Moving From Thin to Strong

A first-hand account of Louisville Ballet’s Mind Body Balance Program

By Josh Miller 
Photos by
Andrea Hutchinson

I was reading “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin when I texted Robert Curran, executive and artistic director at the Louisville Ballet, inquiring about ballet classes for inexperienced adults and/or artists who want to expand their practice. In the book, Waitzkin – a world champion chess player and martial artist – describes his approach to learning and how mastering seemingly different disciplines influences and enhances his practice collectively. I’d always wanted to take ballet, although, growing up, I wasn’t allowed to. Also, I wanted to expand my relationship with being active, including my understanding of my body and what it could achieve, beyond running and going to the gym. 

There is something about ballet that has always enthralled me. The seeming simplicity of the movements, rooted in strength and precision. Ballet, like many artistic and physical practices, cultivates a different relationship to your body, to the ground, to alternating forces of pushing into and stretching upward. It is also an art form that has been plagued by the celebration of thinness. So, would it be a healthy place for me? 

Looking back, I can remember a specific moment in my early teens when I saw a photo of myself from the beach and thought, “OMG, I’m fat.” That moment led to over 15 years of a love-hate relationship with my body and also with food. In high-school, calorie restriction, in college and for years afterward, binge and purge. Control, perfection, a warped sense of who and how I was supposed to show up were all wrapped up in this relationship with food and physical activity. Underlying much of that relationship was the idea that I needed – had to be – thin. 

Sitting across from Robert shortly after sending my text, I talked about my hope of moving from a thin mindset to a strength-based mindset. Could I be happy with my body for what it could do, not only because of how it looked? I shared that after I stopped drinking alcohol in 2018, which had been my coping mechanism of choice, my craving of sweets and relationship to food had taken a turn, and I wanted a healthy way to move forward. In addition to my personal desire for growth, I have also been faced with the reality that many people hold the mindset that “Josh is just so healthy,” one of the statements I heard when I told others I had stopped drinking. The reality is that my relationship to drinking – although well hidden in many cases – held the potential for undoing all I was working toward. And now, food had stepped in to take its place in a different way. Struggling in either of these areas comes with a tremendous amount of stigma, but the freedom on the other side – when you can name and talk about it – holds the potential to tear down artificial constructs. So, over the past few years, I’ve systematically worked to do just that. 

Robert described an active, ongoing movement within the Louisville Ballet that started years ago to intentionally shift toward a strength-based mindset across the company. The Mind Body Balance (MBB) program, which is designed for anyone over 15 who wants to dance – whether its ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, tap, etc. – is attended by people of varying ages, experience levels and body compositions. 

Since there is no time like the present, I signed up for Intro to Ballet in September. I watched a YouTube video about the basic foot positions, bought a pair of ballet shoes and headed to class. 

What unfolded over the 20+ classes I’ve taken since has been remarkable. 

During one of our Sunday classes in the downtown studio, Ashley Thursby – the MBB program manager and a dancer with the Louisville Ballet – encouraged us to envision being inside a circle (like DaVinci’s Vitruvian man) where our outermost reach, both feet and arms, touch the edges of the circle. There is an engaged tension that is required to reach these limits, an active participation of breath and muscles across your body. It is through this visualization and practice that you build the strength and stability required to safely practice the dynamic jumps and combinations we’d learn.   

As Thursby says, “The more deeply we connect with our body, the more centered we become in our ability to express ourselves within our community. Our team is committed to being a safe and inclusive space for dancers of all levels and disciplines to be curious, set goals and connect to their idea of mind, body and balance.”

Attending the classes, I’ve worked to find clothing that doesn’t trigger feelings of inadequacy. That’s another great part about MBB: you can show up in everything from shorts or sweats to ballet tights. It’s helpful to have something fitted enough so you can see how your legs are moving, but there isn’t a leotard and spandex requirement. Dance belt a little snug? Wash it in cold water and stretch it out. I’ve sought out tights that don’t cut into my waist, and unitards that remove a waist band entirely, which has been helpful.

On a Monday evening at the Louisville Ballet’s St. Matthews studio, dancer Robert McFarland described a duality of pushing into the floor with our feet and “into” the ceiling with our arms and upper body at the same time. So, what on earth does that mean? He held his hands above my head, and I pushed into the floor, reaching my arms up and actively pushing into his hands. I found a lifting and lengthening in my active torso and balance from fingertips to toes. While it may sound crazy, the practice of these movements has changed how I hold myself and impacted my running. Since starting my MBB classes, my running pace has consistently been faster by up to one-minute per mile. The push/lengthen/engage methodology learned on the dance floor is becoming intertwined with my running, with my workouts and how I walk and stand. There is a new strength that grows with each class that has applications well beyond the studio. 

Similar to how Watkzin described one practice informing the other on his journey toward optimal performance, a deeper understanding of ballet made my running stronger. My balancing work on the parallettes at the gym supported my ballet practice. It’s all interconnected. 

I still can’t do the splits, although I’m working diligently, and there is usually something in each class that I still find confusing, which provides a new lesson each time. I walked in with curiosity and will continue to do so as we head into 2020.   

In class, there have been students like me, coming to ballet for the first time and at varying ages. There have been older dancers who spent their childhood learning ballet and are coming back to rekindle the relationships years later. Everyone brings a different relationship to it and goal for what they want to achieve. The instructors take that into account. Some people attend just to work on their balance and stability. Others, like me, dream of performing a dance we were told wasn’t for us and, like Watzkin describes, unlocking the potential for it to transform other parts of our lives. V

To learn more about Mind Body Balance, visit louisvilleballet.com/mbb and follow the program on Instagram and Facebook
@mindbodybalancelou. The first class is free.

To follow Josh Miller’s MBB journey, follow him at @j_jmiller.