Sucking at ballet class makes me love my body

January 20 | Guest post by Melodie Lettkeman
By: larry1732 – CC BY 2.0
By: telemax – CC BY 2.0

The saddest thing I witness during my shifts at a dance and fitness wear store is when a mother — who, seconds before, was beaming at her four-year-old as the child prances around in her new ballet slippers — gives herself a glance in the large mirror by the fitting rooms with a sigh, and says, “Maybe I should take a couple classes. But I’m too big to dance now.”

As quickly and not-too-personal-with-a-stranger as I can, I try to tell them this:

I don't look like your average ballet dancer. Perhaps I was back in high school, but as most of us find out, adulthood and weight gain can be closely linked. But I've been very active, particularly in dance, since heading to college.

As a child, finances and studio availability kept my family from putting me in ballet. When I got to college and discovered I could take it as an elective credit, I put off taking a class so I could lose weight. The weight just kept finding me, but this semester, I decided to don those unforgiving pink tights and the skin-tight leotards, despite it.

I suck at ballet. Though I have been dancing for a few years, the style of the class I'm taking is extremely foreign to me. But even so, in the month since I've been in class, I have witnessed my own metamorphosis.

Within a few months, I felt incredible. I made very few mistakes, and, though my turnout is weak and my standing flexibility limited, I felt strong and graceful. The quantitative impact is still marginal, even five months later. But ballet had a deeper impact on me. I no longer fear wearing just a leotard and those tights. I am so focused on getting better at ballet that I cannot even think about if my gut is hanging over my tights. Mastering combinations makes me awed by my body, and I feel like I have super-powers accomplishing what I have.

Ballet gets a similar reputation to modeling — the eating disorder rate for dancers is nearly ten times higher than the general public. The pressure to be light is heavy. But I am basking in what I can do despite my weight.

I love my body, because it is a vessel through which my soul expresses itself. Dancing produced that attitude. I hope other dancers can feel that way.

Part of me wonders if my late introduction to ballet changed the way I connected body image with dancing, but I'd like to think if I'd started younger, my parents' emphasis on physical and emotional strength over vanity would have led me to the same conclusions.

About halfway through my first semester of ballet, I came across this passage, which left me inspired and hopeful:

"When it comes to the inevitable comparisons with others, remember this: everyone develops at a different pace, and that goes for both body development and for technical prowess. Some people are turners, some get gorgeous feet, and some have ideal proportions. Most dancers have at least one asset; no one has them all. Remember that you are comparing yourself to other dedicated specialists, not to ordinary people, and that what you are trying to do with your body is really very hard and not particularly natural. Allow yourself to take pleasure in what you do well while you work on the rest.

Be kind to yourself and remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said: No one can make you feel inferior without your permission. That goes for the mirror too."
– Eliza Gaynor Minden, "The Ballet Companion"

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  1. "the vessel through which my soul expresses itself" – that is beautiful! Thank you!

    6 agree
  2. As the mother of a young ballet student, I have had natural concerns about my daughter's body image. She's been dancing for years now, but having recently turned 11, she's approaching the age where body image becomes so important to girls. I bristled when she told me that they'd been learning about eating disorders in school, and even discussed how prevalent they are in dancers. It was not a combination that I even wanted her to know was out there yet. The thing is, after all of these years in ballet, watching herself in a mirror, wearing nothing but skin tight leotards and tights, watching other girls of various shapes and sizes, my daughter has come to understand things that I didn't think she could grasp.

    "The best dancers aren't skinny. The best dancers are strong. Those dancers who starve themselves don't make it, they can't. You need to be strong to dance and to be strong you need to be healthy."

    From the mouth of an 11 year old. I nearly cried. Is she critical of herself? Of course. But she doesn't care what the number on the scale says. She looks over her muscles, goes through her exercises, watching how each muscles lengthens, contracts, and smiles. When she criticizes her body, it is along the lines of "I need to work my core more", not "Wow, my belly". Ballet has given her a pride in her body, amazement at what it is capable of, and a desire to know what it needs and to care for it, that mere words from me could not.

    31 agree
  3. I can totally relate to this. I took tap dance for 8 years as a kid, dabbled with a community tap class (which was really more of a social hour with some basic tapping) for a few years, and just signed up for a new tap class close to my work. It's the same teacher as I had when I was a kid, but it's intermediate/advanced, which I haven't done since I was 10. It's kicking my butt, but I get a great workout, and I enjoy the challenge. Do I often feel discouraged because I can barely keep up? Yes. But a lot of other students feel the same way, and as long as I'm getting exercise while doing something I love (making a lot of noise with my feet in a rhythmic way!), plus I feel badass for having a hobby straight out of the 1940s… it's pretty rad. I'll probably never have a "dancer's body". I'll probably never get to be super flexible. But I can have fun and do something good for my body and my spirit.

