Editorial Note: For the past eight 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 JESSIE NOWAK
Making a living by dancing with a company: This is the narrow definition that “making it” as a dancer meant for most of my life. Which company mattered far less than the badge of approval from those in and out of the dance community that I was a “real dancer,” a “professional dancer.” The alternative to “making it” was a struggling or starving artist.
That one specific description followed me around for far too long, crippling me into inactivity instead of inspiring me to pursue new heights of success. That definition – really, a stereotype – was reinforced by the movies I watched and publications I read, as well as conversations with friends. Even as my first instructors didn’t see a future for me in dance because I didn’t have the right body type, they encouraged me to stay with the dream. As a dance major at university, the students never discussed what we might do with our dance degrees. It was assumed that we would start auditioning after graduating and, if we didn’t make it, we would teach. This was an ironic reinforcement of the cliché that even my professors outwardly rejected, “Those who can’t do, teach.”
Rather than move to a big city to start auditioning after college, I got engaged to my longtime boyfriend, which seemed like game over for my dance career. The stereotype didn’t include a husband and family. The stereotype was that of a solitary life, company members existing as family, and the day a dancer decided to settle down was the day she stopped dancing. So I started personal training and stopped going to class. I choreographed a couple of solos and small group pieces, but without the income to continue formal training, I felt incapacitated to find a new niche. The fact that I hadn’t “made it” paralyzed me. And soon I stopped dancing altogether.
Fast forward four years and two babies later. I dealt with postpartum depression for a long time without understanding it. It wasn’t until after my second son was born that I felt I had to make a change, or I would complete the atrophy that had begun when I stopped dancing. It wasn’t so much the possibility of my dreams as a matter of survival that brought me back to class. That first teacher – so accepting of literally everyone in his class – was the catalyst for my slow steady return to the dance world. There was no hierarchy of technique or body type in his class. He constantly encouraged us to continue coming if we weren’t getting it. If it’s new, it’s just new; it doesn’t mean we can’t do it. I will be forever grateful to that teacher for his encouragement and inclusive way of teaching dance.
As I grappled with the stereotype and began reconsidering the possibility of a career in dance, I came to consider how the dance industry is not built on a few elite dancers. Rather, it is built on dancers and teachers and also administrators, choreographers, fundraisers, donors, theater managers, lighting technicians, costume designers and countless others who make what we do possible. And that is only within my own narrow field of modern dance. Once I started to look at the expanse of styles and cultures of dance, the list of people who can and are involved continued to grow.
I began to realize how ridiculous my understanding of “making it” was. And instead of allowing it to paralyze me for another 30 years, I pointed in a direction and went.
I now work in funds development for Dance Wire PDX, an organization that aims to enhance the prosperity and visibility of dance in Portland, OR. It is everything I never knew I wanted to do. I also teach classes for mixed ability and experienced students using the DanceAbility method. Dance Wire and Danceability have made what I do possible and have been instrumental in allowing me to question my own narrative. The world of dance has exploded for me. I now specialize in movement improvisation that literally anyone can do via DanceAbility, but am also daily exposed to forms of dance I never could have imagined through Dance Wire. My experience of dance is richer than ever.
The problem is baked into the very idea of “making it.” We don’t make it or not, but rather craft our place within the dance world. Dance is full of artists who didn’t find their niche, but instead made their own. It is a testament to the abundance of creativity among dance artists. Those are the artists who I wish to stand among, those who choose not to be measured by someone else’s judgment of being “good enough,” but see what is missing in the field and choose to fill the void. I count myself fortunate to be among these incredible artists. My future will not be determined by someone else’s judgement of my talent or body or training or drive. It will be determined by the choices I make every day to move forward.
Photo by Chris Nowak
Jessie Nowak holds a degree in dance from Western Oregon University, where she traveled to perform at American College Dance Festival, Dance Coalition of Oregon Benefit Concert, and Dance Mosaic, as well as was presented in numerous concerts on campus. Upon graduation, Jessie sought out choreographic opportunities, continuing to present at Dance Mosaic from 2011-14, and danced a season with Lyrik Contemporary Dance Company. After Jessie had her children, she lost dance for several years. Her journey back has formed her new approach to dance, an approach that seeks to spark interest in everyone and is welcoming of anyone. From 2018-19, Jessie completed an Executive Certificate in Nonprofit Funds Development through University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. She currently works in funds development for Dance Wire PDX. She completed her Teacher Certificate through DanceAbility International in 2019. She is passionate about everyone finding their inner dancer.