The Paradox of Bad
A paradox is something that contradicts itself. It seems that all human beings are a paradox within themselves. People hold on to their own moral sense of right and wrong, yet go against it every day. This pattern unleashes us to many different paradoxes of human behavior. We see this loop show itself in many aspects of life, such as defense mechanisms, hypocrisy, and the commonly known paradox of choice. One contradiction being looked over is the Paradox of Bad: a manifestation of anxiety that slows down the work ethic of society. It’s recognized as fear when it should be recognized as much more than that. It’s specific and it follows you, and wherein some people it can create a drive capable of great things, in others it leaves behind nothing but terror and isolation.
I’ve seen this paradox in every aspect of my life. It’s haunted me in school (various public speaking projects come to mind), it’s affected my relationship with my family, it’s been an all-consuming fear at many social events of my childhood, but it was only through one particular part of my life that I was able to identify it, embrace it, and make it my own: ballet.
It’s been 194 days since my last ballet class, that’s 16,761,600 seconds that I’ve spent missing one of the only things I’ve ever loved. One of the only things that has hurt me and helped me and shaped me. It was through ballet that I learned self-discipline, made some of my greatest friends, found a deep fondness for classical music, realized how encaptivated I was with performing, and fell desperately in love with The Nutcracker. Ballet was able to teach me hundreds of things, but most importantly, it showed me the lessons I wasn’t capable of learning until I stopped dancing. These are the things people say to you every day in the dance world, but continuously I brushed these lessons off my shoulder, never allowing them to sink in. Lessons on how you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, how nobody is actually thinking about you as much as you imagine them to be, and most importantly, how skill is never a substitute for passion. No matter how true I knew these things were, I couldn’t escape the irrationality that made me think differently.
I took my first dance class at two years old and my last at fifteen. I started dancing at the studio, which would become mine when I was in second grade, and I—finally—earned my pointe shoes when I was in seventh. I performed in over twenty full-length ballets and various small recitals at other studios. During all of these years, my four neighbors—all sisters—also found themselves passionate about dancing at a young age. The second youngest, whom I nicknamed Cae, danced more so to tag along with the rest of them and ended up quitting in grade school, while the others had a true passion for the art form. When I first began dancing, I was more of a Cae. I danced because my friends did and because I had two older brothers who were avid athletes, and I wanted to differentiate myself from them by doing something I thought of as more feminine.
At this time, ballet was a fun pastime. It wasn’t hard work, because I didn’t work hard. It didn’t make me a dancer, because I also found myself to be a softball player, a soccer player, a figure skater, and a gymnast. It was makeup and costumes, watching the older girls, and feeling like a princess. It was ballet before sweat, blisters, ice packs, lost bobby pins, and constantly dancing through the kitchen. It was the kind of ballet every girl does when they’re little. It was ballet before being in love. And to this day, and every day forward, I will still remember the exact moment that love was found.
I started dancing at my studio the very first year it came to my hometown. The studio was small, as it was still in its building years, and our company was not that advanced. It was that year that I was a snow angel in my first Nutcracker, followed that summer by my first beginner intensive. I was a party scene orphan in the show next Christmas, but I still wasn’t dancing for me. A few weeks after that Nutcracker, Cae decided she was ready to stop doing ballet for good. Her wildly contagious attitude and impatiently endless talking weren’t quite fit for the studio, but they were a distraction I certainly missed having in the classroom. I quit a few weeks after she did and ended up missing our spring production of Beauty and the Beast. Cae’s sisters and many of my other ballet friends made me feel awfully jealous about missing out on so much, and I decided I had to go back. At the time, I thought my ability to be saddened over something and have such a strong desire to get back to it was love, but it was simply just the pain of missing out. After having been back for all of the summer and my second full year, my headteacher and artistic director decided she wanted to do a ballet version of The Snowqueen, rather than The Nutcracker. In preparation for casting and getting everyone acquainted with the original show, my teacher had us all watch a DVD recording of The Snowqueen from a few years ago at her old studio in Pennsylvania. Ballet’s don’t include talking, nor narration, yet they are still complete with in-depth storylines—very hard to pick up on as a nine-year-old viewer. I enjoyed watching ballets but was never able to understand one without an adult translating all the steps into words as the show went on.
The main girl in The Snowqueen is named Gerda, and rather than being totally infatuated with the protagonist boy, Kai, the two of them were just best friends. This friendship fascinated me and pulled me into the lives of The Snowqueen characters. Sitting on the dark studio floor that night, with girls I don’t even remember the names of anymore, I understood a ballet for the first time. I was dying to one day play a certain role for the first time, and I felt overwhelmingly in love with ballet for the first time. It was a passionate love, a love that made my brow furrow and my face scrunch up in the years to come whenever I was watching a scene I was truly amazed by. Some girls found their love for ballet in the steps, the way they felt when dancing, or when watching a truly advanced dancer master everything they’ve spent working for. I, on the other hand, found my love in watching a much less advanced studio production, with steps not all that fascinating. What moved me then, and still moves me now, was the presence and the acting and the soul behind every move. With neither talking nor narration, a talkative girl like myself was able to grasp something beyond her words and find true love and expression for the first time.
As is often told, in every movie, novel, or great romance story ever, love only makes things harder. It was easy for me to flail through dance when I didn’t care about the product. After the startling revelation of realizing how much ballet meant to me, I had a second startling revelation of realizing how behind I was. I discovered how, even in fifth grade, the hours I spent in the studio dozing off and mooching off other girls for the steps were finally out to get me. I started dancing on the weekends—something that would soon lead to three hours’ worth of classes Friday nights and five hours’ worth of classes on Saturdays. I started filling up my summers until the point I was doing around eight hours of ballet almost every day of the week in my only months off from school. All things which soon accumulated to my very limited social life. Ballet became my greatest love, and it became my greatest sacrifice.
In ballet, input equals output. In ballet, all your hard work pays off eventually, no matter how far off that eventually may seem. Yet, in ballet, there are still naturals, those who are born with readily flexible hips, amazing turnout, and confidence. Confidence is what I lacked in every aspect of my dancing, and confidence is what the Paradox of Bad is all about. The naturals were given a gift, and they took that gift, applied it to their pain, and turned it into something more. Somehow I never saw those girls get nervous. Not to say that they didn’t. But sometimes it’s always the things you don’t see and the things that seem unrelatable, to a point of unachievable, that get you down. I thought that just because I never saw those girls think twice about acting “too much” in an audition or get flustered when demonstrating for the class, it meant they weren’t all struggling through their own mental hardships.
This idea of mental pain is part of the problem. Whenever I tell friends and family just how hard ballet was, they think back to anorexia stories and movies like Black Swan that show ballet wearing you down mentally. Others say to me, “Oh, of course, ballet must be one of the most degrading things you could do.” And it is, they’re not wrong. Ballet made me hate myself in every possible way, and it left me more confused and saddened than anything else. But it’s hard physically too. All that mental grief doesn’t just come from us thinking we’re not skinny enough, or that our breasts are too big, or because we didn’t get the part we wanted. It’s the tension we feel in all of our muscles, and the sweat stuck under our leotards, and the bruises creeping in under our toenails that cause us to drift to a dark place mentally. It’s hard work in every way. And it’s not just degrading because we want our bodies to look a certain way; it’s degrading because we know that sometimes no matter how much we hurt our appearances and our mindsets, we still might not have the steps we’ve been working for.
And it’s here that our hard work becomes what stops us. It’s here that ballet becomes a line graph with ever so hesitant plateaus and huge upward and downward scales. It was here, in my final years of dancing, I learned what Newton teaches us all, “What goes up, must come down.” I had found my passion and my drive. I had found my spot for achieving pirouettes and both of my splits. I had come much closer to finding my confidence, and I was finally getting cast in roles that would put me in the spotlight. So in this time, the peak of my dancing career and the golden age of everything I knew ballet was, I fell. I found myself plummeting off of my line graph, into a deep dark pit of despair. A pit that greeted me with jealousy and sneaking into the bathroom during class so nobody would see me cry. A pit that greeted me with my new lacking ability to look in the mirror, because I didn’t want to see how badly I was performing the combination. I couldn’t confide in anyone anymore, and I was also losing people to confide in. My four best friends, who I always found next door, were now all the way across the Atlantic in another country. Many of my other friends had lost their passion and quit by now, and my very best ballet friend, who I had known since being a washer girl in The Pied Piper, was now injured and out of ballet forever.
