When I get home from ballet, take off my leotard, a mark from the waistband of my tights leaves a crooked line across my abdomen. While hot water fills the tub, I turn sideways in front of the mirror and suck in my stomach. As I breathe in, lungs expanding, I can see my ribs beneath my skin. I stare at myself as the mirror slowly fogs around my image.
Earlier, in class, the teacher had been screaming at us about our stomachs.
“You have to suck in it,” he yelled from the front of the studio where he paced before the mirror. “You girls do it, the women in the company do it. You’re in ballet class, just get your gut in.”
He screamed this over the piece the pianist was pounding out slowly, his gray-sweatered arms disappearing beneath the baby grand. I stood with my fingers on the barre, brushing my leg en croix: front, side, back. When my teacher passed by, I contracted my abdomen, imagining myself so thin that my belly button lay flat against my spine.
I’d been told to do this for years, in every ballet studio since I began dancing. Then, my first teacher had run her long acrylic nails across my abdomen. “Good,” she’d said, as I sucked in, barely breathing. “Just pretend my fingers are an ice cream scoop and I’m scooping out your stomach.”
I started dancing at the studio of the woman with the acrylic nails shortly after my eleventh birthday. After the first class, she told my mother that I had natural ability, the right body proportions, good flexible feet. They could point stronger than the other girls’, curve into little crescent moons. I graduated my level a year later with a commended mark in technique, then skipped a level and learned jetés, glissades, développés.
I loved the exhilaration, how cold the air felt on my sweaty armpits when I brought up my arms, the feeling of total control despite gravity and the confines of my body. I loved the discipline of ballet — the promise that weekly nights in the studio would make me stronger, thinner, a better dancer. Ballet felt right in my body, as if it was something created just for me, the way I already moved through space.
By fifteen, I had learned more than my small, mother-daughter-owned studio could teach me. I auditioned for my city’s academy and was placed in the highest level. I decided that one day, I would dance professionally. I imagined myself in the wings in a long romantic tutu, stage lights, sweat, and body glitter mixing on my skin. I’d watch the toss of white tulle onstage, flashes of arms and legs arriving, striking, spinning away in sequence. I’d be part, too, of the flurry of backstage, dodging racks of velvet bodices with a coffee to stretch, to reapply my lipstick. I loved this world and I wanted to be in it always.
At the academy, my body struggled to adapt to the new intensive training. I had learned English and Italian technique at my old studio, but the academy taught a version of Balanchine, the demanding style created by George Balanchine, who founded New York City Ballet and is known as the father of American ballet. Balanchine technique is notoriously difficult and injury inducing, but to me it is the most beautiful style of ballet. It is so vibrant and ethereal. Balanchine choreography seems to transcend the structured series of classical ballet and become something different — more intense, elemental.
At the academy, I began dancing thirteen or more hours a week, depending on the season. I went from school to ballet to homework to bed. I didn’t have time to eat meals when I used to and I found myself not wanting to.
I took off my pointe shoes after my first rehearsal to see swollen bunions, raw skin on the sides of my big toes, and deep, half-crescent marks where my toenails dug into my skin. Once, the pink satin back of my shoe was dyed red with blood.
Often, my bunions would go completely numb. I’d massage them gently after class, rubbing small circles around the bone, working back the circulation until it returned, preceded by searing flashes of pain.
In those first years, my toenails bruised often, dark navy-purple creeping up around the beds. After days spent willing back tears, I learned to take painkillers before class, then coat my big toes in pain relieving cream, wrap them in duct tape. I’d dance like that until the toenail blackened through, when the nerves would die and the pain would be gone. Then, I’d dig clippers beneath the nail and cut it out.
The more I trained, the more I grew to love the daily painful ritual — the contracting muscles in my back as I stepped into an arabesque, the protesting burn of my hamstring when I lay on my back to stretch, pulled my shin to my face. Being able to outlast, even use this pain made me feel powerful — I was in control of my body and I could make it do whatever I wanted.
I realized halfway through my first year at the academy that I needed to be thinner, to somehow regain the pre-pubescent body my first teacher noticed. No teacher told me to do this. They didn’t have to. They only ever worked with the thinnest girls, ignoring the rest of us. To the larger girls, they were openly hostile. “I can see your lunch,” one teacher said, her voice harsh with disgust, whenever she passed my friend at the barre.
And so I sat cross legged on my bed and Googled how many calories were in apples, carrots, a tablespoon of peanut butter, a grape. I told myself it was a matter of will power, control, that dominating my body like this was not only right, but necessary. When my hunger became unbearable and I felt my resolve weakening, I watched videos of Sarah Lamb and Wendy Whelan on YouTube. Their sinewy, sprite-like bodies seemed to have transcended womanhood, becoming these gorgeous, untamed creatures. That’s what I wanted, and what I knew I needed to be hired.
