I’ve been thinking lately about how dancing can affect someone’s life in general, whether they continue to dance past high school and college or not. As a teacher I had many talented students who went on to study dance at the university level. Some found their way to NYC and Broadway, others are teaching dance, but many have gone into separate fields altogether. When I was younger I used to think that I had to be involved in dance or else all the hours I’d spent perfecting my craft were for naught. But is it true that what we learn in the dance studio can’t apply somehow toward our life in general? That there aren’t lessons about working hard, little by little, to see a change several weeks or months down the road that can help us no matter where we end up?
It saddens me that I’m no longer involved in dance the way I used to be. When my family moved away from Kentucky to live closer to my husband’s family in North Carolina, we left behind a thriving dance supply store (Dance Essentials, Inc.) and I left a wonderful teaching post as director of the ballet program at Town and Village School of Dance in Paris, Kentucky. My parents kept the store running for a few more years before selling it and joining us in North Carolina, and on a recent trip through Kentucky we stopped to find that the store had closed for good. It was sad to see our small legacy stamped out, so to speak. But I believe there was a higher purpose for our lives and it was time to move on.
Three years after moving to North Carolina, my father-in-law developed an aggressive, malignant brain tumor. We lived a short drive away—we could even walk if we had to—and it was a blessing to be available if he fell down and needed help. We were at his side when he passed from this world, and though we miss him terribly, we feel blessed that we were given those few years to spend with him. We witnessed a most impressive and dignified journey toward the end of life as he knew it, and saw his faith in God and the world-to-come gently bud and flower.
When we came here it was necessary for me to find a “real” job immediately, since my husband had not found work yet. I landed a job with First Union Bank (which became Wachovia, then became Wells Fargo) doing support work and developing simple reports in Excel and PowerPoint. From there I learned how to manipulate some simple Access database back ends, and started building a few new databases to make the reporting I was doing more automated.My father-in-law was not surprised by my interest and ability to jump right into software development. He was a project manager working on IT-related projects at Bank of America and elsewhere, and he encouraged me to move into the IT field full force. He saw that software development had a creative side and dancing had a technical side, so the two fields in his mind were a perfect fit, and the transition wasn’t as difficult for me as you might think.
Although I enjoy my work, my passion has always been dancing. I probably couldn’t teach a class to save my life now, but I did manage to teach for a year at Dance Davidson. My daughters took dance until their interest waned and they moved on to other activities. And my body went through a transformation with fibromyalgia that on the worst of days made moving a fraction of an inch excruciatingly painful; on the best of days I would be able to go without a nap, but most days I was so exhausted it was all I could do to stay awake through work and fall into bed for a nap before supper, only to hit the sack again at 8:30 p.m. No matter how much sleep I got I was still exhausted every morning.
So I wonder at times how dancing has enabled me to do the things I’ve done that aren’t dance-related, and it’s amazing what I’ve discovered. I have not missed any days of work due to my fibromyalgia. From the reading I’ve done, many people with the illness miss work and apply for disability. That was never an option for me. I had gone to ballet class day in and day out, whether I had menstrual cramps or not—even the day after I had a wisdom tooth pulled I was there, modifying things slightly to adjust to my sore and swollen jaw. Whatever mood I may have been, even when I was fasting for my religion…I was at ballet every single day. The discipline of that alone has had a tremendous impact on my life. As a mother, I find myself counseling my children to suck it up (using more motherly wording, of course—“You’ll feel better once you get to school,” for example!) because they use every excuse in the book to get out of doing things. I can see that limping through life on excuses is not an option and I don’t want them to get into that habit.
We learn as dancers to accept our limitations for what they are on any particular day, and to deal with and adjust to those minute by minute. Our balance may be off on one day because we have a cold, it might be hard to feel lifted because we’re having menstrual cramps, or a muscle or tendon is pulled or sore from overuse. We learn to adapt. Almost every dancer has some sort of ailment they are working to minimize. Wrapping an ankle because of tendinitis, wearing leg warmers and coming early to warm up stiff joints, applying ice packs…you can look at dancers in class and sometimes you can see evidence of their adjusting to ailments and sometimes you can’t.
There are times we go to class even when we’re sad or not in the mood. I can tell you that when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona and was going through a difficult emotional time (divorce), far from my family in Indiana, I suffered from panic attacks and depression weeks before I finally sought medical help. (Here is another good article about how a mental health diagnosis can be empowering.) But did I miss class? No way! I remember going into the small closet we used as teaching assistants to change our clothes (where we stored the CD players and equipment), crying my eyes out and then pulling myself together enough to face fifty tap or ballet students in the elective classes I taught. Somehow I managed, and it has made me a more resilient person to this very day. Suffering from hardships and going through the motions (no pun intended!) in ballet class every day kept me grounded and gave me a sense of peace I couldn’t have found anywhere else at that time in my life.
And now I am where I am, mothering three lovely children and teaching them lessons I learned about working through difficulties and never giving in or giving up on your dreams, simply by taking each day at a time and doing your best…minute by minute.