Call Yourself a Ballet Dancer

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Hannah Holmes, creator of Wonder of Ballet, wears her 'This is what a ballet dancer looks like' sweatshirt

I’ve been obsessed with ballet since I was a teenager. Now, I am a passionate adult ballet student in my thirties. One question I have grappled with through the years: Am I allowed to call myself a ballet dancer?

For too long, I thought: No, I am not a dancer — I am just a student.

I even wondered: Do I dance at all, or is it something else? Some weak, mild attempt to be someone I can never truly be?

Looking back, I can’t believe how dismissive I was of my hard work and my abilities.

How could I minimize something so important to me to such a great extent?

Well, the answer is simple.

I felt like I didn’t belong in ballet, like I was someone on the outskirts of the ballet world, peeking awkwardly through a window.

Occasionally, I even wished I could rid myself of ballet completely.

I would wonder: How amazing would it be to wake up in the morning, drink my coffee, and never think a single thought about ballet?

I didn’t really want to give up ballet, but I didn’t want to feel ashamed of how much it meant to me, either. I didn’t want to feel inadequate, like I wasn’t worthy of my dreams.

Embracing ballet as part of my identity

Slowly, I began to think:

What if I can choose the role ballet takes in my life?

What if other people’s opinions are irrelevant?

What if, in following the compass of my soul, I am becoming closer and closer to the person I am meant to be?

What if ballet makes me more myself, not less?

After grappling with the question of whether or not I was a dancer for more than a decade, I finally decided: Ballet is important to me. I feel my love of it so deeply. I spend so much time working on it. Yes, I do, in fact, dance. And, yes, I am a ballet dancer.

Just like that, my mindset shifted.

And while I am still a student — because there is always more to learn and perfect — I am also a dancer, one-hundred percent.

And I think you are a dancer, too.

Why don’t adult ballet students feel like dancers?

I am not alone. Many adult ballet students struggle to think of themselves as dancers.

I still have moments when saying “I am a ballet dancer” feels like a farce.

And I wonder, Who am I to be worthy of ballet?

But these moments are fleeting.

I no longer live in feelings of inadequacy surrounding ballet, because I know that though my fragile ego may seek to make me feel otherwise, I am, now and always, a ballet dancer.

But why do so many adult ballet students — who are avid, active dancers — struggle to see themselves as such?

Are these feelings random? Or simply the result of personal insecurities?

Not entirely.

Preconceived ideas of what a ballet dancer should be

Too many of us internalize ideas about ballet that make the thought of being a ballet dancer seem completely unattainable.

Ballet dancers are viewed as highly disciplined, longsuffering, competitive, and of course, very, very thin. These ideas have been perpetuated by the ballet world for generations, thus making ballet seem untouchable.

While professional dancers do tend to embody these traits, ballet dancers exist on a spectrum.

There needs to be space and resources for ordinary people who love ballet to dance seriously, not necessarily because they want a career in ballet, but because they feel a deep need — a calling — to dance.

Putting ballet on a pedestal

In the ballet world, there is a mentality that everything is earned:

You must earn your tutu.

You must earn the right to be expressive.

You must earn every performance.

You must earn every single moment of ballet.

Basically, you are not worthy of ballet until you earn it, and only a select few rise to the top.

These ideas are almost religious in nature: “Many are called, few are chosen.”

All too often, dancers are taught to feel unworthy. Disposable, even. Can’t make it to rehearsal? Can’t fulfill the choreographer’s vision? No matter, someone just as talented and just as well-trained can take your spot in a second.

But I want to present a new way of thinking: Many are called, all are worthy. No one is disposable. Everyone is valuable.

Simply by virtue of being a human being, you are worthy of pursuing your dreams.

How do adult ballet students fit into the ballet world?

Ballet culture, as it exists now, provides little allowance for serious recreational ballet dancers.

Elitism in ballet is an ongoing problem that prevents many adults from ever daring to try a beginner class, much less proudly claim the identity of “ballet dancer.”

You might think professional ballet culture should have little to no bearing on recreational dancers. I have heard many times: "Just dance because you love it! Don't worry about the standards." But dancers of all ages and levels look to the professional world for inspiration, and we can’t help but notice how unwelcome we feel.

Every adult ballet student I have ever met has struggled with imposter syndrome, and many have reached out to me via direct message on Instagram to share that they feel invisible in the ballet world. What do you think causes these feelings?

While there are schools that welcome adult ballet dancers into inclusive, high quality training programs, these are the exceptions, not the rule.

Adult ballet students are, more often than not, overlooked.

But there is hope. Many teachers, recreational dancers, and internet influencers are working tirelessly to create a better ballet culture.

Together, we can make space for everyone who wants to be a ballet dancer.

But shouldn’t only professionals be called ballet dancers?

Some say the title “ballet dancer” ought to be reserved for professionals only. That the word “dancer” connotes a vocation.

But I think professional dancers should be called professional dancers or pro dancers for short.

And recreational dancers should simply be called: ballet dancers.


Because literally no other hobby requires adults to constantly clarify they are not professional.

Have you ever heard someone identify as a “recreational” or “adult” basketball player? Or runner? Or guitarist? Or weight lifter?

Any hobby can be a profession. Even playing video games can be a profession.

But people with hobbies other than ballet do not feel the need to explain, “Oh, but I am not professional.”

The recreational status is assumed, or considered irrelevant.

Why should ballet be any different?

Announcing you are a pro is a matter of pride and accomplishment. But clarifying that you are not pro — while there is nothing shameful about it — creates an awkward, unnecessary reminder of what a person is not.

Why should I apologize for the greatest passion of my life just because it didn’t become my job?

Imagine walking up to a beginning ballet student and saying: “You’re not a professional ballerina.” Or to a beginning guitar student and saying: "You're not a famous rock star."

Is it true? Yes. Is it helpful? No.

As adult ballet students, we deserve to feel proud of our dancing — to focus on what we can do.

There should simply be: dancers and pro dancers.

Those who carve space in their already busy lives to learn the demanding, classical art of ballet?

We are ballet dancers.

Those who do ballet as a profession?

They are pro ballet dancers.

See? It’s simple.

What makes a ballet dancer?

You might be wondering: okay, but what actually makes a ballet dancer, then? You can't just show up to one beginner class and start calling yourself a dancer, can you?

Well, there is no exact formula.

But if you love dancing ballet enough to ruminate the question “Am I dancer?” — then you are, in fact, a dancer.

Maybe you don’t buy that logic.

That’s okay.

What do you think makes a ballet dancer?

Advanced technique?


Multiple pirouettes?

Pointe shoes?

To me, these are superficial, arbitrary ways to determine who is and is not a ballet dancer.

My technique does not make me a dancer. My pointe shoes do not make me a dancer, either. These are small parts of a greater, much more important whole.

Ballet is in my soul. Ballet is in the soul of everyone who loves it.

So, when does a person become a ballet dancer?

I think the moment you become a dancer is the moment you realize how much ballet means to you.

Maybe you have always felt a deep connection to ballet, even before you ever tried it.

Maybe you fell in love during your first class.

Maybe your first few classes were rough, but you kept going and somewhere along the way, it dawned on you: I want ballet to be my life.

I don’t think becoming a ballet dancer has anything to do with your skill level or whether or not ballet is your profession.

I think becoming a dancer is about the way ballet makes you feel and the care and attention you bring to the craft.

I think ballet is a calling.

If you feel inexplicably drawn to ballet, you are a dancer.

If you love doing ballet and it’s important to you — if you feel strongly that ballet is part of your soul — then you are a ballet dancer, one-hundred, thousand, million percent.

Calling yourself a ballet dancer inspires joy and confidence

When you, as an adult ballet student, embrace the label of ballet dancer for yourself, you might notice something exciting…

You become empowered. Unapologetic. More invested in yourself and your dancing. More connected to the art form you love.

If it’s difficult for you to consider yourself a dancer, but you want to embrace that label, I recommend looking at yourself in the mirror and saying aloud, as an affirmation, “I am a ballet dancer.”

Say it every day. Even if you don’t believe it! Say it until you believe it. It works. I promise.

Recreational dancers can create a new ballet world

To those of us who feel the call but do not fit the mold: we do not have to accept the standards of the ballet world.

We can create our own opportunities. We don’t have to wait for anyone's permission. If the ballet world doesn’t make room for us, we can make room for ourselves.

We can change the scope of ballet.

As long as diverse groups of people are passionate about ballet and want to share it with others, ballet can always be set free from the status quo.

We can decide, together, what it means to be a ballet dancer, and we can make space for all who feel called to dance. We can embody the belief that simply by being human we are worthy of pursuing our heart’s calling: we are worthy of dancing ballet.