I endured for the next months on black coffee and apples I left unfinished. I structured my diet around my dance schedule, eating fruit and a spoonful of peanut butter a few hours before my nightly classes. When I got home, I drank herbal tea until I felt almost full, then I would go to the bathroom and need another cup.
I do not remember much from these months, only that I was dizzy, disoriented, that my grades began to dip. I was always so hungry, but it became difficult to eat more than a few bites of my apple at a time. In pictures, my hair looked dull and stringy; clumps of it would fall out and sit in a pool laced with soap suds at the bottom of the shower. While I think there was a part of me that knew I should have been frightened, I saw my declining health as evidence that I was willing to do anything to succeed in dance, which in turn gave me this feeling of immense power.
At this time, I became obsessed with a photo of Gelsey Kirkland dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov. They faced each other, hands touching faces. I loved the elongation of her neck, the thinness, delicacy of her arms.
Gelsey had joined New York City Ballet in the Balanchine days when she was only fifteen. She wrote a memoir called Dancing on My Grave about her time at the company, describing how Balanchine told her to stop eating, that he needed to see her bones. When she became too weak to dance he gave her “vitamins” before going on stage, beginning the cocaine addiction that almost killed her.
I had a morose fascination with Gelsey during this time because I understood what it felt like to be continually weak and hungry, to want almost to disappear. I envied her drug habit because it meant she was high enough to not feel hunger. There was a part of me that wondered if using would help get me through the long rehearsals. I never did. The possibility of forming an addiction was too frightening — I worried that I would lose control completely, failing to understand that in many ways this had already happened.
Once, in ballet, I stood at the back of the studio practicing a pas de bourrée into a pirouette. As I marked through the steps, my vision blurred, and I saw a golden sparkling at the edges before it went completely black. I put my foot down to stop the turn and waited a few seconds for my sight to return. You’re fine, I told myself. You can do this a little longer.
At the end of the year, my ballet teachers complimented me. They told me that my body looked better than when I had started at the academy. The teacher that yelled at us about our guts looked almost proud at my end of year conference. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up,” he told me with a rare smile.
When I returned to my ballet school in August, I rose to relevé and felt a searing pain cut through the top of my left foot. I learned, after X-rays, that I had a stress fracture on my second metatarsal. It was my junior year of high school, and college auditions would begin in a few months.
For the next three weeks, I came to class but I sat on the side of the room, crutches against the wall, my booted foot stretched out in front. My hunger was stronger and I no longer had a reason to fight it. I began eating again, just a little. A bowl of pasta. Some toast. Every time I ate, I promised myself that this would be my last solid meal. I feared losing ballet and the control I thought had while dancing. I was struggling at school and had been for years, failing both to form meaningful friendships and to succeed in subjects outside the arts. I felt that while I couldn’t control my surroundings I could always control myself, my body. Dance had become a way of doing that — taking my unruly body and elevating it, making it art. I think I reached a point where if I couldn’t be art, I didn’t think it was worthwhile to be anything at all.
After the boot, I started physical therapy. I remember sitting on the cold vinyl of the examination table, my legs hanging off the edge.
The therapist had worked with dancers before and her first questions were about my food intake. I felt defensive, almost angry — what did my diet have to do with my broken bone?
I told her, reluctantly, that I mostly ate fruits and nuts. When she asked about my training, I told her about the increased hours.
“Do you get your period regularly?” she asked, looking up from a note she had made on her clipboard. I felt disoriented, scared, knowing she could understand something about me that I wasn’t aware of.
“No, not really,” I said.
I saw sympathy, maybe sadness in her face and this was even more frightening. “OK,” she said, “bones can break like this when they’re not getting enough nutrients, and the extra hours you’re putting in only heighten that chance.”
She told me that I needed to start taking calcium and magnesium supplements, to rest, and to eat more. I wanted to listen to her, I knew she was right, but I was afraid that doing this would destroy the body I had spent the year creating. But I also knew that if I didn’t do these things, my foot would only become more painful. In trying to see my bones, I had broken them.
By then, my body was so accustomed to hours of weekly practice that not dancing made it difficult for me to sleep or focus. I spent hours at the gym on a stationary bike, the only machine I could use with my boot, trying to feel my body alive and moving again. At school, I struggled to open doors on my crutches, but glared at anyone who tried to help me.
