A letter to my teenage self.
Dance for you
By The Melody Walsh, Principle Ballerina of the Houston Ballet
I am thirteen. After an hour and a half long car ride up Highway 1 my bunhead ballet friends, and I see the front door of San Francisco Ballet for the first time. We are all in black leotards over pink tights under tracksuits. Three of us have the same Bloch dance bag. I am not one of those three.
I keep my dance stuff in a backpack my Dad got me at a yard sale. When the sliding door of Beth’s Mom’s minivan opens the frenetic energy of nervous adolescent giggling girls pours into the cool, January air, along with the scent of a whole can of Aqua Net Hairspray.
“I want more than anything to be accepted. I think that if I am, I might be able to prove something to myself. To prove I deserved to be in that studio maybe.”
The building is grey and cold and towers over our tiny bodies as we rush in a huddle to find the registration table. We each pay twenty dollars to audition for the School of American Ballet, connected to New York City Ballet, in hopes that we might be accepted to their six-week-long summer program.
We pay the fee and provide a black and white photograph of our best attempts at first arabesque. Then we each pin a paper to our leotard and find a spot in the hallway to stretch. We are quieter than we’ve ever been as we eyeball the competition.
“In this moment I am hyper-aware of what I am not.”
I for one have never seen such intimidating-looking dancers before. For the first time in my life, I feel a crippling sense of inferiority and terror that I might be an imposter. If I’m honest this fear is much less about my skill than it is about my body, or as I’ve come to call it in ballet “my facility”. I know I’m not the girl in our class with the bendiest feet, longest legs, most turned-out hips, or highest extension. In this moment I am hyper-aware of what I am not.
Suddenly my yard sale backpack seems like the perfect representation of what I must look like in this crowd. An outsider. This makes my stomach tight. My vision gets kinda wonky. It feels surreal, like this might not really be happening. I am fighting to be more than just a deer in headlights with my tiny, slightly off-center walnut-sized bun on the back of my head. Gosh, I’m glad I didn’t come here alone. I look at my friends and they look scared too.
The studio opens and we find our barre spots. Beth and Hilary are whispering to each other and I walk over to them to find out that our teacher is none other than principal ballerina, Darci Kistler. She is at the front of the room with a group of judges watching class. Just as I slip on my Capezio flats we are all asked to line up at the front of the room.
“As I think back on my thirteen-year-old self I would love to send a letter back in time to share with her what I know now.”
One by one we are to demonstrate a tendu side, followed by a grand plie in second, while Darci walks a circle around us to examine from all angles. That sense of inadequacy again wells up in my four-and-a-half-foot frame and makes all my muscles feel stiff.
Usually, when I hear the notes from the piano, I am free. But in this class, I feel mechanical and uncoordinated as I execute steps I would usually fly through with commitment and spunk. I am focused on trying to be like the girls around me. I am not myself.
On the drive home I find some comfort in the shared experience of my friends. We laugh and talk about combinations we liked or didn’t like, about moments we really messed up, and about that one girl who ran right into Kayla in center – obviously on purpose. Once home with my thoughts, I feel both confused and curious. I didn’t like that dance audition, yet I want more than anything to be accepted. I think that if I am, I might be able to prove something to myself. To prove I deserved to be in that studio maybe. Or that I deserved to dance at all. I’m not sure but I wait for two months with the whole experience paused in time, to see how it all turns out.
The letter comes. My first formal rejection. I feel…embarrassed. In class that week I learn that almost no one made it. Just one of us actually. But that doesn’t feel comforting to me. Somehow it feels impossibly personal. As if that letter was the confirmation of some “truth” about me in this ballet world no one has said out loud until now. That as a dancer I was like that beat-up backpack that carried my dead pointe shoes around. Out of place and different, and everyone could see it. The truth was out, I wasn’t ballerina material.
“I also want you to know that the things you love about dance are what make you good at it. Even the things you get in the most trouble for.”
In the weeks that followed I received acceptance letters from all but two places I had dance auditions for. Later I would be accepted to SAB, but no matter how many acceptances I received and challenges I overcame, no matter what role I landed or performance I loved, I carried around the vision of myself from that day. Inadequate and always needing to prove something. No matter what this became the truest truth about me. Eventually, everyone would see that I could never be good enough.
Enter present-day me. I am thirty-seven. I am a Principal dancer with a long career behind me that contains an unimaginable amount of opportunity and experience. I have an amazing seventeen-year-old son, a husband I love, two dogs (three if you count our sweet foster, Lady), and some serious life experience that has ultimately made a lot of room in my heart for what we go through as people.
“…being slightly “different” is the thing that will make you stand out, not only that but it is going to help you survive difficulties, in and out of the studio. It is something about you that keeps you humble and compassionate.”
As I think back on my thirteen-year-old self I would love to send a letter back in time to share with her what I know now. I would have it arrive the day she got home from that SAB audition, sitting on her bed. If this letter speaks to you too, then my journey here is that much more meaningful.
