July 3, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Sarah Evans
Most young girls at one time or another idolize ultra-thin ballerinas, their hair swept back into a tight bun at the nape of their neck, floating across a stage in pink or white sparkling satin. Just count how many girls at the local playground encircle their waists with pink and purple gauzy tutus.
Even I, a tomboy who preferred light sabers over Barbies, have fleeting memories of slipping on satin shoes, carrying a hot pink dance bag, and gaudying up my pre-pubescent face with rouge and eyeliner for my first and only recital.
So when I picked up What You Become in Flight, Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s gorgeous memoir of her previous life as a ballet dancer, I expected a story rooted in traditional, delicate femininity. Instead, I found a thoughtful, poetic reflection on feminism.
As I delved into Whittet’s story, the theme that emerged made perfect sense to both ballet and feminism: women do not control their own bodies.
In the opening pages of the book, Whittet shares the story of an accident during ballet rehearsal where she jumped into the air, fell and fractured her spine. In a move she had rehearsed with her male dance partner many times, she had trusted him to catch her. This time, he didn’t.
The injury was the beginning of the end of her ballet career. But it was far from the only time she damaged her body. A dislocated pelvis, ruptured discs, and limbs thinned by eating disorders were just a few of the many woes she suffered in pursuit of perfection.
“Ballet excuses and glorifies a culture of dancing through pain,” she writes, “and that it relies on women’s bodies to be the tools of its expression, forcing its rigid ideas of beauty even at the expense of safety and comfort. I learned through my injury that making art requires more of me than I was prepared to consent to.”
It’s no accident that Whittet uses the word “consent” in this context. For as long as she can remember, ballet was something she automatically strived for, an art that her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt had all pursued. It seemed only natural that she would also pick up this art form.
Yet, she quickly realized that being a female ballet dancer meant she had to work toward a perfection that even her own mind and body did not, could not, agree with.
That perfection, that ideal of being the thinnest, most graceful dancer, led her and many of her classmates to compete at who could eat the least, who could hide their injuries the best. When Whittet’s foot fractured after her semi-rival massaged it too hard, seemingly with no remorse, Whittet didn’t feel anger. She felt empathy.
The other dancer “only carried through what all of us secretly felt: that other women existed to measure ourselves against, to hurt in invisible ways, to help along when we could,” Whittet writes. “That other women were just another device we used to punish our bodies with our naked, raw desire.”
Whittet didn’t come to these deep, thoughtful realizations about her art until after she left it behind. It was during her post-ballet life, chronicled in the second half of her memoir, that she was able to gain the right amount of distance from her passion to examine it truthfully.
With maturity — for women, at least — comes even more chances to lose control of your body. Whittet experienced this, too, struggling with debilitating stress and trauma after an incident where she withheld her consent during a much more sinister assault on her body. Again, she had trusted a man. Again, he failed her.
Whittet’s memoir may be filled with physical and mental suffering. But it’s also filled with clear-eyed, unabashed joy — a joy for being on stage, for expressing her story in new ways, for discovering her feminist self. The truths Whittet unearths, and the graceful prose she uses to express them, stick with the reader long after she takes her final bow.
Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who has been published in Mom Egg Review and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She writes book reviews for Hippocampus Magazine. She earned an MFA in nonfiction writing from Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.