My ex-Australian hockey team surgeon recently dropped the A-word. “Arthroscopy. At least it’s not a reconstruction.” “Yeah, there’s always next time,” I reply in jest. “Really, Doc, can’t we just go with physio and a high dose of naproxen, like we did with the hip?”
“Well, do you want to keep up the ballet? You could stick with swimming and take up yoga instead.”
Spare me the consolation prize, dear doctor, in this expensive exchange. I’m not the blocked artist type likely to run away to join the yogis! Why, I’d have to renounce my vanity, endurance, addiction to process, hierarchy and mathematical combinations. I couldn’t leave the mental discipline behind, least of all my ego.
“Book it in,” I say. “Can we do it this afternoon?” He laughs. I try to laugh but I can’t.
It is nearly 40 years since I learned to waltz, mazurka, tarantella, jig, polonaise and hornpipe. I thrived wide-hearted with the other kids of mediocre talent. Memorising enchainment, turning out tight, poised bodies, keeping tempo with the music was a constant adventure. Nothing else flexed my brain quite the same way.
School days lingered as I waited for ballet class. Dressing in the back of the car, I’d stretch my leotard over sticky nylons in the remorseless summer heat — like the dilapidated theatre dressing rooms of my future, the Kingswood had no air-conditioning.
I’d polka into a cold, uneven floored church hall. It soon warmed with the clunky melodies bestowed on the dubiously tuned piano, played by an old lady who we imagined had always been old.
My teacher adored ballet and so did I. She also knew a dance career in my West Australian home town meant slinking as a skimpy along a jaded hotel bar at Friday arvo knock-off. She generously shared an art that took me far, far away from this weary place. I’ve heard it said, “You don’t retire from ballet; ballet retires you”.
Countless balletomanes were taught by the cranky eccentric, who would prod and poke, smoke and shout over the music. Some kids would quit when the body grew “all wrong” or the passion waned with the pressure of perfection. Others had parents who simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take them to ballet.
We adults return to ballet a mixed bag of caution and naivety. We place our hope reverentially in our teacher’s hands. Through sprains and strains we gracefully and exuberantly age collectively in front of a mirror that never lies. And we are the happiest group of people I know.
Let’s clean that knee out fast, Doc. Get me back on the boards where this ripened, creative spirit can breathe again.
welcomes submissions to This Life. To be considered for publication, the work must be original and between 450 and 500 words. Submissions may be edited for clarity. Send emails to In which year did Jackie French receive the Senior Australian of the Year award? The 2008 movie on the life of which person? Who were the two deputy prime ministers under Paul Keating?