall in the summer holidays, leaving me first unable to dance and then restricted by a temporarily crooked arm. Shortly after recovering I experienced lower back pains, which I now know were due to the fact that I was developing thoracic kypho-scoliosis. My mother was concerned enough to pay for a private medical consultation, but only my lower back was X-rayed and the problem went undiagnosed. I carried on with my lessons until I reached the Sixth Form but never regained my physical ability, although it was suggested that I went on to train as a teacher at the Royal College of Dancing. The fact that I had failed in my ambitions to become a professional dancer was painful for many years, and it was actually a great relief when, in 1993, I finally understood that it was my developing physical impairment which had prevented me from succeeding.

Socially, my experiences at the dancing school were less happy. I was viewed with suspicion because I went to the "snob school", because my home town was regarded as being more "upmarket" than the one where the school was situated - this was dominated by a Butlins holiday camp, and a large proportion of the population originated from the East End of London - and because I was lower-middle class while many of the others came from working-class backgrounds. However, in reality I came from a poorer family than the majority of the girls. I was therefore relatively badly dressed, and unable to afford the accessories - brooches, bracelets, particular types of bag and so on - for which the students went through "crazes". I was also one of the few girls to wear glasses - although by my teenage years I hated these and only wore them when it was unavoidable. (I wore blue plastic National Health Service spectacles with thick glass lenses; as well as being ugly, these were horrendously uncomfortable and at one point caused running sores to develop behind my ears which took many months to heal.)

As I grew older, my attitude to dancing changed. My self-confidence improved, and I became increasingly disturbed by the prevailing atmosphere of rivalry in the school, together with the bitchy, cliquish attitudes of many of the girls. Even the youngest children, I now noticed, became bitterly jealous of anyone singled out for praise, and some of the best dancers' lives were made a misery. While I had originally been delighted with the idea of training as a teacher and so gaining a passport into the dancing world, I was now dismayed at the thought of spending the rest of my life working in a similar school. As always, the reality had proven rather different from the fiction.

I was also irritated by the hypocrisy which prevailed. Our attendance was expected to be exemplary, with any absences explained to the teacher. In fact, students often took unauthorised leave, but however poor their subsequent excuses, these were always accepted. I almost never missed a class except for illness, since there were no rival attractions in my home town, but by the time I was fifteen and becoming disillusioned, my attendance became less enthusiastic. Eventually one night I decided to go straight home after leaving the High School, explaining honestly - since I disliked lying - to my teacher the next evening that I had not felt like coming to the lesson. The following Saturday I was summoned to the front of the senior ballet class by the head of the school and asked to explain my impertinence and rudeness. I then did lie and say that in fact I had missed the class because I had been unwell; this excuse, though palpably untrue, was accepted and the farce continued.

Eventually I left the dancing school some months after I entered the Sixth Form at the High School. The head of the dancing school perceived this as a "rebellion", and probably she was right. I joined the local Youth Dance Company instead and danced for "fun", and later at University as an undergraduate I continued with jazz dancing classes at a nearby arts centre. However, at the end of my second term at University I suffered a spontaneous fracture in my right foot, and it never recovered sufficiently for me to continue. By the time that the dance and exercise to music craze had hit the country in the early 1980s, I had ceased to consider myself to be a dancer, and when dance music entered the charts in the late 1980s, I had become too disabled to dance much at all. However, I do practise Tai Chi and still dance in clubs occasionally, and in the meantime, my training continues to be reflected in my body and my attitude. Aside from any physical skills, dance training taught me that practising an art requires self-discipline and a lifelong commitment to learning; that a practitioner must endure any amount of pain and discomfort in the furtherance of their art; and that the show must always go on.

Looking back, the attraction which dancing held for me was complex and not easily explained. There was, of course, the romantic fantasy created by numerous ballet-related stories, which in a very real sense I was living out. Then it was creative, and although I had enjoyed creative writing while at primary school, I had stopped writing completely during my time at the High School and only rediscovered my ability after leaving University, so I had no other outlets. Then I was very musical, but did not enjoy playing an instrument and was too shy to sing. Then the fact that only a few could succeed brought out the competitor in me in a way which my High School failed to do. Then, too, the stories held out the possibility of economic independence while still a child - since only showbusiness provided a career before the age of sixteen - and I was poor and hated school. Equally, there is the ideal inherent in dance training of striving for physical perfection, which was perhaps particularly attractive to me because of my poor sight and the fact that my appearance did not fit the ethnic norms which I saw around me. Finally, there was the highly charged homo-erotic atmosphere familiar to all dance students, fulfiling a need of which I was barely aware.

Next: V. Out of School
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