“Fat” Brown and in Ballet
Hello folks, friends, movers, shakers, and readers. I’m writing this to tell a story that is unfortunately not unique and deeply personal. My name is Surraya, I am a 29 year old Queer POC.
I guess it’s only natural to start from the beginning.
My mom has this story.. all mom’s do.. you know, the one where they tell you when they first knew who you were. She re-tells how a three year old me would put on her bathing suit, watch “Home Grown Café” (a local talent show about young artists who danced, and sang on TV) and I would dance around. Little baby Surraya was obsessed. That was my dream - that would be ME. Partly because of who I am as a person, (and if you know anything about Leo’s that too) I was passionate about being center stage. Oh yeah, and only child syndrome, so you know… I liked attention.
I’d jump around and dance to the show, full on participation, a performance for just my mom. I was born a dancer. This is I was and am still confidant about. Much to the dismay of a three year old me, She waited until I was five, and then she let me take dance classes at a studio in Ottawa, Ontario. Now, before continuing, I would like to give you readers a content warning. This story is beautiful, sad, deeply abusive, emotional, and finally hopeful. If topics such as body dysmorphia, racism, disordered eating is in any way triggering to you, please avoid this piece. Thank you. I believe writing this will be healing for not only myself, but hopefully, and I pray for this, someone else.
At six years old I started at a studio in the suburb of Kanata. I began studying Ballet, Tap, Jazz, Musical Theater, and Lyrical. I started competing when I was nine years old, and continued until the age of 18. This story is hard for me to tell because a lot of these memories are not only repressed, but jumbled with emotions: sadness, jealousy, anger, hope, and passion. Around 12 is when I danced 6 days a week, Ballet study every evening, and rehearsals on weekends. If you or someone you know grew up in the dance world, you know all to well that the saying “sorry I have dance” is your most spoken string of words. I loved being there, I loved that I was a “good turner”, I loved my skill set, but there is a much darker side to this world than the training, athleticism, friendships, and glamour of a competitive dance world. In my opinion, the idea of judging young kids about their dance sets them up to have not only a complicated relationship to their passion, but a comparison mindset to their peers very early on. A comparison mindset that is specifically body focused, at least it was for me. Your elders and supposed mentors tell you weekly, if not daily what a “ballet body is”, long legs, short torso, it’s the “look”, the “aesthetic”. I was force fed narratives of how it’s all about clean lines, and whether the men would be able to lift you. Myself and countless others cannot and will never be able to live up to this impossible and dare I say harmful standard.
I would also like to preface this whole tale with the context that I do believe the studio I attended and the adults who ran it were notorious for being, excuse my French, shitty. If my memory serves me, other dancers in the community from studios other than mine, were a lot happier, knew our dance teacher, and frankly really disliked her.
Here is a reminder of my content warning. Mentions of verbal abuse are incoming, and will be thematic throughout.
From as young as 12 my weight was a consistent topic of discussion to this teacher that I will call “X”. I have a very vivid memory of being “at the bar”, doing exercises, where she grabbed my leg, pinched it and said and I quote “there is too much meat here”. I remember shedding silent tears, but not defending myself. This instance was not unique to me, and was daily. For one of our dances we had to wear spandex, and “X” again pin pointed me and said in essence this costume would highlight my “big” legs. The power these teachers have over young minds is undeniable. These teachers, purely from the stand-point of time spent with them, are really second parents. You see these “mentors” upwards of 15 hours a week. To complicate my relationship to “X”, she repeatedly told my Mother that if she didn’t see potential in me she wouldn’t be so hard on me. How confusing! Asked if I could be put on the “Berstein diet” at age 10, and if you are unfamiliar, this diet involves injections of B6 and B12. At 16, with a very low self esteem (hmm wonder why?) I lost a significant amount of weight, 30 pounds. Standing in the entrance of the studio one evening “X” approached me and again I quote “the girls say you have lost weight, if you could lose more that would be great”. Again, I hid my tears, called my mom and suppressed that one. In hindsight, I was truly just coping with my life. I loved dancing, I loved being a part of a team, I liked movement, but I was constantly left out and I believe targeted.
As the only POC at this studio, this intersection must be mentioned. Micro-aggressions were also daily. (Complete side note, but can we change the language of “micro” aggressions… there is nothing micro about them.) It was a known fact that Clara, the lead role in our yearly presentation of the Nutcracker, was always white. There was no denying this. I remember knowing this, and not feeling motivated or incentivized to go for the role, why would I, I would never get it? This is not to discredit the hard work of those who played those roles, and their talent, from a purely technical standard, those chosen were stronger dancers than me. Whether objectively true or not that I wasn’t picked because of my race specifically is secondary to that that was my perspective and truth at the time, and effected my motivation to push myself to be the best I could be. As I saw my cohort and friends be picked for leads, I became more depressed. You may be wondering why I stayed for 13 years? The honest answer is my friends. I loved those people, still do, and forever will. We have a shared trauma that not only bonds one for life, but also is a deep hitting shared experience of loving dance.
I recently spoke with a friend from that time I will call “Y”. I unloaded on “Y” stories I remembered that she was a part of. She told me she knew we weren’t spoken to in a proper way, but it was never her dream to be a Ballet dancer and by extension “have a ballet body”. This is where we differ. That was my dream. I wanted to be a professional dancer, but at every turn I was told I couldn’t because of my weight, but more insidiously, my race. Another memory. “X” told me I would be good at “ethnic” roles. Although oddly encouraging, the message was clear. You have to play a role for a culture, or ethnic group you have no part of because you have Brown skin.
How could a “fat” Brown dancer with a snowball’s chance in Hell of having a “Ballet body” ever make it in the professional dance world? To give some numbers from a scholarly article: “Thirty-three relevant studies were published between 1966 and 2013 with sufficient data for extraction. Primary data were extracted as raw numbers or confidence intervals. Risk ratios and 95% confidence intervals were calculated for controlled studies. The overall prevalence of eating disorders was 12.0% (16.4% for ballet dancers), 2.0% (4% for ballet dancers) for anorexia, 4.4% (2% for ballet dancers) for bulimia, and 9.5% (14.9% for ballet dancers) for EDNOS*” (Arcelus, Witcomb, & Mitchell, 2014). Colloquially, I struggled with eating from a very young age. At age 14 I had knee surgery from a dance injury. I had surgery and I gained weight. My teacher, would mention that I was wasn’t dancing “full out” and rushed me to push my body before it had healed. My knee is still an injury I deal with today, and will for the rest of my days. Her concern that I wasn’t dancing hard enough (while 3 weeks out of recovery!) took precedence over my health.
To “X”, thank you for showing me what never to do to a young aspiring artist. Thank you for teaching me words I will never utter.
Like many victims of abuse there is an element of making sense of it. The sense I have made is that I would never and will never speak to a child a. about their bodies, and b. about their passions and interests in a harmful way. As a dance teacher myself, it is my personal vendetta to un-do this narrative, support young movers, encourage dance, and believe in them. Healing my relationship with my body is an ongoing task and one I deal with today. “Body Checking”, the practice of looking in the mirror, analyzing body parts, pinching oneself is something I spend a lot of my time doing. A practice that I find currently helpful, is to speak to my body. “Hello arms, hello legs” and send them some love. Your body exists. There is nothing inherently wrong with it. Ever. Never ever. If you have an inner critic that analyzes your body, please hear me on this. You are infinitely capable of healing that relationship. No one has the right to tell you anything about your body, what you eat, and what you look like. You would think this was common sense, but our current climate of social media, diet-culture, and skewed narratives under the guise of “health” are very harmful. Keep your eyes and ears open to whose selling you what, trying to change what, and to what end? You’re perfect. I mean this. If dance makes you happy, if Ballet makes you happy, if expressing yourself makes you happy, do it. The world needs your voice, take up all the space you can. I love you.
Arcelus, J., Witcomb, G. L., & Mitchell, A. (2014). Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: a systemic review and meta‐analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 22(2), 92-101.
*EDNOS = Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified