I’ve loved ballet for as long as I can remember. As a toddler, I would use the safety rail on my bed as a ballet barre while wearing a tutu and ballet slippers, leading my mom to eventually ask me if I wanted to start taking dance classes. From my first class, I was hooked.
For the majority of my childhood, dance was simply a hobby that I practiced recreationally. I took classes at most two days a week, and it was never something I saw as a potential career path. However, in middle school, after watching performances of classmates who trained more seriously in dance, I decided that I wanted dance to be my life. I started training at a more serious dance studio, and that year also saw New York City Ballet perform for the first time. After the performance, I immediately knew that I wanted to be more committed to my ballet training.
At the same time, I also realized that no one on stage looked like me. As a naturally larger teen, the extremely thin body types presented by New York City Ballet were nothing like mine. In addition, whenever I looked at dancewear catalogues to pick out new leotards and tights, I also never saw anyone who looked like me. I felt that if I wanted to become successful, I needed to change myself. I had already been dieting on and off since I was 10 years old, so starting another diet just seemed commonplace to me. It was at this point where my disordered eating and negative relationship with my body started to turn in the direction of a full blown eating disorder.
At 16, I attended my first ballet summer intensive, and it was a rude awakening. I learned that if I wanted to be a successful ballet dancer and have any chance of dancing past high school, I needed to be in many more ballet classes per week than I already was.
I once again changed dance studios, and I was either in class or assisting classes 5 days per week from 4pm to 10pm. This environment was even more serious, and the bodies around me were even thinner than I was. My eating disorder behaviors took a major grip over me, and the only things I ever thought of were food, my body, school, and dance. As my body got smaller and closer to the stereotypical “ballet body”, I received more attention in class and more featured roles, which lead me down a dangerous slope. Ballet was no longer about the love for the art that started when I was a toddler — it was about compensation and changing my body.
It wasn’t until I was 19 and a sophomore dance major that I realized I had an eating disorder and needed to find recovery. For most of that year, I still danced, however, I decided after the fall semester that I didn’t want to be a dance major anymore. I realized how much dance fueled my eating disorder, and that if I wanted to truly find recovery, I would need to distance myself from it to some extent.
After changing majors to psychology, I still danced one day per week. I thought this would give me the space I needed to recover, but I quickly realized that I needed to completely step away from dance in order to find true freedom from my eating disorder.
In September 2018, I decided to step back into a ballet studio. One of my childhood studios had adult ballet classes, so I decided to take the weekly class that my mom had been taking for a few years. My first class back was extremely difficult. Through my recovery, my body has changed drastically. I now have a curvy, full body with a large chest and hips. Looking at myself in the mirror in a leotard and tights sent disordered thoughts through my head that I hadn’t heard in months. I spent most of the class out of my body and in my head, judging myself and judging my recovery.
As the weeks went on, things got a bit easier. I was refitted for pointe shoes and took this class on and off for a few months, but then stopped in the spring, as my final semester of college and preparing to move to Nashville took all of my attention. After moving to Nashville at the end of May, I felt the need to immerse myself in hobbies. With grad school not starting until the end of August, not having any friends yet, and working remotely, I felt isolated.
One afternoon, I decided to search for adult ballet classes in the area, and learned that Nashville Ballet had open classes, and a dance conservatory called The Dancer Project had open classes and performance opportunities for dancers of all ages. I took a chance and signed up for a class at Nashville Ballet and emailed the artistic director of The Dancer Project to register for their adult performance program. As I stepped into my first class at Nashville Ballet, I was extremely intimidated. Since it was summer, many of their company members and high level students were taking the adult open classes to stay in shape over break. Seeing the high level of talent and the abundance of stereotypical ballet bodies made me feel self conscious and unsure of myself and my own abilities. However, as the class started, I realized how welcoming and kind everyone was. The teacher was incredible, and no one in class came off as judgmental or as if they thought they were better than anyone else. The studios were beautiful, and I started to feel at home.
Over the course of the summer, I once again fell in love with ballet. I saw Nashville Ballet’s second company perform, and I knew that getting back on stage as a ballet dancer after not performing ballet since 2015 was what I needed to do. I was in class at least twice a week, and I felt my technique starting to come back. It was finally about me doing what I loved, not trying to change my body or conform to a standard.
At the end of August, I started rehearsals for The Nutcracker with The Dancer Project. One of the missions of The Dancer Project is to make ballet accessible to people of all walks of life, and I could feel that mission glowing throughout the studio from the moment I stepped in the doors.
As I’m writing this, it’s the last week of December, and we just wrapped our Nutcracker performances last weekend. I had the joy of dancing in Waltz of the Flowers with a group of amazing women with varying ages and body types. By the time we performed, we all built an amazing bond that I’m so excited to continue to build as my time with The Dancer Project continues. I never imagined I would get back into a ballet class, never mind perform again, so these two performances meant everything to me. To be on stage as a ballet dancer, in my recovered body, under an artistic director who thoroughly celebrates dancers in all bodies, was truly remarkable. I felt truly embodied, not like I was trying to suppress who I truly am.
As the little dancers sharing my dressing room came up to talk to me, they weren’t worrying about the size of my body. They told me how much they loved my dancing and hugged me.
When my boyfriend and my amazing group of friends were watching in the audience, they weren’t worrying about the size of my body. They told me how magical they thought I was and how glad they were to see me on stage.
It makes me so proud to say that I’m finally in a place where ballet is truly for me and not for my eating disorder. I’m in ballet classes 3 to 4 times per week, dedicated to becoming the best ballet dancer I can be because it’s what I want to do, not what my eating disorder wants me to do. My Christmas list was full of dancewear and other ballet items, something I never imagined would happen again after leaving the ballet stage in 2015.
I’m so grateful to have reclaimed ballet after recovering from anorexia, and I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me next.
Colleen Werner is a mental health advocate, social media expert, public speaker, author, eating disorder recovery coach, and eating disorders therapist-in-training. Her personal experiences with anorexia nervosa, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD led her to want to turn her struggles around to both inspire and help others in similar situations. CLICK HERE for more information or follow her at @colleenmwerner.