By Principle Ballerina of the Houston Ballet, Melody Walsh
Thank You, Body
Fi looked at me across our coffees on the patio table with her dancing, sky blue eyes and in her molasses thick Irish accent asked, “Melody, after a long day of dancing do ya ever thank yer body?” We were sitting under a giant old oak tree, who’s magnificent arms stretched over and around us to soften the intensity of the southern summer sun, and I nearly burst out laughing at the question.
“How was it that I could go all these years, dancing every day and never see myself this way?”
Fi is my Naturopathic Doctor. She is also a dear friend. The first time she came to see me dance, she and her wife fell over themselves- in awe of what they saw my body do onstage as I performed the role of Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. We all sat in my dressing room after and laughed. I had folded over my legs to remove my pointe shoes at which point Fi squealed, “Jaaaazus, if I bent over like that I’d break in half!” That lead to them both demonstrating a hamstring stretch which induced more belly laughs on all our parts.
I cannot describe my internal reaction to that moment as anything other than pure curiosity. How was it that I could go all these years, dancing every day and never see myself this way? It was a glaring disparity to me that I didn’t have childlike wonder for existing in my well trained and expressive body yet these two women were full of it. Something in me knew this reverence and giddy joy was right. It was true.
Growing up, the images I saw of professional ballerinas always conformed with what I came to know as an “ideal” ballet body type. The best way to achieve this is to be born with it. In the industry we also refer to this as a “natural ballet facility”. (I find the need to point out objectifying language when I become aware of it. This is one example. You know what else we call facilities? Toilets.) Anyways… this ideal was not only consistently observable in images and films but also often reflected in the casting of leading roles. As if it needed further reinforcement, it was specifically laid out in a book I grew up referencing called Classical Ballet Technique. You can order this ballet bible on Amazon right now, but honestly I hope you don’t.
“When I became a professional dancer I learned about many private conferences that were periodically scheduled for women in the company and the artistic staff and director. In the dressing room we called them fat talks.”
One section I remember from the book was the description of the ideal ballerina: slender, hips more narrow than shoulders, gently arched feet, 180 degree external rotation in the hip sockets, and (get ready to cringe) a pleasant expression on the face. If ballet were the show The Mandalorian, this is the moment where someone would say, and then all would repeat in unison, “This is the way.” In our era of #metoo a lot of this overt objectification of women and girls doesn’t fly, but it is deeply rooted in ballet’s history and remains in our culture in unspoken, yet observable ways.
When I became a professional dancer I learned about many private conferences that were periodically scheduled for women in the company and the artistic staff and director. In the dressing room we called them fat talks. No one wanted to get a notification that they were scheduled for one of these. These conversations signaled a threat that you may lose your job or be taken out of roles planned for you, if you didn’t change your physical presentation soon. I was pulled into my own conference at eighteen years old. I was terrified and humiliated and felt I might as well be naked sitting there with a forrest green leotard and my pink tights clinging to my developing breasts and hips. I was told that day that I was to be recommended for a soloist role in Etudes later that season, but I needed to become more “elongated” for the role. I was also assured not to worry, because “it couldn’t be more than five pounds”.
I did not lose five pounds and I did not lose the role either. But I spent the next ten years obsessively evaluating the appearance of the size of my hips, which often fluctuated more than other parts of me. I was distressed when they expanded, relieved when they shrank. When I gave birth to my son and breastfed him I became thinner than I’d ever been in my career. This was sheerly due to the amount of calories used up dancing all day and then breastfeeding and pumping. During that time I received a lot of recognition and reward for my thinness. I was promoted and performed my first classical principal role. In a short time I went on to perform my first full length leading role on opening night, a coveted opportunity rarely ever realized by many dancers.
Not long at all after that opening night, post-divorce, heartbroken and scared I walked into a routine fitting. A sweet woman in our wardrobe department could see the heaviness on me. Not only was I emotionally weighed down but also quickly packing on pounds and hoping no one was noticing. I felt like I was a completely different person and knew I needed to do something to feel better. The woman fitting me in the wardrobe department gave me her counselor’s number. I called it and then I went.
“I talked about how scary it was that my body was changing, how that threatened my career, and how there were many moments in the day when I would grab the back of my thighs, just above my mid hamstrings, and feel dread.”
