Are You Still a "Dancer" After You Retire?
Every dancer knows deep in their heart that dance is only a temporary profession, yet we devote our lives to it anyway. We feel called to it.
I never felt like I had a choice; I could not imagine doing anything else with my life. I started training at 3, and became immediately obsessed, grand jeté-ing down grocery store aisles forevermore. I described myself as a dancer before even thinking of myself as female, bisexual, American, feminist or teacher.
The phrase "I am a dancer," is such a source of masochistic pride that I am not sure it reads to people outside the performing arts community, but it is often the only way we can see ourselves.
Growing up, I did all the dancer things. I went to intensives every summer, I paged through Dance Magazine longingly, waited anxiously for new packages from Discount Dance Supply, counted down the minutes to performances. My sweet 16 was even at Chicago the Musical because I was, and am, a Fosse fanatic. In college, along with dance, I double majored in psychology but was usually I was watching videos of Sylvie Guillem on YouTube in the back row.
I was never a confident dancer. For whatever reason, I was always distracted by a fear of inadequacy, a hesitation that definitely read in my performances. Dance was a profound source of joy but caused me just as much pain; it led me to years of boomeranging between anorexia and bulimia, and crippling self-doubt.
"Dance was a profound source of joy but caused me just as much pain."
I could never fully believe anyone who told me I was talented, or that I had a great run-through, or that I had beautiful lines. I was convinced that everyone was participating in a polite conspiracy to avoid hurting my feelings, that no one dared tell me to give it up. I believed that I got into intensives and internships and colleges by luck or SAT scores over my artistic abilities and hard work.
After college, I spent a few months gigging in New York City doing the downtown dance thing: tiny black box theaters and site-specific work with obscure choreography that your non-dance friends do not "get," performances done for exposure instead of compensation. I was perfectly content to work three jobs to ensure that I could dance forever.
When I booked a cruise line contract, I was thrilled to finally feel like a "professional dancer." Halfway through rehearsals, I stress-fractured my left foot in three places and was immobile for eight months.
Just like that, I could not bear weight, let alone dance. I can say without the faintest hint of hyperbole that it was devastating. No words exist to fully explain the pain of feeling trapped in a body that could not dance. Dance was my outlet for the good, the bad, and the ugly, and at 22, I had never fully cultivated any other form of expression.
When I was finally released from physical therapy and rehabbed with Pilates, I was fully intent on returning to dance, not just because I wanted to, but also because I didn't believe I had anything else to offer.
I started my Pilates certification with every intention of it just being my day job. I had never enjoyed Pilates until my injury; it felt like the cross-training you have to do before you can get to the phrase-work in class. But I was really, really, bad at waitressing, so I had to figure out some way to support myself financially. Dance fed my soul, but didn't help me buy actual food to feed my physical self.
"While teaching Pilates I felt smart, strong, expert, necessary, loved—things I was unable to receive from dance."
Immediately after finishing my equipment certification in Pilates, I got an opportunity to dance in Israel and lunged at it. I thought this was my big break—and in hindsight, it was the best dancing I've ever done. I pushed my physical boundaries and I could tell that I was making progress artistically.
At the same time, I would leave the studio each day depressed. I was lonely and isolated in a foreign country, and while the other dancers were lovely, they didn't make me any less sad. I started to realize that dance wasn't enough to make me happy anymore, because I was doing the best dancing of my career and it wasn't enough. After giving it a few months of crying myself to sleep, I came home.
I no longer felt as resilient when I got cut at an audition. Apart from project-based work with friends, I stopped actively pursuing auditions or taking dance classes with any semblance of regularity. I started teaching Pilates. I was awful at first. But with each class and client, I improved. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became with teaching. It was clear to me that I was on an upward trajectory, whereas a lifetime of dance had made me believe that I'd never be good enough. While teaching I felt smart, strong, expert, necessary, loved—things I was unable to receive from dance, my own traumas blocked me from receiving any of those things from it.
As I taught Pilates more and danced less, I felt a new part of my identity growing. I had honestly never had outside interests before—dance was the only thing that had ever existed. At the time, I felt guilty not spending my time dancing. I felt like a quitter.
I remembered judgements I had made of the talented girls who slowly distanced themselves from dance in favor of more reliable professions, thinking them mentally weak, not determined enough, even lazy. I would get annoyed if someone who gave up described themselves a dancer. The title of dancer demanded the drive to constantly earn it. I did not feel I was permitted to claim that honor anymore.
While I was devoting my time to teaching, talented dancers I trained with went on to Broadway, Radio City, Complexions, Sleep No More, "So You Think You Can Dance"—and I felt like a failure, even though I loved what I was doing. When clients inquired, "You are a dancer, right?" I'd freeze for a moment, not knowing what to say. What am I now? When you spend 24 years of your life answering that question affirmatively, it's unsettling to be unsure if you're "allowed" to call yourself a dancer.
When I first moved to New York, I was in class every day, spending all of my (little) money on expensive Broadway Dance Center and Peridance classes and struggling to pay rent. Then when I finally started making a livable income, I couldn't be bothered to make the trip to Midtown for class.
"When clients inquired, 'You are a dancer, right?' I'd freeze for a moment, not knowing what to say."
Then, out of nowhere, I got an opportunity to dance for Tracie Stanfield, a choreographer I'd long dreamed of working with. The external validation that I'd never been able to trust finally came. But with it came more confusion. I had come to terms with the idea that I wasn't good enough and that I never would be, and I'd let that close the chapter on dancing professionally.
If this opportunity had come five years earlier, I would have been ecstatic. Truthfully, tears did come to my eyes when I opened the email inviting me to perform in her summer concert, but it wasn't the excitement I always assumed booking "the job" would feel like—it was an "Oh, thank God, my art and I are actually of value to someone."
Our first rehearsal together was a blur. I did not have time to reflect about how I felt because there was so much information. But as the days passed I found myself staring at the clock, thinking about my Pilates classes, my schedule, and inevitably comparing myself to the other company members who had much sharper technique as a result of consistency in their training.
For the first time, though, I didn't feel inadequate next to beautiful movers; I was very aware that their prowess came from the work they were doing that I simply was not. Eventually, after several conversations about how to get the movement out of me and trying to get me up to speed with the other performers, Tracie let me go from the project. She told me she had every confidence I had "it" in me, but that I was not working on my craft. She told me to stay in touch and get in her class regularly, but I found myself not wanting to put in that work.
Somehow, I believed her when she told me I had potential. I realized that my mediocrity in this piece was not lack of talent, but lack of will. I was resisting because I had new callings: teaching fitness, rehabbing other people's injuries, building other people up. I did cry—but not tears of devastation. My tears were of relief, a very heavy weight was lifted.
The grief I'd felt for the past few years as I wrestled with the constant voice in my head asking, "Can I dance? Do I even want to dance?" lessened, and I found some closure.
Getting cut from the show was ultimately a gift. Dance has been with me since age 3, and at 27, while I'll never say never, I finally have the courage to admit that dance is not my priority anymore. I do not want that life anymore. It's not of interest to me to detract from my teaching work to devote time to training for it. It still feels strange to write those words.
So, am I dancer? I think the answer is yes. I will always have this bittersweet relationship with dance, since it had been the driving force of my entire life. I do not have conscious memories of life before I danced. From a neuroscience perspective, the stimulus for virtually all of my associative learning was dance. All the brain development I've experienced was based on a dancer's experience of the world. My neurons, after 24 years of dancing, have been wired so that a dancer's perspective and habits are automatic and deeply rooted.
A few years of teaching Pilates is not, and I doubt will ever be, enough to disconnect that patterning. I don't think I could release that identity, even if I wanted to be someone else.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.