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.
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.
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.