“Is your father upset that he’s so educated and you’re only a dancer?” I froze for a few seconds before responding, “I don’t think so. I was actually awarded several talent scholarships.” Growing up in an elitist area, I was no stranger to digs regarding my artistic path, as well as inquiries regarding matters such as who had designed my purse. This question, however, cut like a knife. My father had given me specific directives: Cultivate your talents. Whatever you do with these talents do it well, and continually find ways to grow and improve. He and my mother had always encouraged my dancing, but were they secretly disappointed?
Never before had anyone questioned my parent’s view of my worth. I could roll my eyes at other people’s limited view of who I should be, but not that of my parents. I’d disappointed my parents with things I’d done, but dancing was who I was. I couldn’t bear to think who I was could be disappointing to them. Later that night, I burst into tears at the dinner table and asked if what my neighbor implied was true. It wasn’t true in any way. They assured me my neighbor was foolish and definitely incorrect in her assumption.
Since then, I’ve proudly taught hundreds of students and even stepped out of my shell for a while performing both as a dancer and more recently, a singer. Over the years I’ve noticed common threads or traits that run through my most passionate and dedicated students. In my experience, these traits exist most intensely in those who’ve gone on to continue their dance studies after high school, perform, and teach. If ever you’ve known and loved a dancer, the coming words will surely ring true.
Dancers are tenacious; they understand the value of trying something many different ways with many different corrections and adjustments before accomplishing said goal. Dancers are perfectionists; once they “get it”, they’ll work tirelessly to turn acceptable into exquisite. Dancers posses discipline, self-respect, and often a maturity beyond their years. Self-worth and improvement are repeatedly pressed in the studio; as a result, dancers are less likely to engage in damaging or risky behaviors. Dancers know themselves on a deeper level. They’ve discovered their strengths and weaknesses and are empowered to work with both.
Dancers understand that the love is in the details. It’s not only their movement, but the precise way in which they execute it. Dancers’ passion outweighs their desire for status. Even the most successful are never well off, but to an artist it’s worth the sacrifice. Dancers work hard, not solely for money but also for the love of their art form, the opportunity to reach others with their gifts, and the chance to feel alive in a way only available to those who take the dance floor as their home. Dancers create. Isn’t that why we’re here, to create relationships, families, beauty, and memories?
Dancers have the grit to face a world in which they may be wanted, but not needed, a world in which they may be passed over for work due to their height or hairstyle. They must demonstrate their commitment and value repeatedly. Dancers stand comfortably in their own vulnerability, taking their bodies, hearts, and spirits bravely onto the stage. They do this never knowing when they’re to be replaced by a younger,stronger dancer, or set back by an overuse injury, or the natural aging process. Dancers express feelings and stories bringing us into their emotional space, helping us to better accept and experience our own feelings. Therein lies the fragile beauty of the performing arts.
As a dancer and teacher, I’ve experienced joy and disappointment, felt energized and exhausted, been inspired and burned out. Still, there’s never been a day in my life I wasn’t thankful for the opportunity to share the arts.
As for my old neighbor who wondered if my family felt disappointment due to my being a dancer, I’d love for her to take a few of my classes. It would be entertaining to watch her discover the biggest truth regarding dancers: Making difficult movements look effortlessly beautiful, using a blend of talent and training to take our bodies to unique extremes, and creating a kind of silent poetry that moves observers emotionally, are things “only a dancer” can do.