I know I’ve written about this before, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again, but because for some unfathomable reason I’ve spent basically my entire day on Twitter grooving on threads from the neurodivergent, EDS, and disability communities, it occurs to me to write about why the ballet is a good fit for me, specifically as it interfaces with autism.
Everyone on earth has now written a summary of the basic diagnostic criteria for autism, so I’m not going to do that, here. Y’all know how to Google if you need more info -.^
Instead, I’m going to touch on how working as a dancer in a ballet company is a good fit for me as an autistic person, breaking things down as I go by the specific traits in question.
So, here we go.
Narrow Range Of Specialized Interests
Hooooo, boy. With the exception of the equestrian world and certain subsets of academia (I see you, paleobiologists!), I’m not sure there are too many actual career paths that dovetail as neatly here.
Ballet is an all-encompassing special interest. It requires your body, your mind, and basically all of your time. It’s one of the very few career paths in which obsessive focus on the subject is essentially an entry-level requirement—like, the only way to make it through the training is to be motivated enough by ballet itself, which is why dancers everywhere giggle at t-shirts that read, “I CAN’T. I HAVE CLASS.”
Like, we’ve all been there, and (excepting the few who get shoved into it by overbearing parents), we all chose that life.
As autistics, we experience this thing where people get really sick of our special interests. I honestly have only met one person in the ballet world who occasionally gets tired of talking about ballet, and even he doesn’t get tried enough of it to resent it—he’s just delighted when people bring their non-dancing partners to dancer shindigs so he can talk to them about, like, politics or futböl ^-^
It’s not that we dancers never talk about anything else—but in the studio after rehearsal, or at gatherings of dancers, nobody gets mad if you talk about ballet, or if all your jokes are specific to dance.
I suppose part of this is that ballet leaves precious little time for other pursuits—but, also, you only get that far if it basically consumes your whole being.
Rigid Adherence To Routine
I go to class even when I’m on holiday.
This is, of course, partly because I like going to class, and partly because the only way to stay in shape for ballet is, well, ballet.
But I’ve realized it’s also, to a significant extent, because no matter where I go, class is class. Barre is barre. Centre is centre. Allegro is the best thing that ever—erm, sorry, allegro is allegro.
There may be minor variations (Ha! Ballet puns!) in the routine, but overall, when I step into the studio, I can relax a bit more than I normally do, because I understand the process, and I know what will happen.
That Whole “Systematizing” Thing
NGL, I love a good system—and ballet is a system.
It comes with its own entire language and four hundred years of etiquette, which (bonus!) is largely explicit.
Better still, it combines beautifully with a systematic understanding of anatomy and physiology.
Yes, parts of the system are problematic and due for overhaul—but that can happen in any system. A strong system will weather those changes and come out the other side better than it was.
Ballet has been doing that for four hundred years. As long as we allow it to, it will continue.
Being a member of a company also provides a systematic framework for managing time. Class begins at the same time six days a week; rehearsal and performance schedules are posted where you can see them enter day, but you’ve also got your fellow dancers to remind you that, oh yeah, this Friday we have an outreach gig after lunch.
In a well-organized company, you know the temporal framework for the entire season when you arrive on Day One. Specific parts of it may change due to casting or whatever (for example, global pandemics o.O), but the broad strokes are there.
The Social Aspect
My particular autism is probably most observable in the casual social contexts most NT folks seem to really enjoy—the ones where there’s no specific topic or activity, just general chumming around with a bunch of people. I have literally no idea what to do in those circumstances unless someone fires up a conversation that falls in my range of Known Topics ^.^’
And G-d help me if it’s the kind of party where there’s music and lots of different, overlapping conversations but no room to just dance . I can’t with parties like that—my spoken language processing is too limited, and my brain stops bothering, so I typically find the quietest possible place to hole up with a match-3 game on my phone.
- If there’s room to dance, on the other hand, I’m in my element. It didn’t even really matter what kind of music is playing.
There’s some very interesting research happening about much of autistic social difficulty results directly to autistic neurodivergce itself and how much results from the social opportunity costs of being different, particularly during childhood, bu it’s generally agreed that autistics on the whole typically struggle with social stuff.
