Tonight I attended a showcase in which several of my former CAP21 students were performing. When I entered the lobby of the theater, a group of former students ran up to me excitedly and threw their arms around me. I couldn’t have felt more welcome and more loved. This showcase will be performed later this week for agents, casting directors and other industry professionals and it started me thinking about how we define success.
Most artists spend their entire life, their entire career, striving for success. Success; that elusive goal, that intangible finish line that we all are longing to cross, means something very different to each of us. And how we define success can mean the difference between a life in dance that is rich and satisfying and one that is marked by repeated disappointment.
When I was training, auditioning and performing, my idea of success was a Broadway Show or a first rate company; and on that point there would be no compromising. If I couldn’t dance on Broadway, in NYCB or in ABT everything else would be a compromise. So I spent my 20’s and 30’s working toward that goal. And every job I got along the way (and there were many, many jobs) was viewed merely as a stepping stone toward that ultimate dream. Every regional theater gig, every off-Broadway show, children’s theater, music video, T.V. show, commercial and small dance company was simply another step along that road to “success”. When I reached my mid-30’s and still had not achieved what I set out to achieve, I simply retired. I figured: “What was the point of continuing?” I was getting near the age when dancers become less employable. I was competing with younger and younger dancers with the kinds of credits on their resumes that I longed for. I was, in my mind, a failure. And so I left the industry and turned my energies elsewhere. I didn’t feel angry; and surprisingly, I didn’t feel disappointed. I just simply felt like I was done.
After nine years (during which I didn’t dance a single step) I was brought by a friend to take an open class at one of the big and famous studios in N.Y.C.. And I was “home”. I had forgotten what it was like to move. I had forgotten what it was like to feel the music, sense the excitement and explode across the studio. The sounds, the smells, the feelings were intoxicating. It was amazing. It was also heart breaking because I realized that my narrow-minded definition of success and my need to ACHIEVE kept me from doing the one thing that I truly loved for all those years. It was also heart breaking because I knew that now, well into my forties, I would never again dance the way I did when I was young. I thought I had experienced pain before, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional roller coaster of despair that was brought upon by that single class. And so, after much soul searching, I decided to start taking that class; just twice a week. I struck up a friendship with the instructor and I was dancing again. After some time, this instructor asked me to sub the class for him. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me to teach, and this studio was literally world-famous. But when this world-famous studio got a look at my resume, they said “NO”. And there I was…once again a failure. I decided to take that class with the sub…the class that I believed should have been mine. And one year later that substitute teacher recommended me for my first teaching job at CAP21. And after that came The Manhattan Ballet School, and Hunter College, and New York Film Academy, and Broadway Dance Center, and my beloved Joffrey Ballet School (and all of the fantastic opportunities to guest teach across the country- and soon in Europe). And yet, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, was that little voice reminding me of that “world-famous” school that wouldn’t hire me because I was a FAILURE.
I started talking to colleagues about their careers; their definitions of success. And I learned something very interesting: almost everyone I spoke to felt the same way. In fact, a dancer with more than 10 Broadway shows to her credit confessed to me that she was miserable her entire career because she was terrified that the dance world would realize that she wasn’t any good. Another dancer with many prestigious credits, including having danced for Balanchine, Robbins and Feld told me that she felt like a failure because she couldn’t get into ABT. Yet a studio owner that I know, who has been running a lovely neighborhood dance school for more than 30 years feels fulfilled and content because, as she put it: “I have enriched the lives of children for my entire working life. And my former students bring THEIR children to be trained by me…and what could be a bigger compliment?”.
So I am re-adjusting how I look at success. A few weeks ago, a head hunter emailed me about a position at a very prestigious school. And whether I get this job or not- someone thought enough of my work, my reputation, my level of SUCCESS to submit me for this position. And as I look back on my career I am seeing my past through different eyes. I am seeing an adult beginner who had a busy dancing career and a gainfully employed teacher who’s students are appreciative and have gone on to careers of their own. But I think my biggest success was the most personal and the quietest: the day I set foot in that open class, in my mid-forties, 50 pounds over weight, completely out of shape and danced. That day I danced into my new life.
So to all of my students who performed tonight…to all of the artists that read this article: be wary of how you define success. We can not define success in the arts by dollars and cents. We all know of GREAT artists who were unable to carve out a living. George Seurat never sold a painting in his lifetime. We may think that we can define success by a Broadway show, or a major dance company…but I can point you toward many artists who have had those jobs that still feel like failures. Success in the arts is best defined (in my opinion) by the joy that you get from the doing of the work and the impact that you have on others. And with a full heart I am looking toward what I hope will be my next 30 years of teaching, because every moment in the studio is a gift and every class that I teach will touch my students and help guide them toward the success they so richly deserve.