first person

Ballet Lessons

Years after I quit, I’m still plagued by my own relentless perfectionism.

Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

My first fantasies of ballet began in the strip-mall studio I attended as a diminutive, pigeon-breasted 8-year-old with a Dorothy Hamill wedge haircut. Staring into the mirrors each class, I compared myself endlessly to my more talented classmates, to my teachers, a pair of beautiful, long-legged twin sisters who transfixed us all. Standing alongside these longer, more graceful and beguiling forms, I wondered how I would ever become that. And the “that” was not just a ballet dancer. It was, in part, a woman. Because the two were forever yoked for me, as they are for many young girls.

The tyranny of those mirrors never really left me during my year or two taking ballet. I couldn’t make my body do the things it was supposed to do. Even when I looked away, trying to stay in my own skin, to focus on the tinny piano music coming from the boombox, to attend my teacher’s corrections, the distance between what I imagined in my head and what the mirror revealed was devastating.

Within a few years, I’d abandoned ballet class, but not my fascination with dancers. As a teenager, I consumed Gelsey Kirkland’s controversial and captivating 1986 memoir, Dancing on My Grave. A ballet star since the legendary choreographer George Balanchine first discovered her at age 15, Kirkland highlighted everything most dancers hate about cultural representations of ballet: eating disorders, drugs, emotional collapse, love affairs gone wrong. Of course, those were the very things to which I was drawn. It all felt impossibly glamorous and so far from my life.

But it’s only very recently, upon revisiting the memoir, that I realized the part to which I connected the most, the part that rang painfully true: Kirkland’s relentless perfectionism. As a straight-laced, straight-A student, the kind who would collapse over a disappointing test grade, and would eventually achieve the cursed “Most Likely to Succeed” honorific, I may have failed at dance, but I understood everything about drive.

“She wanted to have the extension of the greatest dancer,” dancer Robert Weiss told Time magazine in 1978 when Kirkland was 25, “the jump of the best jumper, the turns of the best turner, the dramatic possibilities of the best dramatic ballerina and the comic possibilities of a comedienne. She wanted to be perfect.” To achieve the illusion of airy radiance or ethereal grace, Kirkland demanded everything of herself, both physically (an exhaustive rehearsal schedule, endless repetitions of every move) and mentally (needing, always, to understand her roles down to the minute detail). And her perfectionism wasn’t limited to her performance. She suffered for years from a crippling eating disorder and, in her teens, began a series of plastic surgeries on her breasts, her lips, her ankles, her earlobes. “Please, God,” she prayed at night, “make me into the doll that everyone wants me to be.”

But being perfect was not enough. In a deeply telling moment, Kirkland cites a review praising her “gift for bodily eloquence.” You can feel her frustration and anger as she tells us that it was no gift but the “precise art for which I struggled.” Endlessly, relentlessly, exhaustively. No one sees that struggle and it torments her, but if someone did, she’d have failed. One had to be both perfect and to make that perfection appear spontaneous, inborn, natural.

In a recent piece, Chloe Angyal explored the connection between ballet and perfectionism, an “entirely necessary trait in a hypercompetitive field that demands near-impossible feats of the human body.” As the celebrated dancer Wendy Whelan has said, “Being a ballerina, you don’t ever want to show yourself less than perfect, ever. That’s what your goal is: 24/7 perfection.” And if, as Balanchine famously said, “Ballet is woman,” it might be worth considering a connection between perfectionism and womanhood.

In her piece, Angyal uses the term “effortless perfection” to describe the female dancer’s plight. But the term doesn’t come from dance at all but from a 2003 Duke University survey of its female undergraduate students. The constant refrain was how weighted down the young women felt by expectation, by the demand for what one sophomore termed “‘effortless perfection’: the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort” (emphasis mine).

This passage has lingered with me for months now. It made me think of a recent conversation with a close friend. Over drinks, I found myself tediously recounting various anxieties — about work expectations coming out of the pandemic, about publishing a new novel, about a series of Zoom presentations looming. He looked surprised. “I didn’t know you ever worried about this kind of stuff,” he told me. “I didn’t think it fazed you at all.” I nearly laughed because these worries, and other ones, fill my days and nights, all of them. But somehow I’d hidden it all without even trying, without even knowing.

Rule No. 1: Hide your work. Rule No. 2: Never stop working.

Effortless perfection. This mode — one in which so many women live — can be exhausting all on its own, but seldom has it felt more acutely so than during the past year and a half. Isolated and homebound, we lacked even the most minor distractions from our work and family responsibilities, from community and civic duties, from keeping our homes stocked and safe, from worrying over the bank account and worrying about our bodies, from any exercise and diet routine, from our phones. Instead, we were alone with our self-demands. And we didn’t even have to hide the effort. No one could see us anyway.

I’m embarrassed to admit I lost countless hours during lockdown to my own compulsive habits, endlessly revising a single sentence, a passage of dialogue that I couldn’t get just right. I became fixed on my word count, my step count, my exercise routine. Had I performed well on that Zoom? Did any of this writing make sense? I had no distractions from myself, my own elusive standards. And those standards never felt more pointless.

When I ask myself — as I have many times in recent months as we peek back out into the world again — if I could ever loosen the strictures I’d set for myself so long ago, I turn back to thoughts of dancers, of ballet. Of standing in that studio marveling at the real dancers around me. But I remind myself of the changes that do happen, are happening now, even in the massive cultural institution that is Ballet. Nearly 40 years ago, Gelsey Kirkland advocated, often at great professional cost, for better and a greater range of roles for women. She resisted the ethereal female creatures of classic ballet — the “nymphs, swans, sleepwalkers, spirits,” demanding more complex, earthbound female parts. Implicit in this was a call to end the rigidity of classical standards, fixed traditions, and the dominance of outmoded gender representations.

It’s really only in recent years that we’ve seen the big shifts in the ballet world — with regard to body types and weight, internalized racism and colorism, the dominance of heterosexual narratives, and its own Me Too issues). This reckoning has made me more aware than ever how the ideas I took from it as a girl were not about ballet itself. Rather, they were ideas of womanhood. Womanhood as restriction, discipline, concealment, the pursuit of perfection and its costs. Effortless perfection.

A few months ago, as vaccinations and the promise of spring seemed to arrive in one vivid sweep, I sat down to watch ballet. I was getting ready to begin promotion for my new book, The Turnout, which focuses on two sisters running a ballet school, and I wanted to do my homework, reimmerse myself in that world. What I found myself returning to the most were the videos of ballet performances under quarantine. Unbound by the conventions and traditions that had come to seem as requirements or absolutes (proper flooring, location, proximity to partners, traditional rehearsal schedules), the dancers I watched seemed to revel in the freedom, illicit and exhilarating. Dancers on grass, concrete, on picnic tables and kitchen floors. On plazas and atop fountains. In backyards, in masks, hair down, barefooted. Smiling, laughing, crying, dazzling us all. Messy, beautiful, flawed, glorious, and stronger than we could ever imagine. A strength that defeats perfection, that shatters it.

Ballet Lessons