BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATIONS BY VIDA VILJOEN
“Cowgirls exist as an image. A fairly common image. The idea of cowgirls prevails in our culture. Therefore, it seems to me, the fact of cowgirls should prevail. Otherwise, we’re being ripped off. When I was a kid and I was told that this role I’d been allowed to love so much was impossible to attain, wow, did I get mad! And I’ve been mad ever since. So I decided to try to do something about it – to satisfy my own inner needs and to show society it couldn’t get away with making me love something that didn’t exist.”
– From Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get The Blues
If you replace the word “cowgirl” with the word “dancer” in the quote above, I think you’d have a fairly honest assessment of the role of dance in Western culture. For most people, dance exists as a romanticized idea – a stark contrast to the nitty gritty of actually pursuing it. You’d also have a fairly honest assessment of my reaction as a young woman when I fully understood that the thing I had poured so much of myself into wasn’t going to yield what I’d been working toward and dreaming of. Yes, I did get mad. I still am mad. My anger is the engine that runs Stance on Dance, an attempt to satisfy my own inner needs and to show society it can’t get away with making so many dancers love something that so rarely exists as a viable economic and cultural asset.
Want to try a social experiment? Drop the line: “I’m a dancer.” Say those words, and people will suddenly start to see you with rose colored glasses. I’m not quite sure what springs to mind: the sugar plum fairy? Rockettes? A scantily clad young woman on So You Think You Can Dance? The reality of pursuing dance is so far astray from the envisioned ideal, it’s practically farcical.
I seem to have some version of this conversation at least once a month:
Oh, a dancer! Who did you dance for?
Well, I still do dance actually. I’m classically trained in ballet…
Oh, a ballet dancer!
Well, no, not really. I’m interested in contemporary forms…
Oh, like modern dance?
No, I wouldn’t say I’m a modern dancer…I’ve done a lot of dance-theater and have studied different improvisational forms and…
[blank look] Oh that’s nice. Betty, Emmaly here was a dancer!
[Muttering under my breath] IS a dancer…
My whole goal with Stance on Dance is to fight this limited rhetoric, both from the inside out and from the outside in. Dancers have to stop catering their under-funded and under-appreciated art form to a public that is conditioned to romanticize it but not understand it, and the public needs to take dance off its pedestal and realize that anyone who dances in any form is, indeed, a dancer.
That’s why, among other things, I host the “making it” series every August. I ask dance artists at different stages of their paths if they believe they’ve “made it” as a dancer, if it’s possible to “make it” as a dancer, if such a notion exists.
At the studio where I take ballet class every week, I recently overheard a woman remark to another woman that one girl in particular was very good, and was going to make it as a dancer. Did the woman mean to suggest the girl will join a ballet company on contract for a few years? Is that “making it,” the paragon of success? I stewed mutely in my head.
There are so many ways to be a dancer, so many ways to contribute to the field, so many manifestations of dance, so many opportunities to touch people’s lives through movement, so many possibilities to innovate the art form, so many avenues for personal satisfaction and validation…and most of them don’t fit the idealized notion of a “dancer.”
Let’s take back dance, one conversation at a time. Let’s reverse this dialogue that success is dancing for a major company, getting a lead role, or being on television. Let’s re-envision the ideal and the reality. Dance is creativity expressed through physical movement, at any level and in any form. It’s that simple, and yet so essential to understand. We “make it” happen each time we let our bodies have something to say.