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The Dancer's Life, 4-13-05
Talk About Flux

By Anne Wennerstrand, LCSW
Copyright 2005 Anne Wennerstrand

(Anne Wennerstrand has a private psychotherapy practice in New York City specializing in mental healthcare for performing artists. She is also on the staff of The Renfrew Center of Southern Connecticut and is an eating disorder and body image specialist. To read more of Anne's columns for The Dance Insider, please click here).

Yvonne Rainer said the mind was a muscle and of course, she was right.

The Nobel laureate James Watson, who started a revolution in science as co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, told New York Times op-ed columnist William Safire a couple of years ago: "Never retire. Your brain needs exercise or it will atrophy." Recently Safire retired from the New York Times, after publishing more than 3,000 columns. At 75 he still had the ability and inspiration to keep him going on forever but, he explained: "Here's why I'm outta here: In an interview 50 years before, the aging adman Bruce Barton told me something like Watson's advice about the need to keep trying something new, which I punched up into 'when you're through changing, you're through.' He gladly adopted the aphorism, which I've been attributing to him ever since." Saphire suggests this advice: Never retire, but plan to change your career frequently to keep your brain functioning and healthy. Various studies have found a lowered risk of Alzheimer's among people who frequently go to the theater, read, play games or crosswords, go to museums -- even watch TV. Current research shows that dance in particular is found to have a brain-protecting effect. The brain IS a muscle and apparently life's inevitable changes stimulate us.

Transition is an inevitable part of every dancer's life and also occurs in everyone's work life, dancer or not. Most dancers go into the profession vaguely anticipating change at some point but this is confusing as well due to the required commitment a dancer must make at an early age. Dancers report to me that institutions often fall short in helping them prepare for change, perpetuating a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. For many dancers, the pure commitment required to be successful for a career in dance is similar to the commitment entered into marriage (same-sex or otherwise). Thus, making the decision to stop dancing and change directions can feel the same as contemplating a divorce: who will I be without my spouse (dance)? How will I feel like myself? What would everyone else think? Who am I, anyway? Is there anyone else or anything else I could do or be?

The message here from Safire is not to fight it. Embrace change, welcome it, plan for it. Even see it as a longevity strategy. In other words: have flux and enjoy it. Oversimplified? Easier said than gotten through? We've all heard this before and can even get it intellectually, so why is it that we can continue to feel so blind-sided when we're in it?

Things are always in flux but we notice it more at certain times than others. Human beings have a need for security and predictability on the one hand but also a need for new experiences and stimulation. Given emerging brain research, this type of stimulation is not only good for us but is perhaps something we are hard-wired to seek out. Transition is a state of disequilibrium in which we're dealing both with loss and with the prospect of the new. Feeling both sad and excited at the same time is confusing. We are also more or less vulnerable to how others view us. By this I mean some people will be more susceptible to being judged than others based on life experience. Are we more or less worried about how other's view our actions? We may feel particularly vulnerable when we have built a sense of ourselves based solely on what we do and achieve. Some people are more "stress hardy" than others. In my practice I have worked with many dancers who, faced with a decision to change careers (whether because of injury, illness or other circumstances beyond their control) wrongly interpret inevitable change as evidence of personal shortcoming. "Personalizing" is an attempt to gain control over one's environment. In other words, life isn't fair but we may instead believe: "If I were a better dancer (thinner, more exciting, desirable) this would not be happening and I wouldn't feel so bad." People experience change differently based on whether they felt more or less in control of the circumstances leading to the change. This is why injuries and lay-offs can be so devastating. These dynamic tensions contribute to the difficulty of change.

Transition is also complicated by the life stage one is in. Many current and former dancers, including myself, tend to have children later in life. I am aware this is an overall generational trend but I wonder if it occurs more for dancers who have postponed the decision to have children due to career considerations. We find ourselves in the so-called "sandwich generation" -- we may be caring for very small children and dealing with the aging issues of our own parents. Recently my father was hospitalized and found to be in congestive heart failure. Within a few days he was in open-heart surgery and underwent a successful valve replacement and triple bypass. As the mother of a 3 1/2 year old, this got me thinking more about how decisions I have made regarding these life transitions will affect my ability to cope with other inevitable changes such as assuming a caretaking role with my own parents. Let me know what you think.



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