Never before had humans experienced such a disembodied existence. Many of us spend our days hunched over a computer, ignoring our bodies until our limbs go numb. As of 2011, only about 20 percent of Americans held physically active jobs, according to the magazine PLoS One—down from half in 1960. Even when we do work out, it tends to be split: a YouTube yoga session between Zoom calls, a quick run, then back to the office. Instead of reconnecting with our bodies, we try to optimize the short amount of time we have for exercise by tracking our pace on Strava or imitating a pixelated teacher we’ve never met. These bursts of activity do little to cut into our screen time, let alone counteract the sedentary conditions of modern life.
Women are especially prone to feeling disconnected from our bodies. We learn from an early age to see ourselves from the outside, to always think about how we appear. In a 2019 BuzzFeed In the essay titled “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Out of Tune,” Millennial author Emmeline Clein described a trend she’d noticed among popular female characters—on TV shows like Fleabag, in the viral short story “Cat Person” — as well as among her own friends: They deal with the pain and indignity of the modern woman, Brazilian waxing and “certain types of sex” (the kind a woman “doesn’t want you to have”) simply shutting down, sometimes with the help of benzodiazepines or drink. “Ambitionally Dead in Feminism,” Clein he called it.
On a certain level, I relate to these young women, their insecurities and their struggle to find their place in the world. I love seeing and reading about them. But on another level, I have nothing to do with them. I have a different relationship with my physicality—one that can be relatable to anyone looking for a new way to move through the world. I grew up studying ballet, which meant I was taught to focus not just on how my body looked, but how it felt: how open my chest felt if I imagined teacups on my shoulders, how light my legs felt if I lifted from underneath . How every nerve and joint and tendon felt alert, alive.
So when I read about Clein learning to disconnect her “consciousness from her immediate physical and emotional experience,” about Margot from “Cat Person” imagining herself from above during sex, about the novelist Sally Rooney fantasizing about being “a brain in a jar,” I feel blissfully free of the detachment that, for many of my real and imagined peers, is apparently the norm.
I don’t ever remember being shown a 2D anatomical diagram in ballet. The whole process of becoming a dancer was deeply embodied: We learned not by sitting and reading but by imitating, trying, falling, adapting, trying again. We understood the body through delicious metaphors: I didn’t know what muscles were involved when I held my leg in front of me in the air, but I knew that my leg would have to be so stable that I could balance a glass of water on my heel. When I raised my arms, I didn’t think about flexing my biceps. I thought about how my fingers would feel if they touched a velvet curtain.
Dancers “have brains on their toes,” wrote New York City Ballet veteran Toni Bentley. I used to experience this feeling all the time. I would lie in bed or sit in class with my legs folded on a hard plastic chair and feel my muscles fill with dynamic energy. I felt strong, knowing what my body could do. I felt like my body was different.
As it turns out, it probably was—not just the way my muscles were built, but also the way my brain was shaped. A study by doctors at Imperial College London found that the area of the cerebellum that receives signals from the “balance organs” in the inner ear and converts them into feelings of dizziness was visibly smaller in ballet dancers. Through years of practicing turns, dancers have trained their brains to suppress the feeling of dizziness.
In 2003, anthropologist Caroline Potter, hoping to learn how dancers experience their bodies, enrolled at an elite dance academy in London. She spent her days training and her nights socializing with her classmates (and slyly taking notes on their conversations). Dancers, he believed, occupy a “displaced sensibility” that characterizes an “interrelated, physically grounded sense of cultural identity.” They develop a heightened awareness of gravity, the weight of the air and the resistance of the ground.
I remember being told to feel the floor, use the floor, hit the floor. that the floor was my friend; to pike as if the ground were warm and rising as if I were moving through water. When I was struggling to balance en pointe, my teachers repeated the famous choreographer George Balanchine’s advice: “Just hang in the air.” We constantly thought about the relationship of our bodies to space and to each other. We learned to dance in straight lines without turning our heads. sensing each other’s position by the sound of our breathing or our feet on the floor. We tried to keep our hips “square”, according to an imaginary geometry, and our shoulders “open” or “closed”.
Of course, ballet wasn’t all happiness. We fought every day with the pain of twisting our bodies into unnatural shapes, tying our feet into corset-like pointe shoes, and then jumping up and down on tiptoes. However, even the pain helped heighten our body awareness by constantly reminding us that we had a physical form.
As an adult, I’ve experimented with all kinds of exercise: hot yoga, half marathons. But nothing quite matches the full commitment that ballet lessons require. When I run in the park or work out at the gym, I distract myself with podcasts or loud music. I check my GPS or the tracker on the machine, calculating my pace and counting down the minutes until I stop. It is a drug, a chore, a means to an end. But when I find time for a ballet class, I remember how impossible it is to participate without being fully present: watching the teacher, listening to the music, feeling the floor.
It’s no coincidence that ballet’s imprint is all over the history of modern fitness. For decades, when exercise was considered unfeminine—when sweating in public was considered intolerable—ballet was the exception: an intense workout that wouldn’t turn women into men. Bonnie Prudden, who opened one of America’s first gyms in 1954, first discovered the magic of moving her body at age 4 when her parents enrolled her in a ballet class. Dancer Lotte Berk opened the world’s first barre studio in an old London hat factory in 1959, offering classes that combined ballet and yoga-inspired stretches, lunges and lifts. (Barre remains one of the most popular workouts today, with more than 850 studios in the United States and hundreds of thousands of devotees.) Even Jane Fonda, who in the 1980s introduced millions of women to the joys of Jazzercise, aerobics and bright colored leg warmers, considered ballet an integral part of her routine: From her 20s onwards, she sought out ballet studios across the country, wherever her work as an actress took her.
Striving and achieving goals in dance, as in sports, can help women appreciate their bodies as more than just an aesthetic object. As Potter, the anthropologist, continued her training, she noticed profound changes not only in the way she danced but also in the way she took up space outside of the studio. He no longer perceived the world through the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Her world, she wrote in the magazine Nationit began to revolve instead around “a dynamic sense of his body’s constant displacement in space and time.”
You don’t have to be a professional dancer to have a Potter-like experience. In a 2021 episode of therapist Esther Perel’s podcast How’s work?, a successful model explained how, from the moment she was scouted at 15, she was subjected to a constant barrage of objectifying eyes and hands—from agents and designers who appreciated her looks, to hairdressers and stylists who treated her like a hanger-on . She had to find a way to deal with her discomfort on set—painful shoes, revealing clothes, extreme heat and cold—so she taught herself to leave her surroundings and imagine she was far away “in a cloud.” He got so good at this trick that he ended up not being able to feel anything at all – not even pleasure. But the dance classes, the unnamed model said, brought her back to herself, helped her rekindle her relationship with her body and her senses — with, as Perel put it, “movement that’s not about performance but about experience ».
When I crave that kind of movement, I go to the same New York City ballet studio where I trained. Instead of signing up for an advanced class, I go for the beginner. I look at myself in the mirror and cringe: I know what this step is supposed to look like, and I’m momentarily surprised to see that I no longer have the ability to do it. I feel self-conscious when the teacher corrects me, even a little defensively: Me I know I’m doing it wrong. I don’t need the teacher to tell me.
But then I look away from my reflection and think of the second half of Balanchine’s dictum: “Don’t think, dear. Just do.” I arrange my feet in first place and feel at home in my body.
This essay is adapted from Alice Robb’s new book, Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet.
With Alice Robb
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