April 17, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Brett LeVan
Content Warning: This article discusses eating disorders and feelings of anxiety
My body was telling me no, my mental health was saying no more, but my younger self was begging me to just keep dancing.
Dance can be mentally and physically exhausting. After years of dancing with different companies, I grew to realize how much of a perfectionist I had become and that dancers are asked to make hard things look easy – both internally and externally.
I was 13 years old when I started turning sideways in the mirror and sucking in as hard as I could to see if I could stretch my small hands all the way around my stomach. I was 13 years old when I started skipping meals, when I started “packing” my lunch for school and lying to my family about eating it. I told myself I needed to fit into the detrimental beauty standards of ballerinas, and I did it in the unhealthiest way possible.
Dance became the most rewarding thing for me, yet also the most damaging thing I knew. I began holding onto so much guilt and doubt about myself as a dancer. During my senior year, after four years dancing at boarding school, I finally broke.
There were no words to explain how I was feeling. My body was thanking me for the petit allegro combinations in center and each grand jeté across the marley floor. Yet, tears would stream down my face as I sat in my dorm room after rehearsals more defeated than ever. I would hear the music we were rehearsing to and slowly, then all at once, I would feel my heartbeat thundering inside me. It felt like every inch of me was crumbling, it felt like my heart would stop as soon as I stepped into rehearsal or on stage, and I felt the fire within me saying, “keep dancing!” slowly come to an end.
When the curtain lowered for my final performance of senior year, I promised myself I was never going to dance again.
I was letting my younger self down, and I was letting my inner dancer perish.
When I arrived at college after an extremely self-reflective gap year, I was still unable to break the promise I made to myself a year prior. Instead, I chose to choreograph for Dance Workshop first semester. Then, during Blocks Three and Four, I took an intermediate/advanced contemporary adjunct with Patrizia Herminjard. She may never know it until she reads this sentence, but that adjunct made me realize that it was possible to heal. My body, my mind, every inch of my being began to feel free from the burden and guilt I felt not being perfect.
In November, I was cast as the narrator in Madison Dillon’s senior dance thesis (You can read all about this experience in the April 7 edition of The Catalyst). I performed the role of a daughter who spills a glass of milk, breaking from the guilt of ruining her sister’s birthday and disappointing her parents. I was dancing as myself more than I ever realized, the reality unraveling itself before me over time spent rehearsing – I remembered my younger self crushing under the pressure of ruining something.
My mom told me after the thesis performance, tears streaming down her face before me, that nobody would have ever known I had made the promise to never dance again.
The dance community at Colorado College, dance adjuncts offered, and the different dance opportunities here helped me break that promise to myself. There is beauty in trying and failing, yet there is even more beauty in healing. I thank the dance community here who helped me heal. College is about trying new things and feeling free from burden and guilt. I’m developing new compassion for my senior-year-self crumbling into a ball after rehearsals. It reminds me that change is possible.
My inner dancer is healing, and my body is feeling the impact of it. I’m slowly regaining the technique I once had; my feet no longer fit into my dead and beat up pointe shoes, and my pirouettes aren’t as clean as they once were, but my mind is thankful: my heart no longer thrashes inside my chest.
I offer this perspective: to dance or not to dance, to be perfect or to fail, when you have passion for something, it is impossible not to care, for passion doesn’t often tolerate mistakes. Fall down, cry on the floor, and say no when you need to, but please never give up on your younger self screaming at you to try it again. Dancers are asked to make hard things look easy, and I can imagine the same goes for scoring a perfect free throw or diving off the starting block.
Just try again.