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By Linda Hamilton
Onstage I feel passionate about ballet; the problem is I hardly ever feel that way in class. I’ll say to myself, “I don’t want to do this. Why am I here?” Then there will be a day when I find myself saying, “I love this. I can’t leave!” What’s wrong with me?
A Little Freaked Out
Dancers tend to fall into two groups: classroom dancers and performers. The ones who thrive in class get immense pleasure from working on their technique, where the goal is to learn something new in search of an elusive ideal. The others feel most alive connecting to an audience. Neither is mutually exclusive; you need both qualities to reach your full potential onstage. You need to figure out if you want to be a professional dancer. It takes intense dedication to train at the advanced level, and teenagers often find themselves ambivalent when other interests vie for their attention. My advice is to find an inspiring dance teacher. Then, give yourself some time before coming to a decision.
Yesterday, my director told me that my body looks “too womanly.” It doesn’t take a mind reader to know that he really means I’m too fat. I feel horrible and ashamed. But I am determined to lose the weight before it hurts my career. Do you have any suggestions?
Take it slow! You can only lose about half a pound of fat a week and stay healthy. Go on a crash diet and you will also lose muscle, which slows down your metabolic rate while setting you up to binge. You can nip this reaction in the bud with a few precautions, according to New York dietician Laura Pumillo, who works with dancers. Log on to FitWatch (www.fitwatch.com/qkcalc/bmr.html) to calculate your basal metabolic rate, the amount necessary to maintain vital functions like heart rate and respiration. You must never go below that, and Pumillo adds at least 300 more calories for active dancers. You must also include aerobic exercise several times a week to lower your natural set-point for weight, along with Pilates or another form of weight training to increase lean muscle. Last but not least, get a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night to help keep your metabolism up and your appetite down.
How can I be more confident like my best friend? Last year, we were both insecure about our dancing. The difference now is that she is so pulled together. It’s not that her technique is better than mine, because we have both gotten stronger. It’s more about her attitude and the way she looks so happy dancing. She could mess up a combination and she still smiles when our teacher gives her a correction. I’m as talented but she gets all the attention.
There could be many reasons why your friend is more self-assured. She might be using positive self-reinforcement to deal with the doubt with which dancers often undermine themselves. She may counter negative feelings with facts, logic, and reason. Imagery, using all five senses, is another mental tool that can increase your confidence by making the classroom a safe place, whether you imagine it to be a childhood playground or your private studio. Then there’s smiling. While it may not seem like a big deal, doing it can actually rid you of excess tension, helping you to relax. Researchers have found that the act of smiling alters the blood flow in your brain, releasing feel-good chemicals. Not surprisingly, it’s difficult to hold on to negative feelings when your body is expressing positive ones. You can learn other mental skills by working with a psychologist who specializes in treating performing artists. The American Psychological Association can give you a referral near you (202.336.5700). Before long, you may be looking (and feeling) as confident as your friend.
Is it true that a dance career is over by your 30s? My dream is to dance in Broadway musicals, but my parents think I should be a lawyer. They say there’s no financial security in dance and I have to plan for my future. Do you agree?
I’m all for planning ahead. However, there’s no need to forfeit a shot on Broadway, as long as you are prepared. This means having a good survival job to pay for classes, head shots, food, and rent. Gigs in shows are often hard to find, so it helps to have some additional training under your belt. Possibilities include furthering your education or acquiring other skills like web design. Dancing is a wonderful career but life doesn’t stop when you retire. Fortunately, an increasing number of professional dancers are making successful transitions into medicine, law, journalism, physical therapy, and photography. Check out Career Transition for Dancers’ website, where you will find a variety of free services, from support groups to vocational testing and resume writing (www.careertransition.org). Who says we can’t have it all?