“What did you have for breakfast?” A seemingly simple question that prompted a simple answer but, at that moment, I did not have a simple answer and it was not a simple question. The truth was that I didn’t even eat breakfast, so I knew I had to make something up. I couldn’t just say yogurt because that apparently didn’t have any protein and had way too much fat. One girl before me already got reprimanded for giving that answer and like hell was I going to make her mistake. I couldn’t say cereal because that had too much sugar and I couldn’t mention carbs because we all knew we weren’t supposed to be eating anything of the sort. You should only eat vegetables and protein with no fat, she used to say. The no fat part was particularly important. She would tell us that the human body’s natural desire was to sit at home and eat bon bon’s all day and if we didn’t fight that great natural fault, we would never make it.
Ever since I was a little girl, that’s all I wanted. I wanted to make it. I wanted to become a successful ballet dancer. Only, back then dancing felt like something out of the fairytale stories my mother used to read to me before I went to sleep – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, etc. Later, Instagram was the one telling me stories and showing me pictures of fairytales, of the dream.
Time was running out and I had to decide what to say. My face was burning up, my throat could barely regulate air and my lips were drier than the plants my parents used to let wilt around the house. My chest tightened up, my palms started sweating and I felt that dizzy and somewhat nauseous feeling I used to get when I was little, staring at the ceiling and spinning around a thousand times. Now it was my turn and I had no choice but to respond. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even remember what I said, only that it wasn’t the right answer and I paid the price for it the same way I paid the price for crying in class because the night prior one of my friends tried to commit suicide by jumping off a building. My ballet instructor never did tell us what the right answer to her question was. I think it was just one of the many ways she tried to educate us.
After class I went back to my room, humiliated and exhausted and I wondered, why? Why dancing didn’t feel like dancing anymore. Why it didn’t feel like the fairytale stories my mom used to read to me.
My mom took me to my first ballet performance, Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, when I was three years old. She told me that she was worried that I would cry and carry on during the performance, but when it started I was mesmerized; you had a twinkle in your eye and you sat still the entire time and watched silently. As the dancers leapt and twirled and the snow sparkled as it fell, like diamonds in the sky, I watched the enchanted winter forest come to life. I watched a fairytale come to life. That’s when I knew. That’s when I believed in magic for the first time and that’s when I knew I wanted to dance.
The promise of becoming a ballerina – to live in a fairytale.
When I performed the autumn fairy in Prokofiev’s Cinderella, I was the one creating magic. With every wave of my arm, gusts of wind blew leaves to the ground. With every extension of my fingertips, the colors brightened up to warm reds, oranges and yellows. With every turn, leaves twirled and sparkled the same way the Fairy Godmother’s wand sparkled every time she cast a spell. When I performed “Dance de Petit Cygnets” in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, I soared and flew over the glistening deep blue waters. When I performed Kitri’s Act I variation in Minkus’s Don Quixote, my heart glistened with the confidence of her spirit. When I performed Juliet’s variation in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, my undying love for Romeo beamed through every inch of my body, the same way the sun beams through the trees – sparkling, bright and beautiful.
When I wasn’t on stage, I held onto the promise of that enchantment. I held on for dear life because behind the beautiful, regal red velvet curtains was the opposite of storybook fairy tales and enchantment.
Enter the classroom – blood, sweat and tears.
I sat down, muscles aching, blisters burning like a hot stovetop as I shoved my feet into a tiny wooden shoe, the same way the ugly stepsisters tried to shove their feet into Cinderella’s slipper. Every movement, my face burned hot while tears streamed down my face as I looked to my left and my friend wasn’t there.
All I could think about was that phone call where my stomach dropped faster than the Superman ride at Six Flags. That moment where I felt like my heart was viciously ripped out of my chest and all the air was sucked out of my lungs, the same way a vacuum sucks the dirt from the ground. All I could think about was the countless diet plans and screaming threats and lectures that led him to that rooftop: Martin!! Turnout!, Martin!! Work harder!, All I see is fat, Martin! Your fat is jiggling, Martin! It’s disgusting! You are disgusting me, Martin, MARTIN!, If you want to make something of yourself then you have to work harder!! You’re not working! I need to see the work!, MARTIN!!, Martin, I’m not even going to look at you anymore because you’re not worth it., You’re weak Martin!, Come on Martin!, MARTIN!!
All I could think about was the relief that poured down my face like a river of tears and sent me to my knees when he pulled through and was admitted out of the ICU. All I could think about was how Martin may never be able to dance again and how in that moment I thought, I wish that was me.
All I could think about was how completely void the room was of enchantment and childhood magic.
It was all I could think about.
Ballet was my first great love – the kind of love you dream about. Until it wasn’t. Ballet was sweet and charming to me at first. Ballet showered me with love and affection. Then it stopped and wilted away like the rose in Beauty and the Beast. Ballet would scream in my face, call me “fat” and tell me to stop eating, threaten to beat me, whip me and even taze me.
She called it tough love, Y’all ever heard of a cattle prod? I’m thinking I should bring one in, then maybe you’ll actually learn a thing or two. Make a mistake, don’t turn out enough or suck in enough, and have a cattle prod, otherwise used as a torture device for innocent farm animals, jabbed into your ribs burning your skin and sending about 6,000 volts into your body. That was the idea. But she never had the guts to actually use her educational tools. Her weapon of choice was her words and somehow that seemed worse. I didn’t have any burns, bruises or whip markings on the outside, but I did on the inside. I had thousands of scars, but no one saw them.
Ballet eventually drove my self-loathing far enough to one day hold a knife to my wrists.
It was fucked up. It was a fucked up kind of love.
There was a moment once. A moment where I wasn’t a ballet dancer anymore. A moment where I wasn’t extraordinary. A moment where I wasn’t striving for perfection. A moment where I was normal. I sat down with my fatty bacon cheeseburger and fries and my sugary lemonade and I talked to my friends. We talked about food and movies and boys and sex. We talked about anything and everything. We talked and we laughed.
I had a moment. I had a moment of sheer blissful normalcy and the best part – I didn’t feel guilty.
Turns out the fairytale wasn’t on a stage, wearing a tutu and dancing with a prince. It was really in a restaurant eating fatty food, drinking sugary drinks and simply having a conversation among friends.
That’s why I spent a whole afternoon blocking every ballet Instagram account. I was only doing as my grandma used to do when she would spend hours pulling the weeds out her garden. A weed is a weed, and toxic shit is toxic shit.
I scrolled through every perfect ten plus pirouettes, every perfect extension, every perfect back bend, every perfect pointed foot, every perfect jump and every perfect ballerina body that looks more like one of those plastic skeletons you get from the costume store, than an actual real person.
And I clicked.
Elise Kline is a free-lance writer currently pursuing her passion for story-telling and her education at Emmanuel College. She currently writes for Her Campus Magazine and her articles primarily focus on relating to and empowering college women. Her articles can be found here. She also has her own blog. Post her seventeen-year long career as a ballet dancer, she discovered a passion to advocate for victims of sexual, emotional and physical abuse in the entertainment industry and empower those who consequently suffer from certain mental illnesses such as eating disorders, through her stories. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys kickboxing, visiting museums, eating hamburgers and of course going to Red Sox games.