A Ballet Dancer’s Journey to Loving Herself

BY MICHELLE CHAVIANO

Photos by Sharen Bradford of Ballet North Texas’ Sleeping Beauty

Note: This essay was first published in Stance on Dance’s fall/winter 2022 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

I am a first generation Cuban American and was born in Hialeah, Florida, which at times can be mistaken for a Cuba with rights. At the age of three, I was placed in dance because I have an older sister who also danced. The early years of dance were spent improvising with teddy bears, tiaras, and tutus. Those were the years I remember life and dance being simple and fun. At the age of nine, my sister moved to a more serious ballet studio, and I of course followed suit. I soon discovered, or at least I was told, that I had potential to be a professional ballet dancer. I was celebrated for my high passé, archy feet, and sassy personality. My Cuban teachers at the time provided me with excellent training and with many opportunities to dance alongside talented professional dancers. I loved every second of it.

Michelle in sus-sous wearing a pink tutu against green stage lighting

Around the age of 16, I started to develop as girls do when they start to become women. I was always thin and ate every Cuban meal my abuela cooked for me. She would make these delicious plates of boliche, arroz blanco, frijoles negros, tostones, and of course cafecito. I started to develop, but I didn’t notice my body changing until my teachers made a comment about the size of my butt. I had never had any issues with my body or body image until the comments started to become more frequent. I didn’t know what to do to “fix myself” and felt ashamed to mention it to my parents or other peers. I started changing my eating habits. I tried cutting back on the amount I ate, increased my coffee intake to suppress my appetite, and wore trash bag shorts all the time, even under my practice tutu. I managed to keep a steady weight even though I wasn’t making the healthiest choices and as a result was hurting my metabolism.

At the age of 16, I attended a summer intensive in Sarasota, Florida. I went to this summer program a few years in a row and received great training. This is where I met the teacher and later mentor who greatly influenced my career, Loipa Araújo, also referred to as one of the four Cuban ballet jewels and currently the Associate Artistic Director of English National Ballet in London, England. During the summer in Sarasota, she mentioned to my family and I that I should audition for English National Ballet School. At first, we completely dismissed the idea, but when I received a full scholarship to attend the school, I found myself saying my goodbyes to my big Cuban family a month later.

Being a part of English National Ballet School was a surreal experience. I was able to learn and watch so many amazing ballets and work with such talented teachers and choreographers. My three years in England hold some of my best memories, but they also hold some of my worst. Moving away from home at 16 seems exciting, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it was extremely difficult. I was spoiled in the best way by my parents, specifically my mama. She cared for me and even washed my feet after taking my pointe shoes off until the day before I left for England. She is my best friend and not having her around left me figuring out a lot of things on my own. My first year in England I lived in a female hostel built in the 1500s where one floor had around 40 small rooms, four toilets, four showers, and one kitchen. The funniest part was learning that there wasn’t a dryer to dry my clothes. Instead, I had to hang up my clothes on a piece of wood and then, once all the clothes were hung, reel it up towards the ceiling and leave it to dry overnight.

Michelle in a deep penché with a partner. She is wearing a yellow tutu and dancers in white tutus move behind her.

My first few days at the school were not exactly what I had imagined. My British teacher approached me during the very first class of the school year to inform me that I had the wrong hairstyle, wrong tights, and wrong shoes. I also wasn’t allowed to wear nail polish, a necklace, or dangly earrings. I was so upset because at the beginning it seemed that no matter how much I tried, I kept making mistake after mistake. I didn’t deal with it well and felt frustrated most of the time. My poor eating habits started to catch up to me and, combined with the stressful situation of trying to figure out life, I began gaining weight. I felt very self-conscious and would spend most of the time at dance with my arms wrapped around my waist because I didn’t want anyone seeing or judging how the tights would cut into my stomach. I felt like a big giant failure and was made to feel that way.

I was sent by the school to visit a doctor to get bloodwork done to make sure there wasn’t a hormonal imbalance. This was one of the worst doctor visits I have ever experienced. As soon as I entered the doctor’s office and he looked up to greet me, he made it clear he knew exactly why I was gaining weight. He stated that the reason I was bigger than the other dancers my age was because my ancestors were from a part of Spain where there was a mix of African and Spanish. I politely thanked him for his time and walked out of the office feeling shocked and less hopeful than before. I was then sent to see a psychologist to see if fixing my mental health would help me shed weight. Her diagnosis after hearing me express some very personal information was “simple”: I suffered from disordered eating. Once more I was left feeling like I had a diagnosis with no cure. Then I was sent to see a nutritionist, and she put me on a diet consisting of whey protein shakes and protein bars. Not only did I not lose weight, but my muscle mass increased even more.