What I learned in that appointment with the counselor surprised me. She asked me about what my work was like. I was able to tell her something I had never said out loud to anyone. I talked about how scary it was that my body was changing, how that threatened my career, and how there were many moments in the day when I would grab the back of my thighs, just above my mid hamstrings, and feel dread. Then I would think about other’s eyes on me, on my body, and a mix of terror, humiliation, and disgust would wash over me. I wanted to run and hide all the time. I became terrified of losing my job, my beloved art form, and my community in the moment where I found myself in the hardest and most vulnerable role of my life- I was now a single Mom. So many things at the time seemed to threaten my safety, security, and ability to create the life I wanted for myself and my son. How was I supposed to survive this if my own body was yet another threat?
The assignment from the grief counselor was this: in that moment when I grabbed my thighs and felt dread, I was to realize what I was doing and then tell myself silently, “I am beautiful.” After trying it for a week I told her it felt fake. I knew I wasn’t beautiful. Especially not that part of me, and especially right now. I knew what ballerinas were supposed to look like. She listened and she encouraged me to keep doing it. So I did. And then something happened. I stopped feeling so depressed and then I stopped needing to comfort myself with food when I wasn’t actually hungry, which I didn’t even really know I was doing. It was like some weird magic and I didn’t have any context for why it worked, I was just really glad it did.
But what followed was not a return to normal for me. And I can honestly say I am now grateful for that. A seed was planted and although this wasn’t the end of my struggle with how I saw myself, I would never again return to the fully unconscious way I had learned to hate and diminish the fullness of my being. I would never again be a spindly 92 lbs and I also would never again be cast in certain leading roles. While both of those truths have been painful and challenging for me, they have also been ways that I have been invited to wake up and see how we manipulate and punish women’s bodies in this industry and how I easily do that to myself.
“In this moment, exactly who you are has something important for this word. We need all of you, not less of you.”
The day Fi casually asked me if I ever thanked my body for all the work she does I did not realize the profound impact that question would have. I did not realize how far, like universes away far, I still was from her way of seeing bodies.
I believe this is one of the most important conversations we need to be having in ballet. Our bodies are not machines. We are not objects for another’s satisfaction or pleasure, to be manipulated and molded into something more desirable, valuable, or applauded. No, not even for that director or choreographer. Not even for that world-famous photographer who might ask that we do something unsafe for a “good shot”. Not even for a career in ballet. I promise you it will never be worth one more time of abandoning your most precious possession, you, for the approval of anyone else.
All I can offer is my experience, although I am aware of a growing body of research in the areas of neuroscience and psychology that support what I will explain that I have experienced. When I finally began dancing for me, learning to be present to my body in a respectful, curious, and gentle way, my dancing began to improve rapidly. The joy that had been lost returned. When I get on stage now I often am full of awe, like my friends who came to Nutcracker that day. I understand and feel the magnificence of the moment, no longer freezing at the thought of my body needing to look a certain way to please another. Instead of measuring myself against a proposed perfection that is not real or attainable, I get to enjoy my dancing now and sometimes even feel like a badass when I realize what my body is actually doing!
“In this moment, exactly who you are has something important for this word. We need all of you, not less of you.”
Class has just finished and I’m lying on my back looking up at the ceiling. We are in a global pandemic so everyone wears face masks. Almost nothing feels like it usually does these days. People slowly file out of the studio and I can see flocks of birds murmuring outside the windows as the sun drops and paints the sky in purples and oranges. I close my eyes and bring my attention into my body. I feel my legs pulsing, almost buzzing from all the work they just did. My belly is damp with sweat and I have that general overall feeling of satisfaction that comes when I’ve pushed my own limits and also enjoyed it. I gently place my hands on my heart. After a few breaths I move them to that old “problem area”, the sides of my legs, that place that used to give me instant anxiety. I am still working on embracing and owning this part of me. Silently I say to my body, “Wow, I’m lucky you do so much for me. I like that you’re strong and I like that you’re curvy. Thank you for waiting all this time for me to see your beauty and to start to love you back. Thank you so much for keeping me safe by not disappearing even when it seemed like the whole world wanted you to.” Then tears come into my eyes because it took so very long until I knew my best friend was always so near. This body is not an enemy. Not a machine. She is me, and she is good. Every bit of her.
Please hear this, and I invite you to accept at least a little of it, even if it sounds fake for now. No matter what you look or feel like, you deserve to be here and you deserve to be appreciated. To dance, to create, to take up space. Know that in your very existence and movement there is incredible wisdom and beauty. In this moment, exactly who you are has something important for this word. We need all of you, not less of you.
Want to work with Melody Walsh?
We are now offering a limited number of Coaching Sessions with Melody Walsh, Principle Dancer of the Houston Ballet. These Sessions are paired with a photo Session with Ashkan, and one-to-one coaching and confidence training with Melody herself.