Dancing in Fear

As dancers, we tend to live in fear of many things. The physical pain that we experience and the brevity of our careers often cause great stress and anxiety in the mind's eye of most dancers. In recognition of my 11 years as a professional; dancing through fear, happiness, injury, passion, and much more, I offer you 11 fears that I have coped with over those years. Sometimes, we feel like we are the only individual experiencing some of the most stressful moments. I strongly believe in sharing experiences to help others feel that they are not alone in this career's most stressful moments.

Me and James Moore performing Romeo et Juliette (Photo: Angela Sterling)
1. Let's get this one out of the way first. Injury. Most dancers biggest fear is that they will get hurt. This is a factor that every dancer has to contend with at some point in their dancing. Whether minor or major, injury is inevitable. The most stressful part of this job having a high potential for injury is timing. Timing is so important in a dance career. Timing of an audition. Timing of a performance. Timing of paying your bills. The closer one gets to these perfectly timed moments, the harder this anxiety can be to contain. I remember being cast to dance Mercutio in Jean Christophe Maillot's Romeo et Juliette. My fear of injury prior to my big debut became so great that I would knock on wood constantly throughout the day. Anytime I had a bad thought or a moment of fear, I would knock on the dance floor, or a ballet barre, or a lighting boom. I must have knocked on wood hundreds of times over those weeks leading up to that show. I knew that knocking on wood wasn't going to change what was going to happen, but it at least helped me cope with this great amount of fear.

2.  One of the best parts about being a dancer is the way that our art sculpts and forms our bodies. The general population is obsessed with the ballet body and people are not shy about openly discussing it with dancers. For me, I can't deny that I enjoy the attention that I get for the physique that ballet training has given me. But with that said, one of my biggest fears is that I will gain weight and the form that I have created over years and years of meticulous sculpting will crumble. I never really had this fear earlier in my career, as my body was different then. But as a freelancer, I am not always taking class daily and rehearsing for 6 hours afterwards. While I am still in the shape I have maintained over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to keep things going when I am in between gigs. This may be a shallow fear, but it is one nonetheless.

3. When I am stressed about something, I have nightmares. I call them drama dreams. One of these recurring dreams is that I have to perform a ballet that was never taught to me. Somehow, I find myself standing onstage waiting for my entrance and was never given any information about the performance that I am about to do. This dream comes from the feeling that I haven't been properly prepared for a performance. In the land of dance art, where funding is low and expectations are high, there isn't always enough time to rehearse a piece until you feel appropriately prepared to perform for hundreds or thousands of people. Nonetheless, it is all too common for dancers to step onstage with a dark, cloudy question-mark about the outcome of their performance. This lack of preparation creates a great amount of fear and stress that it will negatively affect one's performance.

4. This is trivial and silly, but it is a legitimate worry of mine. As dancers, we are often overtly exposing our bodies. Whether wearing tights, or shorts, or even just a dance belt, our art often exposes the body for the public to view and enjoy. While dancers are often viewed as superhuman, we are, in the end, only human. And as humans, we have human functioning. Sometimes, prior to a performance, you aren't feeling that well. But the show must go on. Perhaps, you ate something for lunch that didn't agree with you. One of the most embarrassing things that could happen onstage might just occur before you get onstage. Think along the lines of your digestive system being off and you have to immediately put on a pair of white tights. Or say, a lady is having her time of the month and putting on a white leotard. Ummm....yeah. Enough said!

This was me selling out...
5. One of the main reasons that I decided to leave Pacific Northwest Ballet was because I was afraid that I was selling out as an artist. Often, dancers will take a job that they wouldn't ideally be a part of, but they need a paycheck. At other times, dancers will perform in work that they don't really agree with just to get press. In my final year at PNB, I felt that I was holding on to my contract only because of the great benefits that were offered to me through my union agreement. Looking back, I know now that this wasn't fully, or even half, true. But I was so scared of being untrue to myself as an artist, that it became a driving factor in me leaving the company. In that case, fear won.

6. One fear that I have had to live with is that I will finish my dance career with unfinished business. It is way too often that dancer's careers end early or in a way that the dancer doesn't have a say. Or even, perhaps, they didn't achieve what they thought they could as they entered their career. Nonetheless, I experience great unease about feeling incomplete when I decide to end the performance side of my career. I have seen too many directors and teachers trying to live out their dance careers through their company members and students. I want to leave performing feeling content.

7. The dance community is so extremely connected by people, but so greatly disconnected in practice. One company's culture is going to be completely different than another. Being a freelancer, it can be difficult to remain fluid throughout every gig and within each process. I have stepped out of cultural expectation (sometimes knowingly, other times unknowingly) within a company or two and, sometimes, that leaves people confused, edgy, and/or angry. While my actions may not have been within a company's cultural understanding, I fear that I may burn a bridge that was built over territory with no agreement. Misunderstandings that are purely professional can easily become personal and hurt a person's ability to work within tightly knit social communities of the dance world.

8. I am afraid of being stuck in the warmup class of an old school Russian-style teacher on a performance day. Enough said!

9. One major stress of mine is picking up choreography. Some days I can pick up faster than anybody else in the room. But other days, I swear you could teach the same choreography and I may have trouble latching on. There is nothing more stressful and frightening than being taught a shit ton of choreography and watching everybody else catch on while you struggle your way through the material.
Rehearsing wildly fast & intricate choreography w/ Elizel Long - Choreo: Seiwert (Photo: Gutierrez Phography)
10. It is often taught that you must always continue growing your technique or you are doing poorly. If you are maintaining a certain level of technique, but not improving in any area, you are actually getting worse. I think this is due to the shortness of our careers. But I live in constant fear that I am not getting better, and this was taught. And while we do want to improve, sometimes it is more important to maintain for a period of time than to grow too fast and peak too soon.

11. My biggest fear in my career is the same fear that most people live with at some point in their lives. After putting so much time into my career and giving everything I have had to make it happen, I fear that it will all be in vain. I don't need to be a star. I don't need to win awards. But I do want to feel like I made a mark, an impression, and moved people with my art. People always say, "Dance as if nobody is watching," or, "Dance for yourself." I never agreed with those statements. I dance because somebody is watching. I dance because it makes me feel good to let others enjoy watching me dance. And if I were to only dance while nobody is watching, I feel my career would have no point. I want to leave this career knowing that I gave something valuable to my art.

What fears have you experienced throughout your career?

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