Forget Self-Doubt: NYCB's Abi Stafford on Silencing Inner Critics
When I was 9, my ballet teacher chose me to perform a solo in our end-of-year performance. I was quite young, and was chosen over many of the advanced students. But I wasn't fazed—I was excited.
Then, I overheard some of the older girls talking: “Abi shouldn't be doing that solo." “I can't believe she's doing it." I still remember the tone of disgust in one girl's voice.
Such chatter is unfortunately part of growing up, particularly in the competitive ballet world. But I was completely crushed. Prior to this, I had no reason to doubt my abilities. But those older girls didn't think I was good enough. A seed of self-doubt was planted in my psyche.
Fast-forward to my mid-20s as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. I'd achieved my ultimate goal! But while my career flourished, so did my lack of confidence. From age 9 to 25, I'd painstakingly nourished that seed of self-doubt until it became a full-grown tree.
Stafford as Hermia in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream.Photo by Paul Kolnik.
It would seem that receiving a promotion to principal at a top company should have sent my confidence soaring through the roof, but my self-doubt made me more insecure than ever. As a principal, I decided that more was required of me. I hadn't “arrived" or “made it." I thought I had to maintain a higher standard than ever.
And I made that standard impossibly high. I left rehearsals every day promising myself and everyone around that I would be better tomorrow. I balked at my reflection in the mirror in class. I apologized profusely to my partners and the ballet masters for every mistake, stumble and bobble. I feared that my natural tendencies as a dancer were “wrong." Words such as “tentative," “boring" and “the worst" (words that I heard or read about my dancing) bounced around in my brain.
I had an image in my head of how I thought my dancing should look. But my legs were never turned-out enough. My arms never looked exactly how I pictured. I was never quite the dancer that I wanted to be. I believed that if I could only overcome these problems—if I could dance the “right" way—then people would finally like my dancing.
Abi Stafford with Zachary Catazaro in Bournonville Divertissements. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Perhaps to avoid the pain I felt as a 9-year-old, I took confidence out of the equation altogether. Better to already feel bad about myself, I decided. Then critical comments won't feel as devastating.
Then in 2015, I gave birth to a baby boy in July and planned to get back onstage for the Nutcracker season. I only danced about four months into my pregnancy and then purposefully took a break from ballet. I knew I needed some time to change my mental habits. Though I was afraid that getting back into shape after so much time off would be difficult, I made a conscious effort not to worry about it: 27 years of muscle memory is quite substantial. So I imagined my dancing taking a snooze in my body, ready to wake up refreshed and rejuvenated when I returned.
Stafford with her baby, Colin.
For six months, I took my focus off my dancing for the first time since I can remember. Rather than taking class, I watched videos of other dancers simply for pleasure, attended performances and taught young students. I let myself enjoy ballet and feel inspired by it rather than try to think of ways to make myself dance better. It was invigorating. I admittedly didn't miss dancing much. But I knew I would be ready to come back when the time came.
After I gave birth, my doctor told me to be patient with my body as I got back into shape. When I went back into the studio about two months later, I had to repeat “just be patient" to myself multiple times a day. Just as my muscle memory remained dormant yet intact during my time off, so did my mental chatter.
But now I was ready to change the themes of the dialogue. To cut off the stream of insecurity, I realized that I needed to accept my dancing (and myself) for what it is. Yes, I can always improve and change, but what I am is fine. Good even! I added, “Don't be too hard on yourself" to my new list of mantras. Before long, I actually started to agree with myself!
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Now, a year later, I'm happy to report that I've managed to keep much of my old self-criticism at bay. Granted, I still need reminding occasionally not to be hard on myself, but rather than pushing my confidence down in order to protect myself from criticism, I choose which words to take seriously. If I don't think I'm “the worst," I can let that thought go.
Perhaps my biggest epiphany is this: I've realized that being hard on myself after a rehearsal or performance does not make me dance any better the next day. Nor does it change how things went. It just makes me feel bad—and who wants to feel bad? I choose to feel good about myself because it makes me feel good.
Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
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.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
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.
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Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.