Like so many little girls, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. This desire did not fade as I approached adulthood, but grew in intensity. College was mandatory, and let’s face it, I wasn’t strong enough technically to get into a ballet company or trainee program, or mature enough to live on my own for that matter. But I did get accepted into a reputable ballet BFA program and trotted off to college eager to get good enough to join a company. The program had four levels in which students were placed. Every year ended in a formal practicum that decided students’ fate the following year; to get promoted or stay in the same level. Everything became about being good enough to get promoted.
I wrote this in my journal at the end of my sophomore year:
I’m suffocating. I never knew ballet meant this much. Everything I do is colored by whether or not I’ll get promoted. I watch the younger girls head straight for the top and I have to know, why not me? Haven’t I worked as hard? Haven’t I cared as much? Haven’t I poured every inch of my being into this? Why do I do this? I know I’m not going anywhere with it. I know I’ll be damned lucky to get into a company. I don’t have any raw talent. Why do I do it? I can’t quit. I know I’ll keep going, even if I’m back in the same level. It will hurt but somehow I’ll get through the humiliation.
This story has a good ending. I escaped endlessly worrying about being good enough. Instead, after my sophomore year I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance summer intensive because Summer Lee Rhatigan, the artistic director, told me she thought it would be a good idea. None of the faculty in my BFA program had ever made such a direct suggestion to me, and that small suggestion had the weight of compelling me to go.
So I did. And it changed my world. I wrote this the second week into the program:
Summer said something interesting the other day. She said, “If other people like our dancing then that’s nice, but the real impetus to keep dancing has to be internal and be motivated from within.” And it made me realize that there will always be people who do and don’t like my dancing. The worth of myself as a dancer cannot be determined by another person but by myself alone.
And as the program continued the insights continued too:
Summer said to us, “I dare you to go back home and continue to move like that.” And I realized that nobody was going to stop me from moving freely except myself because of my own inhibitions or what I think somebody else wants to see. So now I know if I go back to college and stop dancing the way I am now, it’s nobody on the faculty’s fault. It’s my fault.
Summer said every movement I do contains all of me in it. It’s just rearranging the furniture. I have to bring all of me to my dancing. Every experience, every emotion, every person I’ve known in my life is reflected in my dancing.
The next year when Summer came to my college to audition students for the summer intensive, I made the spontaneous decision to petition to graduate early and move to San Francisco. It was the best decision I ever made. The years I spent training under Summer were like being in an incubator. I continuously had my preconceptions about ballet, dance, myself, and what it means to pursue an art form flung open and turned inside out.
Quotes from Summer, jotted down in my journals after classes:
“The emotional and character content you bring to your work can either support you or drag you down.”
“We’re not practicing ability. We’re practicing range. We’re practicing scope.”
“Reacquaint yourself with your potential.”
“You’re more afraid of failure than of trying to succeed.”
“Everything is education if we let it be.”
In many ways these words continue to resonate with me and bear relevance.
Two weeks ago I met Summer in Long Beach. She was in town for a day to teach an audition class, which I took for fun.
I looked around the room at the young women and men auditioning. I wondered if they were in the same mindset I had been prior to meeting Summer. Were they doubtful they were good enough?
For all of us who pursue dance, I hope we can each come to know the difference between dancing with the fullness of ourselves versus executing steps in the hopes someone will decide we’re good enough. The difference is invaluable.
Photo by Rob Kunkle