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~ And you are? ~

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When I tell people I’m a dancer, the general reaction is something like, “Wow! Really? That’s cool!” Followed by something along the lines of, “Must be nice doing what you love for a living!” Followed by something like, “I love Dancing with the Stars/So You Think You Can Dance!” Then there are those who immediately picture a G-string and a pole, like border crossing agents, M (when we first met), and other guys, in general.

It is cool being a dancer. I mean, how many dancers does the average person know? And how many of those dancers are contemporary dancers? To put things in perspective, if I draw a Dancer Pyramid based on income, it typically goes ballet dancers at the top, then commercial dancers (commercials, music videos), then contemporary dancers, then dirt. Broad generalizations, but you get the picture.

I’m always surprised when someone shows no reaction to, or interest in, the fact that I’m a dancer, which, in my opinion, reveals more about them than me. Humph, I think to myself, one of those! Or I’ll get the hairy-eyeball, and quickly add, “Oh, I don’t perform anymore,” to somehow justify my non-dancer physique. Sometimes I’ll also get a whiff of sarcastic resentment like, “Must be nice doing what you love for a living.” To which I want to reply, “You don’t have to judge me. I’m a dancer. I can judge myself!”

About this judgement thing…

I really envy people who manage to do things – without embarrassment, excuses or apologies – because they want to or need to, or simply because they’re curious. Whether it’s transitioning to another career, going back to school, travelling, adding a part-time job, taking time off, getting help, trying something new or making the most of what they have.

A year ago, I started filling my downtime with catering gigs. I can talk about my curiosities in event planning, the food and beverage industry, running my own business, etc., but mostly it was a convenient way to bump up my income, while accommodating my dance schedule and taking care of my dad.

I consider myself lucky to have begun my dance career in the late 80s, when contemporary dance was thriving in Canada. I’ve travelled across the country, toured the States and Scotland, danced in grand and not-so-grand theatres, and had profound experiences performing with, and for, some of the country’s most prolific dance makers and artists. Some people think I was a damn fine dancer! I’m also lucky, because I was able to sustain a performing career without relying on other jobs. Most contemporary dancers can no longer do that, nor can those of us working freelance in non-performing dance activities – like teaching, choreographing or rehearsal directing – especially if we also want/need dedicated time with family and life, in general.

It’s been an interesting journey into the food/event service industry where, for the most part, my experiences with clients, chefs, co-workers and guests have been pleasant. There have been some incidents but certainly nothing crazier than what I’ve experienced in the dance world. Egos, entitlement and unpleasantness exist in all industries, and I definitely learn a lot about people in this one. I did have a couple of encounters recently that inspired me to write this post.

I was at a catering gig, standing in the lobby awaiting guests. Suddenly, a guy and gal I went to grade school and junior-high with walked through the door. They weren’t together, they just randomly walked in at the same time! What are the odds? I’d always wondered what it would feel like if I had to serve people I knew, and I was about to find out. I approached the gal, who immediately lit up and called out my name as we gave each other a hug. She asked me how I was doing, if I was still dancing and writing. I asked her what she was doing these days etc. – all good, nothing weird at all. The guy had disappeared and when I saw him again, I was standing in front of him with a tray of appetizers. He went in for a double air kiss and after an initial, “Oh my God! How are you?” and some blah, blah, blah, we were done.

Afterwards, I was a little jarred from the encounters, wondering what my former schoolmates were thinking of me, serving them food at a reception all these decades later. But then I realized I was the one who was judging me. But why? After a lifetime of trying to explain what I do for a living, I know full well how impossible it is to encapsulate it all in the span of a double air kiss and a few niceties. And if someone thinks they know me, based only on an apron and a platter of sliders, again, doesn’t that say more about them than me? Why should I sweat it? I’m still me doing all of the things I do – some I love, some I want and some I need to do.

