Leave a Message, I’m on Vacation

By Kegan Marling

December 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

To describe my relationship with dance as “love-hate” would be a gross understatement. In the years since I first spun barefoot across the rec-center multi-purpose room at Olinder Elementary, I’ve fallen into and out of love with dance a number of times. The first falling out was over gender identity. I was a teenage ballet dancer about to start classes at an all-boys school. Being an awkward, scrawny red-head wasn’t going to win many friends and ballet wasn’t going to help. So I quit.

Dance courted me back in college and the following ten years would be filled with varying degrees of passion, abuse and neglect including countless injuries, self-inflicted torment and woefully tragic costumes.

By last winter my body was tired and struggling to recover from a rib injury. I wanted to save money for the future (which dance couldn’t provide), I felt uncreative and was craving some semblance of a social life. It seemed I was due for another vacation from dance.

I have some theories about dancers, one of which is that we don’t know when to stop. It can be seen in barely edited choreography and in dancers unaware of the strength in stillness. While most athletes have an off season, dancers move from one project to the next, often overlapping multiple projects.

But we don’t take vacations. We have periods of time that are a bit slower—which often get promptly filled with part-time work. We occasionally stop for short periods because an injury is so intense that to do otherwise would imperil our career. But to willingly take time away from dancing just doesn’t seem to make sense to most artists. And I think there are some problems with that.

Breaking from dance can be horrible. For all the reasons that made it clear I should take a break, I created just as many reasons why I needed to keep dancing. I worried I would be forgotten or replaced. That the break would halt my career and I would be unable to get it back on track. My fitness level would decline. I’d lose the respect of my peers. And what I feared most deeply was losing my sense of identity as an artist.

Some of those concerns are legitimate. My health did decline a bit—or rather my belly decided to have a growth spurt. And the career concerns are a reality—when you pass over a dance job there are 600 others waiting in line to take it. That’s the problem with a profession that has hordes of practitioners and a handful of positions. In fact, one of the hardest (and also most freeing) things I’ve done this year has been to watch younger, stronger and stunningly talented dancers take on parts that I once performed. The reality is that as dancers, we are replaceable.

But the hardest challenge for me was the forthcoming identity crisis. In elementary school, I knew my career would involve dolphins, electronics and lego. In my teens, career planning resulted in spells of indecisiveness (the same kind that strikes me every time I look over a dinner menu). In college, I found myself drifting between subjects and my family quickly learned to avoid bringing it up at holidays. But eventually I realized dance was the one constant in my life—and it was easy to let it prioritize things: dance, food, income, social life, sleep.

So the real pain of the break was acknowledging the things I had put on the back burner: discarded relationships, a non-existent social life and a slew of hobbies that had been shelved to make room for dance.

This is where we can make the most of our careers—in the breaks and transitions. Saying no to dance—no to classes, no to rehearsals, no to performing—brings some amazing results.

It brings perspective. As performers, we have an internal sense of the work we do and I often wonder what a piece must look like to the audience. Taking that break from dance was like stepping off the stage and standing in the audience. It brought me perspective on the changes I want to make in my career. Before my dance vacation, I thought performing nonstop was what I wanted most in my life. I’ve since realized that one worthwhile project a year satisfies my craving for dance, and still offers the time and freedom for a social life.

Breaks also allow for recovery and recuperation. For example, vacations have been shown to reduce the likelihood of coronary heart disease and heart attacks by 20-30 percent (though dance isn’t a profession often associated with heart problems). For me it certainly allowed time for my rib to heal and muscles to mend, as well as time for my body to rest. In the same way our bodies need 8 hours of sleep to properly repair cellular damage from the previous day, we need vacations to repair the major injuries and exhaustions that build up over the course of a year.

And vacations allow time for other things to come into focus. Like failing miserably at learning the guitar. Or going to Mexico for 10 days with friends and pretending you never have to come back.

Finding the time for creating a life outside of dance was hard. Considering the intimacy dancers have with each other in rehearsal, it makes sense that we enjoy the company of other dancers when we’re out socializing. It’s a necessary support group in a profession that can feel misunderstood by the greater community. But it’s also isolating, like new couples blissfully unaware of the rest of the universe—wanting to spend their time with those that understand them the most. But breaking from your peer group brings with it new communities and new experiences—and studies show that when we experience new things, you stimulate production of the same brain chemicals involved in romantic love. Reason enough to try new things!

So I encourage you to stop for a moment. Say no to dance. You’ve earned the vacation.

As I enter the 11th month of vacation, I look at all the wonderful things I’ve learned: rehearsals don’t need to keep me from a good nights sleep, hiking and painting can be as important to my creative growth as dance classes—and the wonderful part of this vacation is that I’m falling in love with dance again.

This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of In Dance.

Kegan Marling is a visual & movement artist and arts consultant from the San Francisco Bay Area. Influenced by artists Della Davidson, Lea Anderson, Brian Thorstenson and Joe Goode, their work focuses on alternative queer communities, dance and theatre artists, body positivity and documenting queer pursuits of play – including gaymers, pups, drag artists, wrestlers and faeries. Their work has appeared in venues & publications including the de Young Museum, Frameline Film Festival, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, National Queer Arts Festival and SF General Hospital. (keganmarling.org)