Dancer Health

Defining ‘success’ as a dancer

dance career success

Dancing offers so many beautiful gifts. That’s why so many of us are so powerfully drawn to it. George Balanchine once said “I don’t want dancers who want to dance. I want dancers who need to dance.” The drive to dance also often comes with high self-criticism and expectations. If we don’t feel like we’ve “succeeded”, by those standards, then it can be easy to get discouraged.

That, like any other feeling, is something to acknowledge and honour. But it doesn’t help us get any closer to our idea of “success”. Okay, well what does?  What even is success for dancers? Starring roles, improving technique, making meaningful art, social connections, greater wellness? How do we determine that in alignment with our goals? How might all of this be different for each of us?

A good place to start is defining what those often deeply personal goals are. When you’ll have reached those, or reached closer to them (which is something, too!), you’ll have achieved some measure of your own idea of success. What particularly calls to you, interests you, excites you?

Do you want to get technically stronger, be more versatile (getting more skilled in various dance forms and stylistic approaches), clinch a certain type of role, or expand your network (professional and/or social)?

Then add a bit of practical realism to that. For instance, If you’re on the shorter side with a proportionally long torso (like this writer), professional ballet may not be in the cards. Logistically, what’s realistic? What’s accessible to you in terms of time, money and commuting? At the same time, don’t be afraid to dream big dreams. With no such constraints, what could be yours? That allows you to look at which of those constraints you might be able to change.    

For example, this writer can’t go to a (non-existent) skeleton store and buy longer legs – and thus be in a place to work towards a professional ballet career. If your dream is to join a certain company, however, it might be possible for you to move to the company’s home base, take class from its dancers and/or choreographers, and audition for it. Those are the building blocks to you being hired into the company, and thus achieving your dream.

It’s also useful to take a good look at your strengths and growth areas. Not the strongest in tap, but skilled in contemporary? Don’t abandon your tapping, but focus most of your resources for dance (time, energy, money, et cetera) on building something for yourself in the contemporary world. Still want to get further with tapping, even though it’s not your strength?

There might just be a mismatch between what you love most and in what you’re strongest, and to honor what it is that you truly love. Work at tap, ask smart questions, read up on it, and take class from teachers who nurture you. If all of that still doesn’t do the trick, there are so many diverse ways to engage in and support various dance sectors – public relations/marketing, performance “tech” work, writing/criticism and more.

All in all, there are so many ways to have achieved a goal; don’t let a rigid idea of “defeat” keep you from thinking openly and flexibly about how you have achieved something closer to your dream. Also be wary of how others’ views influence what you know, in your heart and higher mind, to be true.

Remember the film Center Stage? We came to see that the school’s star Maureen (Susan May Pratt) was working herself to the ground, and even into an eating disorder, because her mother was pressuring her to achieve things on which she herself had had to give up. Listen and learn what you can from others, of course – but if you shoot for a dream, have it be one that is truly your dream.

On the flip side, don’t let the naysayers kill a dream. Regard the practical truth in what they may say, but don’t let unsubstantiated doubt get in your way. When it comes to loved ones, they may be expressing loving care for you in the ways that they know how (whether or not they’re aware of it).  

All of this can feel like a lot to think about, reflect on, and watch over time in the midst of a busy life. Keeping a journal can help with all of those things. If feasible for you, establish a daily routine of reflective writing that you know you can maintain.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron lays out a routine of morning pages – three pages of writing first thing in the morning, not necessarily with punctuation or even logical, coherent progression of ideas. Just write what ever comes to mind, trying not to censor or judge yourself.

Meditating can also be a powerful tool for clarity and reflection. Even if your mind wanders (and it does for almost everyone), that mental wandering can contain truly strong and useful insights. It doesn’t need to be religious, or really even spiritual.

Simply slowing down your mind by conscious focus can help clearer realizations and solutions emerge. It could be as simple as focusing on the rhythm of your breath or a repeated statement like “I am strong”, “I can.”

Short of achieving your wildest dreams as a dancer, you’re engaged in something that contributes to your health, happiness, social ties and overall life experience. You create art. All of that can be its own kind of success.

Go ahead, shoot for the stars. Be smart and strategic in how you do that. But try not to forget – in fact, honor and appreciate – how special it is to move with intention and purpose, with those you care about, and be a more whole and healthy person as a result.

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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