Sunday, November 07, 2010

Clean nylon. Today I did some domestic labour. I changed the sheets on my bed, vacuumed the whole house (which includes the tedious task of shaking the dust from the fuckurri rug), wiped down the benches and tables, and loaded, hung out and brought in a load of washing.

Because I wanted to wash my black towel without getting black lint everywhere, I did a load of dark-coloured clothes. This included two of my slips – a black one and a dark blue one. They are the old-fashioned kind of petticoat in slippery nylon, trimmed with lace. When I wear them, I feel like Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

(Obviously I do not look like Elizabeth Taylor.)

Anyway, as I was folding them to put them away again, I caught a whiff of a clean nylon smell, and more than anything else it reminded me of ballet tutus – that crisp tulle smell.

Since I am like a Proust Machine™, even the most unlikely scents can trigger long, indulgent wallows in childhood nostalgia. So of course, I started to think about my childhood ballet concerts. Certain other scents can do that – hairspray; the smell of a particular frosted pale pink lipstick that my mother would always put on me; and, of course, the smell of tutus.

I both adored and slightly dreaded ballet concerts. On one hand, I loved learning actual dances rather than just the technical steps necessary to pass each grade. I loved the pageantry of the dances, the music and costumes, being on stage and performing under hot lights, and the glamour of being in the theatre with a throng of dancers bustling in and out of costume.

I loved dress rehearsal day, sitting in the darkened theatre to watch the other classes' dances (my ballet school taught classical, jazz, folkdance, tap and 'contemporary', at junior, intermediate and senior levels). I was just as fanciful as a kid as I am now, and I wish I could explain how magical some of the music sounded when heard from backstage. There was one routine set to the Waltz from Aram Khachaturian's Masquerade, a piece of music I found absolutely thrilling.

Also, I used to collect sequins that I found backstage and in the dressing rooms. I am quite embarrassed admitting this now. I used to keep the sequins in a tiny plastic heart-shaped box I had acquired somehow, and from time to time I would spread them out on a flat surface and admire them.

The grand finale of each year's concert was always the Senior Jazz routine. The jazz dancers seemed impossibly glamorous to me in their beige fishnets, T-bar stiletto sandals and absurdly high-cut leotards. I longed to study jazz because this was the '80s – the time of Solid Gold and the Swagman restaurant's famous floor show.

I was not allowed. I'm not sure if this was a financial thing or a snobbery thing. Jazz ballet was certainly on my mother's long list of things I was not allowed to have because they were 'trashy', which also included jelly sandals, just about every zeitgeisty toy of the decade, and those pencilcases with the little windows into which you inserted letters that spelled out your name.

For me, clean nylon also smells of my mother's anxiety. Parents made all the costumes (I don't know what you did if you couldn't sew) and I would be dragged from my bed on the nights before the concert and made to stand sleepily on the kitchen table as my mother jabbed me with pins and hissed, "BE STILL!" in the kind of voice you would use on a disobedient dog.

I would also have my hair roughly brushed, pulled into a painfully tight bun that was secured with a hairnet and bobby pins, and then sprayed to within an inch of its life. When I look at photos of my ballet concerts, everyone else's bun is on the back of their head or, at most, at the back of the crown, whereas mine is always right on top of my head, like a dumpling.

My mother would also find plenty else to yell at me about – for instance, my inability to avoid blinking during an application of mascara – and we would inevitably be running late for the concert, which resulted in a tense drive to the theatre.

But of course, after the concert all the stress would have evaporated and my parents would meet me in the foyer after my performance. Dad would be jolly and buy me a Peppermint Crisp bar, and my mother, smelling of Tea Rose perfume, would say my port de bras was much better than the other students'.

This all sounds disarmingly akin to my own ballet experiences as a child. In particular, my mother's forbidding of jazz ballet and jelly shoes as trashy! Ha! Oh yes, and the concerts. To this day, Mum curses the sewing of tulle - and who can blame her... My ballet mistress was a terrifying English woman who was completely emaciated and used to walk around the class room jabbing us tiny girls in the stomach telling us we looked like rows of blamanche. It's a wonder I loved it so much!
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