In the fall of 2016, I did something I swore I would never ever do again: I went to a ballet class.
I started dancing when I was three, at the Ewald Academy of Dancing, in Kitchener, Ontario. One of my first teachers was the founder and proprietor herself, Elsie Ewald. Elsie had opened the studio during the Great Depression, and back then she charged 25 cents per class; by the time she taught me, she was in her 80s, but no less exacting or sharp-eyed for that. She was the first person to notice that my hips are crooked; she pulled my parents aside after class one day and showed them how the line of my tights was higher on one side because of how my hip hiked up. It wasn’t something that a casual observer would have noticed, but Elsie saw everything.
When I was 7 or 8, Elsie had some kind of hip surgery and when she came back, she had a cane. Her favourite word was groin, and every class was peppered with shouts of, “Girls, turn out from your groin. From your groin. Girls! I SAID FROM YOUR GROIN AND I MEANT IT.” After she got her cane, it became part of her persuasion technique; along with yelling about our groins, she would threaten to hit us with her cane if we didn’t do the exercises to her specifications. I know that this sounds borderline awful, but I promise that we actually thought it was hilarious, even if we were a bit overawed by her. In retrospect, maybe what we enjoyed the most was the frisson of fear she inspired in us; to be scolded by her was truly terrifying, but it made her rare words of praise all the sweeter.
I loved everything about ballet. I loved the discipline and structure. I loved the strength and grace it gave my body. I loved the sensation of flying I got while doing a series of grand jetés across the floor. I loved the leather-rosin-sweat smell of the change room. I loved the hushed flurry that fell over the studio once a year, when the Royal Academy of Dance examiners would come from Toronto to grade our progress. Most of all I loved performances: the costumes, the stage makeup, the do-or-die chance to get it right in front of a huge crowd.
When I was 13, I auditioned for a performing arts high school. When I was accepted into their rigorous dance program, I was sure that I was well on my way to Making It As A Ballerina. By the time I was fifteen, I was dancing nearly every day: three classes a week at school, twice a week with the school’s dance company, three times a week at my regular studio, plus various rehearsals and performances. I should have been having the time of my life, but actually I was completely miserable.
The transition from a small francophone elementary school to a large English-language high school had overwhelmed me, and I was struggling socially. I’d gone from being a precocious tween to an awkward, lonely teenager with body issues. Getting changed in front of the other girls in my dance classes was a daily exercise in humiliation; I eventually figured out how to pull my leotard and tights on without exposing any skin, but this bit of sleight of hand earned me just as many weird looks as stripping down to my underwear had. On top of all that, puberty had changed my body to the point where it no longer felt like my own. My new curves meant that my centre of gravity had shifted, and I couldn’t figure out how to do turns and jumps the way I once had. At the end of that school year I quit dance –and when I say quit dance, I mean I quit every dance thing in my life, including the program at school. I gutted my room of all the cutesy ballerina paraphernalia I’d collected over the years and buried my pointe shoes at the back of closet; I didn’t want a single reminder around of the thing I’d loved so much that had, I thought, refused to love me back.
I would take the pointe shoes out sometimes, though, and try them on. Just to see if they still fit. Just to see if I could still get up en pointe. They were like a relic from a version of myself that I could barely remember, one who was strong, confident, and loved to be in front of a crowd. I wasn’t sure what I missed more: dancing, or the person I’d been back when I still loved to dance.
I spent nearly two decades refusing to admit to myself how much I missed dancing. Then, after hearing that the National Ballet of Canada offers adult classes, I went out and bought a pair of ballet slippers. I did it immediately, before I had time to change my mind. I felt like a fraud the whole time I was at the store, and I felt like even more of a fraud when I showed up at my first class. I did not do well at that class. In fact, I did very, very badly. At one point, I actually fell over. I barely remembered anything, and what I did remember, my body seemed to no longer be capable of doing. But I decided to do what my 15-year-old self had not been able to do: stick it out and try to get better. Even though I was pretty sure I would never be able to do a pirouette again.
I have an illustrator friend who likes to ask people when and why they stopped drawing. He says that everyone draws and paints as a kid, but at some point most people end up leaving art by the wayside, usually because they decide they’re not good at it (or, often, because some art teacher tells them they’re not good at it). As adults, we tend to prefer to only do things we think we do well at, which makes building (or in my case, re-building) skills seem pretty unappealing. Who wants to spend their time doing things they suck at? But kids spend almost all their waking hours working to acquire new skills. I remember watching my son learn to crawl and thinking, Damn, this kid doesn’t even know if crawling is possible for him, but he still spends literally all day trying to do it. At what point do we lose that incredible drive?
A year and a half after returning to ballet, I’m amazed at the things my body has learned to do. I can do a grand jeté. I can pirouette (sort of). Last fall I bought myself a new pair of pointe shoes. I still catch myself thinking “I can’t do this and will never be able to do this” when my teacher introduces a new exercise, but in every single case, after a few weeks or months of practicing, I’ve discovered to my delight that I am suddenly somewhat competent. I’m certainly never going to be a professional dancer—that ship sailed many, many years ago—and I’m probably never even going to get the chance to perform again, but I’m dancing and it feels really, really good.
Elsie Ewald died fifteen years ago, having lived well into her 90s. Wherever she is, I’m sure she’ll be gratified to know that it’s her voice I hear in my every time I do a plié or a tendu or rond-de-jambe, always telling me to turn out from the groin, Annie, the groin. Apparently some things truly never leave you.
More from Anne Thériault:
What’s Harder Than Being a Mom? Dealing With All the Cultural Baggage that Comes With It
Treating My Depression with Magnets: Not Cured, But Cautiously Optimistic
I Have More Empathy for Wild Wild Country’s Ma Anand Sheela than I Probably Should