I was lucky. I was never told my body was wrong, but I also never realistically considered a career as a ballet dancer.
When people ask if I played sports when I was young, I can safely answer that I grew up as a dancer. My childhood was consumed by dedicating my weeknights, weekends and whole summers to going to dance class and traveling up and down the east coast participating in competitions and dance conventions. My local dance studio was my second home, and teaching dance was my first job ever when I was only 14 years old. It was amazing and it was my life. This is until I reached the end of high school.
I loved dance so much, but I knew I loved other things as well and I wanted to pursue them. I also knew from a pretty early age that a professional dance career just wasn’t in the cards for me. This truth seemed perfectly fine and reasonable at the time. Being a practical person, I understood what went into being a professional dancer – auditions, TONS of rejection, basically living like a vagabond/waitress because most dancers hardly get paid a living wage – and I wasn’t so excited about that. I also understood that I was pretty good for a small town dancer, but not really good enough, and would never be so because I didn’t have the right body for it. No one told me that. I knew it.
When I saw the new Under Armour ad featuring a strikingly fit and talented Misty Copeland making some waves lately, my reaction was divided. It’s received so much attention, in part because UA, a notoriously dude-appealing sportswear company is now focusing on women, in part because ballet isn’t overwhelmingly considered a sport, and in part because Misty is so breathtakingly kickass and amazing in the ad (and in life) despite the fact that she started dance pretty late at age 13 and was considered all wrong to be a ballerina. She didn’t have the right feet, achilles tendons, turnout, torso length or bust, the rejection letter reads via voiceover, or apparently even the right skin tone – Misty is the first African American female soloist in two decades and only the third ever, at the American Ballet Theatre. She’s also 5 foot 2 and considered curvy in comparison to the typical narrow-waisted, slender-hipped ballet dancers we’re all so used to seeing.
I love that this ad has sparked a conversation, and that Misty, her story, and body shapes in dance in general are getting so much attention. It’s important on so many levels that we as a culture celebrate different body types, especially in the incredibly expressive and body-freeing art form of dance. Yes, when you go professional, it’s more structured and requires a certain amount of Olympian-level athleticism (this ad has also sparked the whole “is ballet a sport?” debate, which is kind of a moot and silly argument, if you ask me), but when young girls (and boys) watch Misty, or shows like “Big Ballet,” or even “So You Think You Can Dance,” on which Misty was a guest judge for multiple episodes, and they see dancers coming out in all shapes, sizes, and colors, it opens a door. Or maybe smashes the ceiling (the mirror?).
Indeed, a type of glass ceiling exists in dance in the reflective form. If you don’t look a certain way or have a certain body type, then you’re probably not going to make it as a professional dancer. Actors are familiar with facing this sort of rejection as well. Ballet is special though, because, on cue, we could all draw up a definition of what we know to be “the look of a ballet dancer” and probably conjure up the same image: long limbs, long neck, super thin, and crazy archy feet.
But here’s what’s important to remember: most successful ballet dancers are BORN this way.
Even Misty, the unlikely ballerina from Kansas City, Missouri, was recognized as a teenager for her dancer’s body, her grace and musicality by teachers who encouraged her to start taking formal classes. In this interview with Madame Noir, Misty explains that she never really saw the type of dance she loved to perform, but it was in her blood and bones to move that way. This is natural talent everyone saw, and a natural dancer’s body.
Here’s Misty at age 17, a few years after her very first dance class at the Boys and Girls Club:
Freaking fierce, right? Case in point. It’s not to say she isn’t fantastic and inspiring, she definitely is! However, even in her against-the-odds story of triumph, it would be hard to argue that she wasn’t born to be a dancer. I, on the other hand, was not. But, my small town dance studio made me feel like I was one, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. My hips aren’t open enough, making my turnout kind of lame, my back doesn’t arch so easily, and I land closer to the round and petite end of the body spectrum – aka definitely not ballerina material – though I was never made to feel like I wasn’t good enough, or thin enough, or tall or flexible enough. I danced my heart out because I loved it, and felt the love in return. What I find sad is that many young women and girls fall into the trap of trying to force their bodies into some shape or impossible expectation – this is where eating disorders come in and body dysmorphia is fueled.
What I DON’T love about this Under Armour ad is the tagline: I WILL WHAT I WANT. It’s a wonderful sentiment, really, and dang it if we we shouldn’t all fight for what we want in life. But when it comes to dance or any other art form requiring you to fit a certain round mold, and you’re a square peg, maybe it’s not your path. For instance, if you have two left, flat feet, get vertigo from spinning too much, and have the gracefulness of Elaine from Seinfeld, perhaps it’s time to reconsider being the star of the American Ballet Theatre.
Of course, this sort of uneven natural talent playing field doesn’t just apply to dance. We know just because you’re a 6 foot 6 guy who can jump really high, it doesn’t mean you’ll be the next Michael Jordan, but it certainly helps. Then again if you were born with a tennis racquet in your hands (bless your momma’s uterus) and practiced every day of your life, it doesn’t mean you’re the next Serena Williams, or a pro-tennis player at all. There’s no doubt you’ll improve in some way by practicing like crazy, and mental power and will are nothing to sneeze at, but when it comes to physical ability, unless you have the genetic magic of Usain Bolt’s hamstrings, the perfectly calibrated vocal chords of Celine Dion and the super stabilizing core of Michelle Kwan, your chances of being the world’s fastest songbird on ice are slim to nil.
This is OK by the way, and it’s not meant to sh*t on your dreams, because we can all still find ways to do what we love (this also includes things we may not be all that good at). I may have had the “wrong” body to be a professional dancer – and I do sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I’d had Ginger Rogers’s genes – but I’m so glad I grew up with dance, and also that I was able to let it go to explore other avenues of interest. Fate hadn’t handed me my future because I was the second coming of Cyd Charisse.
Interestingly (or not) yoga helped me stay in my body with its fluidity of movement and strength-building (amongst many of its other great personal-growth-y things) over the past decade. But I couldn’t stay away from my first love. I returned to dance a few years ago and have been taking adult ballet classes as well as assistant teaching a class for 8-11 year olds which has proved to be profoundly rewarding and enlightening. I’ve had to work hard to remind my body of the technique, which has been really difficult, and requires even more compassion for my even more woman-y form that’s changed a lot since those spritely teenage years.
In the children’s class I can tell which students have the natural potential and which don’t. It’s nothing against their commitment, effort or enjoyment. They all have fun learning and performing, and never ever would I tell them their bodies weren’t right for dance. But maybe someone will some day, and it might even be their own voice in their own head.
I hope that’s not the case, and I hope that if they do decide to stop dancing that it’s because they’ve been drawn away by something else they love even more. I hope they’re inspired by strong, talented women like Misty Copeland to become their dream, whether it’s in dance or any other field, and that having a certain body type makes no difference for them in reaching their goals. And I hope Misty does change the face of ballet and achieve the role of principal dancer to become the world’s first ever African American lead. She deserves it and was born to do it.
JLHC is a writer, blogger, dreamer, cat-lover living and working in NYC. Her past and current exploits include founding and running YogaDork, starting a co-working space calledtascbar in her neighborhood of East Harlem and discovering that she is an extrovert in an introvert’s body, or maybe the other way around. She believes in questioning everything and reminding herself that nothing is a waste of time. For what is time? twitter: @jenniyoga. website:jennilyncarson.com