Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

Confessions of the World’s Worst Ballerina

I’m still not sure what prompted me to sign up for a ballet class.

I should probably mention that I’m not – and never have been – a dancer.

I can’t even reach my toes.

But it’s something I always wanted to try. Plus, I’ve been making a habit lately of embracing vulnerability. And somehow that includes making a fool out of myself in leggings in a room full of mirrors.

So for several weeks now, I’ve been joining a dozen other women in learning and executing moves like plié, relevé, passé, port de bras, tendu, and pirouette. (It’s also a delightful reminder of the days I was once half fluent in French.)

To put it mildly… I am terrible.

I am the least graceful ballerina you have ever seen. I frequently mix up my left and right. I have creaking knees, stricken by chronic tendonitis. My arms wave all over the place. And I have little to no flexibility.

And yet… I keep going back. I cling onto the barre for dear life, turn my feet out in first position, and keep following all the steps.

And here’s what I’ve found:

1. Balance is part learned, part practiced.


The secret to balancing on your toes or achieving perfect spins is focusing your eyes on a singular point. Lose sight of your focal point, and you’ll fall over or lose momentum instantly.

The frustrating part  is the exhaustive lack of instant gratification. Focus is only the first step. If ballet has never before been your thing, whether you’re a couch potato or a dedicated runner (which, inexplicably, simultaneously, I am both), your muscles aren’t trained to let you gracefully balance on the balls of your feet while your hands arch above your head. And so, simply, it also takes mountains of repetition and time and patience.

As does life, right?

2. The big picture is incomprehensibly complex.

If you’ve ever seen even a minute of professional ballet on the stage or in a movie, I don’t think it’s immediately obvious how many teeny tiny steps there are to make up all the leaps and jumps and spins you see. I figured they were just that – leaps and jumps and spins – except with more grace and poise. Throw on a tutu and ballet slippers, and I’d be half way there, right?

Nope. Not in the slightest.


I can’t believe how easy they make it look. Every single move requires so much thought and discipline. Your feet, knees, hips, core, shoulders, arms, hands, and head must be in perfect position at every moment. And while much of this gets committed to muscle memory, it’s a good illustration of how intricate our lives are.

If you’re a healthy person, chances are you don’t even think about breathing. Or walking. Or scratching your head. And yet there are infinite factors building up to those actions. There’s nothing in this life not built upon a foundation that is stronger and more complex than we could ever hope to comprehend. And it is amazing.

3. You have to be able to laugh at yourself.

Ballet has proved to me that I’m not the perfectionist I once thought I was. This kind of dance is extremely precise, and good form is key. If I was stubborn enough to be a perfectionist over all the intricacies of ballet, I’d be a sobbing mess by the end of each class.

Instead, I have to laugh. I see myself flailing through jumps and turning the wrong way. I hear Miss Susan yelling, suck in that gut! I feel my muscles complaining at every barre stretch. And through all of it, I choose not to be frustrated that I am not the ballerina my four-year old self once dreamed. I am moving my body and having fun, and I am so grateful for that. And I look in the mirror at my friend who is spinning alongside my ridiculous self, and I laugh with her.

No, I’m never going to approach the level of grace of your typical Sugar Plum Fairy. And no, unless someone can convince me otherwise, I’m probably not going to take another ballet class once this one is over. But I’m glad I tried, even if I am the world’s worst ballerina.

Photos of ballet feet courtesy of Quinn Dromowski (2)

Photo of balancing feet courtesy of Martin Ruddock


  1. I’m glad you tried, too. Way to be adventurous and brave. Praying for you tonight. May the Lord bless you with peace and soul-rest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *