“I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.”
Louisa May Alcott
Today, our beautiful daughter suddenly grew a couple of inches taller when she stepped into her very first pair of pointe shoes and she was up en pointe. This has been something she’s been aspiring towards ever since she first started ballet as an almost four year old eight years ago. Indeed, I remember a time when she was very small and she stood in a couple of plastic cups to get the look (and a bit of added altitude). In hindsight, I probably should’ve got those cups off her feet and been more safety conscious. However, she was so happy, and it was too good a photo opportunity to miss.
In typical Rowena fashion, this pointe shoe fitting demanded a bit of pomp and ceremony. Indeed, quite frankly if she wasn’t twelve years old, I would’ve popped the champagne, even though I’m not that partial to the taste. Even as a child, I was mesmerized by the theatre of it all what with popping the cork and all those bubbles shooting out like stars across the room with unbridled joie de vivre. Bubbly encapsulates the excitement, the celebration the exquisite preciousness of the moment in a way that nothing else does. You don’t even need to drink the stuff.
However, instead of a champagne celebration, we met up with my Mum for lunch and coffee and then the three of us headed off to Bloch’s for her 3.00pm appointment. By the way, our daughter wasn’t the only young dancer who had to get that very special pair of first pointe shoes on the very first day of the school holidays. The fitter had been flat out all day and we were something like her 11th fitting. Yet, she seemed just as excited for my daughter and for us as the first. As a dancer herself, she knew what this moment was about and really helped to make it special and informative. If there’s one thing I now know about pointe shoes, it’s not to get them wet. I also confess that I’ve also seen my daughter’s feet in a new light.
Our daughter has been learning ballet for eight years now and she’s worked very hard for the last 12 months doing all sorts of stretches to prepare her feet and toes. Indeed, she needed to have a physio consultation before she could go for her pointe shoe fitting. By that stage, her teacher already knew she was ready. However, she likes her students and a parent to be aware of the physicality of ballet and how the muscles bones and other bits and pieces come together to to produce your swan. Through being more conscious of this physical element and looking after your body, dancers can help prevent injury, wear and tear. Given the difficulties I have with movement, I have appreciated these physical realities through a different window, which has given me an insight into the physical demands of dancing. That it isn’t only about costumes, makeup and hair. After all, injury and being on the sidelines is not just an inconvenience for a dancer. It can mean The End, or simply the end of dance as they know it. When dance is your passion and raison d’etre, that can feel like surviving your own death. (I’ve gone through that with my own battles.)
For every young dancer along with her birth and dance families, getting their first pointe shoes is rightly an incredible achievement and time for celebration. While you might see those beautiful pink satin pointe shoes and immediately think of the likes of Degas and his dancers and the professional stage, these young girls are still within cooeee of being the “awkward duckling” who started out. There were no guarantees back then and for us, there were certainly no expectations. I just dropped her off for her first class and the mysteries of dance went on behind closed doors until open days or the concert. From where I sat, ballet was just a part of childhood for a little girl. A bit of fun. An activity. It had nothing to do with my dreams, unless it came to taking her photo. Now, that was something I understood.
Although I wasn’t so conscious of this at the time, seeing Miss in her pointe shoes really brought home what we’ve all been through to get her there. I don’t think anybody’s road is easy, but everybody’s road is unique with their own particular reasons why getting into those pointe shoes is a personal miracle and a triumph over adversity. Most of you will be aware that I live with a life-threatening auto-immune disease which affects my muscles and lungs. However, Miss has a rare digestive disorder called gastroparesis, which particularly flared up a few years ago and she was barely able to eat. Indeed, she was struggling to get to school or to ballet and she missed months of classes.
