For about five years of my life, before coming to college, I was training to become a professional ballet dancer. I would take technique classes and rehearse for hours on end. I would take pride in my bloody toes and sore muscles, because that meant I was dedicated. Teachers told me that I had “such great potential” and “the perfect ballet body.” A fellow dancer once said she loved the flexibility of my feet so much, that she wanted to “chop them off.” I’m still not sure if that was a joke.
Today, I consider myself a retired dancer, and until a conversation I had this past summer, I had been avoiding coming to terms with why I left that world. My seventeen-year-old coworker was explaining to me his plan to “make it” on Broadway. He asked me why I had “given up” my dream of dancing for a ballet company. I was completely taken aback. No one had explicitly asked me this before. It was a question that had been gnawing at the back of my mind for the past two years, though — one that I had repressed from the fear that I might deeply regret the decision I made to give up my “great potential.” But I answered with the truth: I hated the ballet world with its constant pressure to be perfect and its uncertainty and its dancers that would give you condescending glances if you were eating anything but a fruit or a vegetable. His response: “Yeah, you have to be tough to make it.”
Of course I didn’t kill his huge dreams, because they were important to him, and they were to me at his age. In fact, I probably spewed the same line which alluded to the notion that I was a special breed of invincible. But as I’ve grown older, and (hopefully) wiser, I have revised my interpretation of “tough” in that you need to be tough to understand that you can no longer deal with a community you have grown up in. You need to be tough to get the hell out of it.
Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love ballet as an art form. The feeling I would get when I flew through the air in a grand jeté was incredible. Successfully balancing an arabesque until the music faded made me believe I could easily balance my life like that as well. It was the ballet world with which I quickly became frustrated. The competition that it bred was sickening to me both physically and mentally. When I moved from dancing with a small, local studio to training with a professional company, I immediately discerned that I was not welcome by many of my peers there. They would mock how I looked and danced in class and would send death glares my way whenever I completed multiple pirouettes. After four years there, I recognized that I felt like a stranger to myself and that I just didn’t want to feel miserable anymore.
I was reluctant to stop dancing, because I had the potential to succeed and a love of leaping. However, a daunting feeling developed within me during my senior year of high school, a feeling that I couldn’t return to that environment and the doubts that came with it. Looking back, I am able to see that along with this elegant ballerina dream and hidden within a teenage invincibility-complex, was the fear that I may not achieve my goals. I had dedicated my life to ballet; I thought that I had nothing else, that I would be no one if I didn’t “make it.” I had to leave, if not for the constant pain and eating disorders and mentally paralyzing envy of others, to learn that I was someone without my pointe shoes.
After this conversation I had with a seventeen-year-old who would have given John Lennon a run for his money in the dreamer department, I was able to analyze my own life and come to the understanding that I had not given up on my aspirations. I realized that artistic dreams do not have to be grandiose or full of hairspray, glittering eye makeup, and spotlights. They do not have to be absolute and unwavering — they can evolve and grow with you, never dying, but helping to shape the person you become. I do not regret my decision to enter the ballet world; it instilled a strong sense of discipline within me that I continue to apply to my everyday life. However, I also do not regret my decision to leave it, because I am so much happier now than I was five years ago.
My toes are happier too.