Why I Dance

August 26, 2008

She packs a wallop of energy, long legs, and the ability to do edgy as well as classical ballet. Amy Brandt dances with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Washington, DC, and also has a freelance career with NYC choreographers Davis Robertson and Deborah Lohse. Here she writes not only about why she dances, but also about getting through the kind of insecurities that are typical of many dancers.


There are times I ask this question cynically to myself. Usually there’s an ice bag involved, or a looming financial disaster. But when I look at my life and the core of who I am, I can’t help but smile and think, “Of course.”


Most of my siblings were teenagers when I was born, so I didn’t have anyone to play with at home. I learned to entertain myself. I’d lock myself in my room for hours playing make believe, creating alternate worlds full of fairy tales and imaginary friends. At school I was quiet, shy, and nervous, but alone in my room I could be anything I wanted. When I saw ballet dancers for the first time on television, they epitomized the ultimate fairy tale. They could transform into something beyond human. This is what I wanted to become.


Initially, ballet class was a means to an end—the stage. But now, I love the feeling when mind and body click, when muscles fire with complete coordination. I love the partnership with music, feeling one with its nuances and rhythms. I love how dance touches emotional depths in ways words cannot. And I love the ridiculous attention to detail, from perfecting fingertips to focusing the eyes or even relaxing the nostrils. What else takes such conscious effort to look effortless?


My childhood dreams became a reality at the Milwaukee Ballet, where I absorbed a large repertory ranging from Petipa to Alonzo King. It was here that I developed stage presence, musicality, and characterization. But in class, when I was “just me,” I started having trouble. Though I had a nice facility, I felt self-conscious about my technique and lacked a competitive edge. I started obsessing over my imperfections, and I relied on others for reassurance.


I lost my contract when a new director stepped in—perhaps he sensed my insecurity. Although I was heartbroken, a part of me was relieved. Something wasn’t working anymore. Relocating to my hometown north of Chicago, I read books, dabbled in photography, reconnected with family, and started teaching. I slowly began taking open classes and discovered I was now dancing for me. There was no cast list, no company politics, no director to impress. It didn’t matter if I fell out of a pirouette. I realized that I’d let everyone else believe in me but had neglected to believe in myself.


I joined the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, a part-time touring company. The seasons are short yet intense. The work environment is the most focused I’ve ever experienced, and I find it exhilarating. Suzanne’s expectations for us are very high, yet she loves us for our imperfections and individuality. I feel very free. In rehearsal, she talks about inhabiting other worlds—“the world of Serenade” or “the world of Chaconne.” It’s something I completely understand.


I decided to make the most of the part-time schedule and moved to New York to freelance between seasons. I will not lie to you—this was a tough goal to accomplish without going bankrupt. Gigs fell through, paychecks bounced, and miserable part-time jobs poked at my sanity. But my persistence paid off when I met Deborah Lohse, director of Ad Hoc Ballet. We’d get together in the studio, exploring new movements and themes. Her ideas tapped levels of creativity I never knew I had. Our experimental performances in small venues are a nice contrast to my seasons with Suzanne.


While some question my decision to freelance, I find it helps keep things in perspective. Being in control of my schedule gives me time to explore other things, like writing and teaching. But it’s always been the special moments of transformation—whether it’s into the magical Sugar Plum Fairy, a sweeping corps girl in Balanchine’s Ballade, or an abstract channel of energy—that keep me going. I live for these moments. This is why I dance.


Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy Ad Hoc Ballet.