Dance education gives a dancer many gifts that they carry throughout their lives—self-motivation, self-discipline, poise, grace, an appreciation for the arts, life-long friends and mentors, wonderful experiences, and precious memories. But just as in life, dance has its ups and downs. Moments where a dancer feels exceptionally successful and where they feel completely deflated.
I treasure the moments I felt outstanding and wonderful because there is nothing quite like the feeling of your hard work paying off—moving up a level, getting the part you wanted, landing an extra pirouette, etc. No matter how happy those moments felt or how they would motivate me to continue my journey, I look back now and know I grew and learned more from the disappointments and setbacks I experienced than from my accomplishments.
I was four-years-old when I first took a dance class. By the time I was twelve, I was in the advanced levels of tap and jazz, but it wasn’t until I was fourteen that I achieved my goal of being in the highest level of ballet. Sure, these are essentially the benchmarks of my journey, but they do not paint an accurate picture of the hours, blood, sweat, tears, frustration, and heartache that went into achieving my goal.
Dance will help teach students how life doesn’t go as planned, how you don’t always get what you want, and how to learn from every opportunity you’re given.
Growing up, people always thought I was older than I was because of my height. I’m also the youngest in a large family, making me comfortable around people much older than myself, which led to comments such as, “Oh, I thought you were older” and “You seem so mature for your age.” When it came to dance classes, I was usually one of the youngest students in my level which meant I didn’t always advance to the next level with my friends.
Young dancers sometimes don’t understand why they repeat a level while some or even all their classmates move up the ranks. Sometimes their bodies aren’t mature enough to advance and directors want to ensure they are physically ready for the demands of a higher level. Sometimes the reason is maturity—has the dancer shown they are responsible and mentally ready for the next level? Other times, the reason a dance director keeps a student in the same level for another year or two is to allow the dancer to build a strong foundation of skills and technique that will be required to succeed in the next level.
No matter the reason, I spent a fair amount of time in certain levels (still remaining one of the younger girls). When I did advance to the next level and it came time for casting, I was sometimes cast in parts with girls in a lower level than myself—talk about feeling embarrassed, confused, and just all-around heartbroken.
I tried to never show my disappointment when I was at the studio and it was important to me to never feel jealous of my friends who got the parts they desired or who advanced to a higher level. I knew how hard they worked for their goals—I wanted to share in their joy because I was proud of them and their achievements.
So what should a dancer do when they are disappointed, discouraged, angry, or sad when evaluations, placement, and casting don’t go their way? Take it out on the dance floor.
Dancers can challenge themselves and use their classes and rehearsals to expand their technique and skills. If you want to move up a level, learn what you need to improve on and take advantage of staying in a level another year. If you’re unsure what areas need your attention, talk to your director. However, the corrections you receive in class, especially the repeated corrections, will give you an excellent place to start.
In class and rehearsal, I would really listen to the corrections I received and made it my goal to apply them as quickly as I could. When I was in the intermediate to advance levels, but still teetering on the boarder, my director suggested that I take the lower level classes in addition to the classes in my level, eventually taking them in pointe shoes. I know dancers might not have the energy to take on a heavier schedule, but this is when I noticed the most advancement in my technique. In the lower level classes, I learned to stop watching and comparing myself to my classmates and how to focus on my movement and the music, strengthening my concentration and muting my doubts. Then in my regular classes, if I did watch my classmates it was out of admiration or to observe how they moved when they excelled at something I received a correction for. You are not competing with your classmate, the only person you should strive to be better than is the dancer you were last year, last performance, last month, or last class.
In the lower level classes, I was often seen as the ‘older girl’, which gave me a much needed boost in confidence when I was asked to demonstrate a combination or a classmate asked me how to do a step. This also applies to the situation of being cast in a lower level role or even in a repeated role. I wasn’t always the mentor I was often the mentee, so when I was in class or rehearsals with younger dancers, I was given the chance to be the mentor and help others the way the older girls helped me. Be kind, be encouraging, be helpful, and show them that it’s okay to not get the part you expect. Do your best in the role you are given and take full advantage of what that experience can teach you. If you are repeating a roll and already know the choreography, work on improving your performance whether that means your timing, expression, or breath in the movement. Show yourself, your instructors, and your parents that you are happy just be given a part and you will rehearse and perform to the best of your abilities.
Don’t be afraid to add classes that aren’t in the realm of ballet. I needed to work on my core strength so I added Pilates to my schedule. Holding my extension became easier and my allegro grew stronger. From experience, I can also say that tap, jazz, hip-hop, and contemporary built me into an artist. If you need to improve on timing or rhythm, tap and hip-hop are fun classes to support those skills. Hip-hop will also allow you to feel grounded and in your body while also giving you freedom to release and be present (this will also help contemporary dancers); isolations and fluid movement in hip-hop class will improve your lyricism in any dance genre. If you need to work on your expression, Broadway classes and choreography will require you step out of your comfort zone and become a character.
Never let your disappointments and frustrations control your actions. It’s okay if you need to talk through your emotions or concerns with your parents or director, but it’s never okay to disrespect others just because things didn’t work out as you hoped. I know you’re already working hard—trust me, I’ve been there. Sometimes you just have to redirect any negative energy and turn it into a positive mindset. Set goals for yourself and figure out how to challenge yourself and grow as a dancer, because guess what? The ability to achieve your goals solely lies in your hands. If you show up to class, are willing to learn, apply your corrections, challenge yourself (such as taking more classes), rehearse and perform your best no matter your role, and ask questions, you will advance your skills and become the best dancer you can be.