If you have been reading this from the beginning, I'd just like to say thank you. The blog is now on over 20,000 words. This means that, by now, you would be third of the way through an Iris Murdoch novel, or have finished a short Doris Lessing novella. Both of which would probably have been time better spent. So, once again, thanks. If you are relatively new to BalletDadBlog, please don't worry; no-one expects you to go back and read what you have missed. Life is too short. It's summer. There's other things to do, and iPads only work well in the shade.
The number of readers that this blog gets is uplifting and surprising. To be honest, I only expected two regular readers. And I thought one of those would be my Mum. So, the fact that so many people take the time to read this, is wonderful, and it brings with it a responsibility: if people are still reading, I feel compelled to keep writing. The readership of this blog is larger than both my published books put together. So, if being a ballet dad is a niche interest, then my other writing clearly targets the most marginal. I tell the children that my books are slow-burn long-tail classics, and after I am dead they will be wealthier than they can ever imagine. After all, coming from such a modest background, how much wealth can an eleven-year-old and six-year-old really imagine?
One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog was because I thought it would be funny; a source of endless humour - the incongruity of a middle aged man being introduced to the ballet world through his son. However, it's the sad blogs that get the response; the ones that strike hard on the topic of abandonment.
Accompanying this unexpected response have been some trolls - whom I have refused to feed. This is something a lawyer advised me about many years ago when I was getting an abusive Twitter account shut down. This lawyer had integrity and told me that he could shut the account down for me for £10,000, or he could teach me how to do it myself for £250. Either something was wrong with his business model, or he was a lawyer who valued his free-time more than his income. I took the £250 option and the account was shut down within a fortnight.
The most damaging comment I have received about this blog was someone - whom I don't know - taking the time to get in touch to tell me that I am self-obsessed. Was there ever any doubt? I ignored them, not because they were being abusive, but because they were stating the obvious.
Every week, a different PR company gets in touch, out of the blue, to ask if I will write about a product in return for getting the product for free. I always politely decline. It's not really in the spirit of what I am doing here. But I might change my mind. So, if the next blog is about a male-grooming experience in Hove, you will understand. I've also just been offered sixty pounds to gamble away at a roulette table in a casino with no pressure to blog about it afterwards. Is it a scam? Or a recruitment drive? I'll let you know, because I've agreed to go next Wednesday.
The most common positive response - apart from the PR companies offering me stuff for free - is being told that someone has just forwarded the link to their mother. This has happened many times. It seems that balletdadblog has become a conduit between adults and their mums. I am flattered and honoured. The fact that people want to share this particularly exhibitionist form of self-therapizing is one thing, but the fact that some people wish to share it with their mums is heart-warming. I receive comments like, 'I wanted my mum to know that this is what it was like when I went to school' or 'That's what we both went through when I was at university'. Apparently, the topic of separation between parent and child resonates. Perhaps discussing it is a taboo. The transition into adulthood is a difficult one. We read novels and watch films about the rites of passage of youth, and we tell hardly any stories of the adults left behind.
This one is for all the mums.
Next time ... Birthday Presents.
Many a True Word Said by Accident
A couple of weekends ago, I accidentally told the truth. As the summer holidays are approaching, I turned to my son, and said, 'Only another couple of weeks, and this nightmare will be over'. I said it without really thinking. For a split second a strange expression flashed in his eyes. I had overstepped a mark. If it were a joke, then it was a poor one. If it wasn't a joke, I had just revealed more than any eleven-year-old would want to hear. As clumsy as the expression may have been, I was speaking from the heart.
The summer holidays will offer a welcome relief. I will once again be given the opportunity to parent my own child every day of the week. I will not be fretting about the possibility of a 'Lord of the Flies' scenario among abandoned trainee ballet dancers. Nor will I need to worry about him glancing over a fellow pupil's shoulder and catching glimpses of Saw III on their iPad. For two months, he will be back in an environment which supports and understands him completely; where his private self can breathe easily and he can express himself without worry that he will have to justify his views publicly later on. We will have direct access to him, rather than saving up anything we want to tell him, or need to ask him, for the daily fifteen minute Skype call. I won't have to get up at half past five every Monday morning to get ready to drive him back. Even without any interaction, it will be comforting to just see him in the room.
On the one hand, this last academic year has been wonderful. We have seen our son grow and flourish. He has embraced everything that the school has offered; not just ballet. He has immersed himself in folk dance, choreography and ballet history. He has become a better musician. He's become more politically aware. His organisational skills have developed to an incredible degree for someone so young, and he has become more resilient and independent. On the other hand it has been a nightmare.
I worry about him and the atmosphere of constant competition. I worry about the lack of academic engagement - and this is no criticism of the academic staff who all display a selfless dedication; but they can only achieve so much in a mere four hours a day. I worry about his body holding out under the immense constant strain. I worry about injury. It is the end of the year and he looks knackered.
But for me, the most awful part of this nightmare is the separation. I really hate the fact that our family experiences this severance. To describe the dull aching sense of loss is a difficult task. Writing about it helps even though I also feel like screaming at myself, "Enough already. Get over it." But the dull ache just seems to sit more deeply within, festering more silently. A fulfilled and happy child was exactly what I wanted, but this separation was not. It makes me even more contemptuous of the British upper classes - those who choose to send their children away, sometimes even from the age of seven - an ingrained inbred heartlessness. Little wonder the country is in such a state. It's being run by people who experienced only the minimum of parental nurture.
From the café where I write this I see dads out walking with their children. Some are pushing them in pushchairs; others are holding hands as they stroll. An invisible bond is evident in all of them. My envy quickly subsides, but I have an urge to run after them.
"Hold on tightly," I'd say. "Hold on, and should the nightmare encroach, shake yourself, stay awake and don't let it in." I want to tell them the truth.
The Unforgiving Nature of Ballet, and the Ruthlessness of Readers of The Telegraph
There was an article in the Torygraph on Monday in which the political editor was writing about his daughter's experiences of Ballet. There are several things about this article which shock me. The first is that the sensational headline about 'shaming the world of Ballet' does not correlate to the article. The piece is angry - understandably I think - but at no point does the writer suggest he has brought the world of Ballet to shame. In fact, the writing is temperate and measured bearing in mind that it concerns the wellbeing of a small child. The writer is a well connected man. The headline makes him appear smug and self-important. I see no evidence for this being the case in article which follows. He is a father who cares deeply for his daughter, and is asking an exam board to review their procedures regarding inclusivity. In my experience the ballet world is beyond being put to shame. It would be a Sisyphean task.
Here is the story in a nutshell: a small girl loves ballet. Owing to an accident involving a bus when she was a baby, this child has grown up using a prosthesis. She passed her first set of ballet exams, but unlike her friends was not awarded a distinction nor merit. The father finds it incredible that in the twenty-first century, there is no alternative assessment or mitigating circumstances which can be applied when the child is successfully handling a challenging situation. I can see his point. This is clearly a case of discrimination. There is a lack of parity in the experience of a child with a disability compared to those without. This must never be the case. The exam board concerned should be ashamed of themselves for their stubborn refusal to adapt in accordance with the sensibilities of the time.
The most shocking element to the story, however, is the message board beneath the article. The lack of compassion for the child, and the attacks on the parent are staggering. I actually suggest that you don't read the comments. You will rage, probably, and this will ruin your day. It seems especially cruel because a child is involved. The people commenting seem to think that an allowance is being sought that will allow her to become a principal at the Royal Ballet. Ridiculous 'chopped logic' is applied with examples of airline pilots and brain surgeons. This is not the case. The only compensation required is that a young child may continue to enjoy dancing on her own terms. The standards of British Ballet are not under threat by a request that a child should be allowed to succeed on her own terms. The comments show Middle England at its most bigoted and narrow-minded. I can nearly not contain my fury.
Throughout my career - now a career in suspended animation - I fought for inclusion and diversity. The environment improves for everyone when diversity matters. This for me is a fact of life. I have worked with all kinds of mixed groups, and it has been enriching for everyone.
The ballet world has a reputation for being elitist. Regrettably, this reputation is probably deserved. However, there are certain people and organisations within the Ballet world working to rectify this. I know of several schemes and projects - in 'elite' organisations - that encourage widening participation. They are bringing Ballet to a completely new audience. Very small steps (in tiny ballet shoes) are being taken.
The saddest part of the story is that the child felt so discouraged that she has now stopped dancing. I find this disappointing, perhaps even heartbreaking. I dare say that I would do the same if it were my child; I'd remove her from an environment which does not offer support and understanding. But, without pioneers nothing nothing new is explored - a big ask for a seven-year-old and her family. While diversity is still a subject under discussion, we still have some way to go in achieving inclusivity.