Making People Feel as Beautiful as They Are, One Leotard at a Time

“…everyone has a different body type. You really have to know yourself well, and that comes from trial and error. Whatever you wear, whatever you put on yourself, it should give you confidence.”

-Akane Ichii

This was a quote I posted on IG from the article, “Leotards, Confidence and Self-Discovery with Akane Ichii”. After sharing it to my story I got a heartfelt response from ballerina and seamstress Gaia Ponzi.

“Everyone should feel pretty and confident, I hope I’ll make many people feel that way because, with all the hard work that’s behind our profession, each of us deserves to be proud of how we look.”

With that, I knew I need to talk to this lady and hear more of what she had to say. We quickly arranged a time for an interview. Initially I thought I was sitting down to talk about Gaia’s new leotard business and the inspiration behind it, but Gaia, had a story to tell, and in a way, a mission to achieve. Through the years Gaia has experienced what so many girls in ballet do, body shaming, eating disorders, destructive advice, degrading comments from teachers, and all the fruit that comes from those things. However, Gaia’s story is full of hope. It’s always amazing to see someone bravely talk about their pain to bring about change and healing.

Gaia Ponzio is an Italian ballerina working in the Czech Republic who has recently started her own line of dance-wear, Gapo Dancewear. Both Gaia and her parents cannot remember why Gaia fell in love with ballet, but from a very young age, she was obsessed with classical ballet. After a lot of searching, Gaia was accepted into a small school near her hometown.

“At three, I became obsessed with ballet. It was the only thing I wanted to do. But my parents couldn’t find a professional ballet school that would take me at three years old. I took a couple of contemporary, hip hop classes, but I was like no, that’s not what I want. I want the pointe shoes. Eventually, we did find a ballet school and then I started to dance every week, twice a week until I was 11. Then when I was 11 I auditioned for this ballet school in Milan, it was an Ukrainian school with Ukrainian teachers. I was accepted and I went there for three years.”

By 13 years old, most dancers need to have an idea of whether or not ballet is something they want to pursue as a career. Gaia’s mom suggested auditioning for the John Cranko Ballet School in Stuttgart. Gaia went and was accepted into the academy. After a year there, Gaia went to the Munich Ballet school, then remained there until graduation.

Unfortunately, ballet’s unhealthy food culture crept its way into Gaia’s life through various experiences, people, and atmospheres. 

“It can be quite destructive. I have so many bad memories in canteens. Even though I was always naturally, very skinny, I have had people tell me ‘you cannot eat this much you’re going to put on weight. And it’s also not appropriate for the other girls who put on weight easily to see you eating this much. You need to respect others.’ They would sometimes take my plate away and make a new one with a small portion. Or they say to take a glass for water, fill it with food and that’s what you’re allowed to eat for the whole day.’ Another ‘tip’ was ‘you need to drink three glasses of water before we start the meal so you’re already full’. These kinds of experiences were so harmful. Eventually I developed bulimia.”

But Gaia’s reached out for help and made the decision to take the steps necessary to heal. This decision changed her life.

“It has not been easy, but I decided to recover, I decided to go seek help. One day I was eating pizza at one of my best friend’s house, and I don’t know why I just started to say, ‘I think I have some issues with food.’ My friend, who had a family member go through something similar, recognized my struggle with food and was very understanding. So I started to go to a psychologist in Germany. In the beginning, it got worse, because I realized that I’m sick, and I’m not fine. It wasn’t until I decided, I need to recover, that things turned around. With eating disorders you can seek help, you can go to psychologists, but you need to choose to not have those behaviors. From August 1st, 2016 I am completely out!”

Being a ballet dancer means that you spend 90% of your day in front of a mirror. To say that, staring at yourself for hours coupled with an unhealthy eating culture, messes with your head and perception of yourself, is an understatement.

