“I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance,” Balanchine famously quipped. Before I ever heard that quote, or heard of Balanchine, I knew that was me. It was my first class – a tap class at my hometown dance studio. I can’t say why or how, but I pretty much instantly knew that I needed to keep dancing: always.
From the turbulence of family breaking, bullying, and medical issues, dance was a refuge: even when it brought blood, sweat, and tears (literally). The freedom within smooth piqué turns or the flight of a leap – there was absolutely nothing like it. Twenty years later, I haven’t found anything comparable yet.
Freedom and constraint: bringing dance into my life
With that freedom came constraint, however – constraint within the sphere of the very art form that had stolen my heart. For one, I started very late, ancient by dance standards. That first tap class was at thirteen years old. I was acutely aware how far behind my peers I was. It bothered me, and I did something about it. I worked my tail off. Looking back, I think I did well catching up.
Yet, still to this day, I think that not having more time dancing in my youth has held my technique back. There are incredible dancers out there who have managed to, technically and artistically, more than make up for that lost time (Misty Copeland, anyone?). In many ways, I’m not quite one of them (darn fouetté turns…not sure if those are ever happening for me!).
For two, I stood (and still stand) at just under five feet tall. Muscular and stout, it felt crystal-clear to me that my appearance was the polar-opposite of the lithe, lanky dancers on the cover of Dance Magazine (this was the early and mid-2000s, and I’m so happy to see that the dance sector, and the media that covers it, has made amazing strides in body diversity).
You can find your path, because there are as many of them out there as there are artists
Like so many dancers – all too many dancers – I’ve been through sincere struggles with body image and disordered eating. Yet that’s a whole other story for another day. For now, I will say that I didn’t have confidence that my body could be the kind that people would want to watch onstage – and would get hired to be that kind of body. I didn’t think that I’d “make it” as a professional dancer.
Stepping unto my professional path in dance and movement
Despite those challenges, when it came to applying for college, I saw no other option than to major in dance. With not feeling in any way assured that I'd make it to an elite program (just maybe, that lack of confidence showing up again), I applied to The George Washington University – offering a dance major that didn't require an audition. I spent four years dancing there. My conceptions of what dance can be were challenged, expanded, colored, and layered. The quality and range of my movement completely transformed.
At the same time, I still didn't feel like I could "cut it" as a professional dancer. I had always loved writing, and I looked into dance writing. A big part of me said "YES, that's it, that's my path." I even met with professors about taking steps on that path. There was one problem: career stability and viability (yes, the same issue I saw with trying for a professional performer route). This was just after the Great Recession, as well as in the midst of the growing ubiquity of iPhones, social media, and online news. Newspapers were closing down all over the country. Arts journalism, more specifically, was doing even worse; it felt like arts critics were getting laid off left and right.
I'm not one to give up or get hopeless. I kept looking for other paths, and did find some. I fell in love with yoga, for one, and got certified to teach the summer after I graduated college. I looked into Dance/Movement Therapy, as well, and got my Master's Degree in modality from Lesley University. Graduate school was a rigorous, challenging few years – yet also indispensable for my personal and professional development. College expanded and deepened my understanding of the art of the body. Graduate school did the same with the heart and soul of the body.
Teaching yoga, continuing to dance when I could, and becoming a Registered Dance/Movement Therapist: all of these things were deepening my understanding of art, wellness, the body, and bodies (and souls!) in community. Here we are in 2023, and these are all things that I bring into my work writing about and teaching dance. I keep dancing, myself, too: through taking classes and exploring my own choreography. Oh yes, I've had many other jobs along the way, as well, just to pay the bills. It hasn't always been easy – far from it. But I've persisted, because there is no other option for me. I don't just want to dance. I have to dance. So I’ve made it work. Sink or swim, right?
When it comes to dance artists, I'm in no way alone in any of that. I can only truly speak to my own experience, but I've known (or known of) many dance artists with a similar story: despite challenges and limitations keeping them from the ideal of what they might have wanted, they've found a way to make it all work. They've found a way to stay connected with what they love in a world that makes doing that anything but easy.
