Dance is more than mere frivolity, or a side note serving to enliven our social gatherings. All dance forms require multiple intelligences, rhythm, spatial awareness, mathematical sequencing, emotional courage, and attentive physical honesty… all at the same time. Multi-task that one for a round before ranking dance as a piddling pursuit. As an educator and touring artist I am frequently asked questions that reveal a disturbing, unspoken premise: dance is only a guilty pleasure that is not to be regarded as a serious, intellectual or financially feasible endeavor. As dancers, perhaps we are guilty of perpetuating this trivialization by making what we do appear easy, magical or effortless. Of course this isn’t true at all. The investment that leads to proficiency is significant. The ups and downs of dancing leave an archive in the body as time passes, but there is more to the story than just movement. Dancing is an intensely concentrated dose of the human experience. Sometimes we will produce or share with others, and sometimes we will incubate and study. Sometimes we will feel masterful and courageous, and other times we will feel awkward and inadequate. Cultivating a sense of humor is key as we take on our weak links in the daily business of practice. I have fallen in love with the cyclical nature of dance studies and have grown to understand all phases are needed. Through my own cycles of questioning, producing, performing and studying, I have learned the following:
- Worry less about what the body looks like, and affirm what it can do. Take good care of it, not to achieve a certain look, but rather to fully actualize all of the creativity that wells up within. Aligning oneself with popular notions of what is alluring is a loosing game with no finish line. Contrary to popular sentiment, dance is not about beauty.
- Remember that each time the body revisits a movement the brain reinforces the pathway in the neurology until the skill gains automaticity. Embrace repetition and practice with a light heart. Know that progress is inevitable if you seek consistency. Transformation should be incremental if it is to be integrated honestly; big shifts in skill can force imbalances that must be reintegrated. There are no short-cuts, so take it slow and celebrate the small triumphs.
- Don’t be afraid to make “bad” art! Experimentation is a crucial part of locating one’s inspiration and expertise. For every success there should be thousands of questionable attempts. Support others and reserve judgement as they take their own bold steps to towards their curiosities and fascinations.
- Collaborate with and seek advice from elders. They are walking libraries.
- Embrace all feedback as an opportunity to know how one’s performances read to spectators and audiences. Integrate what feels useful and discard other comments unless a thematic consistency is evident in the feedback. Then it’s time to own what is being projected and make deliberate choices for what is produced.
- Allow your relationship with dance to transform, change, shift, ebb and flow as time passes. Do not grieve the passing of one phase to the next. All possibilities have a nourishing contribution to you as a mover over time.
- Dance is a discipline that intrinsically implies daring physicality, muscular exertion and some emotional vulnerability. You should not be coerced into doing anything beyond the safety zones of your present abilities without your informed consent of potential risks. You have the right to modify activities to suit the safety zones of your own body. Remember that impatience, anxiety, frustration, withdrawal and self-persecution will get you nowhere fast. Promise yourself to have fun and find the humor in awkward moments.
- Cross-training in alternate physical disciplines is extremely valuable to muscle intelligence. It does not, contrary to popular opinion, diminish or erode one’s primary dance vocabulary. Rather, cross-training can add dimension and range to your root vocabulary and balance the work load in all major muscle groups.
- Appropriate nutrition and rest deserve careful examination in training the body. Don’t underestimate the “make or break” impact of these choices in your daily performance. Depletion is more dangerous than any bodily “hindrance” you perceive yourself to have.
- The mind-set employed by students has everything to do with how well the nervous system processes new information, how easily it assimilates new skills, and how quickly we connect with the emotive qualities of dance. The emotional safety of the classroom can enable students to thrive or conversely, can shut them down for years. Yes, I do believe that a positive outlook can be engineered, cultivated and perhaps lovingly coerced into use. I urge students to please redirect the mind from self-scrutiny to the objective concept of the body as a “movement science laboratory.”
- Imagination, visualization, observation, deep listening and stillness are practices that have been overlooked in dance pedagogy, and are a magical part of one’s toolkit.
- Do not, for even one nanosecond, believe that you aren’t a “real dancer” if you don’t get paid or perform in front of audiences. Neither is required to be a legitimate artist. A poet is still enduringly a poet even when washing dishes. Performance and payment is never an accurate barometer of success. Continuing that line of thinking, there is no sin in a day job. In fact, covering one’s basic financial needs and dancing on the side is a rather intelligent choice. Being “hardcore” for dance doesn’t equate to being foolish.
- Celebrate both newcomers and virtuosic practitioners for their unique and distinguishing aesthetics. Try to avoid letting dance become a weapon of status, social mobility, power, homogeneity, hierarchy, assumptions of attractiveness and general harm. Examine the ways in which your dance choices uplift OR bring down a community. When evaluating if your choices are sustainable to a healthy community, ask yourself where we would all be if everyone made a similar choice?
- Trust what the body craves in a movement practice. The body has an innate intelligence that is beneficial to dialog with once the scrutinous mind is out of the way. Breath is the ideal barometer/integration point for this balance of consciousness and physical practice. Honor the information that bodily pain or discomfort brings into the awareness. The body is incapable of lying, and will always render the truth visible in the end. It is, by far, the best friend one could ever hope to walk with in this life regardless of what you judge it to be.
- Seek education about the social/political/economic forces, historical influences, and contributing voices that have been pivotal to your chosen dance practice. If you wish to know what books we use at the collegiate level for dance education, please visit my free resource page here: Resources. So many wonderful artists, practitioners and recreationalists have come before you, so instead of reinventing the wheel, simply pull a seat up to the conversation-in-progress and learn what has been shared/said already.
- Conversely, know that many “great artists have found their voices in the arms of solitude” (seeking a citation for that wonderful quote). Hence, it is valuable to embrace chapters of deep, investigative inquiry in isolation, and without apology. These phases cannot be forced.
- Don’t be intimidated or paralyzed by the amount of knowledge that you “don’t have” yet. A kitchen is cleaned dish-by-dish, and knowledge is acquired step by step (referencing Steven Pressfield here). If you really love to dance, dive into your sense of educational overwhelm knowing that there is enough new information to entertain you the rest of your life… you’ll never have a reason to be bored (and that’s a good thing I think).
- Disrupt yourself! What kind of dancing comes out of you with new music? No music? Only right angles? New dance forms? With people? Without people? When seated? With dogs? In moonlight? At dawn? When grieving? When sleepy? Find out and then disrupt your comfort zone again! I guarantee you’ll bump into something astonishing and nourishing if you stay open.
- If serving as a teacher of dance, be generous in spirit. If you are not emotionally prepared for one (or many) of your students to eclipse you in stature or financial reward, then please get out of teaching. Remember that you are not responsible for all students’ blockages or challenges, nor can you take credit for their personal successes. Teachers are guides who point the way forward. If done well, students will always be grateful and teachers receive the respect that gratifies and dignifies all of the effort.
- The energy of an audience’s approval is fleeting and the popularity game is more agony than reward. Find out what compels a return to movement practice beyond the prestige of performance. For me, dance is now about the study of consciousness and non-verbal intelligence. My adventures and inquiries around this topic have given me perpetual renewal in dance for over 30 years.
- The brain and body are not hard-wired to any permanent settings. New skills, new perspectives, new questions and new movements are within reach at any time. In my work with many kinds of bodies, I observe that even as the body approaches death, new skills and somatic understandings may manifest. Never underestimate the power of movement in and on another body, and certainly never award yourself the agency to predict the capacity or worth of another artist.
- Believe, with all of your heart, that you have nothing to apologize for in how you move. Ever. If someone tries to insult your way of dancing, simply invite them stop burning brain cells and let their gaze fall in another direction while you do your thing. Rock on. The social filters driving them to criticize you will torment them far longer than whatever momentary annoyance you experience from their imposition. Of course, if you’re charging admission for the experience as a performer, be thoughtful about what you are asking spectators to engage and endure.
My path as a dancer has given me a charmed life filled with remarkable insights, adventures and shattering amounts of love. I wish more of the world would normalize dance as a part of human expression. I wish the craft were not considered an elite pursuit reserved for the extraordinarily gifted (a specifically Western perspective). More urgently, I wish many humans did not wait for a health crisis to initiate an expressive, intelligent relationship with their bodies. So whether you self-identify as a dancer or not, I cheer you in whatever ways you move, and wish you many days and nights of fierce, rapturous dance in your life! In Spirit, Donna Mejia
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race” — Calvin Coolige (1872 – 1933)
After five surgeries for various medical challenges over the years, I am still in awe of how the body possesses a rhythm to healing. I don’t come from hearty genetic stock. I have learned to be attentive to lifestyle choices and self-care in order to minimize the impact of a congenitally compromised instrument. As always, I witness the pathways of others who may have greater or fewer challenges to mobility and daily comfort than I do. I espouse humility and focus on what I can do to grow and improve.
My last corrective procedure spanning 2013-2014 kicked my butt soundly. Healing could not be rushed, and deep rest became more important than jumping back into a vigorous, rehabilitative dance practice. Nine months passed before I could honestly say I recognized my image in the mirror, or could predictably produce movement without discomfort. I am still finding ways to negotiate what appears to be permanent damage in my body.
The gifts of these challenges are crystal clear: rebuilding has been informative. Being reduced to a near-beginner in one’s craft was the perfect antidote to arrogance and complacency. Learning to engineer movement through new pathways has given me a back-stage pass to more nuanced levels of somatic intelligence. Disrupting my comfort zone has put me back in touch with the inspirations that led me to dance in the first place. Harnessing resistance as a booster rocket for transformation catapulted me forward. Locating my sense of humor while fumbling forward has awakened my grace. I have affirmed, again, that progress is inevitable when you continue to show up and lean into a challenge. Consistency shifts possibilities like water on stone.
I couldn’t have found my way back into this journey without help, so I’m here to say thank you to my family and kindred spirits in art-land. A wise friend said “We are not meant to heal alone.” She was correct. I now understand the impact of a kind and honest (versus placating) word on a day when deflation and discouragement seem to have the upper hand. I am so utterly fortunate to have had support during this process, and I’m G.R.A.T.E.F.U.L.
The most exciting realization of all? I’m still enamored with the life I’ve cultivated. When presented with a choice to ease my way into medical retirement, there was no question that I love what I do and will choose it over and over again.
I’m now different, but I’m still here. Not only am I still here– I’m hungry.
Let’s do this.
Donna Mejia, 2014