Caitlin Flynn
July 17, 2016 8:00 am
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Whenever I tell new friends about my childhood and teen years, I’m reminded that my lifestyle was a bit unconventional. I spent thirteen years training to be a ballet dancer and I was convinced professional ballet was my calling. As a result, I spent many years homeschooling instead of attending traditional school. Instead of dabbling in a variety of activities, I devoted 30 hours a week to training and rehearsals. Family vacations were often planned around summer ballet intensives and I couldn’t imagine ever tiring of the art.

Spoiler alert — when I left the ballet world at age 17, I was beyond tired of it. Being berated about my weight multiple times a week had become the norm, I was exhausted from the combination of an AP course load and endless hours in the studio, and I felt angry that (despite my severe eating disorder) I would never have the “perfect” body proportions for a ballerina. Luckily, I’d always prioritized my schooling so I had an exciting chapter of my life to look forward to — I headed off to my dream college in the fall and threw myself into academics.

However, it took me a long time to realize that my years of ballet hadn’t been a waste. Sure, I wasn’t meant to be a principal at the New York City Ballet, but hindsight has allowed me to recognize all the life skills I gained from my experience. Such as:

Work ethic.

I started performing and competing when I was 3 years old — and there’s definitely a lot of pressure placed upon dancers of all ages. I was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher at my first dance school who was nurturing but incredibly demanding in the best way possible. I learned that if I was going to commit to something, it was my job to put in every ounce of effort — otherwise I was simply wasting my and my teacher’s time.

Due to the precise nature of the art, ballet also taught me to be incredibly detail-oriented. I certainly never thought I was acquiring “real life” skills during all those hours spent in Sleeping Beauty rehearsals, but my attention to detail has served me well in the working world. I have ballet to thank for instilling that quality in me by the time I was in kindergarten.

How to balance multiple priorities.

Although I always dreamed of being a professional, I knew that I had to be realistic about it. There was always the very real possibility that I wouldn’t be successful enough to become a career dancer — and, as I saw firsthand, plenty of professionals suffered career-ending injuries by the time they were 20. Plus, I loved academics and I definitely wanted the option of attending a good college.

I always prioritized ballet and academics equally, but it was definitely a tough balancing act. It meant sacrificing sleep and fun outings with friends, but it taught me the reality that pursuing a passion does have its downsides. More importantly, I learned to make the most of every free moment — my ballet school was about 40 minutes from home, so I did homework in the car. And, it taught me that I needed to be focused otherwise I wouldn’t get any sleep and both my dancing and grades would suffer. I don’t think I even had the chance to watch a TV show for fun until I was about 16, but it was worth it.

Resilience.

Even the most successful dancers I know have dealt with multiple setbacks — from injuries to rejections to verbal abuse from instructors, there’s no denying that ballet is both mentally and physically painful. But, the real world knocks you down a whole lot, too. There will always be setbacks, disappointments, and devastating curveballs. Since leaving ballet, I’ve dealt with plenty of health problems, personal losses, and authority figures who are less than supportive. I can’t lie and say that these things don’t affect me — but ballet did teach me to “fake it ’til you make it” and my experiences taught me that I can’t be broken and I’ll always be able to bounce back. Yes, it’s definitely easier said than done and I absolutely don’t bounce back overnight — but many of us are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.

Unconventional is okay.

When I was a kid, people made fun of me for homeschooling and spending all my time in the dance studio rather than doing “normal” activities. Other parents even made negative comments to my mom about the way she was raising me, which was infuriating because she sacrificed so much to help me pursue my dreams. I often felt self-conscious about my lifestyle because, like most kids, I didn’t particularly enjoy being labeled as “weird.” However, I got used to it and today I have few qualms about following paths that other people consider unconventional or “strange.” Plus, experiencing this as a child has given me better perspective — what my peers once considered weird, they now find interesting and admirable. Although people have balked at some of my unconventional decisions during adulthood, they’ve also expressed admiration that I’m not afraid to pursue a “different” path than what’s expected of me.

Don’t lose your passion for the wrong reasons.

When I left ballet, I absolutely needed a long break from all things dance-related. I couldn’t recover from my eating disorder without distancing myself from ballet completely, and I also needed some time to explore other passions and establish an identity separate from “the girl who dances seven days a week.” However, ballet and I didn’t exactly part ways on good terms. During my last year of training, I was bullied by instructors — mainly about my weight, but that was far from the only flaw they used to publicly humiliate me. Once I left for good, I declared that I “hated” ballet and I wished I’d never even taken that first dance class. I was convinced that I’d just wasted 13 years of my life working towards the “wrong” goal.

It took several years off, but I eventually realized just how much I still love to dance. Physically and mentally, I didn’t have what it took to be a professional — but today, I attend open ballet and contemporary classes multiple times a week. Now that there’s no pressure, I remember exactly why I fell in love with ballet all those years ago. I’ve applied that lesson to other areas of my life. Like many people, one of my “dream jobs” took a Devil Wears Prada-esque turn when I ended up with a new boss whose management style involved publicly bullying people. It was an unhealthy environment, so I left — but I was able to maintain perspective and remind myself that I still loved books and publishing; I just needed to find a healthier workplace to nurture that passion.

I wasn’t meant to be a professional ballet dancer and I still wish that many aspects of my training had gone differently. The hardest thing to get past was the fact that it shook my confidence and triggered an eating disorder that took years to recover from. Although I don’t love the phrase “everything happens for a reason,” I believe in making the best of every life experience. Now that I’m safely distant from the world of professional ballet, I appreciate the life skills it taught me — and I know that I’m a stronger person because of my experience.

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