Reflecting on my time at Ballet School – nature or nurture? Part 1

Part 1

In this two part post, I share a personal reflection on my time at White Lodge. This accounts solely to my own experiences and with a great help from retrospect and self-reflection. I have incredible gratitude for the opportunity that I had, however I feel that it is important to share an open and vulnerable narrative. I hope that this also presents an example of how a highly admirable institution, still has room for systematic flaws and that simply one school may not be the best fit for every student. I also feel that it is important to be honest about one’s past experiences and without a biased perspective, in an attempt to perhaps understand present mindsets and behavioral patterns.

As we enter Richmond gate into a sudden new landscape, an escape into nature; the uneasy anticipation builds and I feel my stomach slowly turning. The vast panorama of Richmond Park is a nature reserve and home to a well protected species of Deer, amongst other wildlife. This extensive park is also the moat to a unique residence which was once a hunting lodge. Built in 1730, the Lodge endured centuries of history and cardinal events, before it would become the home to 120 young students during their pivotal years in pursuing their dreams of becoming classical ballet dancers. 

I was once one of these 120 dancers.  

White Lodge became a well known and well respected name in the  dance world and especially amongst young dancers and competitive parents.  This institution posed as somewhat superior and  mysterious to the outside world and deceivingly appeared to be the only gateway for young dancers to succeed in their ambitions. 

My turning stomach was always a recurring symptom whenever I returned to start a new term or new school year. A mixture of excitement and nervousness which manifested in irritated anxiousness and restlessness. In hindsight, it must have been the subconscious knowing that I was back in the environment where I had to prove worthy to be there – always presentable, smiling, competent and an exemplar demeanor.  This was the fool-proof method to seamlessly fit in. 

A new term, new dormitory room, a new roommate. I created a familiarity and  personal touch to my new bedroom through decorating my pin-board with hundreds of photographs and letters from my Mum; a safe residence but never enough to call a home. Unpacking my suitcase- only the outfits that would be ‘peer-approved’ made it to the pile and  make-up was smuggled in between the folds. The bulk of space would be taken up by the iconic uniform; Scottish tartan school skirts with a white shirt and blue thin cardigan (the cardigan which was supposed to be adequate for the winter months).  The length of the skirt would be subtly adjusted to appear more flattering but nothing could be done to help the aesthetics of the retro-neon-red tracksuits (blue for the boys).  For Ballet class, every year group would be uniformed by a specific color palette but was unified by the simplistic style of leotards and tights.  For us, the uniform requirements meant several outfit changes per day and for the parents: this meant for an excessive uniform budget. 

Unpacked, bed made and impatient to say the goodbyes; not because I wanted to, but because it was a way to distance myself from ‘my normality’ and to get into the rhythm of the lodge. Of course, I was never conscious of my tactical defense mechanism and I perhaps exteriorized it as an insensitivity to the harshness of  living away from home; especially with regards to my Mum.  However, as the terms and years passed, my defense mechanism weakened and the good-byes became more and more difficult to deal with. 

Post good-bye socializing would be the appropriate tradition; competing with exciting (or not so exciting) holiday experiences and the casual footnote references in regards to how much ‘extra’ ballet training was practiced.  The start of term wouldn’t be complete without the subtle competitiveness.  Nevertheless, the small year groups (+-12 girls/12 boys) created a feeling of a substitute family and the comfort in knowing that we would get through the days and weeks together, formed  deep-rooted friendship bonds. The abnormality of our environment became our normality that only we could understand and relate to. We were the most present figures in each other’s lives and together held an unconscious responsibility as to how we experience the days; from the slow and slurring small talk over a bowl of cereal, during the giggling in the back of the classroom, and until the hug goodnight.  In a place where solitude was hard to find, the solidarity of our year group is something that I look back on with a great sense of gratitude. 

A typical day would start with a House parent patrolling through the dormitory corridors as a walking alarm clock.  An unnecessary work- shift for the girl’s corridor, where hair has already been tightly slicked back (pedantically perfected by one last brush with a nit-comb), last-minute homework completed and patiently waiting for a breakfast partner. The que in the dining hall would be notoriously slow; the beginning of the term, the ‘good mornings’ vibrated excitement and enthusiasm which gradually dissolved to only sharing a mutually tiresome nod.  Nevertheless, breakfast was always a grounding, and consistent moment in preparation for the upcoming unpredictable day. 

Academics and Ballet were allocated an equal 4 hours each, however, it was a challenge to keep the focus and energy equally distributed and balanced.  The psychological side effects of a bad ballet class, would bleed into the Maths period where ‘Pythagoras theorem’ could not be a compelling enough distraction. Nevertheless, the academic demands often acted naively ignorant to the overall workload of the students.  

