As a freshly graduated White Lodger, the prospect of leaving the enchanted residence in the middle of nowhere, and moving to one of the largest cities in Europe was an excitement which is difficult to put into words. It was a giant step into independence and the freedom manifested in butterflies in my stomach swirled with a proper dose of pure fear and nervousness.
We were 5 out of 12 girls who were accepted to the Upper School, but the rest of our prospective classmates were being scouted from all over the world. At this point, our competitors were known as mere rumours but our anxiety and self-doubt remained certain. Every potential new colleague was painted as the next gift to ballet or world competition winners, which subsequently triggered a flare-up of unrest and nervousness amongst us (god help our helpless parents). Everyone from the ‘outside world’ was depicted as the Ballet equivalent of Olympic gold medalists, while we perceived ourselves as mere as national finalists.
The first-year boarding house was located in Barons Court, a neighbourhood which allowed a bit of breathing space from the busy city life of central London.
The communal house was known as Wolf House and consisted of two conjoined London townhouses (boys’ and girls’ side), which had been an iconic home for decades, housing aspiring young dancers; its walls were already saturated with years of history. Every past year’s group left behind a unique legacy and unforgettable memories; life-long friendship, rebellious antics, emotional breakdowns, success and disappointments. Nevertheless, it was the closest to a home-like setting.
The Upper School came with many new responsibilities such as self-catering. Our boarding house was equipped with kitchens, but no chefs. I was determined to learn to cook and plan my meals and therefore spent weeks gathering ripped-out pages of recipes from magazines, endless internet searches and many hours being a sort-of-sous-chef to my Mum in the kitchen. I have to admit that I never attempted anything from my recipe collection. I resorted to improvisation. Trial and error. My first packed lunch was a categorical error, but thankfully a ‘Marks and Spencer’ was always nearby as a backup.
Commuting to school was part of the venture of transitioning into city life. The London Underground at peak hours is a notoriously uncomfortable means of commuting and our only option. As a child, I was always excited when I got to travel on the London Underground with my parents; I was enthralled by the whole adventure, as I am with plane journeys. Travelling on the London Underground twice a day, very quickly wore off its novelty and it became a dreaded 20-minute test of endurance. Personal space is not relevant when one is ‘underground’ and delays and strikes seem to become integrated into the travel timetable. However, this was all part of the novelty of being a ‘first-year’. The second and third years had a lot of upgrades to look forward to. If you could survive the First Year, the initiation phase was completed.
The most difficult aspect of settling into life in 46 Floral Street was the immense increase in workload. A significant increase from 4 hours dancing to 6-7 hours left us in hopeless fatigue and the only option to function was autopilot. Rest felt like a sign of weakness. It was a constant fight of flight situation. Some mornings, my best friend and I would exchange glances as the tube announced the next station: Covent Garden. We mutually entertained the thought of just staying on the tube, to the end station, curious about what was happening in Cockfosters. I think we unanimously fantasised about indulging our ‘flight’ instead of ‘fight’ instincts.
Early into my first year, I was struck by the obvious disconnect between White Lodge and the Upper School. Despite operating under the brand of the the Royal Ballet School, there was a clear incoherence between how these institutions operated. The graduated ‘White Lodgers’ were easy to spot by their unnecessary politeness and unsure demeanour. Paradoxically, they were also the most impulsive while exploring and pushing boundaries within their newfound freedom. After six years of living on the grounds of an old hunting lodge in the middle of a conserved national park, (Richmond Park), to suddenly dive into the adventurous and buzzing city of London; it was like giving blind children their sight back.
The boarding houses for the 2nd and 3rd years were situated in the heart of Covent Garden, only a few minutes walk from the School building. These premises were organised into several apartments, which made us feel pretty grown up. However, we were still kids at heart; impulsive by nature and curiously rebellious. We had to learn to be independent and autonomous very quickly alongside living up to the high expectations and training load. It felt like we skipped an essential transition phase and rather than being taught how to swim, we were thrown into the deep end and had to simply keep our heads above water. It took me a while to ‘learn to swim the lanes of Upper School’. For a while, I was simply floating.
Despite common assumptions about the brutal competitiveness between dancers, I felt like I was part of a family. We got each other through incredibly challenging and emotionally depleting times and at times this was even an unconscious effort. We were a team that could find something to laugh about or to lighten the atmosphere in any given situation. As aspiring artists, we all flaunted our strong personalities and flamboyant characters, yet we found equanimity when it mattered. We navigated our way through the labyrinth of being ‘young adults’, faked it till we made it with IDs and found ‘Freedom’ in Soho.
Compared to some teenagers, we were relatively naive and comparatively dull in our attempts to act out and live our rebellious years to the fullest. An occasional weekend curfew disobedience or suspicion of alcohol in the boarding house was enough to trigger stroke-like symptoms for our house parents. Untidy rooms were disgraceful and career-threatening, and a few bits of food thrown in the kitchen was reported as a ‘food fight’ and filed for suspension. Generally, it was favoured to have ‘ballerina-behaviour’ at all times.
For me, the 3rd year was emotionally the most challenging. It felt as if I had only just adjusted to the Upper School rhythm and the intensity of central London, and now I had to prepare myself for the biggest jump of my life; finding a job as a professional dancer and the prospects of moving to a different country. My tendency to feel anxious was triggered daily and began manifesting itself into my whole being. I felt out of control and subsequently fought hard to find things that I could control: my technical standard, my performance and my weight. Nothing ever felt ‘good enough and to me, ’good enough’ was synonymous with ‘not good enough. It was a painful mindset to be prisoned in and ironically, I believed that this was the mindset to get me through or keep me afloat. And yet, it was inevitably drowning me.
I will give a brief recollection of one of my lowest days: since the start of morning barre, my mind was chattering frantically. I don’t even remember what exactly my thoughts were but it was like I wasn’t the one thinking. After the barre, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and heaviness came over me as fast as a roller-coaster drop and my stomach bounced up into my throat. My legs were barely able to support my dizziness as the volume of my abusive thoughts turned up and the rest of my senses diminished into white noise. My teacher anticipated my tears – despite my efforts of desperately holding them back- and she called out “c’mon, don’t cry, you can do it.” That was game over. Leaving the studio with swollen red eyes and dehydrated from the volume of tears, was unfortunately a regular occurrence. My existential need for perfection – which I was not even clear what that should even look like – cause many emotional breakdowns, self-doubt and anxiety.
The great irony was, that I was at the pinnacle point for any ballet student; about to live the dream of being a professional ballet dancer. I was about to get paid to wear a tutu and to work night shifts on a big opera house stage. I never thought that such suffocating feelings of doubt and inadequacy would trample upon these moments that I had aspired to, and worked so hard to experience as ‘my reality’. It wasn’t that I didn’t WANT to be there, but rather that I didn’t feel worthy enough to live the ‘ballerina- dream’. My delusive self-perception was ignorant to the fact that I had already signed a contract with one of Europe’s top ballet companies and the fact that I was about to graduate from one of the world’s best vocational ballet schools. I deeply regret that I did not savour those glorious moments enough nor did I prioritise time to stop, and just be grateful.
The pressure from the school and the inexhaustible pressure that I put on myself, could not co-exist with gratitude and contentment. Constant competition and comparison could not co-exist with self-worth let alone self-love.
The three years at Upper School were some of my hardest yet most significant. I often wish I could go back and approach these years differently and perhaps prioritise certain aspects which I neglected. Retrospect will always tempt us into regret or nostalgia, yet the most powerful way to utilise retrospect is merely to reflect and ruminate. Our past echoes in our present selves and sometimes, we have to change the frequency which we have carried with us. We must first understand its origins and complexity before we can move forward. The times that we were most vulnerable are the times that we are most exposed therefore, reflecting on the past can help us to observe from a greater perspective and with a genuine sense of compassion.
Similar to what I wrote about my time at White Lodge, I conclude with no definitive answers or solutions as to precisely how the school could have been different. It’s impossible to create an environment which is foolproof and completely safe from ‘trauma’ or triggering events. It is unreasonable to expect a cottonwool wrapped-up school whilst shaping young adults for their careers as dancers, let alone for stepping into the real world. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to strive for a setting which encompasses space for growth and which separates the identity of a ‘ballet dancer’ into the individual and the art form. With a backdrop of strict discipline and a foreground of compassion, I entertain the ideology that a ballet school can be both structured and nurturing.
Regardless of my own experience and the periods of hardship, I learned so much and I had opportunities which will treasure for life. It is paramount to acknowledge that Ballet training, like any elite sport, requires a lot of discipline, and sacrifice and it is a lifestyle infused with constant competition. It was the path I chose, and the path that guided me to where I am today.
All my love Xx