Diaries of a Dichotomous Dancer.

So I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago that my sister invited me to dance in a piece she choreographed.

Well, the show is tomorrow night and I just realized that I could tell you a long, long story about me and dance.

When I was just a tyke my sister started taking ballet classes. She was eight that year, so I guess I must have been five. I dimly remember her first recital– Jessie in stage makeup and a bright gold and red costume. All I remember is seeing her on stage, and wanting with all my heart to be up there with her.

Her next few recitals, all I remember is being stunned by how beautiful the Big Girls were in their tutus, dresses, and pointe shoes. But finally, the fall that I was eight, my parents allowed me to dance too.

I have only a few memories from the classes those first few years. There were a couple girls I hung out with every class, and certainly a few more that I remember, but each year of classes has sort of blurred together in my memory. I must have been one of the shorter girls, because I usually ended up in the front rows at performances– but of course I mistook that for my teacher liking me especially.

For my first ballet recital, I was supposed to be one of the townschildren in the ballet Copellia. That was the first time I remember experiencing an adrenaline rush; right before I stepped onstage for the first time. The costume was very pretty, but for some reason there were sequins in the armpits and they itched like crazy.

The next year, I was another generic female in a group in the ballet Sleeping Beauty. I was irked at my costume because it was pink when there were also purple and blue costumes in my class. This was the last recital that Jessie and I shared. She quit because she hated pointe or something, and I can’t say that I blame her.

My final year in my first bout of ballet, we performed the Snow Queen. I was a little demon cohort thing of the villain, and then a snowflake for the rest of the ballet. There was a quick costume change which I remember as being stressful, but I was easily stressed at the age of eleven. Hailey, my best friend, had her first ever solo in this ballet. I was green with envy, and I’m sure it was obvious even though I tried really hard to hide it.  At that recital, I bragged around the fact that I wasn’t coming back the next year. I would never have admitted it, but I quit dance because Jessie left dance. I cited boredom and a desire to avoid pointe.

So then began my four-year hiatus, during which I took pride both in that I had done ballet and that I had quit. Every fall, I would consider starting ballet once again, but every time I couldn’t bring myself to do it, all because I would be a year, then two, then three behind my former classmates, and in my eyes they were so good I could never catch up.

At some point, I took a year of tap. That recital was interesting. I felt like the only one in my class who had good rhythm (I’ve always been a bit big-headed about that, can you tell?) and our costumes were indeed horrifying. They consisted of a purple velvet leotard with lime green, waist-high pinstripe pants, topped off with a plastic fedora and sparkly suspenders, cuffs, and ties. I loved that dance (to this song) but I still remember how embarrassed I was going onstage in that outfit.

I still don’t remember what prompted my return to ballet. It was probably something to do with my sister going to school to be a dance major. Anyway, I again don’t remember a lot about that first year back. I do know the first few weeks of classes were excruciatingly awkward for me as I tried to remember how to make my body cooperate, when in the four years away I had both gone through puberty and grown at least eight inches.

That recital, the school put on La Fille Mal Gardee, and I portrayed both a male cohort of the male lead (who was actually a male,) and a random townswoman. I seem to have a knack for being a townsperson. When our class received the exceedingly fluffy dresses that were our townswomen costumes, we joked about looking like cupcakes. It was funny at the time. (And I tend to think we did look like cupcakes.)

The summer after that, I journeyed to Portland to purchase my first pair of pointe shoes for the coming dance year. I was so excited. When classes commenced, I knew in my brain that it was going to be hard and painful, but I had the hope in my heart that it wouldn’t be. That recital was the first in my memory that our instructor diverged from a story ballet and instead just did a series of dances. I loved that format, honestly. Rehearsals were simpler because we didn’t have to work with any other classes, and there wasn’t any drama about who got which solo and why. The theme that Mary chose was Deep Forest, which I didn’t get but whatever. Since we were the only class performing en pointe that year, we portrayed giraffes. Shocker.

I know it’s a recurring theme, but our costumes were again a disappointment. In the catalog photo, they looked like beautiful golden tutus with gold braid around the bodice. When we pulled them from the bags, we discovered instead glitter-covered, unfitted leotards with floppy, unattached tutus in strange shades of tan and yellow.

According to everyone, they looked good when we were on stage, but they were so, so uncomfortable. Sometimes I watch the DVD of that dance and just cringe because I remember how much pain I was in– and I didn’t even look good. Every step looks like a struggle, as indeed it was.

But even though I wanted to and thought about it, I didn’t stop doing pointe. I continued the following year because I have this obnoxious competitive streak that won’t let me stop doing something that I don’t like or is too hard when some of my peers are still continuing. I kept doing pointe because I always want to be the best at what I’m doing.

I planned to drop out of dance in the middle of that year, after a performance of the Nutcracker (our first time in my memory we did a winter show,) but then I didn’t for a number of reasons. For the first time in my life though, it wasn’t my older sister who kept me in dance. I had spent the last couple of weeks letting everyone know of my impending departure, but when the weekend of the show arrived I found I couldn’t leave yet. My family was in the midst of a pretty intense crisis, and between that and school I found that kicking my own butt at ballet four nights a week was the only thing keeping me sane. When I was still unsure, the gentleman who played Drosselmeyer in our little production told me I shouldn’t quit because I had stage charisma, and that was the tipping point. When I told Mary I was staying for the rest of the year, she didn’t say anything– she just hugged me.

The final production I was in with my home studio, we danced to Vivaldi’s the Four Seasons. My class was the opening dance, Spring, and the closing one, Winter, which was on pointe. I’m not going to lie, that dance sucked– or rather, I sucked at that dance. I also was recruited to fill a spot in a lower level’s dance, Summer, because one of the girls had to drop out and the choreography necessitated an understudy about my height. Since I’ve complained about all the previous costumes I’ll say this– all of them that year were beautiful. Although I’m not fond of pink, I admit that the mint green and pale pink tutus were perfect for spring, the green dresses with vines were perfect for summer, and the purple and gold romantic tutus were beautiful for the painful en pointe winter dance.

After that though, I thought I was done dancing forever. It took some separation from the studio for me to deal with and resolve some of my own body image issues. Those were interesting, because when I was at my height of fitness I thought I had fat legs and butt. My problem was comparing myself to ballerinas on Youtube instead of the humans around me. I dipped into anorexia some that last year, but I never could commit to it; I preferred not feeling like I was going to die of hunger. It took some time, but I came to the conclusion that my body image struggles were more a function of the familial crisis I was dealing with than of ballet.

It took a while, but I finally realized that I’m pretty sexy just as God made me.

When I moved to Portland, I even more thought I was done dancing forever. I gave away most of my dance clothes, painted some old pointe and tap shoes to fully retire them, and didn’t bring any dance clothes to Portland with me.

Then Jessie invited me to dance with her again, and, well, you can get the rest of that story in this post.

Although I finally broke away from following Jessie into whatever, (a process that took longer than I’d like to admit,) it’s interesting to me how she’s always the one who brings me back to dance. It’s taken time, but I’ve realized that I can have an identity as a dancer that’s separate from her just as much as in the rest of life, despite her frequently being the catalyst to my choice to dance.

Maybe I’ll take up ballet again. I miss the body that I had when I thought I had fat legs, but I don’t think I’ll ever love ballet like I thought I did. I never loved ballet. It was a means to an end– performing. And now it will be a means to another end– fitness.

Sometime I’ll have to tell you the rest of the story about my much less fascinating relationship with tap dance.

So fellow dancers, what’s your story? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via email. Go!

  1. well, you asked for my story… i’ll save a few hours by giving you the short version!

    i did ballet for ten years.
    i loved it. and i was good… quite good.
    i started point.
    i loved it. and i was good.
    it was painful. and intense. but, i still loved it.
    and then… i didn’t.
    i kept feeling the pressure of, “make ballet your life now… or never.”
    and after that… the passion was gone.
    and after that… ballet class wasn’t an expression. it wasn’t a release.
    it was a chore.
    a difficult and often times very painful chore…
    so i left.
    i left despite my teachers’ opinions and their desire to see me keep dancing. i left despite my mother’s heartbreak… the heartbreak of a woman who watched me progress and grow into dancer since i was five years old.
    i left because i was a freshman in high school and i knew everything and i was rebel and to dance ballet was to conform. ballet was too tense. too tight-laced.

    of course… what i came to discover after reaching adulthood… was that, actually, ballet was freedom. ballet was strength. ballet was art.

    i miss ballet. i miss it dearly. many times since graduating high school i have been on the verge of calling up my old ballet teachers and to tell them that i am coming back. i have been on the verge of buying a new pair of pointe shoes.

    my new apartment, with its hardwood floors, begs me practice ballet. and i have… many times.

    i miss ballet. i miss the adrenaline rush i got just before going onstage. i miss the applause. i miss nailing the perfect pirouette. i miss the gracefulness and the power of a beautiful grande jete.

    i miss ballet.
    and, perhaps, this will be the year that i go back. my leotard, tights and a brand new pair of pointe shoes are calling my name.

    • That was beautiful. I don’t think that I could possibly read the long version without crying.
      There’s something about ballet that’s more emotional than any other dance I’ve done. It gets tied up in your soul, and no matter how long you go without it, it will always be a part of you.
      Please dance again. Then when I talk you into moving up here we can dance together somewhere and it will be so happy.

      • i don’t think i could possibly write out the long version without crying.
        but you are absolutely right.
        and i will live to dance again… and soon.

  1. May 21st, 2012
  2. March 29th, 2013

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