Dancers go in day after day to repeat the same movements over and over. It can be grueling and numbing, but of course there are moments of brilliant success that brighten up the day; your variation goes smoothly, you hit every difficult turn in class, or a coveted role is assigned. Dance is rigorous, repetitive, and unforgiving, but the glamour often associated with it comes only on stage. And as with most things that happen on a stage that is where it stays. The life of a dancer is not glamorous, we are usually overworked and underpaid and worst despite being a group with a very high skill level in a very difficult field we are wildly underappreciated by our employers. No the glamour is something we put on to go on stage and just like the costumes, makeup and pointe shoes we take it off to go home when the show is over. Okay you say, so its not as it appears from the outside, but then why do you dance?
Why do I dance? It is the question that has haunted my life, asked of me countless times by those closest to me and regularly by complete strangers. When someone learns that you are a ballet dancer the most common reactions are either a mix of surprise and delight, like you are some rare creature that they doubted existed or incredulity and amazement of what I can never be quite sure. Either that you are willing to make all the sacrifices that the life of a dancer requires or that you are so much of a dreamer that you would make such an impractical life choice. Either way the question comes, why do you dance?
I have answered this question many ways over the years. The easy answer and the one I usually give to strangers is that I love it; it is my passion. This is not a lie, but it is only a portion of the true answer. Over the past few months the more complex and complete answer to this question has been nagging at me along with the question is it enough? That is to say are my reasons for dancing still worth the sacrifices?
I have made many sacrifices in the pursuit of ballet and those closest to me have made their fair share as well. And now that I have chased this dream all the way to Siberia and still not quite found it, the time has come to get very honest with myself about why I dance.
When I first pose this question to myself I think it’s the passion: for pushing the body to its limits of flexibility, endurance, strength, and grace. But its also the beauty of the positions, their symmetry and length. It is the ability to put into movement what we hear in the music, what we feel, but cannot put into words. But then I waver and wonder while all those things are true maybe it has become about the routine, dancers are after all creatures of habit. And worst maybe it is just the fear of giving up on something I have spent almost my entire life pursuing.
But since coming to Russia and joining the Omsk State Musical Theater I have lost this feeling. Most of me believe this is because of the way the company is run. They treat every class as a warm up to be done as quickly as possible. Of course barre is about warming up, but in my experience it allows dancers the time to center themselves, find what is going well that day and what will require an extra push. There is always enough time to work hard to focus on different aspects of the technique and artistry before ever stepping into center.
Not here, here it is solely about going through the motions as if we are just putting on the act of being a ballet company. It is frustrating and depressing and makes me miss the way I used to feel when I danced. So, then maybe the problem is not between ballet, and me but between this company and me. And I hope that once I return to the US and return to one of my old studios I will feel at home with ballet again.
Even with that comfort in the back of my mind I still feel compelled to continue analyzing my reasons for dancing. At this point in my life, no longer a teenager chasing a dream, but an adult in the midst of life I feel I owe it to myself and to my husband to make sure that I am still on the right path.
The reasons why I love ballet are clear to me, so then why question staying with it? Because I now know that there are other things I want out of life and ballet makes achieving them seem difficult and maybe even unlikely. For me ballet has meant a life of instability: constantly ready to move for a job offer, often between contracts, continuously low on money, and always searching for what’s next. This lifestyle makes many things people associate with a normal life difficult. Little things like deciding to decorate the apartment or buy a new piece of furniture and big important things like starting a family or saving for the future. The starving artist life might look romantic in the movies, but in real life it sucks.
I love ballet, but it has required putting the rest of my life on hold. I was okay with that for a long time, in fact I even thought it was part of the deal, part of the sacrifices necessary to gain entry into the selective ranks of those who have succeeded at the dream. But it is no longer just my life that I am putting on hold, I have been married for almost two years and Andrey has patiently waited while we put my career before everything else. And now I feel the world tugging on me towards the desire to live life with my husband and maybe chasing the dream is not enough to keep shutting the door to everything else.
To keep pushing forward hoping to be one of the lucky ones or to set the dream on a shelf and get on with life, it is an enormous question to face and at the moment all I can do is keep looking for the answer.