The process of becoming an artist isn’t that complicated. You do art. You are an artist.
The process of learning to see yourself as an artist, on the other hand, comprises an apparently-endless array of subtle layers.
(I’m not sure if it’s an onion or a lotus blossom: like, its roots definitely reach down into the muck of life, but sometimes it makes you cry, so…? Whatever. It can be both.)
Tonight, after closing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a show that felt like the strongest in my career to date, I had this moment in which I was thinking about something related to work, and it didn’t even occur to me to feel a sense of disbelief, or like I’m not worthy, or anything. I was just thinking about a work thing: a piece to add to the puzzle to make me better at my job.
Only later did it even occur to me to think, “Hey, that’s cool, that my imposter syndrome didn’t even get a look in.”
Every now and then I think back to a conversation I had a few years ago with my friend BB—one in which she said, “…You have your [ballet] career to think about,” back before I was at all certain that any such thing was really going to materialize. At the time, I felt like I should, like, cross my fingers or something. Somehow signal that I wanted it to be true, but maybe didn’t quite think it was.
And yet, here I am.
I’m sure I’ve written before about this process, but I’m equally sure that, a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed I’d be quite as blasé about it as I am now, in part because a year ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever be doing the things I’m doing now.
I’m lucky to have friends who can see things more clearly, and whose words have helped immensely in the moments in which this has all seemed the most unreal.
Their belief has helped to form the foundation of my own, like a builder’s forms shape the concrete walls in a building’s basement.
They helped me believe—even believed for me—so I could do a thing that is almost absurdly unlikely. And the longer I do it, the stronger my own belief becomes.
So this is me, now. I’ve begun, bit by bit, to feel that I have something to offer to my chosen profession.
I’m not sure yet what that thing is, or how to define it. I think that’s harder to do in ballet than in a lot of artforms … like, in ballet, as a dancer, you’re both artist and medium, and another artist is generally responsible for using the pallette of dancers on hand to create work.
You don’t always know what it is that you, specifically, bring to the easel. You don’t know whether you’re magenta or cobalt or red ochre to the choreographer or AD who selects you.
But it doesn’t really matter to me. My goal is to be serviceable: to be a serviceable dancer, one who is good enough to be a credit to the artform and to honor its history. Anything more than that is a bonus.
There’s still a lot I have to learn; a reasonable smattering of holes I need to fill before I can feel like I’ve really got enough of the toolkit to be a whole package—but I’m learning those things, and I’m filling those holes.
Speaking of which: my Petit Allegro is improving again. The keys, for me, are always:
- …keep your legs under you (in other words, constrain your travel, no matter how much you love to travel)
- think about the *down* and the *up* will take care of itself.
So that’s it for now. Or, well … One last thing.
I hope that becoming comfortable with the mere fact of my existence as an actual professional dancer will never make me less grateful for it.
If it does, you can come to dinner with me and kick me under the table as a reminder or something.
First, something that it never occurred to me to do.
Every now and then I notice that a blogger I’m following will post something like, “1,000 Subscribers! Wow! Thanks!”
I haven’t done that, or at any rate I don’t think that I have … so, um, to all you amazing people out there who follow this blog for whatever reason? Thanks!
It turns out that are more than 2,000 of you. I find that completely baffling, but not in a bad way. I mean, I’d still be writing this blog even no one subscribed (qv: if a hipster blogs in the wilderness and no one subscribes, does it make a sound?), but I’m weirdly delighted by the idea that somewhere out in the world there are people who, for whatever reason, like the stuff I write enough to add it to their feeds.
Special thanks to the handful of you who regularly comment. I live at this odd little nexus of the Ballet Blogger Universe, the Mental Health Blogger Universe, and the Bike Blogger Universe (even though I read bike blogs much more I actually ride right now), and there are folks in all three of those worlds who, even though I know some of you only by your blog handles, feel like friends.
It’s a funny old world, but I’m glad I’m living in it now, in the age of the Innertubes. I’m grateful for this ocean of virtual strangers, this sea of compulsive writers and readers who leave open windows into their lives and who stroll around the virtual block glancing in at windows of others like themselves, pausing now and to wave or chat across the virtual flower-boxes.
Bizarrely, the rest of this is really long, so here’s a more tag:
I’m doing better, lately, mental health-wise. At least on average, anyway.
I suspect that this comes down, in part, to the protective effects of dancing so freaking much.
Like, it’s definitely physically taxing at times (though still nothing compared to last year’s M-L & Co intensive), but for me that’s a good thing. That means I generally sleep better and, in turn, my mood stays more stable.
Add to that the generally-positive effects of exercise, a sense of belonging, and a sense of being good at something (and getting better at it), and you’ve got a nice recipe for better mood.
That said, I’m still struggling a bit with my schedule.
Split shifts aren’t my ideal—but they’re my reality right now, and are very likely to remain as much well into the foreseeable future.
