Book extract: Mary’s Last Dance
Rockhampton-born ballet star Mary Li has written about her incredible life in Mary’s Last Dance.
Her love of dance was born in Rockhampton with ballet teacher Miss Hansen.
This extract from her book talks about those early days.
Mary’s Last Dance (RRP $35 Penguin Books) is available from booksellers and as an audiobook and eBook.
Extract from Mary’s Last Dance:
In the early years ballet can be very slow and tedious, but after the first year Miss Hansen wanted to move me up more quickly so I could join my age group. I did Grade Two and Three together and Grade Four and Five together, and finally, when I was about ten, I caught up with the girls in black leotards who were my age and height, including Nina Veretennikova and Sharon Hamilton, my friends from school.
I then had a whole new routine.
‘Wake up, beautiful,’ were the words I heard at 5.30 a.m. as Dad stroked my cheek softly to wake me up for my ballet class. The rest of the household would still be asleep and Dad would cook me a steak or lamb chops for breakfast. I treasured this rare time together with my Dad. Class started at 6.30 but Dad was always ready to leave the house at six so I could get there twenty minutes early. We had early classes because it was impossible to work during the sweltering heat later in the day. The sun would beat down through the windows and you could barely stand outside by ten o’clock. The heat also meant we didn’t need much time to warm up before class as it was already so hot.
I adored the early-morning classes and never once regretted being there, no matter how strenuous the class was. Miss Hansen was ruthless on our technique. The steps were taught meticulously, and we repeated each one again and again until we had perfected it. After two hours of class, Mum would pick me up to take me to school. I would change in the car and got it down to a fine art, ducking for cover each time another car went by. I’d put on my school uniform and shoes and give her my leotard and tights, still dripping with sweat. ‘Mum, can you please wash these and bring them back this afternoon?’ I’d ask.
I always reminded her, but occasionally she would bring back the tights and forget the leotard or vice versa. She seemed to always get confused or forget. I would then walk into the studio with my uniform still on and apologise to Miss Hansen. ‘Never mind, Mary, take your tunic off and go to the barre,’ she’d say. With my white blouse tucked into my blue school knickers, I was silently turning red with embarrassment as I lined up at the barre beside the others in their black leotards. Nevertheless, I would never dream of missing a class, leotard or not. After enduring a few of these mishaps, I never sent my ballet stuff home with Mum again. My poor mother just couldn’t keep up. She had seven other children to look after. I was thirteen when I finally decided to kick Mum out of my ballet world and took responsibility for my clothes and shoes – and especially my hair – by myself.
My new life was in full swing. I was rarely at home, I worked hard in ballet, I was organised and I was as happy as could be. I loved Miss Hansen. She wasn’t just a teacher, she was every bit a choreographer too, creating compositions, arranging dance steps, movements and
patterns, and many of the dances for our competitions. We danced pieces from stage musicals such as Mame and Oliver. She had once choreographed a dance to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous Flight of the Bumblebee. I remember being astounded at the cleverness of the music, which sounded exactly like a swarm of bees. We were around ten years of age and there were eight of us. We then learned about patterning, staying in line and working as one. Learning to work in groups was wonderful. We danced in Scottish groups, character groups, modern groups, tap and classical ballet groups, according to the talents in the school.
The costumes were also superior. For Scottish dancing, authentic kilts and velvet vests were ordered directly from Scotland, along with brooches and big safety pins to hold the kilts together. We also had proper Scottish socks that were so thick they had to be held up with garters. It was as though through the experience of dance, Miss Hansen introduced us to the whole world.
I was thirteen when I did my first competition. Miss Hansen understood competing was necessary. Having stage experience was essential if you wanted a career in ballet. For my solo, I danced a Norwegian piece wearing a black skirt with a ribboned edge, a white blouse, a black velvet jacket trimmed with silver brocade and a square hat with ribbons flowing from it. I didn’t know where Norway was, and no one explained it to me either. All I knew was that the costume was very heavy and hot for the Queensland climate and that my mother bought it from an older dance student. I came away with a ‘highly commended’ award from the judges. I was elated.
