Making it Work

Editorial Note: Last August, I asked eight dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Their responses were so poignant that I decided to make every August “making it” month and continue posing the question to various dance artists. Please join us this month in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist and human. -Emmaly Wiederholt


For a while my idea of “making it” as a dancer was landing a full time position in a well-known dance company, complete with long-term financial security. Right out of college, I used this dream of “making it” as ammunition to wait tables and live from paycheck to paycheck with enthusiasm. The notion that at any moment my talents would attract a dance opportunity—that could validate everything I needed validated—kept me afloat. I naively assumed that if you put in the work, you got what you wanted.

I’ve yet to experience a “big break.” I’m still waiting tables. I’m still figuring out how I want to be a dance artist. I’ve had moments when I’ve felt like a success—periods of time where I’ve been lucky enough to get to work with choreographers and dancers that I admire on projects that I felt excited about. For that, I’m extremely grateful. Other times though—moments while waiting tables and wondering if my attempts to “make it” as a dancer have been utterly hopeless—I’ve felt like a failure. In feeling like a failure I’ve been pushed to examine the constructs of what it means to fail and succeed in America today.

What I’ve discovered is that a lot of lust for success and desire to be the best stems from a capitalist set of values that first convinces us that we can achieve anything and then sells us the thing we’re told we need to rise to the top. Everywhere we look (media, law, fashion, advertising) there is this cultural myth that success is one’s birthright and that you need to be/look/think better to rise to the occasion. A consumer-based culture wants us successful enough to have money to spend but insecure enough to buy into the idea that you can always improve yourself to appear more successful. While I think a certain level of ambition and drive is necessary for personal and collective development, I think it’s important to recognize that some of our ideas around success might not be our own.

When you live by someone else’s standard of success you also have to live by their standard of defeat. I don’t want to think of myself in terms of such an extreme spectrum of success vs. failure anymore. I don’t think life operates so simply. The good mixes with the bad. Things unfold and reveal themselves. Laziness accompanies motivation. Breakdowns and breakthroughs often coincide. Sometimes a linear path turns circular and you end up where you started with less than you budgeted.

I realize now that cultivating the life I want and becoming clear about what I need is a process that involves reframing what “making it” means to me. A full time dance company that I feel artistically aligned with which can also offer me a consistent paycheck may not exist at the moment. If my personal model for success no longer exists then there is no point in groping towards it as if it did. Maybe, wherever we are at any given moment is exactly where we’re supposed to be. Maybe not. Regardless, I am where I am, so I want to be receptive enough to understand that place. These days I’m less interested in an illusionary ideal of “making it” and more interested in trying to see the contemporary dance climate for what it is. I’m trying to be inside what it means to be a dancer—trying to be in it, so to speak, so that I can learn from it and respond to it.

Right now, I have more questions than answers. Is it irrational to pursue a career that’s so unstable? Is it hedonistic? Is it specific to my time and place? At what point does an arts career melt into a glorified hobby? My path hasn’t been a reflection of clarity or a linear ascension up the ladder. I’ve gone from being paid to work with an ideal dance company one month to being unsure of any future projects soon after. It’s unclear to me where pursuing a career as a dance artist really fits.  Hell, it might not fit at all but it still remains. Amidst the impermanence and unreliability, dancers are still dancing. That to me is intensely interesting and profoundly beautiful.

I’ve had glimpses—on stage performing, in rehearsal, in conversation, as an audience member—of what it means to truly arrive somewhere, of what it means to make it somewhere on one’s own terms. In those moments “making it” in the traditional sense of financial security and external validation becomes irrelevant. I don’t want to blindly follow someone else’s notion of success; I want to, against all odds, continually make it work for me. I want to be able to make something out of nothing.


Katie Gaydos is a dancer and writer based in San Francisco. Since graduating from UC Berkeley she has danced with Yannis Adoniou’s KUNST-STOFF Dance Company and most recently with Robert Moses’ Kin Dance Company.