Can you spot the problems with Shelby Williams’ form in this photo? A trained eye would notice that the line of her wrist is broken, her elbow is hyperextended, her bottom arm is too high, her hips aren’t squared, her neck is holding too much tension, her focus should be higher, and her front foot should be more turned out. That’s a lot to remember while flying through the air! Photo by Jim Caldwell.

Shake it off: Ballerina Shelby Williams puts perfection in its place

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of inRegister.

Point your toes. Keep your head up. Relax your shoulders. In pursuit of perfection, Shelby Williams had heard it all, just as nearly every dancer does. Staring at herself in a mirror for hours a day, Williams felt her love for dance overshadowed by mounting stress.

“When I was at the Houston Ballet Academy, I had an anxiety attack in class one day due to the pressure I felt to keep up and excel,” says the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre alum, who left home at the age of 15 to pursue her professional dance dream. “I, like many dancers, found that I was so invested in my dancing that I wouldn’t shake things off if they weren’t perfect.”

As Williams started on her road to recovery with the help of a sports psychologist, she found that exaggerating her mistakes made them easier to laugh off. Creating what she calls a “caricature of her flaws,” Williams began performing ridiculously bad versions of pieces she knew by heart. Gradually, as she realized the relief the act provided to her and fellow dancers, Williams developed Biscuit Ballerina, a social media account for her arrogantly bad second self.

“The following grew faster than I could have ever imagined,” explains Williams. “I had 3,000 followers in the first two weeks, and around 90,000 followers less than a year later.”

The name, a nod to the ballet slang for ugly feet, has become a beacon of sanity for amateur and professional dancers, as well as non-dancers, all of whom Williams encourages to submit their own less-than-perfect moments. Focusing on not only learning to accept imperfection, but destigmatizing reaching out for help, Williams has begun to take her message from the Instagram feed to the big stage—and not while wearing a tutu.

“A big surreal moment for me was when I was invited to Paris to present a TED-style talk at the Palais de Tokyo,” says Williams, whose full-time gig at the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium still allows her to seize opportunities worldwide. “Preparing a speech on finding and maintaining happiness in the pursuit of perfection for people completely unrelated to the dance world was so eye-opening.”

As Williams wraps up a teaching tour across the United States in which she paired technique with overcoming unhealthy perfectionism, she is eager to continue changing the face of social media, one #FallingFriday at a time.