My years as a serious ballet student left me with a love for classical music, a decent sense of rhythm, and a diligent work ethic. They also gave me a poisonous self loathing I’ve been working to shed my entire adult life.
Any woman’s body image arises from a network of factors. It would be unfair to blame ballet entirely. However, as I think back, there are a few stories that raise a red flag, and one is being kicked out of ballet school for being too damn fat. I was my full adult height at the time – 5 feet 6 inches. And I weighed 136 pounds.
I suppose it will be a result of your own ideas about weight and health whether you read that and think: “What? That’s outrageous!” or “Yep, that’s pretty big for ballet.” Because it was big for ballet. They told me to take the summer off and lose some weight, 20 pounds to be exact. And if I couldn’t lose 20 pounds? Then don’t bother to come back.
Have I mentioned yet that I was 14 years old at the time? Such a raw, easily bruised age. At this point, being an early bloomer, puberty was old hat – all those mortifying signs of impending adulthood had been battering me since I was 10. But this rejection was the last straw, decimating any inklings I might have had towards self-confidence.
I have to be careful, now,as a yoga teacher, not to mistake yoga for ballet. Some of the things they share are things I love – the rigorousness and discipline, the challenge of meeting your body each day, the work towards flexibility.
But the ways they are different are so much more striking and important. The language of the ballet, the steps, are not up for discussion. First position is not a suggestion but a command. No one is going to come around and ask you how that feels, or if 180 degrees of rotation is the healthiest place for your knees and your hips and your ankles.
In some ways, that rigidity was soothing. Especially during adolescence, or at any time in your life that things feel uncertain, it feels good to have someone telling you “this is the right way” – to do a dance step, to look, to live. The constant evolution of the practice of yoga postures can sometimes get a bit disorienting. They are a moving target, which makes them exhilarating, but sometimes a little hard to pin down. It’s frustrating, then, when a student asks me if they’re doing a pose “right”, and I know they’re not looking for the roundabout answer I give them, full of ifs ands and buts. They’re looking for a simple yes or no, thank you. I know the feeling.
But that conversation, demanding as it is, is worth the struggle. Because the poses are a gift of energy and alignment to the body, physical, subtle and mental, and the external shape of that must conform to the inner process, not the other way around. And when done this way, yoga is an act of love.
I think about the dressing room at the ballet school, and the way the girls wore their wounds, and their emaciated frames, like badges of honor. Bleeding feet, black toenails, eating disorders. And yet I desperately envied them, for being on the other side of a door that I, at 136 pounds, couldn’t fit through.
I’m afraid I don’t get to end this piece with an a-ha! moment, where my practice rips the veils off, and I’m able to love my body for the gift it is. There is just this, the lifetime practice of nourishing myself and my self-image, re-storing the love that got taken out, one day, and one pose at a time.