Ballet Helped Me Reclaim My Identity as a Queer Iranian
Imagination could only take me so far. I was ready to dance—and this time my mom couldn’t say no.
They looked different, like their bodies were made of silk and elastic. I wanted to be one of them.
and Broadway that I felt at home for the first time in years. When the curtain rose and Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream began, it was as if I, too, was in a dream—like those times I got high in my car and imagined myself up on stage, moving freely, as my true self.
That evening at Lincoln Center changed me. I tapped and skipped my way home, reveling in the pleasure I’d just experienced, like an orgasm. I wanted to hold on to this feeling, and over the next few months, I immersed myself in ballet. I started with short ballet clips on YouTube, like Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing Balanchine’s Theme and Variations with American Ballet Theatre in the late ’70s, or David Hallberg as Onegin at Bolshoi. From there I found full performances from Paris, St. Petersburg, and London, all streaming for free. My weekends were spent at Lincoln Center or in front of the TV watching various productions, studying the patterns of different styles of ballet. Whether it was French technique, famous for the quickness and precision of footwork, or the Vaganova method, which places more emphasis on port de bras coordination, I always saw myself as these dancers. But imagination could only take me so far. I was ready to dance—and this time my mom couldn’t say no.
I enrolled in a beginning ballet class at Steps on Broadway for adults with little to no training, like myself. What I lacked physically, I made up for in knowledge. I had the terminology down and felt confident in my abilities. I came overly prepared for my first class in black Capezio tights, blush split-sole shoes, and a white cotton t-shirt. Not to mention the dance belt, which is essentially a thong with a padded crotch. That was my favorite accessory.
The instructor walked in with a boombox. There was no accompanist for the beginner’s class—only a CD with pre-recorded piano music. She clapped her hands the way all teachers do to get students’ attention, and instinctively we all filed like soldiers to the barre. I wondered what had brought the other adults to take an introductory ballet class. What made them decide to pick dancing? Why not pottery, or acting, or voice lessons? Perhaps we all had repressed dreams of dancing that we couldn’t fulfill until now. And there were other men in the class—maybe my story wasn’t unique; maybe their moms didn’t let them dance, either.
It was as if I, too, was in a dream—like those times I got high in my car and imagined myself up on stage, moving freely, as my true self.
It was clear in the first ten minutes of class that my body was not meant for these types of movements. My flat foot wasn’t strong enough to support my body on its toes, and a pinched nerve in my back made it hard to arabesque. I thought I was in good shape, but I could barely keep up with the most basic steps. The instructor was moving too fast and I was consistently one to two beats behind. I was wheezing by the time we got to combinations and had to tap out to catch my breath. But I didn’t feel inadequate or self-conscious. The comradery among us beginners was strong—we were all new, and we all looked awkward. I joined back in within a few minutes, revitalized and ready to master the combinations. I didn’t do any of them correctly.
I knew it would get easier with time, but only if I practiced consistently. Dancers put their bodies through this kind of rigor to improve their technique and craft. I was determined to put in the same work.
I went to class every week without fail. I cross-trained at the gym, stuck to a strict diet, and was more aware of my movements outside of class. My flat foot still gave me trouble, and my hip flexors ached whenever I plied, but like any pro I was able to work around it. I continued my education earnestly, watching or reading or listening to anything related to ballet and its history. When I wasn’t in the studio, I attended more performances at Lincoln Center, while also broadening my scope with contemporary ballet at Mark Morris, the Joyce, BAM, and beyond. I even made a makeshift barre in my bedroom, so I could wake up and stretch my body the way a dancer does.
With every week I spent in class, the scars of my childhood faded. I felt lighter, even freer. It may have just been partly due to the endorphins from my new fitness and diet regimen, but it’s deeper than that. I had more purpose now. Though I still haven’t completely healed, and probably never will, the burden of “what if” no longer weighs me down. I finally did what I wanted to do for so long. I couldn’t have those experiences as a kid, so I made them for myself as an adult. I don’t necessarily feel like a brand-new person since I started ballet; I’m still figuring out who I am. I do, however, have a more specific perception of my identity as a queer person. I’m not in my head as much. I am more whole, and dare I say, happier. Plus, my legs have never looked better.
It is a large investment of time for someone who has no dance talent. That’s not really the point, though. I’m doing something I love every single day. And I don’t really care that I can’t dance. What matters is that I’m dancing.
Arya Roshanian (he/him/his) is an Iranian American writer based in Brooklyn. He is Senior Fiction Co-Editor at Action, Spectacle, and a Culture Writer for Bustle. His other reporting, essays, and criticism are published regularly in BOMB, Variety, Guernica, Vox, The Rumpus, Catapult, and elsewhere. His fiction has been nominated for the XLVI Pushcart Prize, and has received support from Tin House Summer Workshops and the Lit Fest Fellowship for Emerging Writers. A graduate of University of Southern California, Arya is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at Columbia University.