Chapter 15: The Audition
As the students were on holiday, Ben took the rare opportunity of sitting alone in Tom & Hardy to look through the recently published, Eighty Years of The State Ballet.
“You in that?” asked Tom.
“Yep,” said Ben pointing to one of the later pages in the book.
“Impressive,” said Tom. Ben didn’t reply. “Can I have a look?” asked Tom pointing to the book. He opened it and searched the first few pages. “Found it,” he said. “That’s my grandfather there. He was one of the corps de ballet in the early days. He wasn’t really a ballet dancer. He was a self-taught ice skater but, back then, the company was desperate for male dancers so they took him.”
“Different nowadays,” said Ben. He then thought that might sound rude about Tom’s grandfather. He was about to qualify his statement when Tom put up his hand to indicate there was no need.
“Eighty years ago, no one wanted to be seen as gay,” said Tom. “Everyone knows that male dancers are gay,” he added with a wink. “It was harder then. To be gay, that is. Not harder to be a male ballet dancer – that was easier.” After a pause, he said, “My grandfather wasn’t gay.”
Ben laughed, “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, right?”
“When my grandfather was twenty, he saw a sign advertising male ballet auditions,” said Tom. “He was struggling to make ends meet out of skating so, with no ballet training, he went to the audition. Apparently, the guys were asked to lift their leg off the ground and hold it for five minutes. Whoever was left standing was in. My grandfather had a great aversion to poverty. That leg was staying up even if it killed him. He probably had an advantage because he was used to holding up heavy skating boots for spirals.” Ben wasn’t sure what an ice skating spiral was but he guessed it was like a ballet arabesque with an open hip because skaters open their hips out, unlike ballet dancers. “Skaters don’t have nice, pointed, precise feet like ballet dancers,” said Tom. “They are used to bulky boots. Their feet don’t get to move much.”
“How long was he with the company for?” asked Ben who was quite taken with the story.
“Only a few years,” said Tom. “Then he went back to skating, did shows, met my grandmother (a national champion skater), fought to win her over, got married, left skating, got a job in printing, hated it, stayed there anyway, and tried to live his life as best he could with all the problems he had from a rather brutal upbringing.”
“Wow,” said Ben. He didn’t know what, exactly, was astonishing about the story but it was. “Was that the end of ballet and skating in the family?” he asked.
“My grandparent’s kids skated with some success; including my mother,” said Tom. “And my brother and I skated.”
“Really?” said Ben. He wanted to ask if Tom was any good.
“My brother and I are third-generation skaters,” said Tom by way of reply. “We could skate.”
Ben looked at Tom’s thin, fine body with long, lean muscles. A dancer’s body, he thought. He knew that Tom had fast feet by the way he moved around the tables and customers, balancing plates, and avoiding stray toddlers.
“My brother and I both gave up skating years ago,” said Tom.
If he was no longer skating, Ben knew that Tom must be doing something to keep his body strong and supple.
“Have you been back?” asked Ben.
“Nah,” said Tom. “I took those skates off for the last time and threw them in the bin. Although they were only two months old and cost me $3,500, I never wanted to see them again.”
Ben sensed that Tom was done with the conversation. Looking around the cafe, he wondered if Tom chose the position because it was next to The State Ballet.
“I’m back here where my grandfather started,” said Tom. “I guess we have trouble deleting some things.”
Ben gave a philosophical shrug and headed back to the sandstone building with only half his mind on the day’s jobs.
Chapter 16: One Dance
“It’s your birthday in a few days,” said Ben, on the phone, while walking back to work. “What do you want?”
Merlyn wondered why Ben was ringing about her birthday. Without answering his question, she asked, “What’s been happening?”
“Did you know Tom, from next door, was a skater?” said Ben.
“No,” said Merlyn.
“A third-generation skater. And his grandfather danced with us in the early years,” said Ben.
“Wow,” said Merlyn repeating Ben’s sentiment. “There is nothing arty about his cousin here at Pittstop. Skating must come from the other side of the family.” Returning to Ben’s original question, Merlyn said, “Since you are offering about my birthday, there is something I’d like.”
“Yes?” said Ben.
“I’d like you to teach me how to dance,” said Merlyn.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Ben. “I’m not offering that. Besides, you can’t learn ballet now. I barely even do it myself anymore. And I’d be too hard on you. You’d hate it.”
Merlyn remembered one of Ben’s colleagues saying that one shouldn’t be taught by a family member, especially a partner, because they are either too soft or too hard. Merlyn assumed that included, if not emphasised, ex-partners.
“I’ll take that risk,” said Merlyn. “Just one dance, Ben. Teach me one dance.”
Ben sighed and said, “Okay, just one. Come this week while the students are away.”
Late that evening, Merlyn got a text from Ben, Tomorrow 1 pm.
Chapter 17: Don’t Sit in Your Arse
“Don’t sit in your arse, Merlyn,” commanded Ben. “Stand up. Get your head up. Centre in. Eyes forward. Don’t lean on me. Stand on your legs. Use your feet. Point them. You’re rounding your shoulders. Centre in. Centre in!” At one point, he stopped in exasperation and said, “You are dancing like a needy, little child. Stand up and get out of my space!”
Merlyn would have objected but she knew it was all perfectly true. After two hours of repetition, she managed to do a very basic pas de deux with Ben in a most ungraceful, inefficient manner.
“Okay, that’s it,” said Ben. “Times up. That’s more private lesson time than the bulk of the dancers get.” Merlyn was sweating. Ben wasn’t. “Happy birthday,” he added more softly. He was waiting for a response from Merlyn who was still catching her breath. After the million commands he had thrown at her, he was fairly sure that her dancing aspirations would have been redirected. “So, how did you like it?” he asked finally.
“I loved it,” said Merlyn with unashamed exhilaration.
“Oh,” said Ben.
“Can we do it again?” asked Merlyn.
“No,” said Ben. “Definitely not. I don’t teach private lessons except to the soloists and pas de deux couples. I certainly don’t teach beginners. Go to an adult ballet class.” Merlyn shook her head. “Well, get someone else to teach you who does that sort of thing,” said Ben. Again, Merlyn shook her head. “I can’t help you,” said Ben walking towards the door.
“Text me a time,” Merlyn called after him.