When it is time to start working on a new piece, there is time set aside to work on its design. I have to think about many things including what I am going to get out of it. I have to know that this piece is going to change me even if it is just a small change. That change can be due to many things. It could be that it pushes my physical boundaries of technique and physicality. It could be that is pushes my emotional boundaries and helps me explore disturbing situations from my past. It could be that it pushes my intellectual boundaries and helps me explore a concept that I have not yet wrapped my head around.
When it comes to physical boundaries, this is often the easiest boundary to push. It is one that I already know exists. Going after than boundary is easy because I can identify it and find someone who can help me break it. This is one of my favorite boundaries and not just because of its ease of identification. I love to push myself and be pushed beyond what I thought I was capable. I like questioning my technique and finding a new way to do something that I hadn’t thought I would be able to accomplish. This only helps me grow in the physical part of my dancing.
When it comes to emotional boundaries, this makes for pieces that define my life and career. Being able to lay my heart open on the stage for people to understand, judge, and discuss is vulnerable. More vulnerable than me talking about it. Expressing it physically exposes more than words can express because it touches the audiences at such a level that is hugely unconscious. There is a visceral response just as I had when I was going through it in my past. Sometimes in discussions after a performance, I feel like a little kid with a secret because I know what my show was about and I do not want to give away the true story. I prefer that my audience had an experience that they cannot quite explain. This is how I like to experience art as an audience member.
When it comes to intellectual boundaries, this is the hardest for me to define. I am not a know-it-all type. I know I have a large capacity for understanding. Defining what I do not understand takes inner work. Sometimes starting with what I don’t like about it is easiest as my dislike might be a defense against a lack of understanding. Once that is identified, the research starts. The research explores expression of that disliked part. It involves reading. It involves discussing with my partner or partners about their insight into it. Bringing a cluster of artistic minds together on a topic and having all of us explore it can make for interesting and varied work.
The journey through a new piece of work enriches my life like nothing else. At the beginning, I am very excited. When I hit roadblocks, I feel discouraged and have to dig deep to find a way to carry on. Those are the pieces that make me the most proud because they are a complicated journey. They usually evoke the greatest change in my thinking, my physical body, and my intelligence. I am always sad when difficult projects are completed because they touch me so deeply and it feels like I am breaking up with them when done. The lovely thing about pieces is that I can revisit them, so they are never really gone. Revisiting often brings new insight as well, so it is something I practice on this journey.
So what happens when you have a flash of inspiration? Do you do anything with it? Do you hope that you won’t forget what it was? Do you jump on the opportunity to go deeper with that inspiration until you have wrung all meaning out of it? Feel lucky that you had one. Some people never have one. Some people have a handful and do nothing with it. Some have few and run with them. Those who put their vision out there are the ones who mark our industry.
So how do you get from an inspiration to a piece that you will let someone see? The ability to do so is a talent for sure. It is also an act of courage. You know that when you do so, you are leaving your soul on the floor for everyone to see. Maybe those who see it will love it. Maybe those who see it will hate it. Maybe those who see it will just think it is okay. Any option is an emotional risk for anyone who lays their work out there. The fact is though, if you do anything less than authentic, people will know. Whether they can verbalize that identification, something will feel off about it and will hit them the wrong way. Thus, authenticity is the way to go.
There are many choreographers out there creating beautiful pieces, visually. When you walk away, you may be in awe of what you saw, but you may not be changed forever by what you saw. When I see a piece that everyone raves about, I want to come away from it haunted by what I witnessed. I want to be daydreaming and have the vision of what I saw flash before me again throughout my life. I want to know that I witnessed something that changed me and that I want to see again. That I want to try to understand mentally even though I may have emotionally been moved. That cognition may never happen, but I crave to get it. I think my lack of truly understanding the story, but being deeply moved by something is what I like best. That is what creates the haunt. What makes me want more.
