“I don’t have time in my schedule to include cross-training and self-care.”

Is this something you find yourself saying?

Do you prioritize getting ahead in your dance training over taking care of yourself?

Are these two things mutually exclusive? Or are they two sides of the same coin?

You can almost see the city through the smog...

This was the conversation I found myself having on the highest peak in Hong Kong. Yeah, we’re here in HK for the IADMS- International Association for Dance Medicine and Science annual conference

Today, I am writing this from our Airbnb as there is a level 8 (out of 10) typhoon warning in effect and the conference has been cancelled for today. Right now the weather is not crazy, but who knows what will happen in the next few hours. We dared to venture out for breakfast (spam and hotdogs on instant ramen noodles with instant coffee- What I can only imagine is a traditional HK style breakfast).

phils-breakfast

What if you placed the same value on self-care and taking care of your body’s needs as you did on excelling as a dancer- technique training, performing, auditions, rehearsing, etc.

One could argue that if you placed the same priority on self-care, then you would be limiting yourself as a dancer. Afterall, to be a successful dancer it seems that you need to make sacrifices. You can’t skip an audition. Can’t say no to a contract. Can’t risk saying no to a choreographer’s wishes. If you say no, someone could swoop in and take the opportunity from you, and this is a competitive field in which it is difficult to be successful.

Just today I saw a former client of mine, who we’ll call Kayla, post something on her Facebook page bragging about how busy her schedule was with dance contracts, yet how her body was falling apart, glorifying the sacrifices she was making to “succeed” in as a professional dancer.

This is tradition at play. This is her education, and you can’t blame her for doing what she’s been taught to do. Being conditioned to think that to be a dancer is to be in pain. That this is how it should be. But it made me sad inside to see that other people “liked” and even “loved” this status. Encouraging her to push her body past it’s limits for the sake of “making it” as a dancer.

But is this what success as a dancer is?

Every dancer’s definition of success will be different. For the dancer above, it is to perform at all costs. To get contracts and make a living doing what she loves, but at the expense of her body. If she were to take time off to rehabilitate and nurture her body, she would have had to say no to some opportunities to perform. She would have had to work more hours at her “Joe job”. She would be making choices that are not moving closer to her definition of success.

But for how long can she sustain this?

It seems the way she is going, that if she does not make the choice to take care of herself, the choice will be made for her, as it was for me years ago. It is much less fun this way.

Saying no to a dance gig is so hard. I get this.

So is success for her a “right now” matter? One of instant gratification, living from day to day? A means to distract herself from the truth of what is really going on in her body, and the future of her career?

Would she make different choices if her idea of success also considered the long term? Would she still consider herself successful if she had to say no to a few gigs now in order to prolong her career to dance later in life? Could she accept that new definition of success?

This is a discussion on priorities and finding a meaningful definition of success as a dancer, one that takes into consideration both the short and the long term.

I’d like to tell the story of another dancer- a professional contemporary dancer, who we’ll call Molly, with a very different story. Molly came to see me to find a solution to “save” her dance career having been performing through chronic lower back and SI joint pain for three years.

She had come to realize that she needed to retrain how her body moved. She recognized that the current way her body was organizing itself to move was no longer serving her and was exacerbating her symptoms. She was out of options, could no longer dance, and needed help to unravel these patterns and rebuild.

Because she had been dancing through pain for over three years, she had found many strategies for moving around her pain which were now causing more trouble for her body.

In a much different place than Kayla, and perhaps having danced through pain for a few years longer, Molly made the difficult decision to stop dancing and performing to take the time to get to the root of what was causing her troubles. 

Her definition of success was long-term. “I want to keep dancing and I willing to do what is necessary for that to be a thing.”

She told me, from such a beautiful space of honesty, that, this was to date one of the hardest things she had to do, but she recognized that if she didn’t stop dancing now, out of her free will, then she would be forced to stop. This is the thing: It IS hard inner work that none of us ever wants to face. So we postpone it. Deny it. But for how long can this be kept this up? How long can the Kaylas of the world dance this way?

This decision required that Molly drop her identity as a dancer momentarily to work with her body as a human, trusting that even though she wasn’t dancing, she was still a dancer, and the work we were doing was to help her get back to dancing again. It wasn’t taking anything away from her dance career, but serving her long-term success as a dancer.

It meant tuning in with how her body felt, not dissociating from and moving around pain. And it meant that some exercises and new movements we worked on fatigued her in just three repetitions. While this could have been discouraging for a dancer like her- known for her powerful, strong movement and used to pushing to and often past her limits, she understood it was a necessary part of the process to honestly appreciate that three reps was all she could do well and that three reps was enough.

She eventually built up work capacity while maintaining the same quality, and within several months was back to dance classes with a better understanding of her body, her limits, and what to do when she felt her symptoms resurface.

Her attitude towards pain has completely changed. She sees it as information and does her best not to judge it. With this new information, she also understands that she could not dance the same way that she used to, but this did not mean she would not dance as well, and in fact, she could find dancing more fulfilling and meaningful with her new appreciation of her body and ability to move more honestly.

She sees her injuries as a gift that gave her the opportunity to get back in touch with her body, and is grateful for the time off dancing that she used to practice honest movement and build strength. Working at her neural edge, moving honestly, and getting out of her comfort zone are what allowed Molly to make the changes she did and return to dancing. Not only that, she committed to practicing daily, fully trusted the process, and made it her priority.

The truth is, if we take our dancing seriously, it is likely we will move through this spectrum: From Kayla to Molly. Or, from Kayla to naught.

But there is another option: To consider these options early in one’s career. To prioritize self-care and cross-training from day one. To start as a Molly. There are very few opportunities for dancers to be brought up in this way. Let us hope that this will change.

This may mean saying no to some things to preserve your body. This may mean making some hard decisions.

In our mountain-top talk, my friend made the point: But in a dancer’s schedule, there isn’t the time to make self-care an equal priority.

But I’m not talking about time. I’m talking about a moment to moment understanding of what is happening in your body right now. Making choices based on this understanding. Making it a 10/10 priority to  have this understanding, take 5 minutes before class to breathe, and check in, to make the choice to actually do a warm-up, to make the time for cross-training, and to take time off if you need to.

Making it an equal priority doesn’t have to mean the time commitment needs to be the same as the number of hours you dance in a week, but every choice made needs to be made with awareness of what is in your best interest according to your idea of what success is for you.

So, what does “success” mean for you?  What does prioritizing your body’s best interests look like for you? And do you feel like these two things are conflicting, or rely on each other, like two sides of a coin?

This idea fascinates me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.