When a ballerina dances “en pointe,” it means they are dancing on the very tips of their toes. To every ballerina, being told you are ready to dance pointe is an honor, a reward for years of sweat and relentless determination to be deemed as an “advanced” dancer.
It is an honor that calls for years of ballet classes — ones that have resulted in the acquisition of ankles, toes and feet so strong and flexible that they look like they’re going to pop right out of a dancer’s ballet flats when fully pointed.
Being told that I was ready to go “en pointe,” shot my eleven-year-old self positively off the walls. In my mind, I couldn’t help but associate the satin-covered cardboard shoes with the image of a beautiful ballerina effortlessly gliding across stages — shoulders and collarbones so sharp and angular you can see them even from the seats all the way in the back of the theater.
As a young dancer, I saw these shoes on screens and on the feet of the older girls at my studio all the time. There was just something so magical about the way the ribbons were neatly wrapped around their ankles and the way the movement was so seamless, so fit and so clearly a result of relentless work.
Yet, it seemed so painfully effortless.
Pointe is probably the greatest illusion I have ever encountered in my entire life. I remember expecting the entire experience to feel as beautiful as it looked. Instead, I was greeted by the fact that my foot looked as flat as a block in pointe shoes and my ability to balance in them was nonexistent.
That was only the beginning.
I began to move through my ballet classes with a painful awareness of how I looked while I was dancing. This was the truth about advancing in this art form — the more you understood what you were supposed to look like, the more you felt you failed to look like it. I began to see so many flaws in my dancing, flaws I never noticed before.
My turns were wobbly. My jumps weren’t light enough. My legs were too low.
Eventually, my self-criticism manifested itself not just within my dancing abilities but my actual appearance: my body. Of course, criticism is criticism; criticizing one thing about yourself can’t actually be worse than criticizing another thing. But in this case, it was. While I could always work on turning steadier, landing lighter and lifting my leg higher, I could not change the way I looked.
My limbs that were supposed to look long and never-ending would always be too short and chubby. My jawline that was supposed to be defined would always be too soft. My shoulders were too wide. My arms weren’t thin enough. My waist wasn’t small enough. My legs weren’t straight enough.
At some point, I felt as if — inevitably — I would never be enough.
My experience as an “advanced dancer” began with a pair of pointe shoes, but the satin ribbons had unraveled themselves and somehow bound me to one idea: perfection. I could barely look forward to or enjoy myself during dance classes, for I was burdened with this constant feeling of self-loathing — I felt disgusting. Dance classes went on like this for practically the entirety of my middle school years, until one day, my teacher decided to let us improv in the dark.
No one could see anything in the obscurity of the room; we could only hear the hum of the fan and the bass of the instrumental song.
I let movement flow from the tip of my finger to the nook of my elbow, then shift to my chest, to my knees and to the balls of my feet. I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel everything. I could feel the gust of air that would chase my arm when I sharply sliced it through the air, the anticipation of the darkness as I slowly lifted my leg to bend it back down, the reverberation that rattled the marley floors and sent vibrations to my feet. I had no ability to see myself in the mirror, to check if my leg was high enough or if my thighs looked more bloated than usual.
I felt lighter, happier and freer than I had felt in years, and the nostalgic love I had for dance began to rush back to me as well.
We often make certain parts of our lives more important than they actually are. We unconsciously compensate our joy and our time for things that aren’t worth our painful endurance; perfection is one of the most common ones we do this for.
But after wasting so many dance classes staring at the mirror, wishing for things I would never get, I’ve learned that it’s too painful to care so much, to live life to meet a standard.
The next day after that improv class, I had my typical pointe class. But this time, instead of worrying about how I looked as I balanced on the tips of my toes in the hard, cardboard shoes, I let this peaceful silence fill my head, and somehow my dancing felt better than ever.