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Doing the Dance

By Anne Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR

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Grown-Up Dancers have been pretty quiet these past few weeks. I don't know if it has to do with the aftermath of the holidays, the Arts Presenters conference, or the provocative title of the last column: "Toxic Envy: Two-Stepping With the Green Monster" (or perhaps some other force in the Universe). I did, however, receive a really compelling "yeah, but" e-mail from a Grown-Up Dancer and "yeah, but" is what Advice For Grown-Up Dancers is all about. The dancer writes: "You suggest that we think of different ways of defining success as a dancer. Specifically you say we should stop judging ourselves based on our ability or inability to get into fill-in-the-blank, choreographer-of-the-moment's company. But a dancer's self-esteem really is based on what company he/she can get into and sometimes there really is that one artist who you want to dance with who would help you develop as a dancer and with whom you could build a future career."

This dancer raises an important point, one I was trying to put into words in the "envy" column but just couldn't cover in terms of time, space and my own uncharted neural territory. The fact is that most dancers do identify a choreographer that they would want to work with early in their careers. Because these affiliations are often formed during training, these choices may more accurately reflect intense needs for validation versus a true aesthetic, artistic choice. Other dancers will feel a strong, soul connection to the work. They then set their sights on that one choreographer, feeling sure that person would help them express themselves artistically and aesthetically. They try to get into the company by auditioning, workshoping, hanging around, taking class, identifying themselves, going to "the school," etc. If after all that investment of sweat and soul they get invited into the company, great. The dancer derives a significant amount of self-esteem from actualizing what she thinks she has always wanted. The problem is the sheer numbers of dancers there are and the relative lack of dance company opportunities coupled with the fact that choreographers do not choose dancers in a democratic fashion. Especially as the trend continues to move towards choreographers hiring dancers on a per-project basis, the dance company paradigm as we've all known it is becoming a rarer thing. This is reflective of a federal and corporate funding environment which is moving more towards supporting artists' specific, image-driven projects versus supporting the development of an artist's body of work over the long haul. Add to that the soaring costs of living in major cities with a dance presence. In places like New York and San Francisco, dancers must support themselves with other skills besides performance, making it harder to commit to choreographers who can't pay.

At a certain point, most serious dancers are more or less technically capable of doing the work. The problem is choreographers choose dancers for their companies based on too many factors beyond skill and talent. More often hiring comes down to things beyond the dancer's control. These realities can be harshly disappointing, even devastating. Yet, looking at all these circumstances, some dancers still persist in viewing themselves as defective when they are not "picked." The feeling of being "less than" gets inside and sets the scene for "toxic envy."

Seeing the problem as residing within the self and not outside in the world around you serves as a powerful psychological defense. It protects us from feeling completely helpless in the pursuit of our desires. I've often felt the universities could do more in terms of preparing serious dance students for these realities. For instance, I think it borders on abusive for teachers to tell students that they didn't "make it" because they "don't want it badly enough." There need to be alternative paradigms in order for dancers to feel they have had successful experiences, especially in this ever-shifting dance landscape. Dancers could form collectives and commission choreographers to work for them. If more emphasis were placed on these paradigms as well as on grant-writing, courses examining funding trends for dance, and encouragement to attend conferences such as Arts Presenters, perhaps dancers would feel more in control of their careers upon graduating from university dance programs. The non-university dance schools could be doing the same. The universities and dance educators are doing a disservice to dancers who graduate thinking that their only means of success resides in their ability to be "picked" for a dance company.

What about you, Grown-Up Dancer? Are there ways in which we can see not just the problem, but the solution, as residing within ourselves? Ways artists who depend on being selected by others for their livelihoods can find validation within themselves? Alternative models for "doing the dance"? E-mail me your ideas at anne@danceinsider.com.

Anne Wennerstrand has a private psychotherapy practice in New York City and is available for individual, group and organizational consultation. To read more about Anne, please visit the "Contact Us" page.

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