I feel the need to write a disclaimer for this post. I’m sharing essentially my entire experience with dance over the years, which is the majority of my life so far. I wanted to share my story from the way I felt it and how I remember it. Some people may remember parts of it differently, or have different points of views. I would like to make it very clear that how I expressed my feelings and my story around dance is in no way meant to be anything directed towards anyone personally. This is my story and it’s how I experienced it, and I wanted to be fully honest and not sugar coat the very raw but important feelings I was having at the time.
Initially, I began writing a post about something I’ve been struggling with and thinking a lot about lately. But as I started writing, I realized it would be helpful to know some history of why I have the relationship with my body that I do. Dance was a huge part of my life, as well as a significant part of my eating disorder, and this is a look back into those parts of my life.
When I was 4 years old, I began doing ballet at Oregon Ballet Theatre. I remember that the first time I was criticized about my body was when I was very young. I would guess about 5 or 6 when I was still in creative movement, but near the beginning of pre-ballet. My former ballet teacher came over to me during the middle of a combination, like most dance teachers would give a correction to someone. Only it wasn’t just to pointe my foot harder or to adjust my arms. I remember it like it was yesterday, she came over and poked at my stomach really hard, while saying, “Suck in that stomach of yours, stop letting it hang out!” Not only did she always have long nails which made the poking hurt even more, but it was the emotional pain that gave me butterflies in my stomach. I started looking around at the other girls, noticing how skinny they were, how nothing hung out like my stomach did. I was different, and it wasn’t in a good way when you’re in the world of ballet.
The comments and the stomach poking only got worse over the years. It got more frequent, to the point where it was a miracle if I made it through an entire class without being poked in the stomach. The comments only got more and more hurtful, and as I got older, they stung even more. Instead of coming up right next to me and somewhat softly telling me to suck in my stomach, she would start yelling it from across the room. I was always so embarrassed, trying to hold back tears, trying to suck in my stomach as much as I possibly could while still breathing. I learned at a very young age that something was wrong with my body. I was told that if I ever wanted to be a professional dancer, especially a ballerina, that my body would need to change. That there was absolutely no way I could be a ballerina and look the way that I did. Being a professional dancer was my dream for several years, probably up until I was about 16. No matter how much emotional pain ballet caused me, it was also my way to escape. There was no better feeling than moving my body, I genuinely loved the way I felt when I was dancing. My mom asked me if I wanted to quit ballet several times because she hated seeing me in so much pain. But I always felt the pros outweighed the cons.
When I was 11, I started going to da Vinci Arts Middle School. I had moved up a couple of levels at OBT and was going to start pointe, I was so proud of myself, but this privilege came with many consequences. Since I would be holding my weight on the tops of my toes, my dance teachers encouraged me to lose some weight. I was on the fence as to whether or not I should stick with it, or quit now. Da Vinci was a very special place for me, the teachers there were huge advocates of every body type being acceptable for a dancer and also being thought of as beautiful. I had never heard of such a concept before, so it really helped me to get a different perspective. When I eventually realized it wasn’t worth the emotional pain anymore, I quit OBT, which was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I discovered how many other styles of dance there were. How in jazz, tap, modern, hip hop, etc. you don’t need to look a certain way. I learned that beautiful dancers came in a variety of sizes. Looking back, I can’t say I wholeheartedly understand why I stuck with ballet as long as I did. I mean it was my life for 10 years, it was my passion, my world. I guess I’m just surprised that I chose to put up with so much emotional pain for so many years.
I had been dreaming about being a Jefferson Dancer since I was a little girl. My dad used to teach dance at Jefferson, he had a very successful dance career as both a dancer and a teacher, and I so badly wanted to follow in his footsteps. Only he had the dancer body naturally, and I did not. But I didn’t let that stop me from dreaming. I went to Jefferson, danced my heart out, tried so hard to impress my teachers. I wanted to be on the company more than anything. I remember auditioning before my Freshman year, thinking I most likely wouldn’t make it but wanted to at least try. I didn’t make the company, but I was so excited to start taking classes at Jefferson, and I knew after having taken classes for a year I would have a better chance next year. After my Freshman year, I auditioned again, feeling really hopeful I would at least make the secondary company. But to my disappointment, I did not. I was so confused and wanted an explanation. I asked the artistic director to sit down and talk to me about why I didn’t make it on to the company, at least as an apprentice. He said that it was obvious I was so self-conscious, that I didn’t fully let my heart into my dance because of that. He also said that even if I got that in check, I needed to lose weight. He said it would improve my dancing, confidence, and make my chances of getting onto the company much stronger. I was heartbroken, my dreams that I had had since I was 4 years old couldn’t feel farther from reality than they did now. That’s a big part of what kick-started my eating disorder behaviors.
