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  • Writer's pictureAdrienne Zest

The strange world of ballet

One of my earliest memories goes back to our first home in Los Angeles. I was sitting on a rug in front of our super square 80's TV from the brand His Master's Voice. I still remember the brand because of the cute logo - a dog barking into a megaphone. And on the TV I saw these beautiful fairies dancing on screen, looking like angels in white tutus. Their fluffy pink skirts, graceful movements and romantic music was the epitome of everything a four year old girl wants from life. I started nagging my parents to please, phweeease enroll me in ballet. I have no recollection about this, but my mom told me that my dad allowed it under one condition - that I will never become a professional dancer.

A year later we moved from the States to Slovakia, which had gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and split of Czechoslovakia. Even in Slovakia I held on to my dream of becoming a ballerina, but as it turned out I did not appear to be extremely talented, nor did I have a ballet worthy figure. I was a bit of an awkward chubby kid.

That changed a bit around my 12th birthday, when I decided to put more effort into everything I do. It paid off. My performance went up, my weight down, and I got accepted into the 'pro' category in my ballet school, going from 2 to 5 dance lessons per week. Dancing made me happy, every day a little more. When I danced I felt free, beautiful and alive. I admired my ballet teacher mr. Nebyla. He loved his students underneath his quirky character. You never knew if he would yell at you or make a joke on you. Most of the time both. He was strict and funny at the same time. But also supportive and loving in crucial moments. Nebyla was my father figure. Ballet was my stability, a place that taught me discipline and gave me a home outside of home.

When I was 15, my ballet school earned an accreditation to become a conservatoire. The decision was made, and I switched from gymnasium (grammar school) to the newly opened dance conservatoire.

And that's when things got weird. First of all, there aren't many 15 year old people who want to start studying at a conservatoire (that's something kids decide for at 10 years old). Luckily the school was able to scrape up 4 willing students of slightly different ages and skill levels and put us all together in a mini class. We were mostly tossed around and looked at as an inconvenience.

Instead of mr. Nebyla, the conservatoire got a new principal. The rumor had it that she was kicked out of Bratislava's conservatoire for financial fraud. Who knows. What I know is that this lady had the vibe and looks of a Disney villain. She arrived with a sidekick too, a pianist with a toad-like smoker's voice. There was something unmistakably cartoonish about them. But I tried my best, and I tried my best to like them.

The principal was an ex prima ballerina, she became our primary teacher. She was a good teacher and she really knew a lot. But I was horrible. Our entire class was terrible. If you would compare us to other ballet dancers that start conservatoire at age 10, you could definitely see our 5 year handicap. We were a class of lost cases- at least that was the narrative. From the moment the dance school changed to conservatoire, Mr. Nebyla got strange. No more jokes or yelling. He acted withdrawn and sad, like someone ate his breakfast. But in this one year I improved a lot. Like a lot a lot. I never thought improvement like that was even possible, and I realized that: proper technique plus enjoyment of one's pursuit plus hard work equals fantastic results. So before the end of the school year, out of curiosity I applied to the conservatoire in Bratislava, to students of which we were constantly (negatively) compared to. I thought to myself - if I could progress this much in one year in our crappy-scrappy-experimental conditions, what would happen if I actually attend a proper conservatoire? And to my big surprise, I was accepted. I was accepted!! I couldn't believe it. My happiness was very short-lived though. I was so naive to think that my teachers would be proud. That they would see my success as their own success. From one day to another, I went from their darling to their worst enemy. They gave me the lowest grades possible, saying I got judged by the standards of my "new school in Bratislava". After being a student there for 10 years and calling it my home, the principal denied me access to the school. I was not permitted to enter the hallways. I was not permitted to speak to my former classmates and they were not allowed to talk to me. And mr. Nebyla? He used to be closer to me than my own father. He never spoke to me again. The avalanche of disgust just started rolling from there. One of my classmates was a drop out from Bratislava, so she knew all my future classmates there. She started talking to them about me, and I was assured it wasn't anything positive. It was also made clear to me that I was accepted only as a revenge on their ex-principal (our current principal, the Disney villain), and that I will never be a real ballerina because my arms are too short. Like wtf. I can understand why my teachers were mad (or sad) that I was leaving, I was their oldest student. But man!! Ouch!!! If they really cared for my future as a dancer, they would be happy that I got accepted to a much more prestigious school. It was the first time I had a really adult realization - that no one in the outside world truly gives a damn about me. People care about themself.

During the summer school break I had time to sit with my giant heartbreak and rough realization. The world of ballet is rotten.

And at that very moment I decided to quit. To return to my old middle school - gymnasium. (In hindsight, I don't know if it was the right choice. The following years after quitting ballet were the hardest years of my life. But that's a story for another time.) From what I know, the Disney Villain duo didn't make it into the next school year either. I don't know if they left, or if they got fired.

And the summer after that, mr. Nebyla died. Out of the blue, a heart attack struck him at a young age.

It still feels so surreal to me. Like a dark twisted ending to a fairy tale.

I wish I could say goodbye to him. I wish our last memories were pleasant.

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