I was a dancer in high school and college. (Technically, I was a dancer before then, too, but I was fourteen before it was really a defining part of my life.) Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to take a class since I graduated from college nearly two years ago. I never really intended to give it up and still hope that, at some point in the future, I’ll have the financial means to take some ballet classes again, if only in a recreational capacity. But, for the time being, I suppose it’s fair to call myself a former dancer. And as such, I completely relate to this article that I stumbled across this morning. It’s a list of things that former dancers miss, and it’s mostly pretty readily-apparent things, like the thrill of performing, flexibility, and dancer camaraderie. But there are a lot of things I miss that aren’t so obvious, so I thought I’d make my own list.
1. Pointe shoes
One of my favorite of my own pointe shoe pictures
Most young ballet students look forward to their first pointe shoes with eager expectation, and for most intermediate ballet students, that first pair of pointe shoes is among the most exciting life milestones they’ve ever reached. It certainly was for me, even though I was a late starter and was in my teens before I got my first pair. I technically started pointe at the age of fourteen, but then when I switched schools, I went off pointe for a year and a half. So I was sixteen before I ever got to the stage where I wore pointe shoes practically on a daily basis and got to perform on pointe. I never really felt fully comfortable on pointe. Still, I loved my pointe shoes and I loved the way my feet looked in them. I even loved all of my old pointe shoes that got too worn-out for use, since battered-up pointe shoes are proof that you’ve danced hard, and they all have so many memories. Most dancers end up having a love-hate relationship with their pointe shoes, since they are painful and do deform a dancer’s feet. I was no exception. But in retrospect, I actually miss some of the downsides of pointe, too. Which brings me to my next point. (Pun not intended, but acknowledged with pleasure)
Ever wondered what ballet dancers’ feet look like under the pointe shoes? Kind of like this, only usually redder because pointe shoes are tight.
2. Bloody little toes
When you dance on pointe more than once or twice a week, toe afflictions are a normal part of life. I actually was never blister-prone, but I did regularly rub the skin right off my little toes, which is even more painful than it sounds. Of course, I didn’t appreciate the pain, but I did kind of like feeling like I was tough because of it. (Once, I had to use scissors to cut a chunk of partially-disconnected flesh off of my toe. It wasn’t dead skin; it was alive and sensitive skin, and I felt like I was really special for being able to do that to my own foot.) Even when I wasn’t dancing, I could feel that pain on the edge of my foot with every step I took, and it was a constant reminder that dance wasn’t just something I did, it was part of who I was. As annoying and challenging as it was at the time, it’s hard not to miss that sensation, and the blood stains on the toes of all my dance tights and some of my socks, when I was used to feeling like they defined my identity.
3. All those dancer quirks
This one is really just reiterating the article I linked at the beginning of the post, but I wanted to reiterate that, because to me, those little dancer quirks were also integral parts of who I was. I mean things like popping your hips and ankles, complimenting your friends on the shape of their feet, walking or standing with your legs turned out, and being hyper-conscious of whether your hips and shoulders are in line. There’s dancer terminology that other people don’t understand, there are products like jet glue and toe pads that mostly only dancers use, and there are experiences like putting your hair in a bun every day that are normal when you’re a dancer but not normal if you’re not. There are just so many little things along those lines that it’s just natural that dancers get in the habit of thinking of themselves as practically a different species than “normal people”. And yes, dancers do distinguish between “dancers” and “normal people”. There isn’t necessarily an implication that normal people are inferior, but once you’ve experienced both, it’s hard not to feel like being a dancer was just more interesting.
4. The outlet for perfectionism and obsessiveness
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, it turns out that I actually have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For most of college, I knew it but wasn’t officially diagnosed. I feel like I actually handled it pretty well in college, though, because so many of my obsessions had to do with dance and most of my compulsions had to do with practicing dance. Don’t get me wrong; it was still miserable. I hated myself for not being a good dancer, and I worked myself so hard that it was actually counterproductive. In the summers, when I didn’t have actual class, I would practice for hours on end and would usually only stop when I either collapsed from fatigue or when my Achilles tendonitis got so bad that I could barely stand, much less dance. When I had actual classes, I didn’t work myself quite so hard because I had a teacher there to offer corrections, but I still was constantly overcome with embarrassment and frustration because I was just no good. It didn’t help that I had a teacher freshman year who discouraged me from continuing in the major and that I overheard more skilled classmates making unkind comments about me a couple of times. So, to be honest, I really can’t say that I enjoyed those three years of my dance experience. (My senior year, when I was taking classes off campus, was a different story. Big shout out to the Grebel Center for Dance/Alabama Youth Ballet Company for an enjoyable, productive, and injury-free year of ballet.) At the time, I told myself that the occasional moments of success were so wonderful that they made up for all the literal blood, sweat, and tears. But it was more than that; it also helped me keep the rest of my life relatively free from all the self-disgust, perfectionist obsession, anxiety, and pressure that come with OCD.
