My ballet teacher told me that I was doing fine after class last week. My reaction to this statement was to promptly burst into tears.
Now, in what world is this a logical reaction to “I don’t know what you’re worried about; your petite allegro looks fine!”
Since I didn’t start training until I was eighteen, I’ve always had a sort of mental block with my dancing. On one hand, I had advantages starting late. I had a different perspective on dance, and everything was new and shiny and exciting. I had not yet fallen into a rut. I worked really hard, and I saw improvement relatively quickly. It was like the “beginner gainz” weight lifters get when they first start lifting.
But I always had this mentality that I just had to catch up. I was in a race, and I had started years and years after my peers. I ran as fast as I could to catch up, with the injuries and the overtraining and the exhaustion that came alone with all of that. I was trying so hard. There was comfort in the fact that I was progressing – I jumped up from beginning to advanced ballet in two years through hard work and many puddles of sweat – but I think that I also found some comfort in the fact that I was still working on catching up.
This conversation with my ballet instructor brought to mind a conversation I’d had with Stuart Singer, whose class I routinely snuck into, during my summer at ADF. I had some questions for him about life as a dancer and how he transitioned into teaching, and I was lucky enough to sit down with him and hear his perspective on his career. One of the statements that I really remember ringing in my ears was when he said “You’re not a beginner anymore.”
I’m not sure why these little pronouncements are so shocking to me. They’re akin to when we’re in ballet and the person in front of me is doing the combination wrong and I’m doing it right, and then I’m surprised that I’m the one with the correct choreography instead of them. I’ve been very used to being wrong.
I’m surprised when I get told that I have good technique, and frankly, I still don’t really believe that I do. I feel like I should point out that I have no issues with self esteem whatsoever, by the way (can you tell by all the eight million photos/videos I put up of myself on here and with my #sipedance tag). After so many years of being wrong and being correct and telling myself that I have to catch up, I think that I’m having a lot of trouble truly accepting that I have caught up. I’m a fine dancer. Sometimes I’m even a good one. I’m proficient not only in modern and contemporary, but in ballet, which to me represented more than I realized.
Ballet has been my K2 – and I say K2 instead of Everest because K2 is a more technical climb and ballet is the epitome of “technique.” It has been my mountain. It’s what people first think of when they think of a dancer. It’s the coordination combined with the strength and the power. It’s the technique that you cannot hide behind. It’s the class where you get to put on the leotard and the tights and the specific shoes and say HERE I AM, A DANCER.
Of course, I don’t believe ballet is the end all be all of dance, nor do I prefer to do it or watch it if given the choice, but it is the mountain. It’s the mountain you have to have a very specific body type to climb, the mountain you had to start climbing when you were six or seven or eight but not eighteen.
So, after taking an eight month hiatus from ballet, I was shocked to be told that I had good technique and that I was proficient in this style of movement. I have a lot to work on, yes, but I can go into a ballet class and figure out my shit and look like I know what’s going on. I’m not a beginner anymore, and I’m good enough to stand in the front row when we do a petite allegro.
Why is this so difficult for me to process? I’ve been working on cutting my reel for auditions, and I’m going to two in Seattle this month. I act like I’m ready to be a professional. When I see myself in the videos, I don’t recognize myself. I don’t see myself as current, but as I looked back in 2012 – somewhat coordinated, a risk taker, full of energy, but uncontrolled and unruly.
And I am having a difficult time processing it. I’ll never be there, where I want to be, where I’m completely satisfied with my artistry and my athleticism and my technique. I’ll always want to be more. But to be told and to tell myself that I’m good enough just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m in awe of what I’ve been told by my teachers and peers in the last six months. I’m in awe that I went to NYC and danced and held my own. I’m in awe that some of the younger dancers ask me for advice or for help or worry that they won’t “look like me” some day. I am having some issues with cognitive dissonance.
What is the moral of all this? I’m not entirely sure. I think that acknowledging that I’ve come to this point in my training is important. I think it’s also important that we all acknowledge, in our pursuit of perfection and progress, that we are competent and that we are good enough. I don’t think we allow ourselves to think like that very often.
I like to spend my life in motion. I fear standing still. I want to live as much as I can while I’m here, and it’s not unfair to say that dancing and working out is my way of trying to grasp at the intangible and ephemeral nature of life. Joy is movement, to me, and I’m all the happier for moving and pushing myself. Perhaps reaching the top of this mountain, accomplishing this goal, is really just panic that means I am not entirely sure where to go from here. Maybe it’s panic because I feel like I am no longer young and new and fresh. My goals now are much more difficult – get into a dance company and get paid to dance, which is a much more grown up goal than to become proficient in ballet. Perhaps this is my fear at leaving behind younger goals and a younger me. I am the most me I ever am when I’m dancing, but that me is no longer defined by merely having potential or being good for starting when I did. Me is different now.
So much of our journey as dancers is mental. It’s important to take care of ourselves mentally, too, lest we atrophy like unworked muscles. I think I hit a breakthrough by stewing on all of this. I’m not entirely sure where “forward” is now, but I think that I can start this new phase of my journey. I have new mountains to climb, and while I can’t yet get a good glimpse of them for the clouds, I know that I’m still headed up and forward.