Dancer Voices

Are You Still a "Dancer" After You Retire?

It's unsettling to feel unsure if you're allowed to call yourself a dancer. Photo by Taylor Ann Wright/Unsplash

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 Conversation
Health & Body

When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.

Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.

He shared six of his top tips for getting into top shape.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Glenn Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims (here in Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain) are couple goals both onstage and off. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Rennie Harris leads a rehearsal of Lazarus. Photo by Kyle Froman

When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.

"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been struggling with a staph infection after an FHL repair for tendonitis. It took several months to treat the infection, and it's left me with pain and stiffness. Will this ever go away?

—JR, Hoboken, NJ

Keep reading... Show less
Dance on Broadway
Last summer's off-Broadway run of Be More Chill. Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Keith Sherman & Associates

When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Courtesy Siberian Swan

As ballet's gender roles grow increasingly blurred, more men than ever are reaching new heights: the tips of their toes.

It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).

The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Via Facebook

Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."

The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Unsplash

You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.

What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Rachel Papo

Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.

Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.

Keep reading... Show less
News
A.I.M in Andrea Miller's state. Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy Google Arts & Culture

Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Samantha Sturm shared an outtake from a photo shoot. Photo by Ronnie Nelson via Sturm

If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.

Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)

Keep reading... Show less
We Tried It
Brendan McCarthy, Courtesy Brrrn

Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.

But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.

First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Kelly Russo/Unsplash

Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.

However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Photos via Polunin's Instagram

If you follow Sergei Polunin on Instagram, you've probably noticed that lately something has been...off.

Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Bob Fosse rehearses a group of dancers for Sweet Charity's psychedelic "Rhythm of Life" sequence. Photo by Universal Pictures, Courtesy DM Archives

In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
Pat Boguslawski

If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.

Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox