Taming the Diva

I read a post in a dance teachers’ chat group about handling students who have become a bit of a “Diva”. I, myself, am actually dealing with a student who is exhibiting this behavior. And as I read the various responses and the various strategies for dealing with this personality, this behavior; I came to a realization: We all, as artists, have an “Inner Diva”.

This “Diva” lives inside us. She thinks that she is there to protect us, support us, defend us and truly believes that she always acts in our best interest. Some of us keep her deep within ourselves while others allow her to reside closer to the surface. But as I read these posts, and I thought about my career journey over the last seven years, I realized that keeping my Diva under control literally paved the way to my career goals. When we allow her to come to the surface (and we all do, at times) it can be for any one of many reasons ranging from insecurity, fear and poor self image to entitlement arrogance, and an inflated sense of one’s own abilities and talents. But whatever the reason, be it positive or negative, our inner a Diva is not really there to help; she serves only to sabotage and destroy.

When I first returned to dancing after a nine year absence from the industry, I started taking class from a very well-known teacher at an extremely prestigious studio in New York City. One day this teacher asked me if I wanted to sub for him. I had never really thought about teaching, but to say I was thrilled would be an understatement. However, the studio had “other plans” for a sub that Tuesday afternoon. I was incredibly disappointed. And the my Inner Diva started whispering in my ear:

“Well you aren’t going to take that class are you? That is supposed to be YOUR class. YOU are supposed to be teaching that class. YOU were the choice of the regular teacher. If you had any self respect at all you would steer clear of that studio today.”

But I pushed her down, as deep as I could. Some other voice was telling me to go to the studio that day; to swallow my pride and take class with the sub who was teaching in my stead; the job that I should have had. And so I put on my “Big-Boy Pants”and I went and took that class. The teacher was Lisa Gajda; and if you don’t know her name, let’s start with the fact that she has 17 Broadway shows on her resume. 17. I stood in the back of the room, quietly doing my plies. She came up to me and asked, in a somewhat accusational but also humorous tone. “Who are you?”

“No one” I responded.

“Because I’m looking at you” she said, “and I’m thinking that there are some things that YOU should be teaching ME”.

After the class we chatted briefly. I told her what had transpired regarding the regular teacher asking me to sub. We exchanged email addresses; but didn’t really stay in touch.

One summer morning, two years later, I woke up, opened my email, and read the following message:

“Dear Bill,

I am the chair of the dance depart at the musical theater conservatory CAP21. We are in need of a ballet teacher on Monday and Wednesday mornings and we got your name and email address from Lisa Gajda…”

TWO YEARS LATER.

And my Inner Diva tried to sabotage that job.

One day I got a call from a colleague asking me the following question:

“Would you like to play Drosselmeyer in a student Nutcracker ? The pay isn’t very much but I thought I would ask”.

And there she was, my Inner Diva, getting ready to say:

“Are you out of your mind? I was a PROFESSIONAL! Why on earth would I play Drosselmeyer in a student production for almost no money? How insulting!”

But instead, I quickly put my hand over her mouth and said:

“I’m not sure I have time to do it, but I can certainly meet with the choreographer.”

So an appointment was set, and I arrived at the Manhattan Ballet School. It was a tiny little “Jewel Box” of a studio; completely lost in time…like something out of The Red Shoes. The owner of the studio had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She had to be close to 90 years old. There was a picture of her in the studio dancing with FRED ASTAIRE. She threw her arms around me and welcomed me to her school. And during our conversation about her Nutcracker she offered me a teaching job! Once again, I got a teaching job that my Inner Diva tried to prevent.

When I first returned to the dance industry after a nine year absence I was extremely overweight, middle aged and looked nothing like anyone’s idea of a dancer. One day I rolled into the Joffrey Ballet School to take an open class. I signed up for “Intermediate Ballet”, put on my sweat pants and bit T-shirt and took my spot at the barre. The teacher came into the room, took one look at me and assumed I belonged in the “Adult Beginner” class and had wandered into the wrong room. She asked:

“Have you ever danced before?”

“Yes” I responded.

“Ballet!?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes” I responded.

“OK” she said, with a tiny bit of a smirk and a bit of an eye roll.

And my Inner Diva, once again, started clawing to the surface. She was dying to say:

“Excuse me…but you do not know who you are talking to. I was a professional dancer with musical theater, concert dance, music video, television and commercial credits. Who do you think you are?”

But again…I stifled her. It wasn’t easy. I felt slighted, insulted, judged. But I made sure that my Diva said nothing. I saw the look of surprise on the teacher’s face when I did that first plié. And it was this teacher who became a cherished friend and helped me secure my position at my beloved Joffrey Ballet School; a position that literally changed my entire life and a position that my Inner Diva once again tried to prevent.

As I got older I began to look at things differently. As I got older my priorities changed. And one of those changes was that I really no longer cared that much about what other people thought. And that change certainly makes it easier to control my Inner Diva. I often tell my students:

“Every time you get hired to dance in New York, there are dozens of other dancers who are better than you, standing outside that studio door, waiting for your job. No one is THAT good.”

I have seen fine dancers lose jobs because of their Inner Diva. I have seen fine teachers lose jobs because of their Inner Diva. She is not there to protect you and she is not there to help you. The help that you need in this brutal industry can only be supplied by your authentic self: the REAL YOU. The YOU that has shortcomings, the YOU that has insecurities, the YOU that has kindness, compassion and humility. Those are the characteristics that will allow you to bring something rich, interesting and beautiful to the stage and to the classroom. Those are the characteristics that people want to hire and work with. Those are the characteristics that will pave the way to your career goals.

2 thoughts on “Taming the Diva

  1. Dear Bill,
    I am so touched by this article you wrote and the experiences and stories you shared. The last piece is so well said and I couldn’t agree to it more. The same philosophy applies to all fields and all moments of life.

    I had a HUGE “inner diva” when I was a little girl (probably still have it haha) and had mixed up self-pride with arrogance. But through so many amazing friends, teachers (like you) I have encountered as a role model, I learned that “who I am” is not important. What important is “how” I do things. And if I could serve others through the things I do and how I do them, it will be even better. Therefore, people could misunderstand, misinterpret and even think less of me. But it doesn’t matter. I will let my works, the results to speak for me. Meanwhile, I will answer the misunderstandings, misinterpretations etc with a smile. It is definitely a journey, requiring a lot of practice, self-correction and kind reminders from friends.

    Thank you again for the amazing stories you shared. As always, I feel grateful to know you and be your student.

    Best,
    Summer

    Like

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