Ballet, brains and bodies

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

I have become a ballet bore.

Six months into this ballet thing, and I am as obsessed as I was at age 13. I’m taking two classes at the moment, I trawl the web for ballet videos, I’ve started reading ballet blogs, and I manage to find a way to bring every single conversation around to the subject of ballet at some point. Poor patient Jeremy. I accompanied him to a conference recently so I could hear him deliver a new talk he had been working on. I stuck around for the talk after his, which turned out to be so deeply technical that it may as well have been in a foreign language. Afterwards Jeremy said to me, “That must have been hard on you”—and I shrugged and said, “Eh, I was thinking about ballet.” And I was: as the talk grew more opaque, I kind of drifted away and started mentally rehearsing sequences of steps we had been learning in class.

I tend to do that quite a bit these days, and it’s surprisingly meditative. Bored on the bus? Think about ballet. Stressed about a work deadline? Think about ballet. Freaking out about Brexit? Think about ballet. And the mental relief I get from thinking about it reflects the mental relief I get from actually doing it. When I said in my last post that “I am prone to anxiety,” it wasn’t a throwaway line. I went through a particularly bad patch a few years ago and saw a therapist, who recommended trying a “mindful” physical activity like yoga to get myself out of my own head. I did do yoga at the time and it helped, but I generally find it a bit too abstract for my liking. Pilates is better, as long as I really focus on it while I’m doing it. But ballet—ballet is the best of all. I suppose advanced dancers can let their minds wander as they go through their routine, but when I’m doing ballet, I literally cannot think of ANYTHING besides doing ballet. There is no space in my brain for a thought that is not related to how my body is moving: head high, long neck, shoulders down, straight spine, strong arms, soft hands, pelvis tucked, knees pulled up, legs turned out, toes pointed, four beats, eight beats, close front-back-front, close back-front-back, think down-up-down, step left, step right, temps leve chassé pas de bourrée, temps leve chassé pas de bourrée…

That might sound stressful, and to be fair, it kind of is. But it’s stressful in a way that has purpose, in a way that I can resolve. There is no purpose to being trapped in a spiral of anxious negative thoughts, and there is no way to resolve it other than to break out of it—but if you could easily break out of it, you wouldn’t be trapped there in the first place, would you? Anxiety is exhausting, that incessant drum of whatIFwhatIFwhatIF beating in your head. Ballet is exhausting, too, but it’s the kind of exhaustion that comes from doing something and achieving something (even if the only achievement is not falling over in class—or falling over but being able to laugh about it).

So, there’s that. And there’s this: It’s an amazing feeling to do something I just, at some point, assumed I never would do, or could do. Ballet is a very youth-oriented activity. Professional dancers often retire in their forties. You don’t start dancing in your forties. Until you do. Until you find yourself going that first class, and then going to class every week, then twice a week, and then you’re practicing for a RECITAL (yeah, you read that right), and maybe you’re not very good, and maybe you’re older and bigger than most everyone else, and maybe you sweat a lot (like, a LOT) and you can’t balance on your left leg and you get dizzy trying to do even a single slow turn and you just cannot get the hang of that step-hop-step-hop move, but you’re in the dance studio anyway in pink tights and soft slippers and you’re moving to the music along with everyone else and godDAMN you’re a ballerina after all. And the reminder that that’s possible—that you can go from thinking “oh, I could never do that” to actually doing it on a regular basis—is very empowering. It makes me want to revisit all of my “oh, I could never do thats”, because who knows what else is out there for me?

And then there is this: coming to terms with a body that I am not generally comfortable in. I’m tall for a non-Dutch woman (a good 5’11”), and while for the most part I now quite like being tall (except when I have to buy jeans), growing up as a tall, shy girl was not always easy. I still think about the boy who called me an “Amazon” in high school (a moniker I would now embrace but at the time was not meant as a compliment). The soccer coach who repeatedly assured me I didn’t have to do anything on the field (like, actually play soccer), I just had to stand there because my height alone would intimidate the opposing players. The never-ending comments by well-meaning relatives (“Ooh, you’re so tall! Ooh, look how tall Jessica is! Ooh, I think you’ve grown since I last saw you!”). The comments by well-meaning friends (“You’re so tall and quiet that people might think you’re snobby—but you’re not!”). The college boyfriend who was subtly but clearly uncomfortable with the fact that he was ever-so-slightly shorter than me. The feeling of towering over all of my female friends when we went out as a group. And through it all, the same message, explicit and implicit, over and over again: you’re different, you’re not like a normal girl at all, you take up more space than you’re supposed to.

It’s a message that I’ve internalized and turned against myself. I think I’ve spent my whole life trying to make myself smaller, shrinking down and in, trying not to be intimidating, trying not to take up so much room (and I’m certainly not alone). Sometimes I don’t just feel self-conscious about being tall, I actually feel guilty about, apologetic: I’m sorry if I’m in your way, I’m sorry if I’m blocking your view, I’m sorry I have to sit slightly sideways on this bus because I literally can’t fit my legs into the tiny space between the seats, I’m sorry I have to hunch over to hear what the hell you’re saying to me in a loud place… And I’ve found it impossible to tell people I’m taking ballet without laughing about it at the same time: “…and I KNOW, I’m so TALL, right?, I’m like the most RIDICULOUS ballerina ever!” I thought I had been doing that to preempt anything they might say, to voice what they might be thinking—but it’s actually what I’m thinking. I’m thinking my body is the wrong size, I’m thinking I shouldn’t really be doing ballet, I’m thinking I’m ridiculous.

In ballet class a few months ago my teacher was showing us a sequence that involved sweeping arm movements, and she was insisting that we “really go for it, reach your arms out, take up ALL the space!” And those words rattled around in my head for days afterwards. Take up ALL the space? I’ve never taken up ALL the space. I try not to take up ANY space. I couldn’t remember ever having been explicitly encouraged to take up as much space as I could—and I don’t mean just “standing up straight,” or standing there and looming (which is essentially what my soccer coach meant). I mean exuberantly embracing the space around me, claiming it as my own, and believing that I really deserve it.

When that thought hit me, that I’ve spent my life trying to seem less than I am, I wanted to cry—partly from shame, and partly from a strange, delirious sense of freedom. What if I could take up all the space? What if I did? What if I walked into a room, head high, long neck, shoulders down, straight spine, and claimed my place unapologetically, enthusiastically even? Hunching doesn’t make me smaller, it just makes me look like a tall person with bad posture. I want to be a tall person with good posture. I want to be a tall person with ballet posture. I want to be a tall ballerina. And that’s not ridiculous at all.



I’m still so very pleased that we had a conversation about ballet over lunch many months ago. Listening to you talk about it with such enthusiasm and fondness is wonderful


@Jane: I’m so pleased too! That conversation has kind of wound up changing my life. :-)


‘What if I could take up all the space? What if I did? What if I walked into a room, head high, long neck, shoulders down, straight spine, and claimed my place unapologetically, enthusiastically even?’

Wonderful! Thank your for sharing your transformation and your passion.

From a man who discovered ‘dancing’ with dogs in his late 30s…


@Steve: Thank you for your kind comment - and “dancing” with dogs is the best! :-)

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