Dancers who have never questioned their path to become performers inspire me. For a long time I thought that slipping seamlessly into one’s dream dance company, without question or deviation, was an indication of a dancer’s talent, confidence and commitment. But that’s not realistic. The path we carve isn’t always linear; life happens, new desires and interests surface, and unpredictable circumstances tug and pull us in different directions. As I consider my own new year’s resolution this past January to return to dance, I wonder about other dancers’ experience taking time off. Is there a time limit? An age cap? There seems to be an often unrealistic pressure that dancers must outrun time in order to achieve god-like physical vitality. But at what cost? What happens when the path is unclear? Does walking away make returning impossible? Or is stepping back sometimes necessary to move forward?
Granted, for dancers, who are intrinsically invested in movement, stopping isn’t easy. In his 2008 In Dance article Leave a Message, I’m on Vacation, performer, artist and arts-administrator, Kegan Marling comments, “I have some theories about dancers, one of which is we don’t know when to stop.” I think many dancers can attest to Marling’s remark. Similarly, when asked about her experience taking time off from dance, Artistic Director of SoulForce Dance Company and Producer/Artistic Director of the SF Hop Hop DanceFest, Micaya, comments, “I’m always wrapped up in my livelihood in my body’s abilities–which has been scary. Coming back was fine–stopping is hard.”
What makes it so hard for dancers to stop? Marling explains his own fears of being replaced by other dancers, of losing athletic stamina, and of facing the possibility of identity crises. When it comes down to it, leaving is risky. When you leave anything, you risk coming back changed, if you come back at all. But while change is scary, I think for artists, and dancers especially, change is crucial.
Marling suggests that breaks and change are necessary for gaining new 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,” says Marling. “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.”
For current Robert Moses’ Kin dancer Natasha Adorlee Johnson, taking time off from dance allowed her to re-discover her love for dance. Johnson decided to stop dancing after multiple injuries and personal insecurities left her feeling overall frustrated with the work she was doing. Her time off allowed her to come to terms with her dancing. Johnson explains, “The time I took off was the most instrumental moment in my life in terms of my career in dance and my personal happiness. I went back to school, I took up DJ-ing–which has now lead me to my other favorite job: making music–and I really came to terms with my demons. As cheesy as it sounds, I learned to completely accept myself and love all of me.”
After a year and a half of time away from the studio, dance called her back. “Coming back to dance was a decision I made because I wanted to take class, I wasn’t interested in a professional career when I came back. But because I came back to the table with such a heavy weight off my shoulders, there was so much more joy brought back to dance for me,” says Johnson who upon returning to dance started working with Robert Moses’ Kin. “I came back because I was on my terms again and removed the judgment I had for myself that was holding me back from having the career I wanted.”
Deciding to take time off or choosing to pursue different paths can remind us that we don’t have to think of dance in all-or-nothing terms but instead as an art form with endless possibilities. Instead of choosing school over dance, or vice versa, writer and dancer, Emily Hite, chose both. After leaving the Sacramento Ballet as a full-time company member to attend Stanford University, Hite continued to dance for many choreographers and companies. “My dancing during and after college has taken place on a freelance basis or as part of an academic curriculum, so I don’t think of it in terms of a stand-alone career even though I’ve felt fully committed to the projects and they have returned richly rewarding experiences,” says Hite. “Pursuing dance in this way can open a life to interesting detours and grant freedom from worrying about falling off a linear career path. I do, however, miss the intensity of dancing all day, every day, which has its own benefits.”
Just as school and dance don’t have to be mutually exclusive, dancing can co-exist and thrive from the non-dancing aspects of life. In the case of parenthood, the process of giving birth to a child isn’t unlike the artistic process of dance. Both former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Tina LeBlanc and current ODC/Dance dancer Yayoi Kambara not only maintained successful dance careers after becoming mothers but both feel that taking time to have children allowed them to reach their fullest potential as artists.
For Kambara being able to alter choreographic material with ODC/Dance allowed her to perform in KT Nelson’s The Water Project at eight and a half months pregnant. She gave birth in April and was back rehearsing full time with ODC/Dance by the end of August. Becoming a mother and taking five months off gave Kambara a profound new perspective on her art form. “As a mother, knowing my child is happy, well rested, and fed, is the most important thing which makes the surface-level vanities of being a dancer completely disappear. My body looks different from before I had a child, but I am stronger in many ways because I have done so,” says Kambara. “I think anything that asks you to work differently–injury, pregnancy, or any other physical changes–actually invites you to have a different experience as a dancer. And if you have the strength to really change the way you think you should be dancing, then you can really change how you perceive yourself as an artist and how you participate in your art.”
For Tina LeBlanc returning to ballet after giving birth was difficult but rewarding. LeBlanc says, “Coming back after four months was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done (although rehab-ing for eight months after my torn ACL and surgery rivals it) because I was completely alone and my body had been through so many changes. I found a studio near where I lived that would let me use their space during the day. I would take the baby in his car seat and I would stretch and work out as much as I could fit into the time before he would wake up from his nap. I was so out of shape that I had to do just barre for about a month; and it wasn’t until the end of that month that I could actually do a grand battement.” However LeBlanc pushed through the challenges of getting back into physical shape, watched company rehearsals for inspiration and after delivering her second son in the beginning of February was back in shape and ready to work by the beginning of July for the next rehearsal period. Ultimately taking time off to have her children allowed her to reach her fullest potential as a dancer and artist. “I really feel that having my children and taking that much time off has broadened me as a person, performer and artist. I feel that the peak of my career, where my physical performance and my artistry were on the same level, came after my second child.”
I believe that life experience, whether inside or outside the dance studio, shapes a dancer’s artistry. We don’t have to think of taking time off as inconvenient, or as the end of our dance careers, but instead as an opportunity to regain our inner strength and re-discover what it means to dance. Hite puts it best when she suggests that there’s no such thing as lost time. “Every break has served to broaden my life experience, so I believe that time lost dancing has been well spent in other ways. It’s empowering to know you have options: taking time off and choosing to dance again can remind you of what you still want to learn, and what more you have to contribute.”
Katie Gaydos is a freelance writer and dancer in the Bay Area.