From falling to firing, a dance career can be simultaneously rewarding and terrifying. To get into the Halloween spirit, I decided to chat with a couple of professional dancers to hear about the scariest moments in their career to date. I expected to talk about injuries, a tumble in front of a packed house, or maybe even a tense meeting with an artistic director, but mostly, I was prepared to discuss the physical hardships of a professional dance career. However, what I found as my interviews progressed was quite different. It turns out that the moments that are often seared into dancers' brains aren’t the pulled muscles, broken bones, or twinged tendons–it’s the mental and emotional catastrophes that wreak long-term damage.
As dance artists, we’re often aware of the physical risks that our careers might pose, but we tend to give little thought to the other kinds of trials that might appear. Thus, we are ill-prepared for them in comparison. We realize that stepping on stage or in the studio comes with inherent bodily risks–even if we aren’t the ones taking class. After all, I pulled my Achilles tendon while teaching. Yet somehow, we as a community fail to acknowledge the kind of deeper, invisible wounds that a dance career may inflict. Below are the stories of Nathaniel and Janine*.
Nathaniel Gonzaga is a professional dance artist and educator based out of Los Angeles, California. Throughout his career, relationships with his colleagues have played a crucial role; not only in heightening his experience with new friendships but also in gaining associations that have secured jobs for him. As he relates, “My first gig was through a mutual friend I had…And my partner has provided me with many opportunities since then, and I’m grateful for that.”
However, it is also through these friendships and relationships that he experienced one of his hardest, career-defining moments. “When I worked at Disneyland of all places, I got hired for both parks for the pair of parades that were happening.” According to Gonzaga, it is slightly unusual for a new hire to be asked to work in both parades, but he was happy about the opportunity and excited to further his career. As dancers often do when newly employed, he began to forge tentative connections with his new coworkers, yet, as the days passed, he became increasingly aware of insidious whispers from his new “friends.”
“People were talking about me and there was this sense of jealousy and pettiness…I didn’t make a lot of friends because of that.” It came out after a bit that some of Gonzaga’s colleagues were indeed irritated that he had been tapped to work at both Disneyland Parks despite being a recent hire. A few began spreading the rumor that his success was not based on his talent at all, but rather based solely on his looks. Gonzaga sighs, “I know it sounds kind of silly, like ‘Oh, poor me, people think I’m attractive,’ but it really messed with my head.” The constant lessening of Gonzaga’s achievements forced him to consider leaving dance for another career, hoping to rehabilitate his sense of self-worth.
Emotional pain can linger [long] after the event has passed.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that Gonzaga found himself questioning his abilities as a dance artist. In college, he was frequently cast in shows, only to hear friends and associates tell him this was only due to his looks. Even if his fellow dancers didn’t mean it insultingly at the time, it still gave Gonzaga the distinct impression that his talent and technique as a dancer were lacking. “Hearing it from my peers and people I looked up to was incredibly disheartening.”
Even now, years after graduating college and leaving Disneyland, Gonzaga is still haunted by the comments. In the end, he decided to stay in the dance industry, though he still finds himself questioning his worth as a performer at times and he actively monitors his wardrobe to downplay his looks. As he notes, “ I used to dress way more out there, and I guess love my body more, but I really want my talent as a dancer to read first.” It has even impacted the kind of work that Gonzaga seeks out, and he now often favors behind-the-scenes and choreographic work in lieu of performing. “I’ve become very introverted as a result, and I don’t put myself out there easily,” he shares.
Though he knows the comments came from a place of bitterness or jealousy, he admits that the words still sting: “It would echo in my head if I were put in an audition situation. Now I mostly rely on work that I get through people that I already trust so I don’t have to deal with outside judgment.” He also notes that, like most dance artists, his career hasn’t taken the path that he imagined, and he traces the deviation back to his early experiences at college and Disneyland. “I was more focused on a performance career before. I wanted to have the limelight, go on that big tour, but I just mentally couldn’t do it because there was this voice in my head telling me that they only wanted me for my looks.”
However, happily, he has found healing and an unexpected sense of artistic fulfillment through instructing students and exploring his abilities as a choreographer. “I find validation now as a teacher, and through what I create, my mind’s work, my choreography. It is not my face, not what I look like. Being the choreographer, not the dancer, and finding validation through that is helping me.”
Gonzaga’s story is a testament to the power that words, once spoken, can have over our lives. Especially when they come from the mouths of people that you’re used to trusting, like employers, mentors, teachers, and friends.
Content Warning: The following story involves sexual harassment. Please read with care.
Janine Jones is a professional dance artist now residing on the East Coast of the United States. In 2016, when she was only twenty-two years old, Jones relocated to Europe, excited to see what a new continent might have to offer her career. Embarking on a year-long internship program, Jones was immediately submerged in an unfamiliar culture, and while she learned a lot, it also impacted her sense of self. As she confides, “I was surrounded by dancers who were younger than me, and it felt like middle school all over again…I spoke the language formally really well, but we’d go to lunch and I didn’t understand their slang or colloquialisms, I felt like I was just trying to fit in. The whole experience messed with my self-confidence.”
After the year was up, Jones, in hindsight, realized that she was in a very vulnerable place. However, when presented with the opportunity to work with a popular, up-and-coming choreographer in Europe, Jones understandably, accepted the offer, extending her stay on the continent. Early on, Jones became aware of a crucial piece of information: “I knew ahead of time that there was a potential that I would be performing in the nude. The first piece he had gotten a lot of attention for was done in the nude, and the audition notice mentioned that it was a possibility.”
She remembers him standing just a little too close to her during the audition process, but she pushed the thoughts aside, recalling, “I really wanted a job. I had moved to a different country, I wanted to get paid to dance, and I was just so very, very excited about dance.” The choreographer, upon learning that Jones was American and had no work visa, ended up securing one for her. Jones was, of course, exceedingly grateful since work visas are quite hard to come by in this particular country. The process of getting the visa involved lots of questions, and to address them, the choreographer suggested that Jones meet him alone for coffee. Once again, in hindsight, Jones notes sourly, “That was my first mistake.”
We as a community fail to acknowledge the kind of deeper, invisible wounds that a dance career may inflict.
During their meeting, the choreographer began telling her about his vision for the new piece, which would involve Jones cutting off all of the hair on her head, shaving all her body hair, and performing nude. When she arrived at the first rehearsal, more red flags began waving for Jones. Male dancers who had previously worked with the choreographer approached her and other female dance artists and told them that if he asked any of the women to remove their clothes during rehearsal, then they would also take off theirs as an act of solidarity. This alarmed Jones, as she recalls, “There were safety precautions…so something must have happened before. Why are there procedures for this?”
However, despite these verbal declarations of support for Jones and her fellow women, after a couple of rehearsals, the choreographer isolated Jones by placing all the other performers under a heavy, white tarp except for her. “He turned off all of the lights in the theater, put the spotlight on me, and asked me to take off my clothes…I just remember he was on top of the stage with the microphone, telling me what to do, telling me to open my legs, and I just couldn’t…I couldn’t move I felt so uncomfortable.”
When the other dancers emerged, they were horrified, apologizing profusely to Jones and telling her how wrong the entire encounter was, and how it never should have happened. Disoriented and disillusioned, Jones continued the rehearsal process, though she admits to pulling away emotionally and proceeding with caution following the incident: “I took many steps back when it came to how much I cared about the process.”
Thankfully for Jones, the rest of her time in Europe concluded without incident. However, when she returned to the United States, she was presented with a very similar situation. This time, though, she felt less helpless and was prepared to defend her boundaries against the will of an artistic director. She reminisces, “It was not perfect, but I knew how to speak up this time.”
Now, as a more seasoned professional, she is only willing to work in environments where she feels safe. Any time she feels strange about something, she is ready to address it and remove herself if necessary–as she jokes, “As an older dancer, I’m like ‘Fire me, go ahead.’” She has also extended her experience to younger dancers, taking on a role as an advocate within her current company, “I talk to the dancers directly so that they feel they have a voice. I ask about their schedules and what they feel prepared to take on.” By making herself a safe person for her coworkers to talk to, Jones hopes to create an environment where dancers are not on the losing end of the power dynamic between choreographers and performers.
Jones is also selective about who she is willing to work with and is quick to remind young dancers to listen to their intuition. She shares, “It’s a very interesting thing in the dance world…you always know, you always hear stories about who’s in power and what they do with that power… I used to think ‘Oh, I have to see if I actually like the creep,’ but I’ve learned that if there’s a rumor going around that they’re a creep, they’re probably a creep.” She also wants to remind young dance artists that dance is–for all of its wonderful attributes–still just a job, and they shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for themselves or others, no matter how big of a “name” they find themselves working with.
Like Gonzaga, Jones’ scariest moment highlights the weight and power that words can have on a dancer’s psyche, and how long emotional pain can linger after the event has passed. These words can shape careers, for better or for worse. So this year, as your Halloween spirit gears up for Spooky Season, remember that dancers—for all of our physical work–still need to look after mental health and be prepared to protect our minds and spirits as diligently as we protect our bodies.
*Pseudonym is used throughout the text.