What ‘Center Stage’ taught me about judgement, acceptance, and overcoming fear

As Jody Sawyer swayed with panache, rotating from one pointe shoe to another like a human seesaw, I was enthralled. I sat on my couch in south Texas, a child obsessed with tutus and satin slippers. My eyes glued to the screen.

Center Stage’s final performance was unlike anything I had ever seen before — a successful collaboration between classical ballet and jazz, with the allure of more modern music than what sprang from the minds of Tchaikovsky, Delibes, or Prokofiev. When Jody whipped into a nontraditional fouetté turn series, throwing in focused double pirouettes, my jaw would always drop. All I wanted was to dance like her. Years later, I now recognize how much that final dance actually meant to me, and how much it taught me about never giving in to criticism, never giving into fear, and always following the path you believe in.

In the 2000 film, Jody joins a motley crew of students at the American Ballet Academy, which mirrors the IRL George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She and her peers all hope that their time in the pre-professional program will result in company positions with the American Ballet Company (ABC). ABC’s fictitious dancing leads, Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel, were real-life up-and-coming principals at the real-life ABT. Zoë Saldana, who played Eva, was a relative newcomer. Most of the cast was on the cusp of fame and of finding themselves, most of the characters in the film were as well. Watching the film, I always loved to see characters facing the challenges that I could imagine facing in my own life: Most notably, fighting beyond harsh criticism and going after your dreams.

Now, 15 years (last month!) since the release of Center Stage, and four years since I’ve taken myself seriously at a ballet barre, I still immensely value Jody’s journey to adulthood and the lessons she learned at conservatory. Of course, the movie is filled with subplots that take on complex and important career-specific issues, like eating disorders in the dance community, but to me, Center Stage’s most universal theme — and the one that still strikes a chord a decade and a half after the flick was released — is the need to accept constructive criticism and allow negativity and judgement to melt away. Had Jody not done those things, the film would not culminate in the impressive dance that captured my little-girl imagination. Had Jody not done those things, it’s possible I might have made different life choices too. 

Ballet is a judgmental profession. There is the constant analysis of body type and technical prowess, but the truth is that all career paths come with challenges. We see in the film, and in life, that it’s much easier to cut someone down than to bolster her up (just look to ABC’s artistic director Jonathan in Center Stage for proof).

But if Jody Sawyer had quit dance as soon as someone verbally tore apart her feet, or her atypical look, or her turnout, then mini-me wouldn’t have any final incredible performance to oooh and ahhhh over or to be moved and inspired by. Had Jody listened to the criticism and allowed it to break her, she would have never been cast in the workshop, and she’d likely be somewhere, regretting her past and present and begrudging her future. In short, she would have sacrificed her passion out of fear of failure and criticism. What the film taught me is that that’s not an option. Fear should never guide actions. We all experience self-doubt, insecurity, and pessimism, but it’s important to rise above those feelings and go after whatever it is that we want.

For me, Jody and her 15-year-old movie symbolize not only the external struggle with physicality that dancers often have to overcome, but the internal tumult that we all go through as soon as our talents and dreams are questioned. What’s Center Stage’s answer? Ignore antagonism, do what you love, and the rest will fall into place. Period. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me since those south Texas movie-watching days. It’s a lesson I’ll carry with me always.

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