So, it really wasn’t the worse thing that could happen. A worse thing would be the experience of the 80-something year-old gentleman I met at a Bar Mitzvah on the weekend, who was imprisoned in an Auschwitz death camp at age 11. He somehow survived that horror and, following the liberation, moved to Israel and then to Toronto, where he’s lived for more than 45 years raising children and grand-children, and eventually writing a book about his story.

As we stood in the middle of the boisterous and extravagantly decorated hall, he easily welled up and told me his name and the title of his book, before being whisked away by the mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy. He made such an impact on me that I googled him when I got home, and ever since then I’ve been thinking about the people we meet, and how we meet, and our stories, our victories and failures, our encounters, the stuff we endure, the stuff we can’t even imagine and on and on.

I suppose I could have met this man under different circumstances, but as it was there we were, at a coming of age celebration, a Holocaust survivor and a dancer/writer/server, chatting by the salads and cold cuts, on an otherwise uneventful Saturday afternoon.

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~ Speaking of joy… ~

A little while back, I was in the presence of joy.

I was at a music club that I hadn’t been to in more than 20 years, watching an indie band play to a full and very  supportive audience. The crowd was a mix of middle-agers (like the band), those who could have been the band’s parents and young hipsters. One of the lead singers is a friend of one of my friends. Years ago when they first met, the singer had an entirely different life – married, working in the corporate world and thinking about having a baby. She was already dabbling in music part-time, but wanted to try it full-time, so her husband gave her something like a year to give it a shot. If she couldn’t make a serious dent with it, they’d have a baby. Long story short, she’s no longer married to the guy, she came out as a lesbian and she’s a full-time, full-on musician, in a band with a very loyal following that includes my friend.

The joy moment occurred during the encore, when the band stood at the edge of the stage, close to the audience, unplugged, no mics, just acoustic guitars and sweet harmonies. This singer, this gal with this story, had an expression on her face that struck me. It wasn’t a look of the performing pro that she’s clearly become; it was, very simply, joy.

I scanned the seedy club, with its eau d’urine stairway and dim lighting, and thought about this gal’s imaginary backstory: maybe she made more money in her other life; maybe she had a bigger house, a nicer car, more affluent colleagues; maybe her husband was a good guy and she could have continued to have a pleasant enough life. But this look of joy on her face, caused by the thing that changed everything, in this dingy club filled with friends and a bunch of strangers was something special. And I wondered if she would have ever known this in her other life.

What are you willing to struggle for?

I recently read an article by Mark Manson asking that question. Not, What do you want? Rather, What are you willing to slog through the shit for? Because we all want something – to be rich; to have a great relationship; an awesome body; a fabulous career – we just aren’t willing to deal with the shitty stuff that can go along with getting it.

So I thought about all of my wants and asked myself what was slog-through-shit-worthy. Dance has been that for me. At more than 30 years, the longest (and so far) ongoing love/hate relationship of my life. That’s a shitload of shit that I’ve tolerated, accepted, ignored and endured on the way to those gems, those rare moments of joy that somehow sustain me until the next joyful moment. These gems often occurred onstage when I was still performing. There’s really nothing like the sort of mash-up of control and abandonment that I sometimes felt as a performer. Not to mention the recognition. I don’t care how much a dancer denies it, if you want to be a dancer then you want to be SEEN and RESPECTED and RECOGNIZED. End of discussion.

Those feelings didn’t just vanish once I stopped performing. They were just rerouted, as I transitioned to other areas. Every now and then joy will strike me in a rehearsal, and I’ll think, Holy crap! This is good. And no one else gets to feel this. Same thing happens sometimes when I’m teaching class or when people respond to my writing or when I’m watching a rare phenomenal work that gets in there; right fucking in there!

Catch me on a good day, and I’ll bypass the shit and only talk about the good stuff in my artistic life. Admittedly, the good stuff is harder to come by as I get older and less patient, and the slog-through-shit-worthy criteria changes as the years go on.

But I’m still at it.

I’m still here.

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