Book Review: ‘Dancing Through It’ by Jenifer Ringer

Dancing-Through-It

Jenifer Ringer, of “Sugar Plumgate” fame and who just retired from her long career with the New York City Ballet, came out with her memoir, “Dancing Through It,” at about the same time as Misty Copeland published her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion.” Both dancers faced incredible challenges and hardships in their careers with two top-tier ballet companies in the United States. While Copeland’s big obstacle has been racial discrimination, Ringer’s great stumbling block was eating disorder.

I still remember back in 2010 when the subject of Ringer’s non-existence weight gain issue was blown up by a New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, who criticized the principal dancer for having “eaten one Sugar Plum too many.” This critique set in motion a sleuth of debates on TV as well as on social media, with lots of ballet fans and non-ballet fans joining in to defend Ringer.

I recall looking at the beautiful dancer while she was being interviewed by Today’s Show‘s host Ann Curry. Nowhere could I find evidence of this extra sugar plum on  her lean body. “How cruel this dance critic was!” I thought. Ringer gave graceful and well-versed replies to Curry’s questions.

At that time, I didn’t know that Ringer had already gone through a few years of eating disorder and depression in the early stage of her career. In this memoir, she chronicled her entire career and took us through the events that led to her weight issues.

We all know that eating disorder is not a rare occurrence in ballet companies—partly due to the demand by the companies themselves on how their dancers should have that specific “ballerina look,” which often means not just lean and long limped but also a kind of boyish figure. This is especially true at New York City Ballet, whose founder, George Balanchine, was known to prefer this kind of “ideal body” to the more womanly figure. However, what actually goes through the minds of the dancers themselves when they are given the pressure not only to achieve technical and artistic perfection but also to keep their bodies so thin that it borders at a point where the strength of the bones won’t support the body weight safely?

Ringer gives us a very detailed look into how she descended from one of NYCB’s up and coming stars to someone who was too heavy to fit into any tutus—and dancing roles for that matter. What I find interesting is that her anorexic behavior was the only way she knew to be able to help her gain any sort of control over a highly stressful life where she could not control the outcomes. She became a professional ballerina at the tender age of 16 and was plunged into the strict demands of the ballet world without any psychological preparation. She was that “perfect girl” who was best in school and was pretty and proper (a Southern ideal) and was “supposed” to have no problems whatsoever. So when life dealt her a big blow, when the ballet master signaled to her that she needed to lose weight, it was a moment of truth that stroke hard, leaving her with little self defense.

Through a long journey—in her case, going back to her Christian faith and, later on, meeting and marrying a fellow dancer James Fayette—she healed herself of the emotional trauma caused by the eating disorder. So when “Sugar Plumgate” happened, she was actually strong enough to face the “attack.” Better still, she was able to transcend her personal problems to become an inspirational force for women—dancers or not—who were struggling with the issue of body image and eating disorder.

Here is a poignant passage about the painful perfectionist conundrum ballet dancers face:

“…our life is spent seeking perfection and correcting infinitesimal errors of line or technique. If something about our dancing is good, we ignore it because it will take care of itself. We fixate on the parts that are wrong. Ask a dancer what her weaknesses are, and she will be able to give you an immediate and very detailed list. Ask a dancer about her strengths, and she has to pause and think about it.”

After reading her book, I actually feel glad that I never entered the ballet profession. I wouldn’t have been able to pass such rigorous tests and would probably have gone through worse nightmares than Ringer did! I have had a close shave with eating disorder and have been struggling with weight issues and body image ever since I was a teenager. Ringer’s story really inspires me. I relate to her spiritual growth as a source of strength, even though I do not relate to her Christian faith. I think if we put aside the religious aspect—which may turn some readers off but which she took the risk to lay it out on the table—her story still serves as a great inspiration for anyone with the same struggles that she went through.

Since the “Sugar Plumgate,” there have been a greater awareness in society on the body image issue, with more discussions leading to a gradual liberation for women from the impossibilities of what the society—or the ballet world in the dancer’s case—deem “ideal.”

