The mantelpiece makes a poor barre.
It’s Thursday morning, and I’m wearing my ballet shoes — a rare occasion these days, even if today they’re paired with faded black leggings, laddered in one thigh, and an oversized My Chemical Romance t-shirt I bought myself as a gift for hitting a writing milestone. I’d love to say I got up early to start the day with a barre, but my knees don’t actually bend when I first get up, let alone the rest of me, so it’s almost noon by the time I press play on the familiar piano music.
I’m in my living room, which is a mediocre studio at best, barely half a dozen paces diagonally, made narrow by the sofa. The mantelpiece is slightly too high for a barre and, being a solid block of wood, leaves me with nowhere to put my thumb, but it’s my best option; the stools by the breakfast bar are too low and unstable to be a viable alternative, and there’s no space for other furniture here. Still, it could be worse — at least I’ve something to hold onto.
I told myself when I moved in that I’d do this. The first time I saw pictures of the flat on Daft.ie, I saw the living room and thought, “Oh, I could do a barre in there!” Its laminate flooring seemed a step up from the carpet in my old house in Cambridge, even if it’s a fraction of the size, and having anything to hold onto that wasn’t a dining chair was exciting. I pictured myself doing a barre each day, or at least a few times a week, building up my strength in anticipation of studios re-opening.
Dance has been the main casualty of lockdown for me, with studios closed and classes cancelled and every space to small to jump in. Combined with the loss of motivation, I plummeted from dancing five days a week in preparation for a show to dancing maybe once a month, and my fitness has gone with it.
But now, in quarantine and twitchy with energy I don’t have space to walk off, I’m trying again. I’ve told myself I have to do twenty minutes. After twenty minutes I can stop, but not before. It’s a useful rule, because sixteen minutes in to what would once have been only the first third of a class, my FitBit informs me that my heartrate is well into the peak range and I’m sweating enough to have to prop open the front door (there are no windows in the living room).
I make it through my twenty minutes. I manage thirty, if you include stretches — which I do, because the cage of protective muscles around my injured hip that was plaguing me a year ago has tightened into a knot and my flexibility has suffered. My legs are shaking a little with exertion, and I suspect I’ll need a nap this afternoon.
It’s a start.
On Friday, I don’t dance, not because I’ve chosen inactivity but because I’ve decided that a better use of my restless energy is to reorganise all of the furniture in my bedroom. This is easier said than done, since the room isn’t large enough to allow for manouevring, and furniture has to be disassembled and reassembled in its new location. I spend so much of the afternoon taking objects up and down the stairs that I end up hitting my 8,000 step count for the day without leaving the flat, despite it being barely ten paces from one end to the other.
On Saturday, I wake feeling like I’ve been beaten up.
This is not unexpected, but still, the double-whammy of the aches from Thursday’s barre and Friday’s furniture-wrangling leaves every muscle in my body aching. Some are easily identified: my hamstrings are protesting the stretches, my quads the pliés. Others are a mystery: why are my forearms so sore? I spend the day in bed and it’s only in the evening that any energy returns, but when I attempt a plié it feels like my thighs are screaming, so I decide to give the barre a miss.
This is how it always goes: a day where I dance, three more where I don’t. I know from past experience that there’s little to be done for the aches but to push through them, and eventually they’ll recede, but those first few weeks of trying to remember how to move are fraught with the pain of readjustment, and it’s hard to endure it long enough to come out the other side. And my fatigue doesn’t help, with the uncompromising way it fells me when I dare to overstep.
Sometimes it feels like I’ll never dance again.
I remind myself regularly that this is not the case. Past experience is proof enough that interruptions don’t have to be final. Two years without Irish dance has nothing on the six years I previously took away from it; a year without a ballet class is not without precedent and always, always I’ve come back. Slowly. But I’ve come back.
Do I resent those interruptions? Sometimes. Sometimes I wonder what I could have become if my eleven-year-old self hadn’t walked away from ballet and sometimes I’m grateful that I did, before the toxic studio environment could warp my self-image at a formative time of my life. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d be a champion if I’d stayed with my original Irish dance school and sometimes I’m relieved I never found out whether or not that was the case.
But however I feel about stopping, the restart is always a perpetual state of recovery, trying to remember how to be somebody from my past and how to relearn what they once knew within the context of my present self. To constantly start again is a step backwards, a step away from the chance to grow and improve — in some ways. In others it’s its own opportunity. And it isn’t worthless.
I tell myself this a lot, when I’m resenting the process of re-learning, when I’m watching videos of my past self doing effortlessly what my stiff joints won’t allow today. I pretend to believe it. I’m told the power of positive thinking is life-changing, but most of the time it feels like strategically lying to myself, both in the promises I make and in the illusion of believing them.
This isn’t worthless. This simple barre, which exhausts me and highlights all the weaknesses of my body, isn’t worthless. It’s a process of reclamation, taking back a control and a power I used to have. It’s in defiance of the small space and the temptation towards inertia. It’s a step away from a screen, from social media, from the world, and back into mapping out the contours of myself.
Even when I’m not happy with the picture they paint.
The mantelpiece makes a poor barre. But I swap my bedroom slippers for ballet shoes, plug the little speaker into my phone, and begin.
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