It’s 1999. I wait with my mum in the entrance of the church, wearing a sea-green leotard and matching scrunchy, watching the older girls finishing their isolations in the main hall. They are graceful, passionate, musical. They wear black leotards, because they’re all grown-up and they’ve earned their grade eight already. I feel excited and more than a little nervous, butterflies chasing one another around my stomach – I’m just about to start my very first class but I want a black leotard, too. I want it more than anything I’ve ever wanted before.
So began my journey with dance. That first lesson – a disco class, complete with cheesy music and even cheesier choreography – sparked an intense love for music and movement. I spent evening after evening and weekend after weekend in that church hall, rolling along the dusty floor in jazz, trying and failing to pirouette in ballet, rehearsing for shows and fetes and exams. By the time I was fifteen, I was wearing a black leotard. My teacher had moved me up into the adult ballet class, so I could start pointe work early. I was thrilled and terrified in equal measure.
I bought my first pair of pointe shoes at a small shop in Ipswich. It was tucked away from the high street, crammed with rail after rail of leotards and tutus and all manner of sparkling, uber-femme costumes. The shopkeeper measured my feet and complimented me on my arches. I felt like a queen as I tentatively balanced on my toes at the barre, loving the intense crushing feeling of the stiff shoes and marvelling at all they represented.
It was a moment I’d been dreaming about for years. I loved ballet, loved it for its grace and delicacy and unique expressiveness. Yet ballet has its dark side, as anyone who’s seen Black Swan will know. It’s demanding and punishingly precise. It requires strength and flexibility and cardiovascular endurance in a combination like no other sport I’ve known. On top of that, it asks for an astute musical ear and excellent sense of rhythm, for the ability to translate abstract notes into raw feeling, enacted through the spring in a pas de chat, the extended leg in a penchée. Ballet may look whimsical on a stage, but behind the curtain it’s sweat and tears and, quite literally, blood.
There came a point when that dark side caught up with me. At fifteen, I wasn’t well. I wasn’t taking care of my body, eating too little and subjecting myself to intense exercise. When ballet class came around each week I was too faint for pirouettes, too weak to couru, too achey to hold my arms up in the port de bra. There came a time when I, desperate to get well and reclaim my life from anorexia, had to ask myself a hard question: could I continue to dance ballet without falling foul of its demands?
I decided I couldn’t. I rang my dance teacher of twelve years and told her I was unwell and I had to drop out of all my dance classes. I put away my leotards and my toe pads and my perfectly broken-in pointe shoes. For the most part, I haven’t regretted it. Occasionally, though, I feel myself longing to slip those shoes on again and feel the thrill of holding my entire body weight on five toes alone as I turn through the air. Yet whilst I’ve returned to jazz and explored new genres of dance, my ballet days are firmly behind me. Recovery involves making some hard choices about what is sustainable and healthy. For me, ballet isn’t either of those, encouraging as it does my perfectionism and feeding the eating disorder’s desire to be feather-light and thin. Maybe that will change in the future. But for now, my wellbeing just isn’t worth the risk.
I still have those pointe shoes. I found them whilst clearing out my wardrobe, in a Doc Marten’s bag with my old split-soles and an ancient hoodie I used to wear whilst practicing in the winter – much to my teacher’s annoyance, because hoodies weren’t technically on the uniform list. Part of me has wanted to keep them for memory’s sake. Another part of me wants to throw them away and close that chapter of my life once and for all. I haven’t decided yet what I will do, but I know that when I do, my wellbeing will be the primary factor in the decision-making process.
Is there something you’ve had to give up, for the sake of your wellness? How did it feel to let it go? What have you discovered that brings you joy since?