Nine Things I Miss About Dance

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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

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)

The feet in this stock photo are actually pretty un-damaged-looking for ballet feet.

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

pointe shoe music box 2As 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

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

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.

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‘Tis the Life of a Dancer, Episode 1

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This is Natalia Osipova. She is extremely awesome.

This is Natalia Osipova. She is extremely awesome.

I’m not going to claim that I’m a professional-level dancer, or that I’ve dedicated every moment of my entire life to ballet, or that I look like those astonishingly beautiful ballerinas who inspire both envy and dedication in every ballet student who frequents youtube and reads dance magazines. But I have dedicated a significant amount of my life to ballet over the past six or seven years, I am a dance major in college, and I do have enough experience and knowledge that I feel entirely qualified to make the points that I want to make here. Basically, it comes down to this: Most people just don’t understand ballet.

Of course, you could probably say that about any profession, field of study, sport, or hobby. I think that every activity can really only be understood by people who have dedicated a lot of time and effort to it. False assumptions and silly stereotypes exist for any job, pastime, or field of interest. But I think that ballet is even more subject to misunderstandings and absurd opinions because it’s such a common interest. Almost everyone thinks they know more about it than they really do, simply because ballet is so prevalent in pop culture. In our society, most females, as well as some males, have at some point in their life taken at least a few dance classes, and in many of these cases, those classes were preschooler-level ballet classes. Contrary to what many people seem to think, that doesn’t really constitute ballet experience. It doesn’t even constitute a taste of what ballet is really like.

For that age group, ballet classes generally consist of running around, playing charade-like games, and wearing things like pink tutus and tiaras. Even at a very good pre-professional ballet school, actual ballet technique usually isn’t taught until the student is at least six or seven years old. This isn’t because the teachers don’t care about the little kids; it’s because it’s physically impossible for children that young to do ballet. For example, babies don’t have arches in their feet, and those arches usually don’t develop until around the age of four. Until then, the child cannot point his or her foot, at least not as well as ballet technique necessarily requires. (There are exceptions, of course. I remember one time being at the zoo and noticing a baby who had beautiful ballet feet. This was such an unusual sight that it surprised me at the time and has stuck in my mind ever since.)Also, although little children are capable of greater flexibility than older children and adults, it isn’t safe for a young child to stretch as much as a serious ballet student must. A little kid who stretches too much could do permanent damage to his or her ligaments. This is a risk at any age, but especially for children with immature ligaments and joints. One of the biggest ballet impediments to little kids, of course, is that bodily awareness takes years to develop. Not only does every child need to reach a certain age to have good control of his or her muscles, but it also usually takes several years of dance experience beyond that to have the control necessary to really be ready for the precision of ballet class. For all these reasons, very few dancers under the age of about seven or eight are really training in “real” ballet, even at a top-notch classical ballet school.

I am not saying all of this to demean young dance students or to deny the value of dance classes at a young age. I think that pre-ballet classes for little kids are very beneficial, both to the children taking the classes and to the dance schools offering the classes. (Not to mention the fact that young aspiring ballerinas make up a significant portion of ballet’s fan base, so ballet itself as an art form benefits from encouraging these young dance students) It’s just that, if someone took ballet for a couple years when they were little and then quit, they don’t really know anything more about ballet than someone who has never taken a class in their life. That isn’t an exaggeration; pretty much everyone has seen enough ballerina storybooks and ballerina pictures to have some idea of what ballet looks like and to be familiar with a couple ballet positions. The idea of the ballet world that a four-year-old ballet student has will pretty much correspond to the coloring-book-and-paper-dolls version of the ballet world. Only after years of training, countless hours of classes and rehearsals, a good deal of pain and frustration, and unquantifiable amounts of hard work, will a dance student have genuinely experienced the way ballet really works.

