The article “15 Truths About Being a Professional Dancer,” written by ballet teacher Melanie Doskocil and posted to Ballet Pages in 2011, has been republished on many websites and is popular among dancers. Lauded as some sort of gospel, the article has been re-circulating among my bellydancing comrades on social media sites as of late.
Apparently in a minority of one, I am not a fan of this article. While I agree with some of her points, I feel the “truths” are written in a patronizingly meek voice. I want it to be more self-posessed, more feminist (as a method, not specifically about women). I’m not sure exactly why it leaves an itchy feeling under my skin so instead of cutting it down without a clear critique for why, I am writing a response. If you care to read my response, I suggest you pull up the original article in a separate tab as you read mine.
1. “Dance is hard”
Doskocil writes, “The world of dance today is akin to an extreme sport.” I don’t like this analogy. Dance is hard –because it is hard in our over-stimulating, manipulated reality to find your own true voice. Dance is NOT an extreme sport. It is a mode of expression. You do not need to have olympian abilities to express yourself, explore an idea, ask a question, make a joke, or say something you feel is worth saying with your body. It is hard to find interesting ways to move. It is hard to find authentic ways to move.
2. “You won’t always get what you want:” until you discover what you want.
We don’t always get asked what we want, our jobs don’t always get respected as a profession or receive substantial pay, we don’t always see companies run the way we want, we don’t always get to move the way we want. If you respect the people you are working with, shut up and do it their way -learn something. If you don’t respect the situation you are in, remove yourself from it. Take notes. Figure out why a system of working or a way of moving repels you and fashion a life and career for yourself and other dancers you care about so that you can move, lead, follow, create, play, and work the way you want!
3. “There is a lot you don’t know.” Always be inquisitive.
Research your influences (and give credit to your influences). Take something away from every performance you watch -no matter how bad you may think it is. Open your mind to other ways of viewing besides accuracy of lines, pointing of toes, clear bodily articulation: try to learn about the dancer and what brings her to this art -what it does for him or her and why.
4. “There may not be a tomorrow.”
“A dancer never knows when their dance career will suddenly vanish: a company folds, career ending injury, car accident, death.” So take advantage of today by either dancing hard or lightening up! Not every body seizes the moment by being a masochistic hard worker, some people just want to have fun, share space with other bodies, and move in a way that feels good and therapeutic. Your body will break one day, so treat it well and get the most out of it as you can for as long as you can.
5. “There’s a lot you can’t control”
You control the professional situations you choose to put yourself into. Own up to that. Don’t stress about politics. “Focus on honing your craft, being the best dancer you can be. Keep an open mind and a positive attitude.”
6. “Information is not true knowledge.”
Question the motives and background of anyone who tells you “the truth.” The truth (about the universe, about how bodies work best, about how to make dances) is messy and individualized. “You can discuss a task a hundred times, go to 1000 classes, but unless we get out there and perform we will only have a philosophical understanding of dance.” <—- what!? performance is NOT a prerequisite for understanding the “truth” about dance. However, you can discuss and debate about dance until you turn blue but it doesn’t mean a thing unless you MOVE YOUR BODY!
7. “If you want to be successful prove you are valuable” to yourself and to those who listen to you.
Audiences want to see an authentic mover. Students want to learn from someone who they actually have lots to learn from. Perform and teach material that is valuable to viewers and students.
8. “Someone else will always have more than you/be better than you.”
And thank goddess! Because when you see yourself as the best dancer/choreographer/teacher you know -you have officially gone to crazy town, not to mention you have stopped enriching your practice by surrounding yourself with people who inspire you, push you, and teach you.
9. “You can’t change the past.“
So leave those embarrassing old YouTube videos of your early dancing online because everyone started somewhere and you have your past to thank for your present.
10. “The only person who can make you happy is you.”
“Dancing in and of itself cannot make us happy. The root of our happiness comes from our relationship with ourselves, not from how much money we make, what part we were given, what company we dance for, or how many competitions we won.” <——–I disagree! The root of our happiness comes from renewing your relationship with things OUTSIDE of yourself –ideas that are bigger than you! The universe is a big mysterious, sometimes daunting, but awe-inspiring place. Connect with it. Open your perspective outside of your own life and body. Use your body to connect with things that are bigger than you.
11. “There will always be people who don’t like you.“
If everyone likes your dancing and your work, some of those people are lying or you need to expand your sphere of influence to people outside of your own acolytes. Or better yet: if everyone likes your work, your work is safe and boring and you are not taking enough risks.
12. “Sometimes you will fail.“
“Sometimes, despite our best efforts, following the best advice, being in the right place at the right time, we still fail. Failure is a part of life. Failure can be the catalyst to some of our greatest growth and learning experiences. If we never failed, we would never value our successes. Be willing to fail. When it happens to you (because it will happen to you), embrace the lesson that comes with the failure.” <—that one is pretty right on.
13. “Sometimes you will have to work for free.“
How else would you get exposure, give back to a community that supports you, or do something totally crazy and weird? At the same time, respect that this is your job and money is a necessity that you deserve. Don’t ask for more than you deserve and don’t work for less than you deserve. Sometimes payment is monetary, sometimes it is not.
14. “Repetition is good. Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is insane.”
Drill, drill, drill! Have a daily repetitive practice. Push yourself a little further each time (balance longer, shimmy longer, jump higher, sit lower). Do it over and over and over again. When you repeat the same exercises you can see your growth. Be willing to sweat and willing to fall down. Be willing to take a class in which you are the worst one in the room!
15. “You will never feel 100% ready.“
“Dancers have to be willing to take risks. From letting go of the ballet barre to balance, to moving around the world to dance with a new company, from trusting a new partner to trying a new form of dance, dancers must have a flexible mind and attitude as well as body.” In dance, some of my most magical, powerful, performances and teaching experiences happened when I was nervous. Nervous energy can be a powerful thing when properly channeled to the present moment. If you are not nervous at all you are probably not honoring the importance of what you are doing. Every time you choose to do something that scares you, you grow that much more invincible!
I took the above picture during tech rehearsal for a show while on tour in 2010.