Life Lessons From The Ballet Studio

by Caitlin Flynn

When I was a three-year-old with an annoyingly boundless energy level, my mom enrolled me in tap dance classes; I was immediately enamored with dance, and my obsession increased when I started ballet lessons the next year. My parents encouraged me to try other activities, like piano or soccer, but to me, they were only getting in the way of practicing. Like many children, I was convinced that I was going to be a professional ballerina when I grew up. Unlike other kids who get tired of their tutus and move on, I kept dancing. I switched to the best ballet academy in the state and, by the time I was ten, I was dancing up to 30 hours a week.

But eventually, something that I had never expected happened: I burned out. Juggling ballet and academics had left me exhausted, ballet teachers berated me about my body, and when I discovered my dream college, my desire to attend began to eclipse my professional ballet dreams. As I grappled with whether or not to continue ballet, writing became my outlet. When my early decision acceptance letter arrived, the deal was sealed: I would trade in my pointe shoes for textbooks.

My ballet experience left me with more than just permanently deformed feet (though seriously, I should be banned from wearing flip-flops in public). While I was spending countless hours each week perfecting my fouettés and rehearsing for my next performance, I was also learning lessons that would help me with the rest of my life.

So if you've ever wondered what it would have been like if you continued those childhood ballet classes, here are six lessons I learned from all those years in tights — and you don't even have to do any barre work to learn them.

1. Figure Out How To Get A Handle On The Details

In Ballet: You're not going to make it far in ballet unless you develop an obsession with details. Everything needs to be precise: the footwork, the arm movements, the timing. Timing was my Achilles heel in ballet, because I don't have a musical ear. I could perfect my timing after hours of rehearsal in the studio, but when it came time to perform on stage with a live orchestra, I was easily thrown off — and once you're off by one beat, it's not easy to recover. Taking some music lessons helped me better understand the rhythms I danced to, and the extra effort paid off in my live performances.

In Life: In any environment, if you take shortcuts or decide that certain details aren't important enough to warrant your attention, it's going to eventually blow up in your face. And for a good reason — small details may not seem important in the moment (especially when your to-do list is getting longer and your inbox is flooding), but ignoring them can snowball in ways you never thought possible. Taking the time to figure out how to get a handle on them pays off every time.

2. Accept Who You Are

In Ballet: It was extremely hard for me to accept that I didn't have the "ideal" ballet body and proportions. I'm not the only one at my academy who struggled to accept their body — there's a reason eating disorders are rampant among people who participate in activities like dance, gymnastics, and figure skating. But when I finally accepted that many things in life (like your body shape) simply are the way they are, I was able to focus on things that were within my control — such as developing a stronger stage presence and better engaging with the audience. I was able to do much better work once I stopped obsessing over my perceived "flaws."

In Life: No matter what goal we're pursuing, we should always strive to be our best — but also remember that we have value, even when we don't live up to someone else's ideal. Work your butt off, but remember to accept who you are. It's not only good for your mental health — it'll help you find the best way to utilize your actual strengths.

3. There Will Always Be Someone Better Than You

In Ballet: Ballet attracts perfectionists. When you begin ballet training, you're signing up to be constantly compared to one another in class and compete with each other for the best roles. At my first studio, I was the star dancer and grew accustomed to being the best. I was in for a rude awakening when I transferred to a new ballet academy and was surrounded by incredibly talented and driven dancers. It's painful to work at something all day, every day, and still not be the best — but it's not a reason to give up something you love. In the end, being around them inspired me to do better.

In Life: We should never abandon the things we want, just because we look around and see someone else more talented or capable. It's not worth it to only engage in activities where we can be number one (especially because no one's ever really number one). Let yourself be motivated by the people around you, rather than living in fear of not being "the best".

4. Know When It's Time To Walk Away

In Ballet: Something can be part of your life for years, but there still may come a time when you need to walk away. During my last year of ballet training, I was shocked to find myself anxious and dreading class. A lot of that had to do with the questionable teaching methods of a new instructor and a general environment that promoted unhealthy behaviors. But I'd also set my heart on a dream college and I realized I didn't want to put my education on the back-burner.

Despite this realization, it was still scary to abandon my ballet training — after all, I'd been working towards this practically since I could walk. Ultimately, I made my decision by following my gut instinct. The idea of college and studying English filled me with optimism and hope, while the idea of committing myself to ballet no longer excited or inspired me.

In Life: Our lives don't always take us on the path we originally imagined, but there are plenty of other paths. If you don't love your college, apply to transfer. If you're unfulfilled at work, start looking for a new job. As humans, we're constantly evolving and our passions and priorities evolve with us. We shouldn't view walking away from something as a defeat; rather, look at it as walking towards something better.

5. Don't Let Anyone Steal Your Passion

In Ballet: Despite my love for ballet, a lot of things happened during my final year of training that resulted in painful memories and temporarily destroyed my self-confidence. I needed a serious break from all things dance. During the holiday season, I was known to flee stores if the soundtrack to The Nutcracker came on. But I slowly realized that, although the professional path wasn't right one for me, I missed the joy and freedom I once felt when I was dancing. I began taking ballet and contemporary classes again and I remembered why I fell in love with dance in the first place. I reclaimed something that I initially thought had been taken away from me. This prepared me to bounce back from future disappointments. No one can take your passion for something away from you — they don't deserve that power.

In Life: We can land a dream internship or job, and end up with a supervisor who would rather break us down than support us. We can get into a class we were desperate to take, only to find that the teacher picks on us. These are all huge disappointments, but they're not a reason to stop loving something. Rather than abandoning your passion, find an alternative, healthier route to pursue it. They're out there, I swear.

6. Accept Your Body, No Matter What Anyone Tells You

In Ballet: While dancers and athletes are more likely to get blunt criticism about their body weight, pretty much every woman I know has struggled with self-image at some point — and it makes me really sad to write that. Weight and dieting are a constant topic of conversation, and you can basically expect people to look at you in shock if you say "actually, I'm happy the way I am".

In Life: Not everyone is meant to be a size 0 and that's okay. You only get one body, so love it and take care good care of it.

For a period of time, I felt as though I'd wasted 13 years working towards something that left me with nothing to show for it. I've since realized that's not the case. Experiences are what we make of them, and they're only wasted if we choose to dwell on the negatives. Despite the rough patch towards the end of my training, I have years of joyful memories that no one can take away from me. Sure, I wasn't meant to be a professional ballerina as I once hoped, but my training taught me to be hard-working, detail-oriented, and resilient. As long as you learned something, nothing you choose to pursue is a waste.

Images: Fox Searchlight Pictures; Giphy (6); only-in-grey/Tumblr