Music BoxI think that the predominant idea of ballet in pop culture is that a female ballet dancer is ethereal, graceful, and very delicate. That really is the effect that ballet dancers want to have; ballet is supposed to look light and effortless. But it isn’t light and effortless at all. Gaynor Minden, a dancewear company that specializes in pointe shoes, uses the phrase “It’s Amazing What Goes into Making Something Look Effortless” as a sort of advertising headline. That line is very true. A ballerina’s delicacy comes from a lifetime of grueling hard work, the endurance to push through pain on a daily basis, and thick enough skin to be able to tolerate constant corrections and criticism from teachers. What the audience perceives as delicacy is actually toughness. I’m saying this as someone who has experienced enough of this to know how difficult and painful it can be, but who knows that all I’ve been through is just a pathetically tiny fraction of what a professional dancer has experienced.

To be fair, I do think that the general public is aware that ballet isn’t all pink tulle and fairy tales. I do think that it’s commonly understood that serious ballet training takes a lot of hard work and discipline. If the questions that people sometimes ask me can be taken as valid evidence, it has occurred to most people to wonder if pointe shoes hurt, if dancers get injured very often, and if all those classes and rehearsals are time-consuming. In each of those cases, the answer is yes, and much more so than any non-dancer can realize. I have had multiple stress fractures as well as ongoing Achilles tendonitis for a few years now, not to mention perpetually bruised toenails and, of course, sore muscles and any number of random aches and pains. I use myself merely as an example; anyone who spends a significant amount of time in ballet classes experiences the exact same injuries and pains that I do.

There are emotional side effects of ballet, too. Classical ballet technique is extremely precise; it’s a big deal if your arm is just a little too low or if your ankle is at slightly the wrong angle or if the muscle just above your kneecap isn’t working quite as hard as it should be. Any muscle in the body could be too tense or too loosely held. Any limb or digit could be too stiff or not straight enough. In any move, you have to be conscious of every single part of your body at every single instant, and the slightest mistake is a problem that needs to be fixed. Perfection simply doesn’t exist in ballet because there are just too many possible things to be wrong. Even if a dancer somehow did manage to achieve flawless technique, he or she would still be imperfect because it would always be possible to jump a little higher or move a little faster or to get a few more rotations into each turn. Besides that, there would be certain positions or moves that just aren’t flattering to the body type or dancing style of even the most perfect dancer. Classical ballet choreography doesn’t allow certain moves to be edited or omitted just because they don’t look good on the dancer. A dancer is required to constantly strive for utter perfection, but there’s no such thing as utter perfection. It’s a goal that is automatically doomed to failure, and every dancer feels the frustration of that failure acutely.

This is an image that's been going aroumd the internet a lot, and I don't know where it came from originally, but this is exactly what most dancer's feet look like. Not immediatly after the pointe shoes come off, though. They normally would be a little more red and swollen for an hour or two.

This is an image that’s been going aroumd the internet a lot, and I don’t know where it came from originally, but this is exactly what most dancer’s feet look like. Not immediatly after the pointe shoes come off, though. They normally would be a little more red and swollen for an hour or two.

And then there’s the fatigue. A normal ballet class lasts ninety minutes, and I usually am physically exhausted within ten to fifteen minutes, which means that I spend the rest of the class just trying to get through it. When there are rehearsals after class, the rehearsals can go on for several hours. Schedules get really intense during theater week. Before one show that we did at my college, I spent so much time in the dance studio and the theater that I moved my laptop and all my schoolbooks into the locker room and only returned to my dorm for a few hours a night to get a bit of sleep and to take a shower before heading off to the next day of academic classes, dance rehearsals, and murderous fatigue. I can only imagine how much crazier it must be for a professional dancer. At major companies, dance is a full-time job. At smaller companies, dance is an almost-full-time job with part-time pay, while all of the dancers work other jobs and many of them are also working towards their education. It’s hard enough to be a college dance major; it must be even harder to be both a professional dancer and a college student.

