Saturday, 28 September 2013

Strictly very-little-to-do-with-children's-books: by Sue Purkiss

Now - some of you may well spot the fact that this post has very little to do with children's writing. My excuse is that I wasn't expecting to be writing one for today, so I think that gives me lots and lots of leeway. So - put on your dancing shoes, and off we go!

Because, yes - Strictly Come Dancing started yesterday. I'm a fan - a BIG fan - and having cleared the room last night of all uncommitted parties, I settled down happily to watch it. And as I did so, I idly pondered about why I like it so much. Of course, there are all kinds of answers to that, just as there are all kinds of people who are similarly addicted. But in my case, there is a thread that leads way back into a rather long-distant childhood.

As a child, I was fascinated by ballet, and absolutely longed to be able to have lessons. I'm not sure where the fascination came from; I'd certainly never seen a ballet. In fact, funnily enough, I see there actually is a link here with children's books and comics - because all my knowledge of ballet must have come from these two sources. There was one comic that each week had a gorgeous picture of an incredibly graceful ballerina in a glorious costume with layers of tulle and scatterings of sequins, in an impossible-looking pose - perhaps that was the start of it? And there were books from the library: Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes, and a series set in the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, featuring someone called Lorna, or was it Drina? Not sure, but they certainly featured a hugely talented girl from an impoverished background whose talent was eventually recognised, despite numerous setbacks. Oh, and of course she was also beautiful, with dark soulful eyes, high cheekbones and slender limbs.

I had some of those characteristics. Well, one: we didn't have much money. And as a result of that, I never had any ballet lessons - we couldn't afford them. I did my best: I got hold of a book called Teach Yourself Ballet, and tried to do just that, learning the five positions and to do pirouettes without getting dizzy. I read about the history of ballet, and about all the famous ballerinas - Anna Pavlova, Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn, Lyn Seymour. I drew pictures of dancers, copying from magazines and Degas reproductions.  My friend Hilary and I used to put records on - The Hall of the Mountain King was a particular favourite - and galumph around to the music in her front room like a pair of gangly elephants. And Mum acquired from somewhere a second-hand pair of real ballet shoes - they were red leather, shabby but beautiful. I used to put them on and lovingly tie the ribbons and admire the way they made my feet look.

Of course, even with money and lessons, I wouldn't have stood a chance. I was tall, bespectacled and geeky without a graceful bone in my body. But never let reality get in the way of a good dream! Mum couldn't manage ballet lessons, but she did track down some old-time ballroom lessons. They were in the Co-op Hall, and I think they were five shillings a throw. The teacher was Mr Bradshaw, who looked and I think probably was fairly ancient, with white hair and thick black-framed glasses. He always wore a dark suit, shirt and tie, and when he was giving instructions had a a trace of a French accent: "Forward, side, together, toe to 'eel - TURN!" We learnt the waltz (not the version they do on Strictly; our waltz had more twiddly bits), the Military Two Step, the Veleta, and even a tango - imagine that, with a bunch of clumsy pre-teen girls in the back streets of a Midlands mining town! It was a long way from the bars of Argentina, I can tell you that. 

Probably the best thing about ballroom lessons, though, was the shoes. Here was a time when Mum made us a new dress for summer and another for winter, buying the material at Griffin and Spalding or Jessops in Nottingham. Similarly, you had sandals and a pair of white shoes for summer, and dark shoes for winter. Cardigans were hand-knitted and there was no such thing as a t-shirt. So a pair of silver shoes - silver! - all straps and twinkly - goodness, what heaven! And there was even the prospect, if you carried on for long enough, of a strappy dress with an enormous skirt made of layers of net, just like the ones they wore on TV on a a programme called Come Dancing. There was an older girl who helped at the classes sometimes who had dresses like that. Oh, how we envied her!

Well, I took a few exams and got a couple of medals. But then it was the sixties, and suddenly the formal dresses looked a bit old-hat, and there were new dances like the Twist and the Shake and the Locomotion and - well, basically the world changed. So I stopped going to ballroom classes, and that was that.

But I never lost the fascination with ballet, and went to see performances when I could. There was a wonderful one called Ghost Dances, to
Ghost Dances, by Christopher Bruce
South American pan-pipe music, and a marvellous version of Dracula and another of Carmen; I don't live in London, but the Ballet Rambert and the Northern Ballet toured, often with narrative ballets that I loved, and abstract ones that fascinated me. Strangely, although as a child I read the stories of all the classical ballets, in performance they left me a little cold.

And there were the films: Dirty Dancing, West Side Story, Strictly Ballroom. (Particularly Strictly Ballroom. It's probably surprising, but I have no trouble identifying with the clumsy ugly duckling who eventually blossoms!)

So, for me, there's all that at the back of it when I settle down for the new season of Strictly. In a way, I suppose I can watch the participants living my dream. And my favourites for this year? Too early to say yet - though I would place a small bet on the first three to go out. And I do love the shoes - though they really aren't as gorgeous as that first pair of silver ones...


Lindsey Fraser said...

The Drina books by Jean Estoril...? Wonderful.

Penny Dolan said...

Nice post for one that you weren't expecting to write!

I am not a fan of Strictly, because there are too many things about it I don't like, one presenter in particular. However, I admit my response is probably also self-defence: memories of lumpishness, lack of co-ordination and the dreadful shame of being tall - but how I longed for silver sandals too!

Shoes act as symbols for a person or character's status and interest - from celebs balancing on unwearable heels to the court of Charles II, as well as stories like Cinderella, the Twelve Dancing Princesses with worn out slippers, Seven League Boots, Winged Sandals - and, of course, Dorothy's red shoes.

Sue Purkiss said...

You're right, Lindsey! I just looked them up. Dare I read one again? Hm...

Penny, you're right about the shoes. Some famous actor used to get into a character by finding the right pair of shoes.

A Wilson said...

Great post. I love Strictly, too, though I have to watch in snatches as the rest of the family hate it. And I loved ballet as a child. Until I did a ballet exam and was asked to portray an animal. I chose to do a kangaroo. Funnily enough, I failed. The comment was "she is enthusiastic, though sadly rather heavy on her feet"!

Joan Lennon said...

Noel Streatfield - the stories are still magic, even after all these years!

sensibilia said...

Up until the ballroom dance classes, I was thinking, "Actually, this is me I am reading about!" Everything, from reading "Ballet Shoes" down to self-taught steps and second hand leather ballet shoes, was me.

I didn't do ballroom, but how I moved from fantasy world to reality was by taking both my little daughters to ballet classes. There's a story in there somewhere, from their Dad buying them a golf club to try to steer them away from "girlie" activities, to the little girl whose brother showed interest but was told by THEIR Dad, "Not for MY son!"

The fantasy ended with each end of term, when we Mums sat through "Watching Week". This consisted of 40 minutes of relentless exercises, most of which looked deadly dull, followed by 5 minutes of "free creative dance". The dream was punctured. I realised that ballet was nothing like what I had thought.

Sue Purkiss said...

No, I'm sure it isn't - you only have to look at pictures of dancers'feet to see that. Better, perhaps, for it to have remained a lovely dream!