September 5, 2018 § 12 Comments
By Jessica Ribera
I grew up in the ballet world. It’s a scary place, but there’s lots of dancing and make-up. From age seven to seventeen, everything was beautiful at the ballet. Even though I worked myself to the bone and bore a lot of stress, my ballet life was the wind beneath my tiny little swan arms. By nineteen, I was poised to finally get a contract from a real ballet company.
My fellow trainees and I were consumed with getting a contract. We all had been dancing with a professional ballet company for a couple of years; we even did the same roles that corps de ballet members performed. We ate, slept, and breathed professional ballet, but until we were offered contracts, we would not feel like we had “made it.” A contract meant you were a working dancer, someone with a salary and benefits. The contract confirmed that you indeed had become a ballet dancer when you grew up.
I endured a terrible stage accident at exactly the wrong moment in my budding career. My young body changed forever, and I became a woman who couldn’t possibly get a contract anywhere. I couldn’t be the version of myself I’d spent years becoming and experienced the whole thing as a death. The resulting devastation and loneliness dimmed the light in my heart. I gave up on leading a life on stage, the life of an artist, the life I had always wanted. I committed to a policy of practicality and went to business school. Through all that time, I was writing. I journaled and made visual art to help myself cope with all the changing, but I kept those things private.
Suddenly, ten years had passed, then fifteen. Eventually, I learned to have some compassion for that young self, and I accepted what happened. I’m able to say now that I am a dancer who doesn’t dance but writes instead. Dancing feels very far away, but I have resurrected the dancing self I buried under grief and denial and made her a part of me again. Now that I am a whole self once more, I have been able to form new dreams and to muster the courage to chase them. I wrote a book about it all and loved the manuscript.
I once again found myself hoping for a contract. The dancer in me was trained to wait for external validation. In the ballet world, if a director or choreographer doesn’t like you, see you as useful, then you may as well be invisible (a lesson I learned when suddenly my body didn’t work right anymore). Writing has forced me to challenge the norms I internalized as a young ballet hopeful. When I look back, the days I spent dancing before I ever had hope of a professional contract are some of the best days of my life. All those times on stage dancing shoulder to shoulder with the pros, all that work, all the joy that filled me night after night strengthen me now to be thankful for whatever moment I am living. Who cares if I have a contract? (Well, I do. But I’m working on it, so stick with me here…) I am writing now. I’m doing the work, and I have a lot of pages that bring me pride and joy.
I happened to make a contact in the publishing world without trying, and when I reached out to him for advice, he requested my manuscript. Three days later he emailed me to say that he would love to publish my work and could send a contract right over. It was almost too easy. Chasing that ballet contract that I never acquired set me up to expect a struggle. Other advisors and my own ambition said, “Don’t just go with the first thing. What if you could get something better, a bigger deal?” For a couple of months, I queried. I did market research and wondered over how much time to spend building my “platform.” I quit loving the process.
Last week, I thought of all those pre-contract dancing days, and how I wish I had enjoyed them more rather than waiting for my “real” dancing life to begin, waiting for the powers that be to give me credit for what I already was doing. So I decided to accept the contract offer from the small press editor who understands me and my project. Saying “yes” to what is in front of me has ignited my spirit, and I’m more prolific than ever. The moment that I put pen to paper and sign this contract will be a major, culminating moment for me and that young dancer I once was. But, I have only been able to value it so greatly because I learned to just enjoy doing the work.
Jessica Ribera moved alone at seventeen from Texas to Seattle to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now her days are spent re-imagining the artistic life she always wanted while her four wild children egg her on. Jessica’s first book, a memoir of artistic life, death, and resurrection, will be available from White Blackbird Books in 2019. Follow jeskybera on Instagram, Twitter, and Jeskybera.com.