Dancing Through Life

I’ve spoken before about my childhood as a competitive dancer.  I don’t think I really went into detail on my post-competition dance career though.  After leaving my studio, I moved to Lexington’s School of Classical Ballet and actively tried to gain acceptance in the School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA) as a ballet major. After getting rejected my first year, I got waitlisted in 6th grade and got a call I was in just a couple of weeks before school began.

I started at my new school eager to spend the day splitting my time between academic classes and pursuit of the arts.  As a ballet major, I took a 60-minute class every school day.  On Mon/Wed/Fri I attended Creative Writing classes after ballet.  On Tues/Thurs, I took in another hour of dance in tap classes.  At school alone, I was logging six hours of dance a week, more when we had rehearsals for Dance SCAPA (our annual recital).  

We were also required to take class outside of school.  At our level, that meant two hours of classes three times a week.  Throw in rehearsals for that studios annual recital and we were talking about 20-30 hours of dancing every week.  At the time I also still took gymnastics, taking 90 minutes or so of classes on the one day a week I wasn’t at the studio.

By the time I was ending my second year at SCAPA, I was dancing as often as many hours a week as some people spent at their jobs.  In theory, I was going to continue this pursuit at SCAPA’s high school program, where the daily classes extended to two hours a day and the outside classes and rehearsals only looked to be more time consuming.  Even though I always loved ballet, I became restless. I convinced my mom to let me switch studios to one that was less intense, but even that still necessitated two long days of dancing a week. With our classes at school, sometimes I was dancing 5 hours a day.

As 7th grade drew to a close, I made a decision to retire my pointe shoes and switch my major.  I initially planned to go into creative writing, but impulsively opted to do drama instead, having never been anything but a dancing extra in any of our school shows.  I was accepted into the drama program and gave up ballet cold turkey.  I still tapped twice a week, but I went from 32 hours of dancing a week to two.

In high school my directors knew about my dance background and often cast me in dancing parts in our musicals, but I was never in regular class.  Those four years, I never thought twice about my decision.  As I looked ahead to college though, I started to think I needed some sort of dancing in my life after all.

Knowing a bit about colorguard since our high school’s band was extremely successful, I decided to try out for the USC Marching Band as a flag girl, known as a Silk.  I made the squad (tiny secret: everyone who tried out did).  Since we were a marching guard, this was much less dance-like than I anticipated, so I started looking elsewhere for my fix.  I found the USC Repertory Dance Company.  The Silks put a piece in their annual show my freshman year and I was hooked.  I auditioned and successfully made the company my sophomore and junior years.  In addition to taking part in a number of dance routines that necessitated 3-4 hours of dance a week, I also took advantage of our dance classes for credit and enrolled in ballet again.

By senior year though, I had to start thinking about my career. I had an internship working on the movie “Stealth” and I spent a good chunk of time producing student films for my friends.  I tried to audition for the Company again, but didn’t have much time and didn’t attend the workshop to learn the audition combination (a series of dance moves set to music for those not in the know).  I couldn’t keep up and, while I made callbacks, I didn’t make the cut.  I wasn’t surprised. The company was becoming increasingly competitive and many of the girls (and guys) were on their way to professional dance careers. So I stopped dancing again. Career and school came first.

That was about ten years ago.  Since then, I’ve taken aerobic classes, longing for some means to stay in shape that occupies my mind with choreography.  I took hip hop classes (put your judgy face away, I may be white and nerdy but I have a little rhythm).  It was fine for what it was, but the moves were always a bit basic and I didn’t feel particularly challenged.

About a month ago, I decided to try out dance, hoping it would be the challenge I was looking for.  I went to the Rock Center for Dance, which offered a range of adult-level classes and took a ballet class.  While my flexibility and turnout were a fraction of my peak, the instructor was impressed with my technique and I was surprised at how quickly the terminology and the patterns of barre work came back to me. I immediately bought a pass for ten more classes.

Since then, I have been coming to classes three days a week. I am hooked and I can’t stop.  Even though I am the only one in class who can’t do the splits (working on it), I always leave feeling energized and eager to come back.

The other day, my jazz instructor stopped me on the way out and we chatted a bit.  I told him I used to dance a lot, but I’ve lost a ton of my physical abilities since then. He offered some reassuring words.

“It will come back.  You can tell you love this though. That is the important part.”

He was right, I love it.  I didn’t realize it 15 years ago, but I really loved it.  In college I loved it too, but I thought I needed to love my career more.

At USC, part of my decision to devote less time to dance came because I knew I wasn’t going to be a pro.  I didn’t have the skill or the body type for such a career, plus, while I loved it, I didn’t want it to be my livelihood.  When I think about it, I basically made the choice not to make dance my life back in seventh grade.  

As kids of the 80s and beyond, we are required to make insane commitments  to our extracurriculars.  Unlike our parents, who dabbled in everything, we are taught if you are going to do something, you need to really do it.  I quit gymnastics not because I didn’t like it, but because it became a choice of dance or gymnastics–the time commitment each necessitated meant you couldn’t do both. If I was to keep going to the gym, I needed to commit to compete and get better.  In middle school, it became clear I was going to be too tall to be an elite gymnast, making it the only time in my life I’ve ever been deemed “too tall.” Combine that with a late start, and the consensus was it wasn’t worth pursuing anymore.

When it came to ballet, I think 12 year old me realized I wasn’t the best in the class. I wasn’t going to be a prima ballerina because I was too short, too muscular, and lacked the raw talent.  So at the age of 12, I thought I had to quit.  Loving it wasn’t a good enough reason to keep doing it.

I would like to say that I made the wrong decision in my adolescence.  I would like to say these recreational classes let me pursue something I love just because I love it..  Even these though, there is a certain amount of pressure.  This week, my teacher persuaded me to try the intermediate/advanced class. I did. It was not my finest hour, but I didn’t embarrass myself.  This was a relief, because I would like to someday work my way up to that class.  Taking that class gave me a glimpse of what was next though. The entire hour we heard about building stamina to be in a show, picking up choreography quickly so you can excel at auditions.

Let’s take a moment just to picture what I would look like at a casting call for dancers in Las Vegas. 

Nonetheless, I find myself right back in the mode of wanting to get better, wanting to level up, wanting to be good enough.  It is infuriating on some level, but this is also what I wanted. Aerobics classes don’t cut it and dance, like sports, is one of those things where you truly have to focus on getting better.

Just like middle school, it is still about making it to the next level, moving up that next rung.  My recreational time is basically a version of Candy Crush.  I try to move up levels, I try to outscore my friends, and, no matter how old I get, I can’t just settle for doing something purely out of love.  


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