The Ugly Truth

Listen to The Ugly Truth on!

No… this is not a movie review, although the movie is pretty freaking hilarious.

Hi, I’m Ellie Kim, and a lot of people know me as “The Dancer.”

I’ve been dancing since I could walk, at about 18 months old. My mom used to worship dance in her living room when she was just a few years older than I am right now, and me being the copycat I was, I mimicked her movements. The girls I saw dancing on the video screen, I mimicked their movements. There is actual video footage of Baby Ellie dancing in a diaper to a worship song called “Set Me On Fire.” Does anybody remember that worship song?

I started formal training two weeks before my seventh birthday. My ballet teacher was 21 years old at the time. We went out to dinner recently and were reminiscing about the fact that I am almost the same age she was when she first started teaching me. It’s utter insanity. I’ve been with her ever since.

A lot of people recently have been asking me why I’ve chosen to take an extensive break from dance. To be fair, I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I don’t need to explain why I need a break or what is happening. But now that I am past the process of getting things in order, let me explain. And please hear me on this: We can pretend this world of ballet doesn't exist, but it does, and I feel like it's important to show you the whole journey. So here goes.

There have been several times in my life where I have 100% been ready to walk away from dance; you can ask my teachers. Years of beating your body into submission, multiple injuries, expanding your mental capacity beyond its limits, it can take a toll on you. Ballet is a world where correction is a constant, and very few words of encouragement tend to be given.

They tell you how to fix it. They tell you why it’s wrong. They can tell you to do it right, and sometimes they gaslight you. No matter how many ways they can explain it, sometimes your mind and your body just can’t communicate it.

And this was my experience for 13 out of (nearly) 15 years. 13 years of telling your body it’s not good enough, 13 years of telling yourself you’re not working hard enough, 13 years of feeling like you won’t ever get there. A lot of things play into having this mindset.

I lost my love and passion for dance at around 15 years old. A lot of young dancers will say that ballet is their safe place, that ballet is their escape. For me, it was for a little while. But then it was tainted after I was introduced to the “real world” of ballet.

I grew up having (basically) private lessons in some weird environments: we danced at a studio that was so sketchy, what was left of the floor was made of broken grocery store tiles. We danced at a hip-hop studio where the hip-hoppers would interrupt class ALL THE TIME. We were forced to have a rehearsal in a waiting room. And sometimes, when we got locked out of the studio, we danced in the parking lot, which at the time was a messy construction zone off of Q street. I’ve danced in pointe shoes on basketball wood floor that had hills going up and down. I’ve danced in the tiniest dance studios with babies, chickens, cats and dogs running around- you think I’m joking? I’ve got documentation to prove it.

I’ve danced in big studios with beautiful floors and nice facilities. But as nice and appealing as they were to the eye, what I dealt with in those environments was painful for me. It made me realize that dance, as hard as it was physically, was also really hard emotionally. Being at some of these places made me realize that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good you are, if they don’t like you, they won’t cast you. If you don’t play their political games, they’ll pretend you don’t exist. And sometimes, if you choose to follow what your body is saying, they’ll humiliate you.

In the ballet world, a lot of people (I’ve met) either don’t care or don’t share they care about the well being of your emotions, your mental health, or your technique. They care about how many awards you can win, they care about how you can make them look better. I’ve seen people push kids in ballet way too far. I’ve known people who have committed suicide over ballet. I’ve watched people humiliate kids and teachers fight with parents.

The ugly truth about ballet is this: just because you work hard doesn’t mean anything— sometimes you’re just not enough for people.

Dance was my identity, and I didn’t have a healthy relationship with it. When I got into a company, I was excited, until I was in it. It wasn’t anything I expected it to be. I thought, being in a company, that I wouldn’t have to deal with the things I dealt with at these different training academies, I thought companies had higher standards, such as having no tolerance policies for bullying, sexual harassment, making sure it was clear that creating a safe environment for people to work in was a value. Not saying I experienced sexual harassment, but I have been bullied since I was a kid.

What made matters worse was the fact that as a kid, I was bullied by people who were twice my age. I’ve been bullied by teachers. I’ve been bullied by colleagues. It damaged me; it damaged my self-esteem, it damaged my relationship with dance, and sometimes, I took my frustration out on my teachers who did care about me and who did love me.

Towards the end of my training, I had teachers telling me that I wasn’t working hard enough. If I wanted to be professional, I needed to get into a school. They told me I was getting old. They told me I was fat and that I needed to lose weight. They told me I wasn’t strong enough or flexible enough. Some told me I was barely talented enough. But some people did believe in me— people I’ve only met twice, people I’ve only taken class with once in my life, they believed in me.

Aside from this, I had been getting injuries from the time I was 12 ’til now. I had hip tendonitis for several years. I had serious back injuries that kept me out for months. I struggled with shin splints for five years. I would sprain and twist my ankles and knees because of poor placement. Injuries put in you in a space of depression and this overwhelming anxiety that you might never be able to dance again.

