Dance, revisited

For many, dance moves past a hobby into an important social and physical activity. These extensions can provide both additional stress but also additional significance to dance. Photo by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash.

There is a certain beauty in running a column specifically designed to cover anything that’s been occupying significant space in my mind – particularly in the fact that I can choose to revisit topics anytime I like. If I’m obsessing over something, I have the opportunity to word-vomit onto a printed page to alleviate the weight of it on my head. So with that being said, welcome to Maddie’s dance column 2.0: summer alumni performance edition.  

For those unfamiliar, I wrote last semester about my own highly-complicated relationship with the dance world after 15 years embedded in it, centering on the need for inclusivity (which, for dance, would require intense reform of tradition). But I’m not done writing about dance quite yet.  

This summer, I had the opportunity to return to my old studio – something I swore at 18 I would never do – in an alumni-performance capacity at their summer recital. I was back with the friends I grew up with, having parted ways to attend different colleges nearly three years ago. My biggest takeaway from this experience is that the ways you interact with dance – or any art – matter. For so many, dance is more than just a hobby. At my peak in dance, it was my physical activity, my social world and my creative outlet all wrapped up into one, and for some, it could become a career. Thus, something with such weight requires deliberate interactions.  

“Interesting” is perhaps the best word I have to explain the experience of going back to something I considered my entire life during my formative years, especially considering my relationship with dance back then was not an entirely positive one. Dance, particularly ballet, is a perfectionist’s paradise, and therefore exacerbated a lot of negative tendencies I already had. I was highly critical, motivated purely by a fear of failure, and focused only on tangible results. I knew going into this summer performance that I was opening a can of worms I had slammed shut and refused to deal with a few years ago.  

Any hobby requires balance. Knowing when to quit things that are stressful are to you is one of the most important steps to take in enjoying the things you do. Photo by Adriana Aceves on Unsplash.

In fact, some of my friends were hesitant to let me return to the alumni team. They either remembered my stress-consumed dancer persona or have heard enough horror stories I now tell as jokes – because who doesn’t cope with humor – to be rightfully concerned for my wellbeing if I were to return.  

Long story short, despite these concerns I survived yet another recital and yet another dance season, but only because I set deliberate boundaries. I told myself when I agreed to perform again that if I reached a point where it was more negative than positive, even by the smallest margin, I would stop. Part of that comes with being an adult now – I have a certain level of confidence in my judgment and autonomy over my actions that I didn’t have as a young teenager. And it worked out – I had a great time, being able to dance with some of my closest friends again in a low-stakes capacity.  

But it didn’t work out because the dance world has barely changed since I was directly involved. If anything, it was exactly the same. I still heard the same negative comments about my body. It still tried to consume all of my energy and all of my free time. Both the tights and stage fright felt the same as they did when I was in high school. Perhaps there’s enough there to say there is no merit to something with so many negatives. As it exists, dance does more harm than good, so how can it be good at all? The dance world is not inclusive – if anything it’s deliberately exclusive. But can the pros of art, personal expression and friendship outweigh the cons of perfectionism, exclusivity and overall toxicity

If I had to set such specific boundaries to even make an alumni performance without returning to the dance Bad Place(™) there are clearly large underlying issues, especially considering I myself am white, relatively thin and able to afford to dance, three main demographics that dance caters itself towards and privileges.  

Though I am usually opinionated to a fault, this is a case I’m not sure there’s a clear answer to. Is dance good? At its core, I believe it is. Dance is art, focusing on movement of the body, freedom and expression. But in its current state, the dance world is something to be handled with a ten-foot pole, unless we’re working to change it.  

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