When I was about eight or nine, my dance teacher at the time, Miss Joan, looked at me hard and asked me if I wanted to be a dancer. Looking down, afraid to meet the intensity of her gaze, I meekly shook my head yes. I had never uttered the words, “I want to be a dancer” out loud. Some things are too close to be spoken.
For a long time I thought everyone was like this. Everyone knew the blueprint of their becoming. I recognized my dancerness early on as a mere fact of my birth like my sex and the color of my eyes. Miss Joan’s question surprised me. I didn’t think I had a choice.
In my single-minded pursuit of dancing, I quit high school at seventeen, got a GED, and joined a company. At that time, I didn’t give much thought to going to college. Now, at 39, I have what amounts to roughly three years of college credits that I acquired from three different universities in a higgliddy-piggliddy sort of fashion, going to school here and there during lay-offs or periods of injury when I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I always managed to learn something that brought me to greater self-understanding, although it was an expensive way to learn about oneself. This year, I finally paid off my student loans, bringing my credit score back up to positive numbers. Thank god for the two universities that actually employ me! I will probably finish my degree at some point because I hate to leave loose ends. It messes with my need for simplicity.
But I don’t want to get into the positives and negatives of today’s colleges. That’s a worthy topic for another blog. What I do want to talk about is what to do if you’re a dancer who has to choose between college and joining a company.
First of all, let me say that it doesn’t have to be either/or. There are many programs now that will allow you to work gradually towards a degree at night, on-line, or whatever. But ballet, more than modern or other dance forms, emphasizes youth. Especially important is the time between ages seventeen to about twenty one when you are expected to join a company.
Many parents of prospective freshman approach me to ask what I think is the best route. They are torn between the seeming security of a college diploma and the uncertainty of dancing for one’s dinner. They want to lay out a clearly cut path for their children that leads to a safe and beautiful place. They are afraid that their child will fail.
But failure, I mean the crying-on-the-bathroom-floor kind, is an inevitable part of any life. So is risk. What terrifies me more than failure is that someone will not fulfill their talent, their blueprint. That someone will have to face death not having delivered their light into the world. We will all die, but will we dance our dance? On some days, it’s because I have a garbage can full of failures that I dance.
My advice to the parent is that they allow their child to follow their own heart, at which point the parent usually says, yes, but shouldn’t they get their degree first? Now, I am a sort of put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket-kamikaze-kind-of-girl, so I say, well, that might make you feel better (to the parent) but, in ballet, as I’ve said, time is of the essence. The having-something-to-fall-back-on approach won’t necessarily help your child in this situation. I emphasize that it’s important for the young artist to spend several years focusing on their art and to realize that each person’s path is unique. Just because it is not well trod doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it yours and yours alone.
For some, college after high school is best. For others, it is not, and if you or your child falls into the latter group, know that you are not alone. Believe me, Harvard will be there, and if it isn’t, then the world will probably have changed drastically to one in which Harvard and the like will have been rendered unnecessary.
I like college. I just don’t think it’s the promised land. I don’t believe in a promised land at all, which is just another way of saying that nothing is guaranteed. I do believe that there is a wisdom inside each heart that is far superior to any external authority, and that we should spend more time teaching our children to put faith in that.