Many have tried to choreograph their inspiration and it ends up going nowhere. Maybe it is a lack of understanding how to create a piece that wrecked the process for you. Maybe you were unable to dig deep into it in order to develop it. Maybe the inspiration just fizzled. It happens to everyone at some point. If you are lacking experience in the creative process though, find someone who can mentor you. Up and coming choreographers are often happy to run with someone’s inspiration and share their process. Those coming up on retirement, may also be looking for someone to mentor. If you are stuck and truly believe that your inspiration is worth putting out there, find a way to see it through. You don’t want to end up retiring from dance thinking I should have. Fight to make it real.
I admire those in my field who are at the top of their game – those I see as leaders and game changers in their own realm. How did they get there? They definitely didn’t maintain the status quo in their work. They broke rules and pissed off people. They did so because they had a vision that was different than what everyone else was trying to achieve.
There will be those who want to follow the rules. We need these people. They are called employees. They are the worker bees that take orders and carry them out without question. They tend to be loyal to an organization. They seek normality in their life and want to be able to go to work and come home and not think anymore about it. They often see problems that are unsolvable. These are dancers who work for other dancers.
The innovators are those who break the rules. We need these people too. They tend to be labelled geniuses in their field. Often they are bored with a hint of rebellion. Sometimes called les enfants terribles. Tell them they can’t do it and they will make it their goal to prove you wrong. They can be flippant and like to change things up often, whether it be their job, their project, their living situation, partners, etc. They often have itchy feet. These are my favorite people. Every week, they seem to be living a different life. These are the dancers who open their own schools and companies.
To the worker bees, these people are scary. They are unpredictable from day to day. Their opinions change in an instant when new information is received. They tend to be on the cutting edge of their industry and help push that edge forward into the future. I have heard these people labelled immature because of their lack of stick-to-itness. I whole heartedly disagree with that one. They can’t subscribe to a flawed philosophy when they know there is a better one available somewhere. That is innovation, not flakiness.
They look at the world differently. They see solutions for the problems others can’t solve. They bring new ideas to the table. In the dance world, they find a way to bring masterful and ground breaking art to the stage. They take what others already know and break it. They create schools with a new philosophy in dance. They create companies that express something the community has not seen before.
They are inspired by those who have already done. They know that re-inventing the wheel is going to be a waste of time. So, they study from the greats to whom they have access. They glean as much as they can from those people then put their own spin on it because they believe it can be done a different way while still having a basis of historical theory. We all started from somewhere. Someone had to train us to be the dancer we can be. We have a choice to advance our industry or coast and just follow what others are doing. Either choice can be satisfying. So, decide what kind of dancer you want to be and be it.
Everyday I hear of situations that turn lives in a different direction than ever expected. These curves include injuries, disease, family life, and the like. You never know what could be waiting around the corner. The important thing is to be present and enjoy every moment.
I hear people question my way of life and the way I earn a living. “Who do you think you are telling me how to run my life?” Honestly, this is my internal reaction most of the time when people try to advise me on my life. I don’t know that it is so much an arrogance on my part to reject that someone might have insight. It is more a boundary breach that I try not to do to others.
I know that I am not going to change until I am ready. I know that others are probably wired just the same. So why do people try to parent me? That’s really what unsolicited advice feels like if you evaluate it. Unless I am given permission to, I try to refrain from doing this to others. I am not a big fan of should-ing people. The term should holds a certain amount of shame in my eyes. I was handed enough shoulds in my family life to last a lifetime. I don’t need others handing me their shoulds as well. From what I see, a should is usually a reflection of the shoulder’s own inadequacy. In such, they are trying to fix something they cannot in themselves by requiring me to be something I care not to be. Go fix your own life before you try fixing mine. When I am ready to be fixed, I promise, you may not be the first to know.
I think dancers and artists bare more shoulds than most. “You should be doing something more useful with your life”. “You should get an education that will get you a job.” Let’s be honest. Any degree from a university these days, is not likely to get you a job in your field. If you enjoy dance and want to get a degree in it, you are still going to learn critical thinking while fulfilling a part of yourself that you may never get to gorge again especially if you give into the shoulds. “You should be doing something more realistic.” How’s that working out for you should-er? Are you happy in your realistic world? Are you happy being a grown-up? Really?
