If you gotta dance, here's a little about what you can expect in the professional world as a dancer. What makes a real dancer? It takes more than a love of music and movement. I've been watching some of the recent dancing programs on television, and that viewing has prompted me to say a few words about dancing and reflect a bit on my life as a dancer. It's incredible how many people are convinced they can dance. They get up on the stage in all kinds of clothing, putting out what they think are their greatest moves - most of them dance hip-hop style. Some of them are fun to watch, and talented in hip-hop. Some of them get picked to move on to the next step in the show's competition. But, can they really swing it when it comes to any other style of dance? Nope. They have no clue how to follow a choreographer, how to dance different styles, and how to dance as a group. Soon enough they get shocked into seeing how they are lacking.
It's not enough to dance at home or at a party and think you can pull off a Broadway audition. In order to become a real dancer for the stage or film a person needs to invest many years and teachers in professional classes starting with ballet, jazz, tap, folk, ballroom, popular dance. A dancer needs to know how to take direction and perform what they are told and shown, without their ego getting in the way. They might also need to be skilled at acting and singing. It also takes the dancer knowing themselves and letting their own personality come through in their dancing, as they're performing someone else's steps. That's a far cry from what goes on in street or club dancing.
Dancers are used to taking classes and rehearsing for more than 8 hours a day. I started ballet when I was five. Ballet continued throughout my dancing career. I then added folk dance, modern, jazz, tap, theatre dance, belly dancing - every kind of dance that could be taught and learned. I also taught dancing for ten years and directed a dance troupe for ten years. I studied dance with some of the top teachers in the world - privately and at universities (USIU's School of Performing Arts and USC) , and I had to audition to be accepted: Joe Tremaine, Bella Lewitzky, Elaine Thomas, Jack Tygett, Erling Sunde*, Dani Dassa, Aisha Ali, the Lichines (David & Tatiana), Mihai and Alexandu David, Moshiko, Louise Reichlin, occasional classes with Stanley Holden, to name a few of my teachers and choreographers I worked with.
When I was a young dancer I took two to four hours of classes in the morning, two to four hours in the afternoon, and either performed or taught for at least six hours in the evening - often 7 days a week. Try fitting in a job and school with that schedule, too. I don't know where the energy and stamina came from, but it was there for me. Maybe because I didn't have time to think so heavily about it; I just did it because I loved and wanted it so much. Dancers are used to this kind of schedule and it's tough. It takes a certain personality to handle it, and it means having financial support, as well. It means receiving a LOT of criticism, having injuries, and sometimes painful classes and routines. When I was a youngster learning ballet from the Lichines in Beverly Hills I was put on pointe very young - too young, I think. My toes bled, toenails broken, and screamed in pain during every class. I stuffed my toe shoes with kleenex or cotton if they were available - and if not, I had to go without. Sometimes we hurt so much we didn't think we could go on. Our bodies were scrutinized for what we inherited and what we could potentially become. Were our toes and feet the right shape, were our bones and muscles good enough to manipulate, were we going to be too fat to dance? We were an experiment in development. (If you think I never questioned if I could have been a masochist, you'd be wrong. No, never was and never will be.)
We dancers endured a lot of vicious verbal and emotional abuse from teachers striving for perfection and excellence from their dancers. I had teachers who forced me to dance when I was really ill or injured, and that's just not right. I remain completely against that type of teaching, and thankfully as I got older some of my teachers were more humane. There is no need to have to break a dancer's psyche and beat them up in order to make a good dancer. I don't think it makes one a better person at all - it might really mess you up. And I did go through times when I felt really screwed up by what I was told - and it wasn't about me at all, as I learned way later on. But, as a youngster, I didn't know - we were led to believe we had all these pathetic inadequacies and rarely heard a positive comment. We didn't have a choice. Yeah, one has to expect rejection in life, but come on. I sure hope training has changed since then because we deserve much better. From my experience as a mother and teacher, people learn and love learning so much more when they are supported and encouraged rather than knocked down. Dancers endure lots of blood, sweat, and tears. It's a very difficult life and if you want to dance, you gotta want it real bad, bad enough to rise above the rough challenges. I am middle-aged now and my feet have been pretty ruined from all the dancing (fallen arches and broken bones that didn't quit heal perfectly) - but I still dance what I can.
My message to anyone learning a sport or art form is find a teacher in touch with their soul and heart who isn't out to use or abuse you, but help you develop your own talents in a positive way. If a teacher isn't giving you honest praise, and balancing the criticism with loving support, or isn't being a holisitic teacher who sees all of you and cares about all of you - find another teacher.
But, dancing also brought some of the best times to my life. I was able to let my soul shine through my dancing, and it gave me the greatest joy. When I couldn't speak with words, my dancing said it for me. I loved dancing solo or with a group - the spiritual and physical power of a group doing the same thing, or dancing a routine together is amazing! When everyone gives it their all and the routine is flawless, it's an incredible high, and electric current...it's like the group carries everyone together with it - lifts us all up and we feel nothing but elation. I felt so free when I danced. And when an audience acknowledges that, fantastic. The costumes were fun, too. When I needed an outlet for my emotions, dancing was often that outlet. When I wanted to connect with another culture, I could dance their dances and fit in (and was welcomed) anywhere I went. I was in the best physical condition I could be. I met some wonderful people, including my husband, through dance. It was more than worth it for me, and I was by no means a tough cookie growing up. What I did learn through all of that was that I could go as far as I could go - I surprised myself. I also learned my own limits. I learned to be quiet and listen, to be patient, to be disciplined. I discovered that I was a perfectionist of my own - I had to get something right so I did it over and over and over until I did. That came from inside myself and is a strength I have and applies to most areas of my life - but not obsessively (anymore lol). I finally came to accept myself, faults and all.
If you have the desire to become a dancer do you have what it takes to study many different kinds of dance and put up with the pressure, rejection and pain, and then getting what you want? (And not become an anorexic or bulemic?) Do you gotta dance no matter what? Then go for it - you have my blessings and admiration. It's a very unique path and one that can be so rewarding when you remember that you're doing it for your pure love of it.
* Update: Erling Sunde passed over on May 28, 2006, in Norway, at the age of 79.
© Copyright 2005, Estelle Nora Harwit Amrani