I recovered, but not in time for college auditions. My muscles had atrophied, and I had gained back the weight I lost the year before. I struggled to execute choreography that used to be easy.
Despite the boot and physical therapy, my foot still hurt. Almost a year after it was first injured, insurance approved an MRI and I learned that my foot was still fractured. I got the results back weeks before I was supposed to leave for a seven-week summer program. It was too late to get a refund and my foot pain wasn’t as bad as it had been at the beginning of the year, so I went anyway, packed ibuprofen and took two before every class.
I was excited to attend the intensive because the director was a former New York City Ballet dancer under Balanchine. At the program, we would be learning Serenade, my favorite ballet. I had only seen it on YouTube, a fuzzy recording from the seventies. The first time I watched the video, I sat cross legged on my bedroom floor, hunched over my computer, and began to cry. The dancers on my screen didn’t look like women, but the willowy, restless spirits I wanted to become. They stood in the opening formation with arms outstretched, spaced evenly. When the blue stage lights fell on their chests I could see their collar bones almost glowing in the artificial moonlight.
Pure Balanchine technique, unlike what I learned at my academy, has an emphasis on fast little jumps, and dancers are not supposed to let their heels touch the floor between steps. Landing constantly on the balls of the feet increases pressure and the risk of a fracture. I knew all this when I auditioned for the summer program. I knew, too, about Gelsey Kirkland. And yet I still love this style of dance. And I am afraid of what this says about me and the things I have chosen to value.
Companies could stop teaching Balanchine technique and probably should, but that would obscure the deeper issue. Because with ballet, the process of creating the art itself is abusive, problematic. Every style of ballet is painful, unnatural, injury inducing. Every style of ballet is rooted in antiquated European ideas about beauty and gender. All this is true before the abusive directors and injuries and starvation diets. This is the root, the bone of ballet.
In one of my last classes in Chicago, I overheard the teacher talking to a girl who had a foot injury similar to mine.
“You can’t just push through the pain to dance well,” he said. “I know it sounds masochistic, but you almost have to love the pain, enjoy it a little to really dance when you’re injured. Otherwise, you’ll always be holding back, you won’t be able to give your whole self.”
What he was saying was cruel, but I knew, at least in the literal sense, that it was true. I couldn’t dance like I used to because I couldn’t control my pain and I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it when it was this intense. Every time I landed a grande jeté on my hurt foot, I felt myself flinching, my upper body contracting as I tried to breathe through the searing pain cutting through my foot.
I knew by this point that it was too late for me. I’d already missed auditions the previous year and I’d miss them again when I returned home, had my foot set in a cast. I had no reason to starve myself anymore, though I still longed for the graceful sinewy body I had tried for so long to achieve.
I spent my senior year of high school trying to be patient with myself and with my body. After three weeks, the doctor cut off my cast and I saw my calf again, hairy and shrunken, caked in dead skin. I couldn’t point my foot; I could barely move my ankle. But this time, I didn’t try to force anything. I built up my calf slowly, doing tiny relevés while gripping the kitchen counter.
When I returned to the studio, I told myself that this time it was going to be different. I only had six months left and I wanted to enjoy them, whatever I looked like doing it.
I began eating again, more than I had in years. I outgrew my extra small leotards from two years before. I tried not to mind. When I could help it, I avoided the mirror.
In college, where I studied literature and not ballet, I tried out for the student-led dance company. They didn’t offer ballet, and I thought that this would be good for me. I auditioned for contemporary and modern work, which is more athletic, less obsessed with thinness.
The audition was unlike anything I had experienced. I had only been to ballet auditions for competitive summer programs, where I sat outside the studio, stretching silently with girls who looked almost exactly like me. We’d lie on the floor in our splits, trying to guess each other’s weaknesses.
At the college audition, everyone seemed to know each other and were talking and laughing. There were fat people and people with curves, people of all genders. When the directors taught us the combinations, they didn’t really seem to care what we did.
“You can do a kick here or, like, if you need to modify, do something smaller. But, like, whatever! Do what you need to do!” a girl with a bobbing ponytail yelled over the 2000s pop hits playlist.
After a semester, I began choreographing my own contemporary work. It was exhilarating and terrifying to have some of the power of my former directors.
I chose to end one piece with an over-the-foot fall to the floor. I demonstrated it for my dancers, showing them how to jump just high enough that their feet cleared the floor, then to fall, let their ankles hit the ground first, then roll through the bone of their shins to a seat.
I noticed halfway through rehearsals that the dancers were just sitting down at the end, not moving through the fall full out. When the music ended, the room filled with their labored breathing. I got up from where I was sitting at the front of the studio to take notes. “Okay, we’re gonna run it again and I need you to do it all the way, even the fall,” I said.
