As I prepare to take my final, "official" bow as principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre this weekend and look back on my 20-year career, my inner monologue is neither short on concepts nor on words elucidating them. Though I still plan to dance and am giddily excited for new adventures, I nevertheless feel the weighty finality of it all.
Surprisingly, I also feel effervescently light. Perhaps because, right now, it's about my love for the art form as opposed to maximizing my efforts toward success in it. It truly does feel like a metamorphosis—an exhilarating shift that makes me realize how much I love dance, how important change is and how much we can all learn from one another.
From that inner monologue, I feel compelled to share a few morsels of knowledge with my colleagues as I straddle staying in the moment and the anticipation of inevitably parting ways. Though I know they'll be fine (and at the risk of sounding self-important), I sometimes worry about how they'll fare without me to lighten the mood at barre, or to empathetically relate a story that might resonate with their own obstacles
So, here are some of the most resonant morsels—call them hacks—for them, and for you:
1. The way you perceive yourself is probably not as accurate as you think.
Erikson as Odile in "Swan Lake." Photo by Rich Sofranko, courtesy PBT.
Remind yourself of this continuously, especially when the self-criticism reaches a fever pitch—treat it like a yoga practice. Armed with this knowledge, continue to work hard and test your limits. But seriously, just be yourself, because you don't look the way you think you do anyway. Your "you-ness" is the dominant gene and is, by far, the most attractive part of you.
2. Just because you're "better" than someone at ballet (or they're "better" than you) does not mean you're better or worse as a person.
This unspoken talent caste system limits us as humans and artists, and therefore it limits the industry. Kindness is infinitely more attractive and useful. So please always treat people the way you'd want to be treated, even if you'd never cast them as Basilio—even in the Monday night show.
3. Your friends' victories are not your defeats.
Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT.
Remember, it is you you're competing against. Your friend did not get that role as part of a personal vendetta to devastate you, nor was the casting conceived as a personal insult. Reminding yourself of this fact is a practice, too, and must be continually reinforced! See above.
You've likely heard this one before, but it warrants repeating. Smile. It helps. Smile at your classmates and colleagues. Smile at your teachers and at the receptionist. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Not the fake kind. Try it. Do it. Right now.
5. Success in ballet does not require sacrificing joy in the rest of your life.
Erickson in William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated." Photo by Rich Sofranko, courtesy PBT.
Cultivate richness within the studio by living fully outside of it. Resist limiting your life because you fear tomorrow's rehearsal. Instead, bring the feelings, moods and energy from your interests and experiences into the studio and paint the room with them. Side directive: Smile thinking about all the fun you're about to have! See, isn't that better?
6. There is no such thing as ballet quicksand.
Erickson as Nikiya in "La Bayadère." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy PBT.
Every step is a new opportunity to begin again. Just because you did three things wrong doesn't mean you shouldn't get excited about the 97 things you did right. We often act like we love perfectionism more than we love dance. Get over it! Humor me for a hot second and just float in the fact that you are straight up doing ballet. When you mess up, just keep flowing and riding that beautiful wave (even if your glute feels flooded with lactic acid and you have a corn that's preventing you from feeling half your foot). Repeat daily.