BY SHANNON LEYPOLDT
I felt I would never be taken seriously as a dancer until it was the only thing I did. I freelanced in San Francisco for three years. I was hungry for experience and accepted every opportunity that came my way. However, after a few years it became a lifestyle I couldn’t sustain. I realized no matter how many projects I did, I would always need to support myself through jobs in restaurants and by doing administrative work. I truly enjoyed all my jobs, but I was working seven days a week, sometimes for more than 12 hours a day. I performed often, and even toured to Russia, but it seemed the work I did outside of dance to support my career diminished my credibility. I longed to spend all of my day in the studio, focusing entirely on my craft.
Realizing the limited opportunities in San Francisco, I quit all my jobs and spent a few months in Europe pursuing fulltime employment. European dance jobs are revered for their fulltime salaries, health insurance, retirement, paid vacation, and a supportive community that actively attends dance performances. Currently, I am in my second season as a member of Wee Dance Company, the resident company of the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Theater Görlitz-Zittau. I am grateful to be working within a German theater – a system that affords me these benefits even as a foreigner.
It is the first time in almost 10 years I am not juggling multiple jobs, dance and school. I enjoy the work and am excited to go to the studio each morning. I expected to feel more relief in the security of my new fulltime job, but I couldn’t help this lurking feeling I should be doing more. For the first year, I told myself I needed time to wind down and adjust to working shorter days – this is what I fought for, right? Friends even suggested it is merely my ‘American workaholic mentality’.
I, like many of my friends who have written for Stance on Dance, believe in never wanting to ‘make it’ as a dancer – always fighting to be better, to discover new things and to keep rediscovering things I ‘know.’ I knew this work was my own to drive and maintain. I never adjusted to the routine lifestyle and the unsettling feeling continued. I invested myself in as much dance outside the company as possible, taking workshops and classes. I also contemplated online study and looked into teaching English.
It wasn’t until I was given opportunities to do projects outside my normal theater work that I realized what I was still searching for: the ability to do something new and unknown, something that terrified me. It started when I was asked to choreograph and stage musical numbers for a concert evening for three singers. I’ve never identified as a choreographer and instantly wanted to say NO. With no legitimate excuse and my directors encouraging me to take on the challenge, I put away my trepidations and agreed. I enjoyed it tremendously and it excited me because I discovered new interests and new ideas.
I now actively seek the very challenges I once resented for hindering my growth as a dancer. I’ve missed overcoming incredibly difficult barriers because they forced me to adapt and to make changes. This was a fundamental principal of my training at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance – to constantly put myself under the most difficult physical parameters, and I loved training in this way. I was excited by challenges in the studio, but I didn’t accept as willingly the practical challenges I faced in order to be a dancer in San Francisco.
Saying YES to every opportunity can be an easy way to discovery and growth, regardless of the outcome. I recently participated in a dance battle between ballet dancers, break dancers and contemporary dancers. Even though I was incredibly unsuccessful and was eliminated early, I would jump at the opportunity to do it again. I learned that battling isn’t my strength, and also that it doesn’t interest me as a way of expressing artistry through dance. Even so, I had a wonderful time performing on a stage where I had seen so many artists I admire perform, and was able to collaborate with talented dancers from different backgrounds.
Everyone faces challenges, whether it’s time, money, language barriers or bureaucratic restrictions; they all afford ways for us to be creative, to find new solutions, and to keep growing. The work we do outside the studio isn’t disconnected. Whether I’m working in restaurants or writing this article, I bring these experiences into the studio, the same way I bring the lessons I have learned through dance into my daily life. I was no less of a dancer or an artist when I was freelancing, and I will continue to be a dancer even after my performing career ends. Being comfortable is not my goal. For me, the process of discovering solutions to challenges is satisfying, not their nonexistence.
After receiving her BFA in dance performance from the University of California, Irvine, Shannon Leypoldt trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance under the direction of Summer Lee Rhatigan. In the Bay Area, she was a member of burnsWORK, FACT/SF, Sharp & Fine, and Nine Shards Dance Theater Collective. This is Shannon’s second season with Wee Dance Company in the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Theater Görlitz-Zittau.