You can choose any person from history to teach you any topic you want. Who’s your teacher, and what do they teach you?
Sarah woke up screaming, after being doused with a bucket of ice water. She flailed around blindly under the covers, her hair strewn across her face and in her mouth, only to fall out of bed, landing with a loud thud on the cold wet floorboards.
As her eyes began to well up, she brushed the hair off her face and looked up to see this tall, muscular woman standing before her, holding the upside down bucket. ‘Get up stupid girl, we have much training to do. 5 minutes. Be downstairs and ready to go.
‘Wh-what? But.. I… ‘
‘5 MINUTES!’, she bellowed in her thick Russian accent.
Sarah reached behind her, grabbing hold of the wet soggy doona, and climbing to her feet. ‘What the hell was I thinking’, Sarah grumbled as she pulled the doona off the bed and carried it out to hang over the balcony.
‘3 MINUTES, GIRL!’, bellowed the Russian from downstairs.
Sarah paused briefly, took a deep breath and went back into the bedroom. Se changed into her pink tights and her leotard. She quickly pinned her hair into a tight bun and grabbed her dance bag. She ran towards the stairs and slid down the bannister, jumping off just before the end, and stumbling as she landed on her feet. Giggling to herself, she picked up her bag, only to see Ulyana towering over her.
‘Stupid American girl, you here for ballet, not for circus. You want to join circus?’
‘No Ulyana. I’m sorry. I’m ready.’
‘Are you sure? You seem to want to be in circus. Do you want to go play with monkey and elephant and do tricks in a tent?’
‘Or you want to be beautiful, graceful, prima ballerina on stage?’
‘Right. Now we go.’
They climbed into Ulyana’s rusty old Volvo station wagon and began the hour-long drive to Ulyana’s ballet school. It was 5:30am when they arrived in the studio, and Sarah met up with her other classmates. Being the only American and english-speaking student, she really struggled with making friends and communicating with the other girls in her class. The Russian girls all looked down on Sarah. To them she was nothing more than a stupid spoilt American girl, trying to chase down some dream, and take away an opportunity from one of them.
Sarah knew this was how they felt, so she knew she also had to work much, much harder than the others. This dance school was quite tough, but Sarah had already seen such a significant improvement in only three weeks than she had in almost 4 years of training back in the States. Ulyana was strict, and disciplined. He practises were unorthodox, but not entirely unheard of in relation to ballet training.
When the other girls were collected by their mothers, Sarah stayed back for private tuition with Ulyana for an extra three to four hours. She worked on her flexibility and core strength. Ulyana helped her with balance and flexion, she helped her with her turnout and her foot extension. Usually finishing around 9:30pm each night, Ulyana would make a small yet robust dinner, whilst Sarah got changed.
Sitting down, exhausted, she slowly untied her pointe shoes, and carefully peeled them off, wincing in pain as she examined the blood-stained toe-covers. She removed the toe covers and began to cut off all the bandages around her toes and feet. As she washed off all the blood under some cold water, she heard Ulyana’s voice in her head, ‘Remember, if you don’t handle pain, you handle nothing. Pain is weakness, and I don’t train weakness. I train strong beautiful swans, not weak sooty piglets. Do you want to be swan or piglet?’
‘I’m a swan. I’m a swan. I’m a swan.’, Sarah kept silently reminding herself as she dried her feet and re-bandaged all her horribly blistered feet. She slipped on her socks and stood up looking at herself in the mirror. Wearing only a pair of Mickey Mouse underwear, she stared at her skeletal frame. She pulled out her tube of haemorrhoid cream from her bag, and began to rub small amounts on all the bruises around her body. Small plum-coloured marks ran along the underside of her upper-arms, and down the back of her legs, the result of Ulyana and her metal stick. Some may consider it barbaric, or even bordering on child-abuse, but her methods certainly worked. Before coming here, Sarah could barely lift and hold her leg at hip height, and now she can extend her leg higher than her navel, without having to hold onto the barre for balance.
Sarah felt quite overwhelmed whenever she thought about her time here. She had another 23 months of this, this lifestyle, 6 days a week with only two weeks holiday each year. It was certainly not something that would ever be offered back home, but she wanted to be the best. She had a dream, and she was determined to achieve that dream, no matter what it took, or what sacrifices she had to make. She was only 11. What’s two years, when you’re eleven years old and you’re already prepared to sacrifice everything to follow your heart.
It was opening night and Sarah was patiently waiting in the wings of the stage. Now seventeen years old, Sarah had just been named the youngest Principal female in the Ballet Company’s history. She had some very big pointe shoes to fill and was determined to make sure that she continually proved herself to all her critics. She pranced around backstage in her ruby-coloured pointe shoes, and ruffled her tutu. As she listened for the orchestra’s overture to fade and the curtain to rise she took a deep breath, ‘I’m a swan. I’m a swan. I’m a swan!’ thinking back to her days in Russia with Ulyana, and all the pain and suffering she went through for her passion, which had all led to this precise moment, and in a flutter, she flew out from behind the wings and across the stage.