Teddy was born with his feet splayed outwards, and immediately proved me a liar.
I’m the sort of person who tells stories because they feel true, and then afterwards realises they’re not true at all. Here’s one of my accidentally invented stories: my feet point outwards because I spent my childhood in ballet class. Not true, since I got it from my dad, and have now passed it on to the chubby feet of the bear. Here’s another: I was given the choice of ballet lessons and horse riding lessons, and chose ballet because I didn’t want bandy legs. Then ballet gave me bandy legs anyway. Ho ho!
This one definitely isn’t true, because I started dance lessons when I was three. It’s one of my first memories, in fact: I have hazy flashes – real, I think – of a classroom at the top of a fire escape, and looking down at my own ballet-shoe-clad feet. I started ballet because my mother always wanted to and was never allowed, so she went along to her friend’s lessons and watched mournfully from the sidelines. Ask her and she’ll tell you about it. It’s a very sad story.
So I have Susan’s 1960s dance lessons to thank for mine, all thirteen years of them, and in every stripe and shade. Ballet, of course. Modern dance. Tap. Theatrecraft, which I remember as floating soulfully about in a long skirt (I have just learned that it’s supposed to be Broadway-style dancing, and now I feel cheated, because AMAZING). Pointe work, when we were old enough to have our feet hammered once a week. I was determinedly average at all of it, but by heckers I had a perfect fifth position. My feet faced so far outwards anyway that I only had to try a little bit to make them fit horizontally like a subway sandwich. In ballet, I decided, weird feet are good. I milked it for all it was worth.
It was all I had to milk, really, because while I loved the dancing, I was too self-conscious to stand out on stage. The girls who had private lessons, who were entered into competitions, flung their arms out and beamed into the faceless audience. You’re supposed to dance without inhibitions, and my inhibitions squatted under my skin, sitting on my voice box when I tried to make conversation with the other girls who all knew each other from the school I didn’t go to.
One year we wore outrageous ‘tropical’ outfits – shiny orange-and-pink frills in crackly fabric – and danced in our Christmas show to the Test Match Cricket theme tune. I don’t know whether it was the bouncy moves or the music or the outfit, but suddenly I was possessed with the wild spirit of the Competition Girls. I leaped around and smiled and danced my little heart out, danced like a nine-year-old with nothing to lose, danced like someone who wasn’t a walking fire hazard in glittery polyester. It was exhilarating, and they noticed. Someone apparently asked ‘who is that girl?’, and my dance teacher spoke to my parents after the show about private lessons. The C-word was mentioned. I genuinely think it might have been one of the happiest evenings of my little life, floating home in a cloud of hairspray, dizzy with chosenness and possibility.
The competitions never came to anything much, but as I got into my middle teens I started to own my perfect fifth position. I still had to force myself through the door, but once inside there was a kind of fierce satisfaction that came with dancing free. Sometimes, when I caught the wind just right, the music would lift my arms and legs by itself and I would move exactly the way I wanted to. Our group was smaller now, and kinder, more used to each other. As the only one still being stubbornly ignored by the puberty gods, I never had to worry about excessive jiggling in my unsupportive lycra, and I was always the one getting flung into the air to the accompaniment of REM. The year we did Britney Spears, my goodness. One girl’s gym skirt popped off mid-performance, the button sailing over the heads of the startled third row, but aside from that, we were flawless.
It didn’t last. Once my exams started hotting up, my enthusiasm for spending long evenings at the Methodist hall twice a week cooled off. One day I just stopped going, without saying anything or saying goodbye. It was the least courageous thing I could’ve done, fading out as though thirteen years of demi-plié hadn’t done anything for me. It had, and I still feel guilty about it. I wish I’d told them that I’d be holding my wrists just right for the rest of my life, that I would keep my pointe shoes satiny and perfect in every house I lived, that I’d watch High School Musical with a catch in my throat, that just occasionally I’d dance out old dreams, my mother’s and mine, with the enthusiastic abandon of someone wearing neon polyester and a bun hairsprayed into a helmet.
If my children want to dance, I’d like them to try. I will tell them that if you want to – and you have to want to – you can put on fearlessness like a second skin. I will tell them that a good place to start is their inherited, dorky, perfect fifth.