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  • Jennifer Milner

Separating "Could" From "Should"

“I’m exhausted from ten straight days of rehearsal, but I could probably survive one more class. I should do it - I don’t want the teacher to think I’m a slacker.”

“We’ve never tried this tricky lift before but we can probably do it. I don’t want to hurt his feelings by asking to wait for a spotter.”

“I’ve been dancing on this stress fracture for two weeks without knowing it; I could probably get through one more show. I shouldn’t let everyone down.”

In a dancer’s life, there are a lot of absolutes. You have to take class. Like, all the time. You have to cross train (don’t try to win this argument with me). You have to work with partners you may not adore You have to do things that the body is not naturally built to do (hello, turnout. And, yeah, standing ON YOUR TIPTOES).

You have to sacrifice a lot of things: Friday nights out. That daily pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Knowing what you’re going to be doing twelve months/two months/two weeks from now. You have to learn to ignore the aches and pains and push through them.

Or should you?

One of the hardest things you will do as a dancer is learn to see the difference between “could” and “should”. Dancers as a species are built to do whatever’s asked of us, to accomplish the impossible, to turn the inhuman into art. As a consequence, the word “no” is often conspicuously lacking from our own vocabulary. Our inability to see that just because something is possible it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, can lead to both physical and emotional harm. Whether it’s from a fear of being passed over or simply our own drive to always do whatever’s asked of us, our desire to say “yes” might make us our own worst enemies.

You’ve been pushing through a sore Achilles for a few months, and halfway through afternoon warmup it starts hurting- a sharper, more persistent pain than before. But the evening’s show is in just a few hours and you know your understudy isn’t feeling super confident yet. You probably could get through the show, and everyone’s counting on you. Act like a role model and do the show, right? Odds are you’d be fine that evening. But if it’s the last straw for your poor calf muscle, you may end up being carried offstage and find yourself out for a year.

So that’s the physical danger - obvious. But there’s a psychological toll, as well. You are teaching yourself that 1) your body’s signals are something to be ignored; and 2) your needs and health are less important than the nebulous “greater good”. You will continue to ignore your body’s feedback, continue to not want to “let people down”, and eventually have a terrible internal radar and very low sense of self-worth when it comes time to stand up for yourself at the bargaining table/audition/rehearsal.

I am not advocating that you wrap yourself in cotton wool and consider yourself too precious to take a risk. I am saying that you need to learn to listen to your body, and acknowledge that just because you could doesn’t mean you should. No one is going to be your advocate except you, and learning to respectfully but firmly say “no” to doing “one itty-bitty Sugarplum variation at 8 a.m. on carpet in a 55-degree hotel ballroom” will make you a healthier dancer with a longer career.

Take Joseph Gatti, an international freelance ballet star with firsthand knowledge of this kind of thing. A couple years ago, a serious ankle injury sidelined him and caused him to take a long, hard look at the current class/rehearsal model. While recovering, he found he had more freedom as a freelance dancer to shape his own training/class/rehearsal schedule into something healthier than the typical agenda. When asked if he had ever pushed himself harder than he should because he felt pressure to not let people down, Joseph replied, “Yes, a few times! It definitely is a part of us as dancers to want to push to the limit - always! - but I also believe a lot of this comes from the boss running the rehearsals. If they have a lack of communication it will pressure you constantly until you break.” He added that he’s seen this “too often to many dancers and it is talked about way too little.” Joseph noted that since he’s been a freelance dancer with more control over his schedule and training, his injury occurrence has practically disappeared.

When asked if he feels guilt over making hard decisions - sometimes saying “no” - Joseph replied, “I have guilt with decisions I made that actually led to serious injuries. Not speaking up, not listening to my body. At the end of the day, if your body is telling you it’s enough and you need to rest then that’s what you do and if the people in the front of the room don’t appreciate that then you know it’s not the right place for you. You have to find a place where you’re appreciated and they believe in you and help you grow.

As a final piece of advice to dancers, Joseph added, “You have to find what’s best for you. Continue to learn and listen. It’s you against YOU, no one else. But at the end of the day people won’t remember you for the dancer you were, but for the person you were. So be kind and constantly work for yourself, no one else.”*

We will always worry that we are disposable. We will always have the demon “should” sitting on our shoulders, shouting over our better angels of common sense and self worth. And in the big picture, no doubt about it, dancing is a fleeting career. But we can make sure we treat ourselves as something other than single-use performers.

You are not disposable.

You have value and something unique to offer. Start believing that, and you - and your career -will be healthier for it.

Or you could ignore me.

But you shouldn’t.

*Joseph Gatti's experiences with injuries have led him to open a ballet company with an emphasis on dancer health and wellness. United Ballet Theatre is based in Orlando Florida and looking to present its first season this summer. I am insanely excited about this model, built with lots of input from experienced dance medicine experts, and can't wait to see what happens with it!

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