Dance In The Mix welcomes Jessica Collier as our student guest blogger sharing the thoughts she has been developing during her undergraduate work at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK.
I believe very strongly that I have been called to dance, but in this past year, I've been struggling with what exactly that may look like. Dance has been a very positive and often therapeutic influence in my life, but it's also been, at times, a stumbling block for me, providing a wide-open door for insecurity, body image issues, and more recently, a lot of disillusionment and broken dreams. This school year in particular I dealt with an onslaught of psychoemotional struggles, as an increased workload of dance classes brought me face-to-face with some of my deepest fears and failures.
It all started last fall, after a year’s break from modern dance classes. The first week or so of the semester went smoothly, but as time progressed, I began to notice that I was gradually becoming more and more frustrated in modern class. I’ve only been studying modern dance for four years now, so at first I just wrote the growing irritation off as a natural fluctuation of the learning process. I thought it was to be expected, given that I’ve always had trouble picking up modern combinations and finding the correct expressions of movement quality – until I could no longer seem to grasp even the most basic exercises and could hardly pay attention to my teachers over the angry thoughts constantly buzzing through my mind: “I hate this. I need to get out of here. I’d rather be anywhere else than in this class.” I found the first documentation of this struggle in a journal entry from mid-September of last year:
“I learned a lot in Modern class today! That’s good because it usually makes me angry…I also find myself less thin than I want and the sentiment is growing. I’m still scared of being back row, understudy, odd one out for the rest of my life.”
The last two sentences refer more to my balletic insecurities, which slowly made the crossover to all forms of dance as the semester progressed. I sometimes joke that when it comes to ballet, I’m a professional understudy – always good enough to be cast in the ballet works, but when it comes down to who will perform in the three nights of shows, I’m fourth or fifth in line. Perhaps that’s a terrible thing to write, but in all honesty, that’s how ballet is. It’s fairly cut and dried – either you have what it takes to be put onstage or you’re not quite there yet, and I’m still learning. In the beginning, it was relatively easy to bottle up my frustration, but within weeks I found myself exploding onto the pages of my journal instead of coping:
“I’m upset today. I cried in Modern class, got angry in chapel, and I don’t want to do any of the fun stuff planned for this weekend. I just want to sleep and maybe not exist anymore…I can hardly control my anger in modern class any longer, and I’ve resorted to mental obscenity screaming and leaving class to punch walls and cry. I can’t explain why I feel this way when asked, and I can’t convince myself that there’s actually anything worth considering…I don’t want to think about this or anything. I don’t want to be around people. I don’t want to be conscious…”
By October, the growing negativity of my thoughts was no longer confined to dance class. I had lost interest in hanging out with my friends, fulfilling my duties as the chaplain on my floor, and spending time with my family, and struggled deeply to find anything positive to say when anyone asked how my day had been. I looked for every possible opportunity to skip class, and cringed each time I caught a glimpse of the angry, jaded woman in the mirror.
Just after Fall Break, I finally reached a tipping point. I had learned a beautiful classical ballet variation in rehearsal over the course of the semester and when finalized casting was posted, I was once again an understudy. But instead of being grateful for the learning opportunity and continuing to perfect my technique in rehearsal, I shut down. I felt that I had irrevocably failed as a dancer, that my time had run out and that I was nothing short of a disgrace to the profession. I had lost my shot at success and could see nothing of value in my future. That day I decided I didn’t want a future at all. I went back to my dorm room, cried for about an hour, and prayed that I would die before graduation.
…And all of this because of disappointments in dance class. How could something so comparatively small on the grand scale of things cause such a ground-shaking disturbance to my well-being? Looking back, I see that I had centered the core of my identity around my success in dance – success according to my limited, closed-minded definition, which involved little more than finally being chosen for a soloist part by our faculty and landing myself in a ballet company after graduation. I knew then, and still know now that I am supposed to dance, but I had settled on one picture in my mind and had come to want only that, or nothing at all. It was the realization that what I had planned for would not become a reality, that finally forced to me to take a closer look at how I defined myself.
Among my classes that semester was Advanced Choreography, the primary objective of which was to create an original dance work with five to seven dancers. The piece I had been creating focused on the definition of womanhood, and I had been experimenting with using a mirror as a prop, symbolizing the different standards women use to evaluate themselves by. As I thought through the rationale behind this artistic choice, I realized that for nearly all of my life, I had been looking to the mirror of dance (specifically ballet) to determine my worth – a mirror that presented me with a reflection that was overweight, ugly, and untalented. What I needed to view myself in was the mirror of Scripture – a mirror that tells me I am unique, valuable, and loved unconditionally and infinitely by the God of the universe. My faith has been central to who I am for a number of years now, but for some reason, in regards to dance, I had failed to let what I believed influence the way I thought about myself.
It took me a few days to come to the realization that something had to be done, but fairly quickly after, I took action. That weekend, I drove up to the camp and conference center I work at to staff a retreat, bringing along a bag full of every old pair of pointe shoes I had worn over the years. That evening, I trekked out to a fire pit in the backwoods of the property, arranged them in a circle at the center, and quite literally, set fire to what had been all of my dreams for so long. That act is very likely the angstiest thing I have ever done, but as the physical representation of all those hours of work – the actual blood, sweat, and tears – went up in smoke, I felt a profound sense of relief. In that moment, I made the choice that ballet, or even dance in general, would no longer be an excuse for me to hate myself.
I’d like to say that after that day, everything has been fine. In truth, that’s not generally how life works. There were a lot of tears shed backstage at the dance concert that semester, and I ended up seeking counseling through my school to process through mild suicidal ideation and a brief attempt at anorexia. To this day, I sometimes still find myself grieving for a lost dream, but as time passes, I see more and more sweetness to the grief. I’ve continued in dance classes, and thanks to the constant encouragement and accountability provided by my teachers and classmates, I’m beginning to genuinely enjoy both ballet and modern dance again. I know I will dance after college – I’m not sure how or when, but I’ve learned to acknowledge the fact that the deep desires of our hearts are put there for a reason even when we can’t see any chance of them becoming reality. When I have a bad class or leave rehearsal feeling inadequate, I return to who I am as a human, created in the image of God. Knowing that I am more than a name on a casting sheet has come to be the most profound and meaningful discovery I’ve made in perhaps my entire collegiate career.
Up until now, I realize, dance has been little more than a pitfall for me. I have called it all kinds of things that it is not in my life, and now I see the truth: dance is not my identity. Dance is not going to be my career, my ultimate destiny, a pastime, my weapon, the meaning of my existence, or even a crucial part of me. Dance is something God has put in my life because He wanted to, and He is the only one, at this point, who knows truly why or how. He has to be in complete control of this gift, or it will never reach the full potential that He has planned for it in my life. Dance is important to me because (and only because) it is a way that I can connect with and serve my Creator. That, I think, is more valuable than anything else I could have learned this year.
photo by Nathan Harmon; dancers: Jessica Vokoun & Rachel Bruce Johnson.
PC: Jeanne S. Mam-Luft
It is a simple philosophy here at THE BELL HOUSE; make connections by bringing people together through dance. Art that seeks to defy a fractured view of the world by creating culture that cares for the soul and is concerned with human thriving. For me, it isn’t enough to just make dance for dance’s sake; it is my belief that it is the connective power of people that makes art worth engaging. We do that by taking our interests and talents and challenging the ways we connect them to something tangible in the human experience. It is through these connections and tangibilities that we see the true power of art and dance manifest back to relationships with and through people. In my view, what matters is people; the time and space of making work refract and overlap revealing and creating new possibilities for human connection.