The journey between who you once were, and who you are now becoming, is where the dance of life really takes place. ~Barbara De Angelis
Recently an article about how ballet has helped a young woman, Min, heal from her eating disorder, “Reverse Black Swan Syndrome,” has caught my attention. What she experienced goes against what is more commonly seen in the ballet world, where the pressure to perform and to achieve a perfectly slim body sometimes leads to, instead of heal, eating disorder.
Min is a Singaporean Chinese who went to study law in an Australian university but found the pressure to achieve to be a bit too much to manage. As a result, she fell into anorexic behavior. It is really interesting to read the journey she went through and how she found cure in ballet class and even became the owner of a successful ballet-inspired ethical clothing brand, Cloud & Victory, after she graduated.
In some ways, her story reminds me of my years in a U.S. college where I started to binge eat due to the pressure to achieve and to get my English standard on par with native-English speakers. How would it be possible for a foreigner like me to be admitted to journalism school, when I didn’t even know what was funny when my fellow classmates cracked a joke, or when I made a silly mistake as my school-taught British English turned into something hilarious in the American context? There were so many books to reads, such long papers to write, and so many new cultural impressions and shocks. I didn’t know I had any sort of eating disorder, despite boxes after boxes of chocolate chip cookies and cans after cans of soda pops that accompanied me through those all-nighters.
Come to think of it, ever since I was a kid, I had used snacking to deal with the pressure of studying. It was as if eating could help me to fill a gap in my soul, to fight the loneliness in the struggle to be the best in my environment. It helped me pass the long, long hours buried in the books. But it did not help raise my self-esteem, despite the good grades I eventually got.
I never went as far as becoming bulimic though. Sometimes I would have a tendency to watch everything I ate—such as during my last two years in high school when I tried to lose weight. It was hard on my body and my effort was totally wasted as soon as I entered college. In the first six months, I gained 20 pounds! My parents couldn’t even recognize me when I went home to visit during Christmas holiday.
Back and forth, back and forth… throughout my whole life I struggled with my weight. It was actually my self-esteem that I struggled with. Despite the extrinsic achievements in my academic life—being always able to overcome difficulties and challenges to get to the top echelon—there was this insecurity about my self that had bugged me throughout my youth. I believe that this has to do with the mixed signals I received from my mother when I was a child. Whenever I got a good grade or an award, she would be really proud. Yet at the same time she always “bragged” to her friends in a false sense of humility that it was “nothing,” that I was “not good enough,” and she would make sure that I stayed humble and tried to do better the next time. So I guess I always felt that nothing I ever did was good enough. This feeling had lasted until quite recently, as even throughout my adult life, she has inadvertently transmitted the message that no matter how much and how well I do, it’s never going to be enough (Sounds familiar? Joy Luck Club, anyone?) I am glad that I have finally gotten over this feeling now. I finally understand, that it’s not about what I do, but who I am—and I don’t need her approval to be the unique person that I am. It is alright even if she does not understand.
In addition to my weight swings, I have also been experiencing bouts of deep depression multiple times in my life. The first time around, my parents dismissed it as a something that couldn’t possible happen to me since I did not have a good enough reason to get depressed. Huh? That did not help very much! Reading Min’s story made me envy her for having such supportive and understanding parents. They did not question her through her darkest days; instead, they just gave her unconditional support. I think that is so crucial in her healing process, as they provided her with safe emotional environment to refocus her energy on creating a company based on her new-found passion, a passion that stemmed from what healed her—ballet.
As for me, ballet has healed me and hurt me in a million ways. When I have totally recovered from my surgery, I will ease into class and make sure I turn ballet into a source of joy and not a source of grief and tension. I will free myself from the harsh judgments of the mirror, from the silent comparison with my fellow beautiful and skinny adult students, from the strict demands for a “perfect ballet body,” and just allow myself to enjoy the pure essence of dancing!
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”
This profound quote has often been attributed to either Mark Twain or Satchel Paige.
For those of us who dance, there is perhaps nothing more liberating than to dance our hearts out as if nobody was watching. The mirrors, the teachers, the fellow dancers/dance students and the audience—all these prying eyes could take away the spontaneity from the act of dancing. It is thus a refreshing feeling to be able to dance for the pure joy of it—regardless of the rules and aesthetics—just like a kid would.
I only recently realized that the origin of this quote is neither Mark Twain nor Satchel Paige. It is a song from the 80s called “Come from the Heart.” The lyrics were written by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh.
You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.
The true meaning behind these lyrics is that for our artistic work and love to flourish, we’ve got to live from an intuitive and inspired plane. Whatever we do, we’ll succeed if we do it from the heart and not for any extrinsic motives.
If you’d like to read more about how these lyrics evolved into today’s quote and how the original writers were forgotten, check out this article on Quote Investigator.
Here is the original song “Come from the Heart.” Enjoy!
(Originally published on my other blog: http://balletomanehk.com)
The photos of Jordan Matter, New York-based portrait and dance photographer, are well known within the dance community. Recently I purchased his newly published collection of dance photography, “Dancers Among Us” and am really enjoying the stunning images, each one being meticulously choreographed and executed with great patience and skill. But what surprised me most was not the unusual visuals. It was the little stories about the photographer’s family life preceding each chapter that presented me with an element of philosophical delight.
For example, in the section of “Exploring,” Matter wrote about his young son Hudson’s experience of fear when he was faced with the prospect of a baby sister being born as his mother went into labor. “I’m a little scared,” Hudson said.
And the author’s response?
I had no idea how to alleviate a fear that I couldn’t comprehend. I picked him up and held him in my lap, and we sat in silence. He’s never been one to like cuddling very much, but that morning he wrapped his arms around my neck and gripped me for dear life.
After spending a few days with his new sister, the cloud lifted. Hudson was excited. Buoyant. Relieved. Out of nowhere, he looked up at me and said, “I am not sacred anymore. I thought that when my sister came, I would have to be a big boy. But I’m not a big boy; I’m just a big brother.”
He had been faced with a new reality for which he felt unprepared, and the mystery had frightened him. This may be one of life’s greatest struggles. Often we fear the unknown’s when we could be anticipating its rewards.
The last sentence really tells the essence of what fear is about. It is when we take the plunge and step into the unknown—embrace the uneasiness and the feeling that we might possibly fail, fall or die—that the greatest irony might be awaiting us on the other side, the irony of sweet rewards.
A little more than four years ago, I signed up for an adult ballet class. It was out of an urge to improve my health that I made that move. Prior to this, I had major problems with my lower back. Sometimes it would go into spasms when I did little things like bending down to brush my teeth. Once or twice I couldn’t even stand up straight after the brushing. I felt that something serious was happening to my body and so I started a frantic search for solutions.
First I went to stretch therapy and yoga. But it didn’t help that much. In fact, the difficult yoga posts added stress to my already frozen back. So I kept on searching, until one day it dawned on me that I had to first experience the “feeling” of health before I could achieve health. I searched in my own experience to see if there was an age when I was feeling absolutely healthy, with no ailments whatsoever. Voilà! I arrived at age 7. That was the time before I wore glasses. I remember being in total health. And that was the time I started taking ballet lessons. How did I feel back then? All I could remember from my faint memories was that I was happy. I was feeling “whole.” I loved to move my body. I loved to jump and turn and point my feet. So that’s the feeling that I decided to relive, at the beautiful age of 35.
When I told others about going back to ballet, many scoffed at the idea in disbelief: “What? Is that some kind of infantile regression?”
Well, that’s the attitude most people have when you mention ballet. They think of little girls in pink tutus jumping around with their chubby little legs. But ballet lessons are not reserved for little girls. Increasingly, adults are getting interested in taking ballet lessons for various reasons. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 1 million ballet students over the age of 30. In other countries, too, adult ballet has become a very popular leisure activity—from China to Japan to the UK. Where I live, Hong Kong, the trend started a few years ago and the number of adults joining the dance studios is increasing. I constantly come into contact with adults who take or have taken lessons—male and female across a wide age spectrum and some whose children also take lessons.
In the beginning my back pain did bother me a bit during class, as there were some movements that I simply could not do, like the back bend. Luckily I started off with a studio that combined some sort of Pilates stretching with simple barre and allegro exercises in the center. So I was given a good, slow warm-up and opportunity to improve my flexibility. Flexibility is a thing that comes extremely slowly. Even some dancers who have studied for years struggle with it constantly. So I had no illustion at all what I would be able to achieve.