Dance is like a drug— it can be addicting. The pain is like an abusive relationship— you want to go back for more. And having that mindset is not okay— it’s not healthy.

I decided after I got into a company, that I wanted to be a healthy dancer. I wanted to be a good dancer and a healthy human being. I wanted to know that when life hit, I had the support I needed. I wanted to know that when things weren’t doing okay, I had friends— I had a family— and I found that in three teachers in my entire career of dance.

When God spoke to me on Yom Kippur that I was supposed to spend a year in full-time ministry, I was nervous, but deep down, I wanted an out of dance. Not to bash anyone or the company, but comparing it to what I’ve always dreamed of, it was the ultimate let down. I was miserable— mentally, physically, emotionally, I could not keep it together.

I had the worst anxiety while I was in the company, and there was nothing and no one there to help me through it. I would call my mom crying, my teacher back home crying, because of how awful I felt. I had struggled before with anorexia, and every time I would look in the mirror, I struggled with seeing an image my mind would make up. I would be driving to the studio and thoughts would enter my head of driving off the road. I knew that it wasn’t okay, and every time I imagined dance, I knew even though I did, at the very bottom of my heart, love it, I also, at this moment, truly hated it.

I knew I wanted to quit. I talked to my Mom and she told me, “A break, yes. Quitting, no. You were meant to dance.” It was the last possible thing I wanted her to say to me. I wanted her to tell me that it was okay to quit. I wanted someone to justify the desire in my heart to walk away entirely from dance. But I couldn’t. I knew she was right.

I felt like I had lost all love and desire to dance. So when I got offered to do The Nutcracker, I wrestled with the idea. But truly, it was the best thing I could have done for myself. Dancing with the cast, the directors, and experiencing a true environment of genuine kindness and hospitality gave me the hope I needed that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to quit. Doing the Nutcracker reminded me how much I did love to dance, how much I loved to play with movement, how much I genuinely loved the art form. It also made me realize how many abusive environments I’d been apart of, and that experiencing abuse made me afraid to keep doing dance.

If it wasn’t okay for me to be in an abusive relationship with a person, why would it be okay for me to be in an abusive relationship with dance and its environment?

It's not. It’s not okay. And my god, I wanted someone to tell me, “Hey, it’s not okay that you’re experiencing this. It’s not okay that you’re in an abusive environment.” And maybe they did— but I didn’t hear it. I’m not sure I could, because dance made me feel like I was drowning. And when it got to the point where I felt like I wanted to not necessarily end my life because of dance, but end my career because I hated my life, I knew I needed to step away.

Also, I don’t believe that God created me to lead a miserable life just to die. That’s not the God I serve. So after I finished an incredible eight shows of Nutcracker, I decided to take an extensive break. I chose to start fresh with dance, reintroduce myself to it, reintroduce myself to my body, reintroduce my body to dance.

I’ve been exercising because I enjoy it. I’ve been strengthening because I feel good doing it. I’ve been doing a ballet barre because I love it. I’ve been taking care of my body— taking my vitamins, drinking the right amount of water, eating the right foods, sleeping well— because my body freaking deserves it.

I’ve been taking care of my mental health by seeing someone who’s been able to help me process the pain and trauma and I can say confidently, I’m breaking bad mindsets on a daily basis. I’ve been taking care of my emotional health by dealing with each obstacle and hardship as they come. Day by day, I am improving. I’ve been intentional about keeping track of my habits, how I’m feeling, and what I’m processing. For instance, I learned that I go into self-destruction mode because I feel like I’m losing control, and I’d rather self-destruct and feel a sense of control than have life hit me with something I can’t control. That’s definitely not a healthy mindset.

I’ve been stewarding this dream by not running away from dance, but doing my research: what do I need to be a healthy, happy, dancing human being? What kind of environment do I want to live in? Work in? Dance in? And most of all: if I were to open my own performing arts school, what kind of environment would I want my kids to grow up in? What kind of culture do I want to set up? What kind of example do I want to lead?

I personally believe that every dance company & dance training academy should have these things:

- A guidance counselor/on-site therapist.

- A physical therapist.

- A (workout) trainer.

- A nutritionist.

Going to summer intensives and seeing these people once in a whole year is not enough. It’s needed on a regular basis. It’s important to train young dancers to have healthy habits, a healthy relationship with their body, and good, strong mental health and emotional wholeness. It’s important that culture and values be enforced to avoid emotional, verbal, and mental abuse, and upheld by both the students and the team of faculty.

If kids are running to dance as their escape, ask yourself this: are they running from one abusive environment to another?

So dear teachers, please stop telling your students in any way, shape, or form, that they are fat. Even if you mean it in the best possible way, we hear it through the filter of our perspective. Please raise us in a culture of honor and respect instead of humiliation and toxicity. Pay attention to what is being said in the dressing rooms. Please, check in with your students to see how they are, because life is hard, ballet is hard, and sometimes, we can’t handle it, and we need help. We need to be encouraged, and we need to know that we’re going to be okay.

