I never “made it” as a professional dancer. I’m very proud of my performance career but, based on the many standards that make up the definition of success, I never hit the mark. This is something I was reflecting on early in 2020 as I realized it had been two years since I last performed for an audience. While still highly involved in dance, my work has shifted toward education and administration without having achieved many of the performance goals I set for myself as a young dancer. With that said, I have found a lot of joy and success in this non-performance work, so a reconciliation of the “career-that-is” versus the “career-that-could-have-been” was my main focus at the top of this year.

Cut to: a global pandemic, forcing performers around the world to start taking inventory of their life’s work and goals. What does it mean to “rethink the definition of success” for an industry built on human touch, shared breath, and live witnessing? 

To explore this question, I reached out to several professional dancers who have had objectively successful dance careers - with credits spanning from big name choreographers to world renowned Pop stars, from Broadway to internationally touring dance companies, from world class stages to sold out arenas - dancers who have unequivocally “made it”. 

However, many of the dancers I reached out to understandably felt unable to speak to this subject in this moment as they are feeling forced to consider retirement long before they had intended. To discuss success in a time of mourning would feel like picking at the unhealed wound. Who could blame them? Just this year, 33 wonderful young performers made their Broadway debut in Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of West Side Story only to have the doors close on them just weeks later. Livestream performance events are getting worldwide attention while the artists who created them are now collecting unemployment (if they’re lucky) and trying to keep in shape (for maybe the 2021 season?). Most dance training continues to happen remotely stalling the advancement of partner-based or ensemble-building skills.  (If this all hits you like it hits me, I recommend taking a read of this “I’m Sad” blog post by Michelle Loucadoux-Fraser, Associate Dean of the Commercial Dance BFA Program at Hussian College Los Angeles).

"There is no special medal for becoming the exact thing you wanted to be when you were five." - Jamila Glass

In discussing all of this with one friend and colleague who opted for an informal phone call instead of a formal interview, I was struck to hear her say she doesn’t believe she’s successful. This coming from a dancer who has performed at venues like The Joyce and Jacob’s Pillow, has toured all over the world, and was even recognized by Dance Magazine as one of their “25 to watch” a few years back. If this isn’t a successful dance career, what is?

To answer this, I’m going to hand it over to two amazing women I met while dancing in LA Contemporary Dance Company: Gakenia Muigai (with credits that include Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, La La Land, and American Music Awards) and Jamila Glass (with credits that include Paul McCartney, Foster the People, Comedy Central, and David Dorfman Dance). 

How have your ideas of success changed since achieving some of the above mentioned credits?

Gakenia: I have learned that success is not a destination, it's rather a continuous pursuit of your goals. Success is becoming a better “you” each and every day. I've also experienced my idea of success being very different once I actually arrived there. "Success" comes in waves, as there are lows and highs, but I truly believe that the real success is sticking around even despite the lows. 

Jamila: Success is more tied to personal & artistic fulfillment within my own goals for the type of work that I want to do versus what the industry tells me I should want to do - That it's okay to not want what is popular or force-fed as “success” to dancers.

How have your ideas of success changed due to the pandemic?

Gakenia: This is a hard one. For me it feels like I'm at a stand still. Like my life/career has been put on hold until further notice. I would say, I'm still here, I'm surviving, I'm making my own art, in my home, in my own way, collaborating when called upon to and those are all considered successes in my book.

Jamila: The pandemic has allowed me to be more grateful for the journey I've had as an artist and encouraged me to continue pursuing those things in my career which hold personal value and bring me joy. Having to stay at home and spend more time with my thoughts than normal, I was reminded that all I have is [myself] at the end of the day and I want the “me” that is presented out in the world to align with the “me” that exists when I'm all alone.

dancer Gakenia Muigai in a 2nd plié pose on stairs outdoors
"I have learned that success is not a destination, it's rather a continuous pursuit of your goals."
- Gakenia Muigai - Photo: Kenzie McClure

What’s most striking to me about these ideas is that neither artist speaks to tangible events or experiences that have created their sense of success. Gakenia even mentions how achieving tangible goals shifted what success means to her. This sentiment was echoed in my phone conversation with the above mentioned friend who suggested that success can’t be seen - that it’s not a checklist. Yet this is the same dancer who maintains she’s not yet a “success.” In interrogating this concept further, we have to acknowledge American cultural ideals, including race, capitalistic structures, and socio-economic justice and equity, especially in relation to how this pandemic has shifted perspectives and awareness on these subjects. “Covid is uncovering a lot”, she said to me, speaking both personally and culturally. We both affirmed that our most fulfilling moments as dancers were the opportunities to create with other humans, cultivate chosen families, and participate in lineages of embodied sharing, yet recognized these things won’t necessarily pay the bills. To quote award-winning dancer and choreographer Sydnie L. Mosley from her article How To Be A Black Choreographer and Not Die: “Experiencing success is not actually the same as being well, though our culture often uses that language interchangeably.” Sydnie goes on to describe the dangers of “over-identifying” with our work, which can be particularly damaging when your work is ephemeral. What are we when the stage lights go out - or worse, when the theater doors close for an undetermined amount of time?

I broached this on my phone call, asking my friend “what are you mostly looking forward to as a dancer these days?” She described an upcoming rehearsal process she’s been invited to participate in. The dancers will self-quarantine then join together for a socially distanced creative retreat. There is currently no set performance dates or promise of any kind of “product.” It will just be a group of dancers creating for the sake of creating. She felt excited to be directed, to be pushed, and to learn with other dancers.

"Sometimes success may not look like what you thought you wanted, it may be even better." - Gakenia Muigai

Both Jamila and Gakenia also spoke to future goals of personal and artistic growth. When asked about advice for the next generation, here is what they had to say:

With "success" in mind, what advice do you have for your younger self and/or your students?

Gakenia: Be you. No matter what, stay true to who you are and know that that is enough. Not only is it enough, it is uniquely special to you and to this world. You are something that no one else can offer, give and share […] Do the things that scare you the most, I promise that is where the magic is. The world is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, there is a place for you. Sometimes success may not look like what you thought you wanted, it may be even better. Finding your tribe is important. Hold on to them. Most of all keep going.

Jamila: The main thing I would tell my younger self is to ask, "What do you want?" And that is a question that needs to be visited over and over again. It's an endless journey. As you mature, what you want can change, and that's okay. There is no special medal for becoming the exact thing you wanted to be when you were five. It is okay to want things that your friends have no interest in. And when you're completely clueless about what you want, surround yourself with the things that bring you joy and that will lead you to the answers you're looking for.

We often say a successful dancer has “made it”, but perhaps more than ever we need to focus on redefining success. Maybe it isn’t about being able to say “I’ve made it,” but rather “I’m making it” - a more active and continuous practice of creating, building, and connecting. At the end of the day, all artists are makers. We pool our lived experiences, inspirations, training, and research to make something where once was nothing. If we set this process as the standard, our opportunities for success are boundless. If “to fail” is the opposite of “to succeed,” the only true failure would be to stop making.