A Little Gratitude; A Few Thoughts On Working As A Dancer

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:

Anyway, onwards.

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[1].

  1. …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[2].

  1. 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[3].

  1. 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. 

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About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2017/05/01, in balllet, dance, life, mental health, work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I don’t take follows too seriously. I’ve got about 1800 myself but rarely get more than half a dozen likes and a few dozen views per post. Strangely my purloined copy of Vivekananda’s Kali the Mother and a cynical reflection on US imperialism I titled ‘US foreign policy for dummies’ are consistently the most regularly viewed but rarely liked. Something to do with inadvertent search engine optimisation I’d guess. I reckon most of my follows are people (or bots) trying to attract me to their own blogs who don’t even read mine.

    I’d hate to think ballet is protective of mental health. If so, could you imagine what some of those neurotic dancers would be like without it?

    And don’t sweat Imposter Syndrome. We’re all fakes. <a href="https://neurodrooling.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/facade&quot;Especially when we’re being sincere.

    • Maybe that’s why I never bothered to think about thanking people for following my blog before … I can be a little cynical about things. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, at any rate.

      I’m always sort of surprised by which of my posts turn out to be most frequently viewed as well. I don’t remember which the regular winners are off the top of my head (and I’m afraid that if I open another tab, my poor laptop will roll over and die in protest), but I think one of them is my post on Desi Chana chickpeas and another is a recipe for roast chicken.

      You know, I suspect you’re quite right about us all being fakes. Though apparently D feels like he’s adulting along pretty well and more or less has a handle on things, I still feel like I’ve been given a high wire and a unicycle and told to get to work, and I’m sort of desperately and wonderingly pedaling away, forever a hair’s breadth from disaster. Also possibly I feel as if I am doing all of this whilst I am actually a bear or something and only pretending to be a human, but that’s another layer entirely?

      • You know, I suspect you’re quite right about us all being fakes. Though apparently D feels like he’s adulting along pretty well and more or less has a handle on things

        That’s a particularly ubiquitous piece of fakery.

        We’re none of us adults. Even if I live to be 100 I’ll still be a little boy inside, putting on a brave face and pretending to be all grown up. I guess you could call that adulting but not being an adult. The Buddha might have said “There are no adults, just adulting”.

        Could you imagine how fake you’d be if you tried to pass yourself off as a bear or something else other than human? Just because you’re not human doesn’t mean you’re therefore something else.

        I could say I’m bipolar and aspie and have spent much of my life faking normality, but that would be even more fake – not least because I don’t believe in psychiatric categories or because DSM-5 abolished Asperger’s in the same way DSM-III abolished homosexual paraphilia. ‘Normal’ is a social convention, not a state of humanity. It’s something you pretend to be. The harder you pretend the more sinister you become.

      • “Just because you’re not human doesn’t mean you’re therefore something else.”

        I think this is going to be my meditation for the week, actually. I was thinking about more or less this exact thing in the shower this morning.

        The rest of this makes so much sense to me right now … and I think you’re right about that bit about the Buddha, too.

        There’s something liberating in the idea that not being human doesn’t automatically mean that one must think of one’s self as something else.

        Of course, I wrote that last bit and then bogged myself down trying to figure out how to describe what I meant, which is sort of hilarious in its own way. So, yeah. I hope it conveys, anyway. But I think I do get hung up in that whole, “WHAT AM I AND WHAT AM I FOR?!” thing lately (though in a roundabout way), and the reminder that it isn’t necessary to wrestle with those questions is very, very welcome at this particular juncture.

    • Oh, also, you have a point about ballet and its protectiveness or lack thereof. I suppose there’s a significant case of diminishing returns, there, after a certain point.

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