Another season of ballet has come to an end, and to say that I have a complicated relationship with this career would be an understatement.
Oh, there are many beautiful things inherent in pursuing an art form that I've been part of since I was four years old. There are the exhilarating moments onstage when you express through movement that overwhelming joy you feel bubbling up inside, or the intimate moments when you dance out a deep struggle or an emotional journey. There is the worship that results from moving the way God called you to, the way a performance can sometimes feel like it is just you and Him, and yet at the same time you get to share that experience in front of an audience. There is the laughter in rehearsals and the camaraderie that seems to be almost unique to dancers, something about learning to move together that bonds all of you in a way that's hard to express, unless it's simply the fact that you're all crazy enough to do this every day. There are the days when it just feels good to move, even to sweat, when it is sheer joy to create beauty with your body. There is the deep fulfillment of reaching a personal goal, or receiving a genuine compliment on your dancing, or taking on a challenging role and excelling at it, or sharing yourself and your journey, raw but gloriously honest, through the way you move.
But there are also many difficult things about dance that the audience perhaps doesn't see behind the pretty costumes, perfectly pinned hair, and illusion of weightlessness dancers give off. It is just that - an illusion. There are days when you feel like a thousand pounds, or like you've aged a hundred years, and it's a huge effort to get off the floor, let alone expend artistic energy. Yes, there is the exceptional and exuberant, but there is also the mundane, the seemingly endless routine, the physical stamina required to start in the morning and keep going throughout the day. There are the days when you're disappointed by what you see in the mirror, when your self-confidence takes a nosedive and you feel worthless. There is the fear of putting yourself out there or trying something you don't think you can do. There are the criticisms and the corrections that seem to be attacking not just your art, but your identity, because you are your art.
I have watched many people in this career bury most or all of their identities in it. I’ve felt myself do the same. It’s an easy thing to do, when your director, your peers, and your audience are staring at not simply something you’ve made, or the work you’ve done, but you. Something as simple as eating too much for breakfast or getting too little sleep can throw you off and cause you to perform poorly. You can’t hide your bad days behind a desk, and you get angry at yourself for having them, especially since you know everyone else can see. If you’re held back from a promotion or not cast in a show as well as you would have liked, it’s crushing. It feels like you’ve been working yourself into the ground for nothing. It is the perfect breeding ground for discouragement, deep insecurity, and jealousy.
Personally, what I struggle with most is the deep desire to do something that matters, and the nagging feeling that dance doesn't. There is some serious turmoil that happens inside of me when I start thinking about how much time every day, every week, every year I spend trying to perfect minute details like how straight my knees are or how many revolutions I can complete in a turn. Frankly, dance feels selfish sometimes. I'd like to say that I ultimately dance for the audience, but the reality is that I will probably spend less than 10% of my career actually in front of an audience. The rest is training and rehearsing and striving for excellence to make that 10% the best it can be.
That is a difficult concept for me to get my mind around. I've had a mid-year crisis every season for the last three, usually around February, where I start to wonder what I'm doing with my life and mentally list all the other useful activities I could be using all this time for. I decide I'm more than ready to move on to the next thing, that it’s time to do something new – something important.
But, the funny thing is, I'm still here. I'm still doing this. Every time I want to leave, it seems that God has a different plan. And I am beginning to wonder if there are layers of purpose underneath the humdrum of daily routine, underneath what dance looks and feels like on the surface. Maybe it isn’t just about dance. I wonder if there is something more.
It is November 2016. We travel to Ocean City and perform the ballet Sleeping Beauty. It is the most I've performed in any ballet before - I am probably onstage about 70% of the show. It is the most stamina that has ever been required of me, and we perform the whole thing twice in one day. I become great friends with Gatorade and bananas. I am pretty exhausted. And I love every minute of it. It is also my first time performing on tour, and my first time flat-out falling on stage (then popping right back up and continuing), and I feel like I've finally, officially become a professional dancer.
Then, there is the immediate aftermath of the show, when I realize that I can barely walk. Pain that has been creeping up my leg from a previously strained hamstring becomes absolutely unbearable. It doesn't get better the next day or the day after. I see a chiropractor and a physical therapist, and while both help some, it still hurts to shift weight on and off my right leg, which is obviously a problem for a dancer. I begin to think that I pinched a nerve. I find myself having to hold on to the bar for handicapped people in the restroom while I put on my tights. I am in forced rest mode for over a week, dancing a tiny bit and then sitting alternately on an ice pack or a heating pad, watching as the Snowflake scene from The Nutcracker comes together - without me. It's a role I've wanted to perform ever since I came to this company, and I thought that this would be the year. But I am, wisely, taken out of it because I go for days without being able to jump. Even though I know it is the right decision, I am pretty devastated.
Finally, I go to see another chiropractor who finds the problem and kneads it out, and after that the pain goes away and I improve rapidly. It is in enough time for me to rehearse for all the other parts I was cast in, but not Snow. The first two shows, in which I was supposed to perform only Snow, find me watching from the wings. And I realize that perhaps, those two days, God was more glorified somehow by me being in the wings than by me being on stage.
I'm not sure I can explain how that works out, except that getting injured and being forced to step out for a little while made me re-evaluate how consumed I can get by dance. It can become all-important, something I keep thinking about when I'm at home or trying to fall asleep or first thing when I wake up in the morning, the subject of too many conversations and the only thing I feel like I ponder anymore. Perhaps I have made too big a thing of dance, made it too much a part of my identity. Maybe God, in sovereign mercy, gave me an incredibly rewarding experience with Sleeping Beauty but then knew that I needed some time away in order to regain an appreciation for what matters most.
A week later, I get to perform Flowers at our largest, loveliest theatre. As the first "big" role that I had here a year ago, it holds a very special place in my heart. This time I appreciate it all the more because, due to my injury, I almost didn't get to do it. It is exhilarating and I am so thankful for the opportunity. Through all this, I realize that maybe it is not always the outward performance that brings God the most glory. Maybe it is more about the inward dance of the heart, the movement toward Him – the hidden things that happen under the surface.
Sometimes God gives us the performance of a lifetime. He lets us be exhilarated by these things we love, by the jobs we have, by the passions we pursue, by the people we cherish. He brings us joy in the daily routine, satisfaction at the end of a long week of good work, and lets us enjoy the fruit of our labor.
And other times, He doesn’t. Other times, He allows us to experience disappointment in the people and things with which we fill our days. He allows us to be dissatisfied. We start to wonder if He cares.
Oh, He does.
And I think I am coming to see how that is still true even in harder times. I wonder if we, as performing artists, are able to understand in an especially poignant way just how unsatisfying this world, and these passions of ours, can be. We stare critically at ourselves in a mirror all day, experience rejection, are crushed when casting isn't what we wanted, deal constantly with aging and hurting and injured bodies, can be underappreciated and overlooked, are more numerous than the jobs we compete for, can rarely find our ideal company, are reminded constantly of how we could be better and of all the things we are not, and often come face to face with our physical, emotional, and mental limitations. Maybe we are in a position to more easily look forward to something better than this, to accept that we were not made for this world and cannot find our satisfaction in it. If we try to, we will quickly dissolve into obsession and untamed insecurity. We will focus on the negative. We will live in fear and jealousy, in competition with others, and perhaps we will start to use any means we can to get ahead, in desperate attempts at self-preservation.
Maybe dissatisfaction is actually a blessing in disguise. Maybe it is a gift of God that my relationship with dance is complicated. Maybe I was never meant to find my identity or my fulfillment in my career. Maybe instead, He has given me dance as a lens through which I can more clearly see what I am, what I am not, and all that He is.
Maybe, in the end, that is why I am still here.
It is March 2017. We are performing Excalibur, and I am in the role of a Priestess. At the end of our first dance, we are posed in a circle on stage left for a number of minutes. The pose is an unusual one: my left hand is above my head, with the palm pushing away from me, and my right hand is facing me, fingers pointing up, cupped close to my lips. I get an image in my head of what this gesture could mean if directed toward God. It seems as though my left hand might be trying to shield the brightness of His glory, because I cannot take it all in. My right hand, covering my mouth, might be an apt response to that glory: humble, slow to speak, quicker to listen and to learn.
Not so quick to assume I know exactly why God has me where I am. Not content to ground my identity in what I do. Not willing to trust my own assessment of how much my career matters. Not going to quit until He releases me to.
But ready to listen. Ready to look under the surface and try to learn what He is teaching me. Ready to see Him in a way I never could have if I was somewhere else, doing something more…important.
I am posed facing the wings, staring into the stage lights. I start to realize that this is a poignant metaphor.
"God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." I am searching for the meaning of what I do, the purpose of dancing. Sometimes it feels a little like wandering in the dark. But sometimes, the purpose of darkness is so that we can better appreciate our great need for the Light.
"The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining." Chasing after that Light will always bring me closer to where I need to be. Chasing after God, fighting to learn what He is trying to teach me in all this, will bring me home.
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." And in the end, this ought to be the reason we dance. This is why we ought to do anything we are called to do. It is not for its own sake. It is not to let ourselves get swallowed up by the darkness of chasing fulfillment.
Instead, through the long days, through the wonders as much as through the disappointments, we keep fighting to overcome the darkness. We keep fighting to find our satisfaction in Him alone.
We keep fighting to follow the Light.