I am a fallen ballerina. A swan with clipped wings, navigating still waters and flowing down streaming rivers. My back no longer stays erect, my legs no longer lift with ease, my feet no longer gracefully arch into a “C” curve, my body no longer bends on a whim…and my mind is just tired of my nostalgia. I have taken my body down a revolutionary road because of that. Because I was holding on so tightly to the memory of the broken pieces, I left on stage.
I began dancing ballet at the age of two, at the prestigious Régine Mont-Rosier Trouillot Dance Academy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I fell in love with it instantly. I felt a sense of pride every time my mother helped me into my leotard and coiffed my hair into a high bun. I enjoyed the sound of the music and finding the rhythm in my steps to the cadence of every song. I looked forward to every dance class after school and on weekends. Aside from my books that permitted me to imagine myself as a lead role in an epic play, dancing was the only other stage in my life I wanted to spend time on. That was until I became a pre-teen.
As I grew older and my dancing promotion began to climb the ranks at the academy, the camaraderie dissolved, and the competition crept in. All eyes on the solo performance, all eyes on the ultimate goal all ballerinas hoped to achieve: being dubbed The Prima Ballerina. The pressure for perfection was ON, and every bleeding and broken toe were proof of it. It almost became a secret code amongst dancers “You don’t want it bad enough if you don’t have scars to prove it”; broken body parts were deemed a badge of honor, a testament to your determination to be the best. Oh! I felt the pressure alright, but yet, I decided early on I didn’t need to be a lead dancer, instead, I was going to enjoy what I essentially first loved about ballet…Dancing. I danced my heart out, all the way to my tippy toes. I did risk my toes as well, putting little protection on them, not to earn recognition, but so I could have a better feeling of the ground as I took each step to connect with the floor. I managed to do so, somehow, without ever bleeding for it. I knew I wasn’t the best dancer, the one that lifted her legs the highest above the barre, nor the lightest when jumping to do a pas de chat, nor the one reaching the skies of the ceiling with my grand jeté, nor the one with the ideal ballerina body type, —tucking that booty was a course in physics— but I danced with intentional grace. Nevertheless, by the time I became a teenager, everything shifted.
I remember it vividly, I was 13 years old, my mother asked me for the first time “Do you want to keep dancing and going to the dance academy?” A simple loaded question. I knew ballet was a stern, disciplined art, — the truth is, which art isn’t? — commonly perceived as rigid and a bit harsh for youth. Despite that, I loved everything about it, but soon fell into the traps of peer pressure and wanting to fit in, by siding with the sentiments of popular chatter. Like other kids, I wanted to play around frivolously in the dirt instead of always being pristine, and proper all the time. Going to dance class began to feel like a heavy responsibility with the teacher always reminding me to: be on-time, coiffed, “Tuck your stomach,” “Tuck your butt,” “Point your toes,” “Shoulders back,” “Straighten your leg,” “Chin up,” “Follow the music,” “Let’s do it again” “And again!!!” It seemed like all I could hear was “Perfection, perfection, perfection!” You had to be perfect, perfect, perfect! And hearing that all throughout your childhood, as a teenager, it can either inspire you to rise to the occasion or aspire self-doubt, curiosity or rebellion to find out what is on the other side of the coin. At 13, I decided to rebel; to find out what other kids my age were doing and to feel what it was like not to have responsibilities. I decided to fit in. I decided to let go of who I am. I decided to be a teen.
I knew I wasn’t the best dancer... but I danced with intentional grace.
As fate would have it, immediately upon leaving the dance academy, my body quickly shifted. I began developing severe allergies to what almost felt like everything. I got tested and found out I was allergic to seafood, perfumes, dust, cats, dogs, and various allergens in high humidity climates. Great! I was a Caribbean girl that couldn’t enjoy anything from the tropics! I was allergic to my own environment! I had to change my whole lifestyle. My parents had to change all my sheets, purchase a dehumidifier for my room, and keep the cats and dogs at a safe distance. I soon began weekly treatments with one of the top allergist’s in Haiti and had to completely change my diet. My body was rebelling.
I got FAT. My face, my thighs, my hips, my butt, all got inflated. I knew by quitting ballet, I wouldn’t be able to continue my 7 meals a day habits because I wouldn’t be as active anymore. I knew about the “Freshman 15.” But, my body shifted in leaps and bounds, — from 105 pounds to 145— within a very short period of time. I didn’t know how to handle the shock. I began to look for answers around me, trying to find out how non-dancers and ex-dancers such as myself, were able to have and maintain dancer bodies. I stumbled upon anorexia and bulimia. Like a secret society, some of my friends shared with me their tactics behind closed doors: no carbs, no sugar, salad only, cabbage all-day, finger or toothbrush down the throat, laxatives, and…it continued. It all sounded painful and horrifying, until one day my father told me “That’s enough bread for Isabelle. You should be eating less of that right now.” I felt exposed. What I was secretly struggling with, was now noticeable to other people. I wanted to cry, to scream at my father… but I rebelled instead.
I pinched and pulled, bruised and toiled, beat and slammed my body. I was determined to show my father and everyone else, a triumphant return to my glory days as a ballet dancer. I asked my parents to sign me up for the gym at El Rancho Hotel, where I joined my mother and my aunts for the infamous aerobics classes that were given there. I would take two classes within a span of two hours. No results. I reduced my intake of food down to unsalted crackers only. No results. I began to lift weights under the misguidance of some so-called “weight trainer.” No results. But instead, I began to bulk up and develop broad shoulders like a weight lifter. I was desperate, it seemed no matter what I did, I could not get my weight down, I could not get my ballet body back. So, I went to extremes to rebel. I used my finger, a toothbrush, and laxatives to regurgitate everything I ate. Once a day became twice a day until nothing that passed through my mouth would stayed long enough to be digested. I would use laxatives until my body had nothing more to give than just water. I was killing my body, yet no results.
until my body had nothing more to give than just water.
Depression kicked into high gear. My mind was rebelling. I was in a very dark place, but on the surface, I tried to keep appearances by going to the gym, although secretly, I had decided that I didn’t like my body and that it may never change. But, just as I gave up, to my dismay, after 2-3 years of weekly allergy injection treatments, my parents and I discovered that the shots the specialized allergist was giving me, was filled with steroids. The inflammation? The bulking up? The exponential weight gained? We stopped the treatments immediately, but I was left to face the damage that was done by the doctor and me.
It took about 10 years to reverse the damages the allergy treatments did to my body and on my metabolism. Which were only amplified by the injuries I caused that were more than just physical. I had broken myself down, mentally and emotionally. In my efforts to pick up the pieces, I did try to return to ballet. Too ashamed to return with my tails between my legs to Régine’s academy, I went to Lynn Williams Rouzier Dance Institute instead. My attempt quickly fizzled. Not just because I was too hard on myself for not having the same capabilities as I did when I was younger, but because Lynn would hold the shadow of my former dance teacher and training over my head, in order to compare and scale me up to all the dancers at her academy. Although I hung back my dancing shoes after that experience, Lynn’s pestilence was an ode to the great ballet training I had received. But, it was also a bigger testament than I thought. I later learned that Régine, the headmaster herself, —a woman, leader and dancer I held in high-regard— believed I was a dancer with great potential and was saddened to see me leave the academy when I was 13. I was humbled. I felt for the first time, beyond what I had assumed, my love for dancing was seen, felt and validated by one of the greatest.
I still miss the rhythmic cadence… Patati, patata, patati, patata… of the pas de bourré as I used to watch myself in the mirror of the dance class Chez Régine with that internal smile that lifted my cheeks. I miss the care with which I carefully put on my tights and leotard to get ready for ballet class. I miss the elegance of gently pulling back my hair into a high bun. I miss standing-up tall, straight, shoulders back as I navigate from the dance floor to the real world with the pride of a ballerina. I miss the grace of every gesture speaking without words. I miss the freedom of laying it all out on the dance floor. I miss the discipline of being responsible for my own body.
I had relinquished all responsibility for myself. From my body to my hair, to the way I dressed, I have been rebelling continuously with my body since I was a teen. Desperately looking to find my rhythm again. In the process, I broke a few toes. In truth, I lost touch with more than just my body and my emotions. I ultimately lost touch with my Spirit. It sounds cliché, I know, but I really lost touch with the small things that make life real…I stopped taking care of myself. I stopped doing the small stuff I enjoyed, and that brought me small thrills, like fluffing my afro, shinning my nails, pepping my heels and pimping my outfit. I stopped wanting to look good for myself “Like I know I have it like that”. I just completely stopped looking at myself. Reasoning with myself that it was superfluous to do so, and created all kinds of excuses. But I wasn’t listening to the undertones of my spirit rebelling, whispering “Well-being is beautifully personified in every aspect of your life.” Oh! how deeply I wounded myself in my own rebellion. I hadn’t realized how intertwined the body was to everything.
I still miss the rhythmic cadence… Patati, patata, patati, patata.
A few years ago, I went into the Mapou Martial Arts Academy boxing gym priding myself at being an adrenaline junkie. I was exercising twice a day, six times a week, lifting weights doing CrossFit, spinning class, jogging, and was still left with energy to spare. I had done some boxing prior, first time, as a motivation for my husband to exercise by creating an activity we could do together; the second time, to “lose weight.” I enjoyed it, I realized I could pack a punch, but also felt my POW wasn’t being used properly. I joined the academy with the intention to release some pint up adrenaline, and to learn how to better use that punch. More than a coach, trainer, teacher... Coach was a mentor on and off the mat. More than boxing, I learned to face myself, my fears, and how to channel my energy physically, mentally and emotionally. Coach also encouraged us to follow other disciplines, whether it was yoga to be nimbler and spiritually strong, or weightlifting & running to build up our strength and endurance. A great Coach is also a life coach, who teaches you to understand yourself so you can comprehend how everything is connected. Some of the lessons I got right away, and others I am still unpacking today. Boxing is an uncommon workout choice for women in Haiti. It was obvious because we were just a few women in the academy; two consistent and others swaying by according to the trends. It wasn’t deemed a proper sport for women to tussle in the ring with men and get hit. The fear of getting hit was real! I won’t lie about that, and there were surely other ways to get a workout and life lessons. But for me, I discovered “the real fear is not in getting hit, but in not being sure if you have what it takes to stand back up after you do.” But, I am still standing.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see” - Muhammad Ali.
I may not be boxing in a ring right now, but I learned how to box in life. Despite the cuts and bruises, I have inflicted on myself throughout the years, I am now helping my body and everything that comes with it, RECOVER. Learning to navigate still waters and to flow down streaming rivers. From ballet to boxing, I have learned that exercising and physical activities are about more than just the body. It’s about finding balance in all that you are, so you can truly rise up to be all that you are. I can remember how one day it just clicked for me. The day I finally gave myself permission to take care of myself and began with the small significant things to let myself know “I got you, I see you, I love you.” But I am still a work in progress.
Today, I may not see a ballerina reflected in the mirror, but I am realizing that the swan is Me. I am growing into Me. The real grace behind the ballerina. And as Muhammad Ali — one of the greatest fighters of all time, on and off the ring, on and off the stage — once said, I feel I am “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” I am starting to see the real me beyond what I just see. I am a swan, restoring her wings, about to take flight.