As you could imagine, it was very difficult to know quite how to manage the situation. We were very concerned about her actual health and it would’ve been quite a logical decision to cut out dance to focus on her schoolwork. Yet, we’re fighters. We might be holding onto the cliff face by our fingertips and kicking and screaming, but we don’t give up. Indeed, it was only after missing a couple of terms and feeling like all my motivational strength had run out, that I truly started thinking it was time to pull the pin. Her teacher was also very patient. However, dancing is a team sport and it’s hard to manage a team on three legs. So, with the end of year concert rapidly approaching, it was crunch time. As a possible way forward, her teacher suggested that her friend came over and they practice the dance together. I’m so thankful because her friend saved the day. That was the turning point. She picked up the dance. Was in the concert and was back on her dance feet again. Then, the following year, she had a friend at her new school who was a passionate dancer and she also a tremendous encouragement. By the end of that year, Miss decided to audition for Dance Team at the studio and was accepted. She hasn’t looked back and with the incredible training and support from her teachers, is growing from strength to strength. Clearly, with all these dance angels working flat out with her on multiple fronts, our daughter must’ve been destined to get up on those pointe shoes today. It’s been a real team effort.
By the way, while we’re talking about life lessons from the road, organization has been another hurdle. While other girls have managed to get to class with a perfect ballet bun and all components of their uniform, all too often Miss could only find one ballet shoe and her ballet bun could well have been reinterpreted as a bird nest of its own unique variety thanks to her superfine hair, where getting the knots out produced spine-chilling screams. Yet, somehow or another, all of this has mostly become a thing of the past.
After explaining some of the hurdles we’ve had to overcome, perhaps you’ll understand why I thought this moment might never come and the tears of joy I held back while we were there as I felt like the happiest Mum alive. Back when our daughter was struggling, I remember seeing a group of older girls who’d just got their first pair of pointe shoes. They were exuberant and clearly this meant the world to them not only as individuals, but as a group. I felt so privileged to catch a glimpse through this keyhole and get an insight into just how important this moment is to a young dancer and what it would mean to my girl. Whatever happened with my daughter and dance, I wanted her to hang in there at least until she’d gone en pointe and been a part of that bubble. Not for me, but for herself. I could could sense something in her soul, which is becoming more apparent with every passing year. Dancing is her thing. It isn’t her only thing but it lights her fire.
So, now we find ourselves at a new beginning. Once she goes en pointe, she has to learn to dance all over again. Although it is tempting to try to fast forward and think about where all of this is heading, he’s only 12 years old. The world is her oyster and there are still so many forks in the road. She doesn’t need to choose one yet. However, it can be difficult to maintain a balance and keep an open mind when you fall in love with such an alluring juggernaut that you could easily sell your soul to dance in ballet’s fire. Somehow, we just need to keep a level head and maintain a balanced path…at least for now.
After the fitting, she went to stay with my parents for the week taking her beloved pointe shoes with her. If they weren’t so precious, it wouldn’t surprise me if she slept with them under her pillow or close to her heart. They meant the world to her and I’m so proud of her for all she’s overcome, her hard work, dedication and most of all her passion for dance. I am also very grateful to all the people who have helped her along the way, her teachers, my parents but also very much her friends who have been so supportive and encouraging and that’s not something you hear much about in the dance world. She has some incredible dancing mates.
That is also why I am sharing our journey via the road less travelled for our daughter to get her pointe shoes. That parenting isn’t all about bragging rights and showing off about your kids’ talents. It’s also about sharing about the hurdles and difficulties so other girls don’t give up along the way because they feel they don’t measure up. Aren’t good enough without giving it all they’ve got. I belong to the Muscular Dystrophy community and not everyone can get up on pointe shoes or dance in a conventional sense. However, that doesn’t have to stop you from finding a way. Indeed, I’ve done some adult classes myself and have my own pair of pink satin ballet shoes. I think it helps to understand that you’re not the only one who might be going through difficulties and wondering whether to persevere with dance or whether it’s all worth it. No one else can answer that on your behalf. However, we are meant to encourage each other and dance is such an exhilarating experience. It’s worth fighting for.
Do you have any dance stories you would like to share? Or, a story of triumphing over adversity? I’d love to hear from you.
PS I have a strange sense of humour. However, after hearing about how her pointe shoes have paper mache in the toes and are very sensitive to moisture, including sweaty feet, I found I found a great deal of humour in this quote: