My mom put me in dance class when I was three because I was the only girl in my pre-school class. I do not remember anything from back then, but I obviously needed some female friends. What may have been intended as a short-lived activity turned into 4-8 hours of dance a week all the way through college. I did everything; ballet, tap, jazz, modern, etc. I loved almost every minute of it. My mom was smart enough to put me in a low-stress dance school, no crazy competitions, just a group of girls wanting to have fun dancing after school. I even think I became a decent dancer, although never good enough to resemble a professional.
Dance classes were a time to forget about school stress and social pressures, and focus on improving the artistic side of myself. My type-A personality aligned perfectly with the focus and discipline needed in the dance world, and I felt a huge rush from performing. I mostly credit my early dancing years in helping me break through my shy exterior; I transformed into an outgoing and energetic person on stage, a personality which eventually trickled into my normal life. There was also something deeply satisfying in moving my body perfectly in rhythm to music, something that I still enjoy today.
However, dance also created darker moments. Standing in front of a mirror up to eight hours each week inevitably invited body critiques, both positive and negative. During the winter, when my weight was lower, I happily looked at myself, noting positive aspects in my physical form; how long my legs looked, and how much I “looked like” a dancer (especially in my favorite lilac leotard with the fancy cross straps). Although, even here I can make a strong argument for how these thoughts were negative, or at least bread negative thoughts later. For it was these more positive outlooks on my appearance that provided the contrast to how I viewed myself during the spring and summer, when my weight fluctuated back up.
As I think about it now, I wonder how many other girls in my class experienced the mirrors. Were they constantly evaluating their bodies? Were they comparing themselves to others? What I find interesting about my memories is the lack of comparison to others in the room. Instead, I remember comparing to previous versions of myself, wishing to go back to a time of confidence. I never experienced criticism from instructors, remember, the studio was not meant to create prima ballerinas. Every negativity I experienced blossomed from within. Where did I learn to criticize myself so harshly?
I knew I wanted to continue dancing in college, the positives out shown the negatives. Dance became an intellectual exercise instead of just a physical one; learning how to dig deeper into choreography, creating my own compositions, discussing how dance becomes a performance art with a powerful voice. All of these things kept me coming back each day. However, there did come a point where actually dancing and staring into those mirrors became too much. Junior year of college, the same year my weight spiked and I most struggled with accepting my body, challenged my love of dance. I ultimately decided to take a few steps back.
I have some regrets. I missed out on performance opportunities that I would have enjoyed, and I missed out on building friendships senior year. However, in the moment, it was the better decision. I needed to physically separate myself from what was causing me emotional harm.
In the absence of dance, I needed something else in order to stay active. I started taking a lot of group fitness classes at the gym, which provided me an outlet to let go of some stress and anxiety. Going to classes helped me find enjoyment in simply moving and working out that was not at all connected to losing weight. I loved going to class, looking around the room, and seeing all different body types there with me. I eventually became a certified fitness instructor, something I still do today.
Dancing gave me so much; a strong work ethic, a love for physical activity, an appreciation of performance art (and art in general), and an avenue for exploring the more creative sides of myself. I would have been a different person without it. I know my mom sometimes wonders if putting me in class twenty-four years ago was the right thing to do, and I think it was. Yes, it elevated some of my struggles, but I am convinced those struggles would have eventually surfaced, regardless of my after-school activity. If I ever have a daughter, will I put her in dance class? I’m not sure, but I do know if I did, I would make sure it was a studio without mirrors.
Walking enthusiast, kitchen experimenter, sports lover (watching, not playing), and future world traveler.
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