The Ultimate Sacrifice

Throughout the wildly political 2016 calendar year, social media became all sorts of heated platforms. Long gone were the days of respectful conversation and friendly debate. This new age of irresistible public posting with resistant, closed-mindedness permeated my feed as I tried to stifle the stress of possibly losing my rights and watching the positive progress of 8 years disappear with the ding of voting machine buttons. Nonetheless, I did everything in my power to avoid arguments on social media while staying a part of important conversations. And this is how I continue to treat social media while the remnants of this election cycle still have people on an argumentative edge. Now this is where this post swings from political to dance. The other day I was sifting through my feed to find a former professional dancer I was acquainted with through Pacific Northwest Ballet's school (who is now retired) reposting the article I shared in my most recent blog post about dance potentially causing psychological harm. Now a mother, her sharing of this article was accompanied by a statement that her daughter would never be a part of the art form to which she once gave her full self. I felt the need to turn this public thought into a caring conversation, and luckily she responded with the same sentiment. And from that respectful chat this post was borne.

A local Philly sculpture - "Freedom" by Zenos Frudakis
There is just something about being a former professional dancer. I can speak to this from both perspectives, as I am out of my performance career, but still maintain dance as every aspect of my career and self. While there are short-lived, wildly euphoric highs involved in the life of performing artists such as dancers, there are also desperately painful lows. These lows are often accompanied with physical pain that can drive a dancer into the ground before they fully blossom. Most professional dancers don't stop dancing because they have consciously tied up all ends of their performing careers and feel like they have accomplished what they set out to do. More often, they retire due to complication from injuries, disappointment in casting and organizational progression, and beyond. This array of painful endings has more dancers leaving our career feeling bitter than sweet (not even bittersweet). So, why even try to be a part of this career?

What it comes down to is that a career in dance is the ultimate sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of one's body, mind, will, and lifestyle. A dancer may come off as selfish in their full-out ambition to have a stage career. But the truth is that a dance career can't be selfish, as it is submitting oneself over fully to the art form. Perhaps, the art should instead be deemed selfish. And all of the stepping stones to get a dancer to the point of performance in a professional setting prove that they are willing to submit themselves, even if they aren't aware of it.

One of my biggest challenges as an educator in dance involves getting through to parents, children, pre-professional students, and open class students that I am not coming into the studio with any intention but to prepare them for a lifestyle in dance. Whether that means you are striving to have a career or you only intend to take open classes for health, fun, and fitness, I will enter the classroom to impart my knowledge and share our art form to better you along whatever path you wish to take. Initially, I have found this is often met with resistance and confusion. A few examples of this include an open class student telling me they come to class to have fun and I make them think too much. Or a young student taking my contemporary class once and her mother pulling her from subsequent classes because of my approach to instruction, only to return 3 months later because the other student's parents who gave me a chance had so much positive to say about my teaching methods. The struggle as an educator is real. And it is especially difficult in our field because young dancers don't understand that there are many challenges a dancer must face in order to know whether they can be one of the few who can sacrifice certain aspects of their lives to be a dancer. A life in dance is a life of sacrifice. And these sacrifices aren't common or comfortable.

There are many points in a dancer's education that can be considered stepping stones towards testing out the waters of a career. Your first recital. The first time you feel the pain of pointe. That point when you realize more of your friends have quit dance than remained. The first time your teacher is unusually critical of your dancing. The days you have too much homework, but you still refuse to miss class. The time when you choose to move away from your family before you are even your own legal guardian. The first time you get that rejection at an audition. The first time your company doesn't cast you in a ballet. The first time you suffer a career-threatening injury. The first time somebody mentions your weight. The first time your friend is unkind to you because they are jealous of your casting. The first time you don't want to wake up to take class because you are so exhausted. The first time you consider your life without dance. Most dancers don't get past point three in this paragraph. But those who do are commonly accepting each subsequent sacrifice as a necessary step towards living out their dreams to become one of us rare human super-humans called a professional dancer.

Nicholas Rio, Ali Block, & dancers of Columbia Ballet Collaborative sacrificing their Sunday night to dance my new work
While a dance artist can perform seemingly supernatural feats with their bodies, they are also doing the same with their minds. I remember the first time I had a stone bruise on the heel of my foot around the age of 14. I was quite convinced that I wouldn't be able to dance for a week, let alone walk. But I learned that day that, while I felt the pain, I could ignore it enough to continue. Eventually, I forgot about it. This evolved into handling being so sore day after day and still attending class and rehearsing for 8 hours without realizing that most people would completely shut down under the same circumstances. But then there is also the ability of a dancer to stifle emotional trauma and still perform at a high level. For all of the effort put in by most dancers day in and day out, they may still find themselves in the 2nd cast of a ballet. Or, perhaps, they were learning a new role for weeks and the director chooses not to put them onstage for the production. Even under these circumstances, dancers keep trucking on and perform their job to the best of their abilities. But what about all of the hard work they put in? What about the extra time they spent at home after their 8 hour dance day watching footage of the role and marking the steps in their living room? Don't they deserve a chance for all of their effort? Perhaps, they even put in more effort than the person who got to perform that role. 

With all of these different ideas colliding into one, what most dancers are forced to reconcile, but rarely see, is that dance never owed them anything. Just because you walk into a studio and work every ounce of your being off doesn't mean you deserve to step on a stage and enjoy the bliss of performance. And most people don't ever recognize that, even after their career is over. Dance is always a gift and rarely a straightforward response to all of the effort you put into it. Due to the lack of open dialogue about this harsh reality of the life of a dancer, there is an epidemic of bitter, jaded dancers expressing how dance victimizes its participants and leaves them broken with little to show for it. This is often an inner dialogue of their perceived failure of expectation. An expectation that dance promises no one. This reality isn't talked about enough during the training stages of a dance career.

Shira Lanyi & Allen Abrams in my work, Distinct Perceptions (Photo: Dave Friedman)
When this naivety is broken for a dancer, which is often caused by a case of physical or emotional injury, dance often turns from a personal passion into a personal vendetta. How can a dancer submit themselves to an art, then claim hatred for something that is so ingrained as a part of them? It could be the fact that they had expectations and weren't aware of what they were signing up for when they fell in love with dance while still aged in the single digits of life. But the way I see it is this. When you fall in love with somebody, you open up a more vulnerable part of yourself to this person. And if things don't work out, you often feel anger towards that person, if not hatred. So many people will say the worst things about their ex-lovers, even if they were married for years and years. My assumption here is that the brokenhearted must create negative feelings towards their ex-lover, otherwise they may find themselves still in love with them, even if they aren't a good fit today. For example, if they don't hate them for this, they may remember that they were the most generous of people. Or if they don't speak negatively of that, they may realize that nobody ever made them feel more empowered to reach for their dreams. In this vein, ending a career in dance that wasn't fully realized to one's expectations may lead a person to project negativity and bitterness towards dance to help them detach from something that they used to love more than most anything else. I've seen this happen among more retired dancers than you can imagine.

This is a lot of information to take in here. But what it comes down to is that we all fell in love with dance for a reason. Whether it was fascination with the super-human aspect of it, getting out of the house during your parent's dirty divorce, the only place you felt you fit in, or some other situation, dance doesn't owe you anything. It can offer you some otherworldly experiences. It can introduce you to the most diverse cast of friends. It can keep you fit, disciplined, and eager to enjoy a lifetime of progress and growth. But it doesn't owe you that Odette/Odile. It doesn't owe you a body that can withstand the wear-and-tear of near-contortionism. It doesn't owe you that meteoric rise to Principal. It doesn't owe you that final curtain call with audience members yelling bravo and tossing roses at your feet.

Many people look up to dance artists because they feel that they are ethereal creatures. Dancers look at their careers the same way. Infinite progress is the ethereal creature they seek to capture. But at a certain point, nearly all of us will hit our peak, as infinite is unattainable. And instead of looking up at the next tallest mountain with bitterness and disdain for its unattainable height, we should instead look down from the impressive heights we have climbed and enjoy the breathtaking view that lay before us.

Looking over Lake Eklutna in Anchorage, AK

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