This summer, I started taking ballet class again after a nearly three-year hiatus. Ballet and I have a complicated relationship, and we needed a break. It shouldn't be so complicated: I never liked ballet. I never wanted to be a ballerina. Other kinds of dance always interested me more. But I'm a perfectionist. I'm competitive. I like being good at things. And even though I never even wanted to be a ballet dancer, I wanted to be good at it anyway.
All that said, I've grown to be pretty good at using my perfectionism to help me, but letting go when it becomes a problem. I've learned to recognize when enough is enough. But somehow I was never able to make peace with ballet, at least not within my first 20 or so years of practicing it. This is partially due to the fact that my inability to excel at ballet is, to an extent, out of my hands. I don't have the high arches, hyperextended knees, and hyper-flexible hips and back needed to really achieve ballet lines. No amount of training could give me those things.
In high school and college, I tried to think of ballet — as many modern dancers do — more like a form of cross training. A form to visit, that would strengthen certain aspects of my dancing, but not a form to master. Still, I felt like crap in ballet class. So I quit going.
Imagine my surprise when I walked into my first ballet class in almost three years and it didn't even suck. I kind of had fun. I still wasn't a great ballet dancer, but after three years I expected a disaster and instead what happened was... decent. To my shock, it felt better than any of the ballet classes I had taken in high school and college.
Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with the joy of getting to hold onto the barre for the first half of class. In modern classes, there is no such opportunity, and you know what? Balancing on one leg and doing crazy shit with your other leg is way easier when you get to do it at the barre first. My time off from ballet helped, too. I've finally (mostly) let go of my need to be great at ballet, maybe because my student days are behind me.
But more than anything else, I noticed the difference in how my body felt in class. Instead of the jammed ankles, creaky knees, and tight hips of my past, everything felt pretty good. Not perfect, of course, but not painful. And that's because, since becoming a personal trainer, I've started to treat my body more like an athlete's. I have trained for strength, endurance, and power, and found the value in going to the gym instead of dance class some days. I'm in the best shape of my life, more fit and injury-free than ever before. I have noticed the difference in modern class, of course, but it was much more striking in ballet after so much time away.
The biggest change in my body is that, after a lifetime of hearing dance teachers say, "don't squeeze your butt," I've spent the last few years working like hell to get stronger glutes. The gluteus maximus is the biggest muscle in the human body. It's our most powerful hip extensor, the muscle that most helps us defy gravity when we climb stairs, rise from a lunge, and jump. Its smaller friend, the gluteus medius, helps us balance on one leg, and, most importantly for dancers, helps keep the knees in line over the toes when we bend them.
Trust this: you need a stronger butt. We all need stronger butts. Even the most active among us sit more than we should, which leads to weakness in the glutes. And those of us (hi, dancers) who have been told our whole lives not to squeeze our butts? To ignore the scary "big" muscles and use the littler ones? Yeah, we need stronger butts. Big muscles are big for a reason, and the little ones don't work properly without them.
I had just about the most body positive dance upbringing I think it's possible to have. I was never pressured to lose weight or told I needed to be a certain size. And still I heard that line about using the "small" muscles instead of the "big" ones to avoid "bulk." As much as we might want to pretend that's about technique, we need to be honest with ourselves. The fear of "big" muscles is about oppressive body standards. It's about the deeply ingrained idea that dancers should be thin. We know this is a problem in dance, in some genres more than others, and if we want to end it, we have to end it completely. That means dropping the bullshit about "bulk." Besides, we all know that dance requires incredible strength. Why should we be afraid of looking strong?
Just last week I heard a ballet teacher say to her class in a conspiratorial tone, eyebrows raised, "You don't want a big butt." Normally that would piss me off, but that day I actually laughed. My butt is bigger than it was three years ago, and now I'm better at ballet.