This is a pretty long one, so get cozy, grab a cup of coffee, and most importantly, keep an open mind.
There are a lot of things we don’t talk about in the ballet community. For starters, we don’t talk about mental health, eating disorders, body image, competition, social media, and the cut-throat environment of ballet enough. However, if I tried to talk about all of these problems in one giant blog post, their individual importance would be lost. This is why I want to focus on one specific, overarching mindset in the ballet world, and how it affects so many people. And that mindset is the thoughts and assumptions that surround those who choose not to continue on. The first thing I want to reiterate here is that we cannot fully understand a person, their reasoning and motives – their story – unless we step into their shoes. And this becomes very difficult, especially considering the intense passion that is pumped through the veins of ballet. But, I want to explain my story in the hopes that, as dancers, we can take a moment to consider the wholesome view.
What I find is that in a lot of dancer’s cases, they are so involved in the dance world that they find themselves immersed in a community of opinions that are very similar to their own. Don’t get me wrong – this is something that is essential to the environment of the dancer. Full-time training and full-time mental dedication are the starting point for the development of professionals in today’s physically demanding ballet field. But, it often prohibits the dancer’s capacity to take a step back from the obsession and complete immersion that is ballet training and company life. So, I invite you to take this opportunity to understand my story as a whole, and me as a whole person, not refined to the constraints of my image as a “ballet dancer.”
I first need to emphasize that I was, am, and will forever be in love with ballet. It has been my best friend, my worst enemy, my passion, and the thing that is taking away from my true passions. It has been everything to me, and I very much wish it to remain as at least “something” that exists in my life from this point on. And I really hope to continue to enjoy ballet and dance as life continues. This is something that will never change. Nevertheless, my relationship with ballet has been complex and has reached deep into my heart, habits, and passions. And this is the story of how it has changed in my recent years.
When I first started this blog, which was in my middle school years, I was in an obsessive place. I (to be cliche), ate, breathed, and lived ballet. It pretty much defined my existence – whether that was my thoughts, my actions, my choices, or how I spent my time. I had complex plans and outlines for my life (it was all very systematic) – and it was all coherently, and very conveniently, on a trajectory toward the goal of pursuing ballet as a professional career. I was a middle schooler, but I felt pressure to have everything planned out, and to know exactly what I wanted from life and how to get there. My friends, by the way, have effectively and hilariously named this period in my life my “wild days,” which is an ironic statement seeing as I was really the opposite of wild. And yes, much of this is the product of being a young, naive, and overly excited twelve-year-old. But, it also reflected a deeper connection in my life.
This was a deep connection, and immersion in, the ballet world. I was excited about doing ballet, just as your typical middle-schooler has apparently designated their life goal to being a professional baseball player or a pop star. My dream was to be a ballet dancer. And, what I didn’t realize at the time, was that I was continually surrounding myself with people who had the same goals as me. I was spending more and more hours at the studio as I started pointe and began more advanced and serious ballet training. This was the point when I had to make the choice to “get on board” or not. Those that were “on board” were spending thousands of dollars on pricey summer programs across the country, participating in YAGP (which is extremely costly), and investing in high-quality training, pointe shoes, equipment, etc. This is a serious financial investment for such a young age, and also, by the way, further confirms the notion that ballet dancers need rich parents to succeed. But that’s a subject for another time.
Me, being ambitious and easily obsessed (I tend to “dive” very deeply into whatever I am currently passionate about – whether that be French desserts or Beatles music…), I felt obligated to get “on board” and fit in with my friends. I specifically remember a moment when I was a Level 3 (most dancers are 9-11 when they are in this level), when someone said, “Ella, do you want to be a ‘professional’ when you grow up?” – and my mental process was approximately: Well, everyone else is, and it would look lazy if I didn’t, so, “yes.” The typical middle-school thought process. However, the nature of ballet, being a very committed activity involving thousands upon thousands of dollars and crazy hours – drew me in even further. I was falling down a rabbit hole, and my decision of getting “on board” was starting to look like a train I couldn’t get off. There was too much money in it already, too much time, and overwhelming amounts of passion and fire.
As time went on, I was scared that this dream wouldn’t work out and I became unconsciously stressed. My coping mechanism: lots of charts and tables. I thought that everything was set and dry and easily achievable with hard work. No emotion needed — if you want to decrease your probability of getting injured, you need to increase your warm up and conditioning time. It all looked very nice on paper.
Me, being naive and analytical, trusted the system I had created against my intuition. I was getting exhausted, missing out on a social life, and becoming hurt at the prospect of rejection. I was fragile, overworked, and missing out on a childhood. It was an obsession in full gear, and when the hardships hit, the stable wall of hard work I was leaning on was starting to falter. I didn’t trust myself — I questioned everything, and I didn’t think I was good enough. The wall broke down, and I let my emotions leak in. Little did I know that these emotions would lead me toward bigger and better things.
These small leaks in the wall I had built up brought times of great insight. I was growing up, pushing out of the boundaries of my childhood dream, and no longer fitting the mold I had created for myself. The cracks created by my own fighting led to new ideas and intellectual expansion. I saw opportunities all around me — my vision was expanded – I could see the world around me that was there the whole time, just hiding behind an idea I had latched onto and refused to let go of.
These leaks of insight came in many different forms — watching the news, researching colleges, taking an especially interesting class at school, hearing a song I love that’s not my typical “thing”, or even just having a really good conversation with a friend.
I was shedding the mold I had created for myself, and was feeling the thrill of freedom and finally appreciating and utilizing the gifts I was given – intelligence and opportunity. The horizons are open, I have my whole life in front of me. I can find what I really love to do, not what my environment was telling me I should do.
Instead of taking others’ advice, it was time to follow my heart. And, it still is. That is where I am today. In the frenzy that is discovery, opportunity, and looking out to an exciting future, ballet has somehow escaped from its previously held position as my life-goal. Mind you, this was a very gradual transition, but it still surprised me at times. Someone would ask me, “Are you planning to continue ballet after high school?” My answer was, “no,” and I was, and still am, surprised every time that comes out of my mouth. A few years ago, I would have been astounded to hear that. The very foundation of open-mindedness and exploration, however, is to take one by surprise. In my case, I have certainly found this to be true.
This brings me to the present day. I have spent almost two years planning to attend college after high school, rather than pursue ballet as a career. Of course, I am planning to dance full-time, and brimming with passion, all throughout high school. Dance holds a very special place in my heart, and I believe it deserves my time, even if it is just for fun and personal development rather than for the purpose of professional aspirations. I feel more open-minded, inspired, excited, and truly passionate than I have ever been.
Now, I speak to you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing ballet as a career – this world needs dance, and needs dancers. It is just the right thing for many people, and for many, it is also plainly the wrong thing. So, take a step back. Does where you are in your life reflect your true person and goals? If you aren’t sure, it’s never too late. Take a risk, try something new, challenge yourself, be a little bit crazy. The best people always are.
This is my story about how ballet has changed for me, but there are many stories out there. So, I encourage you, as a dancer, to listen to others and not assume that, just because a dancer decides to pursue other passions, it means they were rejected, gave up, or dislike the field as a whole. There is always more to understand and to discover, about others, and about yourself. Take a step back, and I promise that you will be pleasantly surprised.