We live for a very long time. We are going to have multiple careers during that long time. If you love something and can make a living at it while your body is able, why would you not indulge that? If you can dance and people want you to share that part of you – even if it is just part-time or a single project, why would you not indulge that? Stop listening to the shoulds in your life. Listen to your heart. If your heart says for this next while you are meant to dance and live in expression, then do so. Those who should you, aren’t respecting your heart. Why would you keep that around?
In every life, we have to make choices. In a dance career, there are always egos, politics, and drama to manage in those choices. This can be an insurmountable challenge for those who do not enjoy playing politics.As a person who lives by my heart rather than societal rules, this is an ongoing challenge.
I have singed the odd bridge in my past. Luckily this has not been to the detriment of being able to return to that connection for current and future work. I have always believed that living authentically would allow for this. Being honest and transparent even if not in the best interest of the other involved party, has always worked for me and allows me to always be true to myself. I believe my moral compass is one that I can depend on.
I have been told I am an admirable person for being able to live free of everyone else’s shoulds. This is a skill that has taken a long time to hone. Honestly, it is not easy to do. When society is screaming in your ear to be something other than you are, it can be difficult to ignore. Learning to block out the screaming takes strength. It takes introspection to identify what I am about. Identification of the core of my soul has helped.
That identification is just a start though. My core is not a static thing by any means. Every experience shapes me to grow and evolve, just like any relationship and this relationship is with myself. When I retrieve a memory of this core, unfortunately, that memory is being influenced by my experiences from that past day forward. This can be good as it allows me to see the situation with new eyes and insight. This can be bad as it allows me to skew the truth of the memory.
This core became glaringly obvious this year. I had to learn about it in greater depth than I could have fathomed. I had to learn to defend it against everyone’s unsolicited advice about my unfortunate experience this past year. I had to accept that even though my choices in life often don’t match up with the majority of my community. That is the essence of me. It has hindered my acceptance to be in the cool group of dancers who know little, but hold power like they aspired to in high school. That hindrance has played on my mind in the past as I have had this quiet urge to be accepted by those groups. However, to be in the cool group would also mean turning against my core and that would be something that would have more long term detriment to my career and self than being on the fringe.
All this seems seems like delayed awakening when I have been in the industry for 15 years, but I am thankful that it came to fruition. I am thankful that everything that happened strengthened me rather than forcing me to mentally become a shell of myself, chasing everyone else’s expectation of my situation. That would have been far worse than the suffering of the past year. My recommendation is to be respectful in the dance world, but to not lose yourself. Becoming a robot leaves you like so many others and does not give you the edge to push beyond your boundaries and foster a unique journey that others will admire.
Being in a career that depends on other people’s backing, connections, bodies, and kindness, makes it a vulnerable position in which to be. A dance career, no matter how established, requires careful management to ensure it stays on track as long as possible. I am posting a series of the questions that have required the greatest and tenderest management skills in my career and the majority of other dancers’ careers as well.
If I want to expand my career, do I stay in the city I am known or do I explore unknown territory?
The answer has to do with your comfort level. If you are inclined to adventure and making new connections, a move is an easy choice. Staying in one centre for too long can exhaust options as the community starts to believe that they know what you are about even if they have not witnessed the breadth of your ability. This is especially true if you are a performer or competitor. Once you have been “figured out”, you can be tossed to the side or not able to seek new opportunities in your existing community. This is because of being pigeon holed into a classification which may not be that representative of what you are capable. Moving opens new options as you arrive as fresh meat and have novelty to the new community.
If you are a homebody, leaving can be a challenge. If you grew up in a dance community, you may have a strong circle of friends and family that have supported your dance pursuits for as long as you can remember. That can be difficult to walk away from. It does not have to be a walking away though. It can be thought of as taking a sabbatical from your current life. Going to another centre to pursue your dreams does not mean that you will not return. Often, it allows you to gain a large body of knowledge in a short period of time. In doing so, you can return to your community with a competitive edge because you will not be a product of just that city which the majority of dancers in your community are. You will be so much more which makes you unique.
