How a Beginner Ballet Class Strengthened My ACOA Recovery

By Erica Troiani 10/12/17

Who knew activities could be more enjoyable by taking pressure off yourself?

A group of adult women at the bar in a ballet studio.
Taking up a difficult new hobby can reveal a lot to yourself about how you deal with life's challenges.

The first time I did a plié, I wanted to die. Not in the literal sense. But in the “how did I not realize this was so hard?” sense. I was drenched in sweat and we hadn’t even gotten through warmups. Welcome to adult absolute beginner ballet.

I'd never taken ballet as a kid, and its reputation for gruff teachers and perfectionism really intimidated me, even as an adult. The image of a stern impossible to please teacher coupled with competitive classmates had kept me away my whole life. Like a lot of people from alcoholic families, I felt I should be an immediate expert in everything I did. Incompetency was dangerous. But I’d always wanted to try ballet, so when an acquaintance posted on Facebook that she was teaching a ballet class that started with the absolute baby basics, I gathered my courage and signed up.

That year, I’d been talking myself into doing new things, even if they scared me. Often I didn’t admit to myself how much they scared me and made up excuses not to do something: “I’m tired. I don’t really have time. I don’t feel like it.” Those are just some of the Adult Child of an Alcoholic excuses I throw at situations that, underneath my I’m-always-fine veneer, give me anxiety. And usually that anxiety is brought on by nothing more than the fact that I don’t know what to expect when I walk in the room.

But those thought patterns had made me miss out on a lot of experiences I’d genuinely wanted to have. I figured if nothing else this ballet class would be good exercise for a running-averse person like me. Mostly, I hoped it might help me have better posture.

And that’s how I found myself frantically googling “do you wear underwear under a leotard?” an hour before my first class. I was nervous about being judged, nervous about being seen, and nervous about taking up space. But there was no backing out now. I’d paid for the class in advance and bought the required ballet shoes, and if there’s one thing I refuse to waste, it’s a little bit of money.

As a child, whenever I’d tried any sort of organized movement, my body suddenly became unfamiliar territory. Choreography overwhelmed me; I tripped over myself, getting lost in the pace of the steps, and the feeling of being watched and evaluated made me self-conscious. I expected immediate perfection and when I didn’t deliver on that impossibility, l felt incredible shame and exposed as a fraud. I feared judgment and criticism and rightfully so. Doing anything that stood out at home meant opening myself up to potential criticism and sometimes ridicule. Making myself small, unseen, and unheard was my survival mechanism — and a successful one, at that. But after years of therapy and going to ACOA meetings, I’d finally learned to question that terrified doomsayer feeling.

So adult me ordered a leotard and ballet shoes and mentally prepared for my first class. I felt silly and exposed leaving the house in that leotard, but why? I imagined the gossipy voices saying I took myself too seriously or that I was just showing off. But I talked myself through it, asking why the feelings might be coming up and challenged myself to sit with them rather than bail. Most people are too busy feeling self-conscious about themselves, anyway. Plus this teacher wasn’t affiliated with a company and most of my classmates would be friends or acquaintances.

I went in with some pretty humble goals. It was enough for me at first just to get into unfamiliar territory with any sort of dance; I had no interest or desire in being "good" at it, much less perfect. I was already far beyond the age where being a ballerina was even a sliver of a possibility, and this lack of expectation freed me to concern myself only with getting a workout and doing something enjoyable. And class was tough. Every exercise revealed weaknesses in muscles I didn’t even know I had, and despite patient explanations, I still got lost in the steps of even the simplest warmup. There was so much counting, so much French! We learned jumps like changements and sautes, and by the end my legs had turned to complete jelly. I was out of shape. But so was everyone else around me, and this developed a camaraderie of encouraging each other that we would get it.

But that still didn’t stop me from comparing myself to my friends. Many of them had taken ballet before and already knew how to do a possé.

Even beginner ballet was hard enough that I could only promise myself that I would try. I didn’t want my former perfectionism to resurface — or, frankly to injure myself by pushing too hard — so I didn’t put expectations on myself at all. “Just show up and try” was my only mantra. But by the third week, I’d discovered something: it had gotten nominally easier and I had gotten nominally better. And more surprising: as I improved a little at a time, I actually enjoyed it. Who knew activities could be more enjoyable by taking pressure off yourself?

This taught me a lot about creative work but also my efforts in ACOA recovery. When I first started recovering, I'd had the typical ACOA reaction of "let's get this over and done with fast," and “how do I do this the ‘right’ way?” It was such a revelation to learn what my character defects and survival mechanisms even were that I wanted to immediately expunge myself of them. But recovery is a process, not an overnight fix.

But I found by just showing up consistently over time and doing the work that I gradually became a healthier and happier person without any pushing or being hard on myself. Rather than expecting myself to immediately become more patient with others or less anxious about abandonment, I came to look at my recovery the same way I viewed ballet. Could I kindly express my needs this one time, even if I wasn’t doing it perfectly? Could I remain calm and collected but open and honest in a conflict with a friend? Could I then push myself to do that again even if I wanted to run away? I found that breaking recovery into smaller pieces and viewing it simply as practice made it easier to do.

After months in my ballet class, most of the friends I’d compared myself to had stopped coming, and meanwhile, I’d actually learned how to stay in relevé or a sous sous when that had seemed impossibly hard when I’d first started (and oh wow had my muscles hated me). If I’d pushed to be “good” at ballet, I would have tortured myself into hating it and probably would have quit, and the same was true of my ACOA recovery.

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