It may have taken me years to absorb, but I realize now that the slow transition away from “serious” (?) dancing that I experienced thanks to a fairly strong college program at Duke University (in more recent years made stronger with the option of a full dance major, although I agree with Wendy Perron, linked below, that I am not sure this is meaningful for truly talented and driven ballet dancers who, to have a full career, need to be on a dedicated path before the age of 20), has probably made me love ballet—again as a (recreational) dancer and far more strongly as an audience member—far more than I ever would have expected here in the slightly northern end of my 30s.
Wendy Perron’s reflection on the role of ballet in colleges struck a cord with me, not because I shared her sense of envy for the opportunities afforded college dancers today. Not quite of Perron’s generation, as a mediocre, non-career-track ballet dancer, I apparently had a few more opportunities to dance and perform into my early twenties. Indeed, more than I had expected. I began my freshman year with the plan to reduce my dancing hours from 20 hours/week (40 in the summers) to just one. Not surprisingly, this initially was quite evident in my weight and technique. Until then, like many teenagers, I had no idea, how important the consistent discipline and practice really had been for me!
However, I quickly realized, with opportunities for more classes and to stay onstage, that I didn’t quite know who else I was. And frankly, the friends I started making in ballet class and rehearsal were far more interesting and fun than what I saw in the sorority culture that, despite early curiosity about participating in rush, just didn’t interest me. I also found some colleagues who had come in with more professional experience, now returning for a focus on education. And between them, and others like me who had a solid discipline and training, found that some of our university outreach and support of a local youth company further bolstered the training and discipline of those other, younger dancers, by example.
I look back not with the skepticism or envy Perron expresses toward college dancers today, but certainly the same knowledge that going to ballet class, or even joining a small local or university-based company and spending a few more years on stage, solidifies a personal understanding that a ballet career is not meant to be.
For me, I had come to terms with this from the beginning—loving ballet, but never seeing myself being good enough to pursue a career (only in hindsight, and seeing how much hard work and practice have also factored in allowing for some sort of career for dancers of moderate talent, have I wondered if this thinking diminished my willingness to work or to want… but I don’t reflect on this with a sense of missed opportunity most of the time). What I did gain was an understanding that this was part of my identity (unfortunately, also manifest in some disordered eating for a couple of years, long after the stereotypical wispy “ballet body” could have made a difference in my career path), and it put me on a path to nonprofit arts/dance administration, studies in art history, and ultimately becoming an avid modern-dance-goer (alas, unlike Perron, I could never embrace that kinesthetic shift in my own body), yogini, and (10 years later) adult ballet student.
So as an adult ballet lover, who certainly experienced a few more bumps in my love and practice as I moved into adulthood, I nevertheless look back and am grateful that a seed was planted during my university years that enabled me to resist, in time, a perform-or-nothing attitude toward the art of ballet that diminishes that love in so many who were blessed with performance careers.