Have I made it yet?

By Emmaly Wiederholt

I moved to Los Angeles this past week, and the move marks a big change in my dance life. I’ll be pursuing arts journalism as a graduate student at the University of Southern California, and while I’ll be continuing to dance as much as I can, the goal of being a dancer will not be forefront. With this in mind, I’ve been reflecting back on my time spent in the Bay Area pursuing dance. Have I made it as a dancer? What does it mean to “make it”? Over the next month I have invited a variety of dance artists in different stages of their careers to weigh in on this idea of “making it,” but at this pivotal juncture in my dance life I thought I’d weigh in first.

So have I made it?

When I first moved to the Bay Area my goal was to become a ballet dancer. I would have said I’d “made it” as a dancer upon signing a ballet company contract. I went and auditioned for about five ballet companies, of which nothing came about. While this was happening I was simultaneously being exposed to dance beyond ballet, and I found my dance life richer because of it.

Soon I was doing Butoh in the woods, floating and pulling my bones in gaga, improvising with props, incorporating speech alongside dance, and doing any workshop I could while still regularly taking ballet class. My narrow-minded pursuit of ballet had expanded to using ballet as a spring board for understanding movement. My mind was exploding around the implications of what dance is and what it could be. I had no sense of what was good or bad dance, only of possibility.

Around that same time, I got my first professional dance gig. I was paid hourly for rehearsals, culminating in a contemporary dance piece with a couple performances in San Francisco and a couple performances in Los Angeles. Upon getting this gig, I felt a thrill of having “made it” on some level. However, as rehearsals progressed I had to admit to myself I did not like the choreography or the process. In fact, I didn’t invite anyone to come watch my first shows as a “professional dancer.” I took no pride in the work.

There was a time when I said I would dance for anyone. This first professional experience taught me this was in fact not the case. I know dancers cannot always have the luxury of believing in the work they’re a part of, but I came to understand that for me it was important to believe in the integrity of the choreographic process and performances I participated in.

For almost the past four years I have had the pleasure of dancing with a small project-based company whose work I believe in profoundly. It’s pushed my conceptions of what dance is, what dance can be, and how it can challenge performers and viewers alike. I’ve relished deeply in the experience. So while I have not made it on the roster of a prestigious company, I have made it on the short roster of a small experimental dance-theater company with tight-knit, dedicated dancers and a small but very devoted following.

So back to my question: have I made it? Some might say no, and on my self-deprecating days I might agree. But have I made it to a level of my dancing where I take pride in my abilities as a performer and in the work I’ve been a part of? Most certainly. So on those terms, right now, I suppose in some ways I have “made it.”

Or even better, there is no “making it.” There’s only choices that lead to more choices. I made a choice to pursue dance a particular way, which has led me to this current place in my dance life. I know I’m not done dancing; I’m going to dance my whole life. I look forward to a continuum of not having succeeded or failed, but of having kept dancing and of having learned from where I’ve been.