I always had a healthy relationship with dance in that I could understand myself as more than just a dancer––at least, I thought I could. But when the pandemic hit and I found myself stuck inside like everyone else, the understanding I had of myself began to fall apart.
Growing up as a dancer, I never had much time to just sit around; life was always moving quickly. So when the pandemic came, it was as though my brain was riding on a high-speed train that had stopped and entered a slow-motion abyss. There was now time for all of the thoughts in my head to settle, and I found myself, for the first time, both immersed in my own thoughts and afraid of what those thoughts would tell me.
Since the age of four, I spent six days a week in a studio perfecting my technique. Even when I was not in a studio, dance was all I thought about. Although I knew who I was outside of being a dancer––a student, the youngest of four siblings, the daughter of two lawyers, and a Cuban American among other personae––dance was how I chose to define myself. I loved it. It was my escape from reality; whether it was after a long day of school or simply when I woke up in the morning, I always looked forward to taking a dance class to clear the thoughts that plagued my mind. So as I sit here, looking back at how the pandemic affected my relationship with dance, I cannot help but wonder: When and why did that change? When did dance—once my escape—suddenly become the very thing I sought to escape?
My issue was my conception of dance as an all-or-nothing activity: I could either pursue it fully or it was not worth pursuing after at all. What the pandemic showed me, however, was that nothing is so black-and-white.
At the start of quarantine, my dedication to dance did not falter. I continued to take my Zoom ballet classes just as I had done for the last 14 years of my life. I eagerly sought out open space in my house, using a chair as a makeshift barre. I willingly danced outside in 90-degree weather. I even threw in some extra classes at night. The initial excitement created by the uncertainty surrounding Zoom University and dancing online kept me going, and I kept dancing every day.
Then the spring semester ended. The reality of the pandemic rolled over the country like a wave, and the first instances of Zoom fatigue began to settle in. That is when I began to notice a change. I watched as all those around me eagerly continued to take advantage of the new opportunities created in a virtual world, from classes with Batsheva in Israel to those with Miami City Ballet in my home state of Florida. Though I had taken advantage of these opportunities in the first month of quarantine, I had little desire to take those classes now. My heart just was not in it. Instead of being an extension of myself, dance began to feel like a chore. I would wake up in the morning and commit to taking a late afternoon ballet class only to spend my whole day dreading to see 5:30 p.m. on the clock. Once in class, things were fine, but that was it: It was just fine. The comfort and release class once gave me was no longer there; it was now replaced with stress and anxiety. In spite of this, I did not let myself succumb to the nagging feeling in my stomach, for I was determined not to throw away my lifelong passion. I thought I was doing the right thing by forcing myself to fight through what I thought was just a rough patch, but it turned out to be a bit more than just a rut.
Many talk about the natural peaks and valleys that arise with passions, but I was unaware of how much these valleys can truly pull you down. This nagging feeling persisted, and I soon found myself angry that what had once brought me so much joy no longer sparked any excitement. I did not understand why, and it was terrifying, isolating, and disappointing. In all honesty, it felt like I was letting myself—or rather, the 10-year-old version of myself who desperately wanted to be noticed by dance teachers and “make it” in the dance world—down. I continued to force myself to take classes, hoping the valley in which I found myself stuck would eventually rise again to a peak. Instead, not only did I remain in that valley, but by forcing myself to continue dancing, it became clearer how much of a mental toll trying to escape the rut was taking on me. I was so afraid of becoming a burned-out college kid that I was willing to do just about anything to avoid it. So, I took the advice of those around me and decided to take a break.
I was told that breaks were part of a healthy recovery, and for the most part, that was true—in the beginning. Stopping dance helped to remove the pit in my stomach that formed as 5:30 p.m. approached, but those same nagging feelings soon reemerged. I became frustrated once more, but this time, I decided to actually face my problem head-on. At this point, it was a few months into the pandemic and I had grown more accustomed to the slowed pace the world now followed. My comfort with the new state of things empowered me to sit with my thoughts and think rationally about my dance future. Turns out, those very thoughts that had terrified me at the start of the pandemic would actually provide some answers.
My love for dance was not the issue; it was having to reckon with the truth that I am no longer the dancer I once was. It is egocentric and selfish, but I think part of me always enjoyed dance because of the applause and accolades it brought me. I can confidently say that I was never in it just for the awards, but I do admit that I deeply cared about how I was perceived by other dancers. In reality, it would be impossible for me to be the dancer I used to be considering that I no longer spend hours in the studio each day. I could no longer make decisions based solely on how to improve my dancing. The pandemic helped me break down this fictitious notion I had in my head that somehow my sense of worth was tied to dance––that I could not be a good person, or a person for that matter, if I was not a good dancer.
Writing this now, it seems almost laughable; how could I think my value as a person depended on how “good” at dancing I considered myself? Having completely submerged myself into the dance world from a young age, I developed this inseparable connection between my happiness and my achievements that clouded my judgment. I developed tunnel vision from constantly moving at such a high speed that I could not understand my relationship with dance beyond the binary division of fully dedicating myself to it or giving it up altogether. The pandemic and the sense of slowed time it brought opened my eyes: I can still love something and, at the same time, no longer have a desire to pursue it as a career.
I was never weighed down by dance itself, but rather by my refusal to accept my desire to pursue other paths outside of dance. I was so afraid to admit that my sense of self no longer depended on dance that I forced myself to believe that I did not like dance anymore. In reality, my love for dance never faltered. If anything, it grew, and I now have an even healthier relationship with dance because it is only my love for it that fuels my training, watching, and performing. There is no external pressure to achieve a specific goal because I am simply dancing just to dance.
It may not make much sense to those uninvolved in the dance world, but being a dancer is so much more than just a hobby or a job. It becomes an identifier, a mindset, a personality, an inseparable extension of oneself. To that end, I think I will always be a dancer, even though it is no longer my defining trait. When you dedicate over 14 years to something as physically and mentally taxing and as rewarding as dance, it becomes nearly impossible to extinguish all the habits you picked up. As I crack my hips the first thing in the morning, listen to music and naturally sway along while counting in eights, get antsy after sitting still for too long, and have a ridiculously high pain tolerance due to my years of pointe training, I recognize that there are certain characteristics forever ingrained into my head and my body.
Now, as the world slowly gains speed to match the once fast-forward pace I remember, I am more at ease with the thoughts in my head. I can confidently say that I have a newfound, healthier relationship with dance––one where I can love the art form without basing my worth on it.
Enjoy leafing through the Arts Issue!