As a child, sophomore Eilene Vo remembers dancing and performing for her parents and grandparents as they finished dinner. She would spin and twirl around beside the dining table as her family laughed and applauded her performance. Now, they proudly attend her ballet shows, cheering from the audience as Vo performs on stage.
Vo plunged into ballet when her mother, a former gymnast, wanted her to get involved in extracurriculars from a young age. After consulting Vo’s older sister, her mother made the choice to enroll her in ballet lessons.
“My sister suggested ‘ballet,’ because I looked like I was already a dancer since age three,” Vo said. “The two of us would have shows at home in the living room where we would choreograph to a song and dance just for fun.”
Despite Vo’s early love for dancing, attending ballet lessons was not always something she looked forward to. The classes seemed everlasting as she often had to force herself to go most days.
“I remember dreading to go to ballet,” Vo said. “I’ve always had periods sporadically where I burn out and want to quit, but I can’t, because I’ve come too far.”
At age 12, Vo began competing in regional competitions. The pressure to perform well, both from her teachers and parents, heightened her fear of failure. The last thing she wanted was to fall short of their high standards. Right before her first competition, she began shaking backstage and found it difficult to breathe. Her heart raced as she kept overthinking the steps, replaying them over and over again in her head as others performed, paralyzed by the fear of forgetting the choreography.
“I went up and performed,” Vo said. “Afterwards, I started bawling my eyes out, because I felt like such a failure. But it turned out, I won first place.”
Two years later, Vo received a highly anticipated email that would inform her of whether or not she got into American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive program. She was hoping to attend their school in New York, because it was the most prestigious location. However, when she opened the email, it was a letter of acceptance to Florida instead. A wave of hopelessness overcame her as she sobbed in the hallway of her home, overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. Her sister, then, consoled her.
“She said that crying over something like this meant I would never survive in the ballet world, because it is cruel and I won’t always be accepted,” Vo said. “I needed to learn to be okay with that.”
Although she ranked highly in many competitions, her feelings about ballet did not improve. Throughout the three years that she spent competing, her anxiety worsened and the pressures of the harsh and competitive ballet world were pushing her over the edge. Despite her mother wanting her to pursue the sport professionally, she was often conflicted about whether she should.
“Ballet encouraged me to be more dedicated to things I set my mind to,” Vo said. “It also made me less sensitive to criticism, but I realized it wasn’t something that would make me happy. I need something that makes me feel free and ballet doesn’t do that for me, because I feel like I’m performing for someone else and not myself.”
In spite of stress from ballet, Vo still finds enjoyment and fulfillment from dancing. Noticing her own growth and improvement often fills her with a sense of accomplishment.
“Being able to perform after long hours of practice is very rewarding, because it feels like all that hard work is paying off,” Vo said. “Finishing the performance is my favorite part. It’s relieving and I feel proud afterwards.”
While she no longer wishes to pursue ballet as a career, she is still involved and occasionally travels for competitions. However, the pressure to be perfect continued to linger. Even now, she still feels terrified of not winning first place, but her fear has lessened thanks to her sister’s lectures about the necessity of failure. After nine years of ballet, she has made peace with not being perfect.
“I’ve learned to accept that I can’t always be number one and that I’m not a disappointment, even if I don’t get into the best school or get the highest prize in a competition,” Vo said. “What matters most is the effort I put into my performance.”