The Well Wrought Bun

I’ve been fiddling around a lot with my hair recently—mostly pinning it up in various configurations. Partly, it’s because my hair has grown really long in quarantine. Also, until quite recently, I’ve been between knitting projects and braiding hair is soothing in a similar way to knitting yarn. Most of all, my threshold these days for what might be considered a diverting indoor activity is very low. I’ve been inspired, in the various hairstyles I’ve attempted, by a number of iconic updos that have featured in recent movie nights. My kids like Star Wars for the epic battles but I’m in it for the epic hair. I’m not crazy about the original side buns; but I really like Leia’s (much more flattering) braided bun in the ceremony at the end of the first movie. People always pan Return of the Jedi but, in hair terms, it will always and forever be my favorite because of its rich interplay of braided updos, and, also, Ewoks.

Now the kids and I are half way through the Hunger Games film series—which is set in a dystopian world that did not quite so brazenly mirror our own when I read the books back in the 2010s. If only we had the Mocking Jay. Katniss Everdeen: an excellent shot; also a very strong braid game. And braiding your own hair is hard—even when you’re not also in a life-or-death reality show. Braiding your own hair demands considerable upper-arm strength. That’s probably why Katniss is so good at them. Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe she’s good with a bow and arrow because her arms are so strong from all the intensive braiding.

Both Katniss and Leia in Return of the Jedi wear a version of the style I’ve most often attempted lately: two braids—just regular pigtails—pinned across the top of my head. This hairstyle, the internet insists, is called “milkmaid braids,” which is gross, and makes the look sound less woman warrior more Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which is not what I am going for. That being said, it is a hairstyle that I associate with both falling and shame, so maybe the identification with Hardy’s tragic fallen heroine is apt. Until recently, I hadn’t worn “milkmaid braids” in decades. But it’s a hairstyle with which I have an intimate and somewhat traumatic history, because it was the regulation hairstyle during my two years at the Royal Ballet School in London, which was, as its name signals, no rustic barn but, rather, an extremely forbidding and rarefied institution.

The “Junior Associate” wing of the Royal Ballet School (for students between eight and eleven), which I joined in 1981, is also, I should say, a genuinely illustrious program in the history of ballet. The School was created in 1948 by Dame Ninette de Valois, a renowned ballet dancer who danced with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes before going on to found the Royal Ballet and its affiliated school. I recall her (quite vaguely and possibly unreliably) as a romantically witchy long-haired old lady (kind of like Mags from The Hunger Games) who would occasionally sit in on our classes along with Jocelyn Mather, who was the head of the program, and whom I recall as having a more forbidding Margaret-Thatcher like aura. When they visited our class, it was a big deal. Also—and this may have been the most thrilling aspect of the program—our classes were actually held backstage in the Sadler’s Wells Theatre—I was, in fact, I just learned today, part of the first year of students who took classes there. My Mum would drop me off and I would dash in the stage door of the theatre, saying hello to the doorman on the way in. This aspect of the program—the feeling that I had been granted entry into a magical secret world—I treasured.

But it was also a world that had an extremely rigid set of codes and customs (perhaps all magical secret worlds do). As such, the school’s insistence that all girls wear their hair in “milkmaid braids” was very much in keeping with the school’s general philosophy. Although simple in concept, so-called milkmaid braids are not a simple hairstyle to create. First of all, it is a style that demands symmetry: a severe center parting from the top of the forehead to the nape of the neck (my hair has always resisted—and still does—parting down the middle). Then, the two braids—or plaits as we call them in Britain—had to be aligned so that the band they made across the head when pinned up would not be lopsided. Finally, the braids had to be pinned in place across a fidgety and impatient child’s head. Suffice to say that it required a great deal of maternal labor, as well as hairspray, to hold my plaits in place. And then—and this is where the true perverseness becomes apparent—then the braids had to stay neatly coiled on top of my head for the duration of a ballet class: a class in which there would be piroutteing and leaping. The more I think about it, the more perverse the regulation milkmaid braids seem, and the more inevitable their public fall.

Pride comes before a fall is the theme of a long narrative account of my days at the Royal Ballet School that I recently found in an old box of papers. The account is loftily titled “My Training,” and I wrote it when I was twelve for a school project about dance. I explain in the narrative how my ballet teacher “suggested I go for an audition at Sadlers Wells for the Royal Ballet school.” I continue:

“My mother agreed partly because it was near where I live. There were two auditions and most of the dancing was quite easy. A lot of it were [sic] teachers twisting you around to see how flexible you were. I was very excited when I got into the final audition for hundreds of girls and boys applied each year. When I’d finished that audition there was a wait of maybe a month or two to see if you were excepted [sic]—I was!”

Once, I got in, though, I did indeed feel excepted as well as accepted: that is, I felt like I didn’t fit in and I chafed at the school’s strictures:

There were two classes a week in the Junior associate course and I had a nice teacher. The only thing I didn’t like was the DIARY. The DIARY was a diary you had to write after each class saying which exercises you had done and what had happened. Mostly we did the same exercises each week so I usually put something like, “we did the exercises the same as last week except for the pliés. Then we did stretching exercises—if you want to know what sort look at last weeks page.” It would have been a very boring diary to read, we were also meant to keep dictionaries in which we wrote down the new french terms for exercises that we had learnt.

