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.
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.
For 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.
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