Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet

VIKING

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First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Jenifer Ringer-Fayette

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Photograph credits appear
here
.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Ringer, Jenifer.

Dancing through it : my journey in the ballet / Jenifer Ringer.

pages cm

Includes index.

ISBN 978-0-698-15150-5

1. Ringer, Jenifer. 2. Ballerinas—United States—Biography. 3. New York City Ballet.

I. Title.

GV1785.R484A3 2014

792.802'8092—dc23

[B]

2013036975

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.

Version_1

To Mom and Dad, my encouragers and prayer warriors

To Becky, my sister and best friend

To Grace and Luke, my precious lights

To James, my husband and hero

 

Prologue

T
here is a ballet that is like an ocean: it seems to stretch beyond the horizons of the stage. No matter how many times I see or dance this ballet, George Balanchine’s
Serenade
, I always find something new to discover, something so beautiful that I wonder if the audience should laugh or cry.

When the curtain opens, it reveals seventeen women grouped in two diamonds that touch at one central tip. They wear long, light blue tulle skirts that blow softly in the breeze stirred by the curtain as it rises up from the stage. There is a dim blue light that makes the dancers seem like indistinct angels. They each have one hand raised toward the front corner of the stage, where the light is the brightest, as if they are shielding their eyes from a divine glow. As the orchestra begins to play Tchaikovsky’s quiet strings, the dancers slowly begin to move, each placing the wrist of her upraised hand against her temple as she turns her face away from the light. The movement and music build from there.

Soon, dancers are rushing on and off the stage, and key figures emerge: one woman, tall and statuesque; another, smaller, dancing quickly with light leaps; there will eventually be a third, the Waltz Girl, who comes in many measures later, finds love with a strong young man, but then loses him when the wind sweeps him and the rest of the women offstage. At the end of the third movement, this last woman falls to the ground, alone.

Then, though nothing visible changes on the stage, it seems that now the dancers are in some land in between heaven and earth. The tall
woman, the Dark Angel, enters, hair down, leading a new man to the fallen Waltz Girl. The Dark Angel shields the man’s eyes, as if they have traveled through lands that he is not allowed to see. He picks up the Waltz Girl, encouraging her to stand again.

The man dances in this hinterland with the three main women, all of them reaching and yearning for something they cannot quite grasp. Eventually, the Waltz Girl falls to the ground and cannot get up again. The Dark Angel covers the man’s eyes, and takes him away.

Six angels come, awakening the Waltz Girl once more. A motherly figure, flanked by three men, appears, and the Waltz Girl runs to her, embracing her and then once more sinking to her knees. The three men lift the Waltz Girl first to her feet and then even higher to stand on their shoulders. Finally, accompanied by the flock of angels, the men carry their fragile burden toward a new, brighter light that beckons to them from offstage. The Waltz Girl reaches for the light and then opens her arms, leading with her heart as she flies up to the heavens.

If I were to distill into one event what made me want to dance, I would say that dancing in
Serenade
was what ultimately led me to a career in ballet. Though I tiptoed through my childhood, often prancing instead of walking and locking myself in my room to dance wildly to disco music, I always thought of ballet as my hobby, my after-school activity. Even as I had successes at my ballet schools and got caught up in making myself the perfect ballerina, I always figured that after high school I would go to college, get a job, and get married, like regular people.

But when I was fourteen and a student at the Washington School of Ballet, the Washington Ballet was performing
Serenade
at the Kennedy Center and needed some of the advanced students to fill in the corps de ballet
.
I was one of the four students chosen. The moment I heard the music and began to learn steps that fit the music so well that they seemed inevitable, I knew my life had been changed. This was
dancing
. This felt completely
right.
If I were not allowed to dance these steps to
this music, something would always be missing from my life. And there was a moment during my first performance of
Serenade
that was like a light taking up residence in my chest.


I
did become a professional ballerina, but six years after all of my dreams came true, I found myself trapped inside them. I had been a bright and talented sixteen-year-old when the New York City Ballet offered me the chance to join its elite corps de ballet, one of the four girls chosen that year out of a country of talented teenagers. At twenty-one, I was promoted to soloist, an even greater achievement. To the outside world, I appeared to be one of those successful young people who would have an amazing career in a specialized world experienced by only the lucky few.

But the public saw only my upward trajectory as I went from one featured role to the next, slowly gaining the confidence and experience that might one day earn me the ultimate prize: principal dancer rank. Few noticed my absences from the stage during the times that I battled injuries, normal enough occurrences in the life of every elite athlete, and no one knew about my eating disorders. No one knew that I alternated between anorexia and compulsive overeating, completely unable to control my relationship with food. When I was in the phase of my cycle in which I under-ate, my weight for ballet was “good,” and I was onstage dancing almost every night. I took a weird pleasure in the bones showing through my skin. When I was in the overeating phase, I would slowly start gaining weight, which caused me to panic and grow paranoid as I imagined critical looks aimed in my direction.

The dangerous thing was that always, no matter what was happening during my days, I could lose myself in performances, and
Serenade
, in particular, could inevitably raise my spirits to a higher place—dangerous because it meant I never focused on addressing the identity and self-image battles I was facing. But over time, the overeating won out over the anorexia, and my weight gain became pronounced. Thinness is prized on the ballet stage; overweight dancers are considered failures
who have no self-control, or just do not “want it” badly enough. People at work avoided eye contact with me and left me isolated in my own little bubble of shame.

Inside that bubble I curled continually into myself, growing ever more still, until there was nothing of the dancer left in me. Outside the theater, if I heard music anywhere, my muscles would become leaden and I felt as if there were a great dark weight pressing on me, freezing me motionless where I stood. There came a time when even performing
Serenade
couldn’t make me feel beautiful, or even feel as if I were a part of something beautiful. There was just shame and self-hatred. I would gaze at my fellow dancers during a performance of
Serenade
as they swept like blue angels flying across the stage and yearn to be like them again. I felt separate, ugly, unworthy, worthless. I felt a desperate need to change, to fix myself, to escape this paralyzing, shadowy place in which I was bound. I watched the Waltz Girl as she was lifted up to heaven, and wished hopelessly that I were she. And I wondered how it was that I could be the same person as that little girl who had freely danced in her bedroom, compelled by something inside her to respond to the joy of music by
moving
with complete abandon.


D
ue to my weight struggles, I was eventually forced out of the ballet world, but after a year away, I was able to return to dancing professionally with the New York City Ballet as an entirely new person. And several years later, when a writer for the
New York Times
publicly criticized my body, I had the ability to perceive the criticism as untrue. I had a great deal of help with my personal struggles from so many people, and the story I tell in this book includes many but not all of them. I have dear, close friends who I know will be there for me throughout my life, as well as three people who are so necessary to my well-being that they seem to be woven into my makeup—my parents and my sister—but during my hardest times, I shut them out. So much of the time I describe in these pages is my journey alone and separate from my friends and family as I struggled to learn how to be a freestanding adult who
could meet life’s problems and deal with them in a healthy way. I love my family with all of my heart and know that I have always had their unconditional love and support. This period of my life, however, involved learning and growing that I needed to do on my own.

I also cannot tell my story without including, in an overt way, my Christian faith, and writing this book has made this clearer than ever to me. I have never been particularly public about my faith and have kept it fairly personal, which some would say does not reflect well on me as a Christian. In writing this book, I realized how compartmentalized I have kept my faith, and have been trying to more successfully integrate it into my life so that I am the same person everywhere I am, no matter who I am with or what I am doing. Indeed, saying that I am a Christian does not make me perfectly good by a long shot; it just means that as I fail and struggle, I know that I have a Savior who came to rescue me. Here, I describe one aspect of my Christian journey that has an element of closure to it because my eating disorders and depression have, by God’s grace, ceased to exist, but there are so many other areas of my walk in which I fall down or make poor choices and continue to need God’s grace and mercy and guidance.

Another reason it has been challenging for me to talk about my faith in this book is that it is so important to me, and I desperately want to get it
right.
That, I suppose, is a bit of the perfectionist ballerina still inside me. But I did not go to seminary and cannot argue about faith with logic and learned examples. All I can do is relate my own experience with God and hope that my honesty will come through with the sincerity and humility I intend. And I must trust that God and those who read this book will extend me grace if I fail to get something right.

I feel so blessed to have been allowed to dance for a living. To have lost dancing so completely and then regain it has made me appreciate every chance I have to dance, not only on the stage in the professional sense but also in life, for the pure joy of it. Dancing was returned to me, and now when I hear music anywhere I can move freely, unchained, and be glad.

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