When the next year came around another audition came around and it turned out that exactly the same people as last year had got in except now there was one extra girl. [This was the Royal Ballet School’s version of the Hunger Games: you had to re-audition competing against hundreds of other children—every year, just for the privilege of being allowed into the classes—which, to be clear, my parents also had to pay for.] This year I had a teacher called Miss Young whom I didn’t like so much so my diary also changed, now it was more like, this, “I think Miss Young picks on me on purpose—she keeps blaming me for all the exercises that go wrong” or “Miss Young was actually nice to me today—she probably isn’t feeling well.” The teachers were meant to check the diaries once but that one time mine wasn’t among them, and the person who won the prize for the best diary was the only one who had kept her diary up to date.

The school’s regimented ethos was most visible in the precise and unforgiving nature of its uniform:

The uniform was a white leotard, pink socks, pink ballet shoes with pink elastic. You wore [a] belt according to how old you were. First year I had [a] white belt, second year [a] blue [one]. Your hair was worn in plaits across the top of your head with bows matching your belt on each side. On my first ever class my hair fell down in two long plaits—in front of everyone.

Oh the shame of it! I can still see it in my mind, although what I see is myself as if I’m outside of my own body and I can’t tell if it’s because I am remembering myself as I looked in the studio’s mirror or because I’m seeing myself from the point-of-view of a very stern impartial spectator. Probably both. This is what I see in my mind’s eye: I’m standing in a line of other girls in white leotards (white leotards!)—it is the end of the class and we are doing some simple sautés in the center of the room, and we are doing it line by line, which means that there are other girls on the side watching. As our line jumps together, I see my own face, rosy and shiny with sweat half smirking-half frowning as the two plaits tumble down and bounce on my shoulders as we finish the exercise and the girls watching from the sides titter. I know I wanted to cry but I don’t remember if I did.

The feeling that your hair is about to fall loose when you are dancing is a very particular feeling. I would liken it to another feeling with which I’m also familiar, one that I suspect is more familiar to women than to men: it’s the feeling when you are walking, carrying, say, a computer bag in your left hand and with a purse or shoulder bag slung over your right shoulder; you are carrying a very full cup of very hot coffee in your right hand and you suddenly realize that the shoulder bag is about to slip down your right arm causing you to drop the coffee but—and this is crucial—you realize this in time to perceive the exact chain of events that are about to occur but not in time to stop them from happening. It is a similar feeling when you are doing posé turns across the studio, and you can suddenly feel quite distinctly that the crucial pin, the one that is keeping your bun together, is about to come loose, and that, when it does, the whole thing will fall apart. It’s like a game of Jenga or, even more so, like that game Kerplunk (which I remember finding as a child much too stressful to be fun) where you have to remove plastic straws from a plastic dome without allowing any marbles to fall through the lattice made by the interlacing straws. By contrast, the feeling of a well-wrought bun is immensely comforting: instead of feeling either weighed down by the bun’s gravitational pull or pinched and pulled by hairpins, you feel, instead, buoyed, secure.

Twelve-year old me doesn’t say anything further about the hair incident in my written account. Instead, after recounting the humiliation of my hair’s Fall, I begin a new paragraph:

At the end of the second year I or rather my mother got a note saying I was growing wrong—(my body was getting too long for my legs—) and I probably wouldn’t get in at the next audition. I decided it would be better (or rather my pride did) if I just left at the end of the year without going in for the audition at all—so endeth my Royal Ballet career.”

Reading these lines now, I feel a lot of compassion for—and also anger on behalf of—the twelve-year old me trying to lightly play off an experience that was in fact very painful to me at the time. I didn’t quite get it right here; there was no “note” saying I was “growing wrong”; rather, as I see from the correspondence that I also found recently while going through old papers, at the bottom of the acceptance letter my parents received telling them I had been admitted for a second year of study, Jocelyn Mather added a rather ominous note asking if she might “have a word” with my mother “at the beginning of next term.”

mather note

I don’t know exactly what she said to my Mum during that conversation, but I suspect that what my Mum was trying to emphasize, in communicating to me that it had to do with the way my body was growing, was that the School’s concerns were not to do with the way I danced.

Nonetheless, I remember being devastated—feeling rejected and humiliated. At the same time, I also didn’t feel terribly surprised; and part of me even felt relieved. I had always felt slightly out of place in the program, and also guilty that I didn’t enjoy the classes more when they were so special and rarefied. My Mum was not like the other “ballet mums”—almost all of whom seemed completely immersed in the ballet world—and I was not like the other Junior Associates either—for one, I did not like to smile while I was dancing nor being told to smile, as I think is evident from the group pictures below. (Also evident: I am not pulling my stomach in and in the second picture I am not holding my arms in first position and I have a large band-aid on my right knee.) For another, I was also the only girl in my class who wasn’t white, a fact that tended only to be obvious when I was tan from a family holiday. “You look almost black!” I remember one of the girls whispering to me once, her eyes wide—was it in shock or awe? I smiled uncertainly, suddenly self-conscious at the stark contrast between my brown limbs and white leotard in the mirror.

royal ballet 81royal ballet 82

I am wearing the braids now. No bows. No Royal Ballet class through which my pinned plaits must hold their shape. No bow and arrow either; no battle royale through which my braids must hold steadfast. But I do feel that they are holding me steady, nonetheless: hugging my scalp, holding my head together—not too tightly, not too loosely, not perfectly wrought but well-wrought enough, which, perhaps, is just right.

braids June 2020