It was a typical Orange County night at the tail end of a long, lazy winter break. The plethora of yogurt shops in the neighborhood were closing, and even if you craved a Starbucks treat, it was too late in suburbia. The few dive-bars in the area boasted their usual divorcee crowd. My mom, dad and I finished a late dinner and now it was time to select our entertainment. Movie night at the Gray house is not only standard, but also probably the best post-nine-o’clock activity in town.
“What do you want to watch?” my mom asked, flipping through the movies in On Demand. She stopped suddenly, staring at me with calm yet focused eyes, “Do you think you can handle ‘First Position’?”
“Sure,” I responded casually. I understood why she was tentative to suggest watching a documentary about young ballet dancers, yet I was feeling confident. Friends and former co-workers had repeatedly suggested the film and I was in a safe, comfortable environment. I was all in. “Let’s do it!” I took a deep breath and settled in (Snuggie and all) to watch the story of six young dancers dedicating their lives to ballet, as I had for so many years.
My own dancing career never took me to the Youth American Grand Prix, but it took me through countless auditions, and five years of Summer Intensive Programs (four with American Ballet Theater). A dance teacher wanted to uproot me to Austin, Texas, to train with him, another suggested pulling me out of high school early to spend more time in a studio. My youth was consumed with 30 hours at Pacific School of Ballet and I loved every second of it.
Dance was not just my “activity,” it was a passion. Ballet was both emotional outlet and physical activity, my art, and competitive focus. With this background and mindset I watched and commiserated with each dancer moving across the screen. I gasped with admiration at their skill, sighed with their disappointment, and thanked my mother for never pushing me too hard or being a crazed “dance mom.” By the end of the film I was up off the couch dancing around the family room, silent tears running down my face.
My mom looked at me with a sad smile, “I knew this was going to happen,” she said, “Sarah, it’s OK. You’ll dance again. I promise.”
Six-and-a-half years ago my focus shifted from summer dance programs to college applications. My family went on a tour across the Midwest stopping only at schools with well-know dance programs. Campus tours were complete with visits to dance studios and meetings with members of the dance department.
Four months later, everything changed.
In a rehearsal for a fall show I sprung up into a familiar leap (a Spanish pas de chat for any dancers reading). My landing was less natural, coming down onto my left leg my quadriceps muscle shoved my kneecap out of place. There I lay in excruciating pain with my leg splayed out with an unnatural bend. After being raced to the hospital, knocked out with powerful drugs and snapped back into place by an orthopedic surgeon, I assumed in my groggy state that all was well. My knee was back in place, right? My joints bent at all the right junctures.
In reality my recovery would take months of physical therapy and I would never fully heal. Strapped in a full-length leg brace, I would miss every college dance audition and eventually would attend University of California, San Diego for political science. My knee popped out of place three more times, and after the final dislocation in 2009 while I was walking the Torrey Pines trails in San Diego that nearly sent me down a cliff, I opted to have surgery. Now I have a metal bolt in the head of my femur, my knee gets stiff in the cold winters of New York City, and if I don’t exercise my quad I find myself unable to walk without a knee-brace and unfashionable limp.
A devastating side effect is that both physically and mentally I have not been able to take a ballet class in over three years. As I write I cringe with injury-induced fear, and sadness. (My fellow girls at The Frisky probably think I’m nuts for wincing in front of the screen.)
During my final year of college, post-surgery, and my first two years out of school, I was too focused on graduating, getting a job, and feeling out a new city to worry about not dancing. Luckily, Los Angeles was full of dance-free diversions. Regardless, sadness stealthily built up in my psyche. It releases when seeing a ballet, watching a particularly moving episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” or in this case, when watching “First Position.”
After the film finished, I trudged up to my childhood bedroom. There I was surrounded by my former life. With few exceptions, every framed photo in my room was dance-related. Smiling girls in bright stage makeup and rhinestone costumes stared at my 24-year-old self; my first pair of pointe shoes hung limply from my mirror. Relics of my dancing days preserved in time
Beyond damning body image issues that stemmed from not dancing 30 hours a week, learning how to eat healthy for the first time (what, I can’t eat a chicken pot pie every day and not gain weight?), and relearning how to exercise properly, I had to deal with the mental repercussions of my injury. I self-diagnosed with post-ballerina perfectionist disorder: the symptoms include applying the same strive for perfection that dancers attempt in the studio to real life. The results are disastrous and often paralyze me to the point of breakdown. You can hit the perfect triple pirouette en pointe; you cannot always have the perfect day at work, turn in the perfect story, have perfect friendships or relationships.
I also needed to redefine myself. I’d spent years answering questions about my identity with one simple answer: I’m a dancer. At the vulnerable age of 21 I stared down at a bloody three inch scar on my left knee and wondered, who was I? What was I good at? What could possibly bring me fulfillment the way dance did? I cannot play an instrument, I’m no good at math, besides two years of kiddie soccer I’ve never played a team sport. I don’t play pool or video games. Despite growing up by the beach, I don’t surf. I never devoted myself to movie knowledge or fashion. I was decent at biology, but I was no pre-med student. I loved and excelled at political science, but found no emotional gratification in studying the Median Voter Theorem. I began to characterize myself through self-deprecating humor; I became what I couldn’t do.
The prospect of self-discovery was terrifying, but in my early 20s it was not an uncommon pursuit for a young woman. I made mistakes, dedicated two years to a career that I no longer wish to pursue, took the leap of faith and moved across the country to attend graduate school.I realized that the old adage is true: when one door closes, somebody opens a window. A part of me will always be a dancer — I still walk turned out, and choreograph in my head — but my blank slate no longer terrifies me. It’s mine for the filling.
Contact the author of this post at Sarah.Gray@TheFrisky.com.