It’s time to reclaim what once haunted you.
By Annie Muscat
I am pretty confident that nearly everyone reading this can resonate with this scenario: you’re in middle school and your parent is driving you to some sort of practice. Maybe it’s dance or soccer or piano class, what have you. You’re begging to be taken literally anywhere else. You just want to quit. You bargain with them like you’re bargaining for your goddamn life. You’re tired of committing so much time and energy to this activity. It’s exhausting, there’s too much pressure, and you just want to hang out with your friends and loiter in the nearby Taco Bell parking lot.
All of this to no avail. You’re dropped off and forced to endure the first ten minutes of practice with puffy eyes and a pout. No one asks, but they don’t have to because they know. They performed the same ritual yesterday. If this mental image hits a little too close to home, hello there! We, along with thousands of others, had the same upbringing, I suppose. So much for being unique…
I spent nearly thirteen years of my life dancing. The dance studio was my second home. I should have paid rent, but I assume the immense monthly tuition my mom paid was a form of rent. At its most intense or in performance preparation mode, I spent a solid 20 hours a week in the studio. My toes were perpetually blistered from pointe shoes. I found bobby pins in bizarre places. And I owned more leotards than was socially acceptable.
Maybe all of this would have been alright if my studio, and many dance studios, as I have come to learn, weren’t a breeding ground for toxic thinking and insecurity. At times, I was convinced that my ballet teachers believed we all wanted to become professional ballerinas. That was far from the truth. Most of the time, there was more emphasis on doing the most pirouettes and having the highest leg extension over feeling strong and beautiful. I don’t even feel the need to discuss the pervasive body dysmorphia we almost all experienced. Unfortunately, ballet and eating disorders go together like peanut butter and jelly. (But make sure you get sugar-free jelly or you’ll get fat).
When auditions rolled around, they felt pointless (no pun intended). We dancers already knew who was going to get what parts. Favoritism was rampant. It became a negative feedback loop. Our teachers watched and corrected the students who showed promise, leading these dancers to improve and go on to receive leading roles. This cycle continued, leaving most of us overlooked and feeling dejected. It even led us to compete against our friends and make hurtful remarks we didn’t truly mean.
My teachers, shameless “dance moms”, and studio politics led me to lose sight of why I loved dancing in the beginning. Ballet is a gorgeous art form and an essential form of self-expression. I could relay my emotions through movement. It was therapy. Despite these positive attributes, the stress was overwhelming and I finally quit dancing during my junior year of high school. It was like a long-anticipated exhale.
It took me years to realize how bittersweet quitting was. My resentment had grown so intense in my last few years that leaving the studio, once my second home, was pure relief. Eventually, I found myself longing to be on stage. I watched my sister perform and was envious, even though I knew she was experiencing the same insecurities I had. She eventually quit, too, as did many people I know. This is far from a distinctive experience.
Five years after quitting ballet, I am a senior in college. I am across the country from the town I grew up in and years removed from the frustration I developed towards dance. Not to mention, as an existential crisis-ridden senior, I find myself wanting to take advantage of every opportunity I can.
For these reasons, I rather impulsively auditioned for Fordham’s Jetes, a student-led ballet team. Dancing in the auditions alone was almost indescribable. The best word I can use is liberating. Not only was I returning to dance of my own volition, but also no one was making me feel inferior. In fact, quite the opposite, I felt beautiful and strong and encouraged by those around me. Returning was as familiar as riding a bicycle. It was as if I was reclaiming ballet. Much to my excitement, I made the team! And taking regular classes has been both empowering and downright fun.
To wrap up my saga, I strongly recommend returning to something you once grew to resent. You have grown since then and your context has evolved. Don’t get me wrong, don’t force anything or place yourself back in unhealthy environments or headspaces, but there was probably a time when you loved it. You are in control now.