There seems to be an epidemic of dancers and young teachers comparing themselves to their colleagues; watching as these peers secure performing contracts and teaching assignments that they feel should be their’s; wondering what they might be missing. I recently read an Internet post where a young teacher simply posed the question: “What do they have that I don’t? Is it a confidence thing?”.
Well I made these comparisons for years: “If I had only started younger like “He” did… If I was only as tall as “He” is… If I could only choreograph the way “He”does… then I would get the part, the contract, the job.”
And I would try to dance like the dancers that got the contracts. I would try to teach like the teachers that got the jobs. I would try to choreograph like the choreographers who got the assignments. I would look in the mirror and hate my body: hate the fact that I’m only 5’5″, hate the fact that my body proportions are far from ideal, hate the fact that I wasn’t flexible…no mater how much I stretched. And I would watch my friends and colleagues get the jobs that I wanted, the contracts that I thought I deserved, the classes that I believed I should be teaching. But trying to be LIKE another dancer/teacher/choreographer is not productive, and the envy that grows out of these comparisons can be dangerous.
I always seem to be the last one to the party. I started dancing extremely late and I started teaching even later. And although I certainly never had the performing career of a Baryshnikov, the choreography career of a Robbins or the teaching career of a Vaganova, I seem to have been able to carve out a career for myself. And it all happened quite by chance and very unexpectedly. And, as it all unfolded, I gained a deeper insight into this industry.
Before I had ever considered a serious teaching career, I was a retired dancer with a respectable but modest resume, taking an occasional class at one of the major drop-in studios in NYC. The teacher who’s class I had been taking regularly had asked me to sub his class. I was honored and thrilled. But when the studio got my resume, they told me “no” and that they would find the sub. I looked this sub’s Bio on the website, and at that time, she had 15 Broadway credits to her name. I was INCREDIBLY DISAPPOINTED that the studio wouldn’t allow me to teach. I was also incredibly envious of the performing resume of this teacher and the fact that she would be teaching the class that I thought should have been mine. But I thought “15 Broadway shows…I gotta see what this gal’s got to give”. So I put on my “big boy pants” took the class, and it was fantastic. And we chatted after that class…and more than a year later that teacher recommended me for a teaching job at CAP21. And that recommendation changed my life forever.
Armed with this new job on my resume, I set out to get more teaching work. But I kept hitting the same roadblocks. I also started reading posts in some on-line groups, where dance teachers would discuss their careers/problems/opinions. I read these posts with a lot of interest but never really contributed aside from clicking “like”. But then I happened upon a thread that really caught my interest. I can’t remember what the topic was, but after months of reading posts, I finally felt compelled to write a response. Many, many teachers had responded on this thread, and I had a completely different opinion than everyone else in the discussion. So I wrote my response, MY opinion. And that response spurred a very long line of comments, which ended with a teacher writing: “Would you come guest teach at my studio?”. And the clouds parted and the sun came through.
I realized that comparing myself to the teachers who are working isn’t going to get me a career, just as comparing my self to dancers who were working didn’t get me a career. Envying these teachers and wishing I was more like them is only going to lead to misery. I CAN’T BE THEM. I only have one thing that I can bring to the table…and that’s my unique perspective. So I started looking at what I had to offer that was unique: I had trained with legendary teachers; in fact I can trace my lineage directly to Cecchetti and Vaganova. I also studied jazz with Luigi for nearly 30 years. And since I started dancing so late, I had a completely unique perspective on how to “make a dancer”. I also have extensive music training. So I started changing the way I taught. I started being “ME” in the studio. I started teaching what I KNOW and what I BELIEVE, and I started teaching it the way I thought it should be taught. The students’ response was overwhelming! And I stopped comparing myself to those teachers who’s careers were skyrocketing past mine. And THEN things started to happen. I started this Blog and the guest teaching offers started pouring in from all over the country. In fact this past week, for the first time, I received inquiries from two schools from over seas. And the list of schools at which I regularly teach in NY started to grow to include Hunter College, New York Film Academy, Molloy College, Broadway Dance Center and the Joffrey Ballet School (which is like my home away from home).
So when I talk to struggling teachers, I encourage them to do some deep and personal work. I suggest that they look for the things that they have to give that are unique to them. I tell them to make what THEY ALONE can bring to the class room their focus, rather than useless comparisons. And every day when I walk into the studio, I try to pass my “Ah ha” moment on to my students. I try to teach them not to compare themselves to the dancer next to them who is taller, thinner and more flexible. I encourage them to stop wishing that they had more pirouettes, or a higher extension, or a more expressive arabesque. Luigi often said: “To dance, put your hand on your heart and listen to the sound of your soul”. So I hope I can teach my students MY way, and steer them away from useless comparisons and dangerous envy. And if students can start to tap into their souls, and bring their unique and authentic selves to the studio and stage (and that is probably the hardest, deepest and most personal work a dancer can do) perhaps we can grow a generation of beautiful communicative artists who celebrate THEIR gifts. And what would be more thrilling to watch on the stage?