5. That moment when you do something just right
But don’t get me wrong; ballet isn’t all pain and misery, even for someone like me who is unfortunate enough to be a mediocre perfectionist. There are few things in life more exciting and fulfilling than that rare moment when you do a flawless pirouette or an especially high jete, or when you get through a tricky combination without messing up, or when you really like what you see in the mirror while you’re dancing. Both emotionally and physically, it feels like a special moment and it makes you happy in a way that other parts of your life just can’t do. Bonus points if your teacher notices and comments. There’s no kind of validation more satisfying than when a hard-to-please dance teacher is pleased with you.
Natalia Osipova, one of my favorite ballerinas
6. Getting to watch dance all the time
As great as it is to dance, it’s great to watch dance, too. When you take dance classes at a quality dance school, you constantly get to see some really great dancing. And you get to see it up close and personal. Sometimes, you even get to vicariously experience what it would be like to be a better dancer than you are. Watching ballerinas on youtube is fun, but sitting on the floor of a dance studio in rehearsal and watching your friends’ and classmates’ pointe shoes on the dance floor is a completely different experience. Even in class, watching other dancers can be a rewarding experience. Certainly, non-dancers can sometimes have the opportunity to watch dancers in such an environment, especially if they are parents of young dance students. But being a dancer enriches the experience because you know what it’s like to be that dancer you’re watching, and you know the difference between a fairly good dancer and a great dancer with impeccable technique. The same goes for watching performances; it’s an enhanced viewing experience if you know a lot about what you’re watching.
7. The routine of a classical ballet class
One reason that classical ballet is by far my favorite dance form is that it’s so neat and organized. Every class follows the same routine, which feels comfortable and comforting to people like me who like routine, and makes it really easy to track progress. The exact combinations vary from day to day, which keeps class from getting boring, but the structure is always the same. Some dancers actually don’t like that, but I always did. Maybe it’s partly because of my OCD, but to me, it made me feel like ballet class was my natural habitat, even if I was devoid in natural talent. That feeling of being at home is something that I’ve never been able to establish to the same degree anyplace else. Since ballet is so all-consuming, most ballet dancers would probably relate to that, even if it isn’t the classroom routine that made them feel that way.
8. The way a performance takes over your life
Snow scene from the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker
The article that I linked earlier alludes to this, but I wanted to include it as a specific point in my list. For me, unlike most dancers, the actual performance isn’t necessarily the whole point of dance, but it is the most exciting part. For months, you’ve been practicing the same thing over and over and over, and all of a sudden you get to do it in a costume, on a stage, with people watching. Even better, (in my opinion) there are several days where dance is really truly your whole life. For a dance school where the performers are children and teens, the last week before the performance usually goes like this. The weekend before the show, there are several-hour-long rehearsals in the dance studio on both Saturday and Sunday, usually with costumes and props. The studio is busier than usual, because the full cast and a lot of the parents, as well as maybe some guest performers and/or board members, are in the building at the same time. Everyone is feeling stressed, but everyone is excited, too. On Monday and Tuesday, rehearsals will probably still be in the studio, but they’ll probably start as soon as the dancers get out of school and will go until nine or maybe ten in the evening. (Little kids will probably leave once they’re done dancing, but older dancers will stay until all rehearsing is done, even if they don’t dance for the last half hour or hour of rehearsal.) Wednesday and Thursday are usually full dress rehearsals in the theater. Dancers come straight from school, put on their leotards and makeup, have a warmup class on stage, and rehearse all evening until at least ten O’clock or so. Then they go home, eat a super-late supper, and go to sleep immediately, just to do the same thing the next day. Friday evening is usually the first performance. There might be two shows on Saturday, in which case dancers probably arrive by nine or ten in the morning for warm-up, and don’t leave the theater for even a moment until ten or eleven at night. Sunday early afternoon is usually the last show, and everyone’s exhausted but pumped up. Sunday matinees were always my favorite show. Sometimes, there will be a casual photo shoot and/or cast party afterwards. Then it takes several days to recover. It’s exhausting, but it’s fun, and there’s really nothing else in life like it.
9. The constant sense of hope
Maybe I’m a bit of an optimist, but I always assumed that I was just days or weeks away from suddenly improving drastically, and I always had my sights on a bright future in dance, even though that became increasingly implausible as I got older. Even in college, when I had to gradually face the fact that I didn’t really have a shot at a career in dance, there was always that sense that maybe tomorrow would be the day that I’d do a triple pirouette on pointe, or that maybe next week or the week after, my arabesque would be higher than it was today, or that maybe, if I spent a couple hours straight practicing petite allegro over the weekend, I would suddenly be good at it next Monday. Hope is a funny thing. Even when it’s unrealistic, it makes hard work worth doing and hardships worth enduring. But in most aspects of life, goals are a little less concrete and effort is a little bit less quantifiable. In dance, it’s sometimes easier to believe that all your hopes and dreams are just barely out of your reach and will be easily achievable if you can make it just one step farther. And when you feel that way, it gives meaning and purpose to everything you do.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything I miss. But I think it gives a sense of how much dance means when you’re a dancer. It’s not all about fun and glitz, and a former dancer loses more than a hobby and a little glitter. Part of you dies when you stop dancing.