More Advice For Grown-Up Dancers
FOR GROWN-UP DANCERS
Envy: Two-stepping with the Green Monster
Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR
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Grown-Up Dancer writes: "There IS a topic I would love to see addressed,
I just can't even come up with a single coherent question about
it. Something about competition, about the feeling of being in class
with so and so who has a real job with Mark Morris and I'm still
so far beneath the radar after years and years and doing unpaid
pickup work and I LIKE the work and I wouldn't even WANT to dance
for Mark Morris, but here I am clearly no longer thinking about
technique or the work itself or anything but my pathetic spot on
the food chain and all because so and so walked in and started stretching.
Write something about that -- about toxic envy."
jealousy and envy are certainly familiar emotions for men and women
alike, female dancers can very readily relate to the above scenario.
This week's grown-up dancer calls it "toxic envy" -- the kind of
envy that causes us to undermine and criticize ourselves, even if
in a fleeting way. Combined with a perception that you are part
of a viscous "dance food chain" where only the fittest survive,
envy can further cloud perceptions of self and others. Most of us
have the need to fit people into the pattern of the world as we
have construed it or received it. It's a coping mechanism we need
to make sense of things. We then silently and automatically reposition
ourselves in comparison to them based on the internalized ideas
we have about "the way things are." Think of it as an emotional
short-cut. By continually seeing ourselves this way we reinforce
the idea that we are just "not good enough." Pretty soon it can
come to be such an automatic feeling that a quick glance at another
person in class can cause a chain reaction of negative self-evaluation.
Even between the best of dancer friends, comparisons may be made
about what each has in her life. If a dancer unconsciously fears
that she may never get what she truly wants and needs, she may consciously
feel competitive and envious of other dancers. It can feel very
shameful to have feelings of envy, competition and longing for fulfillment.
As long as dancers do not feel good in themselves, whole within
themselves and substantial, and as long as they are encouraged to
look to other people to derive their place in the dance world (or
the food chain, as expressed above), then they will feel afraid
of others' successes. They will feel less by comparison and they
will feel what is missing in their own lives.
are at work here? Again, I'm going to focus more on women's development
here, although men are certainly not immune! "Toxic envy" in its
extreme manifestation has it's origins in women's complicated relationship
to their own ambitions and desires as well as in the traditional
dance pedagogy which teaches little girls to be silent and passive
recipients of information from the all-powerful, authoritative teacher.
This is what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire called the "banking
system of education," where the teacher acts and the students are
dance training sometimes as early as three years old. Unless they
were fortunate enough to have a teacher who validated their natural,
uninhibited creative expression at that age, they usually have had
the experience of dance training which teaches them to be silent
and do as they are told. These dancers learn at a very young age
that others (teachers, directors and choreographers) have the power
to accept or reject them and they must comply. Later on, an authoritarian
pedagogical approach will further transmit to a dancer that they
can never perform well enough or be good enough. A teacher capitalizing
on that insecurity produces dancers whose only sense of achievement
comes from how they are doing in relation to others. Dancers are
taught to reproduce in their bodies the movement they have received;
thus a dancer may feel she exists only in comparison to others.
Many teachers will argue that this is the way dance has always been
taught and that the method produces excellent technical dancers.
Yes, it often does. I am not advocating that dancers be less technically
proficient as the only avenue of preserving self-esteem! Rather,
I think dancers can be great dancers AND feel O.K. about themselves,
not being derailed by envy. Some people will say that the sense
of not being a good enough is exactly what propels a person towards
excellence in dance. For a person with healthy boundaries and self-esteem
this might be a challenging and healthy motivating thought. The
problem is when the dancer comes to feel that her total sense of
self, her personhood is solely determined by her abilities in one
area of life -- in this case, achievement in dance as defined by
the dance world as we know it (see Advice
for Grown-Up Dancers, "When Are You Going To Get a Real Job?")
are not traditionally taught to pursue their own desires; rather
they will see others as more powerful and holding the key or the
power. This results in a greater sense that someone else is in control
of their future, not them. The despair a woman can feel about not
being able to achieve her own desires is temporarily soothed when
her emotional energy is engaged in the envy of the other; she can
distance from her own distress by being critical or envious of others.
Slowing down our thoughts while we're in the grips of the green-eyed
monster may sound next to impossible but if we pay closer attention
to our jealous, competitive feelings vs. judging ourselves so harshly
for having them, we will have an opportunity for self-discovery.
We may find out that we are more accustomed to being in touch with
our jealousy than listening to the way envy points to our deeper
desires and longings for creative and artistic expression. One lapses
into the familiar territory of one's own self-criticisms, sometimes
fed by one's success relative to others, instead of probing those
desires with the openness and self-inquiry it would take to be truly
subjective, and ask, "What do I really want for myself dance-wise?"
has a private psychotherapy practice in New York City and is available
for individual, group and organizational consultation.
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