As an ex-dancer I often get sucked into clicking links for blog posts such as 6 Things Being A Dancer Has Taught Me About Life and 7 Valuable Life Lessons You Learn From Being A Dancer.
Side note: Take a gander at both of those articles. There is definitely some plagiarism going on.
Ballet is a big part of what made me who I am. For a long time, I felt that being a dancer was the most important part about me. I am grateful for the opportunities I had to train and perform, and I cherish the memories. Plus, if not for ballet, I might not know what plastic Nutcracker “snow” tastes like or some unexpected uses for duct tape and dental floss. I might not be familiar with the magical properties of jet glue, or appreciate what it feels like to have the fumes enter my eye. Most importantly, I might not know what is wrong with this picture:
Still, quitting dance has taught me a lot about life, too.
1. Life is full of new challenges.
Both authors of the articles I referenced above claim that pointe class is the one true way to understand the meaning of perseverance. The version in 6 Things Being A Dancer Has Taught Me About Life says:
“I’m 100% convinced that if you haven’t taken a pointe class in your life, you don’t know the real meaning of perseverance.”
First, she loses credibility when she later says, “…standing on a block of wood on your tiptoes for an hour…” I’ve taken hundreds of pointe classes, and that’s not really what happens. (Pointe shoes are not made of wood!)
Second, anyone who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro without limbs, eaten 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes or sat through the entire movie Elizabethtown knows a thing or two about perseverance. It turns out that life is full of wonderful opportunities to both learn and display stick-to-itiveness, as Stephen Colbert would call it.
When I was a dancer I was terrified that I might damage my body and ruin my career, so I avoided activities where I might
gain a pound twist my ankle or stub my toe. Since giving up ballet I have hiked to the top of the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountains, carried a 40 pound backpack across the Grand Canyon, and drank copious amounts of high calorie beer. Last June, when I hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim for the second time, I think I achieved a new record for number of blisters my feet have ever had at one time. For me ballet was undeniably a test of my ability to persistence through pain, fatigue, injury and self-doubt, but now that I don’t dance I can fearlessly find new ways to test my gangsta. Plus, I haven’t taken a pointe class in 5 years, but I still think doing 100 push ups would be harder.
That’s me in the picture above. Are you impressed by the lack of turn-out? I can’t get into fifth position anymore, but I can walk like a regular person now.
2. It’s ok to quit.
When I was 17-years-old I decided to turn down a scholarship to the University of Minnesota in order to attend a more-expensive private school so that I could major in dance with an emphasis in ballet. I also decided to try a pixie haircut, indicating that I wasn’t always making the best decisions at this point in my life.
I was very interested in studying science too, but I felt that I just couldn’t quit dancing. I wanted to prove myself. I decided to major in dance, but I convinced
my parents myself that it would be OK because I would also take the four science classes that are the minimum requirement for pursuing medical school. I had the naïve expectation that it would be possible to fit one of these science course into my schedule each year. When I arrived on campus and met with the director to sign up for classes, she told me that none of the science courses fit into my strict dance schedule (freshman year or any year) and that there was no way they could accommodate me. She said, “If you are going to be a dance major you need to be 100% committed” and implied that wanting to take biology and chemistry suggested I wasn’t committed to dancing. I was very committed to dancing; I just like the idea of having a Plan B in case my leg fell off (I’ve dreamed that before. And yes, I realize now that medical school as a back up plan is unrealistic). I reassured the director and myself that I was committed only to dancing, and I signed up for only my dance classes. Then I went into the bathroom and cried. I cried too much my freshman year in my college years to the point where everyone knew me to be emotionally unstable. The truth is I was often overwhelmed with the fear that I was going to fail. I wondered if I should change majors to pursue a more financially stable career, but each time I thought this, I convinced myself that dance was something I couldn’t quit. I had to prove myself. True passion means ignoring cognitive dissonance just to prove you are not a quitter, right?
The Great Recession began in December 2007, and I graduated with a dance degree and chronic
butt hip pain five months later. I drained my savings account traveling around the country to audition for unpaid positions in ballet companies. I was so excited to accept a position with Tulsa Ballet’s second company. That year in Tulsa was eye-opening. I had amazing opportunities to perform with the main company, but I was in constant pain. By Christmas 2008 I almost couldn’t touch my toes with my knee bent, and I was paying for medical scans, physical therapy and treatments (like an injection into my hip joint performed using x-rays) with my credit card. I worked at a hotel when I wasn’t dancing, but I was completely broke. I am still thankful for the generosity of fellow dancers and their parents for gifting me money so I could buy food. I lived on Top Ramen, Hamburger Helper and McChicken sandwiches. This was my apartment:
I no longer feared that I would fail at a dance career because it was already happening. I started to realize that eating, my health and paying my utility bills were things that I couldn’t quit, but that dance wasn’t in that category anymore. The doctors didn’t know what to do about my injuries and started suggesting I quit dance or have surgery to repair my labral tears and cut my piriformis muscle. Soon I enjoyed working at the hotel more than dancing. I quit caring about proving myself or worrying about not having a back up plan. I just wanted stability. I quit dancing and got another job. Then I heard that some jobs give you paid vacation and health insurance, so I quit my two jobs and got a better job. Unfortunately I read the entire Twilight series before I became proficient in knowing when to quit, but I get better at this skill every day. I quit crying. I quit worrying and being afraid. Heck, I even
quit finished paying off my student loans.
3. Life is pain…anyone who says differently is selling something.
I actually learned that from The Princess Bride.
After quitting dance, however, I did learn about dealing with chronic pain. I decided not to get surgery, but five years of not doing ballet has helped a lot. The sciatica flares up often, especially when I exercise, sit or get sick. I also get a lot of discomfort in my right quad, but for the most part I find that ignoring it works surprisingly well. I’ve had enough medical tests done to know that Madonna was wrong and that pain is not always a warning that something’s wrong. Sometime pain and discomfort is just that, pain and discomfort.
4. Many people are not obsessively dedicated to their jobs and that is OK.
Serious dancers work really hard every day. This is not a trait that is exclusive to dancers, but I have witnessed this quality in most professional level dancers. They don’t call in sick unless they are withering away from
ebola an apocalyptic hybrid of mononucleosis and hepatitis. If they snap their ACL or break their ankle they still go to the studio and practice port de bras with a big cast on their leg. Where is that dancer who stepped on a stick and impaled both her flip flop and foot? She is at the studio, of course. Furthermore, dancers will be obsessively dedicated to this level with no monetary compensation. Those who do get paid must continuously prove that they are equally obsessed and reliable; because they know that there is a whole horde of other dancers working for no pay hoping to eat their brain replace them.
Dedication like that doesn’t just go away when you throw away the pointe shoes. I have accumulated more than six weeks of combined sick leave and annual leave, yet I still felt too guilty to call in sick when I had pinkeye. This level of dedication is not expected or even rewarded at my current employment. I won’t get fired if I take a vacation. I won’t get a raise or a promotion because I come to work with the flu; people just get annoyed that I am exposing them to disgusting germs. Just like I am learning it is ok to quit, I also am learning that it is ok to take
15 a day off.
5. A black leotard and pink tights isn’t the formula for discipline, but I don’t know what is.
First, let me explain that I understand that ballet teachers don’t want their students showing up to class looking like this
I concede that tight-fitting clothing is necessary. With that stated, I am prepared to call bullsh*t on the ballet class student dress code. Let’s start with pink tights. If pink tights help the teacher see the line of the dancer’s leg, why do male dancers wear black tights?
Nobody wants to see men’s legs. It seems to me that pink tights have some kind of subtly racist undertone and dancers have been wearing them for so long that nobody questions it. Besides, why wear tights at all? Can you really see legs better when they are wrapped in pink than when they are bare?
I’ve also heard the argument that dancers should wear tights because they put pressure on veins and tendons and supports the legs. I don’t know what brand of compression stockings these people are wearing but it isn’t the Capezios that I used to buy.
bare legs, no tights.
with tights. hot dogs or legs?
Alright fine, classical ballets require pink tights on stage, so it is good to wear tights while practicing. But why the black leotard? Since different schools demand different leotard colors I assume nobody thinks that the color black is particularly magical. A dress code is just supposed to instill discipline and improve performance, right? But there is no evidence that uniforms do that. I don’t only bring up this topic to complain about 20 years of being told I had to wear pink tights and a black leotard, but also because I wish being discipline was as simple as putting on the right outfit.
After quitting dance I have tried to stay healthy and active, but I find it difficult to stay motivated. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as putting on a black leotard or a pair of pink tights (black and white stripes don’t work either). I wear my workout clothes to lounge in rather than to go for a jog. When I danced the idea of “being a dancer” and performing on stage motivated me to work hard. Now I struggle to find a reason to get off my couch.
Being motivated and self-disciplined requires setting goals and self-coaching. I find that repeating the mantra, “I don’t want osteoporosis” helps me the most.
What do my fiancé and I wear when we practice yoga in the living room?
Nothing. None of your business.
6. Dancers are not better than non-dancers.
This last lesson is one of humility. When I was a dancer I felt like I was larger than life. I felt like I was really something special and much of my self-confidence was wrapped into that identity. Not only do you spend all day looking at yourself in a mirror, but you hear things like…
“Dancers are the athletes of God.” -Albert Einstein
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul…” -Martha Graham
…and you start to get a bit arrogant. When I quit dancing I felt like I was losing the coolest part about myself, but surprisingly people still liked me. Most importantly, I still liked me.
Maybe the hidden language of the soul is knitting? Or Klingon?
And I leave you with this picture of me trying to still be a dancer (and pulling a hammy) at the bottom of the Grand Canyon: