Ballet and Body Dysmorphia

'Polos' is a poem written and performed by Edinburgh based, US-raised storyteller and dancer Katie Ailes, all about a ballet teacher called Emma and her profound impact on her students' lives, both positive and negative.

Read the poem below and watch the video of Katie's choreography to the meaningful and moving piece.

My favorite dance teacher, Emma, is the most beautiful woman in the world.
She has this hair, you see, that curls and curls
back down her back
down her straight dancer spine for days:
gorgeous auburn,
amber.

She never wears makeup,
only laugh lines
and bagged-eyes
and lips that care more for smiling than for lipstick, but

Emma wears polos.
Big baggy polo shirts that stretch from
her neck to her legginged thighs,
covering everything in between.

Her favorite one is green,
makes her back look like a forest on fire.

Inspiring us without knowing it,
she danced a legend through our dreams
Didja know, Emma used to be famous,
used to dance on the New York stage,
hold halls in thrall,
whole crowds in awe
as she boureed,
jeted,
fouetted,
tombeed into perfect piques
the clichés of ballet
replayed and replayed,
so clean
on her form,
her tutu cinched waist,
her skeletal frame
claiming the ideal lines.

It’s all about the lines.

We knew Emma used to be taught by her mother,
a ballet mistress in her eighties now,
all metal knees, hips, shoulders now,
all hopes for her down to us now,

the same woman who used to keep a set of scales in the studio,
who taught us to
pull up,
pull up,
pull up,
this is too soft,
this is soft,
you, you, you are soft.

Emma wears polos,
big baggy polos,
and we don’t see her cinched waist anymore.

She’s had two kids,
remarried,
and the only dancing she does now is to gently caress the floor
with her toes,
show the young, flat-chested girls how to tendu,
fondue, ronde-jambe,
her knees perfectly turned out,
toes pointed because they’ve forgotten how to just lie there,
how to be anything but pointed.

Emma wears polos,
and one day in class she almost let slip that
Sex is the best way to learn turn-out!
But then she caught herself and said no,
It’s having babies that teaches you, babies…

I didn’t know sex then,
I’d never felt a boy on my lips,
let alone my hips,
and so I didn’t catch why her cheeks flushed red
and her fingers awkwardly fumbled for the hem of her shirt,
grasping for some social grace

She taught us to stand on our toes,
to hold the whole weight of us
on the smallest surface,
like a wedding cake topper,
or a camel balancing on the eye of the needle,
to do the impossible with grace:

but to face a mirror was more difficult,

reflecting back to her
something bigger than herself
something holding all her fears,
something holding the past forty years
of feeling too large,
and now this, this, this
feels too large.

So now—
Now she teaches us how to
hold ourselves up
how to
walk the world straight
how to
walk the world slim,
thin, how to
fit into the cracks
backstage,
to fit other dancers into tutus
while we wear polos,

us wide-eyed, small-hipped,
eagerly lapping up the lessons
she did not mean to teach us:

That dancing means minimising
That this [stomach] is not beautiful
That these [breasts] are shame,
That growing into a woman is a step in the wrong direction.

My favorite dance teacher, Emma, is the most beautiful woman in the world.
I ran into her once in the Powerbar section of Costcos
and we had the most awkward conversation in the world
because she’s shy
and she hides
behind those subtle smiles
and that curly hair
and she wears polos…

Two babies came from those hips,
and now no one knows the shape of her stomach,
the belly I imagine as holding worlds,
the power of creation,
the deification of motherhood—

But it’s not
flat.

Emma wears polos,
and all I want to tell her is:
Take them off.
You are beautiful.

Video by Perry Jonsson and Katie Ailes, c/o Loud Poets

Author image
Ruth MacGilp, 20, UK. Fashion Communication Student and Fashion Blogger.
Edinburgh Website