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Life on the Other Side of the Footlights: A Review of Dancing on my Grave by Gelsey Kirkland

By Elaine Cassel

Gelsey Kirkland thought that she was ugly, fat, and dumb, compared to her prettier older sister. She tried to please her alcoholic, angry father, to no avail. So she channeled her sense of inferiority and her self-loathing into ballet and trying to please ballet masters and boyfriends. Along the way she developed anorexia and cocaine addiction.

Dancing on my Grave

(Doubleday, 1987) is a case study in the psychosocial dynamics of human development that led Gelsey Kirkland to become one of the most famous American ballet dancers of the twentieth century. Though many of the forces were pathological, in the end Gelsey saved the self that she had once been intent on destroying.

Gelsey’s parents were loving, but the family setting was anything but calm and nurturing. Both parents were artists and encouraged her youthful passion for ballet. But her father was an angry, spendthrift alcoholic, and Gelsey tried in vain to please him. Even when she became a prima ballerina, he never expressed pride for what she accomplished. This wound led her to give her all to pleasing other men in her life—notably famed ballet choreographer George Balanchine, who discovered Gelsey when she was 10 years old and put her on track to dance with his New York City ballet.

Gelsey was short, only 5’4", and on the pudgy side until she started starving herself to be thin enough to project the image demanded of dancers. She practiced to the point of pain and developed muscle disorders at an early age. The cutting comments of her ballet teachers and fellow students left her feeling like an ugly caricature of a ballerina. When she was 16, she embarked upon a series of cosmetic surgeries to make herself look like dancers she admired. She also employed the defense mechanism of sublimation, and became obsessed with being a virtuoso, if not gorgeous, dancer. And dance masters, choreographers, and critics universally recognized her skill and virtuosity.

But a happenstance encounter with cocaine in her early 20s, when she was at the height of her career, led to an almost instant addiction. The cocaine helped her overcome the pain of rejection by her lover and ballet partner, the great Russian dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Though their dance partnership lasted for several years after the romance ended, clearly the public humiliation of his leaving her for the actress Jessica Lang was a contributing factor in what her psychiatrist, the famous Otto Kernberg, referred to as her "death wish." Kernberg, who treated her as a inpatient at a psychiatric hospital she was committed to when she began suffering from cocaine seizures, labeled her as suffering from borderline personality disorder.

Gelsey describes the super-human high of cocaine that led to some of her most raved-about performances. But when she refused to stop using cocaine even though she was often suffering from life-threatening cocaine seizures, she was fired from the American Ballet Theatre.

Cocaine use was a fact of life among ballet dancers, according to Gelsey. Using it not only enhanced the artistic performance but also had the added bonus of damping the appetite, and thus helping with weight control. In order to sleep at night, Gelsey and her fellow dancers used valium to take the edge off the high. The saturation of the dance world with cocaine, and the companies’ refusal to even recognize that the dancers had huge drug dependency problems, demonstrates how the ecology of certain careers underlie and support drug addiction.

It would be hard to find a better book that details how simply, and surely, certain people break under the strain of unhappy childhoods and the stress of chosen lifestyles. But few victims have the benefit of the psychotherapy that Gelsey had that enabled her to understand the forces behind her self-destructive behavior. And not all psychotherapy patients are as quick to take action to save themselves, as was Gelsey. As she describes it, the trait of determination and even compulsive behavior once again served her well as she quit cocaine cold and turned her life around.

Psychology students will find Dancing on my Grave a useful study of family dysfunction, pathological relationships, social learning, eating disorders, and addictions. But it also a study in adaptation and resilience and, as such, a reminder that a broken spirit, given the benefit of psychotherapy, love, and self-insight, can triumph over even the most tenacious of demons.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

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