Writing About Dance: My Story, Part 1

Recently, a friend mentioned that I might want to pursue dance journalism somewhere down the line. Maybe that should have been my plan all along–I mean, my two greatest passions are dancing and writing–but it honestly never occurred to me that the two could, like, go together. I’m now working on a piece for an art newsletter about an up-and-coming choreographer and it’s strange. Dance means using my body, using motion to tell a story. Writing means using my own voice to tell a story through words and symbols. Writing about dance feels so foreign and wrong like trying to describe a sunset to someone with no eyes.  With some practice, however, I think I could really love it.

It occurred to me when working on the choreographer story, that I’ve never really blogged much about my dance endeavors. I’ve had to make some Big Decisions about dance recently so it seems like now’s the time to fill you in on how and why dance is such a huge part of my identity:

I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a dancer. My earliest memories involve twirling around the living room in my sister’s old pink costume tutu to a worn-out tape of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” I begged to take dance classes and finally started taking pre-ballet and tap classes at a local studio. After my first recital I was hooked. I got sucked into the whole thing–the costumes, make-up, lights, the sense of accomplishment. It was a five-year old’s version of a legal addictive stimulant. Soon I started taking more and more classes and joined the studio’s competition dance team when I was about 8. “Competitions” are mostly just money-making machines that involve too much body glitter, lots of stage moms and dumb plastic trophies but it gave me the chance to perform almost every weekend and wear pretty clothes, so I was game. After a few years, I started growing tired of competitions and quickly became obsessed with ballet. I read practically every ballet book in existence, painted my walls with ballet slippers and dreamed of dancing in a “real” company. At 11, I hung up my tap shoes and began focusing on ballet exclusively.

I started training at the school of the only professional ballet company nearby and attended my first summer intensives away from home. When I realized my technique was lacking thanks to my years of less-than-perfect training, I worked three times as hard to catch up. I was obsessed. Since I was homeschooled, I could take five or six technique classes a day and a few private lessons every week with no worries about falling behind in school  I improved and excelled immensely but my perfectionist attitude only lead to increased frustration as teachers demanded more and more. I also encountered numerous physiological challenges as I entered my teens. . Thanks to genetics, I don’t have a “ballerina body.” I became increasingly frustrated with my body’s natural limits. The summer before I started high school something snapped–physically and mentally. I’d just been made a trainee with the company but I could not finish a class without bursting into tears. I’d lock myself in the studio bathroom and tell myself I’d never be good enough–as message echoed by some teachers and classmates, at least in my imagination. My back was also a mess thanks to the years I spent contorting my back into weird positions to “make it more flexible” and “lengthen” the muscles. Several vertebrae were tweaked entirely out of place and required expensive physical therapy.

My sister Rachel was in her final year in a high school fine arts program where she studied musical theater. I decided to leave the ballet company and major in dance at the same school.  That same fall a regional theater company based in Austin needed ballet dancers for one of its shows and after a few weeks of performances with them, I was hooked on new kind of dancing. I set my sights on musical theater. I refashioned myself as a dancer, taking voice lessons, jazz, tap, modern, anything I could to make myself more well-rounded. A teacher even had me in a hip-hop class for a while to “loosen me up.” That was a mistake. But dancing became fun again. I danced in musicals, I worked with choreographers from around the world and after a summer workshop in New York vowed that I would do this professionally or die trying. I almost did. Again, my perfectionist tendencies collided with several years of negative self-image and fear of being fat. I crash dieted on and off all through high school at no one’s suggestion but my own. Since this blog ins’t about my eating disorder I won’t go into too much detail, but by my junior year my disordered tendencies had spiraled into full-blown anorexia, depression and over-exercising. Thankfully, my teachers, friends and parents recognized my illness and intervened before I needed hospitalization, but at that point I wasn’t sure I’d ever mentally or physically recover. With some perseverance, I overcame my eating disorder before graduation even more determined than ever to succeed even without the “perfect body.” I was lucky that my first-ever job at sixteen involved performing at a theme park. And by “performing”  I mean smiling and posing a lot while wearing weird unitards, but still. You do what you can, y’know?

Fast forward to high school graduation. I only applied to a handful of schools–one conservatory program where I’d study modern and ballet, one liberal arts college where I would study theater dance, one liberal arts college where I’d study modern and ballet, and one joint program between a university and well-known dance company/school in NYC. (Not using the names just ’cause.) Some programs rejected me, some accepted me.  Because I had certain requirements and desires as far as cost and location I had two options. I could train with the dance company and school in NYC without earning a college degree or I could go to a private, liberal arts college in the city and dance independently. My parents insisted that I earn a degree and because the training program wasn’t quite right for me, I complied. I never  in a million years thought I would major in anything other than dance, but there I was– 17 years old in Manhattan, dance bag on one arm, backpack on the other. I was determined to conquer both worlds. I’d get a liberal arts degree while taking advantage of the New York City dance scene, auditioning at every opportunity, taking time . I knew  it wouldn’t  be easy but I wasn’t prepared for the challenges I’d face as a young dancer on my own.

Continued soon. This is way longer and more boring than expected.

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3 responses to “Writing About Dance: My Story, Part 1

  1. I like the Chronicles of Sarah. And Sarah in general.

  2. As a dancer and a journalist and a friend, I find this incredibly interesting. The world of dance can be incredibly frustrating and full of setbacks, but all of your decisions seem very grounded in who you are and who you want to be – I hope you look back at this blog and feel proud of what you’ve done 🙂 And of course, I can’t wait to read the rest.

  3. This is fun, and it’s definitely not boring. More soon, please. =]

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