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Here is what dancers that look different need to know

To: Girls who feel like they are dancing in the dark

From: Chelsea Maria Hough (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To the girls who feel like they are dancing in the dark,

When I was three years old, I started dancing. As I got older, I found a deep appreciation for the process of learning and growing. However, when I began improving in the studio, I recognized dance for more than just steps to counts. I felt so free, expressing myself through movement as I brought the music to life. Unfortunately, for a long time, I felt as though a dark shadow cast over me.

Chelsea has been dancing since she was three years old.

I went from competitions as a little girl to finishing Top 10 on the show  So You Think You Can Dance. I danced at award shows like the BET Awards and the Latin AMAs and I became a live-action superhero in the Marvel Universe LIVE!Stunt Tour, portraying Storm from the X-MEN. Although I loved who I was becoming, I did not love my appearance. That struggle deeply affected me.

Growing up, I always wanted to be “that girl:” popular, well-liked, beautiful and talented. I thought I had potential, but whether it was in school or at dance, my hair was always an issue. The texture was so different from the other girls.

At sleepovers, my friends would giggle at my bonnet. One blonde-haired blue-eyed girl once told me my cornrows were ugly and I looked like a boy. At dance, I constantly had to make sure my hair could match the hairstyles of other dancers, who were all white.

Growing up, I always wanted to be “that girl:” popular, well-liked, beautiful and talented. I thought I had potential, but whether it was in school or at dance, my hair was always an issue.

No matter how often my mom told me that I was beautiful, worthy and significant, as soon as I got to dance or school, I felt that the many differences in my appearance held me back. In and out of weaves and relaxers, I changed my hair so many times because I was so desperate to look like the other dancers. I became obsessive.

At 19, when I moved to Los Angeles to further pursue a professional dance career, I began to pick myself apart, even more, developing body dysmorphic disorder. My insecurities began to go well beyond my hair. Every day, I agonized over the size of my thighs, which was ridiculous, considering dancers are known to have muscular thighs. Our legs need to be strong enough to allow our bodies to move the way they do.

One day, I had this overwhelming feeling of not wanting to see what I saw in the mirror anymore. That led to my first of two panic attacks, where I uncontrollably sobbed while touching the parts of my body that I felt weren’t good enough.

A mentor of mine stepped in to help me. She made me look at myself and really see who I was and how I treated myself. I realized that while trying to attain a particular appearance or a specific body type, I forgot that I am human. None of us are meant to be “perfect,” whatever that even means. And I would never treat or speak to someone I loved the way I treated and spoke to myself.

I decided to make a change from the inside out.

I moved to Atlanta, where it is hot and humid. I found myself in and out of braids for a little, which brought a sense of peace for the cleanliness and ease the style provided. But after years of obsessing over the placement of each strand of hair and cutting it so short for a stunt gig, I was tired of it and I shaved off all of my hair. I knew that shaving my hair was what I truly wanted, as I came out from the shadows of my former self. I began to find beauty in all of my features and I finally felt like myself.

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After years of trying to be “that girl,” I realized I was already her. She and I were one and the same. I just needed to believe and know that I am enough as I am. Now, I understand that as time passes, I am ever-changing, always growing and still becoming more of myself.

I want you to know that you don’t need to compromise who you are to become what you want. The world of professional dancing is like a game, but you get to choose how you want to play.

You can choose to pass on an audition or an outfit or a hairstyle because it doesn’t make you comfortable, or maybe it doesn’t match your values. And if your choice results in not booking a job, that does not mean that you’re not good enough to be there. It could mean a better opportunity is on the way.

Your choices may also work to your advantage. I have often seen people appear differently than they do in their head shot or even for what the audition calls for, and they book the gig. When you stop trying to have “a look” and embrace your look, you will attract the right people and the jobs that are meant for you!

I know being so authentic isn’t easy, but I promise you, it will be worth it.

If you need proof, watch me perform.

Even though dancing has always made me feel free, it wasn’t until I embraced who I am, that my talent could flourish.

While others try to put you in the dark, it’s up to you to step into the light by fearlessly and unapologetically ALWAYS being yourself.

Chelsea Maria Hough
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