Embrace the Fail
Illustration: Melanie Lambrick
I’ve always had a thing about failure. Maybe it’s because of the standards imposed on me by years gone by of attending an old chartered school, or because of the general pressure stereotypical “Asian parents” supposedly exert on their kids. One of the prevailing stereotypes about Asian cultures is that parents stipulate high expectations for their children, and oftentimes this means that anything less than “absolute success” essentially equates to failure. Hence whenever my friends get a 98% on an exam, they’ll joke about what their parents will ask: “What happened to the other 2%?”
Whatever the root cause may be, nobody will ever know for sure how my abhorrence of failure really originated. I’ve always been a perfectionist, striving for what is, in reality, sometimes a wee bit unachievable. It was worse when I was younger, but still — this tendency never completely went away. It’s a deep-rooted, subconscious fear of disappointment; disappointing myself, my parents, my teachers, everyone. For a long time, I let this feeling control everything I did - what ultimately changed it, in the end, was exactly what I’d feared for so long.
Back in the summer of 2013, I failed a dance exam for ballet. This wasn’t an “Asian Fail™” as people would tease – I actually flat-out flunked. It totally crushed me at the time, but looking back, it was also a relief. I’d been outgrowing classical ballet training for a while by that point, but it was that year in particular that I found myself completely out of sync with it for the very first time.
Dance had and has always been a significant part of my life — I’ve been dancing formally since I was five-years-old — but the appeal of certain types of dances changed for me as I grew older. I found myself less entranced by the careful, fluid movements of ballet and the delicacy of tulle skirts, and began to feel increasingly drawn in by the types of dance that were loud, riotous, unapologetic. I guess, in a way, this mirrored my own changing identity at the time. When I was younger, I was more timid, afraid to speak out or make my presence known in the room. I was quieter, polite to a T, and desperate to remain discreet. This sort of demeanor — like I was in the way of everyone and everything — led to my becoming a pushover, willing to put up with being told what to do, and being unable to form my own opinions or make my own decisions.
After entering high school, I found myself surrounded by different types of people who introduced me to an influx of stuff I didn’t even know had been out there. All of a sudden, I found myself engrossed in EDM (electronic dance music), avant-garde fashion, underground indie culture, zines, and a bunch of other new discoveries that opened up a whole dimension to this rather flat-minded girl stuck in a rut of sameness. But I hadn’t really developed my own sense of self yet—it was more like I was stuck in an identity I needed to shed but had no new identity formed beneath to protect myself. So I stayed where I was until I came across 1) Tumblr, which exposed me to new ideas like feminism and 2) high school, which introduced to me to all the people that helped me figure out who I was and what I liked.
After receiving the (at the time) heartbreaking news of failure, I cried. Now, you have to understand that for some strange reason — maybe because I was always made fun of as a kid for being a huge crybaby — I have a weird aversion to crying, especially in public. I remember barely making it out of the studio where my teacher broke the news to me and breaking down in front of all my fellow dancers on the pavement outside.
It was awful. I was thoroughly embarrassed and felt like I’d let both myself and my teacher down. But after the tears subsided and I’d made it back to my house, I had an epiphany.
I wasn’t necessarily crying specifically because of my exam results or even because of my disappointment in myself. I think the reason the news had such an effect on me was because it meant I’d finally come to the end of the line. Let me explain: at my dance school (not all dance schools operate this way, but mine does), students who do not pass the penultimate annual exam for their level aren’t allowed to continue on to the next one (some schools let students move forward with the program regardless). I attend a recreational but competitive dance studio, where different levels of classes in a range of difficulties are offered. In the higher levels, the rule of continuity is more stringent and in the case of failure, these students must choose to either repeat their current level or quit entirely.
It’s a difficult decision because this particular school is built around a pyramid scheme—ballet, as the base for almost all other types of dance, is a required course for students to be eligible for enrollment in other classes such as jazz, additional ballet or pointe technique classes, musical theatre, and most of the other types of dance available at the school. Without ballet, a student’s options are limited and it is because of this that failure is not an option amongst most of the dancers. Likewise, repetition of a level is also nearly unheard of due to the fine-print condition that taking a lower level of ballet results in assignment to lower levels of other classes, too; it isolates those who repeat away from the girls they’ve danced with for years, and it’s just as disheartening as the thought of flat-out quitting.
So, because I’d failed, I made my choice. I quit, and went from taking nine dance classes a week to only one — tap, my favourite, and the one I would continue with. But my life involving dance was irrevocably changed and I essentially kissed that old life, and that version of myself, goodbye forever. I accepted that the ties I’d formed at dance would never really be as strong and that things just wouldn’t be the same anymore. And it was for this, the identity I’d had for so long and lost, that I was truly mourning. I’d never had it happen to me before – I’d never been very good with accepting change, and it tore me apart.
You know how they say girls who’ve just been through bad breakups go and get their hair cut short? They need a change to distance themselves from who they were when they were with their partner and who they were when they went through the split. I hadn’t understood it before, but I sure did after The Dance Debacle. Up until that point, I’d gone without fully realizing how closely I held dance to my heart and how important it really was to me. But after giving up so much of it for good, I felt akin to how one feels after leaving behind someone special. As cheesy and cliché it sounds (and as cheesy and cliché it is for me to say so), leaving ballet left a hole in my heart.
So what did I do? Cut my hair short, of course! Nine inches chopped off into the best female shonen anime protagonist haircut my mind could conjure. I felt that irresistible need to change up my appearance, to transform myself into someone new—someone who hadn’t just gone through a goodbye and was dwelling on it. I wanted to greet the new opportunities ahead and totally separate myself from the lost, sad girl who’d been lamenting alone in her room a few days ago.
I got new glasses that made my mother roll her eyes while muttering how “ridiculous and huge” they were. I got my braces taken off after a long but opportune two-and-a-half year wait. I redid my room and cleaned out my closet, filling it with things that reflected my new interests and my newly adopted identity. I just wanted to push away all the thoughts and connections I’d made to dance and escape the memory of choosing to give it up—and I think it kind of kicked my “must transform NOW” senses into overdrive as a consequence.
By the end of it all, I was hardly recognizable… and it was awesome.
The sentimental, nostalgic part of me, though, refused to let go forever. Part of me wanted — needed — to have some reminder of the little girl who clamoured for pink and purple everything, whose ultimate dream was to dance en pointe as a prima ballerina and whose favourite store in the whole wide world was the Sanrio in the mall filled with Hello Kitty plushies. The girl who loved dressing up as the Disney princesses even when it wasn’t Halloween, who thought until the age of six that she was a real princess living in a castle, and who — above all else — aimed to become the pink-clad, girly girls she saw portrayed everywhere around her. She’d been with me for so long, and I couldn’t just abandon her.
Although the rest of my room has gone through a complete revamp and is now full of band t-shirts and vinyl records and comic posters, a small corner of it remains untouched. There hangs a sparkly pink corkboard in the shape of a ballet tutu; Hello Kitty trinkets, photos of dance recitals, and the smallest little pair of pink ballet slippers hang from it reverently. It’s my shrine to her, and it’s my reminder to myself of who I was and the changes I’ll inevitably face moving forward.
I may change, transform, evolve, but a part of me will always remember the “me” through different stages. I may fail, but failure only incites change—it forces you to make different choices, to do different things. It doesn’t have to mean total loss, only moving on to bigger and better things. And somehow, some way, the knowledge of that is comforting. It makes me less afraid to grow, to branch out, to embrace change, and to work for the future.
Failure’s not so bad after all.