Confession. When I was thirteen years old, a fellow dancers’ mom, who had been a dancer herself, made the following statement to me:
“You have a lot of natural talent, but you haven’t had to really work for what you have.”
And honestly, I know that she was referring the fact that I tended to be featured in dances. That I had naturally shaped and high arched feet. That I could learn choreography quickly and adapt styles easily…. that basically a lot of things, dance-wise, were more natural to me than some. But oh how her words hit me like a very bitter knife. And oh how they brought out my insecurities.
Little did she know that every single day I was reminded of my physical shortcomings (even though, God bless my amazing parents for NEVER making me feel like I couldn’t do anything). Little did she know that there were certain things in the realm of ballet technique, that I just couldn’t do. That from the time I started ballet I had to create my own way of working through things, not to mention just trying to do things well in general….. because by the way….BALLET IS HARD.
I had (still have) patella alta and hip dysplasia, limiting my range of motion both in my left hip and knee, and I was always afraid, in a career that is so much about being in the right place at the right time and in being able to execute a technique in a certain way, that my own career would be over before it would ever start. Giving her the benefit of the doubt though, in the case of this mother, maybe it was because I wouldn’t bring it up or because I just decided that I’d pretend it wasn’t a thing unless someone else mentioned it, this woman didn’t understand the frustration I had with my body. BUT, in such a cutthroat world, how could another mother, especially one that had been in the dance world too, say such a thing?
At that point in my life, I was working VERY hard. But at thirteen you don’t know how to justify yourself to an adult, nor should you have to. But from the time I was 7, I was taking class six days a week with students older, younger, and my age, in my hometown and in Atlanta. I spent all my free time observing others’ classes or watching videos and trying to apply all that I saw, and put all of that, into my own body. I studied every aspect of a picture, heads, eyes, arms, fingers hoping that those lines would manifest in my own work. I spent every moment at home trying to get my splits when my hips just were not born normal. I had to do releves over and over again while brushing my teeth, or doing dishes, or waiting at the water fountain because my ankles were functionally more flexible to compensate for the lack of range of motion in my hips and knees. I did all of my homework in the car on my way to classes and at 8 years old I wasn’t in bed until 10p because of my ballet schedule.
And you know? I think I did know what I was doing. I knew the work I was putting in (not to mention all the work my family was putting in for me as well!). But in my head, this is what you did if you had a dream. And just because I had a dream did not mean it would come true, and it did NOT make me any better or any more deserving than anyone else. But it sure didn’t give the mom this right to tell me what she thought about my work ethic. It was her opinion, but not my truth.
But at thirteen, you don’t know the difference. You just want to please. And, to be honest, I think my teenage years, and even early 20s, were a back and forth of trying to prove to myself and trying to prove to others.
I loved (still love!) everything about ballet. I could perform every ballet start to finish in my bedroom by myself. I knew every part, every piece of choreography, every piece of music. All of that knowledge wasn’t to prove something. The art spoke to me. I loved learning and putting movement into my body.
But the fear of what others thought did stay with me for a very long time.
When I was at Colorado Ballet, I was always in fear that people wouldn’t see how hard I was working. That I didn’t deserve to be where I was, both from my shortcomings and from potentially not being good enough. I constantly felt like I needed to prove my place. Those years in the company, I’d wake up three hours before company class to do Pilates exercises to gain strength. I regimented my eating habits. I tried be the first one in the studio or in the theatre because I wanted to prove to others first, and myself second, that I deserved to be there. Even after a performance I would go home and stretch even more; I’d do more exercises. I’d count every healthy calorie to make sure my body was running adequately. I was obsessed with perception. It was unhealthy.
Cue to today, at twenty-nine years old, on the other side of the stage, and I thank God every single day that I can look back and be proud. Proud that I changed my perception. I did my work. I still do my work. And I know it for myself. I know the shortcomings I worked through and I know that I got to where I am today, not because of my natural talent, but because I either cultivated what I had or admitted that I needed to start from scratch. That I had a family that knew what I was about.
It’s a slippery slope. Knowing your insecurities and being aware of them to be better or being aware of them and letting them debilitate you. Other people know nothing about what you are grappling with daily. And that journey of grappling is beautiful, whether you’re thirteen or twenty-nine….. it’s just at thirteen, you just may be looking for a little more direction or guidance. Well I’m here to say, regardless of age, if anyone says anything to you that makes you try to prove something to them? It’s not a conversation for YOU. It’s for them. So pay attention to those that you get that gut feeling about. The ones you know are in your corner for nothing other than to see you shine. Those are the ones that know we all make a difference in this world by shining brightly. As the Instagram quote says, supporting others success won’t dampen yours. And supporting your own success will only make you shine brighter.