You still think of a ballerina when you think of grace and beauty. How could you not? She does not walk, she floats. She does not jump, she soars. When she moves across the floor, her feet hardly tap the ground, and never make a sound. She coils and extends her arms and her hands and somehow her fingers do not end with a beam of light. She balances with power and control. She is the image of grace and beauty.
You stop at the top of the steps and grab the handrail, which instantly turns into a ballet barre, which stands just below your chin. You address the empty room full of apparitions of audience members who have come just for you. You descend the stairs, pointing each toe and throwing your leg as high as it will go without hitting you in the face (like it did that one time). Each step is both planned and wild, spontaneous and calculated, as your eight-year-old body does not float or soar, but clunks and bounces. But you do not know that. You are the image of grace and beauty, and all of these eyes are here to prove it.
When your eight-year-old body in a blue leotard and pink tights enters the room full of other bodies in leotards, something does not match. It is not the wrap skirt that your mother makes you wear or that your bun is of your own eight-year-old design complete with flyaway baby hairs and irrelevant bobby pins. Your very body does not match the tall linear bodies in the room.
So you try to hide. You try to make yourself small and blend in with the movement of the room by not missing a step. Your wild and riveting movement down the stairs is discarded in favor of joining with the movement of the room.
When you go home, you find yourself standing in the mirror, searching your small body for the parts that make you different. You find a spot, what some might call “baby fat,” by your armpit. You poke it, hoping that will make it disappear. When that does not work, you let your head fall to the side and wonder why it had to be you.
As you get older, the baby fat leaves. You stand in the back of the studio. The wall in front of you is made of mirrors. The wall to your left is made of mirrors, just in case you need the side angle as well. You watch the other dancers as they watch themselves twirl and float, using each perfect part of their bodies to create shapes that you cannot make yourself. You hold the PVC pipe barre and breathe deeply. In this room, it does not matter who you are or how you feel, it only matters what you look like.
You cry on the way to class every time, complaining of a stomach ache. You struggle to tell your mother that you do not want to dance anymore, for fear that she will call you ungrateful for the opportunity you have to dance at such an elite studio. Your older sister loves dancing, even though she cannot do all the splits that you can. She moves with the unpredictable freedom you had walking down the steps. Your eyes shift from body to body to your body, which only half-moves across the room, never floating, never soaring.
You do not give up. Your mother won’t let you. She wants you to know that you can be the dancer you (she) aspire(s you) to be, so she compliments your toned legs after you’ve joined the track team. She has you review new choreography at home after class and she smiles and tells you that she wishes she had the body you have. You watch as she starts a new diet every Sunday and you start to do the same.
While running in your P.E. uniform around the track, Kandis, your friend from school who dances at another studio, tells you that eating mac and cheese will give you cellulite. Before this, you did not know what cellulite even was or that it was bad. But after this you start searching the stickers on food products before deciding whether or not it is worth the calories.
Many days, your diet consists of two cans of diet coke and sometimes a bag of chips.
When you are not in dance classes, your mother tells you to cover your body—be modest so that men are not tempted by it. You become confused, unsure if your body is good or bad, unsure if you are supposed to be like the beautiful and free bodies you see in the studio mirror. You wonder how a man can be tempted by a body that you have grown to hate.
Although you are much older than you were when you poked at your armpit fat, you still find yourself in your mirror, comparing your body to the bodies you dance alongside. You can see some of your bones are pressing against your skin. You tilt your head again, admiring the sight of the bones that protect your heart and lungs.
Isn’t it a funny thing—how a cage of rib bones stands between the world and your heart? If only you knew that the apparitions of people in empty room do not care to see this cage through your skin or showing through your leotard when you reach left and right, to the ground and sky. If only you knew that you do not have to float or soar or tap the floor without making a sound or make yourself small.
When your sister has her first baby, you hold her and imagine what she will be like when she grows up. A singer like her mother. A soccer player like her father. A dancer like her aunts. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Fair skin. Better than all of you combined.
Her eyes open every few minutes and close again. You wonder what they will see. You wonder how they will see. How they will look at the mirrors that will surround her.
You watch as her chest rises and falls, the majority of her little body moving with it. You wonder how a body can be so beautiful without knowing it. You wonder how she will look at her chest rise and fall, how she will admire or despise it. How she will search her body for the parts that make it different.
Her ears. You wonder what will they hear. What words will make her strong and what words will make her weak.
You whisper to her that she is the image of beauty and grace.
She looks at you—her eyes like mirrors.
JAYLAN MILLER studied English & Writing at Indiana Wesleyan University. She works as a reporter for the Chronicle-Tribune and is a life coach in Marion, Indiana. She co-founded The Actor’s Playground in Berlin, Ohio, where she worked as the choreographer for four years. Jaylan is a pitch pipe that swells through dissonance—searching and saluting the beauty in All.
Featured image: Photograph by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash.