Each summer for the past five years, I have asked a group of young dancers where they are with dance. I leave the question open-ended in order for them to answer however it resonates personally. My goal is to create a yearly check-in to chart how these young women grow and mature through dance.
Below are Felicitas’ shifting perspectives over the past five years. I eagerly await what direction her path will lead in the future, and what role dance will play. –Emmaly Wiederholt
2017: age 19
I walked into the dance studio of my college on the first day of classes, nervous about what would happen next. I had not danced in six months — would I twist my ankle during the first combination? Would I even be able to balance on one leg anymore? Self-doubt rushed into my mind as I tediously did some stretches before class. I didn’t know what to expect of my body or how it would react to the experience of dancing again. A few minutes later, I was warmly welcomed by my modern dance teacher, Katie Faulkner. She shook my hand in such a way that I instinctively knew she would be very important in my growth as a dancer and a person. Her encouragement was the one thing that kept me coming back to class week after week — she was the first person to believe in me in a long time.
I don’t think I ever felt as liberated as I did after those classes. I always walked out with euphoria and lots of questions on my mind. What does this mean? Should I start dancing seriously again? Do I just keep it as a side hobby? Should I venture out to other studios? Maybe I can do a minor if I work things out with my major (International Studies)? It seemed like a small thing, walking out of dance class high off movement, but it sparked a feeling deep inside me — one that I missed dearly and wanted back more than anything.
However, I silenced that feeling for the first half of the year, only focusing on my major, which I thought would be secure, commendable and expected of me. I could not grasp the idea of going to a private university (and spending thousands of dollars I don’t have) to study anything else but International Studies. I was there on scholarship and felt that I needed to earn a degree that guaranteed money, respect and a job. So, of course, dance took the back seat until I reached a point that broke me into pieces and forced me to reconsider everything.
My second semester was awful. I spent months in emotional and mental darkness, becoming less and less recognizable to myself, losing interest in everything that once mattered to me. I was convinced I had depression and anxiety and nothing could cure it. I hated my classes; I felt so pressured to continue faking my interest in them. I skipped dance classes. I couldn’t sleep at night. I avoided people. The only person I reached out to was the one who believed in me. I sat down with Katie and told her everything. I told her how I was feeling, why I was not coming to class anymore. I told her about my major and how unsatisfied it left me. I told her about my dreams, fears and doubts about dance. What she said to me next was the most comforting and enlightening thing I had ever heard, and drove me to this conclusion:
Pursuing an education in dance offers experiences, lessons and challenges that no other major can offer. In fact, the skills and tools you get from studying dance give you the freedom to take on various jobs, depending on your interests. It cultivates creativity, feeds curiosity, and creates a mind-body connection that makes you a wholesome, life-long learner. Yes, there is risk and maybe not much money, but exploring everything about one’s passion is an invaluable thing — it makes every day, every assignment, and every class worth it. There is something so special about the arts that other academic careers cannot provide (for me at least): that feeling of liberation, euphoria and endless curiosity.
As my first year of college came to an end, I finally knew what I had to do. I switched my major to the Performing Arts and Social Justice with a concentration in Dance, dropped International Studies like a hot potato, and created a plan for the next two years that is fully committed to dance. I felt like a new person. The heavy pressures and expectations lifted off my shoulders with ease. I stopped feeling depressed. I could finally sleep at night. I smiled and laughed and came to peace with certain self-truths that I was denying for so long. I could finally breathe.
I look forward to seeing where this new path takes me, and I hope to discover more and more about life and myself through dance. It seems like I have only scratched the surface in my pursuit of dance, and the next few years will be defining in new ways as I explore dance more deeply. For now, I will be heading down to Argentina in the fall where I will learn how to tango and spend time exploring the world with my new outlook on life and learning.
2016: age 18
It is hard for me to put into words where dancing fits into my life now, but it is simpler to say that I have taken a break from dance. This choice was again for the sake of my health, but this time, for my mental health.
I traveled to Germany last summer for the Dresden Ballet Intensive at the Palucca University. I was so ecstatic about traveling and dancing, since it has been my dream since childhood to do both at the same time and experience such an exhilarating dynamic. And the excitement showed, in my face, in my movements, in my breath; I was sincerely happy! I took classes from some of the most talented European dancers around, and even got the chance to take a Forsythe-inspired class from one of his dancers, Ana Presta. It was another world there. The nagging schoolwork thoughts dissolved into my sweat, the anxiety I had been hoarding left through my breath, and the pressures of my own expectations danced right out of my head.
Fast forward to January 2016, I spent every day in an emotional wreck. Nonstop tears and heaving sighs were poisoning my mind to believe that I have no means to dance and I should just give it up. Who was I trying to take on the world of dance, a place filled with endless talent that I cannot compare to? Am I just dancing because that is what I’ve been doing for the past 13 years and have nothing else to pursue? Do I really love dance, or just like it? Like any bad relationship, I decided we needed to take a break.