See the following articles on artistic endeavors and social movements related to body image:

 

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How Ballet Helped Cloud & Victory Owner Heal from Aneroxia

Min, owner of Cloud & Victory

Recently an article about how ballet has helped a young woman, Min, heal from her eating disorder, “Reverse Black Swan Syndrome,” has caught my attention. What she experienced goes against what is more commonly seen in the ballet world, where the pressure to perform and to achieve a perfectly slim body sometimes leads to, instead of heal, eating disorder.

Min is a Singaporean Chinese who went to study law in an Australian university but found the pressure to achieve to be a bit too much to manage. As a result, she fell into anorexic behavior. It is really interesting to read the journey she went through and how she found cure in ballet class and even became the owner of a successful ballet-inspired ethical clothing brand, Cloud & Victory, after she graduated.

Min stretching in a ballet studio

In some ways, her story reminds me of my years in a U.S. college where I started to binge eat due to the pressure to achieve and to get my English standard on par with native-English speakers. How would it be possible for a foreigner like me to be admitted to journalism school, when I didn’t even know what was funny when my fellow classmates cracked a joke, or when I made a silly mistake as my school-taught British English turned into something hilarious in the American context? There were so many books to read, such long papers to write, and so many new cultural impressions and shocks. I didn’t know I had any sort of eating disorder, despite boxes after boxes of chocolate chip cookies and cans after cans of soda pops that accompanied me through those all-nighters.

Come to think of it, ever since I was a kid, I had used snacking to deal with the pressure of studying. It was as if eating could help me to fill a gap in my soul, to fight the loneliness in the struggle to be the best in my environment. It helped me pass the long, long hours buried in the books. But it did not help raise my self-esteem, despite the good grades I eventually got.

I never went as far as becoming bulimic though. Sometimes I would have a tendency to watch everything I ate—such as during my last two years in high school when I tried to lose weight. It was hard on my body and my effort was totally wasted as soon as I entered college. In the first six months, I gained 20 pounds! My parents couldn’t even recognize me when I went home to visit during Christmas holiday.

Me at 18 (left) when I first arrived in the States and half a year later (right), after gaining the "Freshman 20"

Me at 18 (left) when I first arrived in the States and half a year later (right), after gaining the “Freshman 20”

Back and forth, back and forth… throughout my whole life I have struggled with my weight. It was actually my self-esteem that I struggled with. Despite the extrinsic achievements in my academic life—being always able to overcome difficulties and challenges to get to the top echelon—there was this insecurity about my self that had bugged me throughout my youth. I believe that this has to do with the mixed signals I received from my mother when I was a child. Whenever I got a good grade or an award, she would be really proud. Yet at the same time she always “bragged” to her friends in a false sense of humility that it was “nothing,” that I was “not good enough,” and she would make sure that I stayed humble and tried to do better the next time. So I guess I always felt that nothing I ever did was good enough. This feeling had lasted until quite recently, as even throughout my adult life, she has inadvertently transmitted the message that no matter how much and how well I do, it’s never going to be enough (Sounds familiar? Joy Luck Club, anyone?) I am glad that I have finally gotten over this feeling now. I finally understand, that it’s not about what I do, but who I am—and I don’t need her approval to be the unique person that I am. It is alright even if she does not understand.

In addition to my weight swings, I have also been experiencing bouts of deep depression multiple times in my life. The first time around, my parents dismissed it as a something that couldn’t possible happen to me since I did not have a good enough reason to get depressed. Huh? That did not help very much! Reading Min’s story made me envy her for having such supportive and understanding parents. They did not question her through her darkest days; instead, they just gave her unconditional support. I think that is so crucial in her healing process, as they provided her with a safe emotional environment to refocus her energy on creating a company based on her new-found passion, a passion that stemmed from what healed her—ballet.

As for me, ballet has healed me and hurt me in a million ways. When I have totally recovered from my surgery, I will ease into class and make sure I turn ballet into a source of joy and not a source of grief and tension. I will free myself from the harsh judgments of the mirror, from the silent comparison with my fellow beautiful and skinny adult students, from the strict demands for a “perfect ballet body,” and just allow myself to enjoy the pure essence of dancing!

Louisa_Ballet_Fat_Slim

Me when I first started learning ballet (left) and two years later, at my slimmest, weighting less than 100lbs (right). Now I have gained back what I lost but feel stronger and healthier.