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


Protecting Your Mental Health

Don't Lose Your Mind!!!!
Dance is an extremely difficult career field. From competition to personal aesthetic and emotional perfectionism, dancers encounter more stressors than nearly any other career that doesn't involve risking one's life or saving/protecting others. Dance Magazine's Jennifer Stahl recently wrote an article about a Portuguese study that suggests that dance training may actually cause psychological harm in the form of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and unwarranted stress under certain circumstances. I think that the study noted in the article could probably use more study (and I've talked about emotional health in training on here before), but I do feel that certain methods of training can instill certain traits that could disrupt a dancers mental state. At the same time, in order to become a true artist, dancers often have to dig deeper and more personally into their psyche and physicality than most others in any other field. Perhaps, this also causes those consequences. Nonetheless, freelance artists often find themselves under greater stress and anxiety than company artists because of how closely tied together their art, livelihood, and careers are to their ability to find and sustain regular work. For this reason, I have developed a short list of valuable ways that I think can help protect dancer's mental health to ensure that they can handle the great amount of stress and anxiety that comes with a dance career.

1. Plan a Day Off in Advance - Many freelance artists will keep on taking work until it dries up. Often, this is out of fear that work will soon cease to appear. In reality, while not getting a day off may temporarily cushion your bank account with a little extra cash, you could possibly be bringing yourself that much closer to burn out. If this happens, you may find that you can't even bring yourself to continue working, which defeats the purpose. If you want to sustain a long-term career in dance, teaching, and more, one day off each week is probably more valuable than a short-lived career.

2. Find Ways to Take "Me-Time" - With all of my media work added on top of teaching and choreography, life can easily turn into never-ending periods of working for everybody except myself. Due to the fact that people are constantly reaching out to me for work, advice, and more, it is necessary for me to find a little bit of time every few days to do something completely for myself (without any guilt for work that has been left aside during that time). Some of my favorite guiltless "me-time" activities include sitting at a cozy coffee shop (preferably one with couches) and sipping a latte with a fresh baked soft cookie, taking a bath with candles and Pandora's "Chill Out" station playing, going for skyscraper walks around whatever city I'm in, and watching aimless videos on YouTube. When I take some time for myself, I don't feel as stressed or anxious about giving so much time to others and find I'm actually more generous with helping people out because I've already taken care of my own needs.
An image from one of my skyscraper walks
3. Develop Friendships with Non-Dancers That Don't Mind Discussing Dance - This one is pretty straightforward. It can become way too easy to only hang out with friends in your dance bubble. Most dancers go through phases where they start seeking friends who have nothing to do with the dance world. For many of those friends, one thing that is shocking for them is the amount of attention, thought, and dedication that goes into a dancer's evolution from student to performance career and beyond. Most don't realize how completely consuming this can be and are confused how dance is always on the tip of a dancer's tongue. I've had friends who were quite turned off by the regularity that conversations on dance become regular topics of discussion. Though, I am lucky to have cultivated a handful of very special friends who don't mind, if not enjoy, sitting around, learning about, and discussing our fascinating world. These friends are definitely keepers, especially for the benefit of having an outside opinion to balance out stressful experiences and internal politics with a perspective different than your colleagues. It is extremely valuable to develop friendships with non-dancers who don't mind, or even enjoy, talking shop. This can offer valid insights and a healthy perspective for looking at certain work-related stressors.

Non-Dance Friends are Important
4. Avoid All-or-Nothing Situations - For dancers, it tends to be all-or-nothing. For instance, if a dancer is trying to lose or maintain weight, they may completely avoid eating anything that they enjoy. Or if a dancer is told that they aren't improving fast enough, they may stop doing outside activities that bring great joy to their lives and enhance their human experience. Approaching situations in this way can lead a dancer to go overboard when they finally reintroduce certain things into their lives or, even, push a dancer into burn out or self-harm if they never indulge themselves. We only get one life to live. And while a dancer does need to make sacrifices to enjoy a dance career, they don't have to give up all things that make them happy in order to be the best dancer possible. A healthy dancer is a person who is balanced and knows how to use moderation to find that balance.

I always treat myself to a chocolate croissant when I've had a bad bus ride from Philly to NYC
5. See a Counselor - If all else fails and you find yourself in an impossible-to-get-out-of rut, do seek outside assistance from a mental health professional. After spending 4 lonely years on the road as a self-touring guest artist, I developed such severe anxiety that I could no longer handle simple stresses in life. I also wasn't aware how burnt out I had become. After a mild panic attack in Lincoln Center before watching a New York City Ballet performance, I realized I needed to talk to somebody about getting my anxiety back under control. I am so proud to be an advocate for people, especially dancers, to find ways to take the best care of their mental health. Many dancers leave home as teens and handle stress that few people experience in their career (let alone at such young, impressionable ages). There is no shame in seeking counseling to help improve your mental health. If you are wondering how to find a therapist, read this recent article, that explains how to find somebody that works for you and how to afford therapy if you don't have coverage.