I had reached my deepest point, and I had reached it alone. My peak became my downfall, and my downfall wasn’t stopping. There were times in the past, such as in middle school when I had been stuck at one level for two years and didn’t think I was going anywhere, that I had felt similar pains. Those only drove me to work harder, and in the long end, it typically rewarded me. But this time, I had hit a brick wall; my hard work couldn’t fix things for me anymore, because my hard work and my entire mind had been consumed by the Paradox of Bad.
There’s a feeling when you’re doing something that you want to be able to do well. It comes when you’re afraid of failing, even if you don’t know why. You’re afraid of being bad at what you’re going to do, so instead you choose not to work hard at all. It’s a feeling where you convince yourself that if you don’t even try, then you won’t really have to decide whether or not you’re a failure. This is how I felt, and this is what caused everything to backfire. This is the Paradox of Bad. It’s when you don’t want to be bad, so you put in no effort and then end up being bad anyways.
If you’re like me, you tell yourself that the next time you’re going to suck it up, push through, and try your hardest. But you don’t. And sooner or later, after succumbing to the paradox long enough, you start to forget what trying your hardest even means. Your fear of being bad has engulfed you, and, all of a sudden, bad is all you know.
If you become aware of the paradox and everything you’re doing to yourself, you may be able to get away. I became aware, but it didn’t mean escaping the paradox and getting back to ballet, as it had in the past. It meant escaping the paradox and ballet altogether. It meant crawling out of that pit with nothing but your hands and your mind to guide you through the overwhelming darkness.
My decision to quit was sudden, a breath of fresh air after escaping from the pit for the first time. My journey to get there, however, was gradual and possibly never would’ve happened if it wasn’t for the North Carolina Festival of Dance—a series of classes and showcases hosted by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a trip every dancer at my studio looked forward to. It was only one weekend in February, but it was a weekend full of fun. The classes weren’t that hard, and they allowed me to feel somewhat advanced again. I felt good, for the first time in a long time, and I was enjoying every second of dancing. The night before our last class at the university, we went to see the showcase put on by the school. Different groups of students would be performing various famous pieces that many of us knew and loved, along with an original piece making its debut: Dream(s)pace.
This piece incorporated many aspects of classical and contemporary ballet, and it was breathtakingly beautiful. It brought me back to that dark studio floor of my fifth-grade year and reunited me with the little girl who fell in love with ballet. This one small dance number was able to make me feel something greater than myself and show me everything ballet meant to me. Watching the dancers on that stage, my brow was furrowed again, my face scrunched up, and my breath taken. You would think this was the moment I decided to keep dancing forever, but it was actually the moment everything reversed. It was my escape and my breath of fresh air, it was the moment I realized what ballet was supposed to feel like, and the moment I realized it could never feel like that again. I took my final class the next morning, now 195 days ago. It was a fun class, closed out by pas de chats across the floor, a jump that was my favorite step as a beginning dancer. Life had come full circle, and I knew my time doing ballet had come to a close.
Telling my family and friends I was done meant tears and a lingering pain that still hasn’t left. It’s August now, and the studio will be starting Nutcracker auditions without me. It’s the first Nutcracker they’ve done that I won’t be performing in, and I still don’t think I’ll be able to handle watching from the audience. But at least I’m not stuck in a pit, nor a line graph or a studio. My loop and my paradox have ended. My Paradox of Bad.
Bella Santos is a high school senior from Wilmington, North Carolina. She has had a passion for writing since she was in the first grade, and two of her favorite writers include J.D. Salinger and Annie Dillard. When she is not writing, she loves to go to the beach, watch movies, and spend time with her friends.