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Aug 04 2011

Dancing With Myself

[This is a piece I wrote in response to a prompt at Open Salon and just thought I'd repost it here.]

You aren’t really a daughter of Russian parents unless they make you do ballet.

Mine did, though I started later than most–when I was five years old. I continued until I was  fifteen. Over those ten years, I perfected splits, fouettes, and grand jetes, danced in several professional ballets, and starred as Clara in the Nutcracker. I was thin and graceful, and my parents never demurred when asked to produce photos and videos of their talented daughter.I often danced for friends and relatives who came to visit, or who we went to visit ourselves.

But ballet took a toll on me, and not necessarily in the ways you would expect. Since I was prepubescent for most of that time, I didn’t need to worry about staying skinny; it was easy for me as a child. Dancing en pointe hurt my feet and gave me terrible blisters, but it really wasn’t that that did me in.

No, what led me to quit was the atmosphere that characterizes the world of ballet. The other girls were awful, catty, nasty people. The ballet teachers pit us against each other ruthlessly, calling one of us a favorite one day and choosing another the next.

We were talked down to, humiliated, and shamed. I recall one day when we were taking a break to stretch in the middle of class, and I politely asked my teacher if I may be excused to use the restroom. She nodded but pursed her lips and whispered, “Never again.

If you came late to a class, as I often did because I lived far away and my parents, believe it or not, had other responsibilities in addition to driving me around, you were required to wait meekly by the door until the class completed its current exercise, wait until the teacher acknowledged you, apologize for your tardiness, and ask permission to join the class. You would walk to a spot at the barre with thirty pairs of eyes glaring at you.

As a shy and bookish girl, this destroyed me.

I remember how my teacher would insist to my parents that my hair must be in a bun that doesn’t fall apart–not exactly a small thing to ask from a mane of hair that reached past my derriere. Inevitably my bun would fall apart and I would be unable to fix it and I could feel those same thirty pairs of eyes narrowing, thirty mouths sneering and snickering at me.

I quit ballet, inevitably, when I was in high school. I joined the marching band instead. I delighted in wearing a uniform that hid my developing and no longer skinny body, in meeting people who didn’t judge me, in being able to simply run to my place in the warmup circle when I was late rather than performing the humiliating ritual required by my ballet teachers.

I’m not skinny anymore. Not at all. I’m not so flexible. I can only do three or four fouettes before I start losing my balance.

But I still carry myself well, chin up, back straight. I still love to dance, though I prefer to dance to the Black Eyed Peas instead of Tchaikovsky.

Sometimes I regret quitting ballet because I’d invested so much into it. But I’m thankful every day that ritualized humiliation and catty competition are no longer a part of my daily life. I’m grateful that I didn’t stay long enough to have a chance to succumb to some of the  more well-known pressures that a ballet dancer’s life brings.

The beat of the music still plays in my head, but now I dance to it in my own way.

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