So I’m working on learning how to adapt.
- …Just as I’ve learned to begin sentences with the word “So,” even though it makes my inner Prescriptive Grammarian gnash his teeth and howl with rage.
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that I need one day each week on which I do not schedule anything; on which I can stay home and clean the house and gather my wits about me in preparation for the next sortie.
In the past, I assumed that eventually I would settle into a stable and predictable kind of working life; one in which most weeks would be essentially the same in terms of schedule, if not in terms of content.
That, however, is not the rule for performing artists these days where I live. Indeed, I suspect that it hasn’t been the rule for performing artists almost anywhere, ever.
Had I realized that I was, in fact, doomed to stumble into a sort of career in the performing arts, I might have twigged on to this earlier.
As a dancer, you rather live by the gig unless you’re attached to a company (even then, you still probably need a side-hustle unless you’re either attached to a major company that can afford to pay a living wage or supported by a generous spouse). That makes for an ever-shifting schedule as projects come online, develop, reach fruition, live out their performance runs, and subside.
Most of us have day jobs (even I have a day job: besides being responsible for the housework, I’m still the web lead for D’s business—he just pays me mostly in ballet tuition), so by necessity rehearsals skew towards evenings.
Classes, meanwhile, skew towards mornings—probably in no small measure due to the fact that our teachers are usually also working dancers, directors, or choreographers with own rehearsal schedules, and many of them teach youth classes in the afternoons.
The result is a split-shift reality in which the middle of day becomes “free time”—by which, of course, I really mean the time when we Do All The Things.
This is convenient when it comes to scheduling haircuts, check-up, and shopping trips.
For me, it’s less convenient where getting other things done is concerned. I don’t change gears very well, and I have serious trouble estimating how long any given job will take.
I’m getting used to it, though. These days, I find that when I get home from class in the morning, if I know I’m heading back out in a few hours, I’d rather knock out a few jobs around the house than sit down and read or write—because inevitably, if I start reading or writing, I’ll have to stop at some inconvenient point. Instead, I mostly read or write after I come home in the evening.
Obviously, my day off is an exception.
On my day off, I like to linger in bed, reading or writing, until I feel like doing other things. Then I get up and get going.
I don’t think I could manage a schedule like this at a normal job. I need more time recover mentally from working in an office or a retail environment, though maybe that wouldn’t be true if I worked in the bowels of some filing department, retrieving things and putting things away with minimal actual interaction and little changing of gears.
Basically, for me, interacting with people burns a lot of matches—unless I’m dancing. This might be because interactions in rehearsal follow simple patterns: you receive choreography, you learn it, you take your corrections, now and then you might ask a question or advance an idea.
Mostly, you don’t have to talk.
I had a winter-break job at a warehouse once that I thought of as a of live-action video game: 12 hours pper day, 3 days per week (more if I felt like it), orders rolled onto the screen of my scanning gun, and I went on merry quests throughout Warehouse World to fill them. I have a very keen spatial memory, so I was good at it, and I actually liked the work because I never had to sit down and only rarely had to interact with other people. Basically, my day was like one long scavenger hunt, only I got paid for it.
Maybe I could do something like that on this kind of schedule—but it’s hard to say. I suspect that there’s something specific to doing the thing you love most that makes you more willing and more able to jump through crazy hoops do it.
- Honestly, nobody would ever do ballet in the first place, otherwise, because ballet is basically the art of jumping through crazy hoops and making it look effortless.
Regardless, I would still need one “downtime” day; a day like today on which I can let my brain off the leash—one on which I might still need get things done, but can do them in my own time.
When I worked with horses, even the best schoolmasters and the prospects in the most stringent training got one day off every week to run around in the field just being horses. They needed that.
So do we. So, very much, do I.
Some while back I wrote about the weird point at which I realized that I’d come to identify myself as a dancer, and how it had happened sort of under the radar —by the time I realized it, it was already a fait accompli.
This weekend, it dawned on me that a similar thing has happened again. Without noticing it, I’ve come to think of myself as a working dancer; someone who will to continue to go and audition for things and work in dance for the foreseeable future. Someone for whom even going to auditions in the first place is not actually evidence of madness.
- Or, at any rate, of any madness other than that common to working dancers in general. What it that us think, “Hey, here’s a difficult and challenging thing that I love to do! How can I make it stressful in addition to being difficult and challenging?”
I mean, there was a definite thrill that came with my first successful audition—I didn’t somehow fail to notice that.
But the intervening period, I’ve evolved a sense of myself as someone who does dance in a kind of official capacity. Like, when someone asks what I do, it no longer feels weird to say, “I’m a dancer.”
Ironically, perhaps, the best tool I have for understanding it is my own Impostor Syndrome.
It’s still around, of course. I don’t think Impostor Syndrome ever entirely goes away in any field that invites the thought, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this!” Rather, one might say that it evolves into a question of degree rather than kind.
As such, I no longer feel like actually working as a dancer is some kind of impossible pipe-dream. I can’t feel like that because I am, in fact, working as a dancer.
Instead, my mind has neatly created a new division; one in which there working dancers and, I don’t know, Working Dancers, and I can call myself one but not the other without laughing.
I am okay with that division. I suspect that, going forward, it will help to keep me humble. Besides, it afflicts every working dancer I know, including BW, who in a recent conversation about cross-training said something about “all the really amazing dancers,” which T and I found terribly charming because it was so unmistakably clear that he does not number himself in that group.
T and I, of course, very much do number BW among those stars. To us, he is a treasure: to himself, he is just him, warts and all. Not that I’m assuming he has actual warts.
Such is life. As dancers, we are keenly aware of our own faults. Even Nureyev was: he fell in love first with Eric Bruhn’s precision, because precision was not his own natural strength, and only later with Bruhn himself.
There is always Impostor Syndrome.
So my Impostor Syndrome no longer makes me afraid that, any day now, I’ll get an email saying, “Oh, sorry, there was a clerical oversight. We didn’t really mean cast you. Thanks for coming to all those rehearsals, though!”
Instead, it’s more of a sense that when I tell people what I’m doing work-wise, I should qualify myself: “I mean, I’m not in a company. I’m freelancing right now, doing local shows, auditioning for stuff.” It’s the thing that makes me add the qualifier “semi-” before “professional,” still.
I still feel like I more or less fumbled my way into this work, but I imagine that I’ll keep on fumbling forward now that I’m here. There will be more auditions and more gigs; more split shifts; more grateful kvetching about the weird reality in which one must decide to eat dinner at 3:30 or at 10 and in which one has difficulty identifying one’s co-workers in their street clothes.
Maybe if I keep at it long enough, I’ll even get to be as good at it as some people seem to think I am.
Of course, by then, my goal posts will have moved again, along with the locus of my Impostor Syndrome.
For now, though, there is a part of me that still thinks, “Huh, wow,” on the occasion that I find myself thinking about where I hoped to go when I returned to dance, or when I applied to Columbia’s DMT program, or when Dr. K told me that for someone like me, “…The sky’s the limit.”
I’m still trying to talk myself into believing that last one. As a dancer, I still feel so raw and so unfinished and like there’s so much I to learn, ballet-wise at any rate.
But I’d be lying if I said that those words didn’t act as a kind of springboard. And here I am, in a place I didn’t really believe I would ever find myself until, rather suddenly, I did.
There’s something deeply satisfying about the long, golden light of an October morning at this latitude.
I live in Kentucky now, but I’m a Yankee by birth and long heritage (one of my maternal great aunts has been known to make noises about “those Mayflower upstarts;” her side of the family — Québécois, Métis, and Iroquois with deep pre-Mayflower roots in this continent — still only half-jokingly regards the English as a bunch of arrivistes). New England suffuses my blood; informs my bones — and here, now, briefly, this glorious light reminds me of home.
The memory of bones runs long and deep.
It’s good, also, to be back in the rhythm of my normal routine, heading to Monday class. It’s good to be wearing one of those ridiculous outfits in which we arrive at class on cool mornings; good to be stuffing apples in my face as quickly as possible between busses.
Curiously, even though part of me has been bathing itself in chagrin, selectively recalling all the worst parts of my audition (seriously, sometimes my brain is like an obnoxious roommate who won’t turn off the TV), another part of me feels significantly more confident as a dancer simply because I got up there yesterday and tried (okay, the one really precise and gorgeous turn that Denis caught on video doesn’t hurt, either).
I suppose in part it’s a function of suddenly having this very concrete goal — I am making a dance, and I know it will be a good one once I nail down the choreography. It will force me to home my technique to a degree that probably should seem daunting, but doesn’t.
And even if it isn’t selected for this performance, I will keep working on it, finish it, and bring it somewhere; do something with it.
Anyway, I’m almost to class, so that’s it for now.
Today, Denis went to see our lovely doc, Dr. B, for a checkup. He reported some pain he’d been having in his right foot*, so she x-rayed it.
Fortunately, no broken bones or anything appeared. Dr. B said it’s probably mild arthritis, and said it might eventually (far down the line) interfere with his dancing.
Denis said that when that day comes, he’ll probably go for cortisone injections before he’ll quit dancing, and that he intends to keep dancing for as long as he can.
In this bizarre “only dancers and athletes think like this” kind of way, that made me so proud ^-^
I think I can officially call him a dancer, now!
*Denis observes that he’s probably had issues with his left foot for a long time, but never really paid attention to them until dancing irritated the joint in question. Evidently, the same spot has long been a spot where his shoes rub, but only on the left.
Also, though I initially said it was his left foot, it turns out that left was wrong and right was right. D’oh!