At a very young age, I really wanted to be a ballerina. The tutus, the poise, the grace and the sheer beauty of dance has an attraction that seems to beckon and call to young girls. My parents put me in dance lessons when I was five years old. It was an instant love. I loved wearing my pink tights and ballet slippers and practicing all of the different positions and techniques. I felt beautiful when I danced and especially loved the yearly recitals.
As I got older, dance lessons changed. They became more competitive. There was a constant competition to prove you were the best so that you could be front and centre stage. More often than not, I wasn’t front and centre. It hurt to the core when I wasn’t chosen for the front row and I would cry myself to sleep over it. Why wasn’t I picked? I practiced so hard. I had the best turnout in my class and was easily one of the most flexible dancers in the group.
By the time I was an impressionable teenager, dance really started to define who I was. All I wanted to be was a dancer. It meant everything to me. Most of my free time was spent practising routines and working out choreography of my own. I wasn’t always picked for the front but when I was, I made sure to do everything right; perfect posture, smile and look effortless.
When I was seventeen I started to believe that I wasn’t being picked for the front row because I wasn’t thin enough. Where would a seventeen year old get that thought? I’m not sure, but whenever I looked at dance magazines or pictures online, I knew my body wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
So, I started dieting. I ate less and exercised more and it worked. Ten pounds later I looked great. And then, out of the blue, I got sick and was diagnosed with mono. Mono left me tired and weak for more than a month. I could hardly get out of bed. When I was finally well enough to dance again I had lost over twenty pounds. An older dancer saw me at practice and said “wow Katie! You look fantastic,” and I thought that was the biggest compliment ever. After all, she was older and super talented and was always centre stage.
That comment stuck with me. I worked very hard to keep the weight I lost off. It was easy for the first few weeks but as my body recovered from the illness and my appetite came back, it became harder and harder. So I started starving myself.
I’d eat a little less at every meal. Half a sandwich at lunch instead of a full one. Skim milk instead of two percent. Apple slices instead of crackers. I was hungry all of the time, but it didn’t matter, because now I looked like a dancer.
Even though I had more of a dancer’s body than I ever had, it didn’t equate success. I was chosen for the front sometimes but a lot of the time I wasn’t. I didn’t understand at all. I was working so hard and my body was looking more and more like a dancer’s body. When was it going to pay off? My confidence was nearly diminished and my body was slowly starting to suffer too.
I graduated high school and went to university. I continued to dance, but I also started to meet new friends and try new things. I turned nineteen which meant I had some late nights and an irregular schedule. This eventually caused me to gain the freshman fifteen, and a little bit more. The weight gain didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I still loved dance, but it was becoming less important to me. I had bigger goals for my life and dance was more for the social aspect and the exercise.
The year I was 19, our instructor arranged for a choreographer to come from Toronto to teach us a complicated piece. It was on a weekday and even the youngest of dancers were expected to take the day off of school. The choreographer looked the part. She was graceful and delicate and dressed in a unique and elegant way. As she walked in the room, I felt her eye me up and down. But not just me; every dancer present was being scrutinized.
We learned the piece and practiced it over and over. Finally she decided that it was time for a break and a ‘chat.’ She had us all sit down and she stood before us and said:
“Ladies, as you know, dance costumes are a big part of being on stage. Now, with this particular piece, I really think a two piece costume would work best. However, I would not put ANY of you in a two piece. Every dancer in this room could stand to lose ten pounds.”
Silence. Absolute silence. I looked at my own instructor in disbelief. Our eyes locked for a moment and she looked away. There were girls as young as ten in that room. How dare that woman tell a ten year old girl she needed to lose weight? I talked to my instructor afterwards and expressed my concerns. She brushed me off and said the choreographer was her friend and that she was giving friendly advice.
In that moment, dance was over for me. I knew I would always love and appreciate dance as it carried me through some tough times, but it also created some tough times too.
I was lucky enough to be able to walk away from dance without doing any permanent damage to myself. I bordered on the edge of having an eating disorder and spent years beating myself up. Dance is supposed to create confidence, not destroy it.
Because of my personal experiences, I know I will not enroll my daughter in dance class. If she insists and pleads and begs for it, then perhaps I will consider it. But I will monitor it SO carefully. I will not allow her confidence or sense of self to be defined or destroyed by any extracurricular sport or activity.
I’m not saying that dance destroys every girl, because it doesn’t. Lots of girls develop a sense of confidence that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Dance teaches lots of other beautiful things as well and can be an amazing way to express oneself.
If you have a child in dance lessons, make sure to monitor it carefully. Don’t allow it to become bigger than your child and don’t allow it to distort their body image. Dance can be a beautiful, joyous and wonderful thing. Make sure that your child is experiencing only happiness through dance. If the happiness stops then it’s time to question if dance is doing what it’s supposed to do.