Yep. In terms of technique I am quite mediocre. Middle of the pack. Less than outstanding. And I’ve known this for quite some time and I am very proud of the fact that it never stopped me from pursuing the art form that I feel I was born to do. I got the earliest inkling that I wasn’t going to be at the top of the class at 9 years old when I transitioned from my little mom & pop non competitive local dance school to the best dance studio in the city, that was known for dominating competitions and producing major talent. I remember walking in on my first day and immediately noticing a hierarchy.
I wasn’t placed in the class taught by the studio owner and top choreographer but with one of the younger less experienced teachers. I remember stretching on my first day and being absolutely discouraged because I was the only one in my class not able to do a split. Not a side split, not a middle split, nothing. I remember vividly all the other girls resting in their splits…. Some were even putting their heads down on the floor, completely relaxed while I was on the struggle bus, pushing my flexibility to the limit trying to inch my pelvis closer to the floor. I fought back tears. I was already new, this studio was more intense than what I was used to and now I was the only one in the class that couldn’t do what everyone else was doing. But after I left class, I made a promise to myself that I would be able to do a split. My little 9 year old self stretched every single day until I finally was able to do a split on my left side. I was still way behind everyone as far as flexibility but I took so much pride in being able to do that split. I proved to myself that I was willing to work hard for the things that didn’t come naturally to me and I didn’t know then how valuable that was.
Eventually I moved up into a more competitive class and began to travel with the studio to NYC to take classes. Whatever little pride I was feeling after moving into a “better” class quickly evaporated in NYC. I was about 13 on the first trip to New York. I did not crush, kill, slay or make it into the select group in any of the 15 or so classes I took over this 4 day trip. I’m pretty sure I was the only one from my studio that didn’t get some kind of positive acknowledgement. I just kind of faded into the group. In some classes I struggled mightily, in others I held my own, but I didn’t shine. At all. Through taking 3 to 4 classes a day with phenomenal dancers in New York I was hit in the face again by the fact that I was a middle of the road dancer but this time instead of crying and willing myself to be better I focused on what I did do really well. I noticed which parts of the process of learning and executing choreography I was good at and it was (and still is) musicality and performance. I’ve always been able to feel the music and interpret nuance in it and I have always been a performer who gives energy and facial expressions and is fun to watch onstage.
When we got back from the trip I decided that any solo or duet I would do in competition would be a character dance. Character dance, also known as musical theatre jazz, is a category in which the dancer is scored more heavily on performance. They have to portray an actual character. Any time you step on stage you are portraying a character but this is a much more literal interpretation and the ability to sell the character was just as important as tricks and high level technique. At the next competition I actually beat some of the girls who were in higher classes than I was for first place and I thought this is it , I’ve found my lane! I think that was the summer I started going to a performing arts camp and realized how much I loved being a part of a production. One dance number was about 3 minutes but in a production I could be on stage for almost an hour at a time! It was also a different experience to be performing as a unit versus competing against the people who learned right beside you. At this time Rochester School of the Arts had just gotten a brand new building, complete with 2 theaters and multiple big, beautiful dance studios. I was about to start high school and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.
I auditioned for S.O.T.A’s dance program and got accepted. Another peak in my confidence as a dancer. It felt really good at 14 years old to say “ I’m a dance major”. I went through high school riding this peak. I stopped dancing at the studio and was fully engaged in my school’s dance program. Due to my prior training I was considered one of the “good” dancers and I worked very hard. It was at S.O.T.A that I was introduced to modern dance and found a great appreciation for it. I had my choreography selected for the annual Dance Concert as an incoming freshman which was uncommon and had 2 pieces selected as a senior. I enjoyed a good 4 year run at my peak but that all came crashing down when it was time to audition for college. Before entering my senior year in high school I had gone to a summer dance intensive at the University of the Arts and fell in love with the program, the city of Philadelphia and the idea of a career as an artist. UArts was on the top of my list. One of my dance teachers at S.O.T.A gave me some tips to prepare for the audition. She told me that while I didn’t have to choreograph the whole thing, I would need structure. We went over style and how I was going to integrate my strengths into the piece. Now mind you, I had just gotten a solo piece selected to perform in the Dance Concert and I improvised the entire thing. I was beginning to rely a little too heavily on my musicality and performance, especially since my technique had improved.Once I had decided on a general theme for the piece, I loved to be carried by the music and let movement flow from my body on the spot. That worked for my high school dance concert. It did not work for being accepted into a prestigious arts institution at the collegiate level.
I bombed the audition. As I was warming up I was looking at the flexibility and technique of the other dancers as they were rehearsing choreographed dances and I had nothing to rehearse but a very loose “ structure” that was hard to adhere to given the amount of pressure. I had a wobbly foundation and it simply didn’t hold up. I actually did ok in the class portion of the audition but I was not a standout. I was counting on my solo audition to really shine and due to lack of preparation ,over reliance on my improvisation skills and not enough of a showing of technical proficiency, I was not accepted.
After one year at Virginia State University as a sociology major taking P.E requirement dance classes, I ended up at S.U.NY Brockport as a dance major with a minor in African-American studies. Becoming immersed in African dance in college at S.U.N.Y Brockport was my saving grace. It was through African dance that I truly felt at home as a dancer. As a member of the Sankofa Dance and Drum Ensemble, I never once had a feeling of being not good enough. My cultural knowledge expanded and I made lifelong friendships. I went on to obtain my degree in dance and 20 plus years later I am still dancing.
I learned the hard way that there is a fine line between playing to your strengths and resting on your laurels. I have in fact built a career as an artist and performed on many stages across the country, all while being a middle of the road dancer. That is because regardless of skill level or natural ability I never envisioned a future in which I was not dancing. I never once entertained the possibility of a life that dance wasn’t at the heart of in some way shape or form. I never thought about it in those terms but now I can take a step back and admire my chutzpah and determination. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I had given up pursuit of the thing that gives me the most joy.