I took dance lessons from the ages of 5 to 8, in classes at a local church hall on Monday evenings.
I had mixed feelings about it. On the plus side, I got to wear cute little ballet slippers and show off how graceful I was in front of a room full of my schoolmates. On the minus side, I didn't get to wear a tutu or tie my ballet shoes with crisscross ribbons. The teachers at this 'school of dance' (yes, they had the audacity to call it that) insisted that we were there to learn, not to prance around like princesses.
Boo! I was five. Ballet was all about the tutu.
On the even more minuser side, I really wasn't all that graceful. Well, not in real life. In my head I was elegant and talented and quite possibly on the verge of a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. But unfortunately, for the failed ballerina teaching the class, my Pas de Cheval resembled (and this is a direct quote) 'the six million dollar man running in slow motion'. Ouch.
At the height of my enthusiasm for ballet, my mother gave me a copy of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. I was seven, and I fell in love with it. The story of three adopted sisters who are put 'on the stage' to save their household's finances, it had everything I loved about ballet and none of what I hated. It was set in the olden days. It had sisterhood and glamour and taffeta dresses. It was about the kind of ballet that existed in my head and not in a drafty church hall on a Monday evening.
But my absolute favourite thing about Ballet Shoes was always the characters. There was Pauline, the eldest: blonde-haired and exquisitely beautiful, we followed her journey to becoming a Hollywood movie star. Next was Petrova, the Russian-born tomboy who didn't really want to dance - she hoped to fly aeroplanes someday - but did so because her family needed the money. The youngest was redhead Posy, the daughter of a ballerina who inherits her mother's gift and is on her way to becoming a prima ballerina by the end of the novel. The book ends by sending the girls off to their very different destinies in the world, and asking the reader which of the three they would rather be. For me there was no contest. Posy was my favourite: self-assured and a little bit big-headed, she was the kind of precocious child that seven-year-old me could relate to all too well.
I've reread Ballet Shoes so many times I've lost count. I've come to appreciate the strong female leads and the fact that it's a book about three girls vowing to make their own way in the world at a time when feminism was still in its early stages. It's a book that says girls can choose their own destinies and their own paths and do any job they want. Oh, and I can't be sure, but my grown-up self guesses that the two female doctors who rent out rooms in the girls' family home are meant to be a couple. My favourite character has shifted: first to Pauline, and now to Petrova. I guess I've finally made peace with my clumsy, ungraceful inner tomboy.
Verdict: Every girl should read this one. It's the ultimate comfort read: a book full of nostalgia and old-fashioned values that still manages to bring a little girl power into the mix. If you've somehow missed it, you're missing out. It's divine.