“Hanna and everybody, get those ribs down now!”
Why has she picked me?
I am in a ballet class. It is 10 in the morning, and the teacher, American dancer Janice Redman, is walking around the ballet studio looking as skinny as a squirrel in winter. She is in her sixties and dressed like real ballerina – in black leggings, black woolen shorts and a tight top. Her hair is short and turning grey. A cancer survivor who has lived in Finland for decades, she has a mean sense of humor, and I love it.
We are in an old building, Alexander’s Theatre in the middle of Helsinki. It is cold outside, yet 30 of us have chosen to come to this class early on a Saturday morning.
As I lower myself into the first plié, I realize that it has been 29 years since my last ballet class. I wonder if Janice will pinch our butts with safety pins as my teacher did when I was 6.
I get the chills. She is playing ”What a Wonderful World”.
The start is easy. First position, second position, arms up and down. Yes, I still remember. I smile. But when the positions get harder, her voice gets stronger. How can such a small person have such a booming voice?
“Hanna and everybody, work on those muscles in the back of the legs!”
Why has she picked me? There is a lady next to me who cannot tell her arms from her legs.
I tense my muscles.
Is everyone looking at me? I bet they are.
I soon notice that it is hard to control the hamstrings. But I have no time to think, since the next order echoes in the room:
“Hanna and everybody, do not lean forward!”
Sachéts, revelés, grand pliés.
We are now at the bar. Thank God, I have something to hold on to. Will I start sweating? No one else looks sweaty. I want to be a gracious ballerina, not a sweaty mother of two.
Yet, for a brief minute, I do feel like Bambi. Gracious. I am doing well, yes?
Janice starts walking around.
She knows anatomy like a medical expert and talks to us about our body parts as if we were all intimate. She wants fluidity. She wants us to be dancers. She is not happy with what she is seeing.
“Most of you are thinking you look ridiculous. Don’t worry. You all do!”
She looks at me.
“Hanna and everybody, get those ribs down now. What is it Hanna, do you love your boobs?”
Well, now that you ask, yes, actually, I do.
The last part of the session begins. It is now 11:30.
To my horror, she wants us in the corner. I know what is coming. The lousy ballerinas will move from corner to corner, something I have always hated. Four people at the same time doing a series of ballet movements with everyone else watching. Those awful mirrors. They show everything.
I hide myself behind the more talented girls. They always go first. As I work to back away from the teacher, the talented girls move as close to her as they can.
They want to be praised.
We travel from one corner to the other. I move as fast as I can. “Oh my God. I should charge you more from having to watch this,” Janice groans.
But after the third round, I find myself laughing.
After all, I am 42. This is just a ballet class. Hanna and everybody just having fun.
When we gather in the center of the room to wrap up, I have regained my self-confidence.
Second position, grand plié, what a wonderful world. My ribs are down. My boobs are down, and I get the chills again.
And as I walk out of the room and thank the Master in the hallway, she touches my shoulder, smiles and says:
“I only teach those who want to learn.”
Thank you for picking me.
Janice passed away 20th of March, 2014. This ballet class was held a half a year before that. I wrote this piece right after her class, not meaning to publish the text anywhere. I only showed it to Janice. This is the only piece I’ve ever written in English, I think.