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"Dance Isn't For Everyone"
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
Dance institutions are actively engaged in relationships with physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons for the purpose of seeing dancers through the physical repercussions of their training. But when it comes to mental health, criticism about the lack of resources is often met with statements like, "We don't have the time or money for that."
Currently, those being weeded out are the dancers who struggle with the same psychological insecurities and temporary mental challenges that any other teenager might feel, but under the extraordinary stress that dance training demands. We ask our young dancers to face tremendous mental obstacles—competition among peers, the rigors of training and meeting physical expectations, leaving home at young a young age, among many others. But somehow it is asking too much that mental wellness be part of their training.
It is true that there are more dance students than there are professional positions in dance, by a staggering margin. But in nearly a decade of dance writing, I have yet to interview a director who has said, "Whoa, there is too much talent, stop sending all these amazing dancers to me." The art will not suffer from a larger pool of capable dancers.
So what becomes of the dancers who don't "make it"? I argue that they are the most important patrons of dance that the art could hope for.
Former dancers are often vigorous supporters of the work: They deeply appreciate the art form and seek to see it advance and perpetuate. They are the people who buy season tickets, donate to the company and pay tuition for their own children to study ballet.
A 2010 WolfBrown study commissioned by Dance/USA found that more than 50 percent of dance audience members are current or former dancers. The study states that "A quarter of all dance buyers take dance lessons or classes at least occasionally, and another 33 percent used to, earlier in their lives." Dancers and former dancers are the investors that keep our art form going.
But I have a young daughter, and I live in fear of the day that she asks to take ballet because I would never want her to battle the lack of mental support that I faced as a pre-professional student. What hope can we have for the longevity of dance in our culture if we turn a blind eye to the very people who would help it to survive?
It took me years to go to the ballet after I quit dancing. It was too traumatic for me. To borrow the words of the great Maya Angelou, "At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel." And I felt wretched about dance.
Dance institutions are destroying their own audience by ignoring the needs of their dancers. We need to invest in the mental wellness of dancers, not because it is the right thing to do (although it is), but because it will perpetuate the wellness of the art of dance.
"Dance isn't for everyone." I hope that for all our sake, that isn't true. Because we need everyone, every time the lights hit the stage, to want to be a part of it.
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit: