Many moons ago – twenty three years-worth to be exact – I spent a summer at ballet camp. It wasn’t your regular, run-of-the-mill summer camp, though. This one required an audition, in a big theatre, with throngs of people, and a long line of evaluators holding clipboards. This definitely wasn’t sleepover camp, à la Wet Hot American Summer.
I was ten at the time, and it was my dance teacher, Miranda, who had first suggested it. The National Ballet of Canada is coming to Montreal for summer camp auditions. Is that something you’d like to try? It was a conversation she had with my parents and I in her sunny office facing the studio, where Guy, the in-house pianist, made the room resonate with Chopin. I really think you’d have a chance of getting in. You should go! She’d known me since I was three and knew how much I loved dancing. I’d practically grown up at her studio, spending Saturdays and after-school hours spinning around on point, or clicking across the floor in character shoes. It was the place where I’d memorised dozens of choreographies; where I’d learned how to fondue, pas-de-chat, arabesque, and spin round and round on one spot without getting dizzy.
My memory of what followed that conversation in Miranda’s office isn’t crystal clear; I just remember saying “yes” to the proposal, having a geeky photo of myself taken in the local newspaper, and going to the audition, where dozens of chignoned girls milled around with numbers pinned to the front and back of their leotards. The room crackled with excitement; girls giggled and practised their pirouettes. A few others stood nervously, gnawing at their cuticles. After each round, the judges deliberated for an little while, trading notes, glances, murmurs. After some time, I was called back to the table to be told, with bright, toothy smiles, Congratulations! We would like to invite you to our summer camp at The National Ballet School!
I’d never seen strangers so ecstatic for me.
A few weeks later, our family unit of four packed into the Corolla and made the six-hour trip to Toronto, so they could help me get settled in. I shared a dorm room with a girl named Jocelyn – an effervescent, bright kid from BC who had big, blue, friendly eyes. Hi! I’m Jocelyn! Welcome to our room! We became instant friends – the kind you make when you’re in new, unfamiliar territory and you mutually decide that you’re going to stick together like glue. As far as ephemeral camp-friendships go, Jocelyn was maybe the closest thing I had to a best friend. She shared her sour candies with me, along with my quiet uneasiness about Ms. Yovanovitch, the frostiest of all our teachers, who always wore black and didn’t seem very fond of children. It wasn’t long before we gave her a secret nickname – one that rhymed easily with Yovanovitch and was, well…more accurate.
Without even knowing it, Jocelyn made being there seem normal, like the whole thing was no big deal. We worked hard and did as we were told, but when class was over, we didn’t think much about our successes or failures in the studio. Other girls did extra work in the hallways after class, practising choreographies or perfecting their form; some cried at night, worried they weren’t talented enough, or that the teachers didn’t like them. Jocelyn and I had more important preoccupations, like trying to find secret (haunted?) rooms in the school’s hidden corners, or practising party tricks, like reaching our chin with our tongue, in an attempt to mimic the tall gangly girl in the grade above us who could do it with great finesse. (She also happened to be able to stretch both her legs behind her head and walk around on her hands, but that surpassed our (very limited) acrobatic talents.)
As a ten year-old who had always danced for fun, I learned very quickly that camp at The National Ballet is work. You’re there to be disciplined, focused, engaged; your main tasks are to listen, learn, and practice practice practice. Even if you’re not a professional yet, you’re there to be – and behave like – a capital B Ballerina. Yes, it’s exciting and yes there’s downtime, but ultimately you’re there to put in a full day of dancing and to push your body as far as it will go. And in that sense, your body isn’t really your own, but rather an extension of the work. Your feet get bloody and blistered; you wrap them in gauze and tape, then stuff the ends of your point shoes with wads of cotton to cushion the blow. Your limbs and midriff are poked and squeezed and stretched by your instructors – Tight tight tight! Tuck in your belly! Lower your ribs! Head up! Not too far up! Looong necks! Point those toes! Point point point! Hands! Light hands! All of it is done with smiles and good doses of encouragement – Good good good! Beeeautiful! Yes! Comme ça! Oui! – but at times the constant instruction could be dizzying. Miranda might have been a rigorous teacher (she was, in fact, a former National Ballet dancer), but at her studio, dancing was still ultimately about having a good time; about movement and expression. There were no clipboards, no evaluations, no physiotherapists telling us we had abnormalities to “fix”. Prior to ballet camp, I’d never been told that my back had an irregular curvature, or that the arches of my feet weren’t, well, arched enough; I’d never had to stick my feet into stretching devices or undergo back-straightening exercises in a physiotherapy clinic.
