9 Life Lessons I Learned From Doing Ballet

After all the classes, auditions, shows and exams, I’ve learned that…

1. The things you’re good at can make others unbelievably happy

While I was taking part in the London Children’s Ballet programme, I had the opportunity to be a member of the summer tour group. We visited many different places, schools, hospices, and danced for people of lots of different ages, and from so many different walks of life. You’d be surprised by the range of people that are fascinated by ballet, the tour reminded some of their childhoods, and inspired lots of little girls to dream of tutus and tiaras. I’ll never forget how excited people were to see us, how warmly they greeted us, which for a very shy 14-year-old was such a relief. It showed me that our gifts and talents have the power to add a little happiness to someone’s day.

2. Most of the population is worryingly inflexible

Over-splits, sitting in a frog, crawling backwards down the wall, you’re not that thing from the exorcist, you’re a ballet dancer, and your friends and family are horrified by your bendy body. But you’re more horrified by the fact they can’t lift their leg up past a 90-degree angle. That’s not right, surely?

3. No one’s ever 100% happy with their body

I knew people who trained with The Royal Ballet School every single day, and even they would complain about their stomachs or thighs, we were always criticising ourselves, eager to learn a new diet secret or exercise tip. In a world obsessed with perfection, the ballet world is like this times one-hundred, there is one ideal ballet body, and no easy means of achieving it. Ballet teachers couldn’t give a damn about being PC, most will casually critique your shoulders or tummy or make dietary suggestions, in front of a whole class, try that for developing a complex. Even if you’ve dieted and exercised within an inch of your life, there’s always something to worry about that you can’t change, like your feet for example. I remember furiously searching any possible surgeries that might improve my arch. And one teacher told me how she and her friends used to have someone roll a piano over their toes to stretch out their feet. Crazy.

4. There are a surprising number of different ways to wear a small, stretchy piece of fabric

I probably had about twenty leotards, which by some of my dance friends’ standards, is nothing. Nonetheless, dance clothing is amazing, it’s so pretty, there are a thousand different styles. I loved buying knitted wrap cardigans in pastel colours, or wool hot-pants, the cool kids wore their dance warm-up leggings up on one leg, down on the other, don’t ask me why. Oh, and the insulating moon boots, those were amazing!

5. Your body is capable of more than you might think

The best thing in the world was leaping a little higher week by week, making one extra pirouette, plie-ing that tiny bit deeper, getting your turn-out around a centimetre more. I got a high off the progress my body was making, it inspired me to keep going. I took an intensive course in Paris, I did six hours of classes a day and collapsed every night, I had to rub sports oil on my legs and feet in the middle of the night because I would wake up with unbearable cramps. Painful but, strangely satisfying. I’m not a sadist, I promise.

6. Whatever you do in life, someone somewhere thinks it’s easy and they could do a better job

Anyone who does dance has heard it all before, ‘So you just prance around in pink dresses right? ‘It’s not exactly a sport is it?’ ‘I’m sure it’s not that difficult’. It doesn’t really bother you, because anyone who’s ever done ballet can appreciate just how bloody difficult it is, and you’re pretty proud of those old pointe shoes you had to stop wearing because you bled right through them.

7. The world is a small place

I guess it depends what you’re involved in, but I can’t tell you the number of times I see on Facebook that the girl I went to such-and-such with, is good friends with the person I met at so-and-so. The dance world, especially the ballet world, is small, at times cliquey. It’ll often be the familiar faces you’ll see at auditions, courses and programmes, so best to stay on everyone’s sweet side. Being involved in something like this, means you can make amazing bonds with people and build friendships for life, you can pretty much have a whole conversation in ballet terms with your best friend, and finally someone will understand you!

8. There’s always someone better and that’s a GOOD thing

I read somewhere that you never want to be the best in a class, or you’re never going to progress, you want to be just behind the #1 girl, learning from her and pushing yourself to work to her level. It’s not fun to find things easy, anyone who does a sport to a high level, and maybe it’s true for life in general, knows that you always need to be pushing yourself if you’re ever going to reach your potential. While I was dancing, before I went to bed every night, I used to watch video after video of the ballet greats, clips of unbelievable schools in Russia, those girls were amazing and I dreamed of one day being as good as them. I’d fall asleep dreaming of dance variations, and wake up in the morning completely focused on my goals.

9. Life goes on

Life goes on, even if the one thing you wanted most in the world isn’t going to happen for you, there are a million reasons to get out of bed in the morning, and all the time in the world to discover your passions. When such a big part, if not the biggest part of your life is over, you’ll finally have some breathing room, a chance to get to know yourself again and give more attention to the other areas of your life; things you may have been neglecting, or relationships you might have been keeping on the back-burner. When I stopped dancing, my biggest mistake was not finding something else to fill my time with, I went from 20 hours of training a week, and full-time courses every holiday, to pretty much just sitting at home. I gained a lot of weight, I was miserable and I felt empty. As they say, hindsight is 20-20, if I were to go back in time, or give advice to someone going through something similar, I would say take a holiday, make a list of the most valuable things you’ve learned, make a list of all the things you’ve had to miss out on because of your commitments, and finally, a list of activities and goals for the year ahead. Maybe there’s a new hobby you’ve always wanted to try, maybe like me, your sport or discipline was very diet restrictive and you’ve been longing to start a baking blog. Engaging in charity work, volunteering or fundraising is great because it helps to combat that nasty lingering feeling of purposelessness, you can use your extra time to do something positive for others. There are so many ways to turn a negative experience into a positive one, when one door closes, another opens, as they say.

Overall, I will never regret the long hours I put in dripping with sweat at the barre. I showed myself that I’m capable of working hard, that I can commit to something, and that I have the motivation to improve myself. Dance is a part of who I am, there was a time when I never could have imagined myself as anything other than a dancer, but now I have other dreams for my future, and I’m grateful for the experiences that I’ve had.

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