“I felt like I needed to bury myself in a hole and not come out until I forget who I was because if I was to mess up and return [to the studio], it would be the end.”
Polina Zinin was used to strict discipline and yelling at the Cheng Ballet Academy in Singapore, the professional ballet studio she danced at for five years. There, the instructors would harshly critique dancers and bluntly tell them to lose weight or stretch more. Although their comments sometimes stung, Polina appreciated their explicitness because she knew what goals to work toward and how to improve.
“Shouting was the normal,” she said. “The teachers were genuine and corrected everyone. They didn’t care about being nice to you. Even if they evidently had favorites, they still worked hard to get you to a professional level.”
When Polina moved to the Bay Area in California for her father’s work at 9-years-old (2012), she felt devastated that she had to leave her ballet academy. But because she didn’t want to quit dance, she immediately began searching for a new studio. Although the one she found in San Jose had a good reputation, Polina remembers thinking that the studio wasn’t serious, as her first lesson was near Halloween and students showed up wearing costumes.
In the following months, Polina started to like the studio, especially how it was very structured and provided advanced dancers opportunities like magazine photoshoots, video advertisements and additional performances. She was excited to follow the American Ballet Theatre program. In the spring, however, Polina started “suspecting that something was off.”
“I first thought that everything was all right since everyone was pretty nice, but then I realized that they have expectations for you they don't even tell you about,” she said. “You have to fight for your respect rather than being in a family where everyone supports you. No matter what I did, I would do it wrong.”
Since she wasn’t the best dancer in her class, Polina said that her instructors often ignored her. They didn’t focus on correcting her technique or thoroughly explaining new skills.
Additionally, according to Polina, the teachers would teach the dance one or two times and would get annoyed if students asked for additional explanations. If a student missed a day, they would tell the student to copy classmates or ask someone else for help.
Because Polina missed about three rehearsals due to illness, she was taken out of part of the dance before the May 2016 show. She lost her motivation for dance and her stress accumulated. She no longer felt the love for ballet that she used to have.
For most performances, the dancers would practice dances for about half a year, so by the time they went on stage, the steps would be second nature. Before that year’s show, however, Polina’s group had about one month to rehearse the entire dance and one run-through on the stage without costumes. Her classmates and instructors didn’t help.
“Constantly in my head, there was a sense of guilt that like I'm not good enough for them and I’m not meeting their expectations,” Polina said. “I already felt like I was falling behind and then the rest of the class ignored me, so I was pretty much alone,” Polina said. “When I would come up to classmates, they would give me really vague comments, so I felt lost.
The day of the performance snuck up and Polina, wearing a blue-grey leotard and a bun adorned with blue roses, found herself standing beside the velvet curtain, anticipating the moment she would step out onto the brightly lit stage. She was in an echo chamber of fluttering nerves amplified by the worried whispers of her classmates.
As she waited, Polina watched the shadows of dancers from another group twirling on stage to the classical notes reverberating throughout the theatre. She pictured her family members in the audience, who from stage would be a few unidentifiable faces in darkness broken up only by the whites of eyes.
For the first time in her life, Polina was nervous before a performance. The slight butterflies in her stomach became “mutant moths;” she knew she hadn’t practiced the dance enough.
The dancers on stage struck their final pose and suddenly, utter panic pierced Polina. About 30 seconds before it was her group's turn to perform, she realized that she couldn’t play back her own dance inside her head — her mind went blank and she couldn’t remember the steps, counts, or motions.
“I've always known dances by heart; I could perform them in my sleep,” Polina said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do and I didn’t have a way out.”
Polina imagined herself standing on stage, frozen, while the thousands of people in the audience laughed. Although she had a vague idea of the dance — she knew that it was somewhere in her head — her distress prevented her from accessing it.
“I felt like I needed to bury myself in a hole and not come out until I forget who I was because if I was to mess up and return [to the studio], it would be the end," she said.
Before Polina could calm down, the first fast notes of a classical Italian Baroque piece by Antonio Vivialdi resounded and her group ran on stage to take their places. Polina was near the front. Somehow, she was able to get through the first part of the dance thanks to muscle memory. But during every leap, twirl, and adagio motion, she was panicking.
Near the middle of the dance when Polina was closer to the back of the group, she copied her classmates by glancing at them out of the corner of her eye. She wasn’t able to enjoy a moment of the dance because she was so worried that the audience would notice that she was dancing about an eighth count behind everyone else.
As Polina ran into the wings of the stage after the final pose, shame at having forgotten the routine coursed through her. She felt awful. She kept imagining the angry look her instructor had given her after the dance was over. Even though she knew that she wouldn’t be returning to her current ballet studio, she had hoped for a good last performance.
“This dance acted as evidence to me that I was never going to be good enough, that I fell too far behind to catch up,” Polina siad. “I felt like I didn’t deserve any praise — I was an absolute failure.”
After taking a 3 year break from ballet (during which Polina danced Russian Folk), she joined a smaller, less professional dance studio.
During her first few classes there, she realized that she had improper techniques for many skills and had to start from scratch to correct them. For instance, at the San Jose studio she was told to turn out her fifth position to a full 180 degrees, which led to pain and trouble balancing, for she would turn out from her feet rather than her hips, However, her new teachers were supportive and helped correct her mistakes (e.g. by telling her to turn out to less than 180 degrees).
“The teachers know your body, they know your speed and they inspire you to go forward,” Polina (now 17) said. “The voice inside my head telling me that I’m not good enough is no longer persistent. I can finally treat ballet as a hobby I love, not a chore I despise.”