The author, Courtney Henry, right. Photo by Elena Lekhova
To my fellow long-limbed dancers,
Almost every month, I receive a letter from an aspiring ballerina about her struggles as the tallest girl in the class. While growing up and peaking at six feet tall (in flat shoes), I used to have these very same insecurities.
Freelancing throughout Europe now, away from the safety net of Alonzo King LINES Ballet, I was recently met with overt commentary on my six foot frame during a ballet casting.
"But you're taller than the tallest girl we've ever had in this role!" "Gosh, you're just stunning, I just don't know what to do!" "I'm not sure the costume will be long enough...but you're just so beautiful."
Awkwardly grinning/gritting my teeth, trying to decipher whether I was being complimented or ostracized, I decided that no matter the outcome, a job that otherizes instead of celebrates isn't worth it. I've spent too many years loving myself fiercely to be reduced to someone else's limitations.
Angela Sterling, courtesy Henry
So, my elongated friends, I write this love letter today to remind you that the acceptance of your height can only start with you. This must happen before you even walk into the dance studio. Before the mirrors warp your body image, before the inevitable comparison to your peers.
In private, embrace how unique and "above average" you are (who wants to be average anyway?) Say it out loud to yourself, or write it down if that feels right. Most importantly, believe it. It might be difficult at first, even feel a little silly.
What helped me was to look for taller women—including some outside of dance—who inspire me. I have an arsenal of abolitionists, athletes, Goddesses from all over the world who demonstrate unapologetic pride in who they are. Find your own and imitate them, channel their essence until it starts to rub off on you.
I found that once I stopped shrinking, people stopped commenting on my height so frequently.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "The question is not what you look at, but what you see." Feet considered too big actually have more surface area to extend the line; arms hanging well past the hips have all the more power to cut through space and conjure flight.
How lucky are you to have more to work with? There's more to feel, more nerve endings to ignite, more surface to tell the story on.
I personally love being taller because it means I'm that much closer to the heavens. What is dance, ballet, pointework, but a subconscious striving for ascension a.k.a. extension. I feel more divinely connected with my head this high in the sky!
Of course, you need strength to maintain control of all this fabulous canvas. This takes focus, possibly more than your peers.
If you're like me or most of the other tall dancers I know, fluid, luscious movement comes easily. The challenge is in how to work on speed, efficiency and precision. When I was younger, training in modern dance styles like Horton helped me compact when needed. Now cross-training helps do the trick.
Yes, there is more of you to control but also just as much to let go. There is power in that big body. Let your trunk be the engine and move those hips through space. If you are respecting the musicality and honoring the technique, I promise your audacity to fully "be" will only inspire your peers. (Even if they are afraid to admit it!)
So never shrink, dear ones. Never be afraid of taking up too much space. And know that you shall never have to fold your wings to walk through doors that are meant for you.
James Whiteside (Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine)
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.
I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.
That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?