- Jennifer Milner
Dancer, Love Thyself
On this Valentine’s Day, I want to talk about the one relationship that you’re guaranteed to be in the rest of your life: your relationship with yourself. And as everyone focuses today on ways to make that “special someone” feel important, I think it’s crucial to remember that you are important, and often the most neglected person in a dancer’s life.
Why the neglect? Lots of reasons, I suppose, but while some are understandable - no time, always busy - none of them are really good ones. I think dancers in general have to be willing to be self-sacrificial (to some degree) merely to succeed in dance: we sacrifice casual friendships, dinners out with friends, big family trips during Nutcracker, any sort of a stable bank account, to pursue what we love.
We have to remember that WE are the art we create. And that means that what we think of ourselves is reflected and magnified onstage. And yes, I truly believe this. So to avoid burnout, injury, and more, consider trying the following suggestions. Just see what happens.
Be generous in your praise It’s like we have two different sets of filter through which we view the world: one for critiquing everyone else, and another for judging ourselves. Watch a friend mess up an adagio in class, and you’ll laugh with her, or encouragingly whisper “Hey, you’re great, you’ll nail it next time!” to her as the lines change. But stumble in that penché yourself, and for some reason you’ll berate and belittle yourself and begin a self-denigrating spiral. I see this every day in class, and it hurts my heart every time. Stop focusing so much on what you do wrong, and take a few moments each class to recognize what you do right. It’s not bragging or showing off - it’s acknowledging what you’ve accomplished.
Give the gift of pampering Everyone loves to be pampered, right? Watch your friend melt in gratitude when you give her a gift certificate for a spa day; see a loved one light up when he or she enters the room and realizes you’ve cleaned the entire kitchen for them. Treat yourself the same way! I’m not saying spend a ton of money - but think of the small “extravagances” and find ways to indulge when you can - and then don’t feel guilty. Remind yourself that you’re worth a pedicure just as much as anyone else.
Make time for yourself You’d think this is pampering, but it’s not - it’s a must. You carve up your day for everyone - ballet class, rehearsals, studying, auditioning, dinner with the friends who keep complaining they never see you - and there’s often not a piece left over for yourself. Be sure to find ways to recharge when necessary - whether that’s a long hot soak and a good book for the introvert, or a games night with a bunch of friends who have absolutely nothing to do with the ballet world but remember when you made milk come out your nose when you were five. Also? Going to the dentist and doctor isn’t isn’t pampering - it’s maintenance, friend. Ditto going to the grocery store so you’re not picking up junk at a convenience store at 11 p.m. after a show. Necessities!
Be a good listener Don’t really want to do a fourth pas de deux in a competition but find it hard to say “no’? Afraid to turn down a friend’s request to be in her experimental new piece, even though you’re exhausted and your schedule is over-full? Listen to your body and know it’s ok to turn things down. Cancel a night out when you need the sleep; be honest with your coach when she suggests “one more run-through” and you can feel your body giving out. Show your body some respect and it will be there when you need it.
Get help if you need it You know I’m a big believer of having a team on-call when something comes up. Find yourself feeling anxious all the time, and can’t get those worries out of your head? Get to a therapist - there’s absolutely no shame. Waking every morning exhausted in spite of a good night’s sleep? Head to your doc for a little blood work. Having trouble eating healthy meals without obsessing over them a little too much? There’s someone you can talk to for that. A massage isn’t a luxury - it’s a necessity for what we do to our bodies. And a professional who can help you sort through your feelings/worries/harmful thoughts isn’t a luxury or a sign of weakness. A successful dancer is a healthy one - physically AND mentally - and a good therapist/dietician/doctor will give you tools to use your entire career.
Dancers make art, right? And a lot of times dancers see themselves as a blank canvas on which people can create something beautiful. But here’s the thing - you’re not a canvas. You? Are the paintbrush. You MAKE the beauty. You’re not something passive and blank to be dabbled on - YOU create the loveliness with what you put into the world. So you need to be a clean, healthy paintbrush that’s kept in good condition, ready to create something amazing.
Make sure your heart is beauty-full I love to go to antique malls. It’s like a museum for me - to see all this “art” everywhere. Humble hand-stitched quilts with stories behind every scrap of fabric, lovely one-of-a-kind refinished furniture, stunningly beautiful vintage jewelry - it all makes me so happy. My youngest daughter will sometimes go with me and wander the aisles, exclaiming on unique vases and beautiful old dishes, happily walking out empty-handed after filling my heart with beauty. What fills your heart with beauty? I’m not talking about coveting or finding things to envy - what makes you sigh with contentment? Sitting on an empty beach? Reading a tender novel? Wandering a local museum? Watching a movie in a language you don’t speak? Make sure you are beauty-full, so you can show the world the beauty that’s in you when you dance.
Natalya Makarova famously told Julie Kent, “Beauty can save the world. What a responsibility you have on your shoulders.” I believe this - I truly do. And as you move forward this Valentine’s Day and beyond, think about your own small contribution to changing this world, and how the love you show yourself will magnify the beauty you put out there. Ask yourself, “How would I show a loved one I care?” And then go do that thing for yourself.
You are beautiful. Make sure you’re beauty-full, and loved. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Top image by Fermaint Photography and Design, ©2013