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5/30/01: Can I Have a Life and a Dance One?

By Anne Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR
Copyright Anne Wennerstrand

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A Dance Insider recently wrote to me noting that it seems like there is a mini baby-boom going on in the dance world. The writer asked me what I thought about the choice that some female dancers might find themselves making between either continuing their dance careers or having a family and children. They pointed out that this could be particularly tough for female dancers who may have cultivated a dance career in their twenties and find the desire for children very strong in their thirties just when they may be growing most as an artist or starting/building a dance company themselves. Though I might assume the writer had heterosexual women in mind for this question, the question equally applies to men and women, gay and straight who have the desire to increase their capacity for intimate relationships which may or may not include children. Is it possible to have a dance life and a fulfilling relational life? Artists' independence and interdependence coexist and we shouldn't idealize or glamorize either extreme as being the dancer's only destiny.

As dancers transition through different life stages they feel different needs for community and connection. Dancers at one stage of life -- say, in their twenties -- may be more willing to forego long-term relationships due to the demands of company life and touring. Later on, they may feel a stronger urge for rootedness and need to make decisions which include changing their belief systems about what it means to be an artist. Community can take the form of family, intimate relationships, children or causes you believe in. Dancers throughout their lives face the challenges of balancing dance life, work life and family life. Dancers are not so different from anyone else in this regard. However, this can be particularly tough when dancers decide to become parents. We live in a culture that undervalues parenting and particularly women's role as the primary caretakers of children. This is seen most markedly in wage discrimination, lack of day care and access to health care and services for parents and children. The dance world can perpetuate the romantic myth that dancers must choose marriage to their art vs. "marriage" to a person. Think of the film "The Turning Point" in which Shirley McClaine is portrayed as the dancer who gave it all up for family life. She is portrayed as an angry and regretting woman who must "live the dream" through the efforts of her ballerina daughter. This sort of nun-like version of dancers' devotion is typical of the dominant cultural myth of the female dancer. The realities are much more complex and not so black and white. Many dancers and choreographers can and do become parents and continue making a life in the arts. I have received letters from dancers who describe having children as the greatest "teaching" they ever had. Artists will incorporate different themes in their work as a result of major life changes. Part of making peace with any change in life is accepting that there will be loss as a result of change. However, there is also something very important that is gained.

To prepare for a rich relational life as well as a life in the arts, Eric Maisel, Ph.D. recommends engaging in "parallel life" work as well as working on your craft. In his excellent book "A Life in the Arts" (New York, Putnam & Sons, 1994) Maisel calls this the single most important self-help strategy available to the artist. He suggests cultivating a life full of meaning apart from your life as a creative or performing artist. This concept may fly in the face of outdated beliefs (and dominant cultural symbols) we have about what it means to be a dancer and suggests one starts by making small but real changes in the direction of relationships, new community efforts and belief systems. There will be some inevitable distraction from the primary work of art but ultimately the artist will be a more multidimensional being.

Maisel suggests we get permission from ourselves to set more modest daily, weekly and monthly goals in relation to our art. Again, this may be particularly challenging if we've come to believe success in the arts means "all or nothing" commitment. He further suggests we redefine success so that our accomplishments and relationships outside of dance count. He also suggests expanding our repertory of activities as well as paying new and better attention to other people. Obviously having children and life partners are not the only way to cultivate the relational side of our being! Engaging in conscious community-making with other artists is another strategy to balance out the isolation one may feel in making and doing dance.

Free-writing can be a great tool to help grown-up dancers further explore these issues individually. Natalie Goldberg, in "Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" (Boston, Shambala, 1998) suggests taking out a notebook and writing all over the page, not worrying about margins, punctuation, spelling, etc., (that way you stay psychologically free and reinforce the idea that you're not writing for a school, a teacher or anyone else except yourself). As you write in your notebook ask these questions of yourself as a guide:

Do I have a belief about being an artist which no longer fits with my stage of life or needs I currently have? Can I dispute those beliefs? Does someone other than myself have an idea about what the right choices are for me? Who are those others? Are they people/teachers from the past? Are things I once believed about myself or my dancing life still true? What are my needs for creating balance in my life? Can I envision myself as a multidimensional person with many roles in life vs. solely the identity of dancer or artist?

It may help to get specific: How many hours a day/week do I need to feel engaged in my work as a dancer? Taking class every day? Rehearsing "x" amount of hours per week? Planning projects for the future? How much time do I need for connection with people who are important to me?

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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