Ballet might seem like a weird way to address that, since the typical class offers little or no time for what we think of as socializing. But what it lacks in time to chat, it makes up for in spades under the heading of “shared/corporate/communal experience”—which works well for me as someone who grooves on the whole “parallel play” modality, and which in itself provides fodder for chats outside of class and rehearsal (or during breaks).
- In the sense of “people doing things together as a single entity”—ie, a body, or corpus
You don’t have to know how to have a casual conversation to be part of a group of dancers—but being part of a group of dancers can help you get better at having a casual conversation. At least, it did that for me. I’m not going to say I ever totally stopped being The Weird Kid at LexBallet, but people got to know and like me well enough to see past the discomfort that causes.
Addendum: Oh, and because I totally failed to mention it: there’s nothing as social as partnering. (Well, maybe one other thing ^-^’)
You Never Have To Sit Still
Okay, except sometimes, like if you’re a corps girl in parts of Swan Lake or the Master of Ceremonies during certain parts of The Sleeping Beauty. But, even then, it’s a very active way of being still, and will inevitably be relieved by movement.
I often tell people the story of sitting (“sitting,” lol) in a meeting at the last non-ballet job I had and experiencing this intense revelation: like, literally everyone else in the room was physically able to sit still.
I was the only one doing a jig under the table, furiously taking notes to stay engaged, drawing when there was a lull, and constantly shifting in my chair.
That was the moment when I realized with absolute clarity that I did not belong there. Not in a value-judging way—just in a, “Wow, this is not my environment” way. I realized I wasn’t about to “grow into” sitting down at a desk—not then, and probably not ever.
I need to move in order to function. I mean, yes, that’s true for everyone, don’t get me wrong—basically it’s what makes us not plants. Even sessile species like sea anemones go through phases where the they float around irresponsibly before finding grown-up jobs and settling down.
What I mean is that, for whatever reason, my brain/body compels me to move more than most people are compelled to move.
I think better when I’m moving. I feel better when I’m moving. Moving helps me organize my senses and my thoughts.
Honestly, my brain is kind of like one of those sharks that starts to die if it stops swimming, only replace “die” with “dance a stationary jig while quietly losing the plot, but not actually processing information in any meaningful way.”
I don’t necessarily panic—I just get more and more restless, and the excess spills over in the form of more meltdowns and less sleep. Well, and also just having to get up and take a walk, to anywhere, even if it’s just the despised printer, enemy of humankind, or the file cabinet or whatevs.
Also, I just have a metric shedload of extra energy to burn off, and nothing does that like ballet-company life . Teaching gets partway there, but drains my social meter harder than it does my hyperactivity, so it doesn’t lead to the kind of productive exhaustion that makes me actually feel my best and reliably sleep well.
- working with horses also comes very close, but it’s hard to work at a barn and in a ballet company at the same time; being a picker in a gigantic warehouse also burns off tons of energy, but isn’t as helpful in other ways
This is never a problem in ballet, because in ballet, moving is literally your job.
So, Like, In Summary
Anyway, this is long enough.
I’ve written it in part because I’m sure there are people out there who are like, “Wait, I thought all autistics did computers or trains or math,” or even, “How can an autistic person possibly work in ballet?”
I hope this goes a little way towards helping things make sense for people in those camps, but it also helps me understand better what I need from my work environment and why company life, even during my “unpaid trainee/bottom of the pile” days, meant so much to me and worked so well for me.
I’ve been thinking hard about how to make things work going forward, because normally, in dance, you kind of audition everywhere and you go where the job is, but things are happening in my life (nothing ominous, just … responsibilities and stuff) that mean I’ll be moving to a specific place whether or not I get a company spot there.
That has been pretty scary, because I haven’t been sure how to continue building my life as a dancer if that happens. Like, literally, as a not-tall guy who still has some rough spots in his training, that’s a very real possibility. There might not be a company that has a spot for me right now.
But knowing why company life works for me will help me begin to see my way to building a working life that does work, even if that happens.