Iterations of Being a Dancer

BY JULIA ALLISSON COST

Editorial Note: For the past nine 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.

What does being a dancer/ “making it” as a dancer mean? It keeps meaning different things as I get older. Here’s my journey of continuing to find new answers to that question. 

Age 3-8: Being a dancer seemed like being the ballerina in my music box; some other rarefied realm of glory and nothing but dance, tucked outside the mayhem of regular life. My memories are a whirlwind of ballet, the smell of old buildings with dusty floors, the Lycra, lace, changing rooms, pianos tinkling, and trying very hard to be good, to be better, to master the art. I thought being a dancer was a fairytale dream. 

Age 8-10: The royal academy of dance training of my formative years started to feel stifling, and my eye was drawn to the painted sets and wild costumes of the drama classes. I quit dance and dove headlong into acting, inhaling the funny language of Shakespearian scripts, magical characters, and the sacred black box theater where stories of all sorts came alive. I thought being a dancer was a prison of strict rules.

Age 11: Seeing the development of physical prowess in my former dancer friends led me into a flood of regret when I realized I had three years of training to catch up on. The desire to become physically masterful as a dancer consumed me. I dove into dance at my new middle school and worked so hard it became all I thought about. I thought being a dancer was being good at steps.

Age 12-16: My whole focus revolved about dance. I slipped into the school theater every lunch break to just submerge in the scent of that dusty sacred space and do my homework from the seats in the theater, looking out at the stage with wonder and thrill. I worked so hard that I was soon the youngest kid dancing with the highest level of the program, but it wasn’t enough; I knew I was still behind. I thought being a dancer was the coolest thing in the world.

Age 17: I quit the dance program at my school and enrolled in the local arts academy whose classes were more challenging and technical. I flailed but worked my butt off to catch up. I auditioned for a prestigious summer intensive and somehow got in though I was technically weak. I struggled throughout that program but was obsessed with the challenge. I thought being a dancer was incredibly hard and tantalizingly far out of reach.

Age 18: I went off to college on the east coast and was unprepared for living that far from my island home. I dove into the college dance program as my solace. The familiar rigor of the ballet barre and the hours of hard rehearsals got me through that semester until I dropped out at winter break in a mental tailspin. Being a dancer was the only place I felt comfortable. 

Age 19: I began a humbling period living back at home as a college drop-out after being an overachieving top student my whole life. It was an identity crisis. I dove back into dance at my local academy, and it gave me joy and community while I sorted out how to get myself back into college. Being a dancer was my family. 

Age 19-21: I enrolled in a new college on the west coast. I didn’t know what to study; I just didn’t want to waste this chance. I started an Art BA, meanwhile taking as many dance classes as I could and being cast in many concert pieces. As I dragged myself back to my dormitory every night in my sweaty leotard and plopped down to do homework, my roommate suggested that I seemed overjoyed spending so much time dancing, and that I could major in what I loved. The next morning, I stamped the forms to add a Dance Major. The choreography classes obsessed me. By junior year I was a studio rat, hanging around in the dance building every vacant period to dream up choreographic ideas to create on my fellow dancer friends. By senior year my passion was creating choreographic works, guiding dancers through processes, and inventing moving pictures for the stage. I thought being a dancer was the deepest way for me to express ideas and connect with and empower others.

Age 22-24: I was accepted on a full ride to a graduate program to get an MFA in Dance. Those two years were a whirlwind of finding my voice and empowering fellow dancers through the choreographic processes and pieces I created. I was collaborating not only with super talented dancers but also set designers, lighting designers, and composers to create the worlds of the works I imagined. It was insanely all-consuming and it was heaven. I thought my purpose in life was to empower other dancers through growth-provoking choreographic experiences and to move audiences with the realness of what was happening on stage. 

Age 24-26: I moved to a big city and was creating choreography with friends in their living rooms and through residencies at an underground theater. I was struggling to earn money, to pay rent, and to gather dancers together in the sprawling world of the city. I was finding myself unable to create choreographic work I truly believed in while having such a hard time just getting by. After an amazing choreographic residency that culminated in performing my work at a beautiful big-name theater, I made the painful decision to quit choreographing. I turned all my focus to growing my art career and surviving financially. I was losing sight of how to develop rich choreographic ideas with meaning to dancers and audiences as I struggled with the reality of being an adult. Dance felt like the furthest thing from practical.

Age 26-30: I worked like a maniac on my freelance art career and took up running, not dancing at all. I trained for years and then ran a marathon as my physical challenge. I developed a painting career and supplemented that income with work as a prop stylist, art teacher, and childcare professional. Being a dancer or a choreographer was a distant dream.

Age 30-31: I moved home to Maui. A few months later I saw a dance concert and I almost jumped out of my seat with the desire to dance. I took one class with the company and it was all still in me; the coordination, the groove, the joy, the feeling of being in love with the experience of my physical form in space and time. I was rusty, but it was all there. I felt healed by the very first class. I remembered that dancing is part of who I am and it is beyond all logic or explanation. 

Age 31-33: I trained fanatically to get back in dance shape, taking weekly ballet and modern classes for the first time in nearly 10 years. The sweat and the challenge made me feel madly alive in ways I had forgotten. I discovered my strength, remembered what it is to be in love with life through dancing, made an entirely new community of friends, and found my beauty. I inhabited my body with more supreme peace than I ever had. I began to teach classes and choreograph bits of work, inhabiting these roles with new purpose and clarity. Soon I was cast in a concert and performing a solo, feeling utter comfort in front of so many witnesses. By February 2020 I was performing in front of a crowd of nearly 3,800 people, and the grounding and freedom I felt in the middle of that sea of chaos was unbelievable. I found myself again by dancing. 

Pandemic March 2020-present: As COVID hit, I promptly quit dancing to pour myself into keeping my family’s business alive. On top of all that, I threw all my focus into growing my art career. I launched my own original textile business in May 2021, designing my paintings into fabric and selling yardage to clients all over the world who are transforming my paintings into wearable art. I am promoting my fabric with photos and videos of myself wearing it, and often I am dancing. My dancing body has become a vessel for sharing my new art with the world. I feel more integrated than ever.

I know now that I have always been connected to dance, though it continues to take new shapes all the time. It is always there, and it always will be. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Julia Cost dancing in Maui

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Julia Allisson Cost was born, raised, and currently resides in upcountry Maui, Hawai’i. She comes from a family of many artists. She is a painter, textile designer, sewist, and dancer. See her work at juliacost.com.

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