Once a Dancer.


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Once upon a time, I was the ultimate bunhead.

And by bunhead, I mean a serious, hardcore, no-messing-around ballet dancer. I’ve trained in classical ballet for quite some time, as most dancers do, and I’m currently finishing my final year in a preprofessional program. But to say I’ve changed over the years would be an understatement, especially when looking at this past year alone. Not surprisingly, my path has changed with me.

Recently, I made a decision I never imagined I’d make: I decided that once I graduate from this program, I will not continue on to dance for a professional career.

Sure, it sounds simple, but in truth, this is probably the hardest decision I will ever make in my life. It carries much more weight than simply dancing or not dancing. Being a dancer is a defining trait, and with it comes a way of life that I’ve known as omnipresent, inherent and vital to everything I am.

The decision to let go of the beloved art form that once fueled my every action came from a combination of personal contemplations and physical limitations. Still, I know this drastic change I’m about to make will be difficult, one that involves the stripping of an identity with which I grew up—a major contributor to how I became the person I am now.

From here, I embark on a new path, and although it’s mostly terrifying, it’s also incredibly exciting and full of hope: I’ll have so much free time! I won’t have to worry about looking a certain way! I won’t be in pain all the time and I’ll get to try new things!

I feel as though I’ve come up for air and discovered that my purpose is elsewhere in this world, and coming to terms with that has been a wild experience. As a result, I initially believed that I would have to shed this layer of skin that has “dancer” written all over it; I assumed that moving on from this identity meant losing everything about it and finding a new one that fit better.

Of course, there will be a considerable amount of shedding that must happen. The longest break I’ve ever taken from dancing since the time I began training more seriously has been two weeks.

Two weeks.

If that doesn’t illustrate the insane amount of love and devotion dancers have for their art, I don’t know what does. So, to go from dancing for countless hours every day for five or six (often seven) days a week to not dancing at all will undoubtedly require a dramatic removal of this label and everything that comes with it.

However, I firmly believe that the past can and should inform what we do, wherever we find ourselves at present and wherever we plan to go in the future—even if that plan changes a few times.

ballerina 2For that reason, I’ve decided that completely stripping this identity isn’t the answer, nor is it even possible. Rather, instead of trying to run away from it, perhaps I can embrace it as a large part of who I’ve been for so long in order to continue growing as I am now and into the future.

Perhaps there’s a dancer in me that will never completely fade away.

And now that I’ve come to accept this piece of me, I’ve decided that although there are certainly parts of the identity I wouldn’t mind losing (like the hypercritical self-judgement and the painful tendencies toward low self-esteem), I don’t want the dancer in me to die entirely.

Because dancers are actually pretty incredible.

For starters, we’re remarkably disciplined and obedient. Tell us once what needs to be done and we’ll do it as perfectly as we can, working relentlessly until the result has exceeded expectations. We always find a way to make it happen, because what choice do we have when things don’t go exactly as planned on stage (a common occurrence in live performance) and we’re expected to deliver excellence nonetheless?

Second, we know how to use our imaginations. Training in classical ballet can easily become boring and tedious; every day, classes follow almost the same format and involve the same movement vocabulary, starting with pliés (the first exercise given at barre) and ending with grand allegro (big jumps across the floor). In order to keep things interesting, we must take it upon ourselves to infuse the potentially monotonous routine of daily classes and rehearsals with vibrant artistry, and that artistry can only come from deep within our souls—from a place of innate creativity and the desire to portray something far greater than the body itself.

Third, we understand what it means to respect authorities. We are taught from a young age to respond to everything from praise to criticism with gratitude and a humble heart. And to the teachers with whom we’ve experienced tremendous growth—the ones who cared about our triumphs and failures as though they were their own—we remain forever loyal.

And lastly, perhaps most importantly, we know how to work without the promise of success or reward. We are self-sustaining. We know how to push ourselves without so much as a word of encouragement or anything acknowledging a job well done.

We are everything we’re asked to be for others and everything we need to be for ourselves, an indescribable group of beings with unique intelligence and superhuman capabilities.

And even after taking our final bows, that stays with us. Forever.

I don’t regret having danced for the better part of my life so far. Although I will admit that it has been a battle more often than a joy, it served me for a long time—something for which I’ll always be grateful.

There are countless hours and many months of thinking and listening that have gone into my decision to leave my dancing days behind; ultimately, it comes down to the fact that neither my heart nor my body can handle the stresses that come with the job any more.

And so, the time has come to move on from the dancer I’ve always been.

However, I know that even long after she has left me and ended her practice of the physical art, the knowledge she has acquired will remain. Her spirit will go on living the only way she knows how—colored with the traits of an artist of movement, strengthened and beautified by the lessons she’s learned along the way.

Though I may be closing this chapter of my life, the person gracing those pages will undoubtedly appear in the many to come; for she was once a dancer, and a dancer she will always be.


Relephant Links:

The Burlesque Dancer Who Inspired My Heart to Roar.

In Ballet, I Conquered; In Yoga, I am Learning to Surrender.

Ballerina Robot Ghost.


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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: courtesy of Sara Rodriguez


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Sara Rodriguez

Sara Rodriguez is a freelance dance artist and writer based in New York City. Her work has been published on Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog, Rebelle Society and Elite Daily. Her poetry was recently published in the debut issue of feminist art publication, Period. Sex. You can follow her on Instagram @sara_bex and on Facebook.


58 Responses to “Once a Dancer.”

  1. Erica says:

    Now you will dance with your words, too. Beautifully considered and written, and I am sharing this with my bestie, who had a similar agonizing decision to make. This feels like her story too. PS, she is happy, healthy and still dancing in her living room– quite elegantly might I add.

  2. Carolyn Riker says:

    Thank you for this beautiful essay. You dance with your words as eloquently as I image you do on stage. I will be sharing this lovely piece with my dancer-daughter. xo

  3. Jennifer says:

    Sara, That was so beautifully written… brought tears to my eyes. What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a dancer.. went to the Joffrey after high school and danced professonally for many years before I had my children. I am now a 48 yr old mother of four sons, spending most of my time at their football and basketball games, but I teach yoga and still do ballet barre in my kitchen while making dinner. I can tell you that the dancer is always in you 🙂

  4. Joelle says:

    You will always be a dancer. It is part of who you are. It is ingrained in the cells in your body. It has become part of your DNA. And five or ten or more years from now, people who meet you will still recognize the grace that is only cultivated from years of dancing. Your leg will naturally glide into an arabesque with pointed toes when you reach for something on a high self at the grocery store. Your eyes with pivot to a clear point in the distant before your body when you chose to change directions. There will always be a certain grace in the way your hands hang relaxed next to your body. And some days it will hurt – feeling the girl inside you who hears when inside your head as you walk, counting each step in rhythm. And some days there will be regrets – remember they are wasteful and useless. But remember that dancing made you who you are. Carry those gifts and talents into the world. Now the entire world is your stage. Enjoy the spot light!

    • Joelle, that is beautiful. Thank you so much. xo

    • brigita says:

      This is when beautiful people shine and generate their love and share it with other beautifull people. We can dance, or write or laugh, or paint, or cook,…it's our heart that is in flame, it is in truth, it is in pain, it is a live. It is a blessing to be in that body, to feel the way we feel, we move and express the inner beauty.

  5. Marjorie says:

    I have a similar history with ballet. I don't dance professionally, but decades down the road, I am still a dancer. I'd rather dance than just about anything. If the music is good I am dancing, no partner required. People see it in me commenting on my gracefulness, my perfect posture, how well my figure is holding up. One of my favorites was a comment from a new friend who didn't know my background. We were out "crazy dancing" to wild music in a crowd, when she exclaimed: Oh my God you are a swan!. Yes I am.

  6. Emily says:

    I was a bun head too and had to stop dancing for a while. And then I realized I could never leave it and had to seriously expand my idea of how dance can be part of everything. I wish for you many similar discoveries.

  7. Claire says:

    Once a dancer, always a dancer!! Whether you are physically dancing or not, the training, the passion, the love and what dancing teaches you never leaves you! Dance made me the person I am today, and although I no longer dance as much as I would like I couldn't imagine never having had dance in my life. So eloquently written!! Good luck with your new ventures, I'm sure your dancer passion will drive you on to great success in new areas!!

  8. clairez says:

    never stop dancing, just stop dancing for others and dance for the depth of your soul/heart

    • Right now, it's necessary that I stop for a while. I'm certainly no longer dancing for a professional career, but perhaps I'll take classes again someday. For now, I need the break. Completely. Thanks for reading.

      • clairez says:

        follow your heart and you will know what to do.
        ecstatic dance isn't a class its a non-verbal community movement space.
        music provided, words left outside and a container in which dance is appreciated in all its forms. <3

  9. Lucinda says:

    that was amazing. I am so fortunate that one of my fellow dancers shared this article via Facebook. As someone who is planning to leave the art form myself, I completely relate to everything that you have said and found comfort in my decision after reading your article. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  10. Charissa says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I left ballet to go to medical school, but I was never able to find the words to describe how hard it was. I'm glad someone did.

  11. Fred says:

    I'm a father of a young lady who is walking a very similar path to yours. She is about to enter a preprofessional program pursuing ballet with the same passion as you have beautifully described. I had often worried about what might happen if she had to stop, due to injury or other unforeseen event. You writing has brought me both a sense of peace and a small measure of tears. Thank you.
    To the next adventure…

    • Fred, I would imagine it's both amazing and difficult to watch this journey as a parent. My parents always told me I needed a backup plan, "blah blah blah" (or so I thought at the time), but I never understood why. I just knew I was going to dance, no matter what. I get it now. I get it from both ends now. I understand the passion and the drive, but I also understand the point at which one must pause and ask "is this really what I should be doing? Do I really love this? Is this really who I am?"

      I wish all the best for your daughter. No matter what happens, it all works out. That's my latest discovery. Thanks for reading.

  12. kimberlylowriter says:

    I loved this piece! Wow. So touching.

  13. amandajotyson says:

    ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL! This was exactly what I needed to hear!
    My story is very similar to yours, and now that I've retired my point shoes for the last time, I find myself wondering why? Why all those years for "nothing"? Your article helped me answer so many questions! Especially your section explaining the strengths that dancers carry into every other aspect of our life. Thank you so much for sharing your gift of beauty and creativity with the rest of the world!

  14. Laura says:

    Listening to your words was like hearing my own thoughts 20 years ago, as I graduated from a preprofessional college program and moved onward in a brand new, exciting and terrifying direction. On the "other side" of that 20 years, I can promise you that both the profession that formed you and the dancer you are will grace whatever path you choose.

  15. Ness says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I danced competitively for years and letting go was hard. But it never truly leaves you, my love for movement, arts, music, all the things that make up who I am did not change. Now I wake up in the morning and go to bed with familiar stretches, I try to learn all different kinds of dances from around the world to challenge and broaden my skills, and when I go out I always dance my heart out. Wish you all the best in your future endeavors!

  16. Alejandra says:

    Wow… Too beautiful, full of happiness and at the same time touching… That end brought me to tears! Since I am a dancer (and I know that every dancer in the world have this existential/dancing problem time to time, or most of times) I felt in your position. Thank you for sharing this! P.S.: An artist never stops being an artist, so I know you will find how/when/where to dance. 🙂

  17. Carlin says:

    Sara, this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and the whole time I was going, “YES! YES!” I was forced out of a ballet career by physical limitations (severe scoliosis) and have tried to describe to someone what that grieving process is like – your article did it beautifully. There is so much wrapped up in our identity as dancers that I treasure – but “shedding skin” and letting the new layer grow is always a difficult process.

