Ballet Broke Me But I’ll Still Let My Daughter Dance…Here’s Why
***This post may be triggering to those who have struggled with disordered eating or negative body image. Do not read further if you’re struggling. Seek help.***
This isn’t going to be one of those posts singing the praises of the discipline you learn in ballet. Frankly, much of that should be unlearned. Through discipline, we’re also taught subservience, resulting in men monopolizing positions of power even though ballet is female dominated.
Women in dance need to learn to step up and speak out. To take back the power we earn through the blood, sweat, and tears we put in. The discipline of ballet also breeds perfectionism that’s often a detriment to mental and physical health. Now, I’ll get off my soapbox and share some of my ballet experience.
Dance started off as fun. That’s really all it was for me. I loved the recitals and the costumes and being on stage. Then, my teacher at the rinky-dink studio I attended suggested I seek out more serious training. So my mother and I found a school, and I started dancing more frequently and taking it much more seriously.
At 13, I attended my first Ballet Summer Intensive away. I overate for much of the summer and gained some weight. Upon returning to my ballet school, my teacher patted me on the thigh and said, “that wasn’t there before.” So I started my first diet. I wouldn’t eat anything with more than 3 grams of fat. Coming off the height of the low-fat ’80s diet craze, that’s what my 13-year-old brain came up with as the best way to lose weight….
And I did.
Teachers and peers praised the weight loss, every time.
For every Summer Intensive thereafter, it was a goal to come back thinner than when I left. I achieved that goal each Summer and was praised each time.
So yeah, ballet destroyed my relationship with my body. All I saw were fat thighs and a huge butt. I yearned to be shapeless. I strived to push off puberty for as long as possible equating menstruation with being fat. This obsession didn’t end for me until after I stopped dancing professionally in my late 20s.
In addition to the body stuff, I crumbled under the pressure. I doubted my abilities and never thought I deserved to be wherever I happened to be dancing at the moment. I felt like an imposter. Someone was going to find me out and tell me to leave the Summer Intensive or fire me from the job.
I was always a nervous child. My first grade teacher would yell a lot, so every day of first grade, I went to the nurse’s office complaining of a stomachache.
Screaming ballet teachers left me paralyzed, tense. There were no nurse’s offices to escape to. I did not thrive under that pressure. It scared me and validated all the doubts I had about myself and my abilities.
Injuries were ongoing. I danced through so much pain. Teachers told you the stories of dancers performing on broken bones—to be hardcore was to accept the pain; so I did.
So now, I’m sure you’re wondering: If that was your experience, why on earth would you let your daughter dance?
Why I’ll still let my daughter dance.
Despite all the mental, emotional, and physical pain, the dancing itself is otherworldly. It’s magic. I loved the work, and performing made me giddy. I felt absolutely free in my dancing during performances. On the stage, you didn’t have to worry about the feedback. You could just revel in the beauty and joy of the moment.
My daughter is very young, so who knows if she’ll even have an interest in ballet. I definitely won’t be pushing it, but I wouldn’t steer her away from it either. There are schools and teachers who lead their students with love and positive support. There are teachers who don’t scream or belittle. And there are teachers who don’t body shame or give diet advice.
It’s my hope that more and more schools and teachers are shifting in that direction, but I hear stories literally every day of shameful comments and practices in both small and super prominent dance schools.
If my daughter wants to dance I’ll be vigilant about the people teaching her.
There will be open discussion around aesthetic pressures and messages she’s hearing, whether in her direct dance environment or elsewhere.
There will be no diets. As she starts to have more agency over her food choices, I’ll still be watching closely and asking lots of questions if I see things change.
She’ll get support outside of dance. Whether that’s from me, a health coach, mindset coach, counselor, therapist, or otherwise. For her dance experience to be healthy and fulfilling, I know she’ll likely need outside support. Most dancers do (and very few actually get it).
Dance pursuits can be healthy and balanced. Some schools and teachers see that, while others are holding on to the old extremes for dear life. I’ll be seeking out balanced environments, and I encourage you to do the same whether you’re supporting a daughter or son, pursuing dance yourself, or already dancing in your professional career. Only when we recognize and demand what’s better for the mental health of dancers will we get it.
So, yes. Ballet broke me, but I’ve healed. With the knowledge and wisdom of the realities of the dance world, I’ll support my daughter should she choose to dance.