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”