Series: Ballet Stars
By Jane Lawes
The evening sunlight flashed between the trees, forcing Tash to put a hand up to shield her eyes. The motorway looked just like any other. She was impatient for the moment when they’d turn off onto smaller roads, past fields, houses with quaint names like Rose Cottage, and pretty churches. Somewhere at the end of one of those little roads was another turning. It led to big iron gates and a long gravel drive, and at the end of the drive was an old mansion set in beautiful gardens. This was Tash’s first day at Aurora House, one of the best ballet schools in the country, and she was going to be late.
“Can’t we go a bit faster?” she asked.
“Only if you want me to get fined for speeding,” Mum replied, grimacing at Tash. “Sorry, darling. I’ll get you there as soon as I can.”
“I know,” sighed Tash. “It’s not your fault.”
Mum had got held up with something important at work. On a Sunday. But Tash couldn’t complain. Mum ran her own business and she worked really hard to keep it going. Tash had got a scholarship to Aurora House so they didn’t have to pay the school fees, but there was still the school uniform and PE kit to buy, not to mention ballet shoes and leotards!
Tash had never been as excited about anything in her entire life as she was about Aurora House. She’d dreamed of becoming a dancer since she was six years old and now she was about to begin her first year at a full-time ballet school. Dancing every day was going to be complete and total heaven!
She’d liked her junior school and she’d had friends there, but doing ballet outside school twice a week just wasn’t enough for Tash. She wanted to dance all the time. She’d still have to do school lessons like maths and English at Aurora House, but she could definitely put up with that because there’d be ballet classes every day. And – even better – everyone else at the school would be ballet-mad too.
Maddy, her best friend from junior school, was funny and kind, and they liked going shopping together and playing games in the playground, but she didn’t really get ballet. She could never understand why Tash wanted to spend hours repeating the same exercises over and over again, moving her legs and arms and feet in patterns and positions with weird French names. Tash had tried so many times to explain how ballet made her feel – that it was like everything else in the whole world just stopped and it was only her body and the music, and when she got something just right it felt like the purest kind of perfection. But Maddy always looked at her as if she was crazy. Tash would miss Maddy loads while she was away at school, but she knew that the girls in her class at Aurora House would understand all the things her friends at home hadn’t.
Tash had auditioned for a few full-time ballet schools, but Aurora House was the one she’d desperately wanted. Her favourite ballet company was City Ballet – she had a book all about the company’s biggest stars, and she’d spent hours watching video clips of them dancing. One of the company’s original stars was Abigail Hartley – she’d danced the leading role in every ballet they performed, and she’d been especially famous for The Sleeping Beauty. When she retired in 1965 she’d started Aurora House Ballet School so that she could pass on everything she knew to the next generation of dancers. And all Tash wanted was to learn to dance like her.
Abigail Hartley was eighty-five now, so the school was run by the headteacher, another retired City Ballet dancer, James Watkins. Mr Watkins had been at Tash’s audition. She remembered the day so clearly – how his stern face had made her feel a bit afraid of him as she stood in front of the panel of teachers in her plum-coloured leotard, her candidate number (104) pinned on the front and back. But despite her nerves, she’d felt thrilled, too. She almost hadn’t been able to believe it was really happening; she’d watched the famous James Watkins dancing so many times in YouTube videos and on some of her DVDs, and now he was sitting there watching her dance!
The audition had taken place in a big studio at the school, which had felt very far away from the church hall and the portable barre Tash was used to for ballet classes. This studio felt serious and professional; dancers who came here meant to do ballet for a career. Looking around her, Tash had seen that there were a lot of girls her age who wanted that – everyone looked determined to get a place at the school. And only twelve of them would. The tension filled the studio as they all stood still, trying not to let their fear escape in nervous little movements. Finally one of the teachers began to lead them through the steps they needed to demonstrate. They danced through most of the exercises together, only splitting into smaller groups when they came to the sequences in the centre.
The first sequence was a slow, graceful exercise of chassés, arabesques and lovely arm movements, and as Tash was in the second group she got a chance to watch some of her competition before it was her turn. She saw straight away that most of the dancers were as good as she was. Tash needed a full scholarship to the school; to get it, she would have to dance better than she’d ever danced before.
When her turn came, she stepped into her place in the centre of the middle row and began
to dance. The combination wasn’t difficult, but making it absolutely perfect while also smiling and trying to make it look easy was hard. Luckily, smiling while dancing came naturally to Tash, and halfway through the sequence she realized that she was actually enjoying herself.
After that, the rest of the audition went very fast. Tash did a simple pirouettes exercise, some small, bouncy jumps on the spot and an exhilarating routine of bigger leaps travelling across the room. Then she had to have a physical check with the school doctor, who prodded her feet and measured how tall she was, and finally she had an interview with the panel of judges. This was even scarier than the dance part of the audition and she remembered it vividly.
“Why do you want to be a dancer?” Mr Watkins had asked.
