The Stage is Only the Beginning

(This post was authored on 11/4/2017)

The stage is only the beginning. 

The week I have experienced a myriad of thoughts and emotions about dance. These stem from my recent viewing of Restless Creature, the documentary about Wendy Whelan's final years with New York City Ballet. I felt her pain as she struggled to come to terms with letting go of a position that she had been pursuing since childhood. At the same time, I looked at her sideways when she stated with confidence that she could do another season.  

But, Wendy had fulfilled her dream. She had gone far beyond what the average professional accomplishes on stage. She remains in a league of her own. Yet, she was totally lost with how to re-purpose her gifts and if not lost, unwilling to move forward.

Numerous articles have been written about the benefits of studying dance. Pre-professional and post professionals alike can point directly to the skills that they gained in their youth that are an asset to their careers.

So where are we missing the mark? 

I love dance. Like Wendy, I began at a young age and was willing to devote my entire being to the art form. When given the opportunity to study year round at the Ailey school and attend the Professional Children's School, my mother turned it down on my behalf. I was upset, but threw myself into other work that I considered to be important. I ran and won Student Council President and did a host of other activities all while dancing 20+ hours per week. It was expected that I would maintain a high GPA and be accepted into choice colleges.

I'm not comparing my dance abilities to the phenom that is Wendy Whelan. What I'm recognizing is that I was given the tools to realize other gifts and talents in myself at a young age. I wanted to have the laser sharp focus for only one talent, but I was not permitted to do that. 

And for that...I am grateful.

After a year of college, I struck out on my own and danced professional for a small company in New York City, Avodah Dance Ensemble. Later, I would move to Ohio to dance for Dayton Contemporary Dance Company II. During these years, I worked for Dance Distributors, a State Farm Insurance Agency, and A.F. Leis Company. Oh and oddly enough, the New York City Ballet Guild.

I always knew that I wanted to teach dance. I had been practicing from a young age and teaching is very much in my blood. Even during the years where I could only see the stage and all my dreams were wrapped up in it, I was developing the tools to transform into another kind of artist.

You see, we can be so limited in our idea of dance and what a career in dance looks like and what being a dancer is. In training to perform, we develop so many more skills than we give ourselves credit for. No one is "just" a performer. We are intelligent creatures who engage our brains in ways that are different from our non-dancing peers.

Moving forward

What can we do with that information? Once upon a time, I entered an art gallery. I spent a significant amount of time in the gallery because I was training myself to appreciate visual art. The gallery owner asked me if I was an artist. I responded, “Oh, I’m not an artist” and after further thought said, “Well, I dance.” She then asked, “And what else?” I was flabbergasted. What else? Dance is more than enough. She continued on to say that most artists have a slasher art. “I'm an artist slash musician, she said. You’ll find yours.”

I think that we don't allow ourselves to have a slasher. And we need to and we need to be proud of it. You lose nothing by developing your talents in more than one area. 

I see dancers become interior designers, like my childhood best friend, Jill Book. What I see in a designer is a dancer who tells a story through furniture and decor, just as a choreographer creates a story and designs a stage for dance. Think of dancers turned coders, who make ideas come to life online. It is the ability to take an idea and choreograph its steps (code lines) so that it becomes a useable function. There are the dancer/doctors who suture and anticipate their next move just as they did when they rapidly learned and executed petit allegro. And of course the classroom teachers who were absorbing how to manage a classroom, gaining experience for musicals, plays, etc. Also, there are the event planners, who have basically been learning their job from the first time a stage manager gave them their 30 minute call.

I love that PNB calls their transition program "Second Stage," because that is exactly what we move on to. There is no reason to feel that our next career is any less than our first. Whether we choose to stay in the field or we branch off into our slasher fields, no portion of our training is lost. The choice to shine is ours, in any industry. But we cannot see ourselves as failures or any less than when it is time to transition.

As Whelan and others have found, companies quickly transition into to spotlighting other dancers. Extremely competent dancers are soon forgotten, but the relationships and knowledge that we gain forever connects the community of dancers. We must choose to speak up for ourselves— to not apologize for being dancers/choreographers/teachers and recognize the value that we contribute to our society. The stage can have a short shelf life. But, nothing can take away from what we gain or stop us from transitioning into another area that allows us to make a longer lasting impression on our families, communities, and our society. It is a new performing stage- one that may not rely on physical movement. On this stage you quickly learn not to value yourself by the parts given or created, but by how you contribute your talents to the whole.

I'm still developing my slashers. My early work for State Farm has been invaluable to building a business for my husband. The owner did his best to take my best friend and I under his wing and allow us to see that there was more to life than dance. I didn't credit him much at the time, but now I see the ideas that he planted. I learned about how successful dance companies fundraise via the New York City Ballet Guild and have applied those strategies in my own fundraising and support efforts. Dance Distributors and AF Leis taught me about retail, production planning, and manufacturing. I also got married and had kids. My life is full and my love for dance no less. It is simply balanced with an appreciation for the other gifts and talents that God has given me.

I hope you will find those in your life as well. Even if you leave the stage before you are ready, you have to know what an amazing person you are and what amazing skills you have developed in yourself. Be your own advocate and speak up about your talents. In doing so, you will never be without a marketable skill.

There is an episode of Madame Secretary where I observed Tibetan monks spending hours creating a mandela with sand. At the end, they had created a beautiful work of art and then pushed all of the sand together in one pile. We gain our strength from the journey, not the moments on the stage.

Did you watch Restless Creature? It is currently available on Netflix. What were your thoughts?

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Danielle GuillermoComment