Gaining that body of knowledge allows for you to not only be more competitive as a performer, but as a teacher, and facilitator as well. You will return with new connections that others in your community do not have. This allows you to be someone who brings in different coaches than what the community has known. It allows you to impart new and different technique than your parent city as well because you are not just regurgitating the knowledge on which you cut your dance teeth. You can actually enlighten the community to other ways of achieving the same or better results.
Even the kindest hearted dancer has to approach their career from a management perspective. It doesn’t matter how much you give back to your community, there will be those that want to take you down. You have to make decisions based on what is best for you and you alone. If you don’t stand up for your interests, you will be left in the dust. Dance communities are not that altruistic. Rather, it is a dog-eat-dog one and the fittest to manage their career will be the one who survives.
Performing brings me some of the greatest joy in my life. I am a shy person by nature and it is something many people do not realize about me. Apparently, I come off as confident, friendly, and poised. Though, on the inside, I am often struggling to step out of my shell. This is what I love about performing. I get to step into another persona and completely become that for a while.
Trying to determine what character I become depends so much on the piece, the intention, the movement. That character has to come from within. I cannot plaster a mask on and expect it to look like anything human or authentic. The character that I become has to come from something I have experienced. That is one part of it that I love. I get to relive many parts of my life in being a dancer as I am always drawing from my past to create my present.
When I am off the stage, I find I have to be summoning that experience for a while before I am performing. I don’t live in that past experience day in and day out. However, I do revisit it frequently so that I easily switch that character on. This is essential, especially when I have multiple performances with different emotions that have to be portrayed within each or between the pieces. Dancing different genres often requires the quick switches of emotion from day to day and even dance to dance within the genre.
Getting to step into those characters always teaches me so much about my own life. It helps me to empathize with others who are going through the same thing. It also helps me to empathize with myself. To remember where I have come from. What I have overcome. What I still need to work on in myself. I am always so enriched for the experience of performing.
Once I step on that stage, everything in my life disappears. Nothing else matters. I become present. My world slows down. I see more. I hear more. I smell more. I taste more. I feel more. Every sense is heightened in me. I become my past and get to show the audience that past. I get to share a deep part of me that I cannot express with words. The world gets to know me deeper without necessarily consciously understanding what happened. It is transformative and I am thankful that I get to experience this as many times as I have in my life. Yes, I am truly thankful.
The other day, I had the opportunity to witness something inspiring. I was waiting for rehearsal to start. I had arrived early as it was being held in a location different than usual and I wanted to make sure I would find it in time to warm up. There was a pair of dancers working together in said studio. They were both gifted dancers that I respected. They both could have large egos because of their accomplishments, but they did not. They were humble, hard working souls. What I witnessed was an exchange of energy on many levels.
The first level was their exchange of experience. They both came from different dance backgrounds. One was more experienced than the other. That was not getting in their way. I could hear their banter back and forth. There was no one trying to dominate the conversation. There was no one stuck in the mind set that one partner must be the leader or the one in charge due to traditional gender roles. They were exchanging information back and forth verbally and physically. They were in sync with each other and working together for their greater good.
The second level was their exchange of kinetic energy. The recycling of energy was interesting to watch. You could easily see the transfer of motion from one body to the next. There was no force involved. You could see the stored up potential energy that was used to initiate movement. There was little muscular work. It was flowing from one body to the next. It looked light. It looked easy. It looked effortless.
The third level was their exchange of emotion. When one smiled, the other lit up. When one withdrew internally, the other pulled away. When one got excited, I saw the excitement rise in the other. Their energy was so in-tune that it was within seconds that one’s change of emotion became the same change of emotion in the other.
What was happening though was that there was give and take. Yes, one had more experience than the other in the genre they were working in. Yet, no one was being condescending. No one was getting upset. They were working toward a common goal for mutual benefit.
Often, egos get in the way in partner and group situations. We forget that we are all in this together. We forget that our personal goal is less important than the collective goal. When we can put our personal goals aside and work together, transcendent experiences happen in our relationships, projects, and gratification in dance.
It has become apparent that the less technical dance communities that I am involved in are closed off. They are not welcoming to many people and they keep to themselves. When I compare those communities that have highly trained dancers versus those that do not, the highly trained dancers are often the most friendly and welcoming to those who are learning or are from a different genre of dance.
I was at an event last evening and I ran into a dancer that I knew. He was not from the latin dance community, but he is an amazing dancer. He saw me dancing with my friends and was concerned about dancing with me. He did not want me to not have fun because he did not know how to do what I was doing with my other friends. I told him that I didn’t care if he knew the steps. I knew he would feel the music and express it in his own way. I knew it would be beautiful as I have seen him full out in his own genre and he is mind-blowing. It made me sad though that he could feel the judgement in the room from those who were far less talented and trained than he. It almost prevented him from stepping onto the floor with me as he was afraid his lack of knowledge would make he and I embarrassed.
It shows me that there is a lot of toxicity in this community. I have seen it before and it makes me sad. I have been to other events in other cities where the dancers of the same genre far surpass the best in my community. What I find curious is that those dancers who surpass those in my community are more friendly, humble, and inclusive. They are not making people feel uncomfortable to the point where they do not want to step on the floor. They are the dancers that ask everyone and make everyone feel welcome. My community tends to exclude instead.
I have an amazing friend in my community who always adds people to our community by telling them they should come dancing. He has recruited so many people. Lovely people. Some of them have stayed. Many of them have exited again though because of the judgement and exclusion that happens in my community. It baffles me that the people who are higher ranked in this community want to keep the community so small and closed off. There is so much for them to learn about dancing. There is so much they can learn from dancers of different genres. Yet, consistently, they balk at chameleons like myself who are better trained than they. They ostracize those that are new and wanting to learn. They keep to themselves in their little circle of comfort which they know with whom they will show well on the dance floor.
They need to give their head a shake. Communities, businesses, festivals, and the like cannot have longevity if there is not continuous growth. There will always be an out flux of people, so to keep it even static in numbers, there has to be at least the same amount of influx. If you want to grow though, the influx has to be higher. This means showing kindness to the beginners who are interested to join. This means stepping out of your circle of dancers at risk of not having a perfect dance, but to make someone new feel welcome. This means being welcoming to dancers of different genres who come to your event who could blow your mind on the dance floor, but maybe not in the way you do. There is so much talent out there. There are so many people seeking community especially in big, busy cities. Put your ego and judgement aside. Welcome everyone. You may be dancing with a star of today or tomorrow. Likely, they will not exclude you once they make it.
Achievement in the dance world can be difficult to measure. Do you measure it by your status? By your income? By how well you are liked? By the number of trophies on your mantle? Achievement can be a strange thing as it is not always tangible.
In dance, I have to find achievement within myself. I have to enjoy my body. I have to enjoy my musicality. I have to enjoy being present when I get to be on the floor. I used to seek out affirmation externally. This always feels good when someone gives you an “atta girl”, but if I don’t believe in myself, I will not survive long term.
I have to pick out my rewards everyday. It can be having a moment where my mind and body are so in-tune that everything around me disappears. It can be finding a line I did not know my body could create. It can be when I am so into the music that I can feel it take over my body like I have been possessed. It can be when my technique from dance to dance shifts and my technique reflects the music. It can be when the pain dissipates because of the adrenaline running through my body overrides the pain signals.
Dance cannot be about the trophies for me. It cannot be about the status. It cannot be about the money. It cannot be about how well liked I am. I am someone who fails at filtering myself. I tell the truth when my opinion is asked. I do not sugar coat. I do not play politics. This gets me in trouble occasionally, but I figure this is me. You will always know where I am at if you ask me because of my lack of a filter. My body will tell you even if my mouth does not.
Dance has to be about the experience. It has to be about the high. It has to be about hitting the stage. It has to be about community. People talk about dance families and it is true. There is something so connective about a community of artists. I am lucky to be connected to so many different artists, different genres of dancers, and different levels. It is where I can plug myself in to energize myself after a chaotic week outside of my dance life. I am thankful for weekly gatherings of dancers in the form of class, training, business, events, festivals, and socials. When I get down, I recognize that I have separated myself from this world in some way and I can get back up when I link myself back in. I am not sure what I would do without my dance world.