A few years ago, I had to dance onstage in my underwear. I was performing in a small contemporary dance company, and late in rehearsals, the choreographer dropped a bombshell on us: during the piece, we were going to take off our long skirts and begin using them as props. We’d finish the dance wearing only prim Victorian-style blouses and lace-trimmed boy-shorts.
I’ve danced since I was three, and I have never been more nervous to go onstage than before that particular performance. I knew the choreography inside and out. I knew I danced it well. I knew my stage presence was strong. But I couldn’t imagine being that exposed onstage.
It wasn’t a modesty thing. It was a lifelong-struggle-with-body-image thing.
I’ve written before about how my ballet background contributed to poor body image as a teenager. (Here’s a post I wrote for Epic Reads in May: http://www.epicreads.com/blog/kathryn-holmes-hating-the-girl-in-the-mirror/) I was a curvy girl practicing an artform that values slender muscularity. I didn’t feel like I fit into this world that I loved, and I blamed myself.
In college, I dove deeper into modern dance, where body type is less of a factor than in classical ballet. I became an even stronger performer, broadening my skill set and my dance horizons. I also became less self-conscious about how I looked, and less anxious about whether my appearance had everyone—my peers, my teachers, the audience—judging me. But anyone who has struggled with anxiety and body image knows that the nasty inner voice that murmurs You’re fat, you’re ugly, no one wants to look at you is never completely gone. It lurks. It undermines. And when the moment is right, it strikes.
The underwear bombshell was one of those moments.
I went on a diet, despite the show date being close enough that I wouldn’t be able to change much about myself in time. I practiced the choreography alone in my bedroom, where I could stare at my bare legs and analyze every flaw without witnesses. In rehearsals, I worked hard and cracked self-deprecating jokes. Alone, I fretted. I was convinced no one would see me while I performed. They’d see my stomach, my butt, my thighs. They’d see a girl who had no business being in the spotlight.
My second YA novel, HOW IT FEELS TO FLY, follows ballerina Samantha to a therapy camp after her own body image issues lead her to start suffering panic attacks. At the camp, Perform at Your Peak, she meets other teen artists and athletes whose struggles with anxiety are affecting not only their performance at their chosen activity, but their mental and emotional health as a whole. Sam wants to learn how to control her anxiety, but it’s not going to be easy—especially with her obnoxious inner voice constantly reminding her of everything she’s doing wrong.
In writing this book, I wanted to let readers inside the head of a teen who’s her own worst enemy. I’ve been there. I know how it feels to care deeply about something, and to be good at it, but to be convinced physique will always matter more than talent. I’ve felt brittle with anxiety, like it would only take one more comment or sideways look to make me fall apart. I’ve fought to convince myself of my own worth, onstage and off.
This isn’t just a dance thing, by the way; many sports and performing arts have a focus on body type that can push practitioners to an unhealthy place. And it’s hard to be passionate about something that gives you anxiety. It’s hard to love something that’s hurting you.
So how do you push forward? That’s the other half of HOW IT FEELS TO FLY. I designed the book’s therapy camp setting (with guidance from several psychologists who work with dancers and athletes) to help Sam and her peers learn to open up about their feelings and identify their triggers. I hope readers with their own struggles will not only relate to Sam and the other characters, but also find a path of their own out of the dark hole anxiety can open up.
As for me, backstage before opening night—pacing, breathing, counting the minutes until the house lights went down—the only way forward was through.
I danced. It was terrifying and exhilarating and…surprisingly fun. When the last note faded into silence, I’ve never been more proud to take a bow.