What Happens When Your Identity Is Taken Away From You?
I used to be a former dancer.
Before that, of course, I was a dancer. Dancing was what I did. It was who I was. Every moment of class or rehearsal, I was in touch with my body in a way that I can only describe as sublime. Nothing else mattered. All of me was in every movement, whether a delicate arabesque or an aggressive slide across the floor. I defined myself by my ability to master my viscera, my instrument, and to manifest whatever pose or quality was requested of me. Ultimately, my life was marked by movement.
And then it was not. During my senior year of high school, I found I could no longer support my own body weight while standing. I tried to continue dancing even as I felt my physiology change and weaken, but attempting to move began to increasingly feel like a pipe dream. Before I could even realize what was happening, I was out of the studio. Robbed of my passion.
It was at this juncture, and a subsequent diagnosis of postural orthostatic tachycardia, that I became a former dancer — a girl who danced no more. The emotional significance of this descriptor — former — must not be overlooked. Us Formers are a unique crowd. Envision us as blissful children who used to don balloons. We had been prancing along completely satisfied until a gust of wind blew, and hell, the balloons slipped through our fingertips and floated up, up and away. We watched our balloons, the identities that we had loved and clung to, vanish forever.
I recently met a new addition to this clan of Formers, Mr. Football. We met shortly after he discovered that he would never again be able to play the sport he loved. A severe concussion left him permanently sideline- bound. So together, we have commiserated. In joining me in the ranks of those who feel their dreams have been stolen, he has become a dear companion and friend. Mr. Football has served as a miraculous mirror, appearing at just the right time, inspiring me to reconsider what happens to all of us Formers. Knowing him has raised questions like, who are we once we are no longer who we think we are? What happens to us when we feel our identities have been stripped from us? Who do we become when the people we thought were the crux of our lives, who would be forever and always, cut us out indefinitely? What do we do when we become Former anythings — be it performers, athletes, lovers, or friends?
I have a theory. Derived, like most of my theories are, from one of my favorite children’s books, Balloonia. The premise: when kids release their balloons into the sky, the balloons don’t just pop. Instead, they migrate to a magical land in the clouds, aptly named Balloonia, where they form the foundations for balloon buildings and rides and all sorts of fun balloon chaos. Essentially, those balloons have a life of their own up there, raging with their fellow plastic peers.
Meeting Mr. Football reminded me of the existence of Balloonia. Our essential natures, though relinquished from our tight grips, cannot be eradicated by external forces. So maybe I can’t kiss the man of my dreams anymore. And maybe I can no longer perform on stage at Lincoln Center. But my passion for free and authentic expression, the very passion that attracted me to the people and activities I loved, still exists. The balloon never burst.
If I no longer want to be a dancer, I can choose to be a former dancer. But when I close my eyes, I still see pirouettes on the inside of my lids. So I choose to dance. Not in the traditional sense but by fiercely casting away the adjective former, which assigns my connection with dance to the past. I reject the notion that only my life prior to my illness was one marked by the qualities of improvisation, composition, and movement. My life is still a dance, chock full of directionality, intention, and motion.
Thank you, Mr. Football, for all of the necessary reminders. We certainly have a lot of RE to do. So let’s Reflect. Rethink. Reevaluate. Rebuild. Restore. And then Resurrect. Rather than mourn the loss of our balloons, let’s Reframe. Let’s Reiterate that our identities are intentional, internal choices — the compilation of our consciously selected thoughts, words, and deeds. We choose who we are. So let’s choose wisely.
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