I initially wanted to be an Olympic champion in women’s gymnastics, winning gold medals and scoring perfect 10s by age 16. This dream, however, was not meant to be. At 7, I had a tremendous fear of heights and my body was already too long and loose for compact tumbling. My gymnastics coach, wisely, nudged me in a different direction—she encouraged me to try ballet.
I fell in love. Was it the music, the discipline, the outfit, or the combination of structure and expressive movement? I don’t know. But I readily gave up the bars at the gym and practically attached myself to a barre in the studio.
Before now, I’ve never articulated my reasons for dancing. I’ve been asked where I dance, how long I’ve danced, and what roles I want to dance…but never why I dance. So as I search for the words to describe my motivation, I realize that there is no simple answer. My reasons seem to be varied and predictable, constant yet changing.
I dance to act. Ballet enables me to be the things I am not, or maybe it allows me to express aspects of myself that I would not otherwise acknowledge. I dance to travel, to go places that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to see. I dance for those rare moments when everything comes together, when my body and mind cease to conflict and when I am absolutely present, when the steps just happen and I inhabit the music, when I don’t have to think because the dance has taken over.
I do not dance to be competitive (this might seem strange coming from someone who wanted to go to the Olympics). Instead I am driven by the desire to constantly improve myself, to strengthen my weaknesses, and to disguise my unchangeable flaws. Dance presents me with an endless set of challenges from which I can pick and choose on a daily basis. There is always another goal to achieve.
In years past I would strive for unattainable perfection, driving myself crazy with self-criticism. Today, my approach to dancing is more relaxed. I still aim for excellence, but I am even more determined to enjoy the artistic process and let myself feel fulfilled. It was after the birth of my daughter, Riley, that I rediscovered the simple joys of dance.
I perform for her around the house, in the studio, and onstage—anything to make her smile! At just a year old, she keeps me grounded and enables me to maintain a healthy perspective. She makes me appreciate the more practical benefits of my job that I used to take for granted, such as good health insurance and a steady salary. And I can see the essence of ballet through her young eyes. I am reminded of its transformative power, that it is a stimulating, emotional, and engaging art capable of moving both body and soul.
Dance is more than my profession; it is an integral part of my life. It has shaped and influenced my identity, but it does not define me. I dance because I love the way it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. I dance because I am able to partner with my husband. I dance because it is a wonderful way to spend the workday. I dance because, from age 7, it’s the life I chose. My professional ballet career is my Olympic gold medal and I would not trade it for anything.
Photo of Julie Diana and Zachary Hench in La Sylphide by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Diana.