I was never meant to be a ballerina. My genetics did not give me the "perfect" ballerina body. My short legs and athletic build are far from the long graceful lines desired by the ballet world. Although I started dancing at the age of three, I didn't have access to the prestigious schools the elite dancers hail from. Nonetheless, I had an incredible passion for dancing and worked hard to be the best I could be.
Unfortunately, my attempt at being "the best" involved decades of torturing myself with eating disorders, perfectionism, compulsive exercise, low self-esteem, constant anxiety, limiting beliefs, and other self-destructive behaviors. All of this evolved from trying to be a “good girl,” the perfect bunhead who did whatever it took to get to the top, including sacrifice my own health and happiness. If I followed all the rules and endured pain & self-torture for my art, surely I would be rewarded with success, right?
Fast forward a few decades and professional contracts. I had actually made a career out of my dancing despite all my self-doubt. I was performing principal and soloist roles with multiple companies across the country. I was dancing professionally in NYC with as many as five companies at a time where there is no shortage of amazing dancers to compete with. I had experienced a career as both a full-time company dancer and a choose-your-own-adventure freelancer.
Based on my childhood dreams of being a professional dancer, I should have felt accomplished in my career and life. From the outside, I had achieved more worldly “success” than I ever thought possible for this small town girl with low self-esteem. But on the inside, I felt more unsatisfied than ever. And the more roles I danced, the more contracts I landed, the worse that gnawing black monster of unfulfillment became.
I found myself starting to despise dance. I still loved performing and couldn't imagine my life without being able to express myself through my art. But I had this sickening feeling that I was never good enough; that I would never measure up to that perfect ballerina image in my head no matter how hard I worked and punished myself. Plus, I started to notice how the time and dedication required to keep myself in "ballet shape" was limiting my life. I wanted to experience, explore, and enjoy life outside of ballet. I needed to break out of my bunhead shell. I was tired of following all my rules…yet still hating myself.
Enter my Bulletproof Ballerina experiment:
- I decided to break the rules.
- I stopped taking class every day.
- I started lifting weights.
- I gave myself (gasp!) days off to recover and let my body rest.
- I picked up snowboarding and surfing as new hobbies.
- I experimented with new ways of eating that didn’t involve starving myself to be thin but nourishing my aesthetics & performance.
- I indulged in passions and pleasures outside of ballet.
I was a "Bad Girl Ballerina" by traditional standards. And yet, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was finally free. Instead of blindly following the path to “success” the world lured me into…I created my own path. And through that, I started to learn who I really was and what I really wanted out life.
Once I removed all these rigid rules and demands I had forced on myself in my attempts to excel, I expected my dance career to suffer. But, instead of suffering, I entered a new playing field. It was as if I hit a warp zone and skipped ahead a level. I was training less in the studio but found myself with more strength and ability for ballet technique than ever before. The stronger my physical body became, the more confident I felt to take risks and express myself. And my outside interests fueled that expressiveness and gave me more passion to put into my performance.
The more I nurtured my life outside of ballet...the more I could put into my dancing. Perhaps most importantly, it allowed me to stop hating myself. I learned to love my unique gifts and to put mySELF first – not in an egotistical way but in not living my life according to how others say I should live, be, feel, look. Through my Anti-Bunhead transformation, by rejecting who I thought I was supposed to be, ironically I found exactly who I was meant to be…my voice, my true self.
This is my attempt to share these secrets with you. To encourage you to find success in the dance world despite the fact that maybe you don’t fall into the .0001% of the population that is a dancer thoroughbred. To remind you that you don’t need to be “the best” or perfect in order to have something to say through your art. Success doesn’t come from outside achievements…it comes from an internal mindset. If you search for success in the traditional way we are taught to seek it – through the validation of some external sign of being “good enough” - coveted contracts, rank, roles, fame, money – you are never, NEVER going to be fulfilled or happy. Success comes from within…from knowing you are worthy and that you have something unique to share with the world. That journey starts and ends with YOU. That’s where your success story comes from.
So here's to fearlessly pursuing more passion, enjoyment, fulfillment out of life…and finding success!
Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello