Hometown Dabke

A few Novembers ago, upon realizing that I had no contract for the remainder of the dance season, I reluctantly, annoyedly moved back to my family’s home in Virginia. A ballet job hadn’t worked out for various reasons and I chose to leave mid-season. No part of me was proud or excited to move back home, to take up my job teaching at a local dance studio again, to reluctantly catch up over coffee with the people from my high school who never left our town. However, I forced myself to see this unexpected lull in my dance career as a time allotted to me in order that I may develop my other talents, pursue my other goals.

I decided to start taking classes at the university in my hometown, concluding that I might as well reawaken the academic in me while the dancer nursed her ego. The University of Mary Washington is a small, liberal arts school that was originally a women’s college. It sits on the edge of the historical downtown area of my hometown- Fredericksburg, Virginia. There, I decided to embark upon a new linguistic journey and begin learning Arabic. The reasons behind this choice aren’t really profound; Arabic had intrigued me as a language and culture for some time. With Middle Eastern conflicts dominating global news for my entire life, I foresaw Arabic fluency as an asset to a vast array of future, post-dance, professional endeavors.

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The Thoughtful Ballerina

‘The Thoughtful Ballerina’ is Emmie Strickland’s first piece for COA. You can check out her new author Q&A piece here if you want to know a little more about her or get some guilty-pleasure music tips.

I spend the majority of my days perfecting my portrayal of a fairy. Between musicality, perfectly executed choreography, and adding in some light acting, this can be overwhelming. Dancers, and in particular professional ballet dancers, are known to be self-critical perfectionists. There’s always room for improvement. We’re just crazy enough to drain ourselves every day in a career where the ultimate success is unattainable.

Classical ballet is dominated by magical, ethereal, romantic, feminine, appealing, emotional, and otherworldly characters. Sometimes I’m swan. Sometimes I’m a fairy, or ghost of a young bride. It’s  centuries-old with messages that still matter. It is a traditional mode of visual storytelling that celebrates the god-like potential the human body has to produce beauty.

And when your studio is lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, you are locked into perpetual self-reflection.

This makes ballet dancers some of the most self-aware people you’d ever encounter. We’re on a never-ending journey to fully know ourselves physically and mentally, because well-danced ballet demands that. It’s full command of all body movements, be it facial expressions, breathing, or state of mind. Because ballet is arguably the most exact of the many forms of dance, those of us who dance it as a profession are attentive and self-critical of our ballet technique to the point of obsession.

It consumes us.

We repeat the same step in front of the mirror countless times until it looks flawless, only to come into the studio the next day and be completely dissatisfied with it because of the tilt of the head or angle of the wrist. Tears are shed over the details. We are hyper-perfectionists. Our bodies are driven to the edges of cliffs and we are devastated beyond words when they cannot do what we want them to do, or subsequently (but not surprisingly) get injured.

We neglect important aspects of life-like relationships, nutrition, and sleep just to inch a little closer to this unreachable mastery of the set of motions and positions, all unnatural to the human body, that is ballet technique. And since not a single one of the professional ballet dancers in the world would claim to have perfected it all yet, each day we are led back to the studio, happily hooked by the idea of becoming our most perfect selves.

Emmie Strickland, The Thoughtful Ballerina

Emmie Strickland, The Thoughtful Ballerina. Photo by Jonathan K Taylor.

Yet despite the bliss experienced dancing through a dream every day, there lingers a cloud of uncertainty that gets in the way of my fully experiencing the art form. The all-encompassing world of professional ballet has handcuffed my ability to affect genuine change to the world we all share.

I have eight hours of work every day in a temperature-controlled studio, perfecting my portrayal of a fairy, while children die of starvation, bombs decimate villages, and the earth’s coral reefs petrify.

Big picture stuff, for sure. I’ve recently found myself thinking, how is dancing ballet relevant while I grumble over imperfect pirouettes. How are those pas de chats fixing the issues in civilization that my heart is aching to resolve?  It’s a maddening irony that ballet, my passion, nurtured the realization of this disheartening truth. I need me being a swan on a huge stage to somehow cure en epidemic. Right now, that swan shyly cowers under the shadow of her wing.

And while it might seem a comical proposition, I do firmly believe in my art form’s ability to enrich our audiences in countless ways. The fine arts are a necessity in a civil society; ballet included. We do find an occasional respite from elite theaters and velvet seats by performing outreach shows for underprivileged children. The art keeps history intact while breaking through walls that previous performers thought impermeable. It inspires and entertains. It reflects the human condition in a way that few art forms do.

Providing an artistic vessel for future difference-makers to have their own revelations is my redemption. I need it, and I hope they do too.

Maybe it is naiveté. Maybe it shows an inflated sense of self, that I believe I could affect real change It could just be a subconscious scratching of my ‘save the world’ itch. The hopeful (or hopeless, depending on you look at it) answer is that I should just pursue the obvious solution: save the world and dance. Fairies don’t need that much sleep, right? Conversely, maybe this is all the over-analysis of a thoughtful ballerina.

Artists and Nine-to-Fivers, alike: what do you do when your dream-career leaves your soul wanting? Tell us in the comment field below!