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FOR GROWN-UP DANCERS
I Can Make it There": New York or Bust
Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR
Copyright Anne Wennerstrand
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Dancer from the Left Coast writes:
you might address the New York-or-bust attitude of the dance community.
I live in San Francisco, which always feels slighted. Historically,
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
has a private psychotherapy practice in New York City and is available
for individual, group and organizational consultation. To read more
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