Junior year of college I enrolled in a Beginner Ballet class. I went to one of those tiny, liberal arts colleges that knows a well-rounded education includes taking a full year of gym classes. Options included things like Running (walking quickly), Volleyball (insert Daria hand motion), and some other stuff I’m sure was totally worth our tuition.
It was, however, the perfect opportunity to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a ballerina. My big feet, lack of coordination, and perpetually running into tables always seemed to get in the way of this.
I’m trying to think why they named this class Beginner, other than they were all liars. The first day of class was an audition to see which level to place you for the semester. So there I am, trying to figure out what the hell they mean by first position, then make my body move that way, only to be 18 million steps behind once I figured it out. It was a super fun process in a room full of women who’d been dancing their whole lives.
The instructors mercifully divvied everyone up into levels rather quickly. I followed my instructor into the “Beginners” group and listened intently as he told us the proper attire for his class: leotard, skirt, tights, leg warmers, ballet shoes, hair in a bun.
OHMIGOD it’s happening. I even get to wear the outfit! My friend Sara and I went out and picked out this beautiful (hideous) maroon leotard and sheer floral skirt that showed off my big hips, wide waist, and mama thighs. That thing was so high cut, it looked straight outta Jane Fonda’s closet. I. Loved. It. Had to special order the ballet slippers because the store didn’t carry size 11 shoes for women.
I showed up the next week to class decked out in my ballet uniform; I even figured out how to put my hair in a bun. Walking into the studio, my stomach dropped. Every girl was in their same tank and shorts they had worn the first day of class. Not only was I the only one over 5’5″ and 120 pounds, I was now also the only one looking ready for my 5th grade recital. I sighed a Big Ballerina sigh, walked in with my head high, and starting stretching in a far corner by myself.
I wore that leotard and skirt every damn class for a whole semester. Because screw you and your mean looks. Because I’m living my fantasy. Because I’m a fucking ballerina. A big, happy, terrible ballerina.
Many years later, I found myself in a different sort of dance class. Of the pole variety. It was a few months ago, on Surprise Saturday–a thing my friends started in which one person plans the day and the rest of us just go with it.
And what I thought was going to be a painful hour of flailing turned out to be a painful hour of existential crisis.
The class started with stretches, and I was like, Ok, I’ve done yoga. I can handle this. And then our instructor asked us to close our eyes (which is always my favorite part of yoga) and relax.
“It’s your body. You’ve had it all your life,” she said.
“It’s your body.”
“And you’ll have it forever.”
Oh dear god.
Simple statements, yes? But I’d never thought about my body like that. As a larger-than-average woman, I’d always viewed my body as a weapon of defiance:
-My size 11 feet have only encouraged me to buy the most outrageous, glittery, and fun shoes I can find.
-A smaller woman once asked, “How are you so fast? You’re not even skinny,” and I made sure to kick her ass in the half marathon we were running. By a lot.
-I wear heels on dates, and if a homeboy feels insecure by my height–byeeeeeeee.
-And of course the aforementioned Big Ballerina story, which I wore like a badge of honor, daring someone to make a comment to my face.
Until that poledancing class, I had never looked at my body as something for me to cherish. I spend way more time defending my body–both physically and emotionally–than I do appreciating it. On the CTA or walking home or in a Lyft–my mind is racing how I can get my physical self out of a situation should it arise. Hypotheticals both save and haunt me.
I’ve spent so much time defending it and defying societal norms that I’d forgotten why I was so protective of my body in the first place:
Because it’s mine. Because I’ve always had it. And because I’ll have it forever.
And because I’m a ballerina dammit.