  18. Erika says:

    Beautifully written. I made the same decision at 22 to attend law school. I made the decision based on many of the reasons you mentioned. I am now 41, my girls are 6 and 4 and I started taking classes again and I teach classes too. Once a dancer, always a dancer. It is in your blood from a young age and no matter the paths we all take it will always be a part of you. Good luck, enjoy the free time and we look forward to your new endeavors.

  19. Charlie says:

    Its like you reached inside and stole my thoughts!! I danced some 17 hrs a week for most of my life. Between my back problems and my move to Boulder to escape the workaholic east coast, I had to go through a very similar identify shift. Tears… Thank u.

  20. Wow! Beautifully written, I left dance when I left my hometown for college and I have regretted it, but at the same time one has to realize that sometimes it is inevitable. Thank you for this!

  21. lauralee says:

    I have to disagree..the worst part of a dancer is obedience,it is the most boring part!!!! its is the dancing monkey in the zoo, the please love character, what is exciting about a dancer is someone who is wild and expansive and who has gratitude for their lineage yes..(and discipline) but not a servant to the master be it a technique or a person, the person themselves are more fully alive than the way itself….perhaps I could agree on the problem solving, creative expressive of bringing your whole self to the necessity of acheiving anothers objectives as something amazing…….and the biggest stumbling block is the belief you can give and give and give and never recieve and that relationship to the world is not doing something on a profound level. Nothing and no-one is self-contained is self contained. As a dancer myself I also agree that dancer who do it as a profession and the act of dancing itself is an incredibly transformative and rigorous and holistic endeavour. However a lot of the subtext of this passion and insight you write of is tainted with cultural conditioning that is both ballet based and/or largely Western.. maybe you should break out of that and not the dancing. Every dancer I know has tried quitting, in some way or another it doesn't work..but all them succeeded at doing something else as well. Good luck

    • Well, I don't know if I would go so far as to say that obedience is the 'worst part of a dancer,' but I think I understand what you're saying. There are many wonderful things about the dance world and there are many not-so-great things as well. And to be honest with you, if my words are 'tainted' with anything ballet-based, that's because I'm a ballet dancer. However, I assure you that my opinions are influenced not by any one label or category, but by a collection of experiences. Thank you for reading.

      • Nerine says:

        Perhaps the word "discipline" rather than "obedience" would have been preferable, as that is something essential to anyone who truly loves and respects the Art. Dancing with wild abandon can be liberating, but it's not appropriate for stage performances (and many Eastern forms of dance require several years of self-discipline and training before they are allowed to perform so it is not a Western construct). As a former dancer of over 35 years I appreciated your article very much. I miss performing in front of audiences, but I still dance – at home, in my mind. As dancers, we are the ones who should best know when the time is right to gracefully step into the next phase of our lives. But whether there are witnesses or not, we will always be dancers at heart… and for those that believe in a higher being(s), they will always be watching and rejoicing in that along with us.

        • Perhaps Nerine. Discipline is after all, in one definition, the practice of training people to obey rules or a certain code of behavior. Regardless, I would say that obedience is definitely part of it—discipline as well.

          Anyway, thank you for reading and for your comment!

  22. Nancy says:

    I have 3 daughters who all began dancing before the age of 5 – the youngest started at the youngest age because she couldn't wait to do what she saw her sisters doing. They are all now in their 30's. Dance remained an important part of each of their lives through college and beyond. Now they are all in different positions as far as dancing goes. The oldest decided on a more cerebral career – she is a speech pathologist. She's a mom of two beautiful babies. Life became too busy to still have room for dance. The middle one is also a mom, but is still dancing. She did take the more practical route and got her master's degree in Arts Management (after a BFA in dance) and now works behind the scenes in a performing arts theater. But she is still bringing dance into her life, into her 2 year old daughter's life, and even into the community where she lives. And then the youngest had an amazing recovery from a motorcycle accident – which we all thank God for – but has had to ultimately (and sorrowfully) accept that she is no longer able to dance the way she wants to. Your essay brought tears to my eyes. I stopped and thought that my 3 dancers are all still dancers – and always will be. Thank you for sharing. I will share your essay with them.

  23. cassandralanesmith says:

    Wow, Sara. So so beautiful. Like many others who've commented, I relate so much to this post. Leaving dance (at least seriously pursuing it) is very difficult, but your grace going through this experience is truly admirable. For me, it was really difficult for a while and sometimes I still feel regret, but I've come to the same conclusion you have, that the dancer will always be inside me and that's something to be grateful for <3

  24. karen oram says:

    How beautiful was that written, and thank you to all those “would be ” dancers who ,for whatever reason ,have had to give up the dream. I myself was a classical dancer, only having to give up my career when the first baby arrived. It was a terrible time, as I was so extatic at being pregnant (after several years of false hopes, miscarriages etc)and then the downer to be told I was no longer needed in the company. (I think the hardest thing was that it wasn’t my choice , it was being thrust upon me)It took a lot of thought and decision , before I became a ballet teacher, a job I have now loved for the past 25 years. But , one does remain a dancer, toes still pointe first thing in the morning, my head is always held high and stomach muscles draw in the menopausal tyre!! Love of art and music are still within me,and a discipline of self rule my life style. To Lauralee, I think you must have had a bad experiance,as I never ever found “being obedient”boring, yes there are rules to follow , but so much to discover , especially when body and soul join as one ….

    Thank you for this very interesting article, and good luck in your new ventures.

  25. Mimie Tav says:

    This makes me think of my life in 2010 and .. just recently. I ccould relate to everything you wrote. I was about to quit in 2010, then I turned back and continued until now. Dancing led me to yoga, I can say. It is like finishing high school and then continue studying in the college. I will be ready to continue soon.

  26. Lily says:

    As I read this, I feel like you're conflating 'ballet' with 'dance.' When you describe the qualities of a 'dancer' I feel it's a general wash, rather than a consideration of the heterogeneous multitudes of kinds of dancers and dance forms. Ballet, and ballet dancers are both remarkable athletes, artisans of performance, and mediums of others' creativity. This essay does well to make the discipline and grit of the ballerina known. However, saying 'dancer' when you mean 'ballet-focused dancer' is a disservice to other forms, as well as contributes to an unfortunate hierarchical relationship of ballet to other forms. Many folks who love to dance, do not consider themselves fully 'dancers' because they do not wish, or cannot be, ballerinas. Continue a discourse where ballet is the epitome of dance, does a disservice to all of dancing, dance-audiences, and dance-makers, and contributes to the abysmal dance economy. Keep writing. And hopefully, keep dancing, with a broader understanding of what dance could be for you and for others.

    • Lily, I'm not really sure how to respond to this because I'm having a hard time interpreting your point. I am certainly aware that ballet is not the only genre of dance in the world, but for me being a dancer always meant being a ballet dancer. And this article comes from me, from my heart. I'm not going to write "ballet-focused dancer" every time I want to use the word "dancer" in this article, that's simply too wordy and it sounds weird. I didn't write about every kind of dancer, I wrote about classical ballet dancers, because that's what I am.

      And for what it's worth, I would say that the dance economy is anything but abysmal, especially because it is so eclectic and ever-expanding, now more than ever.

      Again, I'm not sure if I'm interpreting your words correctly, but I appreciate your feedback. Thanks for reading and taking the time to say what you needed to say.

  27. Vika says:

    I made this decision this past summer. I was a serious ballerina and I was studying at JKO in Manhattan. It tooks weeks and many tears to make the decision that I would stop doing the same practice. I will admit what a great choice it was. I have recently found my love for fine art and taking classes and enjoying every step of the way. But like you said, even though it was a good decision, not a day has gone by that I didn’t do a pirouette or a tendu in my bedroom :). Beautifully written and lovely .

    • Wow Vika, that's a tough decision, especially leaving JKO. Good for you for following your heart on this one, I'm so happy to hear your artistic soul has found another outlet. 🙂 All the best to you. xo

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