I danced in a competitive studio for several years. Before I arrived at that studio, I was trained in classical ballet. It is no secret that the dance industry is one of the most cutthroat, competitive environments an artist can put themselves in. I remember feeling constant doubt and shame regarding my flexibility, my lines, my body, etc. I am abnormally flexible for the average person and have always been in pretty good shape but compared to the other dancers I took class with, I was awful. And that is what competitive dance is so often all about- comparing yourself to the rest of the dance world. And that is not for everyone.
It’s been three years since I stopped dancing seriously- I dabbled in color guard and theatre briefly, but soon threw myself exclusively into my college courses. I thought that this would be a good way to allow myself to develop a strong work ethic, living as a student with few to no distractions. I also thought that completely removing myself from a life involving dance would help me grow to love my body more. No one ever tells you how hard it is to escape old habits and toxic thoughts even when you’ve removed yourself from the environment that taught you how to hate yourself.
I was 19 years old by the time I realized that quitting dance was probably the worst mistake of my life. Don’t get me wrong, leaving my studio was the best think I could have done for my physical and mental health, but if I could, I’d tell myself to find someplace new to try again. Dance was one of the only things that kept me sane in spite of the harmful standards most of us were held to.
I was studying abroad when this all clicked. I’d been in Guangzhou, China for about two months and was battling severe depressive episodes and some unyielding anxiety. Culture shock and homesickness kicked my ass and I had no idea how I was supposed to make it another four months without losing my mind. And then… *cue dramatic orchestral music* I saw an ad for dance classes, and it felt as though the heavens opened up and angels sang, and everything was suddenly going to be okay.
No, that’s not how it happened at all. I saw the ad and barely gave it a second thought. A week went by. Then two weeks. Then a month. It was halfway through my semester abroad and I was not okay. It was a conversation with my parents that convinced me to just try out a dance class for one week- maybe it would serve as a good distraction. At the very least, I’d get an hour worth of cardio. I found the ad again and attended one class. It was hip hop.
Just to make sure that you understand how out of my depth I was when I got to the studio and realized that I would be learning a hip-hop routine, let me remind you that I am a classically trained ballerina before anything else. I never so much as stepped on a dance floor without ballet shoes on. Needless to say, I was mildly terrified. And I was horrible. But I went back to my dormitory feeling happy. So, I attended one more class, just to see if I got the same effect. Then one more class, just to make sure I was getting better at my isolations. Then another, and another, and another, until I was dancing four times a week, every week- classes in hip hop, modern, and classical Chinese dance. And I was happy because I was learning, I was healthy, I was having so much fun every week.
When I returned to the states, I continued taking classes whenever I could manage. I didn’t focus too hard on becoming inhumanly flexible or small, and no one asked that of me. On days that I didn’t go to class, I missed it. On days that I got to perform in recitals, I was thrumming with excitement throughout the entire rehearsal, the show, the final bows. None of this is because doing four pirouettes made me a better person than I was when I could only do two. It wasn’t because of any gains in flexibility or any awards at a competition. It was all about telling a story through dance.
When I feel emotions that I simply cannot articulate with speech, dance allows me to explore those feelings; I’m able to jump and reach for the sky when I’m overjoyed, shake off negativity and frustration, roll around on the floor gracelessly to a Billie Eilish song when I have no idea how the hell I’m going to graduate next year. And I always feel a little bit better after rolling around, spinning mindlessly, and jumping like a maniac with pointed toes.
In spite of the toxic environment that I experienced with the competitive dance industry, I continue to dance as a means to practice self-care and creative expression. My hope is that young dancers that may not be pursuing a professional career in dance do not give up on a passion that may sometimes feel so tainted. Find a place that encourages you to grow and express yourself through your body and through your movement. It is such a gift to dance.