More

As a little girl, abuse made her ashamed of her body. Then she decided to dance.

The ballet world can be hard for dancers' relationships with their bodies. But for her, it saved her sense of herself.

Ophélia is a 16-year-old ballerina — and a survivor of sexual abuse.

She started ballet several years after her abuse ended and was amazed at how deeply dance healed her.


Through ballet, she rejected her abuser's shaming and reclaimed her body as her own sacred space. She even was able to feel comfortable doing partnered dance with a young man.

Now she travels around the world studying dance and advocates for victims of sexual violence in her home community.

Her story, in her own words, is below. It's long, but trust me. It's worth the read.

If you know of anyone who has struggled with body image or recovery from abuse of any kind — or who could just appreciate the healing power of dance — scroll to the bottom to share Ophélia's story.

It may be just the inspiration someone needs today.


Sexual Abuse, Body Image, and The Healing Power of Dance

by Ophélia Martin-Weber

Ballet requires dedication, strength, confidence, bravery, endurance, grace, hope, joy, passion, concentration, memory, self-esteem, flexibility, knowing who you are, critical analysis, adaptability, ability to learn quickly, pain tolerance, and eventually, really ugly feet. Sometimes, when I take a step back, I wonder why anyone would put themselves through this, especially girls today. You put on a leotard and tights that reveal your body shape and form completely, move around in front of others, and constantly have people tell how you are doing it wrong. Judgment, judgment, judgment. Rejection. Why would anyone put up with that?

But I know why. When I dance, I feel free.

I started dancing when I was 11 years old. It was all I wanted for my 11th birthday, and I promised my parents I would never ask for an MP3 player or iPhone or even a car ever again if I could start ballet classes. If they wouldn't put me in classes, because ballet is very expensive and I knew we didn't have the funds for real classes, I asked for ballet in a box, a video and books to follow, so I could teach myself. My parents decided that maybe they should make real ballet classes happen. Starting ballet at 11 is pretty late, so I was the tallest kid in my level 1 class. Most of the other students were 7 & 8 years old. I stuck out like an awkward sore thumb. Except, I loved it. Nine months later I went en pointe and a year after that I was invited to join my studio's Company Two. I really started to get serious about ballet. A secret hope began to bloom that maybe I could do ballet professionally. My instructors and my parents kept encouraging me, telling me that I had talent. Tall for my age, at the time, and all gangly arms and legs, ballet just felt right in my body. In a leotard and tights, when dancing, I was so oblivious of my technique, I just felt free. Being able to move in such a different way was liberating. The music, the movements, and the lack of fear were and still are my favorite things in the world.

I didn't use the mirror to watch myself. I didn't like to look in the mirror.

I still don't, honestly. Seeing myself made me uncomfortable. I thought I wasn't pretty, and I didn't look as graceful as I felt, but the studio mirror is one of the main tools a dancer has to work on their art. Eventually I had to face myself. It wasn't easy.

When I was 5, long before I was dancing, I went through a very traumatic experience that changed my family, changed me, and trapped me in a secret bondage. I became more aware of bad things in the world and terrified of just about everything in life as a result of the sexual assault I experienced at the hands of a family friend. A teenage boy whose family had been very close with my family repeatedly abused me before my parents found out and put a stop to it.

There's a lot I don't remember, but I do remember different scenes. Mostly I remember fear and shame. Shame was the primary tool the boy used to control me, telling me my parents wouldn't love me if they found out, that they would spank me, and that I deserved what he did to me. He threatened to hurt my family if I ever told. To this day, even with lots and lots of counseling, I still struggle with that fear and shame.

But, when I dance, I feel free.

This is me at my first pointe shoe fitting, 9 months after I started taking weekly ballet classes.

My 11-year-old self just wanted to dance because it was fun. What I didn't know was that ballet would also be healing. If I'm having a bad day, even if I don't want to go in the studio and dance, I almost always feel better when I do. On the dance floor, I'm distracted from whatever stress I'm dealing with at the time. It is just a one on one conversation with me, my teacher and my body. Even if I'm struggling with a specific technique or choreography, when I'm at the barre or in center, I don't have to focus on anything else but that moment with the music and my body. Frustration, fear, anger, I can squash them on the dance floor, sweat them out of my system, leap over them to music. I never imagined that it could so healing, sometimes dance feels as important to my vitality as breathing. Dance is my favorite therapy. I feel so alive and free when I dance, even with other people's steps.

You may not think that a sexual abuse survivor would find healing in putting on a leotard and displaying her body for others to judge but that's exactly what my journey has been.

Learning to trust my partners and feel comfortable dancing with young men, teen boys, has helped me develop a confidence in communicating what I am comfortable with. This past Christmas season as I danced the Dewdrop Fairy in The Nutcracker, my first full partnering role onstage, I had to deal with my insecurities regarding my body and trusting someone else to touch me. Communication is key in a ballet pas de deux. My partner patiently supported me until I was fully comfortable with our performance. Ballet has given me so many opportunities to address my insecurities and know who I really am. I'm not done growing, and I have a long way to go still, but any time I put on my slippers or pointe shoes I feel like I'm getting closer.

Because when I dance, I feel free.

Ballet is notorious for criticizing the bodies of dancers. There is a lot of pressure to be a certain body type. When my boobs began to really grow, I got scared that they would be too big for dance. As my hips widened a little bit and I was no longer just skinny arms and legs, I was nervous about being the wrong body type. This is still a fear for me, and I'm pretty sure I didn't get into a couple of the programs I auditioned for recently because of my body. Still, I am learning more and more to appreciate the strengths of my body, even as I discipline myself in training it, even as I am careful about how I fuel it. This body of mine can do amazing things. I have strong jumps that are powered by my thighs. While I didn't get into some programs, I did get into others and have new opportunities I never imagined. I have my teachers, training, and yes, even my body to thank for that.

Life isn't all rainbows and butterflies in ballet, there are politics, drama, blisters, muscle pain, injury, and sometimes fear and shame. I've moved studios four times in just five years of dance, recently losing my mentor due to politics, a loss that sent me into a month-long depression during a crucial audition season. Those are gifts, too, and I've learned how to fight through the hard stuff because the beauty and freedom I find within the art form is so fulfilling. I have moments where I consider walking away but I'm more me with ballet and I'm grateful my parents and others helped me get to the barre to remember that. There are hard times in life, times when we will bleed, times when we will be left, times when we will be injured and feel like we can't go on. I've learned how to go on thanks to ballet.

It has been five years since I started ballet in that weekly class where I stood a good head or two taller than everyone else. It has been ten and a half years since my sexual abuse when I became a very scared and timid little girl filled with shame, silenced into hiding my pain. Now, I speak out, I challenge myself and those around me to consider how our culture enables abuse. I am learning how not to live in fear and shame. Hopefully, I will reach my goal of becoming a professional ballerina, but either way, I will never stop dancing.

For when I dance, I am free.
Photo by Picsea on Unsplash
True

It is said that once you've seen something, you can't unsee it. This is exactly what is happening in America right now. We have collectively watched the pot of racial tension boil over after years of looking the other way, insisting that hot water doesn't exist, pretending not to notice the smoke billowing out from every direction.

Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away—it prolongs resolution. There's a whole lot of harm to be remedied and damage to be repaired as a result of racial injustice, and it's up to all of us to figure out how to do that. Parents, in particular, are recognizing the importance of raising anti-racist children; if we are unable to completely eradicate racism, maybe the next generation will.

How can parents ensure that the next generation will actively refuse to perpetuate systems and behaviors embedded in racism? The most obvious answer is to model it. Take for example, professional tennis player Serena Williams and her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

Keep Reading Show less

For months, government officials, school administrators, teachers and parents have debated the best and safest way to handle educating kids during the global coronavirus pandemic. While some other countries have been able to resume schooling relatively well with safety measures in place, outbreaks in the U.S. are too uncontrolled to safely get kids back in the classroom.

But that hasn't stopped some school districts from reopening schools in person anyway.

Photos have emerged from the first day of school at two districts in Georgia that have people scratching their heads and posing obvious questions like "Um, they know we're in a pandemic, right?"

One photo shows high school students crowded in a hallway in Paulding County, Georgia. Of the dozens of students pictured, the number wearing masks can be counted on one hand. It's like looking straight into a petri dish.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo from Dole
True

As you sit down to eat your breakfast in the morning or grab an afternoon snack, take a minute to consider your food, how it was made, and how it got to your plate.

The fruit on your plate were grown and picked on farms, then processed, packaged and sent to the grocery store where you bought them.

Sounds simple, right?

The truth is, that process is anything but simple and at every step in the journey to your plate, harm can be caused to the people who grow it, the communities that need it, and the planet we all call home.

For example, thousands of kids live in food deserts and areas where access to affordable and nutritious food is limited. Around the world, one in three children suffer from some form of malnutrition, and yet, up to 40% of food in the United States is never eaten.

Keep Reading Show less

I saw this poster today and I was going to just let it go, but then I kept feeling tugged to say something.

Melanie Cholish/Facebook

While this poster is great to bring attention to the issue of child trafficking, it is a "shocking" picture of a young girl tied up. It has that dark gritty feeling. I picture her in a basement tied to a dripping pipe.

While that sounds awful, it's important to know that trafficking children in the US is not all of that. I can't say it never is—I don't know. What I do know is most young trafficked children aren't sitting in a basement tied up. They have families, and someone—usually in their family—is trafficking them.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

When people think of the Deep South, especially in states like Mississippi, most people don't imagine a diverse and accepting way of life. People always look at me as if I've suddenly sprouted a unicorn horn when I reminisce on my time living in Biloxi and the eclectic people I've met there, many of whom I call friends. I often find myself explaining that there are two distinct Mississippis—the closer you get to the water, the more liberal it gets. If you were to look at an election map, you'd see that the coast is pretty deeply purple while the rest of the state is fire engine red.

It's also important to note that in a way, I remember my time in Biloxi from a place of privilege that some of my friends do not possess. It may be strange to think of privilege when it comes from a Black woman in an interracial marriage, but being cisgendered is a privilege that I am afforded through no doing of my own. I became acutely aware of this privilege when my friend who happens to be a transgender man announced that he was expecting a child with his partner. I immediately felt a duty to protect, which in a perfect world would not have been my first reaction.

It was in that moment that I realized that I was viewing the world through my lens as a cisgendered woman who is outwardly in a heteronormative relationship. I have discovered that through writing, you can change the narrative people perceive, so I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with my friend—not only to check in with his feelings, but to aid in dissolving the "otherness" that people place upon transgender people.

Keep Reading Show less