Breaking Anxiety

My name is Nicole Rizzitano, and I am a member of the Corps de Ballet at Pacific Northwest Ballet. I am originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved to Seattle to join the PD program when I was 17. A year later I was offered a contract to join PNB as an apprentice.

Nicole Rizzitano in George Balanchine's the Nutcracker with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Photo by Angela Sterling

In my first few years dancing professionally, I struggled to understand my body’s needs. My weight fluctuated, and I realized that maintaining it was something I increasingly needed to learn how to operate. I had never had any issues sustaining a certain weight, so it was especially difficult to establish that this would be an important aspect of my career moving forward. 

I worked hard, and when I achieved what I wanted, I finally felt secure not only in myself but also in my dancing. I believed I had reached an important stepping stone, and that I was now on the path I had always wanted to travel. The future was bright, and I eagerly awaited the opportunities ahead. 

This past season I experienced the long process of dealing with an injury, something that every dancer will experience at some point in their career. Only three days into the season, I suffered an avulsion fracture and was devastated to learn it would take three months for my ankle to heal properly. To put this in context, I hadn’t taken more than three weeks off from dancing since I was 13 years old. 

I struggled to accept my injury and the reality of not being able to dance every day terrified me. I began suffering from anxiety attacks. My anxiety kept me awake late almost every night; draining my body of the energy it needed to heal. I didn’t want to do anything else but dance. 

While I thought safely healing my ankle would be the hardest part of the recovery process, I now realize that the greatest challenges were in fact related to my emotional wellbeing and overall health. At first, merely regaining the ability to walk on my own and progressing through physical therapy helped me deal with the anxiety I had been suffering. My progress was substantial enough that I was soon able to start taking ballet classes again. Finally, I was back on the right track excitedly anticipating the day I would step back on stage.

However, in the midst of all this, I was unable to control my weight. I found myself in the same situation as before, unable to dance due to factors that seemed at the time outside of my control. The only difference was that this time my absence was not from injury, but rather due to my outward appearance. 

After getting feedback again about my weight, I felt incredibly defeated. I was embarrassed to show my face in the workplace and was worried my coworkers would judge me. My anxiety returned, and I became depressed. Even though I knew I was working as hard as possible, it was very hard to maintain a positive outlook.

Finding the strength and confidence to deal with this experience challenged me, even to the point of reconsidering my ballet career. At times, I wanted to simply put a stop to all of the emotional pain I was facing.  And it was in these moments when I felt closest to reaching my limit I honestly believed I was alone. I didn’t want to confide my thoughts in anyone. 

Nicole Rizzitano dancing in the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios Photo by Sarah Young

Nicole Rizzitano dancing in the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios Photo by Sarah Young

It wasn’t until friends of mine started sharing similar stories that I became positive about taking steps forward. I was inspired to hear raw thoughts and emotions shared by people I knew and cared about. Their openness helped me process what I was dealing with in my life. I have dedicated my entire life to follow my passion for ballet, and although I felt like giving up, their words helped me refuse to admit defeat. 

In the past few months, I have noticed a similar trend in articles published by Dance Magazine, Pointe and other publications. While mainstream media has traditionally stigmatized ballet dancers for vainly obsessing over body image and promoting an unnatural aesthetic, little focus has been given to the psychological challenges facing professionals. I am encouraged, however, to see media sources increasingly pick up on these important stories that need to be told.

As a professional dancer myself, I found comfort in reading stories that reflect parts of my experience. I wanted to contribute my personal narrative, in hopes that it can inspire other dancers to look past their struggles and find true value in their lives and careers. Sharing my story is my way of thanking all those who have been brave enough to speak up and share theirs. It has helped me in more ways than one can imagine and I hope I can inspire others to do the same.

When I moved to Seattle, Nicole instantly took me in as a friend. Her story is raw and beautiful. Her openness to share her life is very courageous. Many dancers deal with body image demands, but Nicole has found something deeper. Self-love. Love for herself and her passion for dance. We can feel alone when we deal with hurt, but we are not alone. I hope that Nicole's story is not only inspiring but also relatable for your life. we all have stories. Find beauty in yours.

I believe everyone has a voice and a story to tell. If you want to share your story, contact me so we can talk about sharing your life.