Little girls all over the United States have chances to be ballerinas– whether that’s for a day, a year, or a childhood of dance classes. If a little girl never has to opportunity to dance, it is always something they wistfully wish they had done. I know this because I began dancing at age three and was instantly sucked into the whirlwind that is the world of ballet. Comments I have received over the course of my life revolve around two primary statements: number one, people are impressed and encouraging of the dedication and hard work it takes to be a ballerina. Number two, those who never got the chance to dance as a child– never had the choice I did to be swept up into the world of tutus and performances and cheering crowds– they are the people who smile sadly and admit that they wish they ha given dance a try. To these people, I have two responses: firstly, I so appreciate the perspective of value and recognition of worth that you voice about ballet. Your perspective is refreshing because secondly, ballet has been one of the most negative aspects of my life.
Ballet enthralled me from the start: the feeling of being applauded, the satisfaction of understanding and mastering a movement, the joy of being complimented by teachers and peers. Classical ballet took over my life: by the time I was a high schooler, I was dancing over twenty hours each week. With the joy came a desire and almost obsession to succeed, to achieve the level of perfection expected of me. I craved the eyes of all who watched me perform, relished the affirmation I received. These desires are so prevalent within the dance world, some of the driving forces that push amateur dancers to work for intensely challenging results. These desires spurred on the eating disorders of dancers all around me, creating within me a tendency to compare myself to others, never satisfied with the way I looked. A study done by Maria Angélica Kurpel Diogo in 2016 reveals that “Almost one third of the dancers [observed] were at risk of developing eating disorders, which were more commonly seen among young and single females. Regarding self-awareness of the body, amateur dancers had worse body image perceptions than the professionals.” In line with this study, as an amateur dancer suffering from the pressures of obtaining perfection, I began to also expect perfection in all other areas of my life: my body, my schoolwork, my relationships. Ballet, in addition to the voices around me at my studio, created the impossible illusion of reaching a status of perfection, setting unrealistic expectations for myself moving forward in life. Many of these unhealthy desires and ambitions were unrealized to me until I was removed from the dance world during my first year of college, where I continued to struggle with each one of these obstacles.
I am, however, learning to focus on the positives, because dance has also impacted me in constructive ways. As I enter my second year apart from ballet, I realize just how much of who I am has been shaped by my intense dance training. Years upon years of heightened self-discipline and motivation have formed my work ethic and the way I apply myself to my studies. I truly believe that I am at the college I am now because of the lessons I learned indirectly through dance: to push for what seems impossible and to work diligently until it is achieved. Ballet was a challenge that offered me an opportunity for great improvement; this can be applied to any other area of my life, and for that perspective I am thankful.
In conclusion, I want to caution dancers and encourage non-dancers in the way they approach ballet: amid the joys of improvement and an incredible skillset, ballet is relentless and ruthless in the values and ideals that it instills within those who pursue it. Ballet teaches and promotes flawlessness and sets impossible standards in terms of body shape and size. For these reasons, those who have never entered into this world should recognize the fact that they have been spared from much mental and physical disappointment. However, when applied properly, the lessons learned can benefit the dancer in everyday life: I have experienced self-determination and motivation in healthy ways in my post-dance life, impacting the way I approach my studies and overall work ethic. Because of this, I say to my fellow dancers: dance and the person it has helped form you to become can be redeemed and positively affect your life moving forward. Would I take back my years spent dancing intensively? Absolutely not: a huge part of who I am today has been extraordinarily shaped by my dance past.