Before COVID and the mass experience of solitary confinement inflicted upon single people who lived alone, one of the standard pieces of advice handed down to lonely people and single people, who were considered the one and the same, was to get out and meet people. As if this were simple. Being around people, installed in a family or relationship or busy sociable workplace, creates its own dynamic. As people with money generally get richer, so people who already have rich human networks are always meeting new people. What is so often misunderstood is that starting from a social zero base is like trying to light a candle in space.
One technology of sociability, as an academic might put it, is the evening class. Oh yes, join an evening class and meet people. Eavesdrop any muttered conversation between long-term singletons and you will hear about the extraordinary number of evening classes attended, to no effect. The desired effect being to meet a partner and forever after have the freedom to stay at home on cold winter evenings, clumped together on the couch with a glass of wine rather than catching a bus to that 9:30pm Latin American dance class in a draughty church hall. (Not to criticise church halls, which provide affordable venues for the otherwise godless.)
Shared interests are the magic tendrils of togetherness, a first sign that you Have Something In Common. (I leave aside the matter of simply going to a drinking establishment to find someone with a shared interest in tactile intimacy.) Go to any Italian or drawing class and find any number of interesting, lively women of all ages and a retired gentleman pursuing all the hobbies he had no time for in his working life. Any straight man under sixty will be accompanied by his wife or girlfriend. You could be fluent in several languages, including Mandarin, before getting the kind of first date where you pay for your own coffee.
But making friends in a class isn’t a given, despite the all-critical shared interests. In London, I went to the same yoga class for years, recognising faces and exchanging greetings but never names. Only once did a tenuous yoga connection lead to a real-life coffee, where we discovered we had so little in common it was embarrassing. This friend-candidate objected robustly to our neo-hippie teacher’s in-class yoga music as inappropriately ‘religious’. I found the comparison to a Salvation Army band overstated.
I’ve recently returned to live ballet classes, held in ramshackle back-lane studio. I had attended, off and on, for a few years before COVID. In the change rooms, I’d smile in greeting as I came in and perhaps exchange a comment about the cold: the studio was unheated and bitter in winter. I came to know faces without knowing names. Some women were regulars; others turned up erratically and others only came once or twice. Sometimes we’d chat at the end of class, and then we’d come out the back lane onto the main road and go our separate ways.
Returning to the studio for the first time since March 2020, I recognised some of the faces from before, even behind masks. One way or another, we’d all made it through this momentous shared but separate experience, and we were simply taking up where we’d left off.
In turn, I was recognised, if not named. In the minds of strangers, I existed as a presence in the contained world of ballet class, a unique body amid a group of individual bodies straining after the same effects. Neither a ‘silver swan’ nor a lithe 20-something with a recent ballet-lesson childhood, I’m one of several fit middle-aged women who exchange grimaces when we fluff a barre sequence or centre allegro.
The other day, during an adagio, the teacher called out my name: ‘Wrong leg!’
I quickly swapped legs, then looked around and in the mirror, confused, because I’d been right the first time.
The teacher looked at me, equally confused. He’d been addressing the woman directly behind me.
I now know the name of one person in my ballet class, and everyone knows mine.