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Death by Ballet: A Definition

5 mins read

I met Galia in Mark Wallace’s first year seminar on religion and literature, and I knew she was a dancer from the start.

She started her dancing career in ballet. For thirteen years, from three to sixteen, she had a passionate relationship with it, constantly struggling with the feeling that ballet was a rigid and glamorous perfectionism that was anathema to freedom, but also loving the structure and beauty that it contained. Ballet embodied masochism, endurance, and endless ambition. She practiced relentlessly.

It was also a metaphor for the objectification that she felt in her life. She felt her identity was reduced to her achievements, as the world champion ballet dancer, the tennis player, the straight-A student. Ballet was a major source of her eating disorder.

At sixteen, she won first place in a prestigious world ballet contest in Barcelona for an original solo act, where she performed those feelings in a dance based on Barbie. Barbie, like her, was objectified and crippled by perfection. A judge at the contest was so touched by the dance that she cried. She could have gone anywhere at that point, but she chose the riskiest possible path: she quit.

She switched to African dancing later that year, and described her process of loosening up as one of the most difficult and paradoxical struggles of her life—an intense overcoming of self-doubt and a lifetime’s worth of inhibitions. In the process, she overcame her eating disorder, and became one of the fullest, most vibrant human beings I have ever met.

She came to Swarthmore expecting an affirmation of the liberation-seeking side of her identity. She wanted a community who understood her fight against objectification and repression.

And they did—on paper. Swarthmore’s intense focus on channeling everything through the lens of academia reminded her of the perfectionism of ballet. Everything other than her intellectualism was written off and ignored. Likewise, there was the same masochism, the same ambition, and the same endless endurance seemingly for its own sake. This was overwhelming to her, and she transferred out of Swarthmore after her first semester.

Are we like the ballet? That is the question that Swarthmore College must ask itself. Is our beauty, like Galia’s ballet, inextricable from death?

It’s not a question that can be answered easily. It is at once intimate and political, and asks us to tangle with the personal and interpersonal forces that bring us together. If you are honest about asking it though, consider taking a weekend off and traveling to New York. Or take a year off and go to China.

I don’t offer Galia’s experience as consolation for anyone else who might feel stifled at Swarthmore. It’s different for everyone. Some people are happy here. Some people are trying to make friends and are frustrated. Others are overworked and don’t have enough time for their own commitments. None of those are mutually exclusive either. Some people are happy, overworked, and frustrated, all in one. The question is whether the mixture is liberating or noxious for you.

Or maybe it’s both. In any case, socially sanctioned times to think about the future are rare, and there might not be many opportunities given to you to truly reflect before graduation. It’s up to you to seize those quiet moments for yourself.

I don’t think the question is whether Galia could have made it work here, but rather whether it would have been worth it for her. It is for some people, and it isn’t for others. She seems to be doing fine in New Orleans, meeting new people every day, participating in the local community as a member rather than an observer, and immersing herself in its imperfection. There are no right or wrong answers—this is your life, not Swat’s.

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