pointe shoes

Pointe shoes are only the beginning…

My mom first signed me up for dance lessons when I was four years old because I desperately wanted to be like my big sister, Kari, who was eight and taking jazz classes. Though we have no video evidence of my first dance recital and I have no recollection of the steps, the family archival cedar chest holds the pastel blue tutu I wore onstage, beaming my little heart out. At first I was crushed to be assigned that blue tutu. “But I wanted pink,” I pouted to my mom, teary-eyed, in the dance studio lobby—one of my earliest dance memories. My mom, not being afforded dance lessons herself growing up, was hardly a sucker for this kind of complaint. She set her jaw, raised her eyebrows, and told me to get back in class. I did as I was told and soon the blue versus pink issue was long forgotten. Well, not forgotten. But with many more costumes to come, in varying degrees of 80s and 90s fashion-forwardness, the blue tutu was eventually forgiven.

Around age seven I decided to “take a break” from dance, but it was short-lived, lasting only a single summer. I trailed along after my mom one day at the local shopping plaza where she occasionally had her nails done. A few doors down from the salon and the pizza place was a new dance studio, The Dance Academy, and it was run by one of the teachers we were acquainted with from my previous studio. I looked in the window at the wood floors, barres, and mirrors and declared my hiatus over immediately. Could I please sign up?

Soon I was back in ballet, tap, and jazz classes, and to my nervous joy, Miss Susan singled me out as a star student. Apparently I had some talent and it didn’t hurt that I was a little people-pleaser, eager to achieve. My ballet class that year danced to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for our recital performance of The Wizard of Oz, and I was cast as the lead Dorothy out of a dozen or so prospects in my ballet class. This amounted to extra rehearsals with the other main characters for the storyline interludes throughout the production: being swept away by the opening scene’s tornado, dancing with the munchkins, being spell-cast by Glinda the Good Witch, melting the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of (confetti) water.

During one evening’s rehearsal, thirteen-year-old Glinda showed me her black-and-blue toes as she put on her pointe shoes. “You’ll probably never want to do this,” she said, shaking her head with a sigh, a smile turning up at one corner of her mouth, knowing full well I idolized her and wanted to dance on pointe as soon as possible. I would not be deterred and definitely did not care about bruised feet. If that was the price to pay, I was already saving up. Take my money. I’m all in.

And so by the time I was Glinda’s age, I attended my first audition for a summer ballet intensive: a mark of my serious dedication to dance. The audition class was held in a light-filled warehouse studio at the now-defunct Ballet Dallas, for a spot in the five-week program at North Carolina School of the Arts (formerly an independent institution, it’s now part of the University of North Carolina and known as UNCSA). To those who are unfamiliar, summer intensives are typically invitation-only; companies and schools tour the country holding auditions for thousands of applicants, only to accept a small percentage of students that fit the mold of whatever it is they desire: a certain look, technical prowess, money.

Lined up at the barre, before we did so much as a plié, an audition assistant used a camcorder to film each of us individually, while the ballet master held our legs up towards our ears, then asked us tendu à la seconde. Even such a young age, I knew that some decisions were probably made right in that moment, though at this audition, no one was asked to leave at this early stage. The class was challenging but not impossible; I specifically remember a polka-inspired center combination that I’m sure was designed to trip us up. Only one young girl seemed to execute it flawlessly; she was asked to demonstrate and I remember flushing with embarrassment that I couldn’t dance as well as she did.

I fumbled over and over, but kept trying and smiling. That determination, I think, is what worked in my favor. When my acceptance letter arrived in the mail several weeks later, I was elated. Intense family discussions followed; discussions over whether we could scrape together the fees and plan the travel and make it work. In the end it was decided that yes, I had earned it, we would figure it out, and I could go. Five weeks of all dance, all day. I couldn’t wait to pack.

That summer was jarring, transformative, and wonderful. At the forever-awkward stage of barely being a teenager, I felt surrounded by a community of people with whom I belonged; I thrived in the studious environment and, undaunted by laundry and communal bathrooms, loved living the dorm life. I had been placed in the second-lowest class level, but I didn’t care. I worked hard and sweated more than I had at any time in my life. I made friends with other dancers in my dorm and in my classes. I loved the friendly cafeteria ladies, the lovely seamstress who sold homemade leotards from the costume shop, the accompanists’ thoughtful nods during class, the teachers’ encouragement peppered with stern rebukes. Life felt big with possibility, overwhelming but in an exciting way.

