Rethinking “I’m A Dancer”


For as long as I’ve danced (since I was five), I’ve wrestled with a feeling of invalidity when I tell people I’m a dancer. Now that I work fulltime as a writer, I feel even more so like I defend myself against being seen as a devoted hobbyist. I know this is an utterly stupid feeling, and wholly self-enforced. But there’s some sort of unspoken cultural validity that comes from working within the constructs of a well-known institution, and when you don’t have that institution, there’s a lot of explaining that necessarily comes with the simple statement, “I’m a dancer.”

After piecing together the manuscript for the Dancing Over 50 book, I’ve come to question whether that institutional construct is ever an accurate barometer of validity. Although many of the dancers I interviewed had danced in highly regarded companies, a good number hadn’t and, furthermore, even those who had danced in fulltime companies eventually found themselves at a place in their lives when they weren’t interested in auditioning for a conventional dance job, but indeed weren’t done dancing.

I think being a dancer has nothing to do with any badge of employment given by a major institution, but with the quiet work of cultivating a personal practice over the long run. It’s that act of still going through the motions when there is nothing obvious to be gained by it that reinforces one’s devotion to the art form. Granted, economic stability attained in the field of dance is a very rare gift, and certainly something to be proud of. But even in those cases, it never lasts forever, and it seems to me a very narrow definition of “dancer” to equate the title with a contract, especially considering the breadth and depth of dance in the course of human history.

So for the month of January, I’m including on Stance on Dance the voices of artists who are supporting their own dance craft from start to finish. They are their own generators. They produce and perform in their own work, and find ways to subsidize their art through a mixture of ingenuity and frugality.

For my part, I know this feeling of needing to validate my worth as a dancer is (a) stupid, and (b) undermines the validity of other dance artists whom I completely respect and admire but who happen to work outside the parameters of major institutions. So I’m going to get over it.

I’m a dancer. Often, I dance for myself. Other times, I might dance for a choreographer, but only if I respect the work. I pursue what interests me, and don’t pursue what doesn’t interest me. I have ample training and performance experiences from which to draw upon in making those decisions for myself. These days, I spend more money on my dance practice than I make from it. I’m totally fine with that for now. I don’t know what the future holds. It might bring institutional support, or it might not. It doesn’t alter my devotion to the art form. I dance because I can’t not and, since it’s a fairly relegated art form in mainstream media, and a particularly ephemeral art form on top of that, any success or failure I perceive is a little blip in the greater human history of people dancing. I’m honored to be a part of that blip.

For all of us who claim the title of “dancer,” may the motivation to keep the flame lit only waver as we deem necessary, but never because someone higher up gave us validity or, for that matter, took it away.


5 Responses to “Rethinking “I’m A Dancer””

  1. stanceondance

    Hi Janet, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and reading! If you feel like getting in touch further, email me at I’m always happy to talk and share. Thanks again! -Emmaly

  2. Janet Lemon Williams

    This question is like a plague for most of us indie types who never have fit the mould. At times I have been happy not to fit, but if I am honest my deepest wish was that I did – physically and mentally so that I could be that incredible dancer I always want to be.

    Love your Dancing Over 50 Project and would like to speak more to you about it. Am 51 and feeling that there are more years behind me than in front and still – am I a dancer?

    Am starting PhD in dance at 51 and still feeling like I want to dance, need to dance, and must prove I am a dancer. That need to prove is not the reason I dance, but there are times it has helped me kick myself in the butt — or to curse myself for not being actively dancing.

    As if not liking the reflection in the mirror weren’t enough!

    Dance needs humour – appreciate your Onion very much and am researching both comedy in dance and aging dancers – they cross paths in some ways don’t you think?

    Janet in Guelph, Ontario, Canada
    A Canuck, but a Californian by birth and a one-time San Franciscan who misses the smell of eucalyptus in the morning!

  3. Monica

    I look forward to reading the voices you’ll feature, as this is a conversation I have had and overheard with dancers in many disciplines. I greatly appreciate your thought process on the subject!

  4. Jamie Benson

    Boy, as a self-generating artist, I completely recognize this situation. Looking forward to helping others (and myself) own this idea of being a dancer, regardless of institution. Thanks for getting in deep on the issue Stance on Dance.

  5. Katie

    When I saw the the title of this post in my email, I had to stop what I was doing and read. I constantly struggle with my identity as a dancer, especially since I haven’t been dancing (in any formal training setting at least) since I could walk. I feel like I’m behind and even more of just a hobbyist because I started later in life. But then I too have to tell myself I’m being stupid when I see other people decades older than me who are also just getting into dance! It’s never too late!
    I’ll be sharing this on :)

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