There's a frustrated ballerina in me

We spent hours perfecting our arabesques and dreaming of becoming the next Antoinette Sibley
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The Independent Online

It may not have been better, but it was certainly simpler, back in the old days when bread was either brown or white and every little girl from Cowes to Caithness wanted to be a ballet dancer when she grew up. So what happened? We now have 5,000 different varieties of bread in fancy shapes and unlikely flavours which doesn't taste of anything much, and little girls want to play football like the one in Bend It Like Beckham or become prize fighters like Clint Eastwood''s daughter in Million Dollar Baby.

On Thursday, Dame Antoinette Sibley, the president of the Royal Academy of Dance, made the headlines when she revealed the shocking truth that only two of the Royal Ballet's principal dancers are British. It's a long time since I had a major Robert Frost moment, but suddenly there I was knee deep in diverging roads and yellow woods wondering, like Jonathan Miller on Desert Island Discs the other day, if I had made a terrible mistake. I'm relieved to say the resemblance ends there. Miller, a frustrated doctor and unemployed theatre director, is currently making sculptures in his back garden out of scrap metal and rubbish whereas I, a frustrated ballerina, get paid (not much I admit) for my rubbish and scraps.

Alas, how very different it might have been had I stuck to my guns and achieved my youthful ambition. Have I ever told you about the gruelling years I spent as a boarder at Elmhurst Ballet School in Camberley? We spent hours every day in the studios perfecting our pas de chats and arabesques, and hours every night in the common room darning the toes of our pink satin blocks dreaming of becoming the next Antoinette Sibley. I had a picture of her (we all had pin-ups), dancing the Blue Bird pas de deux in the final act of The Sleeping Beauty, stuck above my dormitory bed.

Every term, we put on extravagant school shows twirling about the Big Hall stage in skimpy diaphanous costumes closely supervised by the school rector, Father John, former actor turned Anglican priest, in charge of our spiritual development. Father John had the dark saturnine features of the young Lord Byron. Every Easter, he took the lead role in the Elmhurst Ballet School's Passion Play, dressing up, or rather down, as Jesus in a very small loincloth and very realistic crown of thorns. Thus attired and covered with fake blood, moaning and stumbling, he would drag a 10ft cross up the aisle of the school chapel to the terror of the smaller girls who screamed and sometimes fainted.

A few Elmhurst girls made it to Covent Garden; others such as Hayley Mills and Jenny Agutter went to Hollywood. I went to Worthing to be a snowflake in a panto, aged 14, and might have gone on to bigger things had I not got in with what parents invariably refer to as the wrong set. Ballet was boring they said. For a start, there weren't any boys - remember this was light years before Billy Elliot and Matthew Bourne. They weren't going to be cooped up like nuns for the rest of their lives, dieting, perfecting their pliés, working on their turnout, going to bed early. I held out. I still wanted to hear the audience in the Royal Opera House roar when I executed those 36 legendary fouetté turns in Swan Lake act II.

But the worm gradually turned. My taller friends went to Paris to be Bluebell girls; my shorter friends joined touring companies and went off to dance in nightclubs in the Middle East where one of them wrote mysteriously that if they agreed to do something called consummation after the show, they got more money. It sounded a lot more exciting than Camberley where I was doggedly learning the syllabus for the RAD advanced examination and after that - who knows - the moon.

It didn't happen. Why? A mixture of things, motivation, peer group pressures, boys and, let's face, it being expelled from Elmhurst didn't help. Heartbroken, I went to Guildford Tech to do my A-levels, resolving to transfer my balletic ambitions to my daughter if and when I got round to having one. I had three, but it was only the younger one who was interested in carrying the Fonteyn flame. She made it as far as the Ballet Rambert but had to bow out with permanent knee injury.

Ballet, like football is tough, but unlike football it isn't sexy. That's why modern girls in Britain who are tough as old boots don't want to be ballerinas. It's sexy only when boys do it. Come on Billy, show us your fouettés.