When I was 9, my ballet teacher chose me to perform a solo in our end-of-year performance. I was quite young, and was chosen over many of the advanced students. But I wasn't fazed—I was excited.
Then, I overheard some of the older girls talking: “Abi shouldn't be doing that solo." “I can't believe she's doing it." I still remember the tone of disgust in one girl's voice.
Such chatter is unfortunately part of growing up, particularly in the competitive ballet world. But I was completely crushed. Prior to this, I had no reason to doubt my abilities. But those older girls didn't think I was good enough. A seed of self-doubt was planted in my psyche.
Fast-forward to my mid-20s as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. I'd achieved my ultimate goal! But while my career flourished, so did my lack of confidence. From age 9 to 25, I'd painstakingly nourished that seed of self-doubt until it became a full-grown tree.
Stafford as Hermia in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream.Photo by Paul Kolnik.
It would seem that receiving a promotion to principal at a top company should have sent my confidence soaring through the roof, but my self-doubt made me more insecure than ever. As a principal, I decided that more was required of me. I hadn't “arrived" or “made it." I thought I had to maintain a higher standard than ever.
And I made that standard impossibly high. I left rehearsals every day promising myself and everyone around that I would be better tomorrow. I balked at my reflection in the mirror in class. I apologized profusely to my partners and the ballet masters for every mistake, stumble and bobble. I feared that my natural tendencies as a dancer were “wrong." Words such as “tentative," “boring" and “the worst" (words that I heard or read about my dancing) bounced around in my brain.
I had an image in my head of how I thought my dancing should look. But my legs were never turned-out enough. My arms never looked exactly how I pictured. I was never quite the dancer that I wanted to be. I believed that if I could only overcome these problems—if I could dance the “right" way—then people would finally like my dancing.
Abi Stafford with Zachary Catazaro in Bournonville Divertissements. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Perhaps to avoid the pain I felt as a 9-year-old, I took confidence out of the equation altogether. Better to already feel bad about myself, I decided. Then critical comments won't feel as devastating.
Then in 2015, I gave birth to a baby boy in July and planned to get back onstage for the Nutcracker season. I only danced about four months into my pregnancy and then purposefully took a break from ballet. I knew I needed some time to change my mental habits. Though I was afraid that getting back into shape after so much time off would be difficult, I made a conscious effort not to worry about it: 27 years of muscle memory is quite substantial. So I imagined my dancing taking a snooze in my body, ready to wake up refreshed and rejuvenated when I returned.
For six months, I took my focus off my dancing for the first time since I can remember. Rather than taking class, I watched videos of other dancers simply for pleasure, attended performances and taught young students. I let myself enjoy ballet and feel inspired by it rather than try to think of ways to make myself dance better. It was invigorating. I admittedly didn't miss dancing much. But I knew I would be ready to come back when the time came.
After I gave birth, my doctor told me to be patient with my body as I got back into shape. When I went back into the studio about two months later, I had to repeat “just be patient" to myself multiple times a day. Just as my muscle memory remained dormant yet intact during my time off, so did my mental chatter.
But now I was ready to change the themes of the dialogue. To cut off the stream of insecurity, I realized that I needed to accept my dancing (and myself) for what it is. Yes, I can always improve and change, but what I am is fine. Good even! I added, “Don't be too hard on yourself" to my new list of mantras. Before long, I actually started to agree with myself!
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Now, a year later, I'm happy to report that I've managed to keep much of my old self-criticism at bay. Granted, I still need reminding occasionally not to be hard on myself, but rather than pushing my confidence down in order to protect myself from criticism, I choose which words to take seriously. If I don't think I'm “the worst," I can let that thought go.
Perhaps my biggest epiphany is this: I've realized that being hard on myself after a rehearsal or performance does not make me dance any better the next day. Nor does it change how things went. It just makes me feel bad—and who wants to feel bad? I choose to feel good about myself because it makes me feel good.