“Everyone looks in the mirror, and I see that I’m not perfect. But no one can be. That can be hard to accept, but now it doesn’t bother me. It used to be that my whole day would be affected when I saw something that I didn’t like about myself. But now I accept that I’m not perfect. Some days are hard, but I’m not hurting myself anymore.”

As I mentioned earlier, Gaia is on a mission to make a change. This isn’t the first time she has shared her story. She took her last year in Munich as an opportunity to share her journey with her whole school.

“In the last year, when you graduate, you’re required to do a bachelor project; I did a choreography. In that choreography, I decided to expose myself and talk about my bulimia. I called it ‘Brain Over Binge’. It’s the title of the book that helped me recover. I wanted all my teachers and the director to see that my friends and classmates have been going through something really hard and dangerous. I think 99% of girls, and some boys too, but girls so much more, have eating disorders. This is partly because no one is talking about it. Nobody’s helping each other, no one putting it out there to say, it’s okay to be sick, it’s normal, you’re not alone.”

Now, five years later, Gaia has been happily working for the DJKT ballet. Of course, like any company it has its negatives and positives but overall this small company has provided Gaia with many opportunities to dance, do solo roles, and travel! Also, its small size makes the working environment very friendly. She says the atmosphere is very “united and chill”. However, the company does also have some body-shaming issues, as do most companies, unfortunately. 

Five years ago, when Gaia came she didn’t immediately feel the closeness with the company that she feels now. Being new is hard, no matter what company you’re in, big or small. It was during this kind of “lonely” time that she picked up sewing again.

“My mom made my carnival costumes in primary school, I think that was the first time I touched a sewing machine. But I started sewing when I was 14, when I made my first leotard. Ten years ago, the most extravagant brand was Yumiko. They had so many colors, different shapes compared to what other brands were doing. But if I wanted to have a particular color, and I didn’t feel like ordering, and I didn’t know if the size would fit, I would need to make my own. So I asked my mom if we could go to the fabric shop and I would try to do it. I still wear that original leotard! It’s not good quality though I stopped sewing for the last three years of school. 

In my first season, because I’m quite shy, I didn’t connect with the people here. I wasn’t very talkative, and I wasn’t going and hanging out with them. So my mom brought me one machine. She thought, if I’m home alone, I can just make something. There was this girl in the company, she was so nice. She also thought, let’s make leotards. We bought some materials and I made my first leotard. It took me ten hours! I didn’t have any pattern or anything. I just went for it. But, now it takes me about one to two hours, depending on how complicated the pattern is or how many pieces I need to put together.”

After that, it didn’t take long for orders and requests to start rolling in from fellow dancers and friends. Ballerinas are always on the hunt for fresh, new, comfy leotards.

“People at work started to ask, ‘So you can make leotards?’ I was like, ‘yeah, I guess.’ So I started to make leotards for my friends and colleagues. Then, one of my friends wore a leotard I made to an audition. A girl came up to her, asking ‘Hey, where did you buy your leotard?’ This made me think, hmm… maybe I could sell them. It was last year, I started to think, maybe I should make this hobby of mine something more. But I was so scared.”

Gaia put herself out there, posted a few pictures on Instagram, and immediately had orders coming in. She was also given extra time to practice sewing due to Covid isolations. It was after that time she saw her leotards come to life and take on a very professional look. She knew she was ready.

“I’m ready. I got other orders from other friends and people abroad and now I have so many requests! All my colleagues always want something new. And so I finally posted on an Instagram page I had created a year ago, but was too scared to post on. Really, I was so scared, but I did it!”

Funny enough, though Gaia is based in the Czech Republic right now, all her materials are Italian! She happened to find a giant textile shop owned by a sweet Italian couple who import materials straight from Italy! There are endless unique options just waiting to be worn by ballerinas.

A problem that Gaia finds with standard leotards, is the unreliable size charts and the tendency of the materials to be transparent. And if you don’t want them to be transparent, why in the world do you have to pay extra?

