Side by side photos of young Julie

At ages 4 and 18, always in the ballet mindset.

Every dancer—perhaps every artist—has a love story to tell. Falling in love with ballet, for me, was as natural as breathing or sleeping. Each time I stand at the barre in first, allowing my fingers, wrists, hands, and arms flow into preparatory position, my heart is comforted. My body settles into the familiar. The structure, the feeling: it starts anew with every plié and port de bras.

There is still, to me, nothing more lovely than a new pair of pointe shoes; nothing more stirring than Tchaikovsky’s score of Swan Lake; nothing more breathtaking than an elaborate petit allegro combination. Ballet will always be my first head-over-heels experience, and when I am in it or around it, my instinct is to succumb again to its expectations and promises, to secure myself in its systems and rigor. I feel pulled into the gravity of what others want, no longer needing to think for myself, spinning into that easy place of forward motion and muscle memory, of doing and fixing. Of inhabiting the dancer way of being.

As a wide-eyed worrywart of a child, a follower more than a leader, curious but also cautious, becoming a ballet student was an awakening. I loved activities that didn’t require much talking or socializing, and ballet is a welcoming place for shy, anxious children. I craved the expectation of being told what to do and the predictability of knowing exactly what to expect at each class. Possibly most of all, I liked to please others by achieving what they asked of me. I loved the classroom most of all but learned to love the stage, too, even though it heightened my nerves.

For kids who enjoy striving, ballet is the ultimate combination of mental and physical effort. It stretches you, literally, and guides you to become lighter, faster, more controlled, more able. The rewards are like a drug: a strong hit to the senses, a sublime high. You achieve and you want more; you absorb the applause and want more. Unlike other athletic ventures, ballet is built on illusion. From day one you are expected to make the steps look easy, creating an ephemeral, awe-striking visual experience for the audience. You are taught to control your body and your emotions. Learning to smile through pain or exhaustion becomes second nature, and you don’t hesitate to swallow down your nerves if it means you can absorb more of the drug. In class, you focus on fixing your technique, turnout, strength, flexibility, artistry. In rehearsal and performance, you embody a character, a role, a persona.

In all of it, you lose yourself, which is mostly a glorious feeling until a realization hits: the real you is buried beneath layers and layers of pretending and editing. The real you is suppressed in favor of what’s demanded. The real you—the one who fell in love with dance—is lost. You are taught to “leave it at the door,” meaning “take whatever baggage you have today from school, homework, family, friends, thoughts, or emotions, and stuff it away so that you can focus on dancing and only dancing.” Comprehension dawns slowly during your training: life as a human being takes a backseat to life as an artist. Your life is a distraction from the real work, which, ironically, is meant to never look like work at all.

With its idealism and delicate aesthetic, ballet attracts little perfectionists-in-the-making and affirms repeatedly they are almost-but-not-quite good enough. Of course, I wouldn’t understand this in myself until the love was so deep, so codependent, that breaking it off seemed impossible. And breaking it off wasn’t what I really wanted anyway. It would take adulthood—teaching ballet, in fact—before I could develop a healthy relationship with it, where I was no longer satisfied by its subservient and often invalidating nature; where I could push back for a love that could be mutually respectful.

I loved ballet as a four-year-old and all the years between then and now, but that love has evolved from almost-always deferential to nearly-always self-assured. I’ve learned through my own experiences as a teacher and lifelong learner that ballet can be delivered and received in healthy ways. This is, however, a new-ish concept for an old art form, and not yet a universal approach. Ballet is an art form that has relied heavily on history and tradition as excuses to be unhealthy. It has been slow to change, whether we’re talking about subservience, body acceptance, racial diversity, power differentials, women’s rights, or anything in between. It’s an art you can fully embody, appreciating and abhorring it in the same breath. As a kid though, I simply felt the magnetic pull of tutus and pointe shoes and fairy dust; of music and bright lights and an eager audience.

Taking a ballet class, even now in mid-life, I am compelled to drown in obedience; to choke on feelings of “Am I good enough?” But reality keeps me afloat: I remember that I am actually a whole human being, one who loves dance but is not beholden to it; one who makes mistakes but carries on without shame in making them; one who can be both amazed and frustrated at this love story, with its undercurrent that pushes, pulls, and, still, sometimes envelops. It still feels alien to “dance for fun,” but I have to remember that I am still a work in progress.

Though I now consider myself “retired” from teaching, being a dance educator and a studio owner showed me that I could love ballet in a new way, as a leader, interpreting it for my students with a nod to their individuality. I could, for instance, encourage them to dance to their strengths and to each develop their artistry. I could honor ballet’s traditions while still asking them for questions and opinions. I could welcome all kinds of students with all kinds of bodies and backgrounds. I could teach them to speak up and advocate for themselves if they ever wanted to say “no” to an acceptance, felt uncomfortable with a choreographer, or wanted to understand their placement or casting. There were times I questioned if this was the right thing to do and there were times when I missed the mark. This kind of approach was never modeled in my training growing up, so fumbling through it (foreshadowing!) was part of my learning process. Overall though, that process delivered in better ways than I could have imagined.

When I catch up with former students now, whether they are actively dancing or not, I can see a confidence in them that I didn’t develop until well into adulthood. If it takes a village to raise children, it also takes one to create a dance community that supports and includes and encourages voices—I wouldn’t have been able to create mine without hiring others who wanted to change the way dance is taught and absorbed, nor without the belief in this mission from the parents of the children we taught. Now, as a youth coach, I can tap into this perspective when I work with teen dancers. I can ask the pointed questions about their experiences and help guide them toward healthy boundaries, solutions, and choices.

Whether I am a student, teacher, mentor, coach, or observer, I still love ballet, down to my core, and now our relationship can be less one-sided. It’s a pull and push to find that balance, but time has yielded clarity; experience has given me knowledge. Ballet is not inherently harmful but must be approached with the same delicateness we expect from the product. The producer, then, must be treated as a human being, at every age and stage.