W hen you picture a ballet dancer, a certain body type may come to mind. But after her video of an impressive fouetté turn went viral on Instagram, 17-year-old Lizzy Howell taught us that balletic skill comes in all shapes and sizes. Dance teachers told her she had to lose weight before she could get the good parts, but she kept going: in Lizzy’s own words, it’s just what she does. This interview has been condensed and edited for both clarity and length.
How’d you get into dance?
I was five, and all the girls in pre-school were dancing. I wanted to be like them, so I asked if I could also take dance. I started dance, but also did soccer, swimming, and a bunch of other things. But dance is the only one that really stuck with me. I don’t really know why—it’s just my favorite.
What does it feel like when you’re dancing?
Dance makes me happy. When I’m upset, I dance, and it makes me feel better. If I’m happy, I dance, and it continues to make me feel better. It’s just what I do.
Ballet is strict, and that’s the class where I sweat the most. There’s no emotional release because it’s so strict, so you just keep doing the same things over and over again. But ballet is the basis of everything, so you kind of have to do it. For contemporary and lyrical, we do improv every week. Our teacher puts on a song and you just dance. Nobody’s watching each other—you’re just doing your own thing. That’s where the happiness comes from because that’s where I get to let it go.
Can you tell us a little bit about a day in the life of Lizzy?
Every day, I usually wake up and do my schoolwork. Then I eat lunch and take a shower before going to dance (my bun’s better with wet hair than when it’s dry!). I’m at the dance studio from about 5 to 9, Monday through Thursday. Then I come home and go to bed.
I have ballet and tap twice a week, then I have contemporary, lyrical, jazz, and modern. But that doesn’t include the private solo rehearsals you’ll have if you’re performing a solo, or there are dance conventions that are weekend-long events where you’re dancing from 8-2am on Saturday, Sunday, and Friday nights.
Is there a particular performance that stands out in your career so far?
My solo last year was in memory of my mom. I held a picture of me and her and I danced with it, but it made me too emotional. I cried during the dancing, which distracted me because I messed up and forgot the choreography. But, this year, I did something that made me less emotional.
Beyonce talks about performing with an alter ego, Sasha Fierce. Do you have a Sasha Fierce?
Me and a few of my friends have jazz class together—we aren’t the sassiest people, so we have alter egos. Mine is Vanessa because Vanessa sounds like a sassy person. Our teacher wants us to be sassy, so if we act like we’re our alter egos, it works.
Have you ever had a moment where you realized, “Wow, my body just did that?”
There’s this move where you jump and land on your knee. It’s like you’re falling and throwing yourself. I didn’t know I could do that, and I did it and I didn’t die. I told my teacher, “You should start planning my funeral.” But then he didn’t need to.
You have a very different body type than what many people think of for ballerinas and dancers. How do you feel about that?
I started dancing when I was five and a half, and it was just for fun. Then right when I was around nine, it started becoming serious and I had to quit everything else to do it. My teacher at the time pulled me and my aunt aside and said that I needed to lose weight if I wanted to get better parts in the Nutcracker, and that maybe I should try hip-hop. That really hurt me. I took a week off and then I was like, “I can’t not dance,” so I went back. I kept taking her class and I kept getting the same parts in the Nutcracker. I eventually left, but the next place wasn’t any better. It was the same situation. But we have a really diverse group of people at the place I’m at now.
One of the teachers is my size and teaches little kids. There’s a little girl who’s blind and deaf, and my friend who also has an alter ego helps in her class because she knows sign language. I think it’s a better environment because everybody’s accepted there.
We read that you use dance as a way to deal with anxiety. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I’ve had anxiety and depression since I was about 13. That’s when puberty and girl drama started. Even though dance gives me anxiety, it also helps with it. I’m on medication, but the medication isn’t going to do the whole job, so I see my counselor and then I go to dance. It’s mostly under control. Sometimes I still have panic attacks, but that’s just how it is.
Do you have any advice for other teenage girls who are dealing with the same issues?
If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, you need to go find help because the more you hold it in, the worse it’s going to get. My counselor said it’s like a volcano. Every time you hold something in, it builds up, and then at some point, it’s going to burst and you’re going to say something you didn’t mean to say because you were angry about something else. I think telling your parents and getting help and seeing a counselor. Being able to talk to somebody that doesn’t already have an opinion about you helps.
From busy moms to professional athletes, there’s no wrong way to thrive. This month, we’re celebrating unstoppable women sizes 14 and up and how they’re Fit to Thrive. Click through to learn more about the campaign and hear from other incredible women.