What makes someone a dancer? Is it the ability to execute a perfect fouetté en pointe, or is it a love of movement, a sense of joy at the feeling of sweet movement running through one’s body? Where does technique give way to love of dance? Or does it?
I’ve been “a dancer” since the tender age of 4, if you define dancer by the terms of sheer fascination with the danced step. However, for my whole dance life I’ve struggled with stubborn turnout muscles (or lack thereof) and flat feet. This used to make me feel really bad about my abilities- I’d come home from the studio, having worked my little butt off to recieve no praise and only admonitions from my teachers designed to push me to change things over which I had no control. I was a little bit of an emotional wreck to begin with, having an innate sense of perfectionism and anxiety coupled with random spurts of rage, and the criticisms I heard at the studio only provoked the emotional monster that resided in my gut.
Nevertheless, I danced my way through my childhood and teenagerdom. Dance was a love-hate relationship for me, something I wanted so badly to excel at and something that I could never completely conquer. My traitorous knees gave out at 14, sending me through repeated bouts of physiotherapy. As I grew out of the patella femoral syndrome that plagued me, I gained hip problems and was back in physio yet again. I never gave up on dance, despite my body’s urging and my mind’s grapples with poor body image ever exacerbated by staring into full length mirrors for many hours each week. Still, even though my body often disliked me, there was something intoxicating about dancing. Even though I didn’t always like what I saw in the 360 degree mirrors, I really did love the way a port de bras could transform a bad day into a good one. My relationship with dance was too intense to just ignore, to put on the backburner.
When I graduated high school and moved on into the great beyond, I did let dance slide. I turned instead to a relationship that was truly hate-hate: one with running. Even harder on my body, I was soon pounding the pavement instead of hitting the barre, my self-hatred ever deepening as I spiralled into a full blown eating disorder. It was a relationship with physical activity in which the primary players were the same but the context so much more intense and the joy never present.
In recovery, I reexamined my entire life from the ground up, and was forced to look into what role, if any, my dance history had played in the development of my eating disorder. I searched my soul to discover that while some of my deep-seated issues may have incubated at the barre, there is a part of me that needs the creative outlet that dance provides to truly shine.
Part of my recovery involved 8 months with zero exercise. Zip. I had to write down any scrap of activity, from shopping to standing. It was hell, but it worked. Once I was safely able to reincorporate a little activity into my life, I had to think about how it fit with my plans for the future and my mental and physical health. The first thing that came to mind to stay healthy in mind and body was dance. Of course, I had to carefully think through whether I’d be able to look in the full length mirrors and see the girl I’d finally come to accept, or if previous self-doubt would come creeping back in. I settled on one class a week, which fit with my recovery in many ways. Firstly, activity with other people was something I refused to even consider in the depths of my disorder. Secondly, a scheduled class was better for me than having free reign to (go above and beyond) the amount of activity I wished in my healthy head to re-incorporate. Lastly, I missed the freedom in a good adage or port de bras. I missed letting go.
Though my return to dance hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, I’ve stuck to the promises I’ve made to myself with respect to the art form. I won’t berate myself for my body’s natural limitations. I feel ok about missing a class if I’m not feeling up to it (physically or mentally). I listen equally to compliments and critiques, giving the former equal room to absorb into my consciousness.
I am a dancer, even though I only dance once a week. I am a dancer because I will always be a dancer- no matter whether I’m admiring a performance or pointing my own toes. I am a dancer, not because of what my body looks like or even what it can do- I am a dancer because I love dance.