“When I dance…” Tash began hesitantly, “there’s nothing except the music and the feeling of my body stretching and working. When I get the steps exactly right, I feel like I could do anything in the world! And when I watch a really great dancer, like Tamara Rojo at English
National Ballet, or the dancers at the Royal Ballet and City Ballet, and they do something perfectly, it’s like nothing else in the world matters at all…because in that moment, everything’s perfect. That feels amazing. And…I want to make people feel like that.”
She laughed, embarrassed, but Mr Watkins smiled.
“I understand,” he said.
Suddenly, Tash’s imagination leaped to a picture of Mr Watkins as a young dancer in the City Ballet, and she felt a little less afraid of him.
A long time ago he must have been just like her – trembling with nerves at an audition for a ballet school!
* * *
“Off the motorway at last!” said Mum, pulling Tash back to the present.
Tash turned away from the window and smiled at her.
“You’re very quiet,” Mum went on. “Feeling nervous?”
“Just thinking,” said Tash. “I hope the other girls will be friendly.”
Although she’d met some other dancers her age at the audition, she wouldn’t know who else had got a place until she arrived at the school.
“I’m sure they will,” said Mum. “You’re all in the same boat, everyone’s moving away from home for the first time.”
Tash nodded and looked out of the window again. She felt a bit guilty for going away to school and leaving Mum all by herself. Tash’s dad had left when she was just a baby, and she didn’t have any brothers or sisters. She’d never minded that much; it had always been just Tash and Mum, and that was how she liked it. But Mum was going to be lonely without her, she knew. And she’d be lonely without Mum. How would she get through the next seven weeks without their special chats at breakfast time and while they made dinner together, or their cosy film nights, or singing along to the radio together on the way to and from Tash’s ballet classes? Suddenly half-term seemed a long way off.
She sat up straighter in her seat and forced herself to think positive thoughts. Moving away from home when you were only eleven years old was tough, but it was what you had to do if you wanted to be a great ballerina. And Tash wanted that more than anything in the world – way more than she wanted to turn around and go back to her cosy house and familiar church-hall ballet class.
They were turning in to the school grounds now. The building was old and impressive, and it looked more like the kind of place lords and ladies would live than a school. Trees lined the long drive along both sides, their leaves rustling in the cool September air. Tash peered at it all as Mum pulled the car into a space near the entrance. The second she stepped out of the car, her life would change for ever.
“Come on,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt. It was seven o’clock and they’d been told to arrive at half past five. They were seriously late.
“Here we go,” said Mum.
Tash got out of the car and helped Mum get the suitcases from the boot. The gravel sounded loud under their feet. When they reached the school’s main entrance, Tash pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped hesitantly inside.
The entrance hall seemed larger and grander than Tash remembered. The floor was tiled, dark blue and cream, and paintings and old City Ballet posters in frames decorated the walls. There was even an old fireplace, which was filled with flowers. Photographs of Aurora House students onstage and in costumes covered the wall around it.
A woman came bustling out of the office near the front door.
“You’re very late!” she said briskly. “What’s your name?”
The receptionist made a quick note on her register. Tash looked worriedly up at Mum, who pulled a face while the receptionist wasn’t looking. Tash felt the urge to laugh, but she tried to hide it.
“Come on, I’ll sneak you in at the back of the dining hall,” the receptionist said, her face softening into a smile. “Don’t worry. You haven’t missed Ms Hartley’s talk yet.” She waved a hand at Tash’s suitcases. “You can leave your things here and take them upstairs later. The others have already been to their dormitories.”
The receptionist hurried them along the corridor. They could hear the babble of voices in the distance, and the closer they got to the dining room, the louder the noise became. Tash glanced anxiously at Mum. It was scary enough coming to a new school, scarier still when you were going to be living there. Now she had to walk into a room full of the whole school and their parents, late, showing everyone that she was already messing up on her first day. Right at that moment, she wished she could turn around and go home.
But the receptionist gave her no choice. She opened the door and ushered Tash and Mum inside.
The room was big with high ceilings and long wooden tables. Most of the tables were full of girls and boys chatting, laughing and shrieking as if they’d never get to talk again. An elderly woman at the teachers’ table, who Tash recognized as Abigail Hartley, stood up and clinked her glass with her knife. The room fell silent immediately, with Tash and Mum still standing in the doorway.
“Oh!” said Ms Hartley, seeing Tash. “Are you late, dear? Please hurry up and sit down.”
Tash went red and moved towards the nearest empty chair as the entire school turned to stare at her. She scrunched her body down as small as possible on the seat, wishing she could slide under the table and get away from everyone’s eyes. She’d only been at Aurora House for five minutes – what if she’d already made a bad impression on the school’s founder?
It's Tash's first term at Aurora House, the school where dancing dreams come true. She's thrilled to be living with other girls who love ballet just as much as she does!
But when Tash starts to worry that her dancing isn't as good as her new friends', she decides to take a big risk. Will her plan lead to a perfect pirouette... or a dancing disaster?
Listen to a trailer for Ballet Stars on Fun Kids Radio:
Jane Lawes studied American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and started a PCGE in primary education, before deciding that her real passion lay in books. She currently works in publishing by day, and as an author by night and at the weekends. Gym Stars: Summertime & Somersaults is Jane’s first novel.
Visit www.janelawes.co.uk to find out more.
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