The following summer, I returned to the same intensive, moved up two levels, and decided I would start looking for year-round programs. My parents, who both worked full-time and encouraged my high level of independence, didn’t discourage this per se. They looked placidly at the brochures I requested by mail; passively mentioning things like “financial aid” and “scholarships.” If I asked them to help me record an audition tape or pay an application fee, they would mull it over and eventually oblige. They followed my lead but stayed cautious on the sidelines in an effort, I think, to protect both my ego and their bank account.

After bumbling through video auditions for the academic school year of 1996 to 1997, Idyllwild Arts Academy and Nutmeg Conservatory accepted me, and after a scholarship award and a quick visit to California, IAA became my destination. My ego, at this point, was triumphantly inflated, but as happens in ballet, a hefty dish of humility soon followed. As I celebrated my new future as a year-round arts academy student, I also received my annual letter from NCSA. Regrettably, it said, the school would not be admitting me for a third summer. There was one bullet point listed as the reason I was not invited back. That one word burned behind my eyes and in my throat.

Physicality.

There was no further explanation, so without knowing more, I connected the dots myself. By “physicality,” they must mean my hips and thighs. Or maybe my feet. Or my flexibility. Or perhaps it was my face, all sharp nose and chin, sprinkled with acne. Or maybe, in the most awful interpretation of all, it was everything about me physically. Maybe physicality was another way of saying “your body was right before, but now it’s wrong.” I was fifteen years old. But with no proper feedback, no scaffolding, no recommendations, no discussion of my talent or potential—no “constructive” paired with this criticism—I was scraped from the admission list based on one broad brushstroke. Rather than focus on the good news of my prospects at boarding school, I zeroed in on this letter, trying to understand the reality that I was no longer wanted at this place that had so profoundly influenced my attitude about ballet. Up until then, it had all been positive.

One could argue, certainly, that ballet is all about how you look. That it is your body. It is an art; an aesthetic, and one that has a history of looking a certain way. This is true, but it is also an athletic artistic pursuit sought during the fragility of adolescence and emerging adulthood. It is a test of work ethic and resolve, of commitment and fortitude. In the wrong hands, it is only about a specific kind of beauty, technical skill, and acquiescence. In the right hands, though, it can be about the intersection of art and athleticism; about the way it develops your skill and self-craftsmanship; about appreciation for a healthy and strong human body; about striking emotion in an audience. There is so much more to ballet than what meets the eye, but students can only understand this if the purveyors of the art make it clear. I did not understand this yet because the adults around me didn’t either.

Now, thirty years after that brief but impactful part of my dance experience, I see similar misunderstandings in the young dancers of today. When I’m working with clients, I notice the same disturbing thought that once plagued me: that being a dancer means other people decide your worth. That the critiques and scrutiny are acceptable places to keep your attention, rather than the achievements. All of this, in turn, tends to give way to high levels of anxiety and the need to control other, sometimes uncontrollable, aspects of life. It can be a difficult and demoralizing way to operate, waiting for the approval of authority figures and feeling like nothing less than perfect is permissible.

The industry has perpetuated this mindset; it’s a pervasive, sticky tradition. It is not a teenager’s fault, for example, if she begins to feel as though her efforts don’t matter because only the most talented kids succeed. Or if she feels frustrated at herself because her body type, size, or skin color doesn’t seem to be “right.” Or if she equates her confidence with the role in which she’s been (or not been) cast. This may be what experience has taught her; a product of how the adults in her life have shaped her view, because of their experiences. It’s wrong and messy. And it’s going to take change from the big institutions and from the smaller studios; from the small-town teachers to the celebrity choreographers. They are out there already—these changemakers—we just need more of them.

In the meantime, we must guide our young dancers toward understanding where their value really lies. That’s what I love about coaching; how we can explore inner motivations and worthiness. We can have conversations about how validation comes from two directions, and how external validation isn’t inherently bad; it’s the extreme version of it that’s harmful. Internal validation also has to be calibrated carefully so that it doesn’t balloon into arrogance. But young dancers are sometimes so deficient in internal validation that they need something like coaching to help them understand it, apply it, and practice it. They need to have the space to process how they feel about themselves as humans and as artists, and then to uncover what that discovery means for the outcomes they want in life.

I wonder, often, what coaching would have done for me as a teenager, especially during the times I questioned my strengths and abilities, or when I just couldn’t shake the criticism. I think this is a big part of why it’s such a wonderful thing now, to support these insights in the teenagers of today. They have the opportunity for a much shorter learning curve in loving and leading themselves—and to become the next generation of changemakers.