Shaping, Making, and Personal Cultivation


Editorial Note: Each August for the past six years, I’ve asked 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.

The term “making it” somehow indicates a serene plateau where work comes freely. All is stable and swell. In reality, to make something you have to get a little dirty, get your work clothes on, and be ready to face a challenge. It’s an action that requires your full attention to see it through. The true beauty of “making it” is that it is exactly that. It is a gritty act of now. As a human being rich with experience, a brain and a heart, you have everything you need to get down, get moving and work. Not only for the sake of the art form, but because it’s incredibly fun. And hey, maybe your experience is valuable to share because someone else is going through the same human stuff and dance allows for that sort of recognition and empathic experience…

But I have to pause my ramblings and acknowledge something. I’ve had to examine my own path, who I’ve been as a dancer, and who I’m continuing to become. These thoughts and memories are all wrapped up in a physical place that has profoundly shaped what “making it” means to me. This place has been my training ground, my office, playground and second home for the past eight years, the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance.

I think it’s important to tell you how I got there. I wasn’t fresh out of ballet school or a pre-professional program. I decided to “go for it” in my early 20s after having spent a few years away from dance. It was a bit late to decide to make dance my life. That’s what everyone told me anyway. At my age, I should’ve already landed that company job or contract that would give me the status and recognition as a professional. Because why else would I want to dance if not for those things? But here’s the honest truth: I never really wanted that stuff. That stuff is great. I’m very fortunate and grateful to have had some of that in my dancing life. But back then, all I knew was that I was simply a better person when I danced and lost my way when I didn’t. My personal path would be deviant from the prescribed one and totally particular to me, a patchwork collection of dance experiences and who knows what else. I think I was lucky to be set up to expect no fruitful returns from my pursuits.

I remember this intense desire to train and the panic in not knowing where to look or where to go. I was considered too old by most programs to start training again. Then a good friend told me about SFCD. I checked out their website and holy wow – I just barely made the cutoff for the age requirement! So I applied and flew up for their last San Francisco audition. I never really expected to get in, but found out the very next day that I was accepted. At the time, getting in was enough to feel like I’d “made it.” A door opened and I had a place to explore, refine, examine and converse in dance through dance every day. I was ecstatic, eager to work, and I had absolutely no clue what that actually meant.

The Conservatory, Artistic Director Summer Lee Rhatigan, the artists who passed through, and the faculty each taught me the value of work. The range of what it means to work. I had to learn to stoke my own fire and they all gave me tools and opportunities to keep feeding that flame. Just being there was not enough though. At a point, I had to take responsibility for how I showed up and why I even continued to do so. I once had the misgiving that I’d figured that formula out. But there’s no one formula for keeping yourself turned on. My reason to move and my inquiries were not necessarily the constant I thought they were. What must be constant is the commitment to the evaluation and rediscovering of what those are. Like rearranging a house, there’s a configuration of the internal components that makes sense for a time until it doesn’t. So you scramble things up until you find that arrangement that feels right. And good news! Other people are grappling with this too, every person who has a passion and a desire to pursue it. And that’s totally normal and great.

The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from my time at SFCD is that no matter where you are or what sort of dance life you’re living, you always have the choice of how you engage with it. Inevitably there will be highs and lows. That’s not to say that it’s ever going to be perfect. But why I even bring any of this up, is that I believe that “making it” really means creating for yourself the richness in every dance opportunity you have. Whether its dancing with friends in black hole projects that have no real beginning or end, or landing a cushy company job, it’s all what you make of it. Literally. “Making it” will always shape up to the personal cultivation of your own work in whatever environment you happen to be. What a relief and WOW so much to do. Always.

So to me, the landing place of “making it” doesn’t really exist. It’s a myth. There will be moments, landmarks along your personally carved path that you can recognize as significant. And the endless wilds ahead of you are still waiting to be uncovered.

SFCD closed its doors at the end of this summer. I’m immensely grateful for Summer Lee Rhatigan, who saw some glimmer of something in me way back when and has since given myriad opportunities for me to let that thing out. Her trust, mentorship and friendship mean the world to me. Looking forward to whatever comes next.

Long live the San Francisco Conservatory of Dreams.

Sarah Woods


Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue is a dancer, choreographer and yoga instructor from Los Angeles, California. She moved to San Francisco in 2010 to pursue her dance education at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. She has had the joy of working and performing with Liss Fain Dance, Crossings, The Foundry, Sharp & Fine, Kristin Damrow & Company and LEVYdance, among others. She and her husband, composer and musician Robert Woods-LaDue, are co-conspirators in a research and performance-based exploration of music and dance composition.