My partner and I met shortly before celebrating our respective 16th birthdays. We hadn’t known each other as “kids,” per se, but we knew each other well as teenagers, and it’s always struck me that I didn’t know firsthand what he was like as a child.
Every time we watch a soccer game together or he wears a Real Madrid C.F. jersey, I think, “He loves soccer; I wish I could’ve seen him play as a child. I wish I could have seen him fall in love with it.” The closest I can get are stories, home videos and photographs.
It strikes me now that all the new people in our lives will never know what we were like as children or teenagers. They see the results of those experiences, rather than having shared them.
It’s a reality of growing up that I just hadn’t considered until another graduation loomed, another point of transition.
It means that most of the people in my life currently don’t know that I was a dancer — or at best, they know that I love ballet, but don’t really know what that means.
I fell in love with ballet when I was only 2 years old. My parents brought me to see “Swan Lake” in the front row of our local performing arts theater, and when I saw Odette leap effortlessly right in front of me, it clicked.
I remember perfectly what it was like to look up at her, the prima ballerina, and think: “I want to do that.”
My parents put me in my first ballet class just before my third birthday, and I didn’t stop dancing for the next 15 — almost 16 — years.
I know that dance is not an uncommon extracurricular for kids — but it wasn’t an extracurricular for me or for most of the people I met in classes, studios or competitions. It’s an understatement to say that dance was my whole life.
Ballet was never easy for me. It was an uphill battle marred with injuries, insecurities and body dysmorphia — all of which are common for dancers. I constantly felt like my body didn’t want me to dance. I could never lift my legs high enough nor do an impressive number of turns. I couldn’t do the splits until I was 12. This might sound strange to those who have never had a teacher sit on their legs to push their hips closer to the floor, but I promise, 12 is late. I sprained my ankles more times than I can count, I injured my hip beyond repair, and I almost always wore knee braces.
My mom used to say she was afraid that if I kept dancing I wouldn’t be able to walk later in life. Even my hair seemed too unruly for ballet.
But, even when I was injured, I went to every single class and watched from the sidelines.
I loved dance. And I loved it because, when I was on stage, everything else in the world faded to the background. On stage, I was fearless, which is no small feat. Dancing tore me apart, but it filled me in ways that seem untouchable now.
My friends in college and beyond will never see me that way.
They didn’t see that what made me emotionally vulnerable and fiercely passionate was dance. They’ll only see the calloused toes and surgical scars. They won’t have seen the years of balletic discipline, weekends away at competitions, post-performance highs or the way I lit up on stage.
They didn’t see that I’d made my body so strong in an attempt to overcompensate for the ways I’d felt it was lacking that I tore my own ACL. They didn’t see me jump, didn’t hear the snap, didn’t see the light in me that faded away like the inches of muscle from my legs as I recovered from surgery.
For me, losing dance felt like losing a limb in more ways than one.
I was a senior in high school then, in a period of transition. I was soon leaving my home studio and wasn’t prepared to start over with ballet in a new body — one that was even less flexible and now weak in ways that were unfamiliar to me. My body looked different, yes, but more importantly, I was different. I was no longer fearless. Instead, I was terrified of breaking myself again. It took me two years to try dancing in college, and when I did, it was short-lived.
In this way, I left dance in the past. But in every other way, it’s still very much a part of me now.
I still do little jetés and flourishes in parking lots and grocery store aisles. As much as I often felt my body fighting me every step of the way, I always felt like I was meant to dance. The expression, the joy of it always came naturally to me. When I leapt, I felt weightless. These were about the only things in dance that felt effortless to me.
I fell in love with dance swiftly and easily, without really realizing it — and it turns out that the great loves of my life thus far have been much the same.
For many of us, coming to college means leaving pieces of ourselves behind — pieces we don’t have space for or pieces we’d like to lay to rest in order to start over with a clean slate. But ultimately we can’t let go of those pieces, especially if we’re artists.
And so, as much as it pains me that the new people in my life will never see me on stage, that I’ll never get to share that love with them, I know that they’ll still see the pieces of myself that formed around dance: the injuries and ultimate recovery, passion and resilience.