Editorial Note: For the past seven years, Stance on Dance has asked a variety of dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Please join us in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist and human.
BY REBECCA MORRIS
I have a magnet on my fridge that my dad gave me that reads, “I get up, I walk, I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” It’s one of those cheesy sayings that tells you to enjoy life through all its hardships, but for me it’s always felt literal.
A week ago, I tore the labrum in my right hip. It’s the kind of injury that may end my career. I’m meeting with a surgeon to discuss my options. The best case scenario is that after months of intensive rehab I might be able to take ballet barre, maybe.
I am an addict when it comes to dance. I couldn’t give it up if I tried. I love being lost in the music and giving myself over to gravity. I love counting and anticipating. I love the perfect pirouette as much as the perfect handstand. I love collaboration and feeling the group. I love being in front of an audience and the post-show high. I love everything about dance and that’s why it’s impossible to give it up.
As I approached the end of high school, people more reasonable than me assumed I would stop dancing in favor of going to a “normal college to get a real job someday”—and I believed them. I knew that I didn’t have “the dancer body,” so I’d always assumed that I could never “make it.” As college came closer, I did what any depressed teenager does: self-sabotaged my grades to the point that getting into any of my academic dream schools was out of the question. Thankfully, that’s when a friend of mine dragged me to some dance college auditions and soon the scholarship offers started pouring in. I chose the path of least resistance—a full ride at Cornish College of the Arts.
At Cornish, I got what I had always wanted: teachers who didn’t care that my extensions weren’t up to my ears and that my thighs and butt didn’t fit the ballet mold. They elevated me for my passion, my performance quality, and my ability to learn quickly. I soon became a big fish in a small pond. I discovered modern—not the upright, Cunningham based modern I had learned with my ballet training, but release technique with its wild, animalistic freedom. I drank it in, learning how to yield my weight and be more interested in expression than line. And I began to hope—no, know—that after college I would someday join a company and tour the world.
After college, I moved back home to San Francisco but wasn’t looking to stay. I floundered a lot in my mid-20s. It could have been that this was during the aftermath of the 2008 recession or that I hadn’t discovered online resources yet, but it was not a fruitful time.
In 2012, I decided to try to “kickstart” my career by attending a five-month dance program at the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Israel. It was hard and different and intense. I loved it. This was what I was meant to do: dance all day, every day, and not have to worry about anything else. I was exercising so much that I lost my period for the whole program. I was so skinny that you could see my full six pack, and yet my thighs and butt never got any smaller.
When I returned home to San Francisco, all I wanted to do was go back. I finally armed myself with the resources I needed to “make it.” I made an audition reel, a CV, and got headshots done. I spent four and half months travelling Europe and Israel going from audition to audition, city to city. Sadly, cities that had once been known for their bustling art scenes had been throttled by austerity measures. I met artists who had quit dance as soon as the money had run dry and a thousand more trying to survive by competing for the same few jobs. Companies in Europe don’t do “cattle-call” auditions; they make you submit your CV and reel first so they can winnow down the applicants. Even so, when I arrived at the Carte Blanche audition in Norway, there were 500 people auditioning for two spots. The listing failed to mention they were only looking for men.
Needless to say, I didn’t get any callbacks.
I ran into the same problems I have at every audition; even the directors who like me tell me in inventive ways that I am too fat. I’ve been told, “see a nutritionist and try again next year,” “there’s just a lot of lifting in this piece,” and “your thighs just don’t fit the Graham aesthetic.” When so many dancers compete for the same few positions, there are bound to be enough great dancers that choreographers can pick based on body-aesthetic.
Even if a European company had wanted to hire me, there was still the question of a work visa. Any EU citizen has the advantage of being able to work in any EU country, so as a foreigner, my chances were already slim. As a Jew, I have the option to immediately become an Israeli citizen, so I thought that getting work in Israel might be a little easier. I made arrangements to travel there to take company class with a small company I really admired. They rehearse in an idyllic studio overlooking mountains and tour the world making amazing work. I had high hopes.
I could tell the director didn’t like me from the moment I came in. She was short and curvy, like me, and all her dancers were tall and lithe. Instead of class as it is usually taught, all of us stood in a circle and were asked to improvise—without any sort of direction. She walked from dancer to dancer, telling them which movements to develop. She walked right past me. When it came time to do some partnered improvisation, I ended up dancing with one of the tall, beautiful men. I found myself easily sharing weight and spilling over his back and being propelled into the air with ease. The director looked at me and said that I seemed to know how to contact improvise. “Yes,” I began. She walked away.
After the class was over, due to some major error, I wasn’t asked to leave before the rehearsal director came in to give notes. I sat with the dancers as they were yelled at by the rehearsal director for dancing poorly at their most recent show. She scolded them without any specifics. There was no “you were behind the music,” or “you and so-and-so weren’t together.” It was just “you were bad and you should be ashamed.”
After we were finally excused, I wandered out on the porch with a few visibly upset dancers. One of them turned to me and said, “Don’t believe what you’ve heard. This company isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Nobody lasts in this company long.”
I left confused and saddened. How could they work for someone so abusive? More importantly, would making it in this company, or one like it, mean giving up all my self-worth? Is making it worth putting myself into such an abusive environment? I began to reconsider my goal of joining a “big touring company.” After all, this company is by no means unique when it comes to abusing its dancers. Didn’t we all grow up on stories of Balanchine and Martha Graham?
Something happened during my time travelling. I met person after person who asked me where I was from. When I told them, they all lit up and told me how much they loved San Francisco. They had either travelled there themselves or hoped to someday. This place, which had just felt like the place I was from, was beginning to look like the place I should be.
This time, I came back to San Francisco with the sense that I had arrived. I decided I would put down roots. I enrolled in a Pilates teacher training program. I auditioned and got into a company called Blind Tiger Society. The choreographer, Bianca Cabrera, had also gone to Cornish and it felt like we were speaking the same language. I started to feel like I was home.
One day, in ballet class, I was feeling on top of my game, landing my pirouettes, getting lost in the music. Next to me was a dancer whom I have known and admired since I was ten years old. He has made his career dancing with ODC; he is well known and often graces the pages of Dance Magazine…and he was miserable.
After class, he shared with me that he was feeling stuck and had wanted more out of his career. His words echoed the feelings that I had for years. I marveled at how someone who had made it in all the conventional ways, who was at the top of his game, could feel like he had somehow missed the mark. Maybe making it really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Over the past six years, I’ve done a steady rotation of shows, splitting my time between three different companies. I’ve toured, even if each tour was only to one or two cities. I’ve done side projects, I’ve started choreographing, and I’ve made consistent money teaching Pilates. I’m well known within my own little community. I’ve lowered my expectations, again and again, from being in a big touring company, to being able to make a living through dance, to just getting paid hourly for dance from time to time. But also during that time I made new best friends, got married, and kept dancing.
A professor of mine once said that making it was just outlasting everyone else. Everyone quits dance eventually, so if you do it long enough, you’ll be making it. Period.
I know that even with this injury, I won’t be able to quit dancing. Like I said, I’m an addict. At 33, I know I’ll never make it in the ways that I thought I would when I was younger. The best I can hope for is a smooth transition from dancer to choreographer after I rehab my hip. But maybe success doesn’t have to be the same dream I had when I was younger because nobody’s path to success is a straight line. We all get up and fall back down. Meanwhile, we keep dancing.
Photo by Rob Best, courtesy of ka·nei·see collective
Rebecca Morris received her early training from Berkeley Ballet Theater and holds a BFA in dance from Cornish College of the Arts. She can usually be seen dancing for ka·nei·see|collective, Blind Tiger Society, and Garrett + Moulton Productions. Additionally, she has worked with Cali & Co., Kate Mitchell, Mary Carbonara, Risa Jaroslow, Northwest Dance Syndrome, and West Edge Opera. In addition to dancing, Rebecca teaches classical Pilates and is in the process of choreographing her first evening length work—Upon Waking, It Has No Name, which premieres at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center March 20-21 and 27-28, 2020.