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Lessons from a Childhood in Ballet

Photo by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash

There I was, black leotard, pink tights, gelled hair, bun wrapped in a hair net,

back pressed up against the floor-to-ceiling mirror: watching as four hundred girls auditioned for the city’s Nutcracker. I had been deemed too small for the part, so I was forced to watch as my peers got their shot, and I did not. I was nine.

I became a bit bitter for a while, refusing to go see the production that year since they had been so cruel to me. I resolved I would “show them” and be chosen next season. So I worked hard and hoped my body would grow just the right amount. Twelve months later, as they inspected us, I prayed and hoped I was the right size. And I was! I was allowed to audition and learned a few days later I had gotten the part! In December of 1996, I played an Angel in the Ballet de Monterrey's Nutcracker Suite (heavenly chorus).

Looking back, I realize how formative that whole experience was, and how much ballet taught me over thirteen years of training, both good and bad. Here’s a list of the lessons I learned through ballet that are still with me today:

1. Dealing with Rejection

The obvious lesson, right off the bat, is learning to deal with rejection. Though I knew at the time I wanted to be a dancer, I didn’t realize how much I would need the resilience I was starting to build up. Rejection is a natural part of life, but a day to day occurrence in the life of any performer. If we can’t deal with being told no several times a day, every day of the year, we’ll be done before we ever start to work.

2. Letting go of Pride

Yes, it hurts not to be chosen. It hurts not to be given the chance. But if we stick to that sense of indignation, we’ll never try again, get better, and eventually be chosen. Swallowing our pride is essential for a career in the arts, and every "no" is an invitation to try again. And though I’ll forgive nine-year-old me for being a bit indignant, I won’t allow that in my grown-up self, since the only one my pride will hurt, is myself.

3. Perseverance

I’m sensing a theme: Get rejected. Let go of pride. Repeat. Perseverance plays a part not only in trying again, but also in getting better. Repeating without improving won’t get us anywhere. Being diligent and working on our craft is what will get us work. Rehearsing, stretching, reading about it, writing about it, watching it, showing up: to class, to auditions, to work… giving ourselves a break when we need it. All that effort that we put in will eventually pay off. Sure, my body grew from one year to the next regardless, but had I not put in the work, I wouldn’t have gotten the part.

4. Discipline

It can be hard to persevere without discipline. And if there’s something ballet teaches you, that is it. We were expected to show up on time, in a tidy uniform, with a clean face and perfectly coiffed bun (not a loose hair in sight), and go straight to our stretches. No complaining. No talking. Class begins: everyone to the bar, no lingering. We don’t start until everyone is ready in first position, back straight, head held high. We're walked through each exercise once and are expected to have memorized it. One side, then the other. Next. No wasting time between exercises. You giggle, you’re out. You don’t take class seriously, you’re out. You don’t perform well, you’re called out. It may sound harsh, especially for young children, but it develops a mindset of diligence and responsibility.

5. Playing Our Part

George Balanchine’s choreography of The Nutcracker features a chorus of angels played by young girls (that was me!). Anyone who’s seen it will know, however, that the angels are on stage briefly and are by no means the stars of the scene, rather the embellishment for the Sugar Plum Fairy (played by a professional ballerina). So here’s another lesson: playing our part. Of course it’d be lovely to be the star of every show, but that’s just not always the case, so we need to learn to do our bit with joy. This does not mean we can never aspire to be the star, but while we’re working towards it, we can still enjoy our work and do it well. It’ll make us better and more humble team players, and hopefully, when we get our shot, better and more humble leaders.

6. Self Expression

As a shy child, I had trouble talking to anyone I didn’t know. Being sent to the cashier to ask for our order was torture. Interrupting in class would have been unthinkable. Telling a joke to a group of people would have resulted in me turning bright red and rushing off to hide. I felt small and unimportant. Ballet gave me a platform. From age three, the stage became the place I could express myself on. I learned to love it and shine in it, relishing every moment in front of the bright lights and the sea of strangers hidden in the shadows. The stage gave me permission to be seen. And that rush, of being acknowledged, no matter the size of the part, validated me as a person.

7. Life isn’t Fair (or racism and discrimination)

There was one girl in class who was naturally flexible and had a beautiful turn out. She was long and lean and light-skinned, and could do the exercises with ease. She was, however, lazy, undisciplined, and had an attitude. In spite of this, she was often praised and always got the main parts. Conversely, there was another girl who was a very hard worker, was pleasant to be around, and more importantly, was a beautiful mover - she had great form, flexibility, and an amazing turn out as well. She was, however, more heavyset and darker skinned. Although she was often rewarded in class and referred to to set the example and show the exercises, she was rarely given main parts, and was sent to the back with the rest of us. I didn’t realize then, that I was witnessing colorism and weight-based discrimination. This was one of the tougher lessons to learn through ballet, an awareness that people who don’t fit the mold are often disregarded, and those who do, are often rewarded for things they might not have even deserved. This lay the groundwork for my understanding of privilege and discrimination in their many expressions.

8. Standing up for Yourself

As I hit puberty, I went from being stick thin, to having a little more weight around my belly and upper thighs - a fact which was promptly pointed out to me by my teachers, who suggested I visit the nutritionist. Ballet class started to become a toxic environment for me, both through what I was being told about my weight and what I was witnessing (see lesson 7). This is when the most important lesson came: to stand up for myself and let go when something is not good for me anymore. I started to look elsewhere and found, in theatre, my great love - a more inviting, more accepting love. I leapt into its arms leaving my toxic, judgmental ex behind, making sure to take all the lessons, good and bad, along for the ride.

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