I have always loved performing. On my last day of 1st grade, I made my classmates watch me “do a ballet show” on the carpet in the middle of the classroom. I don’t know where the drive came from really. I had a relatively normal childhood, and took dance classes for fun (when we could afford it — my parents worked very hard in ministry and a small church, so we had a decent income, but not a great deal of spending money).
I picked up the courage to start taking ballet classes when I was fourteen… little did I know that decision would soon affect my whole life and health. I chose ballet again because my self-esteem was low and had the urge to throw myself into a new challenge and be proud of myself. It was a new ballet school, with a tough syllabus, and I improved quickly thanks to my strict teacher. I was awfully clumsy and uncoordinated those first couple years, but I found myself falling in love with how much I felt like I belonged in a studio and on stage.
It all started with a small diet. I was determined to fix some gained weight and “lazy teenager” habits. The summer before I turned seventeen, I joined the week long intensive course at my ballet school. I planned to embrace the pain, challenges and the Dying Swan choreography we would learn (an iconic solo in ballet, a piece I only dreamed of performing). My ballet teacher noticed my weight loss and efforts and she appointed me that very solo in the Christmas Performance. It was one of the greatest honours I’d had up to that age, so I took it very, very, VERY seriously.
As a dancer, there’s always something not “good enough” with your technique and artistry (duh, it’s what keeps us striving and working repeatedly hard)… but I told myself the great awful lie relaxing is weakness. So, leading up to that one performance, I actually forgot how to relax, and slowly signs of disordered eating and anxiety crept into my life. I was overly aware of my flaws, first my technical flaws in ballet, but eventually my day to day life too. I had lost my menstrual cycle at this point. My ballet teacher was happy with my weight loss, yet told me I still had to lose more. If you haven’t guessed by now, I have perfectionist qualities ingrained in my personality (definitely common among dancers!) However, my goals shifted from improving for the sake of my hobby, to I need a perfect body and technique in order to please my ballet teacher and myself.
I know now that I allowed my well-being and joy suffer under the weight of the unnecessary pressure I put on myself (but I must say my ballet teacher triggered much of my dysmorphic-expectations). I would like to claim that after my Dying Swan performance I got better in the new year of 2016. My growing toxic thoughts had seeped into my physical body, and I came under the deepest amount of guilt I have ever felt in my life. I knew I was better than this. I knew I loved myself. Why did I feel so awful about myself? Why couldn’t I stop counting calories, exercising compulsively, and comparing myself to everyone? I was tired all the time because I wasn’t eating enough and I couldn’t sleep well most nights. I even felt ashamed that I wasn’t healthy enough to have a period! My body had programmed itself into a pattern of losing.
I have a natural talent for acting, so for the months that followed, I would fake my happiness (and energy levels) until I distracted myself enough from my pain — but anything sensitive would provoke gushing tears that I managed to hide behind toilet stalls, upstairs from
social events, even behind my hair sometimes. “Wow, Renae you look like you’ve been crying! Are you okay?” Someone would ask, then I’d smile and reply with something like, “no haha! I just did a big yawn.”
I was ALWAYS thinking about what everyone thought about me. It hurt that no one really knew what was circulating around my mind. My mum kind of knew though. I wanted to explain my emotions to her so many times, but I found it incredibly challenging for some reason. As if I had so much shame built up inside me, I had no idea how I could get it all out. When we did talk however, and I heard my mind, and that’s when I caught how irrational much of my mindsets were.
There was one particular morning my Mum confronted me (with some pointy fingers and harsh loving tones) and I honestly felt some kind of release. I could tell she was tired of watching me make unhealthy eating decisions and exercising too much. After pondering that conversation all day, I made a decision on the bus on my way back home from ballet class that night. I first recognised that my mind and body were in a pattern of losing. Losing fat, muscle, nutrients, hormones, hair, menstrual cycles, personality, and most importantly peace. So I decided I had to flip the switch to gaining. I was tired too, I needed to relax again.
Shortly after my decision, I learned how powerful the human brain was, and if I could mould my thoughts into a toxic mindset, I could mould them into a healthy mindset. I still struggled for the rest of 2016, and even when my eating habits looked optimistic, my anxiety took a toll on my performing confidence. However, the more I surrendered my toxic thoughts, the more peace I had, and left me space to remember who I was. Gradually, I was making decisions out of identity and not stress. I went on the pill a few months later and experienced super regular periods because my hormonal levels chilled out; I even learned to accept the obvious weight gain quite easily because I felt and looked healthier. I took ballet classes elsewhere and gave Musical Theatre a shot — which built up my confidence in glorious ways! I cannot pinpoint exactly when I felt like myself again, because adolescence is all over the place really. I thought I was fully recovered a year after my bus ride decision, only to find out the same time the following year I was still carrying some baggage!
It’s ok to be anxious and over think sometimes — especially if you’re a dancer. But your words are powerful and can help you overcome negative thoughts you’re getting stuck in. You know who you are deep down, so speak truth and speak life!