THERE WERE NEVER IN THE WORLD TWO OPINIONS ALIKE

Dancing With Myself

Dancing With Myself

Erin McFayden’s diary about the world of dance
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I had never planned on leaving school so early, but when the opportunity to live the only dream you’ve ever had knocks at your door, you don’t hide in the living room until it goes away. I auditioned. I got in.

I’m standing still, back straight and head bowed like a swan. I can see everything around me in perfect clarity, but somehow I always feel, in these quiet, expectant moments, that I’m submerged in darkness. For the next little while, it’ll be just me and the task set for me. Now for the last thing that I always do before I step out into the light. I crack my right ankle. I can’t discern how this makes my performance any better; I just do it because that’s what I do. The doors glide open. I step out of the lift onto the 8th floor of Fisher and head deftly to the section on Chaucer.

It’s preposterous that I should be at university. The reality of my day-to-day life now would have seemed stranger than the most elaborate fiction to a fourteen-year-old version of myself, who had just dropped out of high school to train as a ballet dancer. My two years in a national institution for dance feel far removed from a life in academia. I avoid telling that part of my narrative to people I don’t know well. Not because it’s hard for me to talk about, and not because I would take back anything that I did. It’s just an anomaly that doesn’t piece together with any other part of the story.

It began from nowhere. I came to ballet class after school one day in November. I imagine golden light streaming in through the big windows behind the barre in my old studio, but I know that’s just post-production in my mind. At the end of class my teacher called me over and told me that there was an audition at the end of the week that I should go to. I had never planned on leaving school so early, but when the opportunity to live the only dream you’ve ever had knocks at your door, you don’t hide in the living room until it goes away. I auditioned. I got in.

The veneer of perfection rapidly started to peel away from the dancing world. It was only my naivety that had placed it there in the first, but the fall still hurt. In my first week, I was taken into my director’s office and told I needed to lose weight. This wasn’t a personal attack, I knew. It also wasn’t a surprise: I’d been told the same thing on the day of my audition. The need to adhere to a certain bodily aesthetic is harsh, but it’s a reasonable expectation for an industry where physical beauty is the commodity being traded. This is acceptable logic, but none of it comforts a 14-year-old girl who’s being told her body simply isn’t good enough as it is.

The days were long, hard, and, for the most part, rewarding. My small cohort of 15 dancers would train for six to eight hours a day in ballet, contemporary and commercial dance. We learnt anatomy, music theory and the history of dance. At the end of this day, I’d go home to keep up my academic studies through distance education, studying maths on my bedroom floor. I was impassioned and blindly ambitious. I woke up before my alarm every morning to make sure my bun was neat enough. I did the Zone diet and stretched while I watched TV. Hard work wasn’t a problem. Eventually, though, I did begin to feel tired in a way that could not be blamed on physical exertion or a lack of sleep. I was tired right down in the marrow of my bones.

The reverie ended as suddenly as it had begun. I came home one evening feeling particularly heavy. I sat down on the couch with my mum, who was folding washing, and told her I was going to give my notice the next day. I remember the words of my director when I told him I was leaving. He told me he believed I could make it as a dancer, and was offended that I didn’t believe him. This may ostensibly have been true, but didn’t capture the entirety of the reason for my departure. Even if I had ‘made it’ as a dancer, whatever that is, I would not have been happy.

Ballet was great for me, and the ballet world was not.

At the height of her game: Erin on the stage

At the height of her game: Erin on the stage

There are wonderful things about the dance world: the people are passionate enough to work for subsistence level wages, to work with a dedication to which I am yet to find any parallel. There are also deep-seated problems with it. There’s a ruthlessly competitive spirit among peers and colleagues, a pervasive culture egotism, fewer jobs than people to take them, and an oppressive precedent for perfection. When I was dancing, I was idealistic. I was young, and still am. I’ve found no cure for that yet. My problems with dance were best summarised as such: I liked dance a lot better as a verb than as a noun. Ballet was great for me, and the ballet world was not. There was no other choice for me but to relinquish the only dream I’d ever had. I didn’t know, but I hoped, that others would come along.

At sixteen I returned to school. At nineteen, I commenced my studies at the University of Sydney. From time to time I do a class with Madsoc, and sometimes people say I am graceful. My time as a dancer feels intangible, insubstantial – a dream. Prospero tells us that ‘we are such things as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep’. I hate to argue with Shakespeare, but my dream didn’t dissolve into sleep. It evaporated, rather, into vibrant waking. How do I know I am awake now? For the first thing, when I pick a book off the shelf in Fisher, it moves according to my touch. I’m fascinated daily by the things I see and hear. I know how to deal with pressure and I know how to work. When I twist my ankle, I can feel it click.

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