Ex, Former, Past Dancer: How a Small Word Came to Mean so Much
“Are you a dancer?”
The question threw me off. How did he know? Was it the extreme arch imprinted on my foot from years of forcing it against its natural flexed movement? The defined calf muscles I thankfully haven’t lost (yet)?
This encounter on the subway shocked me not only because of his quick judgement after just a momentary glance over me—I was also lost with how to respond.
Last year, I would have given a resound “yes” without a second thought. Spending up to twenty-five hours a week at the studio at the cost of free time, a social life, and sleep—of course I was a dancer.
Now, barely managing to make it to class once a month, was I worthy of such a title?
I shudder at the thought of placing an “ex” or “former” label in front of the identity that defined me for fourteen years. But I know that I am in no way, shape, or form up to the level or technique I once had.
One Friday, I made my way up to the Lincoln Center with my friend Holly to attend a ballet gala. Dishing over dessert at The Smith after the performance, surrounded by stick-and-bone bunheads who proudly wore the title of “YAGP Finalist” around their long necks, I felt displaced among people who embodied what I once was and wanted to be. Strange to think that I went from a participant to an observer and that nearly all of these dancers—most of whom were younger than me—were on their way to beginning their professional dance careers while I had almost completed the first year of my new life at college.
Holly, someone who has been in this gray area, a sort of purgatory between dance and what we call the “real life” longer than I have, told me that even though she misses performing, the feelings subside after a while. I told her how I tried to take ballet class, but something was unnervingly different—I felt isolated, not feeling at home in my body or in the studio as I once did. She told me simply that it was okay. The feelings of loss are replaced by gratification and remembrance of a time that yes, was in the past, but can always be remembered fondly as it was—preserved as a memory tucked away in my mind like a music box ballerina, always spinning, never changing.
She reminded me that even though I’m not on the stage anymore, dance will always be part of my life—whether it’s through watching a performance, reminiscing over memories with my dance friends going through the same tug and pull towards dance as me, taking the occasional class when my body longs for the barre or just moving in the streets of the city and in my dorm room. She stated it as a matter of fact, made to appease my feelings of yearning and regret while simultaneously reminding me when I get those occasional thoughts to completely separate my past from my current life.
I used to think of my relationship with ballet as a passionate love-hate affair, that of a borderline abusive romantic partner that knew how to annoy me, frustrate me, and let me down, all while being there when I needed it the most. Now, it has evolved into one of an old friend. I’m less emotionally attached, and I only think good thoughts of the fond times we had together, pushing those towards the forefront of my memories while letting the harder times fade into the backdrop. However, one thing remains constant—ballet is, and will always, be there for me. Like certain people, places, and things that humans value, art keeps us grounded in reminding us of our nature of impermanence while simultaneously having the ability to lift us up and make us feel like we’re floating on air. Once we find this magic, it stays with us.
We licked our desserts clean. I passed by a dancer who had just performed and was sitting down at a table with her family, hair slicked back and false eyelashes still on. I told her she was amazing onstage because she truly was.
I am taking a ballet class tomorrow. As a dancer, I continue to accept that some things change while some things will never.