A year ago I made a decision that changed my whole life. After nearly a year of contemplation I choose to hang up my pointe shoes, and leave my ballet company. At the time I hadn’t realized it, but I was also walking away from the only culture I had ever known.
My exit from the stage was not completely voluntary; over the course of two years I completely burned out. It was subtle at first, but soon I realized I was waking up exhausted, dreading the long day of rehearsals ahead of me. The joy of dancing had ceased to override the intense pain it caused my body. My aching joints and bloody toes became louder than the music, and I lost my rhythm.
The very last straw was when I spent the summer in New York. I was to spend it dancing with a notable classical ballet company in hopes of getting a spot in their company.
I was ecstatic for my first day of rehearsals. I was so close to what I had spent my life working towards. I thought this was it, years of blood sweat and tears culminating on that one day. In the morning I was out of bed, showered, and ready to go an hour early. I had my customary banana for breakfast and practically skipped all the way to the studio.
I was almost bouncing out of my pointe shoes by the time head of the company walked in to make introductions. Maybe “walked” is the wrong word. He paraded in with the grace and authority only afforded to a Ballet Master.
I expected him to welcome us, wish us luck, and send us to the warm up class. Instead what he said caused the bone-deep exhaustion that had been creeping up on me all year to take hold. I am sure he just meant to make sure we had no illusions about how hard the summer would be, but after a lifetime of this none of us had any illusions left.
After a brief introduction, he proceeded to lecture us about our weight, saying that only the dancers with the “ideal” bodies would make it into this world, into his company. He told us that the perfect ballet body was to be thin, graceful, and tall, but not too tall. We were to have small hips and bust, and large feet. Our torso was to be small and our arms and legs to be long. “It is something you have to be born with,” he said. “If you don’t have it already you will never get it.”
I look around the room at the group of the thinnest, most dedicated women I had ever seen. Not one, myself included, looked happy. Even those with what I thought to be the perfect body were eyeing themselves in the mirror with distain.
I thought back to the ballet class I’d attended a year earlier. Our teacher instructed us to jump up and down in front of a mirror, telling us if anything jiggled we weren’t thin enough. I remember wishing I’d taken that more to heart, wishing I could have eaten less, worked out more. I would have done anything to look like the perfect ballerina.
The next two months became a struggle. Every morning I would wake exhausted. At lunch I would feel guilty for every calorie I ate. After six hours of dancing I would eat dinner filled with contempt for my lack of self-control. By the end of the audition I could barely dance, much less get a spot in the company.
I returned home disappointed, and even though I was significantly skinner, all I could think of was the girls just a bit smaller than me who’d made the cut. I had stopped considering technique and strength as a factor in what made a great dancer; I only saw weight.
Then one morning I woke up to my alarm blaring and I realized I couldn’t go to class. I started thinking of the ballerinas I knew, the ones I nearly worshiped for their perfection. I realized how ugly the need for such perfection had made them. They beat themselves up every time they fell off pointe, they obsessed over the image of themselves in the mirror. I realized what they had to sacrifice: they didn’t go out with friends, they didn’t go to school, they didn’t live life. They lived to dance.
While I will always understand, always miss that singular focus, I realized I wanted to do so much more. I wanted to travel, finish school, form relationships – and I wanted to have a life outside of dance.
So later that day I rolled out of bed for the second time and laden with guilt I walked to the offices of my ballet company. I told them I would not be returning for the fall season. I would not be returning to dance at all.
With that I left everything I knew behind.
I had some school under my belt and I decided to return, to find a career in a healthier field. To stay in shape I started boxing, something I had done when I was younger, before ballet took over my whole life. I found bliss in a sport I could do without the pressure of perfection hanging over my head.
As my eating got healthier I started to gain weight. My breasts swelled and my hips widened. It was as horrifying as the first signs of puberty were when I was younger. “What are these curves and why do I no longer look like a boy?!?”
I realized I had no realistic idea of what a body should look like. So I decided I would love myself for whatever I looked like that day, not put expectations on what I should look like. I still struggle with that; I don’t think I will ever get rid of the small ballet master that lives in my head and yells at every imperfection. But I have managed to gag her pretty well.
I realize that I will never fully shake the claws ballet has in me. I still miss the dancing, the feeling of flying across a stage, but I am happy to no longer be consumed by that culture.