A few weeks ago, in the midst of the last lingering remnants of New Years Eve selfie uploads and parents sharing recipes for casseroles, my robotic Facebook scrolling led me to an announcement from a ballet company near my hometown. They were advertising auditions for an upcoming production, and the bullet points below the all caps exclamation of “SWAN LAKE!!!” outlined strict requirements, one of them being a minimum height of 5’1” to dance en pointe, and 5’3” for dance parts not en pointe.
I’m 5’2” (although the height next to my unflattering driver’s license photo incorrectly insists that I am 5’0”).
I danced for 16 years and I never experienced the catty cutthroat competition dramatized on “Dance Moms” or the overwhelming unhealthy structure and demand that is often associated with the world of dance.
At a very young age I became captivated by the mesmerizing spell of a dainty plastic ballerina as she twirled gracefully in a music box, suspended on a platform above a mound of tangled beaded trinkets and charm bracelets. I begged my mother to enroll me in dance classes. Nearly every December, I watched whimsical sugar plum fairies and sinister mice frolic across a sleek wood floor with carefully controlled twirls and strong leaps, and I was entranced by the way dancers could embody music and create a new language with eloquence. Donning one of the many tutus I had piled in my dress-up box, I would twirl and tiptoe around the living room in the crinkled tulle, performing an unchoreographed number, trying to silently narrate the music. Dancers seemed to effortlessly translate the mystical world of formless melodies that I had so often heard oozing from within the speakers of my mom’s car into something visible, tangible, and beautiful. And I knew desperately that I wanted to do that too.
So at very early age, at my request (not as the result of some unfulfilled teenage Broadway pipe dream of hers or something), my mom signed me up for a local studio. You were supposed to be potty-trained—I was not, and thus began my reign as the ruthless rebel that I am today. Or something like that.
I loved spending hours with music. But all that time trying to execute choreography, also meant plenty of quality time in front of my reflection. I saw my form transition from scrawny and shapeless to not-so-scrawny during the sixteen years I spent in dance classes. For girls and women of any age, staring at yourself in front of a mirror in body-hugging clothing surrounded by other girls, can lead to an inner dialogue of harsh criticism and comparison. But I was never really in an environment that emphasized the value of waiflike frames or unattainable perfection. I learned not to dissect my body for its size and shape; it was about creating an art with my body. The focus was less on what my body looked like and more on what it could do. Dance is a visual art, but one that is about movement, the marriage of strength and grace, and utilizing your body to its highest potential. Ballet and dance in general are beautiful because it is an art that can be created with the body alone, which I find lovely and empowering. It makes me value what I have and what I am.
My mom wasn’t a “Dance Mom.” She was a Drive-Me-To-And-From-Dance-Classes-Only-If-Homework-Was-Complete Mom. I was never going to be a professional and I was never going to dance in a flesh-toned leotard in an abandoned apartment in a high-profile Sia music video. Dance was for fun. And aside from the occasional round of Just Dance, I haven’t done any real dancing since I started college. Yet, seeing that announcement, somehow it still stung to know that I could be rejected from something I so desperately loved because of something about myself that could not be changed.
Ballet, at higher levels is often criticized for its strictness and intensity. As someone who hung up her pointe shoes at 18, I’m far from able to speak from that position. As a dancer of 16 years, and a lifelong dance admirer, I can say that watching and being a part of dance has made me in awe of what the human body is capable of. There is more to dance than the often-highlighted push towards perfection. The recent soaring success and acceptance of dancers who are shattering many of the stereotypes of the dance world shows that the realm of dance is growing and maturing. Though once fixated on achieving visual uniformity, prestigious ballet companies are slowly beginning to highlight the talents of dancers with more diverse ethnic backgrounds and dancers who are muscular and more curvaceous than the traditional rail-thin image of a ballerina. I’m looking forward to a future in which traditional ballet embraces diversity and presents a healthier more open environment.
Dance remains dear to my heart, and I’m still a believer and an advocate of its mental and physical health benefits. Never the first person chosen for teams in gym class, I wasn’t exactly athletic growing up. Dancing made feel strong. In control. And when it was over, I was always left with the insatiable longing for that euphoria that could only be felt during dance. Dance is the ultimate workout—mentally and physically. You get in your cardio and muscle strengthening without really even thinking about it. There is a quiet strength in every graceful turn and leap. And learning choreography is much harder than it sounds. You can easily forget that there is more to dance than pirouettes and sashays, you actually have to remember when to do them and how many to do. Before it becomes muscle memory, choreography is a quick thinking game. You could say that it keeps you on your toes.
Until recently participating in a barre class—a workout that incorporates many aspects of traditional ballet—I had almost forgotten how good dance feels. Dance should make everyone feel the way I felt when I was little, excluding my first dance recital in which I was so petrified that I ran to the side of the stage and rolled myself up into a protective velvety curtain burrito. But before that, when I was young and uninhibited in my parents’ living room, moved by an unforeseen force and passion, and after that when I felt empowered and beautiful. You don’t have to slide on a black leotard and tights to experience the joy and appreciation of self that comes with it. Be it a beginning ballet class or a local ballroom group, I encourage everyone to spend some time bringing music to life with their body. It is the most freeing and gratifying experience to know that you can be art.