Lessons in Elegance
The moonlight catches the wet cobblestones of the laneway in the heart of Montpellier’s medieval quarter. An enormous wooden door of an aged sandstone building sits slightly ajar, and, after a determined push, I feel its weight as it groans open. My footsteps reverberate off the walls as I tread uncertainly up the sandstone stairs and as I near the landing, the cadence of my gait is overcome by the bewitching rasp of Billie Holiday. Her strains grow louder as I push open the door to the studio.
The first thing I realise is that I’m wearing the wrong colour – everyone else in the room is clad in elegant blacks and greys and touches of baby pink, whereas my top is bright blue. My second realisation is how everyone moves with such elegance, draping their long, lithe limbs over the wooden ballet barre, and bending into graceful pliés. As this is my first barre à terre class, I slink to the back of the room, as far away from the mirrors as possible.
Our teacher is a slender, impossibly poised ex-ballerina named Céline, whose exquisite posture is only slightly less intimidating than the black-and-white stills of her in dramatic poses that are framed throughout the studio. As a Louis Armstrong chanson warbles through the speakers, she claps her hands commandingly in time, calling out a sequence of poses in French. This is a particular challenge of living in France that I hadn’t anticipated – trying to simultaneously interpret a foreign language and a dance routine. I’m silently thankful that I’m tucked away in the furthest corner of the room, though I still feel Céline’s impatient gaze occasionally land in my direction – for a creature whose elegance seems so innate, it must be difficult for her to tolerate the aesthetically unpleasing clumsiness of others. But I endure, and by the end of the class feel like I may have found a new sliver of grace within myself, as I complete my first lesson in French elegance – one of many that I’ll soon experience as I begin to unravel the intricate layers of French culture.