Hello! My name is Mel, aka Skydancer, and I feel so privileged to be guest-posting today. Stefanie discovered me via a little TV show broadcast this year, but I discovered her over a year ago when my attention was brought to her blog through the Dance Advantage Digest that gets delivered to my inbox every week. You’re all readers of Biggest Girl in the Ballroom, so I don’t need to say how engaging, warm and honest this blog is! Thank you, Stefanie, for the invitation to write for your blog! So, as I’ve said, my name is Mel (known in the blogosphere as Skydancer), I’m from a small town in South Wales and I’m an aspiring Dance Artist and Dance Maker. I’m currently doggedly pursuing a goal of entering a professional contemporary and classical ballet dance training course in London, but am facing all sorts of difficulties securing funding. So far, so run of the mill, right? There are thousands of fellow dancers out there who all share the same ambition of dancing professionally, and probably face the same financial difficulties, so what’s so unique about me that a guest post is warranted? Well, for starters I am thirty-one years old and I’ve been studying classical ballet for 3 years. I used to fight semi-professional in Mixed Martial Arts/K1/Grappling, and I recently took part in a TV series called ‘Big Ballet’…. This is me:
Not your average classical ballerina, right?! Well I don’t want to be your average classical ballerina! My passion is to start creating and performing physical Dance Theatre that incorporates elements of classical ballet. Kind of like the neo-classical works created by Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe, but with added Eastern movement practices and weaponry. I want to challenge those physical boundaries and limitations that are placed in the way of women in dance; I want to dance powerfully, emotionally and impactfully. But most importantly I want to engage peoples’ minds, not just to fall in love with a moving body, but to start developing curiosities and opinions about dance, particularly classical ballet. If a female dancer is strong enough, tall enough and powerful enough to dance that way using classical technique, why can’t she? If a dancer weighs at her lightest 135 lbs and at her heaviest 155 lbs (like me!) why isn’t there room for her to perform professional in a classical way? So why do I have these strong and somewhat heretical opinions? Well, it all started at the beginning of my life….
A Mini Mover
I’ve been dancing since a little girl, although not in the typical way that most little girls did! My mother herself was a dancer and taught classes at the dance studio in my hometown, and as a toddler I would go along with her and just immerse myself in that world. Then I became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and would try my best to copy his dance routines and practice them until I felt that they were ready for my adoring public (my bemused older brother, my mother’s gay friends, and some teddies). At one stage I would even have dance-offs with my friend, Rico, and I would be genuinely disappointed when I lost! The seeds of perfectionism develop so young! I danced in every singe school production throughout Primary and Comprehensive School and was lucky that my gym teachers also incorporated a lot of dance into physical education studies. I was also a junior athlete, specialising in 200m, 400m, and 200m hurdles. I loved moving with power and impact, but I was obsessed with the grace and refined elegance of classical ballet. Weirdly, despite encouraging my love for classical dance by sitting me down to watch videos of Fonteyn and Nureyev, Mischa and Gelsey, Natalia Makarova, Waye Sleep and Sylvie Guillem, my mother simply wouldn’t allow me to take formal ballet classes. I was ballet that I wanted to learn so desperately. I wanted to know what it was to move like a Firebird, to enter a stage couruing en pointe, to leap 2 meters into the air as “le Corsaire’s’ Ali and to extend and dance out like Guillem herself. I didn’t want to stay on the ground, I wanted to stretch and fly! Yet, despite pleadings and pleadings it simply wasn’t to be. I contented myself with being able to dance and move as much as possible, and clearly showed potential for it as I was invited to audition for a stage school about 30 minutes from my hometown. Despite initially seeming happy for me to do it, within a day my mother soon changed her mind. I will never have the opportunity to ask my mother why she was so reluctant to let me develop as a dancer at that crucial ‘right’ time because she passed away after battling with cervical cancer in 1998. Having experienced the effects of the same mental illness that plagued her (Bipolar Disorder, Type I) I am in a position where I often analyse her behaviour and life choices. Relations with here were always fractured and tempestuous; at moments she had so much love for my brother and me that it would consume her. But then just as quickly her mood would darken and she would say and do things to hurt us. My birth father was violent and abusive, and it doubt had a sever effect on the way she raised us. Her relationship with her second husband wasn’t that much better and she never seemed to be fully equipped to raise two intelligent, creative and empathetic children. At times I allow myself to wonder what my dance career would have been like had she only said ‘yes’, but that’s a fantasy and a dream and wherever possible I try to live my life now, in the moment.
I didn’t deal very well with my mother’s death, just as I didn’t deal with her illness; I was 15 years old and going through a pretty difficult time with my own mental health. Nine months after she died I managed to scrape through my GCSE exams by the skin of my teeth and applied, auditioned and was accepted into a Performing Arts course at my local college. I was exposed to more training and development in jazz and modern, but never classical ballet, and was also given the creative freedom to start playing with my own choreographic ideas (even though the results were pretty dreadful!) I was content to be dancing around, singing when I wasn’t dancing, and studying stagecraft when I wasn’t doing either! My grand career plan at 16 was to graduate from college, move to London and start work as a jobbing dancing in musical theatre. I was well aware that I wouldn’t make it as a classical ballet dancer, but I certainly believed I had the potential to reach as high as performing in ‘Cats’ and ‘Phantom’ on a West End stage! Even though I had managed to create this opportunity to dance, my mental health was spiralling further and further out of my control. Not long after graduation things came to a head, the boy I was in love with broke my heart and I had also lost my maternal grandmother a year after my mother’s death. My brother, too, was struggling and we both ended up being hospitalised around the same time. This was the first time I ended up on a mental health ward, dosed up on mood stabilisers to numb my energy but the treatment I received there set off a pattern which affected my physical health too. When I was released a few months later I was bloated, out of shape and probably the lowest I would ever be. I had only just turned 19, but I convinced myself that I was too fat and too old to pursue my dreams of moving to London. So I turned my back on dance, becoming angry and resentful. And there was only one thing I could do with that anger, and that was to let it lead me onto a warrior’s path.
Mel the Fighter
I needed to move and felt an instinctive pull towards competing in the ring and the octagon. As much as I had admired strong dancers in my youth, Bruce Lee was also a complete inspiration to me (he himself was a champion Cha-Cha dancer) and martial arts seemed like a natural fit. I had dabbled in some Judo and kickboxing classes in my teens, so I started doing more than dabbling. I never really had a specific reason for wanting to fight; it just seemed like the right thing to do. I am very much an all or nothing type of person and like to do things fully, and fighting seemed like the ultimate progression when training in martial arts. So I started learning as many arts as I could to equip myself as a well-rounded warrior!
Dance was so connected to my emotions, walking away from it meant that I could also walk away from having to deal with my mental health. Instead I could obsess over my physical body, conditioning it to take blows and take-downs, hardening my muscles and developing even more power and explosiveness in my legs. I was obsessed with making myself strong, pushing myself through conditioning workouts that would make even Rocky weep! I was no longer human; I was a machine with a single purpose – to be the most powerful. Period. I handled full-time work to fund my training and spent every weekend in the gym. I had no need for human comfort and compassion, I knew how to get my physical needs met and my brother was the only one who I trusted to have a real emotional connection with. Ironically even though I was studying the philosophical side of Martial Arts through the practice of Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do, I wasn’t paying any sort of mindful attention to that. For me it was all about the physically, I’d shut up my emotions and toughened up my armour.
