Y'all Don't Wanna Dance
I’ve had conversations with various people over the past couple of years about what dance is to them, what their bodies feel (or don’t) feel like, and just a general discomfort in where they're at. A lot of it is centered around thoughts on what a career in the field is “supposed” to look like, the challenges of creating work, performing, or the frequency at which we do or don’t take class. Almost always, these questions and feelings are a direct response to being in the post-grad stage of our lives - a shift that NO ONE seems to have been prepared for, including myself.
There’s specifically the idea of “being a dancer” and not actually feeling like one, which I believe comes from the conditioning we receive during our training programs, and what we've been fed about what constitutes being a dancer - most of which is bullshit anyway (i.e., check your feelings at the door).
I don’t even really know where or how to begin with this because for many of us, this is at least a decade’s worth of unpacking and reflecting on something that we’ve essentially made synonymous with our identities. There’s so much I'm thinking about and working through on this, and there's hardly any one way to process it. So in this post I've attempted to stay focused on where I'm most at currently.
Something I think about often is mourning my body. I often feel as though I'm grieving a body that I once had - not so much in aesthetic, but more so in function. I recognize that this mourning is a natural experience and is something that all humans can and will encounter in some form throughout life be it through aging, carrying and birthing child(ren), health conditions, or trauma.
While I acknowledge and recognize that I am an able-bodied and healthy person as the standards go, I also recognize that being in a field where sooo much is consistently asked of the body is just fucking difficult, and I am seeking to give myself room to process that. I am in mourning of my fearless body. My pre-injury body. The body that didn't associate dance with pain. The body that I lived in before needing to work twenty jobs and support myself financially. The body that was in class everyday (specifically ballet class, as I, like many, was conditioned to believe that ballet is the "foundation" of all dance training, which I now recognize as an elitist, Eurocentric, and straight up false frame of thinking that I'll dissect and contest another time).
This mourning has hindered many of my experiences as an audience member, because I'd be thinking about what my body might feel like doing what I saw on stage, or the fact that I felt like I just couldn't do any of those things at all.
I spent literally my entire junior year of undergrad dealing with (as in dancing on and worsening) an ankle injury and subsequently underwent what was likely an unnecessary surgery at the end of that school year in May of 2016. The post-op recovery which was all Summer '16 was far from ideal. Due to my insurance, despite having received a prescription from the IN NETWORK physician who operated on me, I was only able to get something like 6 physical therapy sessions (fuck HIP HMO, deadass). A month later, my mom had a stroke and would be in extended inpatient care at a hospital 30 minutes away from my home through October, which I visited every day until I left home for Philly to start senior year.
Outside of these things though, I just didn't go hard. I didn't work as consistently as I could've to recover. I could've. But I didn't. Still not sure why. Not only that, I never took the time to heal the psychological damage that occurred following all this. I've recognized this time period as a source of a lot of what I'm dealing with right now in terms of my relationship with my body and the habits I have and haven't formed.
Nonetheless, that September following my surgery, I joined a company and spent the entire following year dancing professionally, touring, and completing undergrad, a lot of which I spent in pain.
Between then and now, I've gone in and out of periods of being very active and present with my body and its healing. The pattern has seemed to go based on how I'm doing financially, which lines up with where I'm at with my mental health, which lines up with how I'm organizing my life. I'm currently in transition from the "out" period. It breaks down in my head sort of like this:
Things I'm "Supposed" Be Doing
Gym everyday (ridiculous because that's excessive)
Pilates and/or Yoga
Waking up an extra half hour to do exercises
Going to the studio
Stretching and rolling out (especially these calves and these hip flexors cuz...)
Things I've Actually Been Doing
A Black woman who I used to get body work from in Philly said to me in a session a few years ago, "if you really want to dance, then you'd be doing"... all of the things I wasn't doing. I play this conversation back in my head often. I hear it every time I make the decision to not do something that I know my body could really benefit from (or to do something that I know it won’t benefit from).
While there is plenty truth in what she said, it turns out that this has been a totally counterproductive way for me to think, especially as of late. With each decision to not do something, I reasoned that it must be because I'm not dedicated enough and that I just actually don't wanna dance (perhaps these things are true too, not sure yet). As I continued to reason that I just don't wanna dance, I grew more comfortable with not doing the things for my body because why would I need to it if I don't wanna dance?
From Fall '18 through Spring '19, I was creating and performing what essentially was my first actual solo work on myself titled a little more magic v.01. The process, while having some moments of true joy and affirmation of why I do what I do, was often quite anxiety inducing, both in the creating and performing of it. What I felt then, and understand even more in hindsight is that being in the process forced me to be present in my own body, which meant confronting the issues I had with being inside of my own body, both physically and emotionally.
I think what posed a huge challenge to me during that time was that I didn't (and often still don't) feel like I was in my own body. I mean, how do I go about being present in a body that doesn't even feel like my own? A body that doesn't feel available. A body that I've purposely avoided. I've spent so much time in pain and in fear of my own body that creating and performing in it was incredibly stressful.
To make matters worse, I was performing this solo repeatedly in various venues, but almost always in front of a predominantly white audience. EXHAUSTING AS FUCK. I'll certainly be writing more about that in a future post (working title: Performing While Black. Stay tuned).
Since my last time performing in June, I’ve both declined and removed myself from several performance opportunities for various reasons. Some of it is because I've decided to use way more discretion with what I choose to affiliate myself with and expend physical and creative energy on. Some of it is schedule and logistics. And some of it is just plain and simply because I didn’t want to dance. I just didn't have it. I've also not been active in applying for residencies and shows and other creative ventures also because I just haven't wanted to. I've spent most of the summer reassuring myself that all of this is okay. That it's okay if I don't want to. That I am not any less of an artist or dancer for not wanting to create or perform or engage in the community at any given time. That this doesn't mean I won't "succeed" or that I don't "want it."
As I've been more intentionally practicing showing myself kindness, love and patience, I'm feeling really good about the building of a healthier relationship with myself, my body and my art.
Last week I took J. Bouey's class (a huge feat in and of itself because I've been avidly avoiding class for most of this year) which I've been thinking about a lot as it relates to my establishing of this new relationship with myself. In class, they questioned the purpose of class, who it's for and how we go about taking it. They also questioned the teacher-student relationship as it traditionally stands and created a sense that the exchange between teacher-student is both mutual and fluid.
The great thing that I've been able to find through this and in post grad in general is that there are literally ZERO stakes. There is no hierarchy. There is no grade. I'm not dancing for a paycheck. I'm not dancing for anyone. I don't HAVE to do this. Class is for ME. Dance is for ME. I can dance for me and me only and that is okay. These things may seem obvious but we are trained to believe the opposite.
So much is unlocked through this approach and that day in class, I felt that manifest in the whole of my being. The trust I had in my body, the lack of anxiety, far less pain. The FUN I had (a concept). I was able to let go of the genuine fear that has kept me out of class altogether for a long time. That's a freedom that I'm not sure I've ever experienced as a "dancer" at all to be honest.
A huge thing that I'm going to be focusing on going forward is to not scold myself into doing those things that I think I should be doing (my biggest takeaway from therapy was to remove the word "should" from my vocabulary), rather, to recognize that these are things that are always available to me and that will ultimately help me heal and unlock more of that freedom that I so wish to have consistent access to.
The other way of thinking has kept me preoccupied for years with the idea that I'm a failure and that I'm lazy and deserve to be in pain (this is a much tamer version of how I've spoken to myself. I'm working on it.) as opposed to feeling enabled to build a practice and actually wanting to have a healthy relationship with my body.
That's something I want for myself whether I wanna dance or not.