Abi Stafford in Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Why I Dance: Abi Stafford

I'm a shy person. Carrying on a conversation has never been my strong suit. When I started ballet lessons at 6, I didn't talk to many of the other kids. I worried that I would say the wrong thing and they would laugh at me. But as I learned ballet, I realized that dancing made me feel free. I didn't have to talk to anyone. I had a new way to communicate my feelings. No one expected me to do anything except dance—and that I could do. The studio became my comfort zone.

A couple years ago, I went through a terrible performance season. I was taken out of my roles because my body didn't look good. My confidence was taken and my comfort was gone. Even though dance was my rock in life, suddenly, I didn't want to dance anymore. It was causing me pain that penetrated into the deepest places of my soul. I almost quit. For about six months afterwards, every day I had to stop myself from marching into the staff offices and quitting on the spot. I absorbed every negative thing said to me about my body and my dancing. Worse yet, I lost my method of communicating. In order to pick myself back up, I had to explore the reasons why I loved to dance.

It turns out that I love many things about ballet. I love watching it, teaching it and, of course, I love dancing it. I love the way dancing feels on my body. Going over choreography in my mind is better than daydreaming about what I would buy if I won the lottery. I love trying to think of creative ways to make the movement my own. I'll often go into an empty studio with the lights dimmed when no one is around. Playing with the choreography feeds my creativity. It makes me feel like I am exactly where I am meant to be.

My favorite moment of a performance is the split second when I shift from standing in the wings as a normal person to being a ballerina on the stage. Sometimes I get goose bumps when I cross this threshold. These moments are not about the audience, the music or the choreography. They are about me—all my hard work and my belief in myself. Each time I step onto the stage, it means I have summoned my courage once again to share my dancing with an audience. I don't have to worry about stumbling over my words. I can just be. I'm so glad I didn't let my disappointment take away these moments—they are what I live for.

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July 2021