The Reflection in the Mirror

August 13, 2015

Devoted dancers from beginner to professional spend a great deal of time in the studio, where it often feels like a second home because we are within the confines of their walls for so many hours. Some dance as a hobby, while others dance as a part of what they’re working toward in their careers. It seems perfectly normal to us to use the majority of our waking hours to revel in the art of dance.

One could give a handful of answers to the question “why do you dance?” To those asking it may appear that a simple reply is all it takes, but for us is it really that easy to answer? Sure we can give short responses such as “it makes me happy,” or “I like how it makes me feel” to name a few. It often goes much deeper than that. Sometimes it can’t even put into words how it really makes us feel. The answers vary for each dancer, and that is part of what makes this art form so special. It is interesting to see how that question applies to dancers as they advance in their studies. Taking a lead from that question, I would now like to ask you the following. If you’re pursuing a professional career in dance, are you dancing for yourself because you really want it, or for those you are dancing to? Or are you really dancing for those who want you to dance and are living through you?

I ask this because sometimes it seems that one goes into an audition or class to only do what the choreographer or director wants, without adding personal touches of realness that seem to come from the entire mind and body. A fake side or ego comes out, and where to draw the line isn’t clear. Some choices come across as forced and as if it is not the dancer’s choice. Same feeling comes across when people take every class as an audition, instead of taking it as the place to learn, grow, and take risks to be prepared for what is to come their way at an audition. Classes are a safe place to experiment while working hard, without bringing out a negative vibe of energy that pushes others away.

I will admit that I was first put into dance classes as a kid because I couldn’t walk across the room without tripping. (Flash forward many years, and the opinion that dancers are klutzy outside of the studio still holds true for me). At the time I started taking dance classes, I didn’t do them because I wanted to be a dancer, but because it was a way for me become more coordinated and get exercise after school. I enjoyed dance growing up, but it was also something I did because I had access to it, and it was what other people wanted me to do. I could take it or leave it growing up. I also happened to be incredibly shy and introverted growing up, so it was a way for me to break out of my shell.

Dance serves so many purposes, and I love to hear everyone’s stories about what got them started initially, and why they continue to dance today. (And to hear how they’ve changed). I looked forward to going to classes when I was growing up, so it is a mystery why my teachers had to pry a smile out of me for years. It wasn’t until the end of high school into college that I really felt I belonged in dance with the potential to do anything with it. Suddenly I discovered that it was still very important to study many different styles, but it didn’t mean that not feeling great for one meant I couldn’t do any of it. I gained much more respect for all of my teachers when I finally had something click inside of me, and I could focus on why I liked to dance because I was starting to find the joy in what I was doing. I only wish I’d found that earlier. I was mesmerized in college in being introduced to so many styles I’d never studied before. College changed my whole perspective, and I was inspired to see where it could take me.

To answer my own question, I started to dance more for me, and not as much because I was told to study it. I became a more open and happy individual as well. Moving to New York was a bold move (and a surprising one to those who knew me), but it was one of the best decisions of my life. Being about 2,500 miles away from home– I’m from Eugene, Oregon– I knew it would be a commitment to go from a small city to one of the largest in the world. I was part introverted small city girl, and part country with visits to the family farm. (I had a fondness for jumping on hay bales and running free in nature. Not something that is as accessible in the heart of New York). But like many, I fell in love with this beautiful city, and haven’t looked back as I continue to pound the pavement kicking away the grime of the city. There are sacrifices like only seeing family once a year or so, but it’s worth it.

When I first moved here I thought that I had to audition for everything, and that it was the only thing I came here to do. I thought it was the only way I could make it as a dancer in the city, and that otherwise I’d be a failure. I lived with that mindset for the first few years, and it hindered my spirit and what I was capable of doing. Over the years I’ve come to realize that NY has such a plethora of opportunities to offer artists, and that sometimes one has to come up with their own creative projects to get themselves out there. You can’t sit around and wait for people to come to you. (Thank you Grover Dale for instilling that idea into my mind at an artist talk he did a few months ago). Having my eyes opened in that way has changed my approach on so many levels, and makes me rethink the questions I ask myself and others.

I am more free and relaxed, and more optimistic. This has been a crucial aspect of getting through the past few years. I was dealing with an incredibly painful psoas injury that led to an injury in my hamstring. I continued to dance in pain for too long, and then I finally decided I needed to stop for awhile. (We are too stubborn as dancers, and please listen to your bodies and take care of them). I took 4 months off from dancing, and was only doing one-on-one Feldenkrais sessions and gentle stretching as I healed. Through that break I discovered other hobbies. It was the best decision I could have made, and it made me even stronger and more determined. I eased back into classes, and found my dancing had changed. I was living the moments more, and learned to tune out the negative energy that sometimes finds its way into the studio. I realized I was dancing for ME more than ever, and that being away as hard as it was turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I’ve been back to dancing now for about 5 months, and I feel more honest in how I approach it. I listen more to what the music is telling, and I’ve stopped caring about what other people might think of my dancing as much.

It does not feel forced, and I go after what the teacher/choreographer asks for, but I also try and find what is organic inside of me. I pay attention and watch the other dancers in class, and I am drawn to those who aren’t being “cheesy” with a demand to be looked at. I watch those now who seem to tell a genuine story. I don’t go after those who are dancing to “impress,” but those who are breathing the elements of soul and truth. I have stopped caring about if my leg is as high as someone else, or the fact I might mess something up. I would rather watch the dancers who might not be as strong technically, but who are living the moment as opposed to those with flawless technique who are “phoning it in.” If the dancer has both, “Bravo,” but I’ve realized that it really is about being yourself and not being the “cookie cutter” of someone else. Take things you like that you see, but make them your own and show your true personality.

How I answer the question of who I dance for has become 100% for ME. Yes I continue to do what is asked of me, but if I don’t feel honest in what I am doing, then it’s not meant to be at that particular moment. We all have shows and styles we’re right for, and that’s what thing that being yourself teaches you. It’s important to take risks in class and see how you grow and interpret what you’re given, and not be afraid to mess up or fall along the way. It may sound a little silly, but this self-discovery after having been away has made me happier in general, and more eager for what is to come. I have met some incredible new people over the months, and feel more comfortable in my own skin. I change up what I take more, work on creating more of my own projects, and I am not afraid to be me. I am nowhere near perfect, but that is part of why I keep studying dance. I want to keep the channels open to learn every time I step into a studio.

My goals have changed since I first moved here, but that is part of what this exciting adventure is about. Ask yourself what it is about dance that draws you in, and how that is shaping what you are doing. Don’t be afraid to take risks, try something new, and explore the opportunities that may come along unexpectedly. In some cases dance really is life changing. Dance lets me be free and creative, and I find it therapeutic. There is no right or wrong answer as to why people dance, but discover what’s important for you in order to grow as an artist and person. To quote from Sweet Charity. “Get up, get out, and live it.”

– Anne-Allegra Bennett (@aab_artiste)
Steps Administrative Assistant
Musical Theater dancer

The Reflection in the Mirror