Of course, giving up dance is a temporary solution. I need time to think. I need to figure out what I was meant to do on Earth and if dancing fits into that vision. I had always believed it did, because of habit. But dancing should not be merely a habit; it deserves passion, curiosity, focus, creativity, emotion, and so much more. I felt so undeserving to dance, so inadequate of what it demands, that I simply could not bear to do it any longer until I pulled my life together. I am not able to offer dance these things right now, and I will wait until I can. Then, I will return to the beautiful art form that it is, and give it everything I’ve got.
I will be moving to San Francisco in the fall, where I will hopefully start dancing again. Until then, I will be taking care of my mind and body, and resolving this messy breakup with dance.
2015: age 17
My story did not end where I thought it would. I thought I would return to dancing with optimal health and a renewed spirit in the fall, but, it took me much longer to get to that place. Throughout the school year, I did not belong to any studio in particular but rather studio hopped to take the best classes I could find. Really, I just took open classes all year long. There are benefits to this: meeting new dancers regularly, choosing when to take class, and taking from new teachers. For a while this routine satisfied my dancing needs and I found it exhilarating to meet so many new people in the dance world. However, it was only a matter of time before I grew stagnant in progression and felt stuck in a rut. I was not improving the way I wanted to and I felt constantly overstressed during class from working so hard. Teachers noted that my upper body was very stiff and I needed to relax more. But, I just pushed on, working my muscles to extremes that were unhealthy and, ultimately, unproductive.
The other downfall to being a wandering dancer was that all the pressure to challenge myself was in my hands. Open class doesn’t offer the personal attention I needed to improve. So, sometimes I managed to motivate myself in class, while other times I felt terrible about my technique and couldn’t look in the mirror any longer. I was mentally and physically beating myself up with the stubborn hope that that would be the solution. If only I knew what I was getting into.
My physical health started draining. Surprisingly, I had not yet fainted or injured myself, but it took getting to such a crucial state for me to realize I will not be dancing much longer with the way I treat myself. I had become so self-critical nothing seemed to be good enough anymore (even if it was!). I was my biggest critic, worst enemy and toughest teacher.
But everything turned around very quickly. I did whatever it took to regain my health so I could dance again, and that happened easily with lots of cake and sweets. Lots of it. As good as it was for me to gain weight again, I hated the person I was becoming. Looking in the mirror brought me to tears because I felt like I was losing everything I had worked so hard for. I thought I was losing my integrity, my strength and my beauty. More so, I was scared beyond belief what it would be like to dance in this new, unfamiliar body. So I tried it out.
At first it was very uncomfortable. I couldn’t move as freely as before, I felt heavier, and I furrowed my brow at everything I did. I was still the same harsh critic, just in a bigger body.
I decided to try something new for once: I looked in the mirror and admired what I could. I touched the muscle in my legs, felt my arms, twisted and turned to see all angles of my being. I complimented myself and smiled at what I saw. Yes, I felt pretty foolish, but these moments of self-love are what changed me. Dancing started becoming more enjoyable because I only focused on loving it. I became more comfortable with how I move and realized how powerful and strong my body really was. Most of all, I was finally thankful for my bods abilities in dance because those are specific and special to me, no one else. I am beautiful when I dance, and I know it.
No, I cannot do 32 fouette turns or hold my leg up by my head, but I can move in ways that others can’t! I realized it’s not about being able to do it all or doing it perfectly; is about doing what you can do BEST. Dancing is a personal art; you do it however it fits you naturally.
Now, I dance with ease. I practice loving myself daily and admiring all the great things I can do. And in my eyes, this is the greatest improvement I have made all year long.
2014: age 16
I had a surge of motivation in the winter time and was craving more out of dance. I started working harder during class, doing strengthening every day, routinely jogging for cardio endurance and becoming very fit in the process. This lasted until the end of June, and my body was becoming a strong lean machine, or so I thought. I actually started to over-train too much and did not allow my body to rest, resulting in a major fallback for my dancing. It got so bad to the point that I was restricted by my doctor to stop dancing for a while until my body regained its normal state of being. To me, not dancing for several months sounded like torture. But I realized that if I wanted to keep dancing, I must take a break and rejuvenate. So I did. I spent my days stretching and holding myself back from going to the studio. It was a lot harder than I expected!
Eventually my body started to heal naturally, the rips and tears in my muscles were mended, my energy level rose, and my body was able to move again. Once I was allowed to take a dance class, I went in fearing that I had lost all that I had worked for. But to my surprise, I did not lose anything. I gained instead. I realized that I had been abusing the art of dance by treating it as only a physical sport. I had lost my connection to artistry and passion by becoming blinded by my fitness goals in dance. Taking that first class brought me tears of joy because I finally had understood the blessing I have been given: the ability to dance. Not many people have this blessing, and it makes me appreciate the art all the more. Now, every time I step into the studio, a sense of gratitude flows through me and I enjoy myself when dancing. This has brought me to a stronger sense of my artistry and passion for dance.
2013: age 15
This past summer at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance has really made me interested in the diversity of dance and I’m eager to learn more and more. I’m currently very invested in dance and my growth in it, and hopefully will continue that through a professional career. I would say I am totally in love with dance, and it continues to be something I want to do!
The only thing that scares me is college and dance and how that all works out.