Many ballet dancers are unhealthy because of the pressure to look at certain way. — says Alexandra. — My nickname is Healthy Ballerina, and I found my balance.
Have you ever heard of a professional ballet dancer who warns others not to hanker after perfectionism for the sake of their own health and joyful living? Or have you ever been subscribed to a successful blogger on Instagram that advises to limit social media pastime and hang out more IRL?
Alexandra Pullen has traveled all over the world with American Ballet Theatre and performed on grand stages one can only dream of. Emirates Palace in Abu-Dhabi, Queensland Performing Arts Center in Brisbane, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York — just to name a few.
Today, she teaches little girls ballet and yoga (even some meditation, who could have imagined children would love it!), holds down multiple freelance projects, goes on performing, inspires more than 32K subscribers and a great deal more blog readers to take the best of life. Here are Alexandra’s self-care and self-love rules (and a few ballet stories) she kindly shared with the GrowApp blog.
Ballet is freedom. And a burden of perfectionism
I started dancing when I was five. My mom was also a professional ballerina, and I always wanted to be like her, but she didn’t want me to dance because she knew how hard that life can be and wanted to protect me. So I begged: “Please, let me go.” Finally, she let me go to a ballet class, and I’ve been dancing ever since.
What I love the most about ballet is freedom, being able to express your emotions with your body on a stage, and the moment when your hard work pays off. As well as wearing costumes, beauty, and the glamour. The stage is really magical to me; It’s transforming.
I would say that the hard part is everything else: your goal is to be perfect, but perfection is impossible — so this feeling that you have to be more and better is always with you no matter what you accomplish. Being in a professional company was very restrictive for me as an artist.
How to find a balance in a harsh environment
I think the key for me is to find a balance in my mind and spirit because ballet is my entire life, and it can be so consuming.
My life as a ballet dancer with American Ballet Theatre was very harsh. In a field like ballet, modelling, or acting there is a pressure to look at certain way, so a lot of times dancers are mentally and physically unhealthy, in terms of eating disorders. I called my Insta account Healthy Ballerina because I wanted to be both: healthy and a ballerina, and while uncommon — I knew it was possible.
When I started my blog, I was dancing in New York. We had the Met Season in Lincoln Center we had been looking forward to all year. Unfortunately, my foot was broken, and I couldn’t dance. I was upset and didn’t know what else to do. I started an Instagram page and posted about healthy food and meditation — all sorts of wellness stuff because I wanted to heal my injury from a holistic approach.
First, it began just as a fun thing to do, but soon I began acquiring a lot of followers and started to build a community of like-minded people. Having subscribers who tell you “Thank you for sharing that! This helped me so much!” is really inspiring. It makes me feel good to know that I’m helping someone make better choices, love themselves more, find balance, and implement good habits.
We live to enjoy but not suffer
When I was young, I’ve had many different teachers: some of them were amazing and encouraging but firm, some of them were so strict, mean, harsh and abusive; they yelled, screamed at us, hit us, telling us we were fat, ugly, and not good enough. To this day, I hear my ballet teacher screaming at me in my head; it stuck with me.
Teachers wanted to make students feel so bad about themselves that they would want to prove their worth through improving their technique, which is insane. It’s kind of a cultural tradition in ballet. There is an idea that you have to suffer in order to get better.
This approach made me good at ballet, though unhappy internally. It did a lot of damage. At what cost? Being an excellent dancer at the cost of being unhappy and having to relearn and unlearn all that bad stuff. It’s not only the ballet culture, but a lot of extreme sports are also like that. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Dancing is supposed to be expressing your soul through your body, not some kind of a militant thing. I want to affect students in a positive way. I’ve found research proving that encouraging students and using positive reinforcement increases their productivity and makes them perform better. It makes them happier and like themselves and the process more. So why not impose it?!
5 Non-negotiable self-care rules
In the peak of my career as a professional ballerina, I was working full-time, I was living a dream, but I was so unhappy at the same time. I didn’t practice self-care, I didn’t practice self-love. I didn’t know how to change my thoughts to make them better about myself and the things around me. Now things are different for me!
People have been thinking for a long time that self-care is about applying a face mask or having a bubble bath. For me, self-care is more about creating the balance for myself, with things and people, and work, and to keep boundaries. For instance, when someone wants me to do something that I’m not comfortable with, I keep a firm boundary and listen to my inner voice rather than trying to always please those around me and compromising what I feel comfortable with.
Taking time for myself. Naturally, I’m an introvert. Though I’m sociable, I recharge from being alone and having time for myself. If I overextend myself, e.g., make too many plans, and it collects much of “me time”, then I may not be the best expression of myself for everyone else.
I value being around people that respect me and those whom I respect.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being honest with yourself. For instance, avoid blaming other people for everything. You should be honest with yourself before trying to be honest with others. It gets easier if you practice not deflecting. It’s draining to blame everyone else all the time and trying to control what is out of your control.
- Recently I had a disagreement with my mother, and the first my thought was to blame her for everything, that she’s not nice to me and not treating me well. Then I thought: “Why is this upsetting me so much?” And I realized that it was something within me. My reactions are my responsibilities. Yes, her actions didn’t make me feel good, but it was also on me to figure out what was going on internally and why I was feeling so triggered by another human.
How to rewire your brain in the morning
My mornings are very sacred to me. I love coffee — that’s a big part of my morning. I wake up, drink a glass of water, take probiotic, then get ready. I like to be quiet keep to myself. I usually have up to 5 minutes to meditate in the morning, but that’s what I need. Then I teach yoga. After that I go to ballet class.
Meditating and being diligent about eating well, getting enough sleep, drinking water, moving my body are all expressions for self-care. Naturally being neurotic, I catch myself on repetitive thoughts. Before I cultivated a meditation practice, I was repeatedly thinking of things that were not very productive to think of over and over again. I wanted to figure out a way to rewire my brain, and meditation has been really helpful.
Practicing thinking in a different way changes thought loops in your brain. You can actually change your neurofeedback. Many people keep thinking the whole day long “I’m not good enough.” You’d better sit down and replace that with: “I am enough. I am. I. am. enough.” Pretty soon that positive thought begins to overlap the negative one. This way, you’re changing the pattern sitting deep in your psyche. You have the power to change your reality with your mind.
3 Rules for a healthy body
Ballet dancers are extreme athletes. Since I took a break from ballet for three years, I needed to unwind mentally from it, so I started teaching yoga. Now I’m back dancing, but when I was living a “normal life”, it was vital for me to stay active.
Carry your groceries, take the stairs, walk, get up and move around every hour if you’re working at a desk. Just find a way to get your blood flowing.
In terms of working out, whatever you choose to do should make you happy! I love workouts that are so fun that they don’t even feel like a workout! Do it in a way that’s good for your body and mind, without torturing yourself. If you don’t feel like working out, take a rest day and honor yourself and your needs.
The purpose of moving your body is to show it love, so find a fun training that you love. For me, that’s dancing, yoga, everything that doesn’t feel like a workout. Eat well, let yourself indulge occasionally. Moderation and intention is the key in a diet, nutrition, and everything else.
Yoga made me a better person to be around
Sometimes, I put some yoga into my ballet class. Usually, I have children meditate for 5 minutes because I’ve also done research on meditation for children, and the benefits amazed me. I guide them through 5-minute meditation and then ask: “Picture a color! Visualize your happy place, any positive things, think about your breath”. Their imagination is so free and uninhabited! Someone says: “Oh, I saw a rainbow!” It’s cool to watch them lightning up.
I think the world would be a much better place if everyone had a yoga practice. It made me nicer and a better person to be around.
Instagram life is not 100% real
It was very hard for me to make friends when I was in school because my whole life was ballet. I went to school only half a day; then I left to train. If you wanna be good at dancing, you have to sacrifice your social life for a while. What I did to change that was that I made my Instagram, that’s how I was able to connect with like-minded people and build a community. Believe it or not, a lot of my friends IRL I met through Instagram!
I think the problem of social media is that people tend to use it as a substitute for human connection, so if sitting at home with your phone is your only form of socializing, that’s going to be a bad thing, obviously.
Social media causes a constant feeling of comparing yourself to others. The other day, I had an argument with my mother, my makeup was running, I was crying, and overall just having a bad day — but I didn’t post that on Instagram! People don’t see a full picture of someone’s life, only the best parts. When you wish you had someone else’s life, you have to remember: OK, but that’s not 100% real and I’m not seeing the full picture here.
I think it’s good to set time limits for online life using apps. I recently did that, and it was really helpful to be aware of how much time I spent there. Although it is my job, it’s healthy not to be on social media all the time.
Finding a balance literally in everything is my approach to wellness. To some extent, everything is OK as long as you’re conscious and aware of why and how often you’re doing something. Moderation is way healthier than just to forbid yourself to do something completely.
You don’t need makeup to be loved
Nowadays, I get a lot of questions, e.g., “How do I find myself?”; “How do I get out of negative thought cycles?”; “How do I get out of this toxic relationship?”; “How do I love myself more?”
I definitely don’t have a blanket answer. But there’s one thing that is generally the answer to most people’s problems: it is just loving yourself more. If you really accept and love yourself, you will be unstoppable. It’s not easy, though. In our society, everything is designed to make you feel that you need to change in so many different ways to be accepted. Industries profit off of our insecurities. You don’t need makeup or any other miracle product in order to be loved. You are perfect exactly as you are! You are loved and you are important. Own that and everything will fall into place.