Dancers with Day Jobs: Resolving the Identity Crisis

Describing who I am is never easy.

 

My friends in the marketing industry would call me a personal branding nightmare. As a person of mixed-race, I am a Japanese-Filipina-Irish American. Not surprisingly, my professional identity is just as fractured: a newspaper-reporter-turned PR professional. But, just as I told my current boss when he hired me, I am, and will always be, a dancer.

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Dancer-Writer-PR-Professional Gabrielle Nomura taps into her ballerina side
Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Nomura

I am not alone. Many dancers like me spend their 9-to-5 hours outside the studio; while they still try to find time for their art, often, they are also mothers, wives, business owners and nonprofit employees. How did we let the dream of a full-time dance career slip away? Well, the coming-of-age process is far more complicated and painful than we think it’s going to be. I’m sure that many of us would, in fact, dance professionally if we could make a livable wage doing it. But as we transition from aspiring teen to adult with responsibilities, we often have to let go of our original ideas about our future. Sometimes this is for financial reasons. Other times, it can be due to injury, or like me, a change of heart. Regardless, these decisions are never simple.

 

Believe it or not, “simple” used to be what I thought a dancer’s life was. It looked something like this:

 Step 1: Dance as much as you can from kindergarten to high-school graduation. Attend summer programs. Get seen.

Step 2: Successfully audition for a conservatory. Boston Conservatory, SUNY Purchase or Juilliard will do. 

Step 3: Great, now you have a BFA. Time to move to New York City.

 Step 4: Congratulations on your successful audition, new Mark Morris Dance Group company member!

 

Many of us who grew up dancing think that we will always be defined by our art. After all, we have technique with a ballet base, strong stage presence, a taste for improvisation and partnering. If we can simply persevere through auditions, rejection, and nailing triple pirouettes, we’ll make it.

 

But the number of talented and capable dancers are endless, and making yourself stand out from the pack is not necessarily a fun experience. Having to constantly compete with others in the real space can make us feel lonely and take an emotional toll. This is just one of the many nitty-gritty details we don’t stop to consider when we blindly embark on the road to “dance success,” led only by our hopes, dreams and the joy that movement brings us.

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Nomura (center left) in her early years at Dance Fremont
Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Nomura

Life as a dancer is not pleasant or easy; it’s risky, harsh, and requires a single-track focus. It’s about grit, tenacity, and the sacrifice of things far more sacred than junk food or the pads of your feet. A wise person once told me to pursue dance only if you can’t see yourself doing anything else. When I looked, I wasn’t sure what I saw. But when I wracked my heart, questioning if this was indeed the right path, the answer was heartbreakingly clear. While I loved the idea of being a dancer, the realities of what that life entailed were not true to who I am.

 

Rather than a hardcore dancer, I realized I was, in fact, a soft, mushy, non-committal one. I didn’t want to work that hard. I didn’t want to give up that much. I wanted open doors, not closed ones. I wanted the chance to shine once in a while, to feel like my voice could be heard.

 

While totally necessary, the process of letting go and re-framing my goals left me listless and depressed. I was ashamed for not being braver, stronger—for not being the capable dancer emotionally that I was physically. I felt like I was flushing all my training, from Kindergarten to senior year, down the toilet. When I picked a sensible major in college (journalism) I honed and explored a new passion: writing. However, I felt like I was forever burying the identity that I had spent my life building. Each newspaper internship or public relations job made me more money, but took me farther away from dance. It bothered me that people would never realize who I truly was.

 

Identifying the right path for ourselves is one thing. Giving ourselves permission to walk it is another. We beat ourselves up for not becoming the dance company members that some of our friends become, that our teachers trained us to be. We feel like we’re letting people down. Or worse, we’re letting down the little girls in baby-blue leotards who we used to be, the one who had worked so hard and dreamed of so much. That little girl never worried about finances or details, she let her heart guide her. This is what I had learned to value.

 

Taking other factors into consideration can feel sacrilegious to those of us who have dedicated our lives to dance—we’re the ones who know better than to count our accomplishments based on a paycheck. We know that we have to sacrifice our time with loved ones or other passions in order to be at the top of our dance game. We’re clothed, fed and sustained by our art. It’s what reminds us that we have a soul.

 

In reality, we can still have all these riches that dance provides, no matter what. “Being a real dancer” isn’t as rigid a concept as we think. Like any pursuit, dance is what you choose to make it. For some, it does involve taking the big plunge: moving to New York City and trying to “make it” in that way. For others, it may involve something more inventive: finding a balance in life that includes dance and other things and becoming the master of your own creative destiny.

 

After all, “being a real dancer” means performing and choreographing right? If that’s the case, what does it matter who we’re dancing for or with, as long as we’re happy? Why should it matter what day job we have—whether it’s a flexible, temporary job like being a barista or working a more “career” type position in an office? It doesn’t necessarily mean giving up a dream. It means making room for all the other things that, believe it or not, life has to offer aside from dance.

 

There are many versions of being a “successful dancer.” Here’s one:

 Step 1: Dance as much as you can from ages 4-18. Attend summer programs. Get seen.

Step 2: Realize you do not want to move to New York. Western Washington University (a reasonably-priced state school where you can dance, get a great journalism education and explore a new town close to home), will do.

Step 3: Now you have a major in journalism and a minor in dance. Time to go on a couple of adventures, then find a way to start chipping away at those student loans (i.e., get a job!).

 Step 4: You finally find a PR position at the opera that, hallelujah, is not only fun, but pays the bills. There’s time in life for cultivating relationships, starting a family someday or grabbing a drink with friends. There’s time and resources to save up and see the world and explore new passions. Most importantly, there’s always the weekends or evenings to rehearse and perform. Of course, insecurity and comparing yourself to others never fully goes away. (Thanks a lot, inner bunhead). But cheer up. Whether it’s the hardcore dancer life, an arts administration career or something in-between, your idea of a happy, successful life is the only one that matters.