 The two hour intensive Ballet class was typically the focal point and the deciding factor as to how I would rate my day and which psychological state would be accompanying me for the rest of the day. After a while, I learn to find solace in the moments when you can do something ‘normal’ and relatively mundane; reading literature, writing an essay or staring blankly at Math equations.  

The hours in the studio were the most vulnerable and susceptible to criticism. We gave our bodies the responsibility of executing movement and positions under intense pressure and expectation but neglected the value of our psychological well being. Perhaps it was not so much neglect, but rather the general obliviousness within the establishment.  Rather than learning to tune into our own bodies, we became highly sensitized to the stimuli in our external environment i.e. the ballet studio, the teacher and colleagues. Corrections, criticism, comments and compliments all became part of our personal self-worth measuring apparatus which ultimately determined the way in which we saw our reflection in the studio mirror.

 In an environment comparable to ‘big-brother’, it was essential to keep up appearances and behavior to match the required code of conduct and keep the perception of equilibrium across the school.  A disturbance in the dormitories or a simple lack of manners, would turn staff members into high-school gossipers; that would be how ‘labels’ were created and report letters tainted. 

There was always an underlying theory or belief, that our overall conduct would contribute to our reputation and ultimately whether or not we would be considered worthy to keep our place in the school.  Assessments/ appraisals hung like a dark cloud over our heads for most of the school year and the final build up in the Spring Term was the root of all anxiety and unease. The Assessment process involved a well rehearsed and trained Ballet class, gracelessly performed  by 12 anxiously hopeful dancers.  A day of judgment.  Here, an art form was placed into the same format as an academic exam and elimination process.  The results would only arrive by mail and either one had to face being rated by a percentage of adequacy or one was not adequate enough to even pursue the training at the school. 

Parents of the students,( i.e acquaintances and low-profile competitors) would nosily phone each other to compare result marks as well as reporting the emotional states of their children.  A mark given subjectively to an art form, to young bodies that are still developing and a mark without explanation or specification. During this half-term break, White Lodge would be a peaceful and quiet place, with the campus grounds being as tranquil as the off-white façade of the old building. Meanwhile, home was the place of unrest and turbulent emotions which were left for the helpless parents to deal with. 

 Questions, which were unanimously accepted as to remain unanswered, harbored themselves between students and parents. A system and institution that was regarded as omnipotent, offered very little space for questioning and reasoning.

 The new term started with caution, discord and sensitivity. Rumors swept through the school before the first assembly even started and the new term started with an intensely planned schedule, in an attempt to distract students from their assessment results.  

In a school, where dance and academia was already proven difficult to balance, compulsory activities were also woven into the schedule. If there wasn’t a school Disco to find the perfect outfit for, a choreographic competition your free hours were dedicated to or a themed house dinner that you had to be social for…a quiet hour in the dormitory would be considered a luxury. 

Homework was also a consistent incoming source from academics as well as the ballet department.  Allegedly, Ballet class also required a theoretical practice as well as the required written proof that you have listened and comprehended corrections. 

A dedicated hour of homework was known as ‘Prep-time’.  After a long day, it was back into a supervised classroom and we attempted to concentrate just a little while longer. I emphasize ‘attempt’ as it was the notoriously dreaded hour for the House staff who gave their best efforts in trying to control 24 over-stimulated teenagers. As some students wanted to get on top of their homework workload, others enjoyed the art of distraction and  ingenious excuses to get out of the tediously supervised classroom.  

Post-prep, the corridors were very quickly swarmed with the young lodgers, inconspicuously racing to get to the dining hall for a bedtime snack; biscuits. Get there just a little later, and the chocolate bourbons only left crumbs amongst the dry rich tea biscuits. We really got a thrill out of the little perks; especially the Year 11s who were granted daily loaves of 50p bread, to toast in their exclusive common room kitchens. A token of status and also the cause of fire alarms.

A daily phone call home was paramount to my ability in keeping a level of sanity.  As we were located in the middle of a nature park, the phone signal was notoriously bad and you would be living luxury if your phone showed any signal bars whilst in your dorm room. The ‘signal-situation’ proved to be most aggravating when you are reporting a difficult and emotional day and all you hear on the receiving end is: “hello? Can you hear me?”.  

Some days were simply too much to deal with and all I wanted to do was cry on my own; in a safe space, away from my classmates. Anything to avoid my  peers seeing me in my weak moments, asking if I’m okay, or house parents downplaying my desperate emotional and psychological state to ‘homesickness’.  Homesickness was just a symptom of living, dancing and going to school in a pressure-cooker environment.  

Part 2 coming soon…Xx

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