Life After Dance

jana meerman ballet dance

Or, how I'm trying to move on with my life. I read an article the other day about ex-dancers at Columbia University. The article was published in their university newspaper and highlighted the thoughts and feelings of a number of students who had ended their dance career for one reason or another and moved on to pursue academics:

The main thing that I miss is performing, but I don't want to lose that. It still somehow keeps me connected. If I lose that, then it becomes oh, was that a dream? Did it really happen?

I spoke to a close friend Sarah and we had a little heart-to-heart over the article, this quote in particular. Since we met in September last year, we have bonded over our complicated histories with ballet and with the dance world. She, with her spinal nerve issues and a past injured knee, was training in Ottawa until forced to quit when she was faced with permanent damage. I, with my two fractured vertebrae and broken ankle, was training in Vancouver until the injuries were so severe I couldn't walk without pain.

Over the past fifteen months, we have frequently brought up the topic of ballet. When one pours as much of themselves into the art as we did, it was impossible not too.

I sent her the link to this article, leading us to another one of our discussions. Suddenly, we delved into a realm we hadn't really touched on before: one of moving on. So often we trap ourselves in the past, trying time and time again to relive the moments in between classes, or at the barre, or just before stepping on the stage, or the countless early morning physio appointments, and stressful master classes, competitions, performances...I could go on for hours.

However, this time we touched on the part after. Where we no longer spent 6-8 hours every single day in the studio. Where we no longer had to watch that we were taking in enough calories to fuel the 3000-5000 we were burning every day. Where we no longer had to rearrange academic schedules around ballet schedules. Where we no longer spent evenings sewing pointe shoes or dunking our feet in ice baths. Where we actually had Friday nights free to do social things. Where we didn't have to be in the studio at 9:00am on a Saturday morning. Where I could actually do okay in my Grade 12 finals because I wasn't competing at Provincials or prepping upwards of twelve pieces for the Year End Performance.

This article has a lot of sections I disagree with, namely the part about finding a new passion and the stereotype that ballerinas are academically incompetent. But the article also has a lot of sections that reverberate in my soul and touch upon memories I had long forgotten.

Now that my current profession is 'full-time university student' my life is completely different. The adjustments happen every day. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want, which is a dangerous choice in itself. I no longer have anyone holding me accountable for staying in shape - no longer am I pulling on a pair of sheer pink tights and tight bodysuit showing off every angle in my body.

I am free to wear what I want, when I want.

I never watched TV growing up; I just didn't have time. I first started watching TV just after the beginning of my first year of uni, when my shallow television and movie vocabulary shocked my floor-mates. They promptly sat me down in the floor lounge to watch Anchorman, exclaiming that without this movie my life was incomplete. I don't blame them, but that was so not the case.

We say it so often: "you're not living," or "you're missing out." It can be easy to forget how harsh the true feeling is of having something missing from your life.

In fact, my life is incomplete without passion, without the overwhelming angst felt while standing in the wings just before going on stage that all disappears the moment you step out in front of the audience. And just like that quote says, the feeling of performing feels like a dream. I sometimes forget what it's like to sit backstage waiting to hear your stage call over the loudspeaker. Or what the dressing room smells like when there's hundreds of cans of hairspray going off every few seconds. Or the dimly lit backstage area full of dancers going over steps in their head or on their feet. Or the feeling of being on stage, with stage lights glaring in your face so that you're unable to see the audience, yet they are able to see every inch of you.

I had even forgotten the brand of pointe shoes that I wore so faithfully for many years. I had to call my dad to find out. Back in February 2012, when the injury occurred, I just so happened to have two brand new pairs of pointe shoes recently purchased and ready to be sewed. Unable to use them, I hid them in the little crevice behind the big mirror in my room. Hidden from view, they stayed there until this December evening, almost four years later. The brand I wore is Bloch Heritage 5xx. I had hardly even remembered I wore Bloch shoes.

This information seems so irrelevant, but it is symbolic of everything I feel so distant from.

Adjusting to this new life is hard. So often I find myself feeling like I am not living life to the fullest. Yes, I don't have to be at the studio till past 9pm every night, and I don't need to wake up at 6am to start my day. Rather, my only commitments are a few hours of classes every day at uni, where I am struggling to get through a degree I don't love. I haven't found a new passion, and I doubt I will ever find something that lights me up the same way dance used to. I haven't found a purpose, and I'm meant to be graduating with a Bachelor's degree in eight short months.

Now, instead of facing the daily challenge of hours of physically intense training, I am facing presentations, essays, examinations, projects, papers and endless pages of readings. A last quote from the article that sums up how I feel about that all:

We had to give presentations, and the whole time I was just shaking. When I started I was like, 'I'm sorry. I'm used to ballet, it's a silent art form. I don't talk, I don't know how to talk'.

And that's true. I'm adjusting every day to a new life. Three years on, I am still trying to figure it out. Honestly, I'll still be trying to figure it out a year from now, and most likely the rest of my life.

I only hope that one day I can make peace with the loss of something I thought I would do every day for the rest of my life, and that I can find something, or a few somethings, to fill the gap in my heart. I love to hike and to watch the sunset and to take photos and to share these photos on social media and to swim in lakes on mountains and to travel the world.

It's never the same, but it's a start.


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