13 comments

  1. Here, here. A very nice piece from the heart. Never lose the passion, just adapt to your situation and figure out how to keep chasing it! love it.

  2. A beautiful story with a promising ending. It sounds like your dancing dreams have evolved to fit the life you’ve choreographed! Keep up the great work and the wonderful writing!

  3. As a fellow “hyphen dancer,” I’ve struggled with this question a lot, and along the way I’ve found that adding in other pursuits often makes one’s dancing richer. It doesn’t detract from it (though it may take time away) but rather reminds one of the original love of the art form. Best wishes for everything in the future!

  4. I too have found a career outside of dance, and I had to let go of my dance career to pursue it. I’ve found over the years that having dance in my life as a hobby rather than a career makes me love it more and keep me sane in the midst of living a “normal” adult life. I now dance when I want to instead of feeling obligated to take class to keep up with the competition out there. I find opportunities here and there to perform, but I do it on my own terms. In a way, my relationship with dance has become healthier because I do it for enjoyment, not for a paycheck. I danced in a company for a little while, but the second I did was the second that dance stopped being fun for me. I don’t ever want to stop loving dance, so I left the company and moved into a different career. I have moments where I feel guilty every now and then (specifically today) that perhaps I shouldn’t have changed my mind so quickly and that I should have pursued a dance career, but your article has reminded me that dance does not have to be the only thing in my life for me to be happy. I do love the career I have chosen along with dancing in my spare time. Just because I am good at dancing does not mean that I have to make it a career. Thank you for your article, this is exactly what I needed to hear. Dance will always be a part of who I am, but I know now that it is not all that I am. You are an excellent writer and I hope you continue to keep dancing whenever you can!

  5. Dancer – Artist – Project Manager. My feet are always tapping: at the bus stop, in the grocery aisle and under my desk at work. 🙂

  6. In about 1964 at the age of 14 I decided I was going to be a writer. I single-mindedly followed that goal until about 1974, when I realized I was not good enough. I then found “radio” theatre and for the next ten years sought to be a recorded theatre entrepreneur. This proved to be a dead end. In about 1990 I found an outlet for my music in a contra-grunge band which eventually floundered in the tidal wave of musical hype that was Seattle at that time. Since then I have re-invented myself as an independent musician and iconoclast

    1. (continued after accidentally hitting an enter button:) In about 1964 at the age of 14 I decided I was going to be a writer. I single-mindedly followed that goal until about 1974, when I realized I was not good enough. I then found “radio” theatre and for the next ten years sought to be a recorded theatre entrepreneur. This proved to be a dead end. In about 1990 I found an outlet for my music in a contra-grunge band which eventually floundered in the tidal wave of musical hype that was Seattle at that time. Since then I have re-invented myself as an independent musician and iconoclast. I see now that commercial success in these rarified art forms is an illusion given to us by history. It is not something to be sought; rather it will be given by society if it deems worthy. In other words, do what you like but don’t expect anybody else to like it.

  7. Wonderful article–you are a fine writer and a lovely dancer! Dance can transform you, whether you are 8 or 80. I wish that I could have told my younger self to enjoy the journey, instead of trying to second guess it…Keep up the good work!

  8. thank you for this post. this is my life right now and i completely agree with everything you had to say. sending much love and good luck to you and your future! you never grow out of being a dancer!

  9. Beautifully written and thank you for sharing your experience and expressing what is in your heart on this subject.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this! It relates exactly to my life and how I am feeling right now! I am now feeling much more confident on my decision due to this article. I love knowing that there are other people out there feeling the same way I am.

  11. I know that I am a little late in reading this article but in the 5 years since graduating from Dance at University I have not read an article that mirrors my own realisation (as long as it took me) that its okay to find your own angle as a dancer.

    With all the hopes and dreams of being either a company dancer during university and then after graduating, eventually deciding that a job such as a dance administrator or cooordinator etc, would be enough to feel validated as having “made it” in the arts world.

    I have done a vast array of office jobs as a (5 year) stop gap whilst looking out for arts jobs – which are a very rare find in terms of being full time or paid enough to pay the bills. During this time I began suffering depression and crying every time I spoke to my partner about how I felt like a failure as a dancer. The one saying that has always stuck with me is that a dancer dies twice – only someone who has worked, sacrificed, suffered (and bled) to train for years in dance can truly relate to that. Giving up on the hopes of being a dancer, in whatever form that may take, is a truly heartbreaking thing to consider letting go of.

    It was only after perusing a sports massage course and finally feel sick of being a desk monkey, too tired at the end of the day to attend a dance class, that I realised that it was okay not to work directly in a dance or arts job. I knew that rather than keep up with any old stop gap job that I should find a day job – any day job – that I might have a genuine interest in (because finance offices and loan administration wasn’t interesting enough!)

    I decided to look for that job, no matter what it ended up being whilst taking everything else one day at a time. I wanted to build my massage business whilst having a regular income. I also wanted to reignite my passion for contemporary dance and do it in any way I could – whether this meant attending classes, doing Pilates at home for strength building or finding performance opportunities where I could – paid or unpaid, money doesn’t matter when it comes to dancing.

    It is only after I stopped putting so much pressure on myself to do things in the order I believed I should to be “a real dancer” or follow what I deemed to be the “correct” training-to-career path, that I realised that I can truly enjoy the balance of having a day job and dancing.

    It is only now that I feel comfortable to call myself a dancer. I didn’t follow the traditional route after university, but I know that I don’t have to have a salary or be in a rehearsal studio all day to feel that I am one.

    Thank you for your article.

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