Returning to Ballet
Yesterday I did something I never thought I’d do again — I put on tights and a leotard and went to a ballet class.
I danced ballet from age 5 to 15. I quit because I wanted to join the high school marching band instead, but of course that isn’t the whole story. I loved dancing. Always have and always will. What I didn’t love was what a decade of bullying, ostracism, and shaming had done to my mental health.
Everyone knows about ballet and body image. Everyone’s seen Black Swan. I won’t belabor that point. I was very thin up until the tail end of my ballet career, but I hated my body anyway and continued to hate it for a long time after. And ballet isn’t entirely to blame for that.
What not everyone knows is that body shaming is only one particularly visible way that the toxic culture in many (most?) ballet studios and companies plays itself out. In those spaces, ballet isn’t just about being thin, graceful, and technically skilled. It’s about having supreme control over your body, its physiological needs, and your own mind.
Just a few of the things I remember being explicitly shamed for by my ballet teachers, and sometimes by other students:
- Having my bun fall out
- Not being able to get my hair into a neat bun to begin with
- Accidentally wearing the wrong leotard color or style (each level in the school had a very specific assigned color that you could not deviate from; all leotards had to be tank tops or spaghetti straps)
- Arriving late, even slightly, even though classes were sometimes scheduled so soon after I got out of school that I didn’t even have time to go home and eat or change
- Forgetting choreography
- Making a technical mistake
- Being too anxious to improvise solo in front of the whole class
- Showing fear and hesitating to do a potentially risky movement
- Having family commitments that get in the way of classes or rehearsals
- Not acting sufficiently grateful when receiving corrections from the teacher
- Failing to write down corrections in a notebook
- Failing to pay attention during rehearsals for parts I’m not in
- Forgetting to thank and curtsy to the teacher at the end of class
- Being less skilled than other students in the class
- Needing to use the restroom during class
These last two were explicit in ways you might not expect. For instance, one of my teachers particularly liked to choose a small group of dancers — 4 or 5 — in each class that she considered her “elite” students. She would have these dancers demonstrate exercises to others and compare others (unfavorably) to them. One year I wasn’t in this group. The next year I was. I’m not even sure anymore which was better.
It was this same teacher in whose class I had the misfortune to be one day when I really needed to use the restroom, and break was still a long ways away. I approached her in between exercises and quietly asked if I could use the restroom.
She fixed me with a cold glare, equal parts fury and hatred. Then she inclined her head ever so slightly towards the door and said, in clipped words: “Never. Again.”
The bizarre prophecy came true. I went to the bathroom and returned to class, but this was pretty late in the whole story and you could say by then that I was on my way out.
I spent years of my early life obsessing and ruminating over things like this. Who looked at me disapprovingly and why. Which girls were excluding and ignoring me this week, but not the next. Who else was being treated this way, as far as I could tell. I would typically befriend these girls (and one boy), but they rarely stuck around long, and befriending them made my own social status drop even further.
Meanwhile, from an outside perspective I seemed like the picture of success. I was eventually up to taking four classes a week, including en pointe. I performed in at least one professional production every year, often more. I’d been in The Nutcracker many times, along with A Christmas Carol, America’s Robin Hood, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was part of a program that sent teenage dancers into schools to perform for kids and teach them about ballet. I was cast as the lead in The Nutcracker, an experience I still cherish despite everything. At the time that I quit, I was in the pre-professional company, poised to continue to the senior level and start performing en pointe on stage.
All the same, I hated my body and hated myself. I was almost never confident in my dancing or in anything else that I did. At around this time, I started high school, fell in love with the marching band, made a bunch of new friends, and started to feel liked and wanted by people outside of my own family for the first time in my life. I hung up the pointe shoes and quit, and scarcely looked back.
I had dreams about it, though. Not often, but regularly. In most of them I was late to class, and/or wearing the wrong leotard, and/or messing up on stage. In a few of them, I was just happy and dancing. But not usually.
It took me years to identify my experience with ballet as abusive, and even longer to fully unwrap all the ways in which it was abnormal and bizarre. (Maybe not for ballet, but for human interactions generally.) Everyone I know did tons of extracurriculars as a kid; no one I know ever had a Holocaust remembrance slogan hissed at them when they asked to use the restroom.
Later, I would take various classes as an adult — yoga, pole, swing dance, Zumba — and marvel at the fact that I could sit or stand where I wanted and how I wanted, turn my gaze where I wanted, wear what I wanted, do my hair how I wanted, arrive late or leave early if I needed to without the whole class going silent and staring at me with derision, take a drink of water when I wanted, use the toilet when I wanted, speak without being spoken to first, and generally just fucking exist without surveillance and shame.
For a long time I’ve wondered why, despite my loving and generally-supportive family, I experience so many issues typical of people who grew up with abusive parents. And I keep wondering.
Although I’d toyed with the idea of returning to ballet before, I didn’t think about it seriously until the past few months, when my intolerance of heat — a probably-permanent side effect of cancer treatment — made it impossible to exercise most other ways.
Inevitably, I would start exercising and become overheated to an unbearable degree within a few minutes. The only way to deal with the overheating was to stop entirely and let my heart rate return to its resting rate. There did appear to be a narrow temperature range — probably 50–60 or so — within which this wasn’t such an issue. Anything above that, and I’d overheat. Anything below, I’d either be uncomfortably cold, or I’d have to wear warm clothes — and then overheat.
What kind of exercise involves intense spurts of activity, broken up by periods of doing nothing at all? Not interval training, where you still have to move — and where my hot flashes continue.
For a while, I couldn’t think of anything.
And then I remembered my old friend, ballet. Ballet classes are always structured the same way — a sequence of exercises performed first at the barre, then in the center, and finally moving across the floor. In between each exercise, the teacher gives suggestions for improvement and teaches the next combination. While they do so, dancers either “mark” the movements by copying them in a less-intense way, or stretch. You’re rarely engaged in intense, aerobic activity for longer than a few minutes at a time.
(In fact, if you’ve ever watched a ballet performed, you’ll notice that it’s much the same way, except instead of exercises there’s dances and they last a bit longer.)
Sustained aerobic movement was extremely hard for me even before cancer, especially in the heat. It really always has been; now it’s just worse. I remember quitting tennis when I was in elementary school — greatly upsetting my parents, by the way — because I couldn’t handle the overwhelming heat. I used to describe the feeling like this: a hot, thick wool blanket pressing in on me from all sides.
Since childhood, I’ve rarely been sedentary for long. I’ve often been in great shape. Yet I’ve never been able to solve that particular problem.
Except maybe by returning to a form of physical activity that doesn’t cause it. Other than swimming, which I can only really do in the summer, dance is the only thing.
So I went to my first ballet class in over a decade, hoping that I’d like it, or at least tolerate it, enough to be able to make it a regular thing.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I felt pretty confident that I remembered what all the terms meant, but would that translate to really knowing them?
As it turns out, it did. Entering the studio, I found myself immersed in something that felt as familiar as air. I took my place at the barre and started the first combination, and in that moment it might as well have been 2004 for all the difference I felt.
Because here’s the weird thing — while I could obviously tell that I’d lost flexibility and strength, for the most part, making these movements felt much the same in my body as it always did. I found the same things difficult that I found difficult before, such as tendu to the side from fifth position and grande plié in first, and they felt difficult in the same ways they did before. When I swept my left arm up in port de bras, I completely forgot about how my surgery limited its mobility. I’m sure the difference was there, but I didn’t notice it.
As the combinations became more physically demanding and fast-paced, I started to get hot towards the end of each one. But the feeling didn’t bother me much, and the combination would inevitably end before it became seriously uncomfortable. Then I’d get a couple minutes to rest and stretch, and the feeling would recede again.
I looked around the room. I wasn’t the largest person, and (obviously) wasn’t the smallest either. I was neither the oldest nor the youngest. There were a few men in the class too. Some dancers were more flexible and polished than me, and others were less so.
During the class I noticed negative thoughts and feelings about my body coming up again, somewhat accentuated by the leotard and tights I wore. I remained aware of these throughout the class, but they didn’t bother me a lot, perhaps because I thought it was perfectly natural and understandable to have these experiences in a ballet class where you’re barely wearing any actual clothes and surrounded by other people.
You’d probably think that coming back to ballet isn’t a great idea for someone whose cancer treatment has recently kicked up tons of body image issues. And yeah — in a way, I spent an hour and fifteen minutes even more aware of those issues than I am for most of the day.
But on the other hand, even that experience turned out to be extremely validating. What did it was realizing that the thoughts I had yesterday as I watched myself in the studio mirror were almost identical to the ones I was having 13, 14 years ago — before puberty, before cancer, before everything, back when I weighed half as much.
As I regarded my disobedient soft body in the mirror, I realized that I’m going to struggle with the exact same shit whether I’m 12 years old, prepubescent, and 80 pounds, or 27, part-way through reconstruction following a double mastectomy, and more than I’ve ever weighed before except during chemo.
So, like, fuck it. I’m going to go to ballet class and feel not super great about how I look there, and that’s fine. I’m not there to feel good about how I look. I’m there to dance and have fun doing it.
In any case, that’s where the similarities to my childhood classes ended. The teacher joked with the class, and her instructions and corrections focused entirely on how we use our muscles and not on how we look. (I didn’t hear “Suck those tummies in!” even once.) The music, which at first sounded like standard piano ballet music to me, quickly revealed itself to be an album of piano arrangements of famous sci-fi and fantasy film scores. That day I danced to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, and Star Wars.
I left sweaty, exhausted, sore, and very glad that a decade of shitty experiences didn’t ruin dance for me forever.