An Open Letter to the Ballet Camp in Vermont I Went to in the Summer of ’96

by Chantelle Tibbs

Dear Ballet Camp somewhere in Vermont, 

When I was twelve years old you hurt me in a way that I’ll never forget. 

I was so excited when I found out I was going to ballet camp in Vermont that Summer. I remember when my mom, brother and late father dropped me off. We discovered the sandwiches in Burlington were nothing compared to the hoagies of our small town in New Jersey. But breakfast was and still is my favorite meal of the day. I fell in love with the syrup instantly. 

When I got to camp all seemed fine. It was my literal dream, full of ballet classes, talented dancers from all over the world came to teach us. One teacher I grew to have a crush on. I don’t remember his name. I had a big old crush on him and I told just about anyone who would listen to me about it. But I was naive. I was young. It didn’t hit me that I stood out like a sore thumb. I was one of maybe two black girls at camp and I had no idea that that would paint a target on my back. 

My roomies, I don’t remember their names,  seemed like so much fun. I was introduced to the Beastie Boys and I felt like I was making friends. I didn’t pay much attention to the sneers behind my back about not bringing sandals for the shower, or how my type of hair really didn’t fit into a bun so well.

And then, one day at camp I could feel everyone looking at me. I wondered why everyone was keeping their distance. As it turns out, some girl lied and said that I was going around saying I had sex with the ballet teacher I told everyone I had a crush on. The part I remember most vividly is that I was the monster. Not the teacher, by any means. No one ever thought to feel bad for me even if they did believe this rumor. I was instantly branded a trouble-making slut who was ruining this wonderful guy’s reputation. 

There was an investigation. The head of the camp, I don’t remember her name, made sure to interview me herself. She was seething and condescending. She put words in my mouth, she made me feel stupid and let me know my behavior was so bad that she was considering kicking me out of camp. I’ve never felt so scared. I remember sitting at a table with two girls whose names I don’t remember, who looked me in the face and said that I was talking about how much I liked the ballet teacher and that I brought this all on myself. I couldn’t help but defend myself saying, what’s wrong with having a crush? They ate in silence. They couldn’t think of an answer on the spot to justify the horrid way in which they were treating me. 

When I called my mom I could tell she knew something was wrong. I didn’t have the heart to tell her about anything. I knew she had saved up money for me to go to this camp and it took a lot for her to get me there. I never wanted my mother so badly in all my life and I had never felt so alone. But it got worse. 

A girl had put a used maxi pad on one of the window sills in the dorms. Everyone in the dorm was interviewed separately to see who had done it. I heard other girls talk about how at the end of their interviews the person giving the interview told them they knew they didn’t do it. At the end of my interview no one said that. I was blamed yet again for something I didn’t do, despite the fact that when this was discovered I was in ballet class.

My treatment got worse. People went on to outright scream at me for no reason. Where there were harsh whispers behind my back, now girls would say things loudly about me in front of my face speaking as if I wasn’t there. “She can’t afford black tights for the recital? How embarrassing.” I didn’t know how much longer I wanted to go on at that camp. But I still didn’t want to tell my mom what was going on and in my heart I knew I had done nothing wrong. I thought it best to see it through. 

At one of my lowest points, another male ballet teacher pulled me aside before a morning ballet class. He looked into my eyes and asked me point blankif I told everyone I had sex with the other male ballet teacher who he mentioned was his close friend. He explained to me that accusations like that were a very serious thing. I remember his name. It was Robert. I looked him in the eye and told him the truth. I told him that I told some of the girls that I had a crush on him but I never said I had sex with him. Robert took me in completely. He was the only person who actually held space for who I was and the only one who listened to me. He assured me he believed me. He said he could tell I was telling the truth. It meant everything. I felt like I could breathe again. 

The last day at camp we had our last ballet class. The head of the camp, the woman- if you can call her that- who interrogated and belittled me and put words in my mouth, was teaching the class. She had us all lay down on our backs. She went around the room saying that the perfect ballet body came from Europe. They had a flat rear end and thin legs and when they were on their back you couldn’t see their rear bleed out to the sides unlike women from other cultures such as Africa. She stood over me as an example and looked down on me in disdain. 

My family came to pick me up later that day. They had leased a new Acura Legend, it was dark green. The color of the Philadelphia Eagles. When I saw my mother, I ran up to her and gave her the kind of hug where she knew I was not OK. I still remember her eyes looking back at mine. The look a mother gives their kid when they know they are hurt. I know the look, I have a son of my own now. 

A lot of feelings run through me as I write this letter, but the one that has risen over all others is the quiet knowledge that in all my struggles in life I never stooped as low as the people who harmed me at camp, whose names not I or anyone else of real value will ever remember, in a place I’ll never visit again.

Today, I keep my syrup Canadian. I never cared much for the Beastie Boys. It turns out the man hungry monster I was made out to be was actually a lesbian. My round posterior is the envy or lust of young women I meet who wish they could be as thick. I found the right counselor for me, the right guidance and I healed enough in my life to find love. I see beautiful photos of Misty Copeland dancing ballet and I think to myself “Get it woman.” Through hard work and God’s will I landed myself quite the beautiful life. 

So I’ll leave you with yet another truth. You didn’t break me, ballet camp. You didn’t make me either. 

Chantelle Tibbs

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