Straighten Your Knee, or I’ll Feed Your Remains to My Dog!
In a frigid room and on a hard floor, we sat in 200° splits, trembled, and waited. There was silence. Prickling silence. Her bare feet making no sound on the floor, she prowled behind us. We didn’t know where she was, but we could feel her gaze on our toes and knees and backs…backs and knees must be straight, toes must be pointed. Not all of us would escape, but we didn’t know which one. Not all of us could do these splits- they were too hard for some girls, who hovered above the floor, shaking…it would be one of them.
The victim chosen, our teacher called out the name, and dragged the girl to the front. We turned around at her command to watch as our friend placed one foot on a bench and hesitantly attempted a split. It was not to be—she still needed 15 cm to touch the floor. In dead silence, the teacher crept up behind her, and pounced on her, putting her entire weight on the girl, pressing her down. The air was rent with the victim’s scream, and we drew our breaths, knowing that it would not stop. And at last, there was silence in the hall, and white against the dark floor, the little girl was sitting in a 200° split.
We relaxed, detaching our nails from our palms, but not for long. In the darkness gleamed a bare white knee—a bent knee, and with a wave of fury, our teacher removed her leather belt, as the girl flinched, as we cried out a warning, as she let out a scream of fear, as we realized that it was too late, and with a hateful swish and a crack of the whip, the belt connected with the trembling knee.
From the hard floor and out of the frigid room, great ballerinas emerged.
Before I continue, I ought to justify myself to those who are reading this with revulsion and horror. This is not an article to defend corporal punishment. Nothing can justify beating students to a pulp—little, scared girls with bare knees and pale faces. This is about a different thing altogether: Canadians’ different approach to sport, music, and art.
Almost all of us do something outside of school. We go to play Ultimate Frisbee in the park with our friends. We play tennis with our families. We take dance lessons. We all love it. We go to our ballet classes to…ahem, relax.
This is a wake-up call. Ballet and relaxation have nothing in common. Relaxation is sleeping away on a sofa, with a bag of chips and a TV turned on. Ballet is a sport, hideously difficult, bitterly painful, cruelly unrewarding.
For some reason, we only see the fun in sports and in other extracurricular activities that we do. To the real challenge, we close our eyes. We enjoy Frisbee, but how many of us stay behind and practice those flicks and hammers—all alone in the middle of the field? How many of us musicians spend our time playing scales, when the world is stuffed to the top with sonatas and concertos? I am a figure skater, and I consider myself to be quite serious about it, but I can tell you at once that miraculously, breath-taking spins and complex jumps interest me a whole lot more than stroking the perimeter of the arena, doing skills exercises—the same ones, over and over.
One of the most horrible aspects of this approach to sport is the restraints we impose on our coaches. They may not yell, because the laws prohibit yelling; they many not criticize, because our parents out there on the stands are anxiously looking on, hoping that their Johnny or Mary is having a great time. It is quite clear to our teachers and coaches that we’re not interested in the sport itself; we’re interested in the fascinating, exhilarating, pleasant aspect of it. We’re there to have a good time. And if Jessie can’t do a split…well, then, Jessie can’t do a split, and that’s that.
But when have you ever heard of a ballerina who couldn’t do a split!?
Yet some coaches resist. Some coaches refuse to say, “Well done. It was much better today,” when there isn’t even a hint of an improvement. One such person is my amazing figure skating coach. She has a completely different method of teaching, which includes the transformation of a prospective student into a dog biscuit if the knee is not straight. Only the knee! Who cares about that? But it is such details that make up a sport! And how well my coach spots such details! “Fairy guardmother” we call her. Her teaching methods may be slightly more violent than most and certainly stricter than almost all, but how we love her for it! As we loved my old ballet teacher who beat us…dreaded her in class, trembled when we heard her approach, but loved her nonetheless! Because, little girls though we were, we understood the distinction between sport and entertainment. We understood that we were helpless on our own. We understood that, if not for her, we would never have achieved that high level of excellence; if not for her, we would never have been accepted into the best European schools of ballet, where my former classmates now study. We understood that she was taking us as raw diamonds, and by force removing the ugly tarnish, letting us shine.
Because none of us shone on our own.