The highlight of my week was not a dreary night hypnotised in front of the election results as they rolled onto the television screen. Those are hours of missed beauty sleep from which I might never recover. No, the best moments were watching other people dance. On Tuesday, my aunt (more of whom in a moment in her role as Key Influence) and I went to our local cinema – the community-owned and utterly splendid Forum in Hexham – to see the streamed live performance from Covent Garden of the Royal Ballet’s La Fille Mal Gardée. And on Saturday I watched the first BBC Young Dancer of the Year award go to Connor Scott, a young man from Blyth in Northumberland who will probably live quite comfortably with the inevitable ‘real-life Billy Elliot’ tag as he storms the world of contemporary dance.
There is a real possibility that I was the only person at the Forum – or even at the nearly one thousand cinemas across the world participating in the live streaming – who had never previously seen La Fille Mal Gardée. If you had a similarly restricted childhood, or have been living on Mars since birth, it is a completely gorgeous rom-com complete with a pantomime Dame, clog-dancing, dancing chickens and choreography so breath-taking that I’m still not entirely sure that what I witnessed is physically possible. And it was half-way through the evening that I realised that I did have some sort of pre-knowledge, because, securely lodged at the back of the brain-filing-cabinet, are the pictures of the production that featured in the Princess Ballet Book No 2. When I was about seven, someone gave me that book – my only exposure to ballet until I was all grown up – and I was sitting next to that someone. Yup, my lovely aunt, demonstrating at least two principles in life: (1) always give a present that you would quite fancy yourself; and (2) always allow hope to triumph over experience. Despite my disappointing failure to transmogrify into a ballerina on receipt of the book, it did sow the first seeds of enough interest in dance to emerge as an adequate companion for going to the ballet all these years later. It also, of course, demonstrates the power of books: I’m no dancer, but I was and am a reader, and I remember every page of that blessed book (and am off to Barter Books tomorrow to try to find a copy).
Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes is a classic because you do not have to be a small girl in a pink wrap-over cardigan (what is it with the pink cardi and why are little girls’ dance classes unthinkable without them?) to enjoy the sharp and funny tale of the Fossil family. Even Belle of the Ballet, a staple of Girl comics for about a thousand years, was sufficiently full of righting wrongs and being indignant about unfairness for the bits of ballet to engage the non-dancing section of the readership. (And right up there with the pink cardi, it occurs to me, is the hair-scraped-back-so-you-look-like-a-weasel as modelled by Belle and her chums). Belle, incidentally, was written and drawn by George Beardmore and Stanley Houghton, names so resolutely Roy of the Rovers I do just wonder if they were noms de plume.
I think I will be unchallenged if I assert that the most famous dancing rodent in the world is Angelina Ballerina. I was about to explain to you that this no-doubt lovely series, by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig, passed me by (or I it) because it wasn’t around when KatePonders was small, but I have just discovered (research skills not wasted, you see) that they first saw the light of day in 1983, which is considerably earlier than KatePonders did; so I am forced to conclude that she never had the books because of her terrible, non-dancing, mother. Sorry, sweetheart. We might both have loved them. We certainly enjoyed the Royal Ballet film, Tales of Beatrix Potter, and you, aged two, were transfixed by the sight of Peter Rabbit performing a grand jeté.
But what of other dance forms? The great novel featuring a tap dancer has yet to be written (and I instantly yearn for a crime series featuring Fred Astaire, as master-criminal or as a nifty-footed detective), but the ball has been crucial to plots since Shakespeare invented the gate-crasher when Romeo infiltrates the Capulet house-party. Precious few of Jane Austen’s heroines would have found her man without squaring up to him across a crowded ballroom. On the Continent, if we are to believe novelists, women were more inclined to find someone else’s man: Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, for instance, unkindly flirting with her friend’s husband on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. And War and Peace would, quite apart from anything else, be a much, much shorter book were it not for the grand ball at which Prince Andrei is first smitten by Natasha.
One of the great blessings of having been born in the second half of the twentieth century, along with antibiotics, good dentistry and the dishwasher, is that I am too young (a phrase I find myself using less and less often) to have endured the rigours of ballroom dancing lessons. Gwen Raverat’s memories were still vivid when she recollected them for Period Piece – tell me you’ve read it, or if not, set to without further delay – and there is a note of quiet desperation in William Brown’s encounters with dancing classes that suggests that Richmal Crompton may have been writing from bitter personal experience. Gwynedd Rae’s feisty young heroine, Mary Plain, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed her dance classes. Ah, if only I could have gone to school with ‘an unusual first-class bear from the bear-pits at Berne’, perhaps I would have learned to dance.