Ballet is one of my absolute favorite things. The elegant movements, the balance and skill required, the ability to tell a story through music and movement alone; there’s nothing quite like it. I enrolled in my first ballet class when I was two-years-old. Although I loved the tights and the tutus, I don’t think we were doing as much “ballet” as we were screaming and running around the studio in tiny ballet slippers. But as I grew up, ballet and other types of dance became an integral part of my life. I began dancing competitively in elementary school, and from an early age was accustomed to spending anywhere from five to seven days a week practicing. Although it was a busy schedule for a child, it was a labor of love and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.
I continued to dance through high school, but was soon struck by the reality that while I loved dance and was fairly good at it, I didn’t have the “ballerina body” of many of the pre-professional girls at the studio where I trained. I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t super slender, I didn’t have legs for days; the list of missing attributes went on. I once had an instructor swat at me for using incorrect technique. “The way you’ve turned out your leg is going to make your thighs overdevelop and get even bigger,” he told me. I didn’t even understand what that meant at the time, I was just horrified by the insinuation that not only were my thighs “big,” but that I was actively making them “bigger.”
Shortly before my 17th birthday, I was hospitalized for severe anemia and was instructed to stop training for at least six weeks. During those six weeks I felt something that I hadn’t felt in years – absolute freedom. I could spend time with friends after school rather than rushing to dance class, I could engage in other passions like writing for the student newspaper. While I loved ballet (and all forms of dance), and still do, I didn’t return. It had stopped being enjoyable for me, and started being a place that I never quite measured up.
When I went to college, I started attending Zumba classes with friends, and was reminded of how it felt to dance and move in a way that makes you feel happy and free, rather than strict and rigid. Additionally, yoga became an increasingly important part of my weekly routine. Movements in yoga always seemed to flow fairly naturally for me, likely because the balance and flexibility are very similar to what is required for ballet. Although yoga allowed me to utilize many of the skills I acquired from years of ballet, I found it to be a completely different experience both mentally and physically. Ballet was about form and presentation – what image are you presenting to the audience? Are the movements you’re making and the way you’re presenting yourself aesthetically pleasing? In yoga, rather than being concerned about what is going on on the outside, I’m able to connect with myself on the inside. I’m able to pay attention to how the movements make my body feel, rather than what it looks like. I’m able to direct attention to specific muscles that feel tense or in pain in an effort to care for them. Physically, yoga taught me to embrace the strength of my own body. For years, I had been taught that muscle and “bulk” (though yoga certainly doesn’t have a reputation for “bulking” you up), were to be avoided at all costs. Yoga has taught me to understand the power of my own body, and my ability to become a stronger person physically. It has taught me not to fear the natural shape of my body, or to covet traits that I’m simply not genetically disposed to have. I could have had the most perfect ballet technique in the world, but it wouldn’t have made my hips more narrow, or my legs longer and slimmer. But that’s okay. My legs look pretty good to me when I’m staring at them in downward dog, or when they’re shaking as I attempt not to fall straight forward in Warrior III.
Ballet will always be a love of mine. Each Christmas, I get excited to attend the “Nutcracker,” and when I study, my iPod shuffles through “Swan Lake.” The music, the movements…everything is so beautiful. I’m grateful for the discipline it taught me, and for the many years that it brought me happiness. But I’m also grateful that when it left me unsure of myself, my body, and my mental and emotional strength, that yoga stepped in to save me. It helped me better get to know myself again, and to stand a little taller…even on short legs.