More Advice For Grown-Up Dancers
FOR GROWN-UP DANCERS
are You Going to Quit Dancing and Get a Real Job?"
By Anne Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR
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dancers, consider this festive holiday scene: 30-year-old female
modern dancer living in New York City travels to her hometown to
spend Thanksgiving with family. She's working and touring 20 weeks
of the year with a mid-sized modern dance company, graduated from
a prestigious conservatory of dance, is an adjunct instructor at
her alma mater, and is currently producing her own choreography
but still struggling with the high cost of New York City living.
Dinner conversation drifts to the dancer's current disappointment
in not getting showcased at a prominent theater for emerging choreographers.
As the gravy boat gets passed over to Dad, he fires a shot from
the bow. It is one of Dad's variations on a theme: "Mom and I are
really worried about you, honey, when are you going to get a real
job? You're really struggling with this dance thing and you're not
getting any younger." This dancer, usually confident, has managed
to achieve what many would consider a paradigm of success in the
current dance climate. Yet at that moment a part of her shrinks,
doubting herself and the choices she's made over the last 10 years.
of us have learned from our environments to define ourselves by
what we do. When asked who we are, we usually answer by stating
our profession and/or our degrees, or feel we must state our affiliation
with a dance organization or dance company. Thus our sense of ourselves
may be almost entirely dependent on external validation. All of
us have normal needs to feel like part of something larger and sustaining.
If we do not feel like a part of the dance community or our connection
is tenuous, we may feel ashamed, defensive or as if there is something
seriously flawed in us. Worse, we may feel as if we're "on the outside
looking in" and wait to be invited into the circle. We see power
as residing outside of the self and it leaves us vulnerable and
weakened. Thus, when people who don't fully understand our choices
question those choices under the guise of "expressing concern,"
we may struggle with not feeling good enough. For women socialized
to inhibit healthy expression of anger, we may turn the anger towards
ourselves. As a result of feeling powerless over our environments,
we may try to justify our lack of success or withdraw. We may just
work harder and harder, feeling ourselves marginalized or not quite
belonging. Some dancers become self-destructive through drugs, alcohol
and sexually acting out. All our training experiences led us to
believe that if we just worked hard enough and "want to dance enough"
success would be ours. Significant others reinforce this model for
success. For many people sustaining a life in dance there are residual
feelings of chronic disappointment and dissatisfaction with the
self that get triggered when we are invalidated -- for we tend to
dancers just scraping by to satisfy basic needs, this is even more
complicated. For the majority of dancers, not having earning power
in a capitalist society translates into feeling bad about ourselves,
even if we feel moderately successful as dancers and are validated
by the dance community. Most of us have been taught to use our dance
work and affiliations to define ourselves, know how we feel about
ourselves, describe our successes, feel like we belong, and ultimately
to justify our value in the world. What does this mean in a dance
environment characterized by serious lack of opportunity, funding
and resources? Not to mention that the dance environment exists
within a larger culture which invalidates it.
resources are compromised in this field, the model leaves thousands
of creative and talented people feeling that they are somehow "less
than." As Paul Ben-Itzak has commented in these pages, for instance,
some young artists have come to see getting into the Joyce Theater's
Altogether Different festival as a barometer of whether or not they've
made it. Thus a theatrical producing organization which has limited
resources itself becomes a measuring stick for large groups of artists.
The model narrowly limits our experience of ourselves and results
in a state of unrest for the majority of people dedicated to dance.
As a former dancer and now in my psychotherapeutic practice, I have
worked with dancers I consider casualties/survivors of this model.
They decide to prematurely go into other fields or transition out
of dance, and/or suffer a crisis of disillusionment and feel alone
or confused, or devalue the choices they have made. Other dancers
suffer serious crises around identity when they have been trained
to view success through a narrow definition and are not presented
with alternative models.
has our model for success in dance failed us? One good thing about
recognizing this model as problematic is that the model can then
take the blame for what we may have internalized as being our own
failure, weakness or difficulty -- in psychodynamic terms, blaming
ourselves for deficits in the environment helps us preserve an illusion
of control over things that are truly uncontrollable. The illusion
of control helps us preserve our world view as well as prevents
us from seeing "the big picture." This model for success that we
have received as absolute truth is powerful and pervasive, particularly
in the dance world (hey, let's deconstruct that term -- stay tuned,
grown-ups)! Very few of us can acknowledge that perhaps it is not
the individual dancer or artist who fails but the model itself that
is failing us. I have enormous respect for the artists and authors
out there who are actively challenging these received models, and
those people do exist. For instance, read "Dance, Power & Difference,"
edited by Sherry B. Shapiro in 1998 and published by Human Kinetics,
have been many casualties of this faulty model in the dance world.
The dance field continues to observe itself predominantly through
a Eurocentric, patriarchal and classist lens. Through more critical
discourse these assumptions are changing. However, large numbers
of dancers still define themselves by the outcome of their endeavors
in dance without considering the larger context. While we all have
healthy and normal strivings for achievement and recognition, what
happens when the measures of success lie solely outside of the self?
What is the cost to creative, contributing, grown-up dancers and
those who love them?
to Anne or propose a topic for discussion at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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