By Allison Hannan
As Featured in Frock Magazine, 04 January 2017
I love ballerinas because they epitomize to me all that is feminine. They are beautiful and graceful. Every movement reflects a deep passion disciplined by countless hours of practice. They exert utmost strength and agility to appear, in delicate tights and tutus, delicate and fragile.
The ballet is magic. Through the ballet, a girl can transform all of her deepest desires into reality. She can be an elegant swan, a desirable damsel in distress to be saved by her hero, or a confident princess reigning benevolently over her peaceful shire. The ballet also transforms me: without a word, it sets free the girl inside of me, the ballerina.
As a child, I was never self-conscious; I would happily interact with everyone around me without giving what I did or said a second thought. The cuteness of our cat Fluffy’s pink nose could inspire to me to break out in a little made-up song, no matter what adult or other kid was around. I felt no shame in weeping, watching Charlotte’s Web, in front of my older brothers and sister when Charlotte died, or when they became tears of joy when her babies, saved by Wilbur the pig, were born. In the earliest grades of grammar school, I had no problem talking to just about anyone, kid or otherwise, about anything. I spoke my mind. Nor was I intimidated by age differences. I can remember an uncle telling my mother that I was one of those few kids who could follow and carry on a conversation “just like an adult,” and I felt comfortable sitting at the “adult table” during a party or a picnic. I felt little fear.
But that would change. As time went on, the callous comments and conversations of some of the kids and adults – what later I’d recognize as gender stereotypes – upset me in ways I couldn’t express. During recess, the boy who did not run well was ridiculed since he “ran like girl;” teenage boys with longer hair – this was the 1970s – were mocked: “I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl – its hair was so long.”
Then, one day, when I was about 12, it hit me. What would these same people, parents, siblings, loved ones, and the kids at school say to or about me if they knew that I thought of myself as girl? What if I slipped and said or did something that was too “girlish?” Or worse, what if they could see my thoughts about being a girl without me even saying a word! Would I be rejected and become the object of their ridicule?
Even then, I knew I could not simply start being a boy inside and discard my feminine self. My response was simply to withdraw, to become silent. I didn’t talk too much to others. Silence would reduce the odds of slipping and saying something too girly and having people find out about me. No more spontaneous singing, no more tears in public. For the better part of my life, I employed this strategy. Keeping quiet allowed me to avoid revealing myself.
But what was there to reveal? I was losing any sense of identity. If I had a different opinion about what was being said in conversation, I sat back and either said nothing or passively found a reason why I should agree with the person. If another person in a different setting had a contrary opinion on the topic than the first, I could also agree with that point of view. I justified this to myself as being able to see “all points of view,” but in reality, I feared that if I talked too much, my feminine identity might slip out.
The ballet was my refuge, my sanity. I imagined myself as a beautiful ballerina, free to express my feminine self, wearing an exquisite tutu, telling my story through dance. In my mind, I became graceful, the silent movements of my dance confidently speaking what was truly in my heart. Being a ballerina in my mind gave me the words that I could not speak. While I was fortunate over the years to be able to transform myself in my mind and through partially dressing with the support of my loving wife, these were only half-measures. I was an eternal chameleon. With the additional demands of family and profession, the unique person that is me was silently slipping away, afraid to face, let alone embrace, reality.
Then, three years ago, I went to my niece’s ballet recital.
It was May. My wife, her mother and I were finding our seats in the high school auditorium prior to the show. My mother-in-law had a difficult time sitting in her seat, an annoyance, which triggered deeper frustrations. She became very upset, and began reminding herself of all the regrets in her life.
“I never should have married that idiot!”
“If I didn’t eat so much crap, I’d be able to get into the fucking seat.”
“What a GD waste I’ve been, it’s a bitch getting old.”
Her tirade had therapeutic power for me, too. It made me see that I needed to stop living in my head, to speak up, and to be me before it is too late. From that moment on, I’ve let Allison blossom and go out into the world. The ballerina has taken the stage. I’ve gotten professional help to polish my feminine look – it’s like having a ballet mistress! – and practiced, practiced, practiced make-up application. My outgoing self is returning: I love making new friends, something I had not done in years. I socialize much more freely and love frequenting restaurants, theatres, museums and stores as the real me. At times it’s been terrifying, and I’ve had my fair share of emotional ups and downs. But I am no longer just an imaginary ballerina. I’m now actually dancing – and even starting to sing a little.