Finally, summertime came, and I went home for a bit. Thanks to my mom and dad, I was able to spend the summer working on my mental and physical health. My dad would leave work during his lunch hour to take me to my psychologist appointment, and then they would take me to dance and nutritionist appointments in the evening. I was able to shed some weight, and when it was time to go back to England for the next school year, I was feeling confident.

When I arrived in England, I was greeted with a lot of compliments about how good I looked. The weight kept dropping and the praise kept growing. I was receiving lead roles, scoring high on my exams, and even had my picture chosen for a cover of a dance magazine. I kept shedding weight, and by December I had become very thin but disregarded my physical appearance because of the success I was having. I didn’t know how to stop and no one around me told me I should, so I kept going because I had finally figured out what I thought was the equation for success. But as I soon came to learn, history repeats itself. When audition time came around and I wasn’t being selected, I started to lose control. The tight knot I had around my routine and my food started to unravel, and I felt like once more I was falling. I started to gain weight and as a result I had auditions taken away. The worst part was when the school director at the time took me out of a featured pas de deux out of fear of me injuring my male partner. I decided to finish what I started and graduated in June and then left England to join a ballet company in Romania. After a brief period in Romania, I decided to return home because I was in a bad mental headspace and needed to be close to my family.

Michelle being partnered in ecarte derriere on pointe, wearing a pink tutu against a green lit stage.

The time spent at home ended up being the biggest blessing for my dance career. I decided to start teaching ballet when I wasn’t training and fell in love with teaching. I used my experiences to make sure I taught my dancers challenging classes where they felt inspired and cared for. Never would I make a dancer feel the way I was made to feel. I made sure to teach my students to be compassionate and embrace the beauty in being different.

I spent my time at home training with the next person in my dance career who shaped me and gave me back the confidence I thought was gone: Francis Veyette. He cared for me as a human and helped me navigate one of the biggest challenges in my early 20s. During my time at home, my weight would not drop, and I started to experience a few symptoms that worried me. I decided to visit a doctor who diagnosed me with hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s disease. I didn’t know exactly what that meant but I knew I had to start on medication immediately and losing weight was going to prove even harder than before. The next day during my private training session with my coach, I cried and cried because I just didn’t know if I had it in me to keep fighting and dancing. In that moment, something happened that I had never experienced in my dance career. He believed in my strength to keep fighting and the beauty in the “ugly.”  I wasn’t rejected for being “too heavy,” but instead felt like I had someone to help me find my happiness. Soon after I started on medication for my thyroid I met with a dietitian, and a couple years later I can say I am dancing professionally with a ballet company in Texas.

A couple of months ago, I performed one of the biggest roles of my dance career and am so happy I chose to not quit and give up on myself. Performing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty has been the highlight of my career and an opportunity I am grateful to have been given. It was such a special magical feeling that is difficult to put into words.

I am still a work in progress and figuring out life one day at a time with the help of my loved ones. I embrace every opportunity to dance that I am given because I know what it feels like to have it removed. I don’t think the ballet world will change drastically in the next few years to be more accepting and to recognize that dancers are humans and not machines. Our bodies are always changing, and it would help if those in charge had a better approach and a more educated group of professionals to assist dancers who are struggling with their weight, mental health, and/or injuries. The best solution for dancers to deal with harsh criticism and unfair situations is to have a trusting support system that believes in them and is always there to provide honest feedback. I have been blessed that my support system has been and will always be my family.

Michelle in passe on pointe wearing a gold tutu against blue stage lighting

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Michelle Chaviano is a professional ballerina with Ballet North Texas and has her own business called SoFlo Movement Center focused on strengthening dancers through different methods of cross-training. Prior to moving to Texas, she danced with English National Ballet School, English National Ballet, Teatrul de Balet Sibiu, and graduated with a BFA from Trinity College in England. She was born and raised in the South Florida area and is a first generation Cuban American. She is proud of her heritage and loves spending quality time with her family.

Note: This essay was first published in Stance on Dance’s fall/winter 2022 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

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