featured photo
Ohio State University
Luna Bar

Home, More Advice For Grown-Up Dancers


"If I Can Make it There": New York or Bust

By Anne Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR
Copyright Anne Wennerstrand

(We want to know what you think! Got a response to Anne's ideas? Or another issue you want to talk about? E-mail anne@danceinsider.com. If your letter is selected, you'll receive a free box of Luna Bars, the whole nutrition bar for women. Men like it too! Special thanks to Clif Bar.)

A Grown-Up Dancer from the Left Coast writes:

"Thought you might address the New York-or-bust attitude of the dance community. I live in San Francisco, which always feels slighted. Historically, Anna Halprin was just as influential in the post-modern movement, but the Judson Church people -- who she taught -- tend to get more recognition. Coming out of school, the mentality is that if you're serious, you go to New York. There is a lot of dance going on outside of New York City, but if it's not recognized, might this not lead to an inferiority complex among artists who choose not to live in New York City? For me, moving west was a priority because I value nature, space and the West Coast mentality, but I always feel drawn to NYC because that's where I feel like I am SUPPOSED to go if I want to make it in the field. How can we address/balance our priorities?"

I'm thinking about the annual New York City Marathon with those 50,000 people crammed onto the Brooklyn Bridge freezing their butts off in the November early morning air. They're all running the same race and along the same route, but only the top few hundred who finish first are considered "elite." Do the rest of the runners feel like losers? Are they any less in the race? Don't they each have their own very personal reasons for attempting the marathon? Some are going to be more focussed on the race itself (the process) than on what time they finish (the product). Some will find a balanced combination of the two.

For some dancers, the urge to dance in a city like New York provides the raw energy for dancing itself. Young dancers may be taught to value dancing in one geographical location over another. Young dancers, especially girls, are not encouraged to think outside of the paradigm of received truths about where it is important to dance and with whom. It's true that New York City probably has more dance companies, dance schools, dancers, dance services, dance critics and dance theaters per square inch than any other place in the world. It's true that there is a very vital community of dance artists in New York City and when one feels like a part of that, it can be very validating and offer a sense of connection. There are vital dance communities all over the world. As this grown-up dancer points out, great dance can and does happen everywhere. It's true that there is a kind of hyper adrenaline/buzz created in the New York dance scene (Starbuck's anyone?) which comes from so many dancers and choreographers in so little space and with so little funding to compete for. The energy of competition can be seductive -- quickly and deceptively feeling like the energy of working. But these two are very different things.

If dancers were taught to use their individual creative progress and process as the measure of success, they might feel less compelled to have to dance in a specific city to feel successful. If a dancer has not developed a reliable, internal way to know if he or she is "OK," that dancer will rely extensively on external factors (teachers, critics, grant or award du jour or being in the "right place"). (See my previous column, Toxic Envy.) Many dancers and teachers have tapped into the energy buzz of New York and have bought into the belief that "if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." It can feel like a familiar and thus, ironically, psychologically safe struggle to keep doing your thing against incredible odds. Competition and "the individual's struggle against all odds" is a powerful and pervasive Western psychological archetype. It tends to be glamorized in this culture and in the stereotypic images of New York City dance. Remember Debbie Allan's cartoon character of a dance teacher in the movie "Fame"? "Fame costs and here's where you'll start paying for it: in sweat!" Critical voices and notions which limit dancers to specific geographical locations get internalized and the grown-up dancer needs to work to let go of the unhelpful internalized ideas when they no longer fit. Dancers shouldn't mistake the energy of dancing created in New York for the actual process of dance-making, which is not dependent on external geography. Dancing or dance-making is not dependent on what city it is being done in unless the dancer gives power to that belief.

Having said all of that: dancers, as performing artists, need to communicate. Thus, dancers need and want to feel that what they're communicating is received and recognized by an audience which GETS the work. Certain cities have dance audiences which are more savvy re: dance due to more intense exposure. We all have healthy needs for recognition and validation. If it were only important to be validated internally than dancers would have failed to communicate their art. Some dancers do choose a dance life which is primarily about individual process and not about communicating to an audience. However, the vast majority of dancers who are making work want desperately to communicate. When the communication is disregarded, invalidated or viewed as "less than" because it's not taking place in New York it can be disillusioning. Yet depending solely on this external approval puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of teachers, critics and the audience itself.

David Bayles and Ted Orland in their excellent book, "Art & Fear" suggest that artists make the communication between themselves and their art the most important measure of success. Grown-up dancers might begin to let go of received notions about where their art is supposed to be made. We might watch the fluctuating nature of the "New York or bust" attitude. When is the feeling more strong or registered for you? When you are more certain or uncertain about your work? We might also ask ourselves, am I still interested in this process? In what ways am I progressing? What am I still curious about? Where am I holding back, hesitating? What do I need to continue to create? How have my personal needs changed and what changes do I need to make in order to have integrity as a person and an artist as I change or grow? What beliefs no longer fit with my current life? Each dancer must find a balance between the need for recognition and the need for self-validation, finding the purpose and worth of dance in the dancing itself and not solely in where the dance is happening.


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.


Home, More Advice For Grown-Up Dancers