Returning to Dance
Even though I was focused on conditioning myself, all I was doing was wearing my body out. And because I was pushing myself physically I was pushing myself mentally. Yes I was competing and enjoying some success, but I wasn’t able to sustain and perform properly. I wasn’t functioning! I realised after watching a performance of ‘Cleopatra’ by the Northern Ballet that I had to try and get back into dance again. I had been able to take contemporary classes and some salsa classes on downtime from training so wasn’t completely removed from it. But my heart was calling out for ballet, and though it took some courage I did walk into an adult ballet class and started to move from my soul. Yes, I was approaching thirty, yes I had the physique of a fighter not a slender sylph but I could dance. I had lovely feedback from my ballet teacher who was impressed not just with my physical capacity for movement but the quality and expression that I could deliver when dancing. And I was focused; just as I spent hours training the same jab combination on the pads or the same wing tsun combination on the wooden dummy I poured that same enthusiasm and dedication into learning how to plie, how to tendu, how to develope a leg, how to dance en pointe. I knew my body could do these things; I just didn’t have the muscle memory to execute them. Learning ballet technique also complimented my martial arts training; I became faster and more grounded in the ring instead of being blindly aggressive. I started to wonder about where I could take my potential as a dancer, I knew joining the Royal Ballet was out, but would there be room for me in a community dance group (if such things existed) and how could I learn the techniques and tools to bring structure to the dances that I created in my head? An opportunity to take the RAD’s Grade 6 Ballet exam came up at the same time as an opportunity to fight fora UK title in K1, so I chose the exam over the fight and was awarded a Distinction for my efforts. My Martial Arts training gradually slowed down, now my time was taken up with performances with my dance studio. I was happy just dancing around again, and I was making real connections within myself and with other people.
(third from right)
As I shed my inner armour my body started to get leaner and lighter. The increased focus on ballet and Pilates developed longer, leaner muscles in my legs. I was still incredibly physical, with wide shoulders and that dynamic movement quality more commonly seen in male dancers. But I was moving with freedom, jumping higher and faster, extending longer and opening out. I revelled in it, feeling healthy and happy.
I wish I could say that was the start of my career, but sadly it wasn’t. After about 6 months of completely stopping my Martial Arts training and conditioning my body I got a bit lazy and I gained weight. It wasn’t masses, just a few kilos, but my obsession over that affected my eating habits and my mood. Again. I went back on the medication to make managing life easier, but I still hadn’t figured out the best way to condition myself as a dancer let along how to handle the changes that Lithium causes to my body. I was sad and getting heavier, I went from UK size 10 (US size 6) to a size 14 (US size 10) and convinced myself again that I was too old and fat to be a professional dancer.
And that’s what led me to participating in ‘Big Ballet’. I saw this advert one day Facebook:
and after talking it over with my ballet teacher and friend I sent off my audition clip and rearranged a meeting with one of the producers to discuss the show in more depth. It sounded like the ideal training and performance opportunity for me and I let my imagination run wild with visions of rigorous dance training, conditioning and nutrition advice. I met the producer and we got on like a house on fire, and had a great discussion about how important it is to show different types of dancers. I was concerned that it would be another ‘fat Reality TV’ show, but she convinces me that it was more about challenging stereotypes and that I should be a good fit for the process since I was so strong and physically capable. I imagined that the resulting ‘Swan Lake’ production would be just as impactful as Matthew Bourne’s, and I fully believed that in 6 months I could be trained to execute a professional level performance. I knew I had achieved so much just dancing in community performances and with a few hours dance classes a week. Six months intense training seemed to me that it would be a good career development opportunity as much as a chance to showcase the full potential of different physical types of dancers. Unfortunately my naive enthusiasm was a little mis-guided! It was clear from a few weeks into the process that my ideas of the show were not shared with my fellow participants; the two mentors (Monica Loughman and Wayne Sleep) hired to deliver the show and the production company. I come from a background of serious training, dedication and graft and was genuinely shocked that the other dancers picked didn’t have that same mindset. Since I first started ballet in 2011 I had worked with a number of teachers and choreographers, including an ex-professional dancer who had trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School! All of them treated me as a dancer, they would correct me and reign me in or push me when needed, but to them I was in their class for a reason, In ‘Big Ballet’ I was just seen as a plus-sized amateur. Wayne and Monica had no idea of my past achievements in dance and Martial Arts, and the continuous presence of the TV cameras made me feel incredibly wary about sharing my dance truth. I didn’t want to be mocked and I didn’t want to be yet another sob story. I closed myself up again, gritted my teeth and forced myself to see the process out. But I’m glad I did, because even though the experience of filming etc. wasn’t the one I hoped for, going through that process made me even more firm in my resolve to pursue a professional dance career. When filming ended I started to take action to get my body under control again, to stablilse my moods and to find, or if necessary, to create opportunities in which I could dance.
At the start of 2014 I was hired by a UK contemporary dance company to work with them as a supporting dance artist for a major BBC TV drama. I got to dance every day for a week and met some professional actors who I greatly admire. I also took part in a UK exhibition that challenged the notions of female sexuality, and got to display my strength and elegance as a moving body that interacted with the crowd. Yes, I felt certain that a dance career was possible for me, but I also knew that I had a long way to go in terms of my training and development before I could really get it started.
(I’m kneeling on the left)
So I started applying for professional training courses at major dance institutions in the UK. There were quite a few ‘no’s’ to begin with, but the audition experience in itself was valuable. I made connections, got exposure to different styles of contemporary dance and also go to appreciate my own strengths more. In May I auditioned for the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance, the first training audition that resulted in a ‘yes’! I felt relieved and happy, but I didn’t take into account the complications I would face trying to secure funding. So I’ve had to apply for new courses and think of alternate routes that I can get the training that I need, but I’ve been doing so with a positive mindset. I am passionate about dance, it is as vital to me as my breath, and I am pursuing it with as much courage as I can muster. I’m not ‘there’ yet, wherever that may actually be, but I am on my way to getting there. I am a warrior and will probably always be on the battlefield, and my path is littered with losses and victories. I’ve had my fair share of losses so far, and am hopeful that I will be getting victories soon even if they are hard-won.
The F Word
Anyway, enough about me! The biggest impact that ‘Big Ballet’ has had, and the one that I am most grateful for, is that people across the globe are now talking and discussing bodies, dance, health and mindsets. Funnily enough before taking part in the process I never personally defined dancers as fat or thin just as I never defined people by their race. I’ve come across dancers who were bigger than me and smaller than me, but they’ve just been dancers to me! Anyone, of any age, gender, size, colour, or sexuality who walks into a space and starts dancing is exactly that – a dancer. Sure, there are opportunities that are only available to certain ‘types’ of dancers, but that shouldn’t stop anyone who has the passion to move and develop themselves mentally and physically from doing it. I do believe that you look like what you do, I’m proof of that! Ballet dancers look like ballet dancers because they train every day, same for boxers, marathon runners, and gymnasts. Nobody should be prevented from walking into a ballet class or workshop or taking part in a performance just because they don’t already ‘look’ like the typical finished body. Dance is an art form, even though it is aesthetic and athletic, and what a person can give with their heart and with their soul is just as relevant as what a superb physical specimen can do with their body. Dancing regularly will change your physical appearance, but it will also develop your emotional intelligence and can help you to enrich your life. It is something that needs to be open to anyone who wants to learn, the fears of not fitting in are only fears, and they aren’t always reality. As far as professional careers go, I also think ‘Big Ballet’ might help to be a catalyst for aspirational dancers who don’t fit the mould to go out there and carve their own career paths. I’m doing it, it’s not easy and there are moments when you doubt yourself and think that you should just give up. But if you’re anything like me you know that giving up on your dance ambitions is like giving up on life itself, so you have to keep going,. Your journey might not exactly be the one you hoped for as a dreamy child, but if you work hard enough and keep pushing through those blockages and barriers you can pursue and achieve your dreams.
Amazing story, isn’t it!? If you’ve been inspired as much as I have, you can support Mel as she pursues her goals via her GoFundMe account http://www.gofundme.com/SkydancerFund
Follow her on Twitter: here @MelMAOW
Follow her on Facebook: here
Read her blog: here
[…] I was asked to write a guest blog post for 2013 winner of Dance Advantage Editors’ Choice (top dance blog) Stefanie Lein’s Biggest Girl in the Ballroom. The post covered by dance journey up until now, including my stint in Big Ballet, and also talked about my future ambitions. If you haven’t caught up on it yet, you can do so by visiting this link. […]