What Ballet Taught Me About My Body

Dance helped me stop focusing on how I look and start thinking about what I feel.

Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic. Source: Getty; The Vista Group / Internet Archive.

Never before have humans lived such a disembodied existence. Many of us spend our days hunched over the computer, ignoring our body until our limbs go numb. As of 2011, only about 20 percent of Americans had physically active jobs, according to the journal PLOS One—down from half in 1960. Even when we work out, it tends to be compartmentalized: a YouTube yoga session between Zoom calls, a quick run and then back to the desk. Rather than reconnecting with our body, we try to optimize the brief time we’ve allotted to exercise, tracking our pace on Strava or mimicking a pixelated teacher we’ve never met. These bursts of activity barely cut into our screen time, let alone counteract the sedentary conditions of modern life.

Women are especially prone to feeling detached from our bodies. We learn early on to see ourselves from the outside, to always think about how we appear. In a 2019 BuzzFeed essay called “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating,” the Millennial writer Emmeline Clein described a trend she had noticed among popular female characters—on TV shows such as Fleabag, in the viral short story “Cat Person”—as well as among her own friends: They cope with the pain and indignity of modern womanhood, of Brazilian waxing and “certain types of sex” (the kind that a woman “does not want to be having”) by simply shutting down, sometimes with the help of benzodiazepines or booze. “Aspirationally dead inside feminism,” Clein called it.

On a certain level, I relate to these young women, to their insecurities and struggle to find their place in the world. I enjoy watching and reading about them. But on another level, I do not relate to them at all. I have a different connection to my physicality—one that might be relevant to anyone seeking a new way to move through the world. I grew up studying ballet, which meant that I was taught to focus not just on how my body looked but on how it felt: how my chest felt open if I imagined teacups on my shoulders, how my legs felt light if I lifted from underneath. How every nerve and joint and tendon felt alert, alive.

So when I read about Clein learning to decouple her “consciousness from [her] immediate bodily and emotional experience,” about Margot from “Cat Person” imagining herself from above during sex, about the novelist Sally Rooney fantasizing about being “a brain in a jar,” I feel blissfully exempt from the detachment that, for many of my real and fictional peers, is apparently the norm.

I can’t remember ever being shown a two-dimensional anatomical diagram at ballet. The whole process of becoming a dancer was deeply embodied: We learned not by sitting and reading but by imitating, trying, falling, adjusting, trying again. We understood the body through luscious metaphors: I didn’t know what muscles were involved when I held my foot in front of me in the air, but I knew that my leg should be so steady that I could balance a glass of water on my heel. When I lifted my arms, I didn’t think about flexing my biceps; I thought about how my fingertips would feel if they were brushing against a velvet curtain.

Dancers “have brains in their toes,” wrote Toni Bentley, a veteran of the New York City Ballet. I used to experience this feeling all the time. I would lie in bed or sit in class, my legs folded into a hard plastic chair, and sense my muscles brimming with potential energy; I felt powerful, knowing what my body could do. I felt like my body was different.

As it turns out, it probably was—not just in the way my muscles were built but in the way my brain was shaped. A study by doctors at Imperial College London found that the area of the cerebellum that receives signals from the “balance organs” in the inner ear and converts them into feelings of dizziness was visibly smaller in ballet dancers. Through years of practicing turns, the dancers had trained their brain to suppress the sensation of dizziness.

In 2003, the anthropologist Caroline Potter, hoping to learn how dancers experience their body, enrolled in an elite dance academy in London. She spent her days training and her nights socializing with her classmates (and slyly taking notes on their conversations). Dancers, she came to believe, occupy a “shifted sensorium” featuring an “interconnected, bodily-grounded sense of cultural identity.” They develop a heightened awareness of gravity, of the weight of the air and the resistance of the ground.

