I am a dancer.
This is what I would have answered to anyone who asked “who are you?” or “what are you?” only a couple years back.
Since I can remember, my days have started with putting my hair in a bun and going to class. I started taking ballet seriously at age 10. I spent my teenage years in the studios instead of parties and gatherings. I spent my young adulthood in the theatre that employed me for nine years rehearsing, performing, trying to reach a goal I had set for myself as a little girl.
In 2019, I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I asked myself for the first time: who am I if I don’t dance?
The question was one that I hadn’t pondered for over a decade. I thought of myself as just a dancer. In fact, I was scared of being anything more than that because I didn’t want to distract myself or waste time on things that wouldn’t benefit my technique or career.
Unfortunately, like many, I fell into the trap of basing my worth on the opinions of others: choreographers, teachers, directors, repetiteurs. To me, my value depended on cast lists and rankings. I felt good about myself when I was thin and dedicated and bad about myself when the person in the mirror didn’t look like I wanted her to. My identity was wrapped around a very fragile sculpture that could break at any moment.
And in 2019, it did. I decided to step away from dance and went to university for creative writing and journalism. There were several reasons for this shift, but the main one was to find myself again.
Defining my relationship with dance, movement, and my body was a challenge after the career shift. Even after stopping I still felt deeply connected to it. But for a long time, I felt scared about dance. I felt scared about the mirrors that would show weight gain, the teachers that would see bad turnout, the self-hatred that I knew would emerge. New acquaintances would as me who I am, and I didn’t know how to answer. I felt embarrassed to call myself a dancer as I wasn’t employed by a professional company anymore, but I wasn’t really sure what else I consisted of.
It is then that I began to think about what defines a dancer. Is a dancer just someone who is thin, hard-working, who has good technique, and a paying job? Or can a dancer be much more?
Ballet is a specifically interesting form of dance. The aesthetic beauty of it is in detail, tradition, and the body. The main motivation of ballet is pure freedom in movement and expression. Yet to achieve it, one needs extreme discipline.
I think there is something quite exciting about that oxymoron. Unfortunately, there is usually very strong emphasis on the “discipline” part and very little on the “freedom” part in ballet training. I remember my ballet teacher telling me that I can have only one love: ballet. I also remember watching a ballet documentary about Mariinsky where the director said that to be a ballerina, you must live like a nun.
Our identities are ever evolving and they consist of a multitude of things. To limit yourself is to lose life, experiences, emotions, and thoughts, all things that make a dancