Surviving Adolescence Part 1: the ballet years


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.


About madyoga

Yoga Teacher and Massage Therapist in Sacramento, CA
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11 Responses to Surviving Adolescence Part 1: the ballet years

  1. blogasana says:

    i am so grateful for you. thank you for sharing yourself and your experience in this way.

  2. I just read this post through three times; it is just so beautifully crafted. I totally have tears in my eyes! It’s so fascinating how many similarities many of us share around negative body image, completely regardless of our actual physical size.

    Your description of yoga is so spot on. I especially loved this: “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.”

    Thanks for sharing; I’m going to be thinking on this one for awhile. xo

  3. Completely lovely. I especially appreciate the lack of an “aha” moment, because for most of us there is just more process, more work, and more love!

  4. Tami says:

    funny that the activities we were drawn to, or were made available to us as young girls, are the same activities that help shape our skewed visions of what healthy female bodies look like.

    my sport of choice was gymnastics and when i grew to my current height of 5 feet 4 and 1/2 inches and 120 pounds (so NOT my current weight) at age 10 – i felt like a giant uncoordinated moose. in fact, i felt like that until i found a trainer (in my early 30s) who emphasized what your body can DO rather than what it looks like.

    the icing on that cake has been developing a deeper yoga practice. i’m also ever appreciative for the no mirror policy at it’s all yoga. what a huge difference that’s made.

  5. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful — you, and your blog post too.

  6. ccyogini says:

    I love the honesty and truth in this post. It brought tears to my eyes to read it. Thanks for sharing your heart with us. xo

  7. Ann Wehrman says:

    Thank you for your testimony. Those of us who have suffered with the physical limitations of the Dance world understand what you wrote so well. Dancers/human beings come in all shapes and sizes–the choreography should grow up to reflect that. Where are the dances that express older people’s stories, or those of larger people, or those with physical disabilities? While Dance relies and showcases human health and physical strength, those things must begin within and fluctuate with the rhythms of life.

    Thanks for choosing life and love. Let the rest of the world catch up.


  8. darxyanne says:

    Posts that don’t end with a-ha! moments are usually my favorite kind. I’m so glad Havi linked to your beautiful writing today. Thank you for telling this piece of your story.

  9. Sarah Lyford says:

    This is such a beautiful post and really timely for me. I think a lot about how I once interacted with my body as a gymnast with a lot of loathing and how the process of becoming a mother changed all that for me. And now as a novice and bemused-interested-in-yoga former yoga hater I love that I am continually being blown away with tiny yet amazing realisations of things I couldn’t ever consider as a rigid perfectionistic teenager intent on forcing my body to conform to my will. Now I am learning to let my body and my soul inform each other in a slow, steady, frustrating and at times enlivening process of which I am just an observer. It’s so refreshing to see another perspective and from a yoga practitioner too. Lovely stuff!

  10. Joy says:

    *waves* I’m here via Havi. And I’m really glad I clicked through. I was a dancer all the way through high school, but I got super-lucky in that even though I was in a fairly serious-business ballet school where we danced 6 days/week, we had a fairly high diversity of body types and sizes…and eating disorders were not tolerated – if you lost too much weight too fast, there would be questions. We also had, mostly, good teachers who urged us to work with our bodies, to do as much as we could without hurting ourselves. I definitely got the bruises-and-pain-as-badge-of-honor mentality, though, and that’s definitely still something I”m working to unlearn as I try to figure out how to interact with my body now that 6-day-a-week dancing is neither financially nor physically feasible at this point. I also acquired the belief that any physical practice has to happen six days a week, preferably for an hour and a half or more, to be “worth it.” And because I can’t manage that with my current life, it’s too easy to just chuck it all instead of doing 5 minutes of Shiva Nata here or 15 of yoga there.
    So, thank you, thank you for this post – for nostalgia and mindfulness all rolled into one. 🙂

  11. candace says:

    I started taking ballet two years ago as an adult to fulfill a life long dream of wanting to dance ballet. I was really passionate about it solidly until this last december when suddenly I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t pin point why until this past Sunday when I realized that every time I went to dance I was filled with anxiety about how my body looked, how my hair was done, how it all looked when I moved, how well I did everything, to a point of every session being not about fun but really about what I couldn’t do. I started doing yoga regularly as a replacement activity and its really helped me to start healing how I view myself and what this is really all about: being healthy and happy. I really appreciate stories like yours because, well, its real and its a work in progress, like me.

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