Ballet and My Body: A Brief Assessment
This morning, while stretching, I was struck by how radically ballet has changed my body.
And then I thought about it and wondered whether ballet has really radically changed my body, or whether it’s more that it has radically changed the way I see my body.
I found that the answer, at the moment, is this:
In fact, both interpretations are probably true.
Some of the changes that dancing makes to one’s body are objectively measurable.
One may lose or gain weight: I weigh about 20 pounds less than I did when I started dancing again, part of which can be attributed to time spent in the studio. At least one guy that I see in class from time to time (he usually goes to evening class and 12:15 class) has gained muscle, particularly in his legs, and as such almost certainly weighs more than he once did. I mention these first because they’re obvious:easily visible, as it were, to the naked eye.
And, then, even without changes in weight, one may experience changes in dimension: the measurements of my body are certainly quite different than they were 1.5 years ago, but they are also quite different than they were the last time I stood at my current weight. I wasn’t dancing then; I was in the midst of the staggering period of illness and weight gain that coincided with my move to Louisville. I weighed what I weigh now, but with more fat and less muscle, so I was bigger in some places (the last time I wore the trouser size I wear now, I weighed ten pounds less); presumably smaller in others.
I have watched several of us who were brand-new dancers 1.5 years ago begin to undergo a profound metamorphosis.
As for those of us who have danced longer … if you walk into Intermediate or Advanced class, you walk into a room full of people who look like, well, dancers — even those of us who don’t necessarily fit the classical ballet mold possess that even muscle balance that makes dancers so functionally sound. (But most of us, including — to my surprise — me, seem to be evolving towards the classical ballet mold*.)
We present a graphic depiction of the human body as a well-honed, functional machine. We are strong without excess: our bodies have been whittled by practical use within an artform that builds upon, perfects, and extends the vocabulary of movement the human animal uses “in the wild,” rather than by repetitive movements designed to enhance one muscle group or another in isolation, out of context. (I don’t think this is true only of ballet, by the way — modern dance, hip-hop, and any number of traditional dance forms demand that dancers develop eminently functional strength, flexibility, balance, rhythm, and grace. I also don’t think lifting weights is bad, by the way: but I do think it’s not enough if your goal is a truly functional body).
Even the details of one’s body change. My feet and ankles are like different animals: my arches are much stronger; they don’t touch the ground when I’m standing still. My shoes fit quite differently, now, than they did a year and a half ago.
As for the ankles … um, I have ankles now, not just cylinders from knee to foot with some bony knobs on the sides 😉
Some of the changes, though, are harder to measure.
I think my legs and arms, in particular, look more graceful than they did — but how exactly do you quantify that?
I have watched classmates who, a little more than a year ago, struggled to execute smooth ronds de jambe even without port de bras develop the ability to coordinate arms and legs simultaneously; to execute quick ronds and slow port de bras at the same time. Ballet is very good at teaching one to pat one’s head while rubbing one’s tummy.
As for me, I feel more capable than I used to (which is funny, because if you have ever ridden a bike 100 miles in the rain, you know that can make you feel pretty capable).
I have rediscovered my instinct for and joy in movement — and, curiously, I experience the sensation of light, free, buoyant movement in my dreams now, which I hadn’t in some while. It won’t surprise me if my flying dreams return.
I have watched my classmates discover, rediscover, or expand their capacities for free, expressive movement. There is nothing as awesome, by the way, as watching a room full of women from their late forties through their sixties go flying across the floor with the joy, grace, and aplomb of young girls, unless it’s flying along with them!
Perhaps most importantly, though, I’ve regained a sense of bodily agency that I didn’t realize I had lost (I may have said this before).
I lost a lot of that to the experience of violent sexual abuse, but even more to the side-effects of heavy psychotropics.
I loved ice-skating as a kid, but my first attempt to skate after starting lithium (along with, frankly, half of the existing psychopharmacopaiea) was an experience of stunning betrayal: gone were the balance and equilibrium that had been the source of so much pride and delight. Gone was the command of jumps, leaps, and turns invented in the spot, cribbed from TV, or translated from ballet class.
I could wobble in large ovals around the rink as well as my peers, and I could still scull backwards, but that was all.
I felt utterly betrayed by my own body (again), which was devastating — but I kept it to myself. I was fifteen and nobody had told me that lithium alone could disrupt equilibrium, coordination, and proprioception, never mind lithium-plus-everything.
I thought that I would simply have to accept the loss of myself as a physical being; that it was simply part of whatever was wrong with me.
I don’t think I fully regained my coordination fully until I got back into the ballet studio; I remember how difficult it seemed, when I was doing Muay Thai, to get my arms and legs to work together (it was rather either-or: if the legs were right, the arms were wrong, and vice-versa). And yet, once in a while, things would click back together, and for a second a steely dancer’s grace would visit itself upon me and my coach would shout, “Holy ****, where did that come from? Where was it five minutes ago?”
I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know. The circuits were still pretty corroded, you could say.
Ballet had transformed that, too.
I feel as if I can trust my body; as if it largely does what I ask it to do (okay: except when it doesn’t).
I can ask my body to attempt something it has never done with fair confidence that it will at least approximate respectably, just as it did when I was a kid.
This feels like a miracle.
I suppose some of that change might be measurable to the most sophisticated gadgets of neuroscience (or, well, might have been, if baselines had been established by prior tests), but I don’t think it really matters.
Subjectively, I increasingly see and experience my body as one that is strong, graceful, and capable.
Objectively, I am able to measure change in the studio: I am objectively able to do things now that I couldn’t a year ago.
At the end of the day, though, I suspect that the subjective experience matters more.
Not to say that the objective one isn’t important — it’s profoundly useful in some regards, not least in knowing one’s own current capabilities (I’m not going to try to replicate the famous variation from Le Corsair just yet; I’m confident, not crazy).
But it’s the subjective experience that drives us to seek, push against, and ultimately transcend the limits of those capabilities. The subjective experience tells us to reach beyond — to say, instead of never, simply not yet.
We grow not by resting in the knowledge of what we can do, but by pursuing the question of what we might do, if we try.
Which is to say, the first time I tried saut de Basque, I nearly landed right on my as…pirations. Ahem. My aspirations. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Now, saut de Basque is just another tool on my choreographic workbench; one I can grab and use where it fits.
If I hadn’t been willing to try, though — to reach beyond what were then the limits of my capability — it wouldn’t be, and I couldn’t.
I was willing (even eager) to try because dancing taught me, one again, to trust my body … and that is both the most subjective and the greatest transformation ballet has wrought upon this body — and upon me, the guy now thoroughly inhabiting this body — yet.
*I still have deep misgivings about this.
Part of me wants to recklessly conclude that ballet, in sufficient quantity, tends to reshape bodies in its own image … but I still think that’s only half the picture. I still think there’s a fair bit of self-selection pressure; that as those of us whose bodies are inclined to tend towards the predominant balletic aesthetic do so, those whose bodies aren’t thusly inclined may feel increasingly as if they don’t and can’t fit, and might simply find somewhere else to dance, or stop dancing altogether.
The dancers of diverse aesthetics who do stay seem to mostly be individuals of very strong character who have both solid support networks and deep emotional maturity — but since those characteristics largely coincide with the ones necessary to persist in the madness that is the study of ballet, it’s hard to say whether they’re causative or merely correlative.
It’s hard to say, because we don’t exactly take exit surveys. People just stop coming to class.
That still really feels like a problem.