The day after Thanksgiving my senior year of high school, I boarded a 15-hour flight from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. On my shoulder I carried a pink Adidas sports bag with eight carefully folded leotards, four pairs of satin pointe shoes, and a metal container full of bobby pins. In my left hand I held the top of a suit bag — borrowed from my dad — where I’d hung a sparkling white costume dress that would inevitably shed glitter everywhere. Around me, passengers shoved duffel bags into overhead bins as they squeezed into their spots for the impending journey.
I remember looking around the plane and wondering what everyone’s story was. I wondered if anyone else was on their way to fulfill a lifelong dream. Had anyone else spent their childhood inside a ballet studio? I wiggled my toes in my sneakers. The edge of a bruised toenail — collateral damage from a pointe shoe earlier that week — twinged in pain. I ignored it. I was too excited.
I was on my way to the Geneé International Ballet Competition, an event which served as the capstone of my 16-year-long relationship with classical ballet.
My mom started me in ballet shortly after my third birthday. I don’t remember asking her for lessons nor do I recall falling in love after my first trip to the studio. But over the course of the following decade, ballet would become my closest friend. I spent hours in the studio learning how to mold my growing body into the shapes, positions and lines required of classical technique. I fell in love with leotards and drooled over satin shoes. I learned how to make my hair into a bun that would stay back even during the fastest turns. I sacrificed sleepovers and sports games to perfect my pointed feet. The exacting nature of classical technique fed my eager work ethic unlike anything else my young self knew, and the focus it required gave me direction when I didn’t know where else to look.
Despite that direction, I knew from an early age that I wasn’t going to be a professional ballerina. I was too tall and I wanted to go to college – two barriers in the world of classical ballet. This decision, however, did not stop me from wanting to get as close as I possibly could to those professional dreams. The Geneé is a competition sponsored by the Royal Academy of Dance, designed for the best ballet students across the globe. I was a sophomore in high school when I decided I had a shot. It would be over a year until I even qualified. The day that I found out, I sat in the car next to my brother and cried ugly tears of joy.
Today, the pictures I have of me onstage seem like they come from a dream. Dressed in a simple leotard and tights with the number 54 pinned to my front, I am a facade of clam set against an imposing black stage. My face hides its nerves behind an expression of rehearsed serenity and a layer of heavy makeup that I’d applied in an underground dressing room. When I came offstage after my second solo, there was an email waiting for me from one of my teachers telling me how proud she was. Her kind words were reward enough for me.
As we boarded the bus back to the hotel the last night, all 80 of us began to sing “Let it Go” from “Frozen.” Even the girls who didn’t speak English knew the words. We smiled and laughed and screamed the words in unison. Many of my new acquaintances had been offered scholarships to professional-track academies and others would go on to be dancers at world-renowned companies. The level of talent in that vehicle was unimaginable, but for that short moment we all existed together in one crazy obsession with a children’s song.
My flight back to the U.S. was delayed, and by the time the wheels hit the ground I was ready to crawl into bed and sleep for a long time. When I woke up, I let it all set in: the competition, the training, the lifetime of hours. I’d accomplished my goal, so when I graduated high school the following spring, I put my leotards in a box at the bottom of my closet.
After almost two decades of tunnel-visioned dedication, I freed myself for other things. Ballet could be one of them, but it wasn’t going to be the only one.
In this spirit, I darted in and out of the ballet classes I could find in college. But the further removed I became from my time onstage at Geneé, the more my muscles began to forget their training. The strength and control I’d once maintained through hours of daily classes began to dissolve. When I looked in the mirror at the front of the ballet studio, I saw only a shadow of the dancer I used to be.
Ballet class became something to fear. What would upset me today? Which body part would fail me? Would this leotard still look as good as it used to? I allowed the voice in the back of my head to tell me that my changing body was a representation of failure — that my decreasing flexibility was a sign of my own lack of discipline. Ballet is a visual art. I spent years learning how to move my body in order to make the unnatural look natural. As my strength atrophied, I no longer looked like the sum of that knowledge. Brick by emotionally-taxing brick, I built a wall between body and mind that left me blind on where to turn next.
Last summer I caught in the midst of one of these arguments, upset with myself over my decreasing range of motion, I decided I needed a new coping mechanism. Fighting dancing with dancing wasn’t cutting it anymore and the mirror wasn’t getting any nicer.
I sat on my bed with my computer and thought about all the balletic knowledge I’d gained in the last two decades. I wondered if I would ever find a use for it.
On a whim, I started to write. My fingers clicked across the loud laptop keyboard as I wrote about my favorite steps and the secrets I knew about them. I explained why certain things look easy but are actually hard and I wrote about the dance history I’d learned from years of watching grainy YouTube videos of famous stars from decades ago. I explained why I loved my favorite ballets (Swan Lake, anyone?) and I tried to articulate what made them so important.
Before starting to write, I had never given myself the authority to embrace all that knowledge, telling myself that I had to have made it professionally to have some sort of opinion. When it dawned on me that this was stupid, I basked in the confidence I got in return. As I strung words together on a page, I became free of the physical limitations of my body. On paper, I was as malleable and flexible and strong as I wished I could be in the mirror. I was free to move — to fly — without challenge or pain.
Upon making this discovery, I have since sat on couches and coffee shops, sometimes at odd hours of the night, figuring out how to tell others why all this means so much to me. And as I slowly explain to the world what I love about ballet, I remind the voice in the back of my head that she loves it too.
The system is not perfect. The mirror still isn’t always kind and the writing doesn’t always flow (writing this piece, in fact, involved a substantial amount of pacing and complaining). Despite the occasional curse word muttered under my breath, however, this intermingling of expression — of writing and of dancing — gives me the peace of mind that allows me to do both with pride.