The group of women across the room were all at least a decade younger than me, not to mention a good six inches taller as well. They effortlessly kicked up their legs and pointed their feet, covered in worn dance shoes that are dirty and fraying. I looked down at my stomach rounding out the front of my brand-new leotard and my shiny pink shoes that I had ordered from Amazon, and begin to wonder if this is a good idea. Over the last few years of watching my kids perform at recitals, I’d secretly wanted to get up on stage myself. When I saw a notice for an adult beginning ballet class at the local arts center, it felt like a sign. Now I wasn’t so sure.
Like many other little girls, I took ballet and tap classes for a few years. At ten, I spent some time in a junior dance and drill team class; we performed synchronized routines at high school basketball games in our matching hot pink unitards and marched in parades. As I grew older and my body grew out instead of up, I came to realize that I could never be a dancer. During the summer before my freshman year of high school I tried out for the drill team, a dream that was cut short halfway through the week when the behavior of other girls made it clear that they did not want me to be part of their team.
Despite the passage of twenty-five years, the sight of women who looked like “real dancers” brought back painful memories and I nearly fled the room before class started. I reminded myself that I wasn’t in high school anymore and stuck out the first day, and have now been attending weekly for several months. The class has been hard—I didn’t realize how much mental and physical effort it takes to remember where to place your arms, legs, and feet while counting beats and remembering to smile rather than grimace. I get to the end of a sequence and realize that I’ve left my arms in the same spot the entire time. Or I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and notice that I’m half a beat behind several other people, as my legs flail around trying to catch up.
But, there are also times when I do get it right, with my legs flowing through plies and tendus right on beat. I catch a glimpse of how it feels to gracefully move my body in time to music, and the beauty of executing precise moves perfectly. Even more importantly, at those moments I’m only focusing on myself and my ability. And the women across the room—the ones with more experience—are also only focusing on themselves and the joy of dance. When I was first able to sous-sous across the room on my toes without dropping my arms, we all laughed and clapped together.
The problem with a binary system, such as “dancer” or “not-dancer”, is that it leaves no room for anything in between. My teen years (and a few beyond that) were spent trapped in a ‘fixed’ mindset, and I had a long list of things that I was not and never could be: a dancer, elegant, coordinated, sophisticated, fashionable, athletic, artistic, cool, and so on. Thankfully, about ten years ago I discovered the concept of a growth mindset and realized that many of the things I thought of as immutable were not so permanent after all. When we open up to possibilities beyond either/or, there is a vast space in between that leaves room to grow, stretch, and play. I’m discovering that there are so many more possibilities in the in-between than I could have imagined. While it’s true that I will never have a tall, willowy body, I don’t have to worry about fulfilling some inborn idea of what it means to be ‘a dancer’—I can still dance.