Ballet and body image: freshman details her journey to self-acceptance

Originally published on December 4, 2015

Photo Illustration by Aida Irving and Kiara Gil.

By Bel Mehaffy, guest contributor to The Lowell.

Before my dance teacher discouraged me from becoming a professional dancer by telling me I didn’t have the right body type for ballet, I didn’t think of my body as something that might hold me back. I grew up knowing I didn’t have the stereotypical ballerina body but, like any other little girl, my dream was to one day be the next prima ballerina.

Every year, my mom would take me to go see The Nutcracker, and I came back to ballet class each time with my chin held high, feeling inspired. I hoped that I could one day be as inspiring to young dancers as the members of San Francisco Ballet Company were to me. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I started to compare myself to the other dancers around me. When I was younger, my dance teachers admired my tall slim body, not knowing that I’d soon grow into the body I have now. When I was about 12 years old, I started to worry about why everyone else was getting taller and slimmer while, I was growing into almost the exact opposite of what the dancers I had admired my whole life looked like. Walking into a dance studio full of mirrors staring back at myself was scary, especially when practicing an art so dependent on perfection. And as I got older my insecurity only grew, for my teachers constantly reminded me that the ideal traits of a ballet dancer were “high arches, a flexible torso, small head, small bust, slim hips, small ankles, and long arms, and long legs” — and that just wasn’t me.

The ideal traits of a ballet dancer were “high arches, a flexible torso, small head, small bust, slim hips, small ankles, and long arms, and long legs” — and that just wasn’t me.

Even though ballet is both physically and mentally one of the most challenging things I’ll ever experience, nothing makes me happier than dancing. When I was young and imaginative, there was no doubt in my mind that I was meant to be a dancer, and that is part of the reason why I was so eager to join Star Dance Company when I was 13. I had been training at the same studio for my whole life and had always looked up to the company dancers, so when I was invited to audition, I felt on top of the world. And after a weekend’s worth of auditions, I had got into company, and my mind was racing with ideas about my future and I was eager to start. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the other dancers but was willing to work hard until I could. My short term dream had come true and, although I was extremely nervous, I’d never felt more confident.

But my newfound confidence soon shattered after a brutally honest conversation with one of my dance teachers. She pulled me aside during a studio rehearsal and told me that she thought that dance wasn’t worth my time, claiming that I didn’t have the body ballet companies were looking for. “Ballet companies like…” She hesitated. “Slimmer girls.” It felt as though she’d just ripped my heart out of my chest and I fought hard to hold back tears. I was in shock! It seemed crazy that she would say something so cynical to me. She went on but I was so mad I paid no attention to what she was saying. Then without even thinking, I said, “Well, booty is back.” My fellow dancers cheered and applauded. I grabbed my shoes and left, never going back to her class again — I couldn’t believe what had happened.

I woke up the next morning feeling discouraged. I was upset that I let what she said get to me, but dance meant so much to me that I worried what she said might be true. I knew that no matter how hard I worked I’d never look like Alicia Markova and every one else knew it too, but I never thought anyone would say it out loud. She told me that she didn’t think dancing was worth my time and I started to think she might be right. There was no way I was going to stop dancing but I did consider not taking dance so seriously. I told myself that even though I loved dance so much, that wasn’t enough. It got harder for me to dance, I felt held back because I hated my body so much. And as much as I dieted, as many times I went to the gym, I would never look like the prima ballerina I had wished to be.

I was so mad I paid no attention to what she was saying. Then without even thinking, I said, “Well, booty is back.”

Just when I was at my worst, I had an audition. Almost my whole life I had looked forward to one day becoming a student at Ruth Asawa SOTA — a place I’d only dreamed of attending. I was given the opportunity to audition, and I wanted a spot in the program so badly that, even though I felt self conscious, I put my all into that audition. I went out of the audition feeling confident about my performance, for I had been working hard on my solo for months and picked up all the new choreography quickly. I thought that nothing as petty as my body type could keep the judges from giving me a spot.

But I was wrong. I didn’t get the spot and I was devastated. I saw a pattern of tall slim girls being hired, only confirming the fact that they were biased against me because I didn’t have long slim legs or a small torso. My close friend Odette got the spot, and I was so happy for her, but I couldn’t help but feel jealous. Odette had beautiful long limbs and everything aesthetically they were looking for. Once again I was left feeling self conscious and discouraged because of my body.

A few months later the whole company went to see the Smuin Ballet perform, changing all of our perspectives on what professional ballet dancers looked like. “He’s short!” I said enthusiastically to my friend Dylan. “She actually has boobs — whoa!” He looked back at me with a confused face, not knowing how happy I was to see some of the most talented ballet dancers I’d ever seen with the same body type I had. I started to feel reassured that my body type could never hold me back from doing what I love.

It wasn’t until I started the company’s advanced contemporary class that I felt at peace with my body and my dancing again. I soon fell in love with contemporary dance. Although it was not a dance style I was very familiar with, I picked it up surprisingly quickly. Everything I had done wrong in ballet was right in contemporary and, instead of feeling self conscious about my body, I felt strong and confident. Contemporary was just as challenging for me as ballet had ever been, but I felt less held back by my body.

Everything I had done wrong in ballet was right in contemporary and, instead of feeling self conscious about my body, I felt strong and confident.

After a long time of feeling like giving up after my teacher told me my body would keep me from becoming a professional dancer, I started to regain my confidence. I began to improve my strengths, rather than focusing on my weaknesses — and that really helped me. I started to work even harder and spent more time in the studio. I actually improved a lot when I stopped being so hard on myself about ridiculous things like my body type. I realized that my body doesn’t prevent me from dancing just as well as anyone else, and that my passion for dance could get me through anything. This experience helped me understand how much dance means to me and how much ambition I have towards dancing. I’ll continue to work towards my goal of becoming a professional dancer. And although this experience put me through a hard time it has now only inspired me to work harder.

Since this incident I’ve gone on to achieve good things in my dancing. I’ve gone on to have many more performance experiences and have gotten a lot stronger. Over time I’ve learned to love and accept my body, and the comments people make don’t bother me as much. I now know that my dance teacher was wrong because “booty is back” and my body type is in no way holding me back from reaching my maximum potential. Dancing is a gigantic part of who I am and there is no way I am going to let anything hold me back from that.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me and I’m looking forward to continue to work hard to become a professional dancer despite what other people may say. If I was given the chance, I wouldn’t change anything about this experience because, in the end, it made me not only a stronger dancer, but a stronger person as well.