When did I become what I am?

It’s weird to me the way that time passes and we change. We mark the changes with rites of passage, but sometimes those rites don’t really anchor us in a new reality. Sometimes the transformation isn’t entirely complete, and we’re left a little funny and confused.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my dancing. To start with, let me give a very brief history of my time as a dancer.

I was in a baby dance class when I was in kindergarten, and I hated it. I quit right away. When I was in first grade, I decided I wanted to be a ballerina, but my mom wouldn’t let me take classes because I had quit already. She told me that I hated dance class. And so I begged and begged her for months until she finally decided to sign me up again. So I took ballet classes, and I loved it. I kept taking it, and in middle school I was so excited when I got my first pointe shoes. It made me feel so grown up. But I wasn’t ready to be so grown up, and I fought with myself to commit to dancing. I joined the school’s student company, but my heart wasn’t really in it.

Then came the day when it all happened, when I became a dancer instead of a girl who takes dance classes after school. I was performing in the school’s year end recital, and there was this moment while I was doing an grande battement to the right with my arms in high fifth and the lights were shining in my eyes, and I just knew. That was the moment when I saw the truth in dancing, that dancing is more than just a good workout to music, or something beautiful to watch. That was the moment I knew that dance is a true art, and that dancing can connect me to myself.

Beginning right after that, I was pretty fully committed, but there was one problem: nobody thought I was good enough to make it. Teachers from several schools including the summer program where I went the next year, the teacher at my studio, and even every single one of my college professors, independently told me that I had pretty okay technique, but that I was not a good performer. That I wasn’t capable of showing myself in my dance, that my performances were dry and meaningless. One teacher told me that it’s like I had the love of dance trained out of me, like as soon as I started dancing, I donned a poker face and stopped letting the world in like I could so easily in conversation.

These comments had to be true because they came from so many directions. There is no way so many teachers could have independently told me the same thing if it weren’t true. And it wounded me so deeply that it was true–as if my love for dance was unrequited and it didn’t love me back. I wanted so badly to fix the problem, to express something. I think that half of my problem was that I was generally too immature to know what to express. I didn’t understand that what we express when we’re dancing isn’t the same as acting. I kept wanting the teachers to give me a subject or a story to act out–without that story, it was just a sequence of steps. It was only a few isolated, shining moments when I knew, intuitively and without words, what they meant because I felt it instead of trying to explain it to myself in my head.

My other problem was technique. I was trained in a pretty strict ballet school, where we were taught that a good performance means turning your head the right way. It was all about being in exactly the right position on the right count. Modern dance eluded me for at least the first year of my studying it. I didn’t understand this style that was more about the feeling of a movement than the shape of it, and I couldn’t understand why my professors seemed to think my excellent ability to mimic the shapes they gave me was treated as a handicap of sorts. I was trying to dance emotional movement as a technical exercise–I was too lost in the rules to have fun playing the game.

I’m not sure exactly when that changed, but I do know that it did. And I know that now, even though I am a professional dancer, each and every time someone tells me that I am an expressive and powerful performer, I am stunned. Each and every time is a cause of celebration because it means that I was able to overcome the things I fought so dearly to overcome, that I was able to let loose and really dance.

It happened right before I graduated, and the professor who told me I had a poker face cried actual tears telling me that a performance of mine was human and expressive. But I still thought of it as a fluke.

I had wanted there to be a rite of passage making me an expressive dancer. Something that meant I had “made it.” I wanted it desperately. But it wasn’t graduation, and it wasn’t even when I got my first job as a professional dancer. I still have a hard time believing that I’ve become what I’ve become. I know it logically. I can look at the notes on my fridge from choreographers telling me how grateful they are to have me in their shows, but deep down, it’s so hard to believe that everything I wanted actually came true, that somehow or another, all the emotions I feel when I dance learned to show themselves to my audience.

The transition is weirdly incomplete in my subconscious. And it’s making me feel weirdly unworthy of the success I’ve enjoyed thus far in my short dance career. Because I still feel like that girl who is told over and over by every dance teacher she’s ever studied under that she isn’t good enough, that she’ll never make it, that she doesn’t have that je ne sais quois that you either have or you don’t and that can’t be taught.

I don’t really know what I’m getting at here, except that it’s weird how we grow up without noticing and then suddenly realize we aren’t who we thought we are. And how it’s weird that we can have that same realization over and over again until we know without knowing that we’ve moved forward. Perhaps there is also cautionary tale in here somewhere about losing the forest for the trees.

But seriously, at what point do we stop being one thing and start being another? When do we solve our problems? Can we ever shed the identities of our past to share in the realities of our present?

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One thought on “When did I become what I am?

  1. Hello!

    I’m a dancer and a heathen as well, and I just wanted to say how glad I am I found your blog. I had the exact same struggle moving from strict ballet to other forms. My first jazz teacher had to jokingly reassure me that it was okay to move my hips in her class!

    Anyway, I think I’m really going to enjoy reading your other entries!

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