It’s 9:00 AM on a Monday morning in the Village. I’m on the fifth floor of Joffrey studios and I’m standing at the barre. My left hand just touches the wood railing and my right foot is extended in front of my nose. Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts moderato spills from the grand piano at the front of the studio and I’m acutely focused on counting to eight in my head. One two three four five six seven eight. One two three four five six seven eight.

In the mirror, I watch my body: a human metronome. Pink legs and pink feet snap perfectly into position on the strike of each piano key, matching the music’s rhythm—a meter that’s manifest in my limbs, my spine, my head counting, counting. This is about control. My breath is high in my chest and I breathe thinly and discreetly to keep my stomach flat. The muscles stretching across my back are sore from yesterday’s class. To distract myself from the pain I focus on articulating the sweep of my arms; they are above my head like a halo and then to my sides like wings. I note the cinch of my waist, the force in my thighs, the sweat on my skin. I squeeze my quadriceps until they burn, until the movement of my dégagé matches the music—light, fluttery, weightless. I strain to appear effortless, in opposition to all the tension in my body.

My toes throb inside their satin shoes. My forehead is taut from my hair being twisted tightly into a bun, high on my head. My earrings bob against my neck. My head is turned to examine my silhouette in the mirror. I lift up my chin, stretch myself taller, longer. I move my arms through the final port de bras and finish in fifth position. My legs are sealed as if a zipper was drawn up my hamstrings from my heels to the diamond where my thighs meet. The instructor brushes past me, her heels clicking on the floors. She stops, reaches to place a hand on my left knee cap and applies pressure as she draws her other palm up my thigh, pressing my legs together. Tighter, she says. She straightens up, puts a finger below my chin, nudges my head a half inch higher. Good, she says. Right there.

Skirts off everyone, she addresses the class. You should be warmed up now. Let’s do rond de jambe next. And then she turns her long body to the mirror to mark through the pattern. I watch the back of her head, grey hair pinned into a French twist, as she swishes her leg in small circles in the air.

I reach down to untie my black wrap skirt, my fingers fumbling with the knotted silk fabric. I slip off the skirt and fold it over the barre. I face the mirror, stripped down to my black leotard and pink tights.

I spend the next two hours examining the fat on my upper thighs.

I grew up in front of a mirror. From ages five to eighteen I danced, a practice that meant I spent hours every day after school in a ballet studio appraising my body in mirrors. Through childhood into puberty and then adulthood, I’d memorized the particulars of my figure, studied my reflection, scrutinized every inch of my physique—every freckle, blemish, scar, bit of cellulite, and curve—most of which I had considered flawed.

My mother put me into ballet classes as a child because she loved dance. She was a dancer, too. At first it was one class a week, and then we realized I was good at it and I was enrolled in multiple classes a week and then multiple a day. By the time I was in high school, I left school early every day to go to the studio. I’d have classes for two to three hours, ballet technique followed by conditioning, and then afterward I’d go to rehearsals for another few hours. I’d come home around 10:00 PM most nights and then shower, ice my knees, clip my toenails, put Neosporin on blisters that’d broken open, change into sweatpants and then start my homework. This was my routine until age 18 when I quit.

During those 13 years, I watched my body come of age and witnessed each change in my corps in mirrors: pubic hair begin to poke through the pink tights near the trim of my black leotard, hip bones jut out a few inches more, breasts become fuller, more round and obstructing to the elegant lines of a slender ballerina body. Dancers are expected to maintain infantilized bodies despite puberty. In ballet, the goal is to have a body that doesn’t distract from the classical lines. Your body is the frame on which the works of great dead men are hung. And so, you must exhibit a worthy perfection.

Last April after a holiday in Los Angeles, my connecting flight back to Boston was cancelled because a snow storm hit the east coast. I got stranded in San Francisco for a few days and I called an old friend named Rowan who I knew was living in the city at the time. Rowan and I used to dance together. During high school, we carpooled to our Russian ballet studio after school and in the summers we danced at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. We were always in the same level and we stood next to each other at the barre. During long rehearsals, we’d help each other massage a knot in a strained back. In pointe class, we’d stand on each other’s feet to relieve the pressure of the wooden box compressing our toes. Before Nutcracker rehearsals we’d trade little white pills of Tylenol Extra Strength. One summer when we practiced Swan Lake, we were partners in the pas de quatre variation. The four little swans. We laced our arms and held hands for a flurry of rapid footwork set to the moody Tchaikovsky movement.

 

In San Francisco, Rowan meets me in the Mission for dinner. Her short brown hair curls at her shoulders and she is wearing jeans and a sweater that hangs on her petite frame. We order wine and make a toast to old friendship. Rowan lifts a delicate wrist holding the spine of the glass and clinks mine.

It’s so good to see you, she says, beaming and her cheeks flushed.

It’s been so long, I reply. Look at us. It’s been what, almost four years?

Neither of us dance anymore. She’s a pastry chef. She’s in culinary school and she’s been living in San Francisco for the past year doing a residency at a prestigious restaurant. I am in my final year of my undergraduate education. I study philosophy and communication studies at a small liberal arts college in Boston. We’d both quit dancing after high school. We talk about this, about what it’s like to live without ballet. But mostly, we talk about what it’s like to recover from ballet.

Like many of our peers, Rowan had struggled with an eating disorder when we were teenagers. To this day, she says she still weighs herself regularly and tracks all of the calories she consumes throughout the day. She said last week she’d weighed herself and gained a few pounds and then spent the next two days restricting her caloric intake to 1,000 calories.

I’ve tried to stop counting, she says. But I can’t.

Rowan pushes her food around her plate with the tip of her fork. I watch her do this for a what seems like ten minutes before she sets her fork down, picks up her glass and takes a small sip. We look at each other’s faces. I catch our reflection in the restaurant window[1]. We’re sitting with ankles crossed on tall bar stools beneath the orbs of Edison bulbs. My chin in my hand. The candle flame flickers and makes patterns on her cheekbones.

I ask her if she misses dancing. Some days, she says. I miss it too, I say.

Rowan and I order a second glass of wine and I realize what we are doing is indulgent, the way picking at scabs is. We recall one day at the Joffrey when our instructor traded the pianist for an electric guitarist. On a morning in August we were having class in a studio on the top floor of the building. We’d thrown open the windows because the collective body heat of 30 girls steamed the mirrors. We pulled the barres to the center of the room, where the sunlight played on our bare shoulders and the breeze from the city streets below slipped between our pink knees. While we stretched and tied our pointe shoes we inspected the strange guitarist perched on a stool in the corner of the room tuning his instrument. Class started and our instructor introduced the day’s accompaniment. The guitarist nodded to the room. We took our places in fifth position and the instructor counted off to begin plies. Five six seven eight. And when the guitarist played, the steely notes ricocheted across the space filling the studio with a sound that sliced through the August heat. It was turbulent and imperfect. We’d never danced ballet to electric guitar before and it felt foreign and thrilling, injecting an energy into our exercises, moving us to feel ballet differently. We laughed at this—how excited we were by this new instrument penetrating our pink classical ballet world. And then we got the check, I hugged Rowan goodnight, and we parted ways once again.

Rowan’s mother was a dancer too, and sometimes both of our mothers would come to classes to watch us practice, peering into the studio, noses nearly pressed to the glass window. I once caught my mother counting the music, mouthing numbers. When I emerged from class, pulling a sweater over my head, she approached me and told me that I should pull up on my left leg when I do pirouettes.

You’re falling off balance, she said. Hold your abs tighter next class honey, it’ll help. The following day in class I obsessed over the flatness of my stomach.

The genesis of mirrors for use in dance training is not clearly documented. It likely began sometime in the eighteenth century. The intention is to use the mirror to compare your reflected image to the perceived ideal image of the performance of a given step or phrase in dance. In ballet, the mirror is traditionally located in the studio so as to approximate where the audience [2] is seated during a performance. In the mirror, in other words, dancers see themselves as the audience will see them; thus, for many, the mirror serves to show how dancers are viewed by others. We’re quite literally forming perceptions of ourselves based on how an audience will see us, not how we see ourselves. The mirror grants us immediate visual feedback[3]. And it’s constant, this cycle of self-examining. Looking fixing looking fixing looking. Rowan and I used to joke that the mirror ruled us—it was our tyrant[4]. We were forever subject to the tyranny of the mirror.

At one point in my dance career, I could no longer enjoy the sensation of moving through space. I could no longer find joy in the act of dancing itself because I was too distracted by what I disliked in the mirror. How movements looked became less important than how they felt. There’s a name for this. It’s called proprioception. Proprioception is critical to being a technically skilled, aware, and expressive dancer, yet we’re not trained to trust our bodies this way. We’re trained to trust the mirror [5] instead. The result of this is that the mirror becomes a crutch, inhibiting dancers from fully developing kinesthetic sensibilities. We should feel the movement, rather than develop a dependency on seeing and correcting from a reflection. Dancing by seeing is just visual imitation of what we think we are meant to be doing, what we think we are meant to look like. We lose the sensation in the body. We lose the body creating the dance. We lose the body[6]. We lose the dance.

For years, I experienced my three-dimensional body in a two-dimensional space. I was experiencing the world through my reflection, negotiating dual perspectives— a conflict that easily distracted me from actually feeling and enjoying kinesthetic sensations in my body. Ability meant nothing to me if I didn’t look the way I wanted— like the perfect frame on which works of great dead men could hang.

After a particularly difficult ballet class one night, I came home, walked upstairs to my bedroom, stripped off my leotard and stood in front of my mirror naked. My hair was still in a bun, a few strands curling at my neck after having fallen loose during pirouettes in class. My skin, still humid. I stood in front of the mirror and looked at my body. With both hands, I touched my stomach, moved my hands down my rib cage and cinched my waist with my fingers. I moved down my skin and gripped my inner thighs. I turned and looked at myself from the side, inspecting the place where my leg met my buttocks. I imagined what it would be like to cut away all of the extra fat I didn’t want on my ass, on my thighs, on my arms. I ran my fingers over all the soft places of my body, wishing they were not soft but hard. I was thirteen years old.

Today I am twenty-two, marking four years since I’ve quit. I remember the feeling of being thirteen and feeling that violence toward my body. I’ve tried to remove all of the mirrors from my apartment except for a small mirror above my chest of drawers[7]. I can only see my face and part of my upper body. It serves its purpose: offers me a small box into which to gaze only briefly. I’ve done this because I obsessively look at myself in mirrors. So much so that it takes time out of my day because if I look in a mirror, I find something I need to correct. For me they are a tool used to find flaws, a tool to examine imperfections in order to fix. I’m hyper aware of the location of mirrors in places, and most days I’m unable to leave my house without first looking into one. They are magnetic to me, pulling me over, demanding I look them in the face. I’m trained to do this, conditioned to police my looks relentlessly. And so I do. My eyes meet the frame and I’m arrested in my body.

I can’t process my body holistically anymore. Instead I see myself in parts: thighs, knee caps, upper arms, abdomen, nose, cheeks, breasts. I pick apart these parts in patterned ways, scanning for any slight bulge, miniscule swelling across my stomach, any inflammation of my skin, blemishes. When people look at me this is what I imagine they see—all of these protrusions glaring. And it’s not solely my own body that I police. I possess a hyper-awareness of others’ bodies, too. I compare. I measure parts of mine up next to another’s. A perfect waistline. An elegant neck. Defined collarbones framing a small chest. And as if I’m constructing a doll, I imagine which parts are the most perfect to pluck from one body and hang on another to create the most flawless form: the ballerina body. On a recent trip to a museum in Brooklyn, I learned that Rodin did this to construct his sculptures. He stole parts from another to create the body composition he wanted, one worthy of being cast in bronze.

On the train home one night I notice the body of the woman standing beside me in the reflection of the windows inside the car. I notice we’re posed similarly. Both of our right arms are extended to grip the railing above our heads. I measure our bodies side by side, drawing a line from our fingers wrapped around the steel rod above the crown of our heads down to our collar bones, rib cages, and waists. I envy parts of her, make a silent wish for the tenth time that day that I looked different from how I do.

I quit dancing because I no longer could find joy in leaping across the studio—the power, the height, the magic of the body to propel itself such great distances. I no longer could enjoy the speed and adrenaline of rapid fouettes, and the way I could turn pirouette after pirouette endlessly. These sensations were empty because I simply could not stop fixating on how my body looked. At one point it felt like I couldn’t dance without the mirror, as if I need it to know how to exist in space and move in space, even though it’s so evident that these movements live inside my body. Every day, I note ballet’s residue. My body responds to the world around me in conditioned ways—always as a woman, but most visibly as a dancer. To this day people will approach me on the train and inquire about whether I dance. I noticed how you were standing, they will say. Your feet are pointed out, they direct a finger at my toes. I used to dance, I reply. My posture gives me away—the erectness of my spine, the tilt of my chin. Shoulders back, imagine a string sewn between my shoulder blades. Imagine my ankles, beveled like the slant of an italic script. These enduring impacts of being a dancer forever live in my muscles. The feet, the spine, the grace, the performance of my body—always postured as if it’s being watched by a mirror nearby.

I’ll always communicate with my corps in this way—it’s a language that lives in my limbs. Its fluency is rusty, but it’s there still. A man I love first pointed this out to me. He told me that as much as I am articulate and purposeful with my words, I exhibit the same articulation of my thoughts with how I move through space. He says this is one of the first things he noticed about me. A spatial awareness, a fluidity. He says he loves it when I go up on my toes to reach the cinnamon shaker on the top shelf of the spice cabinet. He loves it when I leap over puddles in our rainy New York City streets. And so do I, but I never forget the mirror[8]. Your body is the frame on which the works of great dead men are hung. This history festers in me— a self-objectification so deeply internalized that the joy of experiencing the sensations of my human body dissolve because the gaze of others matters more to me.

Sometimes I desire to return to the age where my body was not policed, not scrutinized, not sexualized—by others and by myself. I wish I could return to when my body was mine. It’s hard to remember what this felt like. Even as a teenager I realized that the spaces in which I danced were not immune to a culture of policing bodies and performing bodies. Ballet was particularly prone to this culture, although more clandestine about it than other spaces where women danced on stages.

Ballet originated in spaces of privilege and patriarchy. Women first danced before the Italian Renaissance royal courts of the 15th century for the entertainment of men. It’s an art rooted in capitalism and shaped by the gendered scripts of male onlookers hoping to be entertained by the moving bodies of women. Imagine the space: the royal men sitting above the court, peering down from a balcony at the dancers down below. It’s a perfect a diagram of the architecture of power (the theatre is a place that often both imitates and reinforces structures of oppression). I remember being taught all this history in ballet classes as a child. I distinctly remember being told to “Open up your chest up, show off your collar bones. Look up to the princes in the balcony.” Look up to the princes in the balcony. Our bodies were never our own.

We have not evolved from this very much. Ballet is rigid and generally unchallenged by time and the individuals who direct its traditions. Young, docile dancer bodies are still sexualized. During a rehearsal one night at the studio, I remember our male director publicly taunting another dancer for being a virgin.

Stop dancing like a virgin, he said, addressing her in front of the entire company of young women.

This is a sexy dance, make it sexy. She was sixteen years old. I know you’re not, he said. Why dance like one then?

Our bodies were never our own.

I don’t know a single dancer who walked away from our art unscathed. Our bodies are physically marked by dance: Calloused feet. Extra bone growth on the backs of our heels. Knees lacking pliability. Toes permanently bent at disturbing angles from never properly healing after breaking. Little things like this. But we’re marked in more profound ways.

There’s Rowan. There’s another girl from the Russian studio with legs and arms that have scars trailing up and down, horizontal slits from years of taking a razor to the skin on her limbs. There’s my friend from the Joffrey who is still in recovery from depression and anorexia at a center in California[9]. This is why I am here. I’m trying to understand the damages of growing up in a ballet studio in front of a mirror. Most of us got out at some point, but what’s interesting to me is that all of the women I know who escaped ballet to heal have returned to it at some point. We’re all healing at different rates; relearning how to understand our body and determining how we want to define our relationship to it for ourselves.

The other day, I lay on the floor of my apartment in my bra and underwear with my back pressed flat on the hardwood floor. I’ve been working on some things—meditation, noting sensations in my body like the strength of my legs pushing me up stairs, the familiarity of my arms catching me, the sensuality of my hips pressed into a lover’s, the power of my core to hold me tall throughout the day. On this day, I felt compelled to touch myself, to feel my arms, my stomach, my legs, my rib cage. I moved my fingers along my arms from wrists to elbow to shoulder. I felt the soft insides of my forearms, looking at the blue wiggly lines beneath my skin. I reached down to touch my shins, my thighs, feeling along my bones, wrapping my hands around my muscles. I felt rib by rib up my torso to my collarbones to the curve of my neck to my jawline. I felt my face, smoothed out my brow with my fingers, massaged my temples. I rested my right hand on my stomach and felt the rise and fall of my abdomen. Inhale exhale. Inhale exhale.

That night in San Francisco with Rowan, we talked about what it’s like to live without ballet—to recover from ballet. It was a conversation I’ve never had out loud. Perhaps that’s because with each other we are safe enough to expose our soft underbellies, to roll over and show our fears and insecurities without clutching arms over our stomachs. But perhaps it’s because we’ve only just begun the process of healing. I remember telling Rowan that I can’t report my liberation from the mirror—I’ve yet to overthrow the object that’s ruled my body for so long. There’s yet to be a triumph. There’s yet to be an exhalation, an end to the counting, to the policing, to the body as a metronome, the body as a frame. I’m still struggling, but I am no longer afraid of the way my body looks when it is filled up with breath.

On that night we wondered if we could find a place where people danced without scrutiny of their bodies. We imagined an airy studio in a tall building in a city. We imagined a bright room with no mirrors. We imagined young girls wearing brightly colored leotards and silk wrap skirts. We imagined these dancers strewn about the space talking and laughing while stretching on the floor. We imagined open windows and the plucky notes of an electric guitar floating across the space. We hoped this existed, even pledged to search for it. And if we couldn’t find it, then we’d create it for ourselves.

 

[1] My head is turned to examine my silhouette in the mirror.

[2] The audience of ballet was originally comprised of mostly men, specifically the men of the royal courts of Italy in the 15th century. The dancers, mostly women, performed to entertain the male onlookers.

[3] My head is turned to examine my silhouette in the mirror.

[4] Have you heard of the male gaze? It exists here, too.

[5] The male gaze.

[6] In Toni Bentley’s memoir Winter Season about dancing in Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, she writes I look into the mirror to reestablish myself. I look into the mirror to reestablish myself.

[7] I’ve tried to stop counting, she says, but I can’t.

[8] I ask her if she misses dancing.

[9] I’ve tried to stop counting, she says. But I can’t.

 


Christina Bartson is a non-fiction writer. She graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in communications studies and a double minor in philosophy and journalism. She currently works at the New York Civil Liberties Union and lives in Brooklyn. She’s a two-time Evvy award winner for best non-fiction prose and her work has previously been published in Ms. Magazine, Women’s Health, and Concrete.

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1 thought on The Tyranny of the Mirror

  1. Conrad Sundqvist-Olmos

    “How movements looked became less important than how they felt.”

    As a former professional dancer, I connected to this piece and I recommend that all dancers read it. Christina writes honestly, clearly, and delicately about her experiances as a classical dancer. This piece truly surves as a reflection of classical dance. The process, the training. Her words are delicate, yet precise and firm, managing to translate a pirouette (as seen in the minds eye, felt in the bones, and viewed in the mirror) into text. Christina place ballet onto a page and it’s magnetic.