This was all weird, new stuff to me; it created a new awareness of my body – both in terms of its potential and its limitations. Since our bodies were under the microscope every single day, it was preoccupation that was palpable, inside the studio, as well as outside of it. During breaks or in the evenings when we’d be getting ready for bed, girls talked about their bellies, their legs, their arms. They compared themselves to others constantly. There were rumours that a couple of the older girls threw up. Before ballet camp, I’d never heard of binging or purging or abstaining from food. And while no one really talked about it explicitly, it was clear that food was treated as fuel or, more nefariously, as an evil temptation. We met with a nutritionist every week who noted our food consumption on her hand-held chart. What did you eat this morning before class? And after class? My mom seems to recall that this was to prevent eating disorders (which in all fairness, it probably was), but I remember thinking it was weird that someone was asking me what I’d had for breakfast. (I never told them that I sometimes complemented my breakfast with a handful of Sour Patch Kids. I pat my ten-year-old self on the back for that one.)
Luckily, none of this had any lasting detrimental effects, due to the fact that I was a pretty naïve kid (as far as I was concerned, I was at summer camp. For FUN!), and that I had incredibly supportive, level-headed parents who were the exact opposite of stage parents – they encouraged my interest in dance, but never made it feel like an obligation, or like my life depended on it. And for those reasons, I don’t have bad or traumatic memories of my time at The National Ballet. Overall, I remember it as an exciting time that was full of new, interesting, fun things. It’s frankly only when I look at it through the lens of an adult that things seem a bit less romantic.
This adult lens was in full focus last month, as I sat in a dark corner of the parterre at Place des arts, watching The National Ballet of Canada perform a highly-anticipated three-part show. It was an incredible performance – the dancers glided and spun across the stage with effortless power and grace – but I was distracted; my mind kept drifting to what-if thoughts. What if I had stayed? What if I’d said “yes” instead of “no when they invited me back? It was an odd thing to consider. I couldn’t fathom how different my life would have been. In that moment, the bodies that moved across the stage seemed surreal – the men looked like Greek sculptures, the women like tall, slender cranes. They looked like other-worldly beings – ones that live, eat and breathe very different things than I do.
From ballet to bodies to diet, I started to think about how staying with the National Ballet (for however long it would have lasted…maybe until puberty?) would have undoubtedly affected my relationship with food. I thought about how my interest in food would have diverged considerably; how I would probably hesitate before eating a piece of cake or a slice of cheese, after doing a mental cost-benefit analysis of the caloric intake.
When I think back to that time, that brief summer when my body wasn’t really my own, it makes me that much more appreciative of the place I find myself in now. It’s a place where I don’t have to worry about my body determining my success; where I don’t have to push my feet into stretching devices or tell a nutritionist what I had for breakfast. It’s a place where I can still dance for fun and where I can make an apple pie for my family and enjoy it with them, without thinking twice.
Amen to that.
Classic Apple-Pie with Lattice Crust – crust adapted from Laura Calder; filling adapted from Apt 2B
For the Crust
- 2 ¼ cups flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp sugar
- 1 cup butter, cut into pieces
- ⅓ cup ice-cold water
Put the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor; then add the pieces of butter. Pulse until you reach a coarse crumb texture. Keep pulsing while slowly adding the cold water through the feed tube until the dough starts to come together (if you don’t have a food processor, you can also do this with your hands.)
Turn out the dough onto a floured work space and work it gently until it comes together, being careful not to overwork it. Flatten into two equal-sized discs and refrigerate for about 20 minutes.
For the Filling
- 4-5 large apples (about 3 lbs) – I like Cortland, Spartan or Honeycrisp
- zest and juice of one lemon
- zest and juice of half of an orange
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/8 teaspoon allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1Tbsp bourbon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
Peel the apples and cut them into 1/2” chunks. Place the apples in a large bowl then add lemon and orange juices and zests, stir gently to combine. Add the rest of the filling ingredients (except the butter) and stir gently to combine.
For the Topping
- 1 egg, beaten
- a few teaspoons of coarse sugar (like turbinado or light demerara)
Preheat oven to 400ºF
1) Remove one piece of the dough from the fridge. On a lightly floured surface, roll it out into a 12” circle 1/4” thick and place it into a 9 or 10 inch pie pan. Place in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the pie.
2) Fill the prepared pie shell with the apple mixture, dot with the 2 tablespoons butter. Remove the second crust from the fridge, roll it out to the same size as the pie dish and cut into long strips (between 1 ½-2”). Criss-cross them in a lattice-top pattern (Bon Appétit has a great little video here), trim the edges so there is about ½” of overhang, then crimp the edges.
3) If the crust seems soft or warm, slide the whole pie into the fridge or freezer for about 15 mins before you bake it. When you are ready to bake brush the top of the pie with a beaten egg and sprinkle with a good dose of coarse sugar.
4) Put the pie on a baking sheet to catch any drips and bake for 15 minutes on the lowest rack of your oven, then lower the oven temp to 350º and bake for 40-50 minutes or until the crust is deep golden brown and the apple juices bubble.