[On my personal Wordpress blog, "Running Wild/Being Twenty Five," I’ve already discussed not wanting to change my nose (or my looks!) for Hollywood. I’ve made brief mentions here and there about being a ballet dancer as well - but I realized I’ve never completely discussed my life as a dancer...which had been by far one of the most rewarding and difficult 22 years of my life.]

 I've been missing performing, I won't lie. Whether I'm on set for acting or television or I'm at my borderline-glam dayjob, I find myself occasionally missing the large stage, the bright lights, the theatre ceilings that seem to extend to infinity in the sky, with chandeliers to stop their height. I miss the tutus, the pointe  shoes. The pre-show adrenaline and the blisters I'd be tending to an hour before curtain call time. I have performed on stage in theatre of Los Angeles within the last year...but ballet was such a different t world to me. And behind the glamour of those velvet curtains and marley-covered stage was a life of dancing that could have ruined me for life.
   The last time I performed a ballet on stage was seven years ago in Miami City Ballet, during their summer dance intensive. I was ecstatic because I'd been accepted into their program - which had meant I was on some level of talent of a dancer, as MCBS is known as one of the top schools and ballet companies in the country. I was  just eighteen years old a t the time and dancing a soloist role from (my favorite Balanchine ballet) George Balanchine’s Who Cares?. It was fun. It was freeing, and it required a lot of small, energetic jumps and musicality and performance quality - note: qualities I had, fortunately, which could make up for the fact that I didn't have an ideal classical ballerina body type. I felt levels beyond myself dancing this every time we were in rehearsal - and one day, I recalled how exactly I got here to MCB. It wouldn't have happened, had I not packed up my life at 16 years old to move into The Middle Of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, and train under an incredibly demanding training program, known for cranking out top-notch professional ballet dancers. 

 My heart races thinking back to the ballet school I trained at, and I've immediately hopped onto the nostalgia train.   Oh my god, those purple studio walls, though. Those bright studio lights. Those 50 hour dance weeks and spending 9 hours in pain on Saturdays.I’m only eighteen years old, but in this advanced ballet class, I’m one of the “old ones” compared to the rest of my level; there are twelve and thirteen year olds who are already dancing - and acting - as mature as a principal of the New York  City Ballet. If only I’d come out to this school just several years earlier so I could have been a child ballet prodigy. But I can’t dwell on that thought for long. It’s my final year of training here, at one of the top internationally renowned classical ballet schools - and I determined to get into a ballet company by the end of summer.

   I immediately take myself back to one particular day on ballet class, doing plies facing the barre to warm up. I'm in my own bubble of concentration, pressing my knees back in plie and making sure my turnout is at 180 degrees in my first position. Through the classical piano music, I hear the slow click of character-heeled shoes approaching behind me. My heart starts racing again. I grip the bar, keeping my chin up and staring at the also-purple carpeted wall in front of me. “Keep doing your plies, don’t listen to her, focus, tune it out,” I coach myself, as I brace myself for the dreaded words that are about to come next…

                “Honey, you’re looking a little….heavier than usual. Especially your legs.”

 My heart sinks fast into my chest - even though I already saw this one coming. I I tense up, trying to my finish plies, but I feel her eyes narrowing on me, scrutinizing every Slovakian curve that genetics has cursed me with. My artistic director makes an additional comment that I “should eat more vegetables; two meals a day, and nothing for the third meal,” and  then finally, she slowly walks away,  onto the next dancer -  to tell her that her weight looks “a lot better than a few weeks ago.” Upon hearing that, my ego is officiall crushed for the next six hours I’ll be in ballet class tonight...and until I can figure out a way to lower my weight quickly.

  Between my ages of 16 and 18 years old,  I was driven by two extremes in my dancer mentality: the first being my one-track minded desire to be a professionally employed ballet dancer. I hadn’t wanted anything more  with my life since I was three years old. Being a ballet dancer was by far the most enchanting yet difficult job I could want, and I was in love with performing. It was impossible for me to imagine living some life outside the confinements of a studio and a performance  stage, and I used to shudder at the thought of a life considered "normal" or routine by any means.
 

The second extreme in my dancer mentality : I was incredibly driven by fear. I didn't realize this until after I had 'stepped out' from the ballet world just a couple years ago. My mind revolved around everyone else’s opinions of me except for my own. If I thought I had lost weight after being a little too curvy as a dancer - which, at 18, I did manage to lose about 5 lbs in a short time period  - but if the director said I was fat, then I still had another 5 to lose. That's just how it was for me. My toned and muscular legs - often my most complimented feature by friends and strangers - were “too big to close into fifth position” according to my instructors and artistic directors. Never once did they take a chance to appreciate that the petite Slovakian physique that allowed me to move quickly and jump higher than half of the girls in my classes. Because they didn’t approve of my legs, I couldn't approve of them, either. And what followed was googling "ballet diets," "how to slim your legs down," and "how to lose weight quickly." Though I can admit a lot of my thinking was definitely disordered, I never developed an eating disorder. I'd known plenty of girls who had. 
 
  I also feared I was too ugly and didn’t have the idealyl ethereal, pretty face that directors often looked for in dancers. It felt like all the girls around me were doe-eyed, had clear complexions, long eyelashes, and looked beautiful with makeup. I played the comparison game once again, slowly hating my own facial shape - particularly my nose. I convinced myself that could’ve been a reason for not getting cast in certain ballets. My insecurities skyrocketed, and I was one fear-stricken 18 year old. But I didn't want dancing out of my life just yet.

On the upside, I had performance quality which made me stand out. Strangers from the audience  would often hunt me down outside the theater after performances and say, “Who are you? I saw you right there on the stage doing the mazurka, and you are absolutely outstanding. Such beautiful stage presence! You were my favorite one out there. I hope you make it as a professional dancer.” Such compliments made my day and lit the spark of hope that I one day would be dancing with a ballet company..but deep down, I detected my extreme fears would prevent me from making it to where I wanted to be.

  Fast forward to being 18 years old that following summer, dancing George Balanchines  “Who Cares?” At Miami City Ballet’s summer intensive. I just had perhaps one of the best summers of my life - I spent 5 weeks dancing in their summer program. My best friend Victoria, who also trained at the same school I came from - was with me. But the time came throughout the program when the directors of MCBS started to ask girls to stay year round. Again, girls in my class came up to me and said “Oh my gosh, Danielle, you’re so good. You have nothing to worry about, and you’re such a strong dancer. Of course they’re going to ask you to stay.”
 MCB was one of my dream ballet companies. But over three weeks had passed, and the school director never approached me. He did find me in the hallway one day in between our pointe and variations/repertoire, and he called me into his office. My girl friends looked at me and smiled, whipsering “This is it, Danielle! He’s asking you to stay here for the year!”

 He sat me down and started talking to me about my work ethic in class and he knew I was interested in staying in Miami for the year. “The thing is….you don’t have what we’re looking for. Don’t worry, it’s not your dancing though - you’re a lovely dancer. It’s definitely not that.” It turns out it was my body. Again, too ‘fat.’ I was always ‘too fat,’ no matter what effort I made to keep my weight down.


*Sounds f-ing crazy, right? Darling, I’ve barely scratched the surface on these stories. If you want full blown details, call me and we can get coffee. Toby also had no eyes, in case you were curious.

 

If you missed one ballet class, you were slacking and automatically that far behind the rest of those girls -- to hell with the fact that you had tuberculosis and were coughing up a lung and possibly vomiting. Especially if you were rehearsing for a very particular role, you went to class. 6 hours of it. And then a 7 hour rehearsal. Complaining you were tired and sick wouldn’t earn you any sympathy from the choreographers, but moreso an opportunity to replace you.

If you failed, you went to college. Once when I was fifteen years old, a group of dance girl friends and I giggled  and made fun of the dancers who went off to Point Park University (an arts/dance college) for ballet after going to hundreds of company auditions and weren’t offered anything. Irony: that’s the exact college I ended up attending after my first ACL reconstruction surgery took me out of dancing in Austin, Texas.

 Fast forward to 2016. It’s a warm summer night in Los Angeles. I’m sitting on my apartment floor, and  I have Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on shuffle - and like any other person, I casually hit shuffle until I come across the song I want. The coda from the Black Swan pas de deux comes on. Cue the 32 fouettes. I stand up for a second and think, “hold on, I should try those now , just for fun. Who care If I'm out of shape..” and then I  remember I’m on a carpeted floor, not a marley stage. And I’m still recovering from a recent knee surgery from a month ago, which means I probably should not attempt doing 32 fouettes in my room. The peak of the coda starts playing. I plop back down on the floor. Maybe I can’t do those physically now as I could have a couple years ago - but I can always imagine I can. 
 Maybe the fear-based dancer mentality of my mind has died - but the part of me who was always a dancer never will.

Published by Dani Savka