As cliché as it is, where there's a will, there really is a way. And here's the main thing: that can be true for you, too! The possibilities for a life in dance reach so much farther than professionally dancing for one company. You can find your path, because there are as many of them out there as there are artists. I'll wrap this all up with a few tips for keeping dance in your life, too!
Keep dancing: ways to keep dance in your life
1. Look at your talents and how you can serve.
There's a lot that needs to get done in dance above and beyond the performing part: costuming, fundraising, administration, photography, press, public relations, choreography, teaching…the list goes on. How might your experience, inclinations, and talents help you carve out a path of your own in the dance field – even if it's not performing?
Sure, it's certainly not the same. Yet there really is something to being part of what brings dance to the stage, to the streets, to studios and beyond. That's something more than if one were to leave the field entirely, simply because one is not on the way to achieving their performing dreams. One can also still dance without being a professional dancer (read on!).
2. Class is magical – don’t underestimate its worth.
That feeling after a great dance class: sweaty, maybe sore and physically fatigued, but floating from pure bliss…there's nothing quite like it, right? Even if you work outside of dance, though it could be costly and a challenge scheduling-wise, that's always available to you. There are actually a surprising number of adult dance classes running in every metropolitan region – it only sometimes takes research to find what's right for you.
The time, money, driving across town: when you're in class and smiling big, all of that may very well be more than worth it. Not to mention that in this digital age, online class options abound – which can often be more cost-efficient and logistically simpler than in-person classes. Check out DancePlug's library of class tutorials, in a plethora of styles and levels!
I can’t say why or how, but I pretty much instantly knew that I needed to keep dancing: always.
If you do work in dance, such as teaching at a studio and/or doing administrative work for a dance company, getting to class could be even more feasible. Many studios have adult classes which their teachers can take for a discounted rate or free of cost (something that I very much enjoy doing every week!). Working for a company could similarly come with low-cost or complimentary classes. In both cases, classes may very well be right where you work – so that omits travel hassle!
True, class might not bring that unique adrenaline rush of performing – but it's dancing, moving, and connecting with other people in space through dance. And that's worth a whole lot, too, right?
3. A fulfilling career path can look different than the traditional 9-5; make it your own!
Part of why I felt scared to commit all the way to a dance writing career was the fact that at the time, one could count the number of full-time US dance critics on one hand (sadly, it's even fewer now). What I didn't quite understand was that it didn't need to be full-time or nothing. Traditional perspectives on the world sometimes tell us that having a one full-time job is part of "success" – but we can call such outlooks into question. The world simply doesn't work like that anymore. That’s all the more true in the performing arts!
Even dancers at top US dance companies wear multiple hats: teaching, choreographing, doing brand partnerships, and starting up other entrepreneurial endeavors. Yes, having multiple jobs can be a lot to juggle: logistically, mentally, even spiritually. But it also brings the ability to engage with multiple passions and make a difference in varied ways.
How might your experience, inclinations, and talents help you carve out a path of your own in the dance field – even if it's not performing?
If you do have the opportunity to perform, but the work isn't consistent enough to fill all your time and contribute all of your income…it's still performing! Can you get creative with ways to supplement your work, in ways that keep you fulfilled and your life balanced? It's certainly not always easy (trust me, I know), but it's worth it. You don't have to be dancing for one company or in one show or for one agency or not dancing at all – there are so many other options for a life in dance.
4. Be a dance patron, community member, and advocate.
Let's say that, sadly, none of the above works out for you (I acknowledge that can be possible – our lives are all so different and complex!). There's always a way to support and engage with dance: by going to performances, by sharing work that you love with people in your life, by volunteering to help runs shows or for charitable dance-based organizations, by donating to dance companies and organizations who resonate with you, by advocating for expanded dance (and broader arts) education in schools…that's another list that goes on.
You might even make friends who also love dance; one thing (among many) that I've loved seeing with companies I know well is how a community of supporters grows – with good people who come to know and encourage each other, in service of the company at hand and their work.
As Alvin Ailey noted, dance comes from all of us – so it belongs to all of us. You don't have to be onstage to be a part of it. We can all have opportunities to be engaged, in some way or another, no matter where life takes us. If you have a will, find your way. I believe that you can!