We competed against students from all over Queensland. For some competitions afar, where we had to stay overnight, Mum would drive me and my classmates the night before and we would find a nice motel nearby, do the competition the next day, stay another night and then return home the following morning. I adored the whole experience! Although I don’t think anything was ever a holiday for Mum, these short escapes to a nice quiet motel must have been close enough for her.
Dancing one of Miss Hansen’s ballet solos was such a privilege.
You always knew you were good enough to go on stage after working with her. She came to watch all of our performances and never missed a competition. I quickly learned that most dancers were terrified of competing against her girls as we usually won. Interestingly, she never said anything about the competitions back in the studio – not a word.
So I suppose she was very discreet because the competitive world of ballet can inspire nastiness and she did not tolerate that. There were no favourites with her, we just got what we got in the competition and that was it. Instead, Miss Hansen was more concerned about the quality of the performance than who was going to win. She was very clear about that: she was training dancers for long professional careers.
As a result, Sharon, Nina and I never fell out over a competition – we were just glad for whoever won, and our friendship and camaraderie developed. Then, sadly, Sharon moved to Melbourne shortly after.
I continued to be inspired during these competitions because I got to see other dancers from different dance schools.
However, mishaps can happen in competitions. At one competition, our group was performing a contemporary move called contraction – a curling of the spine and pelvis to make a shape like a barbecued prawn. We wore funky hot-pink tops with flared pants and bare midriffs. Our hair was supposed to be in a sleek, long ponytail, so I had to get a fake one to clip onto my head. As I flipped my head forward towards my toes, I was mortified to see my fake ponytail suddenly on the floor! I had to quickly pick it up and keep dancing, otherwise someone might trip on it. Miss Hansen praised me afterwards for my quick-witted reaction. It was a good lesson that no matter what happens during the show, you must continue at all costs!
There were always a lot of mothers fussing in the dressing room during these competitions, but my mother would just stay quiet in the background. The only input she gave during the whole competition was ‘That’s lovely, darling’ when it was finished. I believed that was the correct response for a mother.
The following year I had my first tutu made. Mum bought the material in Sydney on an earlier trip with Dad. The tulle was pink and the bodice was in pink and gold. Mum also bought me a tiara from Brisbane. Unlike my hair, I never worried about my costumes as Mum had great taste. I knew this tutu would be stunning without being too over the top.
All of my family came to watch me at Rocky’s Municipal Theatre for my next competition. This time, I was competing in my first classical solo competition and was very excited to be wearing my beautiful tutu. Mum had a bucket ready beside her in case she was overwhelmed with nerves. Even Dad came. Mum always kept him in the dark about this kind of thing in case he got too excited.
Once everyone had danced, we waited at the side of the stage for the winners’ numbers to be called. I loved that solo, but it wasn’t as difficult as some others. The third-place girl was really good, so I didn’t believe I had placed. Thinking I wasn’t going to get anything, I was a little disappointed and started walking back to my dressing room when I heard someone call ‘Number eight!’.
My head snapped up. ‘That’s me! That’s me!’ I said to the other disappointed girls who were also walking backstage. I rushed back quickly in my tutu and then stopped at the wing. Remembering grace and posture, I glided onto the stage to receive a crystal bell for first prize. Even though I had only been en pointe for a short time, the judge said I had an unusual quality. She had decided to give the prize not to the most difficult solo but to mine. I was beside myself with happiness and couldn’t stop smiling!
The crystal bell was small and delicate. It meant everything to me.
Dom liked it, too. Sometime later at home, no one could find it. It was a mystery for weeks, and I cried, devastated. I was suspicious and sweetly convinced Dom that if he confessed to taking the bell and returned it, there would be no punishment. He eventually admitted he had accidentally broken it and hidden it in his chest of drawers.
I promptly told Mum. Dom was mortified at the betrayal and hid under his bed, but Mum was furious and found him. He rolled from side to side to avoid the wooden spoon while Mum got on the bed and went from side to side determined to punish him! Dom threatened to run away and disappeared for a few hours, but we found him later hiding in a bedroom wardrobe. Nothing was ever safe in that household!
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