    7 agree
  4. I love this. I too dabbled in ballet for a brief while. My time was when I was around 12-14 years old, so puberty was hitting me hard and the body I had when I started was definitely not the body I had when I quit! For me ballet was important in keeping my mental self in tune with my physical self, and long term I started noticing how weak my ankles got over time (to pick one example) just because I was able to contrast it with how strong they were when I did ballet. It helped me frame my approach to exercise as an adult – I actually just got back from the gym and I'm always mindful that my mission is to become stronger.

  5. Somewhat related: what's the best way to find local dance classes for adults in the 'burbs? Everything near me either seems to be exclusively for children, or Zumba (which is really not my thing.)

    4 agree
    • Check and see if your City/County has a local recreation center. They usually offer classes for adults that are separate from kids. Depending on the size of your city it may just be tap and ballet. If it is larger there may also bellydance, clogging/irish dance, and ballroom.

      If all else fails, use the almighty Google!

      3 agree
  6. Thank you for this. As someone who grew up in ballet (kindergarten through high school) and who has struggled with an eating disorder and come out the other side, it's heartening and refreshing to hear your experience.

    I've seen how sadly prevalent eating disorders are in dance circles. I've also seen some really great parenting and some very body-positive dancers. Here area few things I've witnessed that help dancers create body-positivity (mostly for children/teens)…
    – Parents and role models who talk about their own bodies in a confident/body-positive way
    – Strong support systems. Not necessarily a big family, but someone they can share their deepest emotions with
    – Talking openly about eating disorders, so kids aren't getting all their information from each other (believe me, we were talking about it by ages 10-11 and most of our information was highly glamorized)
    – Tools to healthily process negative emotions, especially anger and sadness. It's common in American culture to encourage kids to repress/push down those emotions rather than express them, but that can give a foothold to a budding eating disorder. Dancers can redirect their anger/sadness at their bodies and food, which they may think will help them achieve an "ideal" physique, but it's an extremely toxic cycle.

    3 agree
  7. I have never really been interested in ballet, but have been infatuated with bellydancing for forever. I think I watched too much "I Dream of Jeanie" as a kid.

    Several years back I took a bellydance class and it was so empowering. I felt sexy, graceful, beautiful, strong and powerful while doing it. Like your quote said, everyone in the class had different strengths. Mine is using my hips. I am NOT a tiny lady in the slightest. I am very much a woman with curves and I have HIPS. The biggest compliment I got that night was from another girl in class who was very thin come up to me and say she wanted my hips. I thought she meant my hip scarf. Nope. My. Hips. I asked her why. She said I had no trouble at all pulling off a graceful hip sway or hip drop, where she didn't have hips really she had to work twice as hard. I never thought of my body like that before. It was an eye-opening moment.

    11 agree
  8. Local community colleges have super beginning ballet classes. I'm taking one this semester. There are some people in their 20's, some seniors, and older adults in their 30's like me. I've found that dance is the only exercise I can really enjoy. Going to the gym is not for me. My gateway dance was bellydance which I've taken off an on for years now.

    I think since I'm not going to dance professionally, I can just enjoy the process, the movement and the accomplishment of finishing a class.

    4 agree
  9. This is exactly the way I feel about my tap classes. I took dance classes for years, until I hit puberty and transformed from a tall, skinny girl to a more Ruebenesque woman. I was always sorry I gave up dancing, especially when I enjoyed it so much.

    Three years ago I found an adult tap class in my adopted hometown. It's 41-year-old me and 4 grandmothers, but we have a great time. My teacher is always pushing us as far as we can go — either because of injuries or skill. It's a rewarding kind of hard work exercise. And I've noticed that even though destiny determined I'll never be a professional ballerina, I know I can still be an adequate-for-living-rooms tap dancer. I've stopped looking in the mirror and wondering whether I should be dancing. I love dancing and that is the only thing I need to know. I feel beautiful in my tap shoes. That alone is worth it.

    2 agree
  10. Ohhh, i remember ballet as a child! Somewhere along the way i began to despise pink and all its forms and instead went for ballroom dancing as an adult. Dancing is such an exercise even if it doesn't look it!
    And @Stacey, omg *sob* marvelously said! your daughter is a treasure!

    1 agrees

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