Knowing When to Say "No"

As dancers, we are always taught to be YES people. Do you want to do the combination again? YES! Do you want to try that lift again? YES! Do you want this job? YES! It is ingrained in a dancer's mind at a very young age that you should nearly always say YES during your dance career. For, if we say no, we may actually remember that the human body has certain limitations and we may miss out on career-boosting opportunities. At the same time, it is also considered poor etiquette to say NO to an instructor, choreographer, or director. But there will be a time in every dancer's career, especially as a freelance artist, when they are suddenly struck with an instance where they may need to say NO. When is it appropriate or, perhaps, even necessary for a dancer to break the expectation for them to remain submissive and say NO?

1. Since this blog is about freelancing, let's start with an example for any dancer that works as an independent contractor. It can be very exciting to have an employer reach out to you for an opportunity to dance with their organization. Though, there are a few reasons that you should say NO to a potential job for reasons beyond timing and logistics.

If a director want you to travel for a period of time to work with them, but doesn't want to provide travel, housing, or sufficient weekly pay to cover your bills, this is absolutely a time that you should say NO. Take it from me. My last major performance gig didn't provide housing, which led to me living like a homeless person going from couch to couch at pure strangers homes for 5 weeks. I ended up severely injured and traumatized for months after (imagine random crying fits out of nowhere). Beyond that, if you are away from your normal connections and you aren't being paid enough to cover your monthly expenses, it will be nearly impossible for you to recover your lost income in time to meet your bills. Be sure to know what you are committing to before signing that contract.

2. As you mature as a dancer, you get a better idea of what works for your body and what doesn't. Also, you may end up dealing with some nagging injuries that prevent you from performing certain steps. For me, when my lower back started to reject certain partnering choreography, I would have to step up and tell a choreographer that I couldn't perform certain lifts from a flat-back position. While this wasn't always met with the happiest response, I was able to continue dancing without injuring myself for quite some time. It is important that a dancer is completely sure that specific movements are off the table before claiming that they can't perform those maneuvers. Also, be sure to understand that saying NO to certain movements may end up reflecting upon you in certain ways and you may find yourself limited in casting.

If you are a freelancer, this is one of the most important things, as you don't want to injure yourself to impress an employer that is only hiring you for one production and may never use you again.

At a certain point, this lift was off the table for me - "Not a Cry" by Amy Seiwert (Photo: Alexander Izaliev)
3. During my time working for the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), I learned that there has been research conducted that shows dancers are much more likely to become injured during the 4th consecutive hour of rehearsal. Beyond that, there is an increased likelihood of injury in rehearsals that extend beyond one hour. When I worked for Pacific Northwest Ballet, we had a 5-minute break every hour of rehearsal and no dancer was allowed to work beyond 3 hours without a 1-hour break before starting back up again. I understand there is sometimes a need to break one of these rehearsal rules, as stopping a choreographer mid-thought could be detrimental to their process or holding an emergency rehearsal on a performance day may only be available during that 4th hour. But, generally, a dancer should do their best to avoid saying YES to rehearsing for endless periods of time without appropriate breaks. Your body is your instrument and, if your employer isn't going to take that into consideration, it is your job to protect it.

4. While it may be great experience for a dancer to take on additional non-dancing work for a company (social media, marketing, admin, etc.), a dancer shouldn't be required to perform work outside of their job description. Working as additional stage crew to load-in, load-out, or perform duties of a stagehand should not be an expectation of a dancer, as well. Heavy lifting and moving could put dancers at risk. If an employer has these expectations of dancers, this should be expressed to them before they are given the choice to say YES to accepting a contract.

Networking at an event (Photo: Patrick Mackin)
5. One expectation of many dancers is to attend general public and fundraising events for an organization. While this is not always mandatory, it is good for dancers to attend these events. It helps the company promote its' mission, it lets donors and potential sponsors feel like they are a part of the organization, and it humanizes our often untouchable-feeling art form. While these events are often lots of fun, there are times when an attendee has too much to drink or is attending with less than favorable intentions. Just because a major donor or a potential sponsor is looking to give money to the organization does not mean that they can treat a dancer inappropriately. If you are uncomfortable with the direction a conversation is going, absolutely do say NO to any advances that are clearly inappropriate. And, if worse comes to worse, excuse yourself to use the restroom, refill your drink, or grab a friend to help pull you out of the situation.

6. I have a major rule that I never pay to work for an employer. If there are any items that an employer asks for you to pay for, you should say NO to that job. This includes paying for unpaid tickets that you were expected to sell (I don't think this should ever be a dancer's expected responsibility), shoes for performances (especially if you are required to dye them), travel, hotels, costuming, housing, etc.

7. The rehearsal studio is an extremely unique workplace. There are many things that if put in any other work environment could easily be considered crude, inappropriate, or sexual harassment. This is a difficult item, as dancing requires touching each other's bodies in otherwise inappropriate places for partnering or to tell the story. If you are a young, hopeful dancer who is shy, prude, or extremely religious, then you may want to consider looking into a different career option.

Now, there is a time when certain types of touch are inappropriate in the studio. If your partner or a choreographer are touching in places that are unwelcome for you or don't make sense to express the storyline, do express that it feels uncomfortable immediately. Usually, if everybody is working appropriately, this should resolve the issue. If certain types of touching continue beyond rehearsing the actual part, it is necessary for you to say NO or to reach out to the company's Human Resources department to address the issue. If there is no Human Resources department, you need to reach out to the ballet master or director.

In an office environment, this would be sexual harassment - Romeo & Juliet w/Fort Wayne Ballet (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)