Carla Melaco

As a hobby, I’ve danced, sung, acted and generally performed since I was young. My Saturday afternoons were filled with hours at our local stage school, weekday evenings were spent at various clubs, and holidays were the time for relaxation. Then, 4 years ago, I got into more professional style training. I auditioned for the Advanced Training Programme in Contemporary Dance, delivered by one of nine Centres for Advanced Training (CATs) in the UK. I still remember the audition now. There was ballet, contemporary, choreography, an interview, even a physical screening. I went through the audition like a haze; my mum had already told me how unlikely it was I’d get in.

A few weeks later, I got a letter; I’d been accepted and was due to start training that September! Of course, I was surprised, delighted even. This wasn’t just about pretty tutus and the odd show in a church hall anymore. I’d read about the CAT scheme before, and knew it was the place to be for dance. Their acceptance rate at professional schools was 100%. Attendance was strictly monitored. Yawning in class meant a punishment of 20 push-ups. At 12, it was all a little overwhelming; I had never done anything like this before.

My first class sticks in my mind to this day – it was ballet, 6:45 on a rainy Monday evening, Studio 4. I arrived, dressed head to toe in colourful dance gear. Looking around, my bright pink top and blue joggers – which I’d thought would look perfect – were really out of place. Everyone was older, more sophisticated, more advanced. I came out of the first class feeling terrible. Driving home, my mum was cheery, clearly expecting me to have had an amazing time, to be buzzing with energy, at the very least to be smiling. Instead, as we drove back, I remember vividly sitting in the front seat of her car, driving along the motorway, rain drizzling onto the front window. My mum asked how it’d gone. I felt my eyes sting, my throat choking up, going dry: “Fine”, I croaked. I wanted so much to have loved the class, to have enjoyed every second, to be thrilled, excited, energised. Instead, I felt overwhelmed; completely out of my depth amongst older students with whom I seemed to have nothing in common.

Nevertheless, I returned. My other classes weren’t so bad, but every week, I dreaded 6:45 on a Monday night in Studio 4. The term dragged on. My attendance was near perfect, but I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. At 13 years old, it was pretty much the first time I felt a failure.

After a term of constant disappointment, I decided enough was enough. I spoke to my teacher and arranged to take double class. At the end of every Monday night, I was exhausted; after a day at school, over 3 hours of solid ballet was tiring on my young teen legs, especially on top of all the other classes I was doing each week! Admittedly, the improvements weren’t extreme, but – although I still had some catching up to do – I could feel the distance narrowing between myself and the other students. Back then, I was never the most confident student in the class, but I had certainly begun to live up to the challenge. By the end of the year, I finally felt comfortable, proud of my place in a class full of older students.

Since then, I’ve had what feels like a rollercoaster ride with dance. Some days, I come out invigorated and inspired by the hub of passion, motivation and energy that is the dance studio. Other days, with fatigued muscles and a drained body, I leave completely exhausted, ready to collapse into the seat of the metro on the way home. Occasionally, I still get the frustrating feeling that takes me back to my Monday night ballet classes. But now, I appreciate the rewards of that failure. Of course, it’s annoying at the time, but looking back, it’s those moments of sheer frustration that teach you the most.

Today, although it is still a social activity, my training has (unsurprisingly) become a lot more challenging, both physically and mentally. It demands a lot from my body, but also from my mind-set. The studio – like a home away from home – can be gruelling; you leave physically drained, knees bruised from floor-work, feet cut from pointe, and muscles aching from hours of impact. Yet somehow, the studio remains the boiling pot of learning; obedience, social interaction, and vital self-discipline. I leave feeling renewed and motivated, knowing that however exhausting my class has just been, I can get over it. It’s this sense of perseverance that triumphs in dance, both in the physical sense of pushing myself to my limits, but also mentally, encouraging me to accept criticism, and to apply it to my work.

From that first ballet class on a rainy Monday evening, I have come a long way. Since then, I’ve achieved distinctions in ballet exams, putting me top of the class, and this year I’ve been chosen for a European Dance Tour, as well as an intensive course with the world-renowned ‘Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre’, based in New York. As one of five dancers selected from our Advanced Training Centre, all those hours of double class have certainly paid off! In truth, it’s the lessons I’ve learnt from dance which have been truly inspiring: self-discipline and exploration; dedication and perseverance; and the ability to take criticism – however harsh it may be – and turn it into something constructive. To quote the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

10 January 2017