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my secret life: the army of ballet

ballerina

This piece first appeared in issue three of Lip.

Age five was the first time I stepped out onto the parquetry of the ballet studio. Excitement, wonderment and joy filled me. I was dressed in a pretty white leotard and skirt, pink ballet shoes and my hair in piggy tails with colourful ribbons. All this filled me with curiosity and happiness, so much so that I felt I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up. Unlike school, for the first time I didn’t feel separated from my mother — she too had joined in the thrill of taking me to my first ballet class. I’d anticipated this moment for what seemed like forever.

We sat around in a circle and pointed our feet. We skipped pony gallops around in circles with partners, enjoying the freedom just to ‘be’. Our young healthy bodies ‘danced’ to the music. I twirled, jumped, remember smiling, the music echoed through my body.

We were all individuals, even wore different coloured leotards. I liked to wear pink some days, blue on others. Looking at my reflection in the mirrors of the studio was fun. I liked the way I looked — pretty, just like one of those ballerinas spinning around when I opened my jewelry box. To me, ballet was about experimenting with my body, movements that flowed through my limbs. I felt like a princess — free from the constraints of school, free to be a child.

Not for long.

Soon, the air pierced my body with terror, fear, loneliness as I realised how ballet—projected as beautiful, creative, magical — had not lived up to my childhood images and expectations. I don’t remember exactly when, but somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, I realised that somehow ballet was not meant to fit into my image, but that I had to fit into an image. The feelings of joy and fun running through me as a child had been ripped out of me, stolen forever.

What happened to choosing our own leotard colours? What happened to all the joy, laughter and happiness I experienced when I first started classes at five? When I enlisted into the third grade my body was no longer my friend, but had suddenly become a stranger, and as I later realised, my enemy. What is the difference between being five and ten years old? In the everyday world, one may say not much. But in the ballet world, the difference is as vast as fire to ice, Pluto to the sun.

I peeled a Band-aid open and placed it around my right pinky toe, then carefully wrapped lamb’s wool around my tiny toes to protect them from the pain that was to follow. I slid my toes into what was to become their prison cell for the next two hours. I strongly pulled and tied the ribbon around my ankle tight enough so that the blood almost could not circulate and my foot felt semi-numb. I repeated on my left foot until both feet were detained.

reverence and curtsey

Upon entering the ballet studio, minute scrutiny became the game. The arch of my foot, the ‘right’ curving of my arm — fingers delicate, thumb in the palm of the hand, shoulders down, stomach sucked in, ribcage confined, legs taut, the denial of breath, the elongation of the neck were all the constraints imposed on me upon entering the ballet studio. Ballet taught me not to trust my body, to perceive it as a hindrance to performing a 180º split in the air. In ballet, I was so aware of my body yet simultaneously I denied it. I felt as though my body was stolen from me due to the numbing effect ballet performed on me.

barre work

Feet in First position, turned outwards 90º from the hip. Stomach lifted, legs stretched. Demi plié, stretch, grande plié, developpé, double rond de jambe en l’air en dehor, balance on pointe, arms Fifth position. I repeated in Second, Fourth and Fifth positions, and then was made to repeat all on the left side. My body was shut in silence, blinded by the façade of having to ignore the pain. We danced like soldiers — hands on the barre, movement forced into action by the bible of the syllabus. Teacher walked up to me and pinched my stomach. I can still hear her voice, “You’ve been eating too much, haven’t you?” she said as she peered down, inspecting every inch of my body, eyes like a surveillance camera.

After barre exercises I stood and waited to be examined, to be chosen to be in the front line for centre work, waited to be approved like cattle in a show vying to win a prize. For a brief moment I was lulled into a false security. “Will I be good enough for Teacher to choose me?” I asked myself every lesson for those 13 years, waited, hoped… But there was never a prize. I was on the sidelines, a spectator forever waiting in reserve.

centre work

Ports de bras, pas de bourrée, triple pirouette, arabesque, all on full pointe. I repeated until Teacher was satisfied. I was an above-average student, but in ballet there is no real sense of average — unless you are ‘good’, you are deemed ‘not good enough’. Perfectionism in having my feet land in the exact position after landing a pirouette became not simply part of a step but an obsession. Fear infiltrated me as I anticipated landing my feet in a neat Fifth position. When I landed a pirouette one centimetre to the side I was deemed less than perfect, and my teacher pushed past me as though I were an object in her way.

I did not cry. Tears flowed, instead, on the inside of my body and travelled through every nerve and vein, until every drop throbbed to my feet. The music echoed through the studio — Tchaikovsky. But the music could no longer flow through my body, my limbs. Rather, it shattered upon the pores of my skin. It could not enter me. We were forbidden to show creativity as we became slaves to the syllabus. Suddenly, the walls surrounding the ballet studio began to feel like a prison, a prison where my mind and body were controlled. Of course my body was warm during classes or performances, but it felt cold and empty.

We danced in 40º heat and the room stank of sweat. Our muscles felt like lead but we doggedly kept up the rigid pace until the end of the class. Smiles were on faces, necks were stretched, backs were rigid. We never knew when Teacher would come up behind us and strike our legs or backs; we almost waited for our turn. Tutu around my waist, hair pulled back tightly in a bun, I danced as though I were a puppet, my arms and legs attached to string. I was a legionnaire in the military, where the breaching of ‘the rules’ resulted in a penalty, either a slap from Teacher or humiliation in front of the whole class, sometimes both.

We were never really able to rest or relax, couldn’t even get a drink of water when we needed to. Once, to break the barrier of our army, I attempted to stop for half a second to try to adjust my pointe shoe. Teacher walked up and slapped me over the head—I had once again been thrust into rigidity. She had destroyed me. Of course it was not her fault, she was only teaching the ‘regime’ of ballet, but she had taught my mind and body to believe my experience as acceptable.

end of class

We curtsied, once to the pianist and the other to Teacher, to thank them for allowing us to be in their regime for those two long hours. I sat on the bench and untied the ribbons of my pointe shoes. After the ribbons were untied I could still see the marks they had left on my ankles. I slowly lifted the shoe off my foot and wiggled my toes. My flesh-coloured tights were stuck to my toes, stained with blood.

Classical ballet, as a form of art, is so focused on the body as a form of expression, yet how much are we really allowed to express? Ballet, to me, seems like a beautiful lie, a beautiful contradiction. Dance is a form of art to be enjoyed, to be a means of relaxation and freedom. However, as I experienced it, ballet was the furthest from this projection. In ballet I did not feel my body — instead, it became a technical machine.

Mother didn’t realise my ‘army’ experience as a child and adolescent. How could I articulate this when I didn’t have a language to communicate to her the power of ballet as a mind and body prison? How could I tell this even to myself when I believed I was wrong to question? Questioning did not emerge inside my consciousness, as ballet had stripped away all terms to see myself as unique: I was de-languaged. We were not taught multiplicity.

But why only one tune, one voice, one narrative at the one time? The problem with articulating feelings in my mind and body in the context of ballet is that for so long I had been made to believe that individuality and creativity were all insignificant, worthless in the name of ‘professional’ ballet. I had been taught, up until four years ago, not to be creative, not to think, simply to perform as a robot as I sought to fit myself into a framework allowing little space for individual subjectivity. Instead, uniformity was central to the army of ballet. For 13 years I was taught not to question the ‘regime’ of subsuming my body and its ways of talking to my mind. Instead, I was taught to just accept a sprain of the ankle, a broken foot, a strained Achilles tendon, and to simply keep going when my feet were blistered and bleeding.

These ‘attributes’ were all just the way things were and, in fact, indicative of becoming a ‘serious’ dancer. Ballet was the reality for most girls in my class, but for me, it had not been so. How could I tell my ballet teacher this when I couldn’t even tell myself? How do you tell others when you can’t even admit to yourself how you feel imprisoned, jailed within the walls of the studio? Ballet is more than simply a trained body, it is about a trained psyche, a way of thinking, of being, a training of emotions, feelings and the mind. Often, there were times when I wanted to scream, “Stop! Can’t you see I’m exhausted and over-worked?” Yes, my body told me these things, but my mind just kept marching on, blocking out the voice.

I have found this recollection a challenge as I seek for the first time in my life to draw upon myself, and solely myself, after drawing upon others’ thoughts about me for so long. Tears roll down my cheeks — I’m half crying, half laughing. I now enter a privileged space as I’m able to articulate my experience of the mind/body game I had played for too long. I feel the pain, yet also the ability to have my own individual voice. I am leaving the ghost of my experience behind me, and finally unlocking the cage to set myself free.

Michelle Yan, 24, is a Sydney-based writer. She recently graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Social Science (Criminology). She is a regular writer for the University of Western Sydney student newspapers Hemlock and Jumbunna as well as numerous student newspapers around Australia. She recently returned from teaching English as a second language (ESL) in Japan.

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