Today, we are proud to share the final statements from this year’s St. Paul Ballet campaign, Take Back the Tutu – See Beyond Beautiful If you missed part 1, you can read it here.
Each statement about beauty is representative of that person’s unique perspective. Some statements include descriptive language about body types, body shapes, or relationships with food. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.
Perfect. Angelic. Elegant. Beautiful. These are the typical words used to describe ballet dancers and the art they create. The style has its roots in showcasing nothing but beauty and perfection. As dancers, the goal becomes about creating an ethereal lightness to movement and finding the ever-elusive “perfect line” that takes us above and out of the everyday world. To achieve this, the style has striven to always create movement, patterns, and even bodies that are considered most pleasing to the eyes of the audience. Unfortunately, this oftentimes has meant limiting ourselves to one kind of beauty. With our ever-changing society and growing diversity, to many individuals ballet is now described in other ways: archaic, limited, and unapproachable.
To me, “see beyond beautiful” is a call to all dancers, choreographers, teachers, etc. to challenge some of the limitations ballet has created. It’s time for ballerinas to be defined more by the performance they can give than by the shape of their foot or the height of their leg. It’s time we make ballet relevant to our world again instead of solely to a particular body type or socioeconomic group. Art is designed to be a reflection upon society and we live in a world far different than that upon which ballet was founded. The ballerina herself has changed over the years in both body and mind. If we can embrace that concept, then we have created a whole new world of possibilities.
I have always loved beautiful things. Anything that sparkles, lace and jewel-toned clothes, pretty shoes, bows, and bedazzled barrettes for my hair – the list is long. This is what drew me to the world of ballet. In my 7-year old mind, an activity that required me to perform in a tutu and tiara couldn’t have been more perfect. As I grew older, those beautiful things were still plentiful, but they brought with them the anxiety about whether or not my body was the right size or shape, nagging thoughts every time I ate something that I didn’t consider healthy, blistered feet, aching muscles, and harsh comments from teachers that I still remember vividly. Being a ballet dancer came with an ugly side. The negatives occasionally brought tears after I went to bed, but didn’t wash away the feeling of performing a perfect triple pirouette or the freedom of flying in a grandè allegro combination.
Up until two years ago, I had spent the majority of my life in a studio or on a stage. I spent a year teaching and working, or taking a technique class when I could squeeze it in. I missed dancing in a way that is difficult to describe. I felt less alive. Growing up, I was constantly frustrated about missing “everyday things” because of a class or a rehearsal. But I soon realized that they paled in comparison to the minutes I spent on a stage doing what made me the absolute happiest.
After receiving a company spot with St. Paul Ballet in September 2014, my life returned to what had always been normal: hours of technique classes and rehearsals, costume fittings, and tech weeks. I have never been more grateful to be a ballet dancer. When I push my tired feet into shiny satin pointe shoes, put my hair into a tight bun, and try to ignore the scratch of tulle as I’m hooked into a tutu, I feel my heart get a little happier and everything else fades. I will always love the ornate costumes and glittering tiaras, but the true beauty of being a ballerina has transformed into the chills that I get when I stand on a stage. Now it is feeling the heat from the lights and the stares from the seats. It’s the burn in my lungs when I take a bow and my ability to still surprise myself in conquering a seemingly unconquerable piece. Ballet is much deeper than pretty tutus or beautiful legs and feet, and it goes beyond the rows of perfect, identical dancers in a corps de ballet. It is the challenge, release, and joy that comes from moving, all of which exceed what someone might imagine a ballerina to be, and that is beyond beautiful to me.
Dance has been a larger part of my life and as beautiful as dance is, seeing beyond ballet or seeing past the beauty of ballet has not always been an easy step for those who are close to me. In a culture surrounded by labels, I can relate with being petite, quiet, and gay. Petite and quiet have been worn on my sleeves as long as I can remember. Relating to the Gay community is still fresh. In fact, this marks my first encounter of publicly being open about the subject. “Only you need to know what you’re feeling,” is what my mother said during my coming out talk with her. That day marked the start of my beauty being defined as self, and not by a label.
Yes, I am petite, quiet, and gay but I am also strong, communicative, and a dancer. My petite stature has led to the common phrases: are you healthy, eating enough, and well-nourished? Without proper nutrition, I wouldn’t be strong enough to press my dance partner above my head safely. I am a man of few words but once I speak up, the words are simple and efficient. Being gay doesn’t need to be a label, but rather its original meaning that I am happy… which for me is beyond beautiful.
The process of learning a new work as a dancer is both a chaotic and beautiful experience. The first day starts with a lot of ideas. Some ideas are tossed off the table immediately, others are explored further and manipulated. New material is repeated with slight differences in patterns over and over again. Near the end of the day, you feel your muscles give out, marley burns on the top of your feet start to sting, and your head becomes heavy, swimming with new information. As you leave the studio you start to plan your post-rehearsal therapies: a hot Epsom salt bath, a session of foam rolling, and a glass of coconut water to rehydrate your body. The next morning brings immediate attention to a million sore muscles you didn’t even know existed as you slowly slide on a fresh leotard and shuffle your way into a snug pair of tights. The idea of moving even your little toe feels impossible, but you somehow make your way back into the studio. Every day continues like this and slowly the movement begins to feel a little bit more familiar, organic, even beautiful. Finally, you find yourself waiting in the wings as the curtain rises on opening night. Adrenaline is pumping through your veins as you pounce on stage with a powerful leap. The leap that once felt so impossible is no longer foreign to your body; the muscles that used to scream now respond with ease and energy. Beauty. This is what the audience sees in that moment underneath the lights on the stage. But you know there is even greater beauty in what the audience cannot see. In fact, the greatest beauty is in the journey of going beyond what you once thought was impossible.
When I was 14 years old, I told one of my closest friends that I was diagnosed with clinical depression.
Her response was, “Really? Are you sure? You’re way too pretty to be depressed.”
Seeing beyond beautiful to me means to look beyond what the human eye perceives. The eye can pick up on the smallest of details, whether a piece of hair, a freckle, or a scar. However, every person has a story that is impossible to be perceived simply by the human senses. These stories of hardship, victories, courage, kindness, and failure are all interlaced together to create one unique individual. Without these stories, we would never learn from our mistakes and successes, and we would never become stronger.
This strength that results from being able to stand up again after choosing to face whatever obstacle life throws in our path is what creates beauty. Seeing beyond beautiful means that my beauty is not defined by society’s expectations of my physical appearance, but by the story that I tell through my dancing, fighting my mental illness, and living true to myself.
Seeing beyond beautiful is to see more than what’s physically there. Our society’s idea of perfection doesn’t define a real statement of beauty. Real beauty is intangible. It comes from raw emotion in response to something that made you feel something. I see the most beauty in people who feel the most joy. Any sort of physical imperfection cannot diminish the happiness from another’s heart and soul. It’s something often forgotten as ballerinas. We become so focused on our technique we forget to REALLY dance, and let our emotions come forth. When we do remember to show our love and passion, that’s beyond beautiful.
You can find more from Saint Paul Ballet this week via their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. All images are by Caroline Yang.
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