The Dancing Years

Yes, that's me.
Yes, that’s me.

Long ago there was a very little girl who wanted to dance. It was not unusual when I was a child, many of us went to ballet classes, quite a few dragged unwilling by mothers conforming to a trend and just enjoying the socialising, or pushing daughters and the occasional son into a fashionable pursuit with vicarious ambition. Some of us, however, wanted to dance.


My mother was a ballroom dancer and some of my earliest memories are of the young woman in pretty net frocks. I don’t remember where it began for me. I was already learning to dance when my true memories begin. It feels as if I had always danced.  But I remember when I first began to learn about passion. I was about four, up ‘in the gods’ in the darkened theatre watching Swan Lake. I have seen it many times since that night, but only Nureyev and Fonteyn ever put that same fire into the dance.

Of course, the theatre itself had me before the curtain came up. There is something about the swell of the orchestra filling the air with vibration that moves me to tears even now. I never want that to stop, never want to get used to that crescendo of sound and emotion.

Short and chubby
Short and chubby

I was lucky. My mother took me to every ballet she could and I saw many of the great ones of that golden era dance ; Beriosova, Helpmann and Ashton, Sibley and Somes.. and saw the greatest classical ballets as I grew. I wanted, desperately, to be a ballerina, short and chubby though I was.

We saw musicals and opera too. And oddly, for someone who cannot now sing for toffee, as the saying goes, musical comedy was perhaps my forte.  There were some memorable performances… mainly because of costume failure. Well you try dancing in a whale-boned crinoline!

The crinoline
The crinoline

Perhaps the worst offender, as far as costumes go, was ‘Primrose’. The number was a little song from Novello’s ‘The Dancing Years’.  For some still unexplained reason, my teacher at the time decided to choreograph it as a can-can half way through, inappropriate as that may seem for a very young girl.

Primrose with hat
Primrose with hat

My mother valiantly found a way to make a chocolate box costume that hid a can-can skirt beneath. Hair pinned up and augmented with false locks and a hat perched on top, I hit the stage.

Sadly, this was a pre- Lycra era when knickers, even elaborate can-can drawers, were held in place with elastic. And as I broke into high kicks, the elastic broke also.

The show must go on, especially when there is a row of judges out front. By dint of some nifty footwork, unchoreographed moves and much brandishing of satin, I got through the dance with dignity intact. I even won a medal for it.

No comment
No comment

The next time we reinforced the elastic… but that didn’t save me from the wig and hat slowly slipping forward through the entire routine till I couldn’t see a thing. The dance was jinxed.

But the passion remained. There is something about standing alone on an empty stage, waiting for the curtain to go up, every muscle poised, a mix of terror and joy …. greasepaint and rosin, bloodied pointe shoes and rows of hanging tutus… something that demands the focus of all that you are in that moment, then the music begins…

Fonteyn and Nureyev, by Lord Snowdon
Fonteyn and Nureyev, by Lord Snowdon

However, it was not to be. A series of accidents ended that dream. Who knows if I would have made it? I only know I would have tried. Rather than wallow, I learned ballroom instead. The show, you see, must go on.

I wonder now if that is perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from dance. More important even than the posture rapped into my frame by Mrs Goddard’s cane. That no matter what happens, we can continue. To be a trouper. We may have to change the steps, muddle through and move forward in unexpected ways, but we can keep dancing even when the music becomes an unfamiliar melody. We may falter, get stage fright, or long for the music to end, but we can improvise, endure and when the curtain comes down we can smile and bow to the unseen audience and know we did our best.


Life forms illogical patterns. It is haphazard and full of beauties which I try to catch as they fly by, for who knows whether any of them will ever return? 
Margot Fonteyn

The main thing is dancing, and before it withers away from my body, I will keep dancing till the last moment, the last drop.
Rudolf Nureyev

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