I remember being told to feel the floor, use the floor, strike the floor; that the floor was my friend; to piqué like the ground was hot and dégagé like I was moving through water. When I struggled to balance en pointe, my teachers repeated the famed choreographer George Balanchine’s advice: “Just hold on to the air.” We thought continuously about the relationship of our bodies to space and to one another. We learned to dance in straight lines without turning our head; to sense one another’s locations from the sound of our breath or our feet on the floor. We strove to keep our hips “square,” according to an imagined geometry, and our shoulders “open” or “closed.”

Of course, ballet wasn’t all bliss. We struggled daily with the pain of twisting our bodies into unnatural shapes, of strapping our feet into corsetlike pointe shoes and then jumping up and down on the tip of the toe. Yet even the pain helped enhance our awareness of the body, incessantly reminding us that we had a physical form.

As an adult, I’ve experimented with all kinds of exercise: hot yoga, half-marathons. But nothing quite matches the full engagement that ballet classes require. When I run in the park or work out at the gym, I distract myself with podcasts or pounding music; I check my GPS or the tracker on the machine, calculating my pace and counting down the minutes until I can stop. It’s medicine, a chore, a means to an end. When I make time for a ballet class, though, I remember how impossible it is to participate without being fully present: watching the teacher, listening to the music, feeling the floor.

It’s no coincidence that ballet’s imprint is all over the history of modern fitness. For decades, when exercise was seen as unfeminine—when perspiring in public was considered unladylike—ballet was the exception: a vigorous workout that would not turn women into men. Bonnie Prudden, who opened one of America’s earliest fitness centers in 1954, first discovered the magic of moving her body at the age of 4, when her parents enrolled her in a ballet class. The dancer Lotte Berk opened the world’s first barre studio in an old London hat factory in 1959, offering classes that combined ballet- and yoga-inspired stretches, lunges, and lifts. (Barre remains one of the most popular workouts today, with more than 850 studios in the United States and hundreds of thousands of devotees.) Even Jane Fonda, who in the 1980s introduced millions of women to the joys of Jazzercise, aerobics, and brightly colored leg warmers, considered ballet an integral part of her routine: From her early 20s on, she sought out ballet studios all over the country, wherever her acting jobs took her.

Striving for and achieving goals in dance, as in sports, can help women appreciate their body as more than just an aesthetic object. As Potter, the anthropologist, carried on with her training, she noticed profound changes not only in the way she danced but in the way she took up space outside the studio. She no longer perceived the world through the five senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Her world, she wrote in the journal Ethnos, came to revolve instead around “a dynamic sense of constantly shifting one’s body in space and time.”

You don’t need to be a professional dancer to have an experience like Potter’s. On a 2021 episode of the therapist Esther Perel’s podcast How’s Work?, a successful model explained how, from the moment she was scouted at 15, she was subjected to a constant barrage of objectifying eyes and hands—from the agents and designers who appraised her looks, the hairdressers and stylists who treated her like a hanger. She had to find a way to deal with her discomfort on set—painful shoes, revealing clothes, extreme heat and cold—so she taught herself to vacate her surroundings and imagine that she was off “somewhere in a cloud.” She got so good at this trick that she ended up unable to feel much at all—even pleasure. But dance classes, the anonymous model said, led her back to herself, helped her rekindle her relationship with her body and her senses—with, as Perel put it, “movement that is not about performance but about experience.”

When I crave that kind of movement, I go to the same New York ballet studio where I once trained. Instead of signing up for an advanced class, I go to the beginner one. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and cringe: I know how this step is supposed to look, and I’m momentarily surprised to see that I no longer have the ability to do it. I feel self-conscious when the teacher corrects me, even a bit defensive: I know I’m doing it wrong. The teacher doesn’t have to tell me.

But then I look away from my reflection and think of the second half of Balanchine’s dictum: “Don’t think, dear. Just do.” I arrange my feet in first position, and I feel at home in my body.

This essay has been adapted from Alice Robb’s new book, Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet.

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