This is a section of a gothic novel that features two intertwined narratives: a contemporary narrative set in the South of England, and a nineteenth-century narrative set in North Yorkshire. Both are stories of greed, ambition and incest.
Demi plié in first, spines pulled straight, an avenue of legs concertina into a grand-plié, right arms all extended in unison. Twenty different heads follow the curve of each taught sunlit limb, fingers delicately grouped, index fingers and thumbs reaching to complete the movement into second position, before drawing the arm smoothly through the preparatory position and starting again. Twenty girls, moving together like graceful marionettes, their beauty belying their strength. An unlikely army preparing for an as yet unimaginable battle. Bodies that are riddled with rebellious hormones, which strain against dictates in every other aspect of their lives, are here compliant to the commands of their unlikely drill sergeant, Ria Waters. I try and absorb their self-control by concentrating on the execution of their movements, my muscle memory twitching to perform the well-remembered routines, as my disobedient mind imagines an alternative Saturday – one where I stayed at home.
‘We don’t often see you here.’ Aurelie’s cut-glass accent slices through the daydream with all the destructive force of a Hitchcock killer.
‘I just thought I’d check in and see how she’s getting on,’ I reply, turning away from the large window that overlooks the studio and trying to think where to put myself.
It is an oddly charged environment, the peripheries of a dance class, with its cliques of mothers, helpers and hangers-on, all crushed together on the viewing platform. Elevated above the washed-out YMCA décor of the foyer, we observe the girls perform as if they are a dangerous species better contained behind safety glass. I’m no good in the audience – when I’m nervous I prefer to move. But movement is not an option on this side of the glass, and so I must stand or sit, my life a performance of Coppélia in reverse, from animate girl, charming an audience with the fluency of her movements, to inanimate doll, grotesque and immobile as a corpse.
The usual suspects are crowded in a semi-circle on the small viewing platform, six fully grown women with party plates on their knees in readiness of the M&S picnic brought by the pack leader, Aurelie Martin, a woman who already has one boy at Elmhurst and who’ll be damned if her youngest girl doesn’t follow suit, despite Lexie’s flat feet and fast expanding glamour model proportions. Aurelie herself is of the hunting, fishing, town house in St John’s Wood, country pile in the Home Counties sort of upper-class Londoner, built like a brick wall but strangely obsessed with defying both nature and nurture to turn her children into dancers, controlling and containing their every movement like dolls in a music box.
‘Well, I have to say,’ Aurelie adds after a protracted pause, ‘from what I’ve seen Cassandra hardly ever puts a foot wrong, but then I suppose with your family’s pedigree we wouldn’t expect anything less.’ The words are delivered without malice, but with a kind of absent minded resentment as she watches Lexie’s laboured battements.
‘She works hard.’ I answer, a little testily, as the other mothers turn from their gossiping to see if there will be a confrontation; it wouldn’t be the first time, some of the mothers are more competitive than the kids.
Aurelie just laughs. ‘Yes, of course. You know what I mean, my poor two have everything against them: big bones, a clumsy mother, a father who can’t tell a battement from a battlement … the list goes on. And then there’s your little one, so tiny and she eats. How she eats! We’ve seen her eat.’ She turns to Esme, her second in command, for confirmation, and she nods her assent, red curls bouncing.
‘Well, you know they do have to keep their strength up, and if they turn professional they’ll be dancing for ten hours a day, doing fifty performances a year. They can’t risk damaging their bones by dieting too much. I know that Ria and I both ate plenty when we were their age.’
Aurelie looks taken aback by this sudden and surprising reference to my own experience. ‘Well, you’d know best. Where was it you went again?’
‘London City School and then their company.’ I offer the already well-known information, grudgingly.
‘Yes, I remember now,’ she says, bowing her crown of golden highlights over a pink plastic cooler emblazoned with the words, Greedy Pig, and alleviating it of its spoils: mini muffins, crudités, focaccia, a four pack of selected dips and packages of wafer thin meat. I’m surprised she’s willing to tear herself away from watching her daughter’s progress for long enough to talk to me, but then Lexie’s status amongst the seniors largely depends on her mother’s political manoeuvres behind the scenes.
‘Can we entice you?’ Esme calls out to a chorus of titters.
‘Hmmm, yes, what about one of these spicy king prawns?’ Aurelie extends the platter to me, her eyes flicking to the drumming of my restless fingers. ‘Only thirty calories each,’ she adds, as if that’ll settle any possible argument I might counter.
‘Thanks, but I’m allergic to shellfish.’
