Defending the Dancer

What dancer hasn't had to endure the irritating parody of the goofy, bent-kneed ballerina teetering on tiptoes when unenlightened friends and strangers learn that you dance, and are unable to resist the urge for some light-hearted mockery... 

Most of the time we can just take it with a grain of salt, and even laugh along (no doubt the culprit's interpretation of fifth position port de bras is actually highly amusing... poor misguided soul!) but sometimes the cliches and denigration to the art form you commit so much time and hard work to can get a little hard to bear. Sometimes gritted teeth are replaced by gleeful visions of a grand battement delivered to the offending head - only ever in your imagination of course...

                   Now who's laughing? ;)

                   Now who's laughing? ;)

As a former professional dancer there have been numerous occasions when I have had to defend my career choice to the narrow-minded, the ignorant, or the misinformed. It can be incredibly disheartening to perform your heart out on stage, only to be asked the next day at a backstage tour – “So when are you going to get a real job?”.

Dancing is an art form that has seen increased media interest in the last few years thanks to programmes like ‘So You Think you Can Dance’ and movies like ‘Step Up’. This exposure hasn’t done much to improve our pay conditions or our working rights, but with the amount of dancers showing up at auditions these days, it certainly seems to have inspired more people to pursue dancing as a career. Whilst many aspects of these shows and movies glamourize the industry and put a major emphasis on people’s backgrounds and ‘sob stories’, at least the average person gets to see more of this art form that so many of us love. And you would think that people might be more open minded, right? For the most part, sadly, no.

I spent many years dancing on cruise ships, and it always seemed so ironic to me that a waiter or bartender would say, ‘You dancers barely work at all. You have no idea what a real job is like.’ They literally had no idea of how much work a dancer has put in for the duration of their ENTIRE LIFE to get to a point where they can have some days off and dance for a few hours each evening. On the surface, sure, we worked less hours than the bar staff did. But what no one ever seemed to understand, was that we could have done their job too. And there is no way they could have done ours. You don’t train five hours a night (and more on weekends) every day of your life since the age of 2 or 3 sometimes to become a bartender. You don’t give up friend’s birthday parties, trips to the cinema and your entire school holidays growing up to become a waiter. We, and our wonderful parents, sacrifice so much so we can do what we love, and we are so excited when someone finally gives us a professional gig, that it is literally heartbreaking when someone makes a throwaway comment about the credibility of your career.

You start to wonder, does everyone in the audience feel this way? Are we all a joke to them? And you would get those inane comments from the audience sometimes. ‘So what do you plan to do professionally?’. ‘Do you all hope to get Broadway someday?’ (Like Broadway was the only place you could find professional dancers), ‘Are you going to go back to university and find a career after this?’. Some of us probably did want to get Broadway, and some of us do go on to go to university and follow a different career path one day. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a career already. Dancing requires talent, artistry and athleticism, traits that not everyone possesses.

We are special. And we’re strong. We are told every day at class that we aren’t good enough, even if we are. We criticise every inch of ourselves. We attend audition after audition and accept rejection after rejection. But we keep going because we love it so much. There are few jobs in the world that require the level of dedication that dancing does. And most of those other careers are also in the Arts, some of the lowest paid skilled jobs in the western world.

You don’t see many people saying that football isn’t a real job. And when you consider the comparisons, what’s the difference? Footballers have to train from an early age. Footballers are selected for their teams out of the huge number of young people that play the sport and aspire to make it their career. They also face rejection and criticism on a daily basis. They are athletes that have to have the perfect body and natural facility, and they have to work on their skill every day. But when they make it as a pro, no one questions them. No one waits outside the stadium to say, ‘When do you plan to get a real job?’. No one asks them to work for free, or pays them just expenses, or a minimum wage salary to play a game. Society accepts them, and supports them in their thousands to do what they do. And that’s a good thing, for them. They are talented individuals who have worked hard.

Just like us.

So to all the dancers out there, the little girl in her first ballet class, the male dancer that just got his first professional show, the old pro that still goes to class every week, I say this. Dance for fun, or dance for a living. Dance every day like you’ll never get to dance again. Because it doesn’t matter what anyone says. We are the lucky ones.

We’ll probably never get to a point where dancers have the same status as footballers. But next time someone questions your career, or tells you to get a real job, don’t let it get you down. Don’t let anyone stop you from following your dreams. People can say whatever they want. But we have one up on them, and we always will. They will never understand what it means to master a triple pirouette in class. They’ll never know the buzz of an opening night. And they will never know what it’s like to dance your heart out in front of a theatre full of people, and to know that the applause you just heard, that was for you.

Article by Emily Newton