Fast forward to a year later, audition time once again. I had lost a lot of weight over the course of the last year (due to my eating disorder) and was in the midst of treatment. I begged my treatment team to let me audition even though they hadn’t let me dance in months. They knew I would always wonder if they didn’t allow me to audition, so they let me. I felt like the next two days could either make or break my dream once again, and I also knew that by losing weight I had become a better dancer, so I felt pretty insecure about having had gained some weight back during treatment. But I danced with my heart as best I could, just like the artistic director told me to do last year, and I honestly felt really good about the auditions, I thought I would at the very least make the second company with how much positive attention the teachers were giving me. Then it was time for the results, I was number 16, and if they read off your number, you were in, and if they skipped over you, you went home. The artistic director started reading the numbers, and I took a deep breath and grabbed my friends’ hands as tight as possible. He read aloud, “1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15,” and then he paused, my heart was in a knot as to what he would say next, and so he continued, “17” I felt like my heart had stopped, tears streamed down my face, and I fell to the floor in so much pain. I was hysterical.
Once again, my dream had been crushed. My friends tried to help me up so that I didn’t make a huge scene and led me back to the locker room. I just laid on the cold cement floor in tears, trying to breathe as best I could. I eventually gathered up enough strength to pick up my phone, call my mom, and ask her to come to pick me up. I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like a failure, and I didn’t even understand what I did wrong. I got home and couldn’t even take off my drenched in sweat leotard and spandex shorts. At the time, I just wanted to lie on the floor, curl up in a hole, and die.
The next day, I asked my mom to drive me to Jefferson so that I could talk to the director and find out why he didn’t put me on the company. He said, “Emily, you’re an incredible dancer. Your technique is near perfect, you work harder than most people, and you’re very graceful. I know that you lost a lot of weight this past year, and with you being in treatment, now I know why. Although I appreciate your commitment to doing what I suggested you do last year, I can’t have a company member with an eating disorder. It’s a bad image for our company, and I don’t want to have to be held responsible for managing whether or not you’re healthy. It’s just too risky. I’m so sorry Emily, but that’s just the way it is.” I wanted to punch him in the face after he said that, but I knew that wouldn’t actually solve the problem. Truthfully, I can’t even remember what I said or if I said anything at all, I was far too upset.
About 9 months later, after I went to residential for the first time and all of that, I returned to high school. I decided to try something new and get involved with theatre, musicals specifically. This gave me a way to dance, but in a much more easygoing environment. The choreographer for one of the plays had her own dance company and she had invited me to come audition at her studio for her company. I was so hesitant given my experiences in the past with auditions, but I decided to go ahead and try it. To my surprise, I actually made it in the company!! I was FINALLY on a pre-professional dance company and even though it wasn’t Jefferson Dancers, I was ecstatic about it. That was going really well for a couple of months, but then one night at rehearsal that all changed. The instructor who invited me to audition was teaching the class that night, and she was being stricter than I had ever seen her before. Not to everyone though, mostly just me. She kept poking my stomach and yelling, “Emily stop letting your stomach hang out, or work harder Emily, you need to keep up!” I left the studio in tears that night and I never came back. All of the memories of OBT and being told to lose weight were flooding back into my head. It felt like I would never be good enough. If I engaged in my eating disorder, I’d be skinny, which they wanted, but they don’t want an anorexic girl on their company. It seemed like I just couldn’t win.
I haven’t danced since then. I haven’t taken a single dance class or put on a leotard or stepped foot in a dance studio since that day. Sometime in the future, I really would like to dance again, purely for enjoyment purposes, not at all to be in a company. But my reality is that dancing used to be a safe, comforting, and very special part of my life. Only now, it’s one of the most complicated, anxiety-provoking, and fearful aspects of my life.