The Dancer Identity: Do You Ever Stop Being a Dancer?

November 25, 2020

What does it take to be considered a “Dancer”? Is it a paying job in performance? A certain level of technical proficiency? Who gets to call themselves a Dancer—with a capital “D”—and once you earn that title, can it ever get taken away?

I stopped dancing seriously 10 years ago after 18 years of training and performing. I think about whether I can still consider myself a dancer on an almost daily basis.

So much of my life revolved around dance until the age of 21 that just being me was synonymous with being a dancer. I stopped training after graduating from college with a degree in dance, but I stayed in the industry by working in arts administration and have had an on-again, off-again relationship with drop-in classes around New York City ever since.

Is this enough for me to keep my Dancer title? If not, when did I lose it? When I stopped buying Danskin tights and started buying Athleta leggings? When I could no longer do a split or clean fouettés?

When I think about my identity, it is hard to explain who I am without drawing on my dance background. I still know what to do when I walk into a studio. I can make my way through ballet barre and execute a full Graham floor warm-up from memory. I am confident on the dance floor of a wedding or being in the front row of a new fitness class. In professional meetings and social settings I am often called upon to share the insights of a dancer, but I’m not always sure what that means or if I’m equipped to answer the call (see: “Can you give me and my fiancé wedding dance lessons?”!). I often qualify these insights with “Well, I used to be a dancer.”

Fresh out of college I got a job interview for a position at Marymount Manhattan College, and the dean of admissions asked me why he should hire a dance major. I firmly believe that the laundry list of reasons I answered this question with are why I have my career today: Dancers have excellent time management skills, are both creative and pragmatic, collaborate well, can adapt to a variety of settings and personalities, can juggle multiple projects at a time and bring a level of commitment that is profoundly unique.

Over the last 10 years, my relationship with dance has ebbed and flowed. After college, I told myself I needed a break and convinced myself I wasn’t good enough to be a real Dancer, so it wouldn’t matter if I stopped for a while. This only led to feeling more inadequate, and I soon discovered that the only thing worse than feeling like you’re not good enough in class is going back to the studio and feeling like you’ve gotten worse.

Within the first year of my 9-to-5 job at Marymount I pretty much stopped going to dance classes. Then, two years later, when I got a job at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—my dream company—I was given the gift of free classes. I could take anything I wanted! Whenever I wanted! This would be it: my chance to get serious again.

But instead of Horton, ballet or contemporary, I took Zumba, West African…and more Zumba. I loved the West African classes, as I always had in high school and college, but without strong foundations anymore, I felt weak and at times unable to keep up. I slowly stopped going and almost exclusively took Zumba or Pilates.

Once I chose to move on from Ailey after four years there, I decided to soak up as many classes as I could to make the most of this perk—I went to two whole Horton classes! A jazz class! A ballet class! Suffice it to say, these four classes did not kick-start my return to regularly taking class. I left Ailey and barely danced for the next three years.

Then, through my current job at The Juilliard School, I was able to take a Graham-based class in the summer of 2019 with Juilliard alumna Laura Careless at our youth summer program in Geneva, Switzerland. I felt alive.

It was an untraditional setting in a gym with no mirrors and classmates who were less than half my age, and at last, I felt free to dance without judgment from myself or others. This freedom allowed me to realize that the technique and passion were still in me—still in my bones and muscles, in my heart and mind. I am a dancer.

I made a commitment to get back into dance and even consulted with Laura on where to take class in New York City so that I wouldn’t fall into my old Zumba habits.

One month later, I sprained my left knee and ankle in a bicycle accident. After two months of stubbornness and five months of physical therapy, I was finally strong enough and cleared to dance. This was on March 9, 2020. That same day, I took an invigorating Graham class with Caterina Rago at Peridance, and even though my eyes were stuck in the mirror too often, I had that same feeling I had in Geneva. I was free. I was strong. I was dancing.

The country shut down one week later and suddenly I was just one of thousands of dancers taking too much time away from the studio.

But I believe we are still dancers, and I know we will dance again. No matter how much time we spend away from serious training, that technique, artistry, discipline and passion built us into Dancers.

Perhaps we never lose our dancer identity, and once this physical and emotional art-form has nested within your bones, it is in you forever. Dance is physically etched into our identity. We know our bodies better than the average person knows theirs. We share a common language. We have a deep ability to focus. We hear the rhythm of a song before we hear the words. We crave moving on a daily basis. We check our alignment in every mirror. We know the perils and rewards of hard work.

The characteristics that so often define a dancer may be developed through technical training, but they stay with us long after that training stops.