Over time, my back pain started to get better. Of course, ballet itself is not the main antedote to the problem. But it did help by getting my butt off the chair and into the “swing of things.” My main cure was the Egoscue Method by Pete Egoscue. With the help of his functional exercises (introduced in his book “Pain Free“), I was able to get rid of my lower back pain from the root level. This really freed up my ability to pursue ballet on a more serious level.
I mentioned “serious” because, funny enough, there is a spectrum of seriousness when it comes to adult ballet students. There are those who consider it a hobby to keep fit or to lose weight, with the added benefit of a socializing opportunity with those who share the same interest. There are those who want to fulfill their childhood dream to do ballet because financial limitations or other reasons prevented them from doing so as a kid. Then there are those who are balletomanes and want to gain firsthand experience of their beloved art form. And then there are “ballet moms” and “ballet dads” who study it in order to understand their dancing kids better. Finally, there are those who take lessons with the goal of becoming a ballet teacher or even to perform.
For me, it is really a combination of all of these, except for the last two categories. You’ll find many adult ballet students get hooked to ballet lessons once they have started. It is not difficult to understand why.
Entering a ballet studio is akin to entering a sanctuary, where worries of daily life just go out the window. Instead, you allow the beautiful music—often classical—to flow through your body and then move along with it. This moment is transcending. No words. Just music and movement. Everything is contained in that sacred body of yours. Whether you lift your arm or point your toes, it is your pure being experiencing the moment in its full presence. Your mind cannot wonder, as ballet requires full concentration, or else your movements won’t coordinate and flow with the music. This total presence in the moment is what makes it a transcending experience. At least for me it is. Dance, in this sense, surpasses words as a way to express our soul. You cannot hide what your body sends out to the world, whether it’s a feeling, mood, or just, you.
Beyond this spiritual experience, I would say that many of us enjoy ballet as a “me time”—a time to spend on a passionate hobby that belongs to you alone, 100 percent of the time. No bosses, children or relatives to nag you during the hour or hour-and-a-half lesson.
And what gets adults to go back again and again to the dance studio is the exhilarating feeling of seeing ones’ own skills improve. This may happen quickly, but most of the time it occurs extremely slowly. Sometimes we dance students have those blocks that are similar to a writer’s block. We get stuck with a particular step, position or movement. We do it over and over again but we still fail—sometimes to such a degree that we feel jinxed. But then one day, it suddenly clicked! Eureka! That’s how I feel when I manage to do a nice and clean single pirouette. I think I can count the number of times with my fingers on one hand. Still, it feels almost like a miracle when I managed, and to come to that illusive perfect turn, you spend countless lessons trying to achieve it. When you manage, it’s only a split of second, and then it’s gone. But the joy lasts for weeks and months to come.
I don’t know if there is a particular type of adults who are drawn to ballet. But I would say those who have continued to take lessons year after year are those who really like challenges. Every lesson is filled with challenges. An outsider may not notice that at all, as the challenges are very subtle. But because ballet is an art form that requires precision and aims at perfection, the challenges are wonderfully numerous. Onwards and upwards to my next challenge!
漸漸地，我的腰背痛減少了。芭蕾的確幫到不少，至少它讓我不再整天坐在案前，並且讓我定時活動全身的肌肉和筋骨。不過我的主治來於Egoscue Method。我根據Pete Egoscue的著作“無痛”（中文版由張象濟翻譯的，但已絕版），每天做一套看來非常簡單、但功效卻非常神奇的“功能運動”。由於這個方法從痛的根源著手，所以使我進展到完全無痛的狀態，進而可以要求自己在芭蕾技巧上認真地提升下去。
我提到“認真”這個問題，是因爲學芭蕾的成人，當中包有不同的學習目的，有的把它當成業餘消遣，在做運動、keep fit 和減肥之餘，又可以交到志同道合的朋友。有些呢，過去孩時家裏無法負擔學舞的經費，現在有了經濟能力，就決定一圓童年的夢想。再有一些本身已是芭蕾舞迷，愛看芭蕾舞劇，進而希望親身領會一下跳芭蕾舞的滋味。還有一些是因爲子女有學，自己也想從中了解到底子女學習的過程是怎麽的一囘事。最後，還有一小部分人希望可以成爲芭蕾舞導師或從事專業表演。