[Original story by Lori Weiss found at The Huffington Post]
At five years old, Kerry Ann King became the accidental ballerina. Her mother had enrolled her in what she thought was a neighborhood dance class after reading that ballet — which involves large body movements — might help with a form of dyslexia Kerry Ann was struggling with. But these weren’t just any ballet classes — unknowingly, Kerry Ann’s mom had brought her daughter to one of the most prestigious programs in the world — The Joffrey Ballet in New York City.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” Kerry Ann remembered, “and the teachers fell in love with me. You know when you see a little kid and they don’t want to do anything other than play the piano? That was the level of passion I had for it.”
Kerry Ann moved quickly through the ranks. She was even allowed the unheard of — to take classes with the actual ballet company.
“But I was never put on stage,” she explained. “I was constantly encouraged, but I wasn’t getting the feedback I wanted. I wanted to know if I was going to make it.”
So finally at the age of 14, Kerry Ann got up the nerve to ask a trusted teacher. “She said, ‘If you have breast reduction surgery and lose another seven pounds, it might improve your chances, but even then there are no guarantees.’ I would have had to dance five hours a day and not eat at all. I would have had to become anorexic. Even at 14, I knew better than to torture my body in that way. And that’s when I walked away.
And as many teenage girls do, when they break up with their first love, Kerry Ann tested her new freedom. She took up tennis — a sport she wasn’t allowed to participate in while she was dancing, for fear that she could be injured. And then she was. The first time she stepped out onto a tennis court, she blew out her knee.
“I was forced to stop exercising,” Kerry Ann said sadly, “which just set me up for what was to come. There aren’t a lot of naturally thin people in my family and I’d been dieting from the time I was ten. It wasn’t unusual for me to dance all day with only a small frozen yogurt, a Tab and a banana in my system, which left my metabolism incredibly slow. So there I was, injured, and at 5’2” my weight ballooned up to 150 pounds.”
It was the end of Kerry Ann’s athletic pursuits. Or at least she thought it was. She moved on with her life and studied psychology, married a man she’d met in her master’s program and happily built a family. What she didn’t know was that her last pregnancy, which brought two beautiful twin boys into her life, would also bring her back to where she belonged — to the world of dance.
“While I was pregnant with my sons, I ended up on bed rest for five months,” Kerry Ann said. “I spent that time eating every flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream I could find and watching every episode of “West Wing.” I put on 90 pounds. And while after they were born, I was down to 160, I felt like I had to do something about my weight. So I joined a gym and tried kickboxing and cardio classes. But I avoided dance classes. I watched them a little, but they looked way too challenging.”
But all that changed when Kerry Ann discovered a dance class designed to be softer on the body, called Nia. It was free form and low impact and by the time she finished the first session, she had fallen back in love.
“As I got stronger and more confident, I decided to go to the Broadway Dance Center and take a real ballet class. By that point, I’d lost a lot of weight. I was in really good shape and it was kind of like going back to see an ex when you’re looking really good. Like yeah, buddy — look at me now.”
So she took her place — right at the very front barre — which for most people might be intimidating, but in the world of ballet, those spots are reserved for the most skilled dancers and clearly, Kerry Ann felt up to the challenge.
“Class started and the teacher would not get off my back,” Kerry Ann recalled. “It was exactly what I’d experienced as a child. In ballet, brutal as it sounds, if you’re not being criticized in class, it means you’re not worth paying attention to. But at one point, he gave me direction that I couldn’t do because of my knee surgery and I did something that no one ever does in a ballet class. I talked back. I said this knee is reconstructed — that’s as far as it bends. If I had punched him in the face, people would have been less shocked.
“I wanted to say to him, I am 41 … years old. Look at my face, look at my grey hair! I’m not auditioning for anyone. I’m here for the same reason the 70-year-old guy next to me is. I want to take a ballet class. But I realized in that moment that I was still a dancer. I was 41 and even if I wasn’t tall and thin, I was a dancer.”
And once Kerry Ann accepted that, there was no stopping her. She became a certified fitness instructor and began teaching classes that range from conditioning to kickboxing and of course, Nia. On any given day, she can be found teaching a group of spunky seniors, who are rocking out to the latest heavy metal music. Or choreographing a flash mob of parents and teachers at her children’s school, where the principal dances through the crowd throwing fairy dust. She even shows up in studios just like the one where she first trained. Most recently, she prepared a group of dancers to perform at the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Studio.
“We put up our own obstacles. We tell ourselves we’re not young anymore. We’re not fit enough. It’s not true. It’s all propaganda. You don’t stop being beautiful or strong or sexy just because you’re not 25 anymore or because you’re not a certain shape or size.
“I want to share the sense of delight people can have in moving and dancing,” Kerry Ann said, “no matter who they are. To me, the mission is no longer how high you can kick. It’s how high you get from dancing.”