“The main reason why I started making leotards for myself was because I could never find a typical brand size that really fit me. For my height, I would have to order an L. But then it always ends up being too baggy, because it’s too wide. But if I buy like an S or M, they’re way too short, they hurt me. So I started to make them long and narrow, to fit my body. Now when I make them, I don’t use S, M, L, but SH (short height), AH (average height), TH (tall height) this helps me be more coherent with the differences between sizes. I think another reason why I started to make my own leotards is because so many leotards are transparent. You can see the underwear and you can see the nipples. It’s not comfortable. I thought, no, that’s not acceptable! I don’t want to feel naked in the studio. Double layers are so necessary for people who have curves, so that’s everything holds properly.”

So now Gaia has the vision, the skill, the fabrics, and the customers to start a business, but does she have the time? Gaia says she’s still figuring it out, but so far, she has found a fairly steady rhythm, and who knows, it might eventually become her main priority.

“I work from nine to two and then from six to eight. Or when we have a performance from six to ten. So the break is two-six. But with lunch and traveling, it takes away two hours. During the week, I’m able to make one, maximum two, leotards per day. And during the weekend, of course, I can make more. But when I go over six hours on the machine, I start to lose concentration and I need to stop. Sometimes when I don’t work in the morning, I’ll wake up at 6:30 and work all morning and afternoon. 

Right now, ballet is dictating where I live, I don’t want that, I want to choose. I’ve met amazing people, I’ve grown so much, I love it here, it’s been a really good, beautiful path, and I’ve learned a lot. But I don’t want to be told where to live. If this Gapo Dancewear grows, I will be able to make it my profession, then I will not even say I quit ballet, it’s just that I won’t be able to do it anymore. I will need to focus 100% on Gapo. I will be able to choose where to live. Even go back to my parents. It’s been 10 years since I lived with them. It would be nice to live in the same city and be close.”

I asked Gaia for some final advice, although, I think if you read in between the lines, there is already so much to take away from her story.

“Some advice would be, don’t listen to your teachers too much. And many times don’t even listen to yourself, or especially the voices in your head that tell you that you don’t look good that you’re not beautiful. You might think, ‘but it’s not just like voices in my head, I see that I’m fat, or my neck is short or I just don’t look good’. But many times what we see is not what other people see. I still struggle when I look at myself in the mirror; I don’t see how I look, I see a weird, distorted version of me. Then all of a sudden I’ll see myself in videos, and I think, ‘Oh, that girl doesn’t look bad. She looks good.’ But when I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see that. It’s really hard to accept ourselves, and to not compare ourselves. It’s nice to have a bit of competition but in a non toxic way. When I dance now, I feel so much more free because I know, I’m not perfect, I’m still working on technique everyday in class, I’m working at getting better all the time. But at the end of the day when you go on stage, the audience doesn’t see how much turnout you have, they see if the dancer is enjoying themselves, if the dancer feels pleasure in what they’re doing. The other thing would be know what your strengths are, own your uniqueness. Teachers in school should never make us feel insecure about our shape. Man, I had such a bad time in school. I was always body shamed because I kept on growing. I was even told ‘If you grow more, we might have to kick you out, because you’re going to be tall.’ Yes, I am tall, but for some things that is beautiful. And also for some things, it’s beautiful to be tiny. And sometimes it’s nice to be average height. It’s also fine. It’s like our style of dancing. We all have different styles, we’re different dancers, we move in different ways, and it’s not a bad thing to be the way we are! So I hope that the next generations, we kind of start to understand that there is not just one way to go.”

I am so grateful to people like Gaia who are open to share their stories and who find creative ways to make a difference. Please do go and support this brand! Go order a few leotards fit just for you, and who knows maybe next time you look in the mirror you’ll see the beautiful dancer that you really are. Or maybe you know someone who is struggling with the same pain Gaia faced, please pass along this article. Let’s spread the love and start reconstructing the way we think about food and our bodies as well as take the steps towards recovery, like buying a leotard that you feel good in!

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