I grew up in southern California and spent the entire first part of my life as a dancer. Not because I had always envisioned myself in a tutu or anything, but because both of my grandmothers happened to be professional dancers and I was born with a clubfoot. I wore a cast until I was 2 years old and my grannies didn’t want me to grow up pigeon toed, so they put me in ballet. I ended up training from the time I was 3 years old all the way into college. Being an almost painfully shy child, what I loved about most dance was the freedom it gave me to express my personality, along with feelings and emotions through music and movement, where words often failed me. The discipline, grace, strength in body and mind along with a keen attention to detail are all skills I gained through dance that will last me a lifetime.
Flash forward 15 years later and I find that I have a degenerative disease in my ankles that caused great pain, and limited my ability to train seriously, followed by an illness that forced me to drop out of college and left me with 3 years of chronic fatigue, my dance career came to a stuttering halt. While this was an extremely sad fact to face, somewhere along the way I had also fallen in love with theatre and so I turned my focus and aggressively pursued a different kind of career on stage. I moved from LA to NY and enrolled in film school and became a member of a prestigious classical theatre company.
In my second year of conservatory, just a few weeks before graduation, one of my professors made the following remark “Well, Shelleen, you are very talented, relatively attractive, a bit too old and 15-20 pounds overweight to have a serious career as a leading lady.” I was 22 and 135 lbs. I was also in shock. Yes, I had gained a few pounds since I put my pointe shoes away (I quickly discovered I was not naturally thin, and it must have been the 5-6 hours of daily training and practice) but I had never looked in the mirror and thought I was anything less than normal. I was thrown into a panic. I attempted to sign up for a dance class, but 4 years out of the game and in the midst of the competitive new york dancer landscape, my young and bruised ego couldn’t handle it. So I signed up for a gym instead. I had never been to one before, but I went 8 times. Over the course of 365 days. Six out of eight times I had a crippling panic attack on the gym floor. So I gave that up and started drinking SlimFast in the morning and taking diet pills at breakfast, lunch and dinner. After a few months I only lost 6 pounds and I felt miserable. So I gave up. I loved classical theatre anyway and I was always in corsets or playing a man… so I told myself it didn’t matter too much if I had a six pack or not. Another 10+ pounds later and I was seriously unhappy with myself and my body. Not to mention that sadly, Shakespeare doesn’t pay the bills. I had no idea where to turn, I couldn’t afford a trainer or dietitian and we didn’t have the kind of access to health and fitness information that we do today. One day, while searching for auditions, I found an ad in a trade paper for a “90 day test program.” 90 days of training with a celebrity trainer, at top notch gym, 5 meals a day, 7 days a week and the opportunity to be in a commercial. This was unreal! I was basically looking at an actor’s dream! “You’re going to feed me, make me look hot and put me on TV? Score!” I went down for the audition and I made it into the test group.
Now, I was in a peculiar place. I was not the biggest person in the room and the others quickly started to tease me. The dichotomy was unreal, I joined this test group to get in shape because I was “too fat” for my chosen career and here I am being teased for being “too skinny” to be in a weight-loss program. I cried every day for the first two weeks. Not only because of the social situation but the workouts were really hard! But something deep inside me wouldn’t give up. The dancer in me knew that the athleticism, discipline and willpower would reappear someday and I would be ok. So I kept at it. I found myself going from hiding in the back of the room, to joining the ranks in the middle, to stepping up to the front of the class and then being asked to come on stage with the trainer and demonstrate some of the exercises. Each step, along with each pound shed was a boost in confidence, self worth, efficacy and personal joy that is hard to put into words. After 90 days I lost 22lbs, 13 inches total and ended up being cast in the DVD for the program. I had a new body, a new mindset and now I was going to appear on camera for a recorded program that people would actually buy and watch in their homes. I felt like I was living some sort of dream. I tried to go back to acting after my experience, and I did very well. Not just because I looked great, but because I believed in myself. But it wasn’t enough for me anymore. I had a deep (and nagging) desire to pay forward what I had learned. I wanted other people to experience the self-empowerment, mental, physical and yes, even spiritual strength that comes from making a commitment to yourself to live a healthier life. Fitness can be a really powerful tool for change because the physical results are so tangible but also because you really can’t change the outside without changing what’s inside. And what’s inside, the habits, behaviors, the demons, the insecurities, is so very difficult to tackle. Choosing to take better care of the outside can sometimes unlock the ability to make bigger, more powerful and lasting life changes. So here I am today! 8 years later, teaching my own classes, traveling the world sharing my story and striving to inspire each individual to find their own strength and grace through the power of music and movement and by stepping outside their comfort zone to #shaykitup and find their better selves.