When I was growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I had two major loves: Carrie Bradshaw’s adventures and outfits on Sex and the City and ballet.
Truly one of my first loves in life, ballet was (and remains) a passion-driven endeavor I’d seeped myself in thoroughly from the first time I saw The Nutcracker. I was seven years old when I saw the performance, though I vividly recall being enraptured by the magic, beauty, and mesmerizing-ness of the entire production. At that moment, I became infatuated with ballet. And, like falling in love with a person, it was heady, intoxicating, and hit me with a wallop.
The dancers’ fluid and graceful movements were matched by their fierce, powerful strength. I wanted to be that strong and powerful, and also, graceful and beautiful and dazzling. It’s because of ballet that I’ve rarely experienced one of the inner-conflicts that often plagues the female experience: Should I be beautiful and gentle and feminine, or should I be strong and powerful and brave?
In ballet, it’s never a question of either/or. You can — and often, must — be all those things at once.
After that fateful day at The Nutcracker, I asked my mom to sign me up for ballet classes. From then on, I studied and trained, going to classes regularly after school throughout grade school, middle school, and high school. In high school, I studied with and joined a local ballet company, Ballet Midwest, where I performed in Swan Lake, Cinderella, and, coming full circle: The Nutcracker. It was hard work, and – it was heaven.
I love how difficult, taxing, and plain old hard ballet is. I love how much of me — body, soul, and sweat — this style of dance demands. Ballet requires striving for excellence at every literal and metaphorical turn. And it is a lifelong pursuit, too, which is what makes it so thrilling for those who dance ballet. You can never be perfect at it; you’re always working, always reaching, always growing.
“…the more seeped in ballet I’ve become, I’ve embraced the marriage of both: strength and power, plus grace and beauty.”
Because of ballet, I understood that strength, confidence, and a commanding presence do not preclude femininity, owning one’s sexuality, and embracing the standard of beauty that resonates with you. The ballerinas I adored growing up modeled this for me. And the more seeped in ballet I’ve become, I’ve embraced the marriage of both: strength and power, plus grace and beauty. This graceful, strong form of dance, and I have been together for the better part of 20 years.
As much as I fell in love with ballet, it is with equal measure that I — and I’m ashamed to say this — became taken with smoking. I was 15, I think. I was sitting curbside outside of a house party with a guy I had a crush on, and he offered me a cigarette. “I don’t know how to smoke,” I said.
“I’ll teach you how,” he said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. There we sat, as he taught me how to inhale from the cigarette and release. I was entranced by the way the end tip of the cigarette would flare up, creating a tiny night light for us on the suburban curb on that summer night. And as the tiny plume of smoke rose from my mouth and into the night sky, it looked a bit like an obscured fairy, flying away in a gentle puff of enchanting smoke.
It was at this same time in my life that Sex and the City dominated the HBO airwaves and the hearts of many. Protagonist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) was constantly lighting up. On street corners. After dates (before and during dates, too, for that matter). Post-coital, in bed. At her desk while writing her column. Carrie’s smoking habit was as much a part of her character as was her obsession with Manolo Blahnik shoes and Mr. Big.
Carrie embodied the big dreams I had for my life at that age: I wanted to fall in love, I wanted to live in Manhattan, I wanted to write great stories that made people laugh and think, and I wanted to look good doing it all — wearing cute dresses, amazing shoes, and Patricia Field-styled looks.
I did finally make it. To New York, that is. In college, after three — three! (persistence really does pay off) — separate applications submitted to the Late Show with David Letterman, I was offered a production internship at the show. During those halcyon days, I was living my teenage dreams: going out nightly in New York, smoking and chatting up guys, wearing cute clothes (less designer, more Forever 21), and writing bits and bobs here and there, but making no discernable progress on publication. I felt guilty about every cigarette I smoked, knowing how much my parents would hate it. But in a rebellious, careless way, I also felt I’d earned the right to do it: I was growing up, I was living life on my terms.
After college, I returned to ballet, which I’d taken a break from. Ballet broke my heart in high school when I accepted the reality that I wasn’t good enough to go pro and join a company like New York City Ballet or the Royal Ballet in London. Even so, like any first love that never fully leaves you, I took my love of ballet with me, wherever I went — and I traveled all over
Sometimes, I’d go years without touching a cigarette, then fall back down the smoking rabbit hole, and smoke half a pack a day, usually, when I was lonely or wrestling with something big or feeling out of sorts.
One of the first things I’d do while traveling was to find a nearby dance studio and plot my ballet class intake. Dancing ballet is like breathing for me. (Though, breathing is admittedly more difficult when you’re smoking outside of bars till 2 a.m., as I was doing pretty much all through my 20s.) I entertained thoughts of quitting, but in new cities, it felt easier to strike up conversations with strangers, and make new friends, if I was asking for a light.
Sometimes, I’d go years without touching a cigarette, then fall back down the smoking rabbit hole, when I was lonely or wrestling with something big or feeling out of sorts. Smoking also granted an instant connection with a stranger; it was a shared secret.
Smoking doesn’t make you cool – but many of the coolest people I knew were smokers, and I loved these sacred ten minutes of freedom together. I was drawn to the chance at connection, especially in new cities when connections felt scant, smoking granted. Smoking was my social crutch. I wanted to abandon the crutch, but in some ways, I felt I was in too deep. The thought of giving it up felt like willingly pulling out the rug from under myself. Craving balance, I kept the status quo – until the status quo became not good enough.
Later, long after graduation and after many years of globetrotting and soaking up adventures, I returned to New York City. With a renewed zeal, I recommitted myself to ballet. I poured myself into classes and workshops at the best of the best: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, STEPS on Broadway (yes, the studio from that infamous jazz class scene in Centerstage), Broadway Dance Center, and more.
My little nicotine companion was never a mainstay but was purchased in times of stress, or after a breakup, or simply a hot summer night when I wanted to feel like Carrie Bradshaw strolling through Manhattan. And these packs eventually became burdensome, and for me, a source of shame.
I’d tell myself: Anne, you’ll never be the dancer you can fully be as long as you’re smoking! You’re limiting your breathing capacity, and thus your ability! Let this go. It’s time. (In fact, it’s long overdue.)
I could handle fighting my nicotine cravings, but I couldn’t tolerate disappointing myself again.
Finally, blessedly, I kicked the habit. I was never fully committed to quitting before; I’d want to quit, I’d hope to quit, and I’d sorta-kinda-try to quit, but I wasn’t all in. For me, successfully quitting smoking was about committing to the decision that I wanted better for myself, and sticking to that decision at all costs. Cravings pass, but self-loathing sticks around. I could handle fighting my nicotine cravings, but I couldn’t tolerate disappointing myself again. I knew that my mental resolve was stronger than my physical wants. In short: I wasn’t able to quit until I committed to it.
No more, “Hey, can I bum a cigarette?” from the odd bartender or random person seeking reprieve outside with a smoke. No more, “Hey, can I give you a dollar for one of those?” outside a party when I’m feeling shy and want to escape. I’m sitting in my discomfort — which lessens as time passes — and relishing in my commitment to the thing that prevailed over all: my love ballet.
Ballet may have broken my heart when I was young. But it saved me when I finally grew up.