“Can I wear knee pads?” one of the dancers asked, standing up.
I hesitated. I didn’t think that she needed them. No one else was wearing knee pads, and the fall was supposed to land on the shin and ankle, anyway. I thought that any pain she was feeling was her fault because she was doing it incorrectly.
“Definitely not for the show,” I said, too impatient to give her a real answer.
I worried, after, that I was being harsh. But there was a part of me that didn’t care. I wanted the piece to look good and I didn’t mind hurting myself or others to get it there. I would have liked to tell my dancers to modify, to do what they needed to feel comfortable, but I also knew that this would make the piece look less clean. So I didn’t.
Weeks later, I sat with this girl and a group of other dancer friends as we stretched before rehearsal. Someone noticed a large dark blue and purple bruise on the girl’s knee.
“That’s from your piece,” she said, looking at me.
I am afraid of how quickly I pick art when forced to choose between that and my own and others’ humanity. I think that I am becoming like my dance teachers, or like Balanchine, that I am causing the harm once done to me.
I remember, in these moments, a 60 Minutes interview I once watched of Gelsey Kirkland. “I think I tried harder to please Balanchine than anything, anybody,” she said, almost smiling, gesturing with both palms out as if she was giving something away.
“And what was the physical cost?” the interviewer asked.
Gelsey tilted her head back, half shrugged. “Well, the physical cost is that it kills you to do it… You were pushed to the limit in terms of what your body can take.”
“Did Balanchine care about your body?”
“He cared how it looked, not how it felt.”
Sometimes, I think that I’m better, okay with my body. That starving myself was something ignorant I did at sixteen. But on other days, I look in the mirror and think about skipping meals. I’ve learned to see non-thin bodies as beautiful in others, but when I look at myself, I wish I could see more bones.
Sometimes, I can still feel my first ballet teacher’s fingernails on my stomach, scraping everything away.
I began taking ballet classes again regularly in my junior year of college. I thought that I’d given myself enough distance to return. I knew that separating the beauty of ballet from its process was impossible, but I needed closure so I decided to try anyway.
I stood outside the dance studio on a still January morning, waiting for the custodian to unlock the doors. I opened the notes app on my phone and made a list, my fingers tingling from the cold. Reasons you are taking ballet, I typed. Feeling breath in your body. Getting some exercise. Preparing for auditions.
In a column below, I wrote, Bad reasons: Trying to get skinny. Trying to tame a body seen as unruly.
I told myself that if I realized I was at the studio for any of the bad reasons, I had to leave, even if it was in the middle of class. I had to thank the teacher, put on my sweatpants, and walk out of the room.
My choreography was accepted again the next semester. I left out the falls and focused instead on smooth port de bras, gentle contractions and releases.
When the girl I bruised the semester before didn’t audition for the piece, I texted her during the casting meeting, asking if she’d maybe consider it. She did, and I put her at the front of the formation.
That spring, I stood behind the cash wrap at the contemporary art museum where I worked. It was a slow day, so I looked through a museum brochure that was left on the counter. On the events page, I saw a Wendy Whelan performance scheduled for later that week. I stared at her name on the brochure, reading it several times to make sure this was really her — when she retired from New York City Ballet years ago, I had assumed I would never be able to see her live. I was scheduled to work the day of the performance, but my manager told me that I could use my break to watch part of the show.
On the day of the performance, I slipped out of the gift shop and got my comp ticket at the front desk. I felt a strange sense of arrival as I sat in the theatre, remembering the hours I spent watching and rewatching clips of Whelan on YouTube, the grace and tenderness I saw in her performances on the cracked screen of my phone.
The lights dimmed and Whelan walked onstage. Her body was exactly what I remembered. And yet the performance itself was detached, flat. Whelan moved robotically, almost meaninglessly. I knew that this wasn’t her fault, it was just the choreography. I waited for the piece to shift, for some kind of softness or emotion to surface.
Maybe it eventually did, I don’t know. When my fifteen minutes were up, I left my seat, apologized quietly to the strangers who had to move for me. As I made my way back down the stairs and out into the museum lobby I could feel my stomach grumbling. I thought that I probably should have skipped the show altogether and bought myself something to eat.
Emma Bruce is a writer from central Texas. She recently graduated from Emerson College and volunteers as an editorial assistant at Crab Creek Review.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Roger Jones/Flickr Creative Commons
Stunned. Gutted. And so impressed with this gorgeous, brutally candid piece about a world I know nothing about.
Emma, I enjoyed this earnest, fine piece of writing.