The other day, I took Peggy to London to be fitted for her first pair of pointe shoes. It would be hard to say which of us it meant more to.
Peggy has been doing ballet – on and off – since she was four. In the past couple of years it has gradually progressed up the ladder of her priorities to become all consuming. She’s obsessed with it to the point where it can be quite dangerous in our house depending which step or move she is perfecting.
Many is the time I’ve turned the corner towards the front door to have a small figure grande jete into me, or turned round in the kitchen with a hot pan to find her spinning in a series of whiplash pirouettes.
I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.
I’m mad about ballet, always have been and I was bewildered for years that Pegs didn’t share my joy. She liked skipping about in a leotard as much as she likes all things physical, but she didn’t share my obsession for all the glorious details of ballet. The kit and the barre and the famous dancers.
Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn were my idols and I couldn’t interest her in any of that side of it, until one day it just clicked. She suddenly became fixated on the notion and legend of pointe shoes, just as I had as a child.
From there it’s grown and grown. World Ballet Day last year (see below) moved her on to the next level, of understanding the fascination of the daily class, the rehearsal outfits, the subtle way dancers’ personalities are reflected in their dancing.
Since then she has absorbed all the French terms for steps, with the ease keen gardeners reel off Latin plant names.
But the key thing was finding the right teachers, as she’d been put off early on by a grumpy one at a very competitive school. The change started with a lovely woman, who does very small, low key classes in a studio in her family home. Without the mean girls and pushy mums, Peggy was able to simply enjoy the dancing.
After a year there which really built her confidence, she wanted a greater challenge and has progressed to a school with a very upbeat modern atmosphere – and a head who went to the Royal Ballet School. She now works with three teachers there, all of them lovely and she has come to adore the sense of being in a gang with them and her Grade 5 colleagues.
With her passion ignited, she has leapt forward in skills as she does along the hallway, until finally the big day came and the head of the school examined all the Grade 5 feet and declared them ready to move on to pointe.
I admit I had a moment’s doubt. Would it destroy her beautiful little feet?
I was never allowed to have pointes. My father was a radiologist and he said he’d looked at too many x rays of dancers’ wrecked feet to allow any child of his to do that to themselves. Add to that, my mother having damaged her own feet with pointe shoes and it just wasn’t going to happen for me. I gave up ballet.
(Which I cannot, in all honesty, pretend was any loss to the world of dance…)
So forcing her to wait (which I also reckoned wouldn’t do her any harm) while I did some research, I satisfied myself that pointe shoes and training for them have advanced a lot since my mum’s day and apart from the inevitable corns and blisters, dancers’ feet are no longer inevitably deformed.
With this established, I was just as excited as Peggy and there was only one place I was prepared to take her for the momentous fitting: Freed, in London. That legendary shop which produces bespoke shoes for many of the world’s greatest ballerinas, still marvellously old fashioned and not re-branded (long may that last).
But before we went there, I had another treat planned. I booked us in for the backstage tour of the Royal Opera House. What a bargain. £12 for me, £8 for Peggy and it was simply thrilling. I am now in absolute awe of that institution and would recommend the tour to everyone.
It’s all amazing, but the best part for us, of course, was getting to watch through the observation window as two principals from the Royal Ballet (two words it thrills me even to type) rehearsed a pas de deux from Don Quixote.
When we moved on to the next part of the tour, we came round the corner to find Steven McRae very intently engaged in a warm up plie. Peggy’s eyes nearly came out on stalks.
The level of his concentration was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before. It was like standing next to Roger Federer just before a serve. I was also able to observe that male ballet dancers are a lot beefier up close than they look leaping about a stage. The man is a wall of muscle.
Round the next corner we found Eric Underwood, casually lying down on a window seat. I could have fainted dead away.
Steven McRae is the wonderful Aussie dancer who is so amazing as the tapping Mad Hatter in the Royal Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland. Eric Underwood plays the caterpillar. We are now completely obsessed with them both and are planning to queue from 7am for day tickets to see Mr McRae in Swan Lake in March (all the regular tickets are long sold out).
Have a look at this and you’ll understand why we were so blown away.
By the time we left I was on such a cloud of excitement, I felt like I was on pointe myself, bourree-ing en couru out on to Drury Lane. Then there was just time for a quick photo with the ballerina statue opposite the Opera House and then on to Freed.
We were served by Amy and it was every bit as thrilling as I thought it would be. She and her colleague taking the choice of the shoe – there are very subtle differences between the styles, about five different ones, as far as I could tell – very seriously.
It reminded me of the scene in the wand shop in Harry Potter.
And finally, the very first rise…
The shoes chosen, we then had the joy of selecting some accessories – a special pointe shoe sewing kit (pink, of course), toe protectors, a pointe shoe bag, some of those tights which convert from footed to footless and then, because I only have one daughter, a Freed ballet bag.
The train journey home was the perfect opportunity to sew on the ribbons and then the great moment – tying them on for the very first time. Over thick socks, as advised by her teacher.
Her first walk in them was like watching Daffy Duck, but in what seemed like moments they became part of her and she spent the rest of the journey practising lifts at the conveniently provided barre (hand rail).
She has named them her ‘Amys’, has them on her feet every moment she’s in the house and sleeps with them next to her pillow.