an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:


SEEING THINGS invited dancers and dance aficionados (as well as mere pedestrians) to respond to this question: Some would say that dancing is the cruelest profession, all but guaranteeing grueling work, physical pain, poverty, and heartbreak. Yet the field has always been rich in aspirants willing to dedicate their lives to the art. Why?


People dance because it makes them feel whole. It’s a heightened way to love life with everything one is. Frequently, when one is young, the systematic study of dancing supplies an element of well-being and a sense of the possibility that one might control one’s tomorrow through one’s actions today. Why one goes into dancing as a career is yet again a separate question. There, the issue is performance–a different thing yet from the dancing, as such–which supplies the hope that one might be recognized and approved by the world at large for this dedication and self-discipline in service of, as the poets say, “being beauteous.” Not everyone who dances well needs to perform in public. Choreographers, when they are starting out, often (though not inevitably) still have a performer’s perspective, and the line in their work between choreography and performance can be very thin. If they develop as artists, however—and, frequently, this means, when they stop performing themselves—they look and listen in a new way, and they think about dancing in a new, more distanced way as well.

The satisfactions of choreography include an intellectual element and, if the choreographer is also engaged with a particular dance technique, the headiness of scientific discovery. It is possible to become so immersed in these cerebral aspects that one forgets the fundamental joy of merging with the world that motivates dancers of all kinds, in all times and places. Still, even if one harbors the memory of that joy full strength, to make an audience see it and remember it, too, through the medium of a dance requires a deliberation and a patience in the creative process that are, in fact, the very opposites of the abandon and unself-consciousness being recreated. Deliberation and patience belong to maturity–to choreography, to teaching, to the impersonation of complicated characters through acting and pantomime, to musical nuance and subtlety. The large audience for dance isn’t very interested in these things, nor should it be. They belong to the trials and tribulations of daily living that one attends theatrical dance to momentarily forget.


It’s not just dance. From prehistoric times, the arts have performed a sacred function in human affairs. People are still drawn to artistic service as to a religious calling. Religious callings require discipline and sacrifice that distinguish the called from the ordinary run of humanity. This is quite outside the rule of reason which would normally counsel self-preservation and security but prevent ecstasy. Despite our reasonable caution, we want ecstasy. We want to explore and challenge ourselves, to break open our shells, break open the shell of the world, go “out there” and bring back what we’ve found. The body is a willful animal that wants to stretch. It wants to be a musical instrument and a gorgeous or uncanny splash of paint, and we cannot get around that unless we are not dancers, in which case we have an excuse to distract ourselves with other matters. Dancers have no excuse whatsoever.


Because it is a love affair, and when you love you go through a lot of pain and sacrifice and compromise to be with the person you love and make the relationship work. It’s the same with dance. You love it, it gives you a lot back, and sometimes you hate it, yet inside yourself you know that it is worth everything you put into it. Because it is an eternal challenge to those who love challenges. Because it is the most wonderful yoga, which takes you out of yourself, while the results, however inefficient they may seem to oneself, give some pleasure, one hopes, some solace, inspiration, and fun to other people—people with whom one would perhaps have no communication in the normal course of events. Your dancing takes them away from the difficulties of their own lives. Because nothing can be more fulfilling than earning (initially, attempting to earn), one’s living doing what one loves to do. The difficulties do not take away the love and passion. If anything, they increase it.


I have always felt that, to paraphrase Martha Graham, you don’t choose dance; dance chooses you. That may sound a little dramatic, but I really believe it’s true. I don’t think that anyone makes a practical decision to dance. Dancing is a profession filled with difficult demands and potential disappointment. One needs a good body to begin with, then good training. And then there is the problem of getting a job and advancing in the job. For most, there is not much money or recognition, and there are injuries to deal with and the prospect of finding another profession after the dancing years are over. In case this sounds morbid, I’ll say now that there is nothing else like dancing for people who love the art. Anyone who wants to dance has to—and should—do it. Do something practical later; do what you love while you can.

LISA ROMA writes:

I love dance, as I love all the arts. I’ve always been moved by music, and I dance naturally. I am not a professional dancer, but dance is a vital part of life. It is an expression of the human spirit. You cannot cage spirit. It will be free. It will break down walls like waterfalls or a rushing river. Dance is passion, it is speechless, it is the soul of life itself.

JANE REMER writes:

Why dedicate your life to dance? My guess is that the pure joy of it, and the triumphs, and the total envelopment in a world of movement, music, and hot human bodies is enticement and reward enough. Nothing I have ever known—as a former dance teacher, performer, and student—compares to the utterly oblivious and transcendent high I would get when I was “in the zone.” Preparation takes all the cognitive and physical force and resources you can muster; performance then turns the head off and moves all cognition into the muscles and sinews. It’s a sublime place to be.


Many professions have cruel aspects. For example, the medical profession can be grueling, with its long hours, physical pain from lack of sleep, and the heartbreak that comes from incurable patients and untimely deaths. However, doctors also experience the joy of successful treatments, even “miracle cures.” What’s more, they are normally self-sufficient economically. Attorneys are subjected to the same hard, long hours and may feel deep disappointment in losing an important case. Yet they also experience cases brought to justice and, like their colleagues in medicine, are usually economically secure. Physical pain, grueling work, poverty, and heartbreak can also be the lot of construction workers—and lives can be lost on the job. What the above professions do not offer, however, is the simultaneous connection of mind, body, and soul. While a doctor or lawyer uses the mind to communicate, the dancer uses the mind but translates thoughts into the body through movement—in essence “baring” the soul. Having experienced this joyful fusion, the dancer becomes willing to risk the work, the pain, the poverty, and even the heartbreak, in hope of receiving the art’s ecstatic rewards.

LILA YORK writes:

It’s a passion. Sometimes you transcend.

an ArtsJournal blog