Dancing Outside of My Comfort Zone

From kindergarten until around middle school, if you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve said a professional dancer.  I have been dancing for as long as I can remember, ever since I was four and my mom put me in a class at the community rec center in which we read Disney stories, dressed up as princesses, and danced around the room.  She put me in the class because I liked princesses. But after that, I found something that I liked more: ballet. I started taking classes at that same rec center and then at various studios in town before I found the one that would be my home for the next nine years.

Dancing is the only sport I’ve ever done, the only activity I’ve ever truly been invested in.  It makes me feel strong, powerful, and in control. Ballet has taught me discipline, poise, and perseverance.  The studio was my home away from home. I loved performing on stage each December and June. But I eventually realized that I would never be a professional dancer.  I didn’t have the right feet, a fact that became clear when I got my first pair of pointe shoes in sixth grade. I knew that professional dancers made very little money and retired early, having completely bruised and battered their bodies.  I didn’t have the time to get the highest quality pre-professional training I could and still manage the advanced classes I was taking in school. And, most of all, I knew I wanted to go to college. Most professional dancers begin apprenticeships with ballet companies straight out of high school, not wanting to squander the years in which they are in peak physical shape.  But I liked school too much and I wanted a degree and a career.

When I started looking at colleges during my junior year of high school, I knew that I wanted to attend a small, liberal arts school and study English.  I also knew that I wasn’t ready to give up dancing. In terms of academics, community, and number of buildings that look like castles, Kenyon ticked all of the boxes.  It became my dream school the moment that I set foot on campus in late March of my junior year. However, I remained slightly apprehensive. The dance studio, while housed in an adorable cottage, had low ceilings, desks jumbled in the corner, and no state-of-the-art sprung flooring to protect dancers’ joints.  I read obsessively about other schools’ dance programs. One school had four levels of ballet classes. Another had a brand-new studio flooded with natural light. I concluded that out of all of the schools I was considering, at Kenyon, I would do the least amount of dancing. But the English department, steeped in tradition, kept luring me in.  How bad could it really be? I thought.  I could still take dance classes and perform.  So I sent in my deposit.

My first semester at Kenyon was the first time in probably 12 years that I wasn’t consistently attending a ballet class.  I took modern dance because that was what was offered, and even though I had been taking modern for years, this class was different.  We did more improvisation than I was used to. My professor used words like core-distal and contralateral to describe movements, acting like everyone knew what they meant.  I was told to loosen up, to stop worrying about making shapes. We never danced in front of the mirror. I auditioned for the Fall Dance Concert and had my first experience working with a student choreographer.  I was used to being shown movement and asked to repeat it. I wasn't so used to contributing my own movement to a piece, and I certainly wasn't used to improvising on stage.  In that first semester, I realized that I had underestimated how important dance was to me.  When I had to put on my pointe shoes every day, I resented how much my feet hurt. When pointe shoes were suddenly not a part of the curriculum, I missed them.  I felt lost. In a dance department where no one seemed to value a pirouette or a grand jete or even ballet in general, how was I supposed to assert my identity?

It was in intermediate ballet during the spring semester of my first year, after a particularly frustrating and decidedly non-technical class, that I realized that I was never going to get back the training that I used to have.  I was never going to perform the kinds of dances that made me so happy back in middle and high school. And I was just going to have to learn to live with that. I started to see my dance classes as a personal challenge to let go and loosen up.  I saw that not spending every day in the dance studio gave me the opportunity to branch out, to get involved in clubs and activities that I never could have in high school because I was too busy rehearsing. I saw that modern classes had taught me to be a more fluid, expressive dancer.  I saw that I liked performing at Kenyon, with this community and all of our little pre-show rituals. By trying to make my life exactly what it was back at home, I was missing out on the whole point of attending a school in rural Ohio, 2,000 miles away from home.

I still miss ballet, with all of its structure and rigor and emphasis on technique, and I never miss out on the chance to take classes when I’m home on breaks.  I still probably point my toes way too much in modern class. But after the first week of classes this semester, my professor told me how beautifully I was dancing and how much freer I looked.  She asked if I could feel it. I said I could, and for the first time, I actually meant it.


Image Credit: Feature, Julie Sauer, Jenni Carmon