Romance and relevés

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JUNE 18, 2019

Growing up half an hour away from Berkeley, the closest thing to a culture shock that I’d experienced when starting school here was realizing that the campus’s favorite Taco Bell location also serves alcohol. Nothing else about Berkeley really surprised me. I was surrounded by the same hills, the same climate, the same “hella” overused Bay Area slang.

So when I walked into my first dance class at UC Berkeley, I wasn’t prepared for it to feel so alien. I prepared for my upcoming ballet class like I had for the past 15 years. A bun on my head, “flyaway” hair sprayed back tightly, a simple black leotard and pink seamed tights. But amid the room full of people dressed in old T-shirts and leggings, I stuck out like a sore thumb. And it wasn’t just my attire. When I crossed the room, my movements were jerky, stiff and robotic. When I looked at the others in the room, their movements dripped like water; they seemed so — comfortable.

The spark

As clichéd as it sounds, dance was my first love. The honeymoon phase lasted for years, as I stared, wide-eyed, at video after video of classical choreography and felt the butterflies in my stomach when I leapt across the floor. My mom was convinced that I was a “late bloomer” because when many of my friends started crushing on boys, I was more focused on trying to do a double pirouette.

The honeymoon phase ended as I got more serious about dance and I traded ribbons, tutus and Barbies for pointe shoes, long practices and braces.

A true perfectionist, I took my craft seriously. I spent hours in front of studio mirrors fixing my posture, trying and failing at crash diets and stretching until my legs felt like Jell-O. I tried so hard to mimic the gentle movements of idols like Margot Fonteyn with my awkward 13-year-old body.

Despite all of my practice, I still constantly felt like I wasn’t on par with the other girls in the class. No matter how much time and effort and heart I put into the art, I couldn’t stop obsessing over little details. I hated how my legs were more muscular and looked thicker than a lot of my classmates’. I felt like my arms were too bony. My back wasn’t strong enough. I began to be plagued with the most obscure insecurities about things like the size of my calves or the length of my torso. Though I loved to dance, my insecurities stopped me from moving fluidly. I became caught up in the technical details, beating myself up when anything was amiss.

It’s not you. It’s me.”

Though I learned a lot of valuable skills in ballet that I would later use on job applications — buzzwords like perseverance and consistency — I slowly started to fall out of love with the art form. Self-sabotage mixed with a built-up hatred of ballet’s technical scrutiny led to the inevitable breakup. I decided not to continue dance in college.

And this breakup was a messy one. I had no idea what to do with myself. I dove into other activities to burn calories and pass time. I hopped from sport to sport, moving from being an aspiring marathon runner one week to a wannabe SoulCycle instructor the next. Throughout my whole summer and first semester of college, I felt a lack of purpose.

I felt like a failure, having worked for more than a decade to try to dance professionally but ultimately deciding to focus on other things. When I came back to Berkeley in the spring semester, I decided to try out dance again — for fun. No goal in mind, just dancing to dance.  

The makeup

The result was a taste of freedom I had not experienced before. It allowed me to dance with the knowledge that it really doesn’t matter if my feet are turned out all the way or my stomach is perfectly flat. Teachers began to recognize my fluidity and power. Older and more mature, I began to embrace the things I did not like about myself and use them to my advantage. My legs were not big — they were muscular, letting me jump well. My arms were not bony — they were delicate frames to my movements.

When I let go of the details, what was left was pure passion. I soon decided to pursue a minor in dance, and my relationship with the art form began anew.

Since my reunion with dance, I have taken what I learned from this torrid romance with me through college. From schoolwork to actual romances to balancing friendships, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in college. When that happens, I make a point to stop, take a deep breath and try my best to let go of the negative thoughts I have about myself.

Though I hope to continue to fall in love with many other things and people throughout my life, I am glad that this experience has helped me learn how to healthily maintain one of the most important relationships in my life — the one with myself.

Contact Sabrina Dong at  or on Twitter


JUNE 18, 2019