The Extracurricular Experience

Reflecting on how ballet shaped me as a person

Oct 7, 2015 · 4 min read

So, I danced ballet for 15 years, then took 10 years off. My fellow bunheads will laugh as they read this. One does not simply walk away from ballet without their body taking a big, painful hit. To the non-dancers, it is not like riding a bike. But, you know, I was 18 and knew it all. I had some life to live, goddammit! Read: I wanted to study psychology, deep in the middle of cornfields, somewhere in Illinois.

[Insert college and my first few jobs here]

Fast-forward to now. I’m at IDEO, working alongside some of the most inspiring and brilliant people imaginable. And I’ve recently started dancing again. My body hates me for taking such a hiatus, but my mind is ever grateful. Only by walking away, was I able to reflect and gain such perspective on how this beautiful art form made me who I am. Here’s what I’ve put together…

Ballet, or some form of dance, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started dancing when I was three. I’d guess my parents thought their curly-haired toddler would look adorable in tights and tutus. They were right, again. Please, don’t tell them I said so. All cuteness aside, they had no way of knowing just how much dance would mean to me. Nevertheless, I recently realized that my dancing days are responsible for the designer — the person — that I’ve become.

Ballet taught me about discipline, varying forms of communication, and resilience. It also taught me how to work well with others, hold myself accountable, to constructively give and receive feedback, and to quickly make the appropriate adjustments. Is she talking about iteration in a piece about ballet? Yes, she is.

With extracurricular obligation comes time commitment. Being in school meant my window to practice the thing I love began after 3 pm, Monday through Friday. Much to my dismay as a young girl who wanted only to dance, homework exists. My parents would often remind me that dancing was a privilege — not a right — meaning I had to maintain a B average, at worst, if I wanted to keep twirling. This gave me around two hours of homework time before practice, which roughly translated to, ‘Use your time well, sweet angel face.’

Very early on, I learned the value of time management, prioritization, and discipline. Did I miss out on some questionable after school shenanigans with my friends? Of course. I was probably better off not chugging Boone’s Farm, anyways. Ballet was my priority, and I knew the terms.

You see, ballet is not for the faint of heart. It’s the world where nothing will ever be good enough and the strive for perfection is a life’s work. Design is this way, too.

Rejection and heartbreak become part of the weekly routine, along with the incessant comparing of oneself to everyone around you. Instructors set incredibly high expectations, and you will be held to them. No negotiations. Because of this, I now hold myself to a higher standard than anyone would dare ask. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is where I thrive. I’m goal-oriented, driven, and proactive. I get shit done. There’s simply no room for wishy-washy behavior or dilly-dallying. This is especially true when providing or receiving feedback.

In the world of dance, if you’re doing something incorrectly — or there’s room for improvement — you’re going to hear about it immediately. It will be constructive, and you can count on it being swift. Furthermore, it’s not to be taken personally. Because it’s not personal. It’s not an attack on your character. It’s feedback. Being in this world taught me that if I didn’t like the way something looked or felt, then I needed to do something about it. It’s no one’s responsibility but my own.

Complaining gets you nowhere. It’s action that’s required.

I see the ability to compartmentalize, in the right context, as a strength. I learned the art of presence and full commitment through ballet. Placing a hand on the barre means letting everything else go for the moment. Bad day? Fight with a friend? Death in the family? Dance about it. You’re there to do a job, and people are counting on you. Convert the looming negative energy into something productive, optimistic, and beautiful.

I now take the same approach, professionally. Life has no shortage of things scary, difficult, or heartbreaking. On any given day, I might be tired, anxious, overwhelmed, or sad. And yet I still have the power of choice. Curl into a ball and admit defeat, or claim my circumstances and make the very best of what I have. I’m a big fan of — and will forever aim for — the latter.

I am most grateful for ballet teaching me to take full ownership of my body. To be proud, strong, and in full control. With ownership comes the right to choose my own path — personally, professionally, educationally, and medically. In our current political climate — with women’s rights somehow still up for debate — these lessons have become increasingly important to me. There’s much to say here, and I will.

Dance brought me catharsis. It was my therapy. It introduced me to lifelong friends and was the beginning of my complete obsession with music. It made me feel deeply, down to my very core.

Perhaps most importantly, ballet taught me to both literally and figuratively dance the line between firmness and grace. To be simultaneously hard and soft. Strong and delicate.

Life’s a dance, that way. So in a sense, ballet taught me how to live.

For my younger brother, Jason, who spent countless childhood days at my dance performances.

Thanks to Sally Clark and Katie Clark

Magen McAfee

Written by

Human woman. Feeling feeler. Story lover. Copywriting Lead at Plato Design. Formerly a brand writer and editorial producer at IDEO, Character, and Airbnb.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade