By Madelyn Staley
Outside the rehearsal studio, I vented to a friend while I filled up my water bottle, “Honestly, I did it just to see if I could. I wanted to see if it would work for me, but apparently it doesn’t.”
I’m in my senior year of college at the Philadelphia University of the Arts, and this past semester I decided to take a risk I had never taken before – modern-loving Maddie tried her hand (or her feet as the case may be) at a contemporary ballet piece. Always drawn to the structure and clarity of contemporary ballet choreography, I had never been bold enough to try it on my own body. I continually told myself that I didn’t have the facility, the range, or the attack for this type of dance. Nevertheless, I was surprised at the excitement I felt upon being cast in my first contemporary ballet piece.
Within the first couple rehearsals, the choreographer had set his entire piece on his cast of nine students. To my dismay, his process reinforced everything that I had told myself about the contemporary ballet world and where I fit into it. I assumed a place in the back for the majority of the first section of the dance, I left the stage for the second section, and I celebrated a very brief moment of visibility in the third section. My delicate pride begged me to withdraw from the piece rather than suffer through a whole semester of rehearsals. Modern Maddie felt embarrassed for ever having tried this. She felt defeated, overlooked, and incapable. But here is where the keyword comes in: felt.
Thankfully, with the help of some encouraging friends and an insightful, invested rehearsal director, I was able to realize that the only defeat was in my own mind, and I walked away from the experience with some momentous new insights:
LET GO MY EGO
Foremost, I needed to deal with my pride. It took a bit of time for me to realize that my commitment to this process is more important than my feelings. The piece dealt with the most recent presidential election, and the action of walking through daily life in a world that felt unsafe and unwelcoming. I recalled the feelings of fear, devastation, and anger that hung over me and in my peers like dark clouds in the days following the election. Through this recollection, I was able to view the piece as more than just choreography by putting it into real-life perspective. I dove into the meaning of the piece as opposed to my physical positioning inside of this work. I found that I could tap into this relatable concept. Imagining this walk through daily life, I realized that the dance took a bird’s-eye view of life. It was the moment that when I realized that the message of a dance is not concerned with the front and the back. Dance looks from above, from below, from within. This was the moment that I stopped dancing like I was in the back because I realized–there was no “back”. Whether it was true or not I decided that I needed this piece, and this piece needed me. I discovered a newfound self-importance within the work while simultaneously allowing myself to be humbled by it. Once my pride was silenced, I could truly dedicate myself to exploring the ways in which I could be a vessel for this dance.
Our rehearsal director Theresa Ruth Howard had the difficult task of not allowing this dance to grow stale and stagnant in our bodies over the semester-long process of rehearsing. She would constantly introduce imagery to stimulate our movement, and over time I felt this imagery changing the way I was dancing. I saw myself moving walls aside, pushing or pulling something heavy with every movement that I made. This added texture. I pictured my limbs extending endlessly out from my body. This added length. For a moment, I could be endless. These moments empowered me outside of the studio, reminding me of my own possibilities. However, the imagery that altered my dancing most powerfully was anger. Now, this took some digging – I don’t hold a lot of anger. I dug into the frustrations of this rehearsal process, how it felt to be unnoticed by the choreographer. Consequently, I found anger towards myself for allowing that to diminish my self-worth. Through all of this self-doubt, frustration and anger, I found a power in my movement that I had never accessed before. In these moments, I proved myself to myself. These roadblocks helped Modern Maddie transform into a powerful and confident dancer that she herself barely recognized.
CHANGING MY MIND ABOUT ME
So lastly, I learned that to define myself was to limit myself. Modern Maddie needed this lesson. I had decided:
my movement was soft, contained, and subtle,“too pretty”
I was only “a turner”I was not a technician,
I had not had good enough ballet training,
I did not have the body for ballet.
I was too timid. I was too delicate.
At a certain point I needed to stop telling myself that I was a “modern” dancer doing a “contemporary ballet” piece and realize that I was “dancer”. It was only when I told myself I could be that I was. I was: sharp, powerful, technical, assertive, and explosive. Because I can be.
Feeling overlooked by a choreographer, not feeling visible in a dance, – is crushing. It can be a heavy blow to the ever-sensitive pride. But the real defeat comes when you allow your position in a work to define the way you view it, and the way you view yourself. Ultimately, we owe dance and ourselves more than this outlook. If you ever find yourself in a dance that feels like it rejected you, try thinking instead that it chose you. Try taking a bird’s-eye view, understanding that front and and back don’t exist when we put the meaning of dance in perspective. Try being mad about it. You might find a new way of moving. Try changing the things that you tell yourself about yourself because they probably aren’t true.