I started to study ballet in Romania in 1994/1995. I was 5 years old when I first stepped in a ballet classroom. I was tiny, shy and had no idea why I was there (this memory is still a bit blurry).
As it was an excomunist country (communism ended abruptly in December 1989) you could still feel and see the old, crippled behaviour and mentality in schools, society, relations, patterns of teaching.
In case you never experienced this, it was very harsh and hard. The ballet lessons weren’t all pink, flowers, butterflies and smiles. I had a very tough teacher. She was very strict, even if she tried to do a fun game at the end of the class. I remember crying many times.
I still recall her having a huge stick, which she used to strike us if we didn’t have our legs straight, our glutes activated, our back straight, our core engaged… anyway, a perfect posture. You were either perfect or you were punished!
After a year and a half I had to take a break… I had what today you’ll call an anxiety or panic attack. I came back a few years later, when we had a different teacher. She was nicer, but soon she had to leave town. The next professor was supposed to be the director of the school himself. We heard rumours that everyone was afraid of him. I still remember myself thinking: why did I come back?
As I restarted the lessons, I cried many times and left the classroom wishing never to come back. But, somehow, I always came back. And I was full of excitement to learn something new or just to dance. Little did I know ballet meant hard work, full control over your body, discipline beyond your thoughts, all your body toned and at the same time a lot of grace, charm and balance.
I remember I wanted to change the way I was looking at things and how I was experiencing all this. Not all was bad stuff – for instance, I loved that we had live music (we had a piano professor always playing the piano for our ballet studies). I loved and hated at the same time the new choreos and the rehearsals for the shows. We were working blood, sweat and tears for 4-5 months for a 1-2 hours show.
As I was saying, I chose to change the way I was doing things. I didn’t want to feel like a victim in front of the new professor, an even stricter and tougher one than my first teacher from when I was 5.
Before telling you what I did, I’ll make a short detour, just so you can get an idea how the ballet classes were going around (they were up to 2 hours long, for starters).
Normally, in the beginning of the year he taught a barre class going through all the basic exercises, and this class, usually in September, was the hardest. We were starting with a warm-up on the floor (which was not easy) to activate the entire body, and sometimes we stretched as well depending on what the professor wanted to focus on. We would then go through some of the basic routines and then add a bit more difficulty when we were doing center work and finishing up with jumps (sooo hard).
I remember leaving the room with my legs shaking. On our way out, we had to descend on a spiral stairway and I clearly remember the sensation that I simply can’t do it anymore.
While I was waiting for my mom to pick me up, I started to write in a notebook. I jotted everything we did in that lesson. From that day on, I always carried that notebook with me , and I put down everything, the entire class, all the exercises in order, every detail that I remembered. Because I knew that the next class he was testing us to see if we know, if we remember.
And I was always the one raising the hand, when he was asking around. Now, not all the girls (my colleagues) loved me, but I prefered to do my studies and my practice well, rather than leave crying and feel like a failure, empty and good for nothing.
Because I faced the difficulty and decided to manage it upfront, I got over it, eventually. Instead of letting it crush me, I went through it. 20 years later, I am so happy and thankful that I did this and that pressure didn’t cast a shadow over my love for dancing and movement. I began to love more and more every class as the professor (the director of the school) had more confidence in me. In a few months he was leaving me in charge of the class in case he had an urgent meeting. I was just 10-11 years old.
After this I gained more confidence, years passed by and I was like his right hand in the classroom. I started to enjoy more and more the shows we were organizing, the life in the backstage, the adrenaline rush everytime we were about to step on the stage and smile. We were there to perform, nothing else mattered. I loved the craziness of coming out of the stage and running to change into the next costume. We had to make every second count and we had to come right back with a huge smile on our face.
I remember my mom being by my side at every show and helping me with make-up and change of clothes. I remember her keeping me calm and focused and always encouraging me that everything is gonna go well, because I’ve put months of work into this one time only show.
I remember I had an immense respect for my last professor and I am deeply grateful for everything that he taught me: discipline, how to teach, how to improve, how to correct someone, to be organised, tough and all sprinkled with grace (I never got the chance to tell him this… but he was the best ballet professor I had).