Because I tend to overthink everything, I’ve been thinking a lot about physicality since I started taking ballet.
It’s a funny old thing, ballet. On good days, I feel like it’s given me a belated appreciation for a body I’ve always had a somewhat fraught relationship with. And on bad days, I feel like it just amplifies every perceived physical flaw and broadcasts it back at me. There’s nothing quite as self-confrontational as facing floor-to-ceiling mirrors under the fluorescent lights of a dance studio while wearing a leotard and tights. On good days, I’m fine with it. On bad days, I only see the bits of myself I don’t like and how I don’t stack up to everyone else. Ballet makes me both body-positive and body-negative, sometimes at the same time. It makes me worry that I’m placing too much importance on how I look, but ballet as a performing art is all about how you look, so I don’t quite know how to reconcile that.
I was stretching on a portable barre facing the mirror in class the other day, and when I caught my reflection—standing ramrod straight on a turned-out supporting leg, with my other leg perfectly perpendicular to my body, resting on the barre—I was startled, because I looked like a picture that I would favorite on Instagram (I favorite a LOT of ballet pictures on Instagram). I was delighted, but also somewhat embarrassed and rather conflicted. I’m not sure I want to take that kind of pride in my body, in part because it seems vain, and in part because bodies are fragile, and they deteriorate, and the thing I take pride in today could be gone tomorrow. I know that’s true of most things, but I guess as a result of getting older and seeing people around me lose physical abilities they once had—either through injury or illness or just age—I’m more painfully aware of this than I’ve ever been. It seems foolish to put so much of myself into something as fleeting as a nicely pointed foot.
On the other hand, my reflection in the studio mirror is a reflection of a lot of hard work: hours and hours of ballet class over the past year and a half, and Pilates classes, and workouts at home, and studying ballet videos, and learning from the other women in my class who have good extension, or a beautiful port de bras, or who hold their head just so while dancing. It’s the product of a determination I had no idea I possessed, both mental and physical. I have never been physically determined. I am physically extremely lazy. I don’t like exertion. I don’t like to sweat. I don’t even like having to walk to the end of our (very short) street to buy a carton of milk. But I will happily push my sweaty, overexerted body through hours of ballet class in the hopes of getting a slightly nicer arabesque or a slightly steadier pirouette. And I don’t know where that comes from.
I didn’t start taking ballet as a fitness measure, I started because I love ballet and thought it might be fun. The fact that it seems to be changing my body (and my feelings about my body) in a way that I like is just a welcome side effect—and by “way that I like,” I do not mean “losing weight.” I mean seeing muscles working in my legs as I dance, I mean carrying myself differently, taking up more space, looking at the almost-six-foot sweep of my arms from fingertip to fingertip and thinking “amazing!” instead of “freak!” After giving me a correction in class the other day, my teacher eyed me appraisingly and said, “You’re looking very ballerina-like”—which made me want to do grandes jetés of joy all across the room (NB: I can’t actually do even a single grand jeté…yet).
As with all things, there are ups and downs, weeks when I feel like I could do anything, and weeks when I wonder why I even bother trying. I was in a bit of a slump leading up to our summer show, which was probably just a product of exhaustion: lots of rehearsal, lots of choreography to remember, lots of time spent trying to find the right underwear for my costume (yes, this is an issue). I hated how I looked in the tutu, I hated how I couldn’t remember all the steps, I hated how I couldn’t do a proper pirouette, I hated how hot and stuffy the studio was, and the way its grubby floor was wrecking my pink slippers. But then we did the show, which was both stressful and wonderful, and in the two weeks since I’ve been on a total ballet high. I’m enjoying class again, and that mysterious determination is back with a vengeance.
Actually, the determination isn’t so mysterious. I do know at least in part where it comes from: the feeling that I am both making up for lost time and in a race against time—the time I have not just to keep doing ballet, but to keep getting better at it. I sometimes get frustrated and even desperate, because I feel like every not-great ballet class is a missed opportunity keep moving forward, and that instead it’s just moving me one step closer to the day when I can’t do any of this anymore. But I know that none of us win the race against time, so I just keep reminding myself of two things:
One, that there is no perfectly linear progression. You improve, you plateau, you improve, you have a setback, you improve again. You might not always feel like you’re moving forward, but you keep going regardless. And two, that I have a body that works. It is not a perfect ballerina body. It has its issues. But it is relatively strong and healthy and it carries me through the day—even when that day involves Bolshoi choreography on a stage in front of an audience. It can’t do some of the things I want it to do, but it can do other things that it couldn’t do before and that it might not be able to do in the future. At this point in the race against time, my body works, and I will appreciate every single day that it does.