The grind don’t stop…until the body is destroyed 


Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Meg Richards and Ty Gavin


I have been dancing since I was two years old. Ballet, tap, jazz, modern, contemporary—pretty much all of it. My feet have only stopped moving for a two-year tae-kwon-do hiatus, ever since which I have felt three steps behind my fellow dancers.


My life, up until quitting in my sophomore year in high school, was based around dance. I started at five and stopped–more or less–at sixteen. It can be difficult to recall positive learning experiences from those years. I learned ambition and determination from the constant competition, but I also learned to despise my body and its proclivity to injury–to the embarrassment of pain. I learned to let the teacher’s words go to my head and then to my body, finding every part that could be fixed and ignoring every part that hurts. 


I did not have the most positive experience with dance growing up. For a prepubescent girl, the studio is a breeding ground for body image issues, drama, corruption, and sexual abuse. Even now, I still struggle with feeling like an imposter in dance spaces—like I don’t belong.

 This might be because of years of being told by teachers, either verbally or through actions, that I wasn’t good enough. It might be because regardless of what others tell me—good or bad—I don’t think I’m good enough.

Though my dance experience here at Emerson has been mostly positive, these middle school feelings bubbled up once again when I was diagnosed with chronic knee pain over spring break of my first year at college. Let me make it clear, firstly, that with KT tape and arthritis cream, it is perfectly manageable. I’m not looking for sympathy, even though I did wear my knee brace over my clothes sometimes like one of those people.

But after having to sit out or dance in sneakers instead of tap shoes for over a month, I noticed myself slipping behind, and I felt like everyone else noticed too. To me, it was overwhelmingly obvious how much stamina and skill I lost while I healed. I would beat myself up about it, just like I’d done before. The day of my dance show, I told my mom I regretted sitting out instead of dancing through the pain—even though the aforementioned pain made walking near impossible. 

“I’d rather still be in excruciating pain while dancing than be free of pain, but worse as a dancer,” I told her.

The sentiment I was expressing was not unfamiliar to her. When I was 13, I was diagnosed with tendonitis. My teachers lectured me and gave me the cold shoulder for using crutches, even though I nearly ruptured my achilles in their class. One teacher told me that she experienced the same injury at my age but was dancing again within a week. Meanwhile, I couldn’t walk for two months.

I’ve had injuries that hindered my dancing at two points in my life, both of which I sustained by dancing on them. Both times caused me to feel ashamed for resting, taking breaks, and choosing not to dance. This is partially because of the freakishly high standards that were instilled in me, but also judgment from peers and teachers, because it went against the norm of the culture.

This harmful mindset that was being imposed upon me from the adults I looked up to caused me to spiral into a pit of self-deprecation and depression. I hated myself for being weak. I hated the stretch marks on my thighs that came from being inactive for two months. Instead of being patient and granting myself grace by letting my body heal on its own accord, I held a ticking time bomb over my head while I rushed to get better. 

A culture is cultivated in which dancers, sometimes as young as elementary school, are encouraged to “dance through it”—be it injury, illness, or even mental health. The grindset is applauded, and kids are commended for working to the point of burnout. 

This time, when I realized just how bad the injury was, I knew I had to sit out, or else it’d be much worse for me in the long run. Despite this, I still put up a fight against my parents, doctor, and friends who discouraged me from dancing through the pain. While I ultimately ended up taking a small break—and being grateful that I did, because I ended up healing a lot in that time—I was incredibly self conscious that my peers at dance thought I was weak, overdramatic, or worse: faking it. 

The ‘grindset’ that kids are encouraged to develop carries into adulthood and affects other parts of our lives. Now, I still don’t really know how to say no or be okay with resting. 


We’re taught only to look at our imperfections from an early age—that is the nature of improving your technique and artistry. It instills a body dysmorphia that borders on an intrinsic scrutiny of one’s own body, due to its formation—almost always—taking place before one is conscious of nervosa, eating disorders, or self-worth. Ask a dancer to point out the parts of their reflection that don’t need to change. You will get only silence. All dancers have this warped sense of self-perception in some way–affecting every aspect of their own self-view.

Pain, another human aspect that is warped by dance, is associated with talent and as a result, is neglected in all other respects. From an early age we are expected to ignore pain, ultimately putting us out of touch with the reality of what pain means for our bodies. As an athletic art form, dance is just like other grueling sports because not only is pain necessary for strength-building, it is expected in unfortunate injuries.

Unlike other sports, though, dance puts the blame of the pain on the dancer as opposed to the other team. If you are injured, you are not a dancer. There is a natural aspect of pain in dancing that isn’t present in any other sport or art; injury and pain are not expected in dance like they are in other sports—they are nonexistent. If you are in pain, it has nothing to do with the torture you are inflicting on your own body for the sake of your art, it is based only on your pitiful pain tolerance. Every dancer is injured, all the time, the only ones that sit out, essentially, are the wimps that care about the longevity of their body. Ergo, if you commit to resting—to healing—you cannot be a dancer. 

When I was nine years old, I overused my legs after a series of rehearsals during a particularly laborious tech week, and my knees were in perpetual pain. I couldn’t stand straight, I couldn’t walk without a limp, I couldn’t even lay down without the tendons around my knee cap pulsing with pain. I was considered injured in every space except, of course, at dance.

Injured dancers don’t exist to other dancers or dance instructors. You are shunned in a remarkable and isolating nature that does not translate to any other snubbing experience. And all of a sudden, I was assumed gone: my spot in the performance was ruled over by an annoying change in spacing. That’s all. I wasn’t a dancer anymore, and therefore I wasn’t anything. At least that is how it feels to the nine-year-old warped perception of personal value.

Ultimately, teaching kids to ignore their bodies when sirens are going off inside leaves them out of touch with themselves, both emotionally and physically. It becomes normal to put everything—work, education, and activities—over oneself at all times. But it’s not normal to ignore pain cues for the sake of not leaving your team hanging or risking falling behind—or rather, being left behind. 

We need to teach young dancers to rest, and that most importantly, it’s okay to rest. The safety of your body is always more important than placement, solos, and being the best.