‘Gosh, that must be a pain. However do you ever manage to dine out? Although, I know what you mean, I’ve got a terrible allergy to wheat.’
‘But …’ I trail off as we both look at the chunk of bread she is slathering with olive tapenade as we speak.
‘But I usually just eat it anyway!’ she says, with a bark of laughter as she bites into the crust. ‘Yummy.’
With an effort I pull my attention back to the studio in front on of me, one detail at a time, that’s what I was taught to overcome the discomfort of pushing my body to incredible limits, just concentrate on one detail at a time and before you know it the movement will be completed.
Ria, my one-time competition and now my sister-in-law, perches on a stool in front of the mirrors at the far end of the studio, unable to do much more now her body is bent and twisted with arthritis. Yet her disability is of no matter here, because these girls know what she once was, the power that she once possessed to hold an audience in enthral. Every day when they enter the studio they witness the price Ria has paid for a few short years of transcending from normality to enchantment, her restless, ambitious spirit now trapped in a prematurely aged frame, but still it doesn’t deter them. It is so very far off, there are years and years of schooling, of striving, or perhaps even adulation, before they retire in their late twenties or thirties and finally face the consequences of what this dream will do to them. Even Cass, who knows more of what Ria suffers than any of her friends, doesn’t take it seriously, not as something that could happen to her.
Ria’s expression is immutable, she has no sympathy for their little sufferings, their complaints about muscle spasms and bleeding toes, rather she is contemptuous of their weaknesses, because she knows only the strongest can escape the homogeneity of the corps de ballet and have the chance to stand alone. Her pupils respond to her words, to the critique in her gaze, moving as if they are one creature – all the disparate desires of the outside world wiped clean from their make-up free faces, thick curls and waves scraped back into identical buns, not a strand of hair permitted to fight loose from the pins and distract them from the pursuit of inhuman excellence.
But their clothing tells a different story. Leotards, tights, warm-up shorts, leggings and t-shirts are all fighting to show the originality of the wearer – the brighter, the tighter, the greater the urge to gain attention. Look at me, a shimmering pair of pink and orange leggings says, look at what I can do. Cass has genetics on her side and can afford to dress carelessly, pulling on whatever combination is clean five minutes before we leave the house, but there are others who aren’t so fortunate. Strategically placed flowing cotton is used to disguise a barely perceptible swell of flesh, a softening around the waist, the betrayals of adolescence in the despised curves of breasts and thighs. This is only teamwork because it has to be that way. The real battles are fought between individuals. Each teen a gladiator, stretching her muscles and starving herself, to be at once weightless yet strong, delicate yet determined; each pair of pointe shoes supporting a violent nest of emotions contained in a cage of gently protruding bones.
I remove the lid from my take-away coffee. Aurelie and friends have been emailing everyone for weeks about going on a sponsored caffeine fast for July, all money to go to our girls! If I wasn’t caffeinated most days I wouldn’t be standing. My response? Colombian industrial strength ground. I liberate the aroma, blowing on it for good measure, and observe Aurelie’s delicately snubbed nose wrinkling, identifying the contraband scent as she watches Cass’ beautifully controlled développé through attitude into arabesque. If they told me they were making a stand against drugs I’d probably snort a line off one of their Tupperware boxes.
The girls are instructed to turn and repeat the exercise on the other side. Cass sees me and sticks her tongue out, before mouthing, ‘go away’, just as Lexie smiles at Aurelie and waves so enthusiastically that her breasts jiggle, testing the flimsy straps of her leotard in a very non-balletic way.
Aurelie pats me on the arm feigning reassurance, saying, ‘Teenagers are a funny lot aren’t they? I expect she didn’t mean it.’ Knowing my daughter, she bloody did, and if I thought for a minute I’d get away with it I’d have probably mouthed some obscenity back, but that really would get me evicted.
Ria stands with difficulty as the girls form lines in the centre and she marks the enchaînement, her body unable to show them the full extent of what’s required; but they’ve been doing this since they were three years old so they know the routine. Still, I recognise the regret in her face when they ask her questions and she has to call her assistant to join them from the children’s class next door to demonstrate a perfect fouetté or tour jeté. I never wanted to be like Ria. I was always unsure about how much I was willing to give up, always wanting the best of everything, but Ria knew the sacrifices she needed to make and that for her at least, the dream was worth it. No, I could never have made the choices she did. And yet watching my daughter, her body gradually unfolding to the music like time-lapse footage of a familiar bloom rendered exotic under the scrutiny of the performance, I feel a twinge of envy. To be at the beginning of that journey again, for it to all be possible, yes, that I would seize with both hands.