I Don’t Know How to Be a Dancer

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Earlier this month, I caught up with a friend who had recently produced a dance festival in Portland. I called to congratulate her and hear how it went, and to generally catch up. As our conversation lengthened, I found myself complaining to her that I feel like I don’t know how to be a dancer.

How does one be a dancer? The insinuations behind that question feel a bit hypocritical coming from me. I often feel like I’m dance’s cheerleader or crusader, constantly reinforcing the idea through my writing and even through my casual conversations that everyone has the capacity to dance, and no person/company has a monopoly on success.

But that still doesn’t answer for me, on a personal level, what the day-to-day practice of being a dancer is supposed to look like.

I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I grew up an hour south, in Albuquerque. I love New Mexico – the expansive sky, the textural terrain, the blending of cultures. I moved back three years ago after pursuing dance in San Francisco and then earning a masters in arts journalism in Los Angeles. People often ask me why I left California, or what I’m doing in New Mexico, as if being closer to family and living in a stunning region aren’t enough justification. However, I understand the impetus for that question – New Mexico isn’t on the map of places where a dance artist or dance journalist goes to seek success.

However, I have so far succeeded in making a wonderful life for myself. I feel blessed to work full-time as a magazine editor, a position that supports me financially while allowing me flexibility and freedom to pursue my dance ideas. I have taken up flamenco and African dance since moving to Santa Fe, and regularly partake in ballet classes and a contact improvisation jam. I have had several local opportunities to perform in showcases or at art galleries, and I enjoy the communal aspect of dancing in a town under 100,000. Additionally, I run Stance on Dance, which gives me unlimited opportunities to dialogue with dance artists around the country and world, and my book, “Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond,” was recently released. Life is good!

But my angst regarding my identity as a dancer derives from two situations. The first is: a phenomenally fun and challenging year-long performance project recently came to an end. And the second is: I’ve also recently found myself in a serious relationship for the first time in my life, and it dictates different needs and desires about how I spend my time than previously. As a result of these climactic beginnings and endings, I’ve found myself in the dance studio more than once in the past few weeks wondering what comes next. When circumstances change, how do I go about recalibrating my dance practice to fit my new situation?

Each August for Stance on Dance, I ask several dance artists to reflect on “making it.” Most, if not all, of the essays are wonderfully self-reinforcing. We all seem to feel the need to say, “I’m making it happen!” We also seem to need to problematize the language of success, especially in the context of this oh-so-ephemeral art form.

What does a successful dance practice look like, especially when removed from a big city and sans a company or teaching position? I put myself here, so now I must figure out how I want to go about “being” a dancer, and answer for myself what comes next. Ironically, I feel sure I’ll always be dancing. Maybe then the question I should be asking is: Why is claiming the identity “dancer” so fraught?

I propose a reclaiming of the word “dancer.” Let each of us who dances not feel like we must validate or commodify our dance practices (like I just did a few paragraphs ago). Here’s how I know I’m a dancer: Sometimes I perform. Sometimes I take class. Sometimes I have exciting opportunities lined up. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I lay around. Sometimes I worry I’m gaining weight because I’ve been laying around. Sometimes I dance more for exercise than for expression. Sometime I feel strong and capable. Sometimes I feel like a twit who can’t learn the damn steps. Sometimes I nail it. Sometimes I get lost in movement. Sometimes I cry when I’m dancing for no reason except I am overcome with how much I love this practice. All these – and many more – make up what it is to be a dancer. I don’t know how to be a dancer when I’m trying to put myself in a preordained box that has “dancer” written on it. But when I take myself out of that box and embrace the uncertainty of being a woman who loves to dance but who has several priorities to balance and manage, well, somehow I’m a richer, more nuanced, if not better dancer for it.

Emmaly photo by Andy Primm

Emmaly Wiederholt, Image by Andy Primm

10 Responses to “I Don’t Know How to Be a Dancer”

  1. Kathleen Kingsley Baéz

    Beautifully written and moving piece!

    Kathleen Kingsley

  2. stanceondance

    I’m so glad it resonated with you, Damaris! Thanks for reading!

  3. stanceondance

    Thanks Rita! I so appreciate your kind words!

  4. stanceondance

    Thanks Misa, for reading and for sharing in the dance adventure!

  5. misa/dylan kelly

    Beautiful share, and that you ask these questions, and continue to quest – well, another texture that earmarks your life work, in part, is that of the dancer: every shifting/growing/morphing/changing – that is what dance does to us, and as we shift and morph as a consequence of our practice we are spit out into the orbit of questioning. Good work!

  6. Rita Felciano

    What a lovely, expansive look at what Dance is and what it can be.

    Best Wishes,

    Rita

  7. Cheryl Pallant

    I was just in Santa Fe for a reading. I wish I had realized you were there to have said hi in person. I’m hoping to return.

    Keep up the good work! Making it happen seems to be the mantra.

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