Dear parents, please remind your kids not to put so much pressure on themselves. Between being in junior high/high school and having hours of school, hours of homework, hitting puberty, struggling with our identity, learning how much we’re worth, learning how to think, AND finding ourselves too busy to eat, our mental strength failing, our emotional health disintegrating, AND being a dancer and having every pressure that comes with it, please understand— we’re doing our best. We’re working our hardest. We want to make you proud, and it’s nice to hear that every once in awhile, that we’re doing a good job.

Dear dancers, please, for the love of God, be kind to one another. Before being so quick to judge other people, remind yourself that they have their own lives they are living, and you have no idea what they might be going through. As big as the ballet world might seem, it really isn’t that big, and chances are, these people you meet someday might be your coworkers. Check in with each other, make sure you remind each other that whatever is happening, that you’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with your teachers— if you’re burnt out and you need a break, it’s okay to say that is what you need. When a teacher is pissing you off, remind yourself that they know what you want, and it is their job to help you get what you want. A teacher once told me, “When I yell at you, it’s not out of anger. It’s just because I want this for you more than you want it for yourself!” Remember, your teachers are not perfect; they’re doing the best they can, and they too, need the encouragement. Your teachers are human too.

The ugly truth about ballet is this: it’s beautiful, it’s an art form, and every art form has some sense of vanity. Ballet is just the art of moving, and companies help give the illusion that this beautiful art form is only what you see on stage. It is a total lie.

Navigating the environment of ballet is strategic, it is measured on everything: your looks, your weight, your height, your turnout, the placement of your bone structure and how big your boobs are, it is based on your technique, your style, who you are. Sometimes, navigating the world of dance is like a game; once you learn the rules and understand the pieces, you can play it well. You can find other player’s weaknesses and use them to your advantage. It is a game of vanity and manipulation. I’m not saying this is the case for every company, but politics and favoritism plays a huge factor in your career. It is equally as important as hard work and dedication. In addition, it’s competitive, cutthroat. It is ruthless and if you’re not made for it, you won’t survive it. Period.

But I have some really great news. Ballet is NOT WHO YOU ARE. This is what I love about ballet: Ballet is not personified. Ballet is not an identity. Ballet is an art. Just like painting— just like drawing— just like making clothes and molding clay— ballet is an art. Art is something you do, art is a part of you. Talent is something you have. I have the talent to be a ballerina, but I am not a ballerina. Being a ballerina is something I do, not something I am. And when you realize that moving is something you do, storytelling with your body is something you do, you find freedom in being who you are. You are who you are.

What makes you, you? Your personality, the color of your eyes and the unique design of your face and body, your name, your brain, your mind, your spirit; your story is expressed through who you are. Tell the story through ballet. Don’t be ballet, because being ballet will literally kill you. Being ballet causes you to lose yourself in everything ballet comes with— perfectionism, people-pleasing, politics.

So if someone says no to you, remember this: ballet is not what you are. If that company doesn’t receive you, they have rejected the blessing you are. If you see yourself as a blessing and as having something to offer, then it becomes easier, because you know that when they reject the blessing, you will become even more blessed when someone else receives you.

Recognize that every artistic director is looking for something specific. If you don’t have it, that’s okay. It’s not about your hard work— it’s simply that you’re not what they hoped they would find. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but most times it leads to disappointment. It’s okay to be disappointed— it’s not okay to let the disappointment defeat you.

Also, I encourage you, just as an artistic director is looking to see if you are a good fit for them, ask yourself, “Is this company a good fit for me?” It’s an act of self-love to vet the company and the people just as it is an act of good business for them to vet you. I highly encourage you to look for things that would be the PROS and CONS. Every person looks for something different. Know what you are looking for, and remember that it’s okay to set boundaries. Just as they can say no, you also, are empowered to say no. There are consequences, both good and bad, for both parties.

The ugly truth is, I am terrified of ballet. I’m scared of going back. I miss it so much, I miss moving, because I love it with everything I am. But I’m also scared of what I’ll face— I’m scared of the rejection, I’m scared of the pain, I’m scared of being bullied. I will overcome the fear. It’s just going to take some time.

So right now, in my life, I’m taking an extensive break from dance. For how long? My goal is three months. But I’m not sure— I’ll come back when I’m ready. I am putting myself before ballet, and that is how it should be if I am going to be a healthy, happy dancer. I am assessing my options. I am making a list of things I am looking for in companies all over the world and picking which ones I want to audition for in the future.

I am rebuilding my relationship with dance, and this time, I’m including God in that process. I know what it’s like to dance without Him and His guidance, so now, I’m going to experiment and see what it’s like to dance with Him and with His guidance, how much farther will I go? How much happier will I be? Will I accomplish my desire to be a healthy, happy dancer?

Well, we’re going to find out.

In the meantime, I have recently assumed the position as Children’s Director for the RENKIDS! Ministry at my church, Renaissance. It is life-giving to me, it is teaching me so much, growing me as a person and growing my relationship with God.

So, with that, stay tuned. This article is just the beginning.

Chat soon lovelies.

Xx Ellie

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