If there is one thing I strive for right now in my life, it’s to try to make a difference in the lives of the young girls I call my students. It’s a personal goal and a debt I feel I owe to society. Having once been in the very same shoes my students dance in now, it’s almost as if it is my own responsibility to make sure these easily impressionable females are given something I never was.
Through dance I learned the key to expression, but dually learned to master the art of masking. A double edge sword, no doubt, but something I think many dancers can agree with me on. To be a dancer that tears everyone’s attention away from everything in the room is a gift. For some, it’s a natural born talent. For others, it’s something they have to learn, but often times can not. No matter the gifts you do or don’t have, it takes everyone the same amount of steps to reach that emotional nirvana that some dancers will describe as a form of drug.
It took me a long time to be able to understand what it meant to “let go” while dancing. Sure, I could act happy. I could act mad. You give me a word and I could act it. But there always seemed to be that fine line I could never cross with my teachers. Endlessly I was told, “You’re not feeling this, Danielle. FEEL IT! Let go.”
Let go? Let go of what? The tight grasp I have within my balled up fists because I can’t master this technique? Let go of the anger I have that I was not blessed with a body that could accommodate the perfection of a ballerina? Let go of the fact that I have horrible feet, a back that won’t bend, or hips that make it difficult for the daily splits? WHAT?! What is this that they want me to let go of? You want me to dance till I cry? You want me to dance till I’m more exhausted from mentally exerting myself than physically?
The answer was always, “yes”. To all of the above. My problem was I only ever had one instructor who was good enough at helping me realize this and getting me through the disconnect between my brain and my body. Because of him, I became a new dancer entirely and stepped into a realm I never imagined myself going. He helped me discover that you don’t have to be the best at lifting your leg 180 degrees over your head and you definitely don’t have to be the best at pointing your freackin’ foot. (Pronounced, “FREE-ahhc-keein”. He was Russian, born and raised in Communistic times, but also very sensitive and up-to-date on the modern times. He fled Russia at the perfect time, he always told me.) I loved this man.
It was around this time when I started to grasp this “let go” concept and started struggling with the “can do” strategy. Sadly, my burly, sometimes scary, but always pushing me harder and harder anti-red tape dance master moved on with his life. I was then left behind in the glitter and glam of a competitive dance world where everyone, I felt, was better than me.
I danced my heart out. I danced when I was carefree and I danced when I was wallowing in self-pity and depression. I used those energies and channeled them into my steps and movements. But my once in a lifetime teacher, straight out of the Moscow ballet himself, forgot something with me in his focus to get me to “let go”. He forgot I was a 13 year old girl who also needed to be told what I was doing right even when I was clearly doing wrong. He forgot to tell me, “You CAN do this” when I loudly proclaimed I couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, he was a phenomenal instructor. He achieved his goal in teaching me to let the emotion flow through my art. My muscle memory and technique did improve drastically with him and it improved at a rate no other teacher had been successful with. But that was in less than a year’s time. When he barked, “JUMP!” I didn’t ask, “How high?”. I just sprang upward for everything I had. I knew it was a disgrace to him to come to the barre or the dance floor without being able and ready to give it 110%. He expected dedication. Dedication is what he got.
The problem that I faced shortly after he left was more than personal. No other teacher I had from there on out EVER pushed like he did. Instead, I was ignored. If I was lucky, I would get a compliment here or there. Which wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing, if I wasn’t surrounded by dancers who were truly amazing and got praise for just breathing.
After working so hard with Dmitri and then being thrown into a completely different atmosphere, dance left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The only memory or motivation I had from his memory was to push, push, push and of course always “let go” at the same time. I could get out there and dance my heart out, but the product I was delivering didn’t even measure up to everyone around me. My old world of working hard and being vulnerable turned into this world where if you didn’t look good at what you did, it didn’t matter how hard you danced your damn heart. Get off the stage and give the limelight to someone who is worth it.
I started being told I would never be a ballerina. It is truth I have come to terms with over the past several years because I just don’t have the bone structure for it. My ligaments and joints won’t have it and my poor training of 9 years prior to Dmitri destroyed any chance I may have had.
It was not so much being told (although believe me, it shattered my world) it was the HOW I was told. I was cast off. Pushed aside and altogether made felt repulsive. Just because I came to class and worked didn’t mean anything to anybody. So, I sulked and became bitter and the years went on. On good days, I had the gumption to go searching for new instructors and better training programs. But unfortunately, I was at the mercy of someone else transporting me everywhere. If it wasn’t the issue of being too far, it was too expensive and it wasn’t my checkbook that the money was flowing from.
And then one day I was given the chance of a lifetime. And what did I do? I chickened out. Threw my hands up in the air and said, “Woah, Nelly!” before ever really giving it a second thought.
I regret that decision to this day.
Finally, after years of being bitter about the whole thing, an accumulation of a hundred moments all fell into place and I was handed the final puzzle piece of dance to this jigsaw I call my life.
I realized I COULD do it. I realized that can’t didn’t get me anywhere, but to a very hard moment of waking up to what I’d been missing and letting the flood gates follow. Through the years while I was busy looking for recognition and assurance from my teachers and peers that I was an okay dancer, I was still working to be a better dancer. I still showed up to class, regardless of how many times I thought of quitting that day. I still got excited over recitals, plays, and competitions and gave it everything even when I ran off stage to hide and cry because I thought I had done just awful.
The fact of the matter is, I did slowly improve. Over time I did get better. But it makes me sick to think of all the time and energy I spent in harboring that I wasn’t recognized, that I didn’t feel good enough, that I wasn’t the best. Had I LET GO all of those emotions too and held on as tightly as I could to the CAN DO, I can’t even imagine where I might be today. If I had just done it for myself like I do now, I never would have needed that stamp of approval I thought was so important.
I’m trying to make up for lost time, but now I’m already 4 years in to what is precious time to a dancer’s career and those are 4 years I can’t get back. I accept this. I’m slightly wiser than I was when I was in my teens (but not by much, don’t give me that much credit).
So why this post? Because now, more than ever, I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young dancers. I can take what I did and didn’t get in a teacher and make sure these girls understand the balance of self-respect, self-dignity, and working hard. I will tell them and be brutally honest with them when they are in need of a correction, but I also make sure to highlight what they do well. I try to tell them, “Be you. Don’t worry about the other girls.” I desperately try to make them see that in the end, it’s the amount of self worth and pride they take in themselves that is so much more important than any trophies they bring home. At the end of the day, when you go home and you feel drained of everything because you came to class and you worked the hardest you could, that is a far better reward than any silver, gold, or platinum medal hanging on your wall. My pledge to them, “I will make sure you know that I recognize your efforts, but I will also be tough on you. I will treat you all as beautiful individuals who are all unique with separate talents. I will not ignore you, but I will push you.”
I can’t expect any one of them to turn out like me, nor would I want them to. They are on their own journeys and I just feel lucky to be a part of them. But I will not stand by without trying to guarantee they walk away with confidence in themselves to not only apply to dance, but to their every day lives.
Looking back, maybe Dmitri knew he never needed to tell me anything. Maybe, he knew, that I already knew…