Student Post: The Life of a Dancer

The following was written by 10th grader, Ariella, about a book she read as part of our book club.

The autobiography I read was called Dancing On My Grave. It was about a professional dancer named Gelsey Kirkland. She was born some time in the early 1950s. Her father wrote plays and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. I believe that she also had a brother and a sister. When she was younger, her family lived on a farm. Her father believed it was better for the family, as well as for fueling his creativity.

When she was about ten, they moved to New York City into an apartment. She and her sister took dance classes in the New York City Ballet’s school. According to her, she progressed quickly and was in classes with girls who were older than her. At one point, she writes, she used to practice dance steps in her sleep. She studied at the school when George Balanchine (a very prominent figure in dance history) was the director.

At an early age, she joined the New York City Ballet. She was like an intern there; she entered the company while she was still learning. While she was still in the New York City Ballet, she traveled to Russia during one of their tours. There she met a dancer named named Mikhail Barishnykov, who was a brilliant dancer. They later became dance partners.

After a while, she moved to the American Ballet Theater because she was unhappy where she was. Eventually she became so unhappy she resorted to doing drugs. She started with only pot but eventually she moved on to doing cocain and (I think) heroin. The dance companies prohibit their dancers from doing drugs because of the effects on their physical and mental health.

Eventually she became anorexic and got under ninety pounds. She ate something like an apple and some crackers a day. Her friends helped her see that she needed to gain some weight, and she made a goal to stay at least 92 pounds.

During this period of her life she was admitted into a psychiatric hospital. She said that the doctor who was taking care of her viewed her as a trophy instead of as a patient. He wanted to be able to say that he had treated a star of the dance world. Gelsey compared the doctor to George Balanchine; both men were admired, but people who followed them didn’t necessarily agree with the decisions that they made.

At some point, she met a struggling writer who she fell in love with. He helped her recover. They ran away to Vermont and lived in a farm house in the countryside. While they were in Vermont, Gelsey, with the help of her writer friend, wrote her autobiography. After that, I believe they moved back to the city.

Gelsey’s autobiography shows the stuggles of being a dancer. There is so much pressure when it comes to body image. You are constantly under pressure to stay at a healthy minimum weight but also to have very lean and strong muscles. One problem is that muscles weigh a lot. Another is that many dancers develop eating disorders because they never think that they are thin enough or that they weigh as little as they possibly could and still be healthy. The reason that dancers have to weigh as little as possible is because their partners need to be able to lift them effortlessly. It’s also easier to dance when you are lighter; there is less mass to move around. A female dancer has to be thin and light with long legs, neck, and arms. They need to have small heads and smooth, lean muscles. They need to have a good turnout and be highly flexible. Dancers’ bodies are always critiqued.

The book gave me a closer look on a profession that I have been interested in. I would love to be a dancer even if it meant that I would have to train everyday to be good enough to be accepted into a company. While I may love dancing, I will probably never fit the physical requirements, and I have not had enough training so far.

It was definitely interesting to see the dance world through someone else’s eyes.