One of my favorite things about being a dance teacher is helping my students develop their own creative expression through improvisation and choreography. My entire relationship to dance changed when I discovered these two artistic avenues, and I know first hand how empowering it can be. But boy, can it be scary as well!
Putting yourself out there can be daunting, whether it is in creative expression, school, your work life, or your relationships. I spent so much of my early (and not-so-early) journey into improv and choreography comparing myself to others. If only I had a better eye for space and design, was more athletic and acrobatic, understood music on a deeper level, or had more interesting stories to tell… There were times when I felt so caught up in what I lacked as a dance artist that I was unable to recognize all of the things that made my creative voice unique, worthy, and important. I would fall into deep and nasty “funks” where I second-guessed nearly all of my creative (and life!) choices.
One of the thing that I held on to most closely during those tumultuous days was a quote by Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” The truth is, the world already had everyone else’s choreography and improvisational skills. What was missing was my creative voice: what I had to say through my art, and the ways I chose to say it – even if they weren’t quite like other people’s. It wasn’t always easy to remember or live by that motto, but trying certainly made a huge difference in my dancing and my life.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that I don’t try to hone my craft, to learn from others, or to push myself to be better at what I do. It is important to let ourselves grow as artists in any way we can What it does mean is that I can free myself from comparison, from judging the value of my work against what others do, and (most importantly) from judging my value as a person based on the work I create. I know that even my best attempts at becoming someone else will fall short. The only way to find success and happiness is to focus on being a first-rate version of me, rather than a copy of someone else … even if it’s crazy difficult some days!
The truth is, when we get caught up in comparison, we invite fear, judgement, anxiety, and inaction to guide our creative choices – and sometimes even our lives (see the dreaded “funks” above). We can not be our authentic selves, as artists or as people, when we are obsessed with what others are making and doing. It is far better to stay focused on ourselves, remembering what makes us and our artistry unique. It can be tempting to try to change our creative expression to make it more like the dancers and choreographers that we admire, but in the end, it simply won’t serve us well. The world doesn’t need a copy of anyone else – what it needs is you!
During back-to-dance season, this message can be equal parts incredibly important and incredibly difficult to hear. As you get back into studios after some time away from your regular classes, it’s hard not to judge yourself against your peers. Who’s stepped up their training over the summer, who’s worked on their flexibility, who’s gotten stronger … where do I fit into the mix? If you are starting a new school, college, or professional contract, it is easy to look around the room and try to mold yourself to what you see in the other dancers around you. If the director chose them, maybe they are what I should aspire to … Teachers, too, feel the urge to compare themselves this time of year. Why have more people signed up for their class? How do they find their amazing playlists? Why didn’t I think of that cool warm-up? What if the students like them better? Choreographers will feel it as proposals for residencies, grants, and performance opportunities are decided. Maybe if I had been just a little bit [edgier, softer, more abstract, more personal, funnier, more academic], they would have chosen me over them? And studio owners can’t help but look at the other schools in their area. If I change what I do to be more like them, will I attract more clients, win more trophies, or feel more successful?
Here’s the thing: There will always be someone who is more flexible or stronger, who the director likes better, who has a more popping playlist, who gets the role, the residency, the grant, the students, or the opportunity. But – they still aren’t you. If you can hold on to that … if you can honor your strengths, work on your weaknesses, learn to love your authentic self, and hold on to what makes you the special dancer, artist, and person that you are, you will find happiness, fulfillment, and peace that surpasses all of those temporary achievements. And that is what really matters – in the studio and out.
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