By the time I was 13 years old, I weighed 60 pounds… I loved being in control of what I ate – I loved the way it felt when my body started eating itself from the inside.
I joined the Southern Ballet School when I was 10 years old. I remember when I walked into the studio for the first time and saw all of the beautiful ballerinas. In that moment, a vision was birthed in me and I thought to myself, “I must do whatever it takes to be a perfect, beautiful ballerina.” And along with that vision, came the fear, “What if I’m not good enough?”
My father told me, “Sarah you will do pliés a million times in your life. Make every plain, boring exercise a performance: visualize dancing in front of a huge crowd and start preparing for that today – in every class.” …So that’s what I did. Every class, every combination, every day, 365 days a year, I danced as if it were the most important dance of my life. Because of this, I learned to be more creative with my movements and my interpretation of emotions. I even began to choreograph dances and story lines of my own while listening to songs in my room at night. My teachers noticed me and moved me up in rank among those of my age group quickly. By the time I was 13, I had tremendous favor with everyone at the school – I was first pick for many of the kids’ roles in ballets, the piano accompanists always requested my class because they liked the way I danced with their music, and one of the professional ballerinas even told my mom that she wanted to take me under her wing.
What no one else realized, was that with every promotion and every privilege I was given, my fear and anxiety grew. I felt tremendous pressure to perform and anxiety about letting everyone down – especially my parents and myself. My family could not afford to pay for my classes, so the school put me on full scholarship and paid my way. I began to think to myself, “We can’t afford classes and now they’re paying for us. My parents drive here every day and sit and wait for hours. I cannot let them down.” I also began to have a lot of fear about my developing body – “My feet are not good dancer’s feet. My legs are never straight…” My vision of being a ‘perfect ballerina’ was quickly fading. So I took matters into my own hands.
By the time I was 13 years old, I weighed 60 pounds and had a full blown eating disorder.
I never threw up, because I was too concerned about having beautiful teeth. Instead, I just stopped eating. I became an expert at hiding food – I used to take meals to my room and hide them under my bed. I would forget about it and days later find mold growing there. My parents began to catch on when I was 14 because my dance instructor expressed concern about my thin frame. My parents told me there would be no more dance class if I did not start eating. So I would let them see me eat, but whenever I could I hid bites of my food all over the house and secretly threw it away when they weren’t watching. They began taking me to the doctor to monitor my weight gain – which was supposed to be 2 pounds per week. I remember a few times putting little bags of sand in my shoes before my appointment. I dumped weight gain shakes down the bathroom sink.
I loved being in control of what I ate – I loved the way it felt when my body started eating itself from the inside.
I gained enough weight to stay in class, and even became an apprentice at the school at age 15 – but I was far from healthy. My gums were thin as paper and my teeth wiggled in my mouth. My legs would be weak just from climbing the stairs in our house – but at dance class I pushed through the pain because I was doing what I loved. I couldn’t stop punishing my body for not being that image of perfection I had seen that first day. Every day I was tormented in my mind – I couldn’t fail, or “waste” all that time and money that had been poured out for the sake of my “specialness”. I began to think, “everyone would be better off if I just wasn’t here anymore.”
By the time I was 17 years old, the pressure to succeed had mounted. I decided to quit dancing. Despite the phone calls from the director of the school asking what they needed to do to get me to come back, despite my parents hugs and support, I quit…quit dreaming, quit pursuing my vision.
It took being separated from what I loved to help me to see the bigger picture.
I began to realize how selfish I had been. That my whole focus, all this time, had been on myself: me being perfect, me being the best, me doing it myself. I was the one putting pressure on myself, and in doing so, destroyed the joy of my love for dance. I had let fear completely take over. I was so concerned with pleasing everyone, that I couldn’t just enjoy all that I had been given.
That’s when my VISION changed. I decided that if I went back to dance, I had to go against my fears, and in order to do that, it couldn’t be about me anymore. I had to make it about others. The passion and excitement I had felt that first day I walked in, as a nine year old girl, returned to me as I began to visualize telling stories through dance that might encourage and empower people. I began to see myself helping other young girls to develop their love and gift of dancing without having to go through all that I did.
I returned to dance in 1999 at a small dance studio, and hopped around from there as opportunities arose. By 2005, I opened my own dance studio in Orlando Florida. Today I teach dance to youth, ages 3 and up. I have also started my own dance company – together we have performed in Peru and Scotland. I write and choreograph the stories and dances for our performances, which are all based on real-life stories of real people.
My favorite part of the Lovely Experience this weekend, was watching young girls’ self image be transformed so that they can now begin to dream bigger dreams. I know how powerful it is to have a vision for your life. If I could tell nine-year-old Sarah (or any of these girls) one thing, it would be not to be too afraid to have a dream that is bigger than you are. Fear may be a part of life, but it doesn’t have to stop you. As long as you have VISION, you can achieve anything.