Here is what I have to tell you, young Melody:
Wow, that audition today huh…?! I know you are feeling a little lost, confused, even scared. I know that you think that the people in that room today know a lot about ballet, because they are the experts, right? So, it would make sense that they would know a lot about you as a dancer and maybe even as a person. You are putting a lot of value on what that letter is going to say when it comes, and I understand why. That is why I am writing to you. I want to tell you what I know now. I want you to know first that the backpack you just threw on the floor is nothing to be ashamed of. Dad’s ability to create something out of nothing, to find dignity outside of the idea of success through wealth or notoriety, is a quality that will take you so very far in your life and career. Melody give that backpack a big heartfelt hug and then wear it proudly because being slightly “different” is the thing that will make you stand out, not only that but it is going to help you survive difficulties, in and out of the studio. It is something about you that keeps you humble and compassionate.
“And just so you know, ballet is not the supreme ultimate authority on dance, bodies, and beauty. A lot of people still believe that. A lot… But it doesn’t make it true.”
Next, let me save you the agony. You don’t get into SAB. But there are a few things I know now that might help you understand why. This field you are entering, at such a young age, has been long shaped by an idea of beauty that is so narrow minded, and that is eventually going to change. It comes from something known as supremacy, which in short means a belief of being better than others and therefore deciding what about people makes them valuable or not. In the ballet world right now, there is a lot of white, thin body supremacy that is behind why people look at bodies and decide who is good enough and who is not. In the future, this is going to change but the change will be slow. So, for a long time you are going to have a lot of people tell you that things about your body and other people’s bodies “are not good for ballet”. In these moments I want you to do your best to hear my voice just a little stronger than theirs. Mel, your body is 100% good. You are perfect as you are. I promise. Not better or worse than anyone in any room you will ever be in. You are strong, fast, smart, wise, beautiful, healthy, and your body is sacred. And just so you know, ballet is not the supreme ultimate authority on dance, bodies, and beauty. A lot of people still believe that. A lot… But it doesn’t make it true. That is just how this supremacy thing works. It sounds like this, “We know best, because we are the best.” Always, always, always let yourself question a message like that.
I also want you to know that the things you love about dance are what make you good at it. Even the things you get in the most trouble for. You know how you talk too much in the studio? That desire for connection with people will translate into you becoming a relatable actor and storyteller in dance, which helps others to feel connected to themselves and each other when they come to see a ballet. That way that you exaggerate movement and travel big, sometimes running into people or even falling over, will be something that choreographers like about you because it is exciting to watch. Your scattered attention, which is probably ADHD, that makes you try to fit in so many things that you often are a minute or two late to class even though you started getting ready early, will also bring a spontaneity and creativity to your dancing that make each time you do a solo or pas de deux feel fresh and new.
“When you go to your photo session, when you take the audition class, when you meet the experts and look them in the eyes, remember this: they are auditioning for you. I’ll say it again. You are trying THEM out. “
Everything that you are starting to think is “wrong” with you is going to have tremendous benefit as well as its own challenges. Instead of trying to hide your “flaws” I hope you will learn to love them. And the way music makes you feel… Know that is your foundation. No matter what is happening you can find that place in you where it is just you and the music. When stuff get hard or scary, go there. It is your safe haven.
Now, about these dance auditions. I know you think that it is the perfect arabesque picture, the perfect leotard, the perfect pirouette that will make or break your chances at being accepted. I’m telling you now, those are just little boxes to check for someone else’s paperwork. When you go to your photo session, when you take the audition class, when you meet the experts and look them in the eyes, remember this: they are auditioning for you. I’ll say it again. You are trying THEM out. See how their feedback helps you dance better or makes you feel much worse and stuck. You don’t need them to want you, you need to know if you want them, if you trust them, feel safe and inspired by them.
I will let you in on how I know this. Houston Ballet is where you end up. In your very first audition, in that same San Francisco Ballet studio you were in today, a teacher named Steve will chase you around the room, challenging you to jump higher and move more than you are already doing. It will be fun and the whole room will come alive and laugh. In that moment, you will feel that you dance better and freer than you ever have. This is how you know.
“This dancing thing is about living and sharing. It has never been about perfection.”
Go where you will grow, where you belong, where you can be fully yourself and know that is good! And maybe when you get that rejection letter, you’ll see something different now. Maybe you can see that a letter has nothing to do with your value or what you have to offer the ballet world and the world in general. That rejection, in fact, might be exactly what it needs to be so you can thrive. Oh, and I know you’re dying to know… yes, you will dance Odette/Odile. You’ll love it and you’ll hate it. It is hard as hell and you will think the most important thing is the thirty-two fouettés! You do 24 in your best performance and cry after, because you still sometimes see that backpack when you look in the mirror. But that is ok because later you will find a picture of you in your tutu holding Isaac on your lap after that show. He has on a little suit and top hat and he’s smiling, and you will finally get it.
This dancing thing is about living and sharing. It has never been about perfection. It is about joy, about courage, about sorrow and all that it is to be human. Be brave enough to bring that into the studio with you every day, into every audition and you will be fulfilled. I love you, young ballerina. One last thing. Rest when you get tired, eat when you are hungry, hug your friends and cry when you’re sad, and listen when your body tells you it hurts. You’ll be better for it, not worse. Ciao, Bella.
“I feel that the essence of dance is expression of man-the landscape of his soul. I hope that every dance I do reveals something of myself or some wonderful thing a human can be.”
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