I would like to dedicate this blog entry to Mr. Arthur Mitchell.
When I was dancing, I always wanted more. More roles, more recognition, and I wanted it now. I think, to some extent, that hunger for more is normal and good if it is in balanced with gratitude and rooted in compassion. I was neither grateful or compassionate, least of all towards myself. When I did not get what I wanted when I wanted, I pouted and blamed the world. I turned my hatred inward and began a regimen of abuse that would make St. Theresa’s hair shirt feel like rabbit fur against a baby’s bum. (As a side note, I once made a pilgrimage to Avila to visit one of St. Theresa’s convents. The stark little cells that the nuns slept and whipped themselves in felt strangely like home.)
But there was a good aspect to all of that waiting. After a sound thrashing, I would go back into the studio and work my ass off. I believed in hard work even when, at times, I didn’t believe in God. There is something undeniable about sweat and after a good work-out, I felt like I had something sacred that no one could take away. My director made me earn everything I got to dance. He made me prove myself. Finally, one day he nodded and said, “Now you’re a ballerina.”
He knew what he was doing in making me fight the good fight. And though at many times in the midst of that fight I secretly cursed him, in the end I was grateful. To be given something that I hadn’t earned would have been a grave disservice to me and to the art form.
So, you can imagine that I was surprised when, at the beginning of the semester, students approached me to ask if they could be moved up to a higher level. When it first happened I thought, hmmm, maybe there’s something I’ve overlooked, but after the fourth person asked, I realized I’d been duped.
In all my years of waiting, I never would have dreamt of asking for a promotion. Not from a teacher. Not from a director. Never. Some small sane part of me knew that that was inappropriate. To ask for such a thing would be like, well, cheating. I had faith that my hard work would be recognized eventually and if it wasn’t, that was on me.
After I got over my initial shock, I was able to see the larger picture. These students have grown up in a time of shameless self-promotion, extreme narcissism and rampant entitlement, none of which is their fault. They are actually taught to maneuver through the world in this fashion, that it’s healthy to be pushy, and when you don’t get what you want, blame someone else and move on. This is a recipe for bitterness later in life.
I remember hearing in some English class somewhere an interview with James Baldwin where he was talking about bitterness. He said it was ok to be angry (I’m paraphrasing. It was years ago.) Anger can be turned into positive action, like writing a book, but bitterness was another story. He was warning black folks not to become bitter because it rots the soul. Nothing good can grow from a bitter heart.
I don’t want our young people to become bitter. I don’t want them to sit around, bitching and moaning about what they didn’t get. I don’t want them to manipulate their way through life. I want them to hit the high C. I want them to dance their dance even if only a handful of people ever see it. Even if no one ever sees it, I want them to know that there is a joy in being authentic to oneself. And if they do make it big, great. They will have more to contribute to the consciousness of humanity than a good hair weave and a boob job.
Out of all the information that we were fed in school, they never told us this: that life is hard. That doesn’t mean that you have to torture yourself like I did. The challenge is built in. You can have it with or without hair shirt. But the good news is that it feels great to come out on the other side of a challenge if you’ve fought the good fight. The outcome is never what you think it’s gonna be, because that person that was imagining what it would be like in the first place has been replaced with someone sharper. That’s what it means to grow and the responsibility for that really is in one’s own hands.