One aspect of life as a dance major that I find particularly annoying is that we aren’t supposed to complain about dance. It’s okay for someone in any academic major to sometimes get tired of their field of study, to dislike certain courses or professors, and to be delighted when the semester is over and they get a break. College students complain about their classes to their classmates and also to their friends in different  disciplines, they whine about how little sleep they get and how much time they spend studying, and they constantly talk about how hard school is. It’s just kind of a fact of college life; college takes a lot of work and college students are supposed to complain about it as much as they want. But dancers are supposed to always love dance, to never be too tired for dancing, and to continue dancing over breaks if at all possible. If they do complain, their non-dancer friends think they’re babies, because dance classes are fun classes, right? When dancers feel overworked or get burned out, that’s seen as being completely different, and somehow less valid, than the kind of exhaustion that comes from academic work. As a double major who has put a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice into both dance and academics, I can tell you that academic work is extremely easy compared to ballet. For most classes, you can just sit there the whole time long. Even if you pulled an all-nighter and are extremely tired, even if you have a killer migraine, even if you have a painful injury, even if you’re utterly depressed and unmotivated, it’s always technically possible to sit through a class. I’ve been through all of those scenarios many times, and so have most college students. Chances are, the worst thing that could happen to you is that you can’t focus and don’t pick up certain topics as quickly as you should. (Well, there’s also the risk of falling asleep in class, which is something that every sleep-deprived college student has to come up with his or her own strategy for avoiding.)  In ballet class, on the other hand, you could severely injure yourself or collapse from sheer fatigue and overwork. That’s not even hyperbole; it has happened to me on more than one occasion and I’ve been aware of it happening to other dancers as well. And that’s not just something that’s isolated to college-age or adult dancers. Burnout and injury from overwork are things that can happen to young intermediate-level dancers as well. I don’t know the statistics, but I think it’s safe to say that most serious ballet students over the age of eleven or twelve have experienced multiple injuries, have been through a lot of dance-related stress, and have had moments when they genuinely hated ballet.

I still have my first pair of pointe shoes, and they still fit. They look like this.

I still have my first pair of pointe shoes, and they still fit. They look like this.

Of course, when you say these kinds of things to non-dancers, they will probably assume that you’re exaggerating or at least being dramatic. And if they do take you seriously, they will wonder why you would continue dancing if it makes you so unhappy. A lot of dancers have a cliché answer to the “Why do you dance?” question, usually something along the lines of “Because movement is in my soul,” or “Because it makes me feel whole” or “Why do you breathe?” I’ve never had a good answer for that question, at least not one that’s completely honest. The real reason I’m a college dance major is just because otherwise, I would have had to make ballet a much lower priority in my life. And the real reason I got so involved in ballet when I was a teenager was just because I was so frustrated by it that I couldn’t help putting a lot of work into it. Those aren’t very inspirational and quotable reasons, especially not when you add the fact that I never did, and probably never will, get anywhere near good enough to justify all that I’ve put into my pursuit of balletic excellence. It’s very hard for me to explain why I dance; it’s much easier for me to explain why I continue dancing in spite of everything.

This was my facebook profile picture for a while. I'm just sticking it here because I happen to like it.

This was my facebook profile picture for a while. I’m just sticking it here because I happen to like it.

There are some joys in life that you never really experience outside of ballet. There’s the sense of accomplishment after a performance or after a particularly good class. There are the occasional encouraging words from teachers who give compliments so rarely that a single kind word from them is worth more than all of the empty praise in the world. There’s the sensation that you occasionally get at the very top of a jump that went higher than usual or in the middle of a turn that went around more times than usual. There’s the satisfaction of suddenly doing something correctly that you’ve spent years working on and hating yourself for being unable to do. There’s the feeling of stepping out of hot and sweat-filled classroom into the sunlight and breeze of a beautiful afternoon like the one I was fortunate enough to see yesterday. There’s the type of slight soreness that isn’t bad enough to be a problem and actually makes you feel almost kind of proud because it comes from hard work. There’s the knowledge that you’re capable of doing things that most people can’t, even if you can’t always do them as well as your classmates. Sometimes, there are moments in class when you see yourself in the mirror and realize that you actually look like a dancer. And it doesn’t even matter whether that position or step is hard, or if it hurts your feet, because that’s not the point. The point is that you’re doing something correctly and it looks the way it should.

Because really, when it comes down to it, all of the work and all of the hardships of classical ballet serve one purpose, and that purpose is to embody that image of the fairy tale ballerina who is so elegant, effortless, light, graceful, and delicate that no audience member could ever guess that her feet hurt or that she’s dead tired. That perfection is not what it’s really like to be a ballet dancer, but it’s still what the art of ballet itself is like.