"I dance for the moments when every movement, every breath, falls flawlessly into place."
Maybe This Time, in This Place
When I was 5 years old, I hated ballet.
When I shuffled into my first ballet class, all of the blond-haired, blue-eyed nymphs stared at me like I’d just tumbled out of Snow White’s cottage with the seven dwarves. And, rest assured, I was no Snow White. My chubby cheeks and thick black hair made me nothing like those slender-boned beauties floating through the air as if they were stray feathers from a tutu.
You're not pretty enough, they said.
You're not skinny enough, they said.
You're too short, they said.
I quit ballet for a time to pursue other things. And yet, despite my initial impression — “This is not the world for you” — something else, elusive but urgent all the same, brought me back, years later. Dance will do that, I reckon.
So when I came to Exeter four years ago, I joined the intermediate dance class, albeit with the kind of hesitation that a mouse has when entering a lion’s den. Because in the pink leotard and tights of a toddler ballet class distantly remembered, a tiny Korean girl still floundered. My hair had only grown wilder with age, and the thick waves didn’t do much to disguise my near-explosive cheekbones. I had no illusions about the fact that I, my body, my skill, did not fit any of the stereotypical, desirable molds for “ballerina” or even “dancer.”
But maybe this time, in this place, it would be different.
And as I stood at the barre for the first time in years, looking at myself in the rollaway mirrors, I thought that maybe, maybe they were wrong.
For the next four years, I danced away every spare hour, soaking in technique and artistry, learning how to speak with my body. I made up for lost time, joining Advanced Dance and the Dance Company, learning new styles and choreography . . . and I even started to dance en pointe, something I never dreamed I’d be able to do. That first day when I stepped onto the marley floor with my feet squeezed in between the leather soles and burlap sides, the wool and gel toe pads cushioning my metatarsals and some tape wrapped about my bony pinky toes, I felt like a newborn duckling, waddling around in feet too big and too strange. But I also knew that I’d waited all of my life for the pressure of papier-mâché around my toes.
I think part of me will always be that squishy duckling. Never perfect. I can always learn a new variation, stretch higher in développé, turn faster from fifth.
But I dance for a different kind of perfection. I dance for the moments when every movement, every breath, falls flawlessly into place. As the music moves through me, I just feel. My body is my instrument, my power of expression.
And this incredible gift wouldn’t be mine, I wouldn’t have any of the technique or the artistry or the awareness, without the Theater and Dance Department. Our little studio in Davis is full of memories of laughter and growth and community, experiences that I already found myself desperately missing as my time at Exeter drew to a close and we seniors prepared for our last spring concert. I am honored to have been a part of the groundbreaking for the new Center for Theater and Dance, and I know that students in the years to come will find just as much guidance and support as I did within the studio. Because dance at Exeter offered me a space in which to fall flat on my face after an attempt at a triple pirouette and still get right back up again. A place where I do belong, even with my messily bobby-pinned ballet bun.
Thank you to the dance program for giving me the opportunity to grow as both a dancer and a person in ways that I never would have imagined, especially as a chubby toddler in beginning ballet all those years ago. And thank you for rekindling and fueling my love of dance, a love that I will carry with me even when my knees won’t let me grande plié anymore.
—Ariel Kim '16
This essay first appeared in the the fall 2016 issue of The Exeter Bulletin and has been adapted from an address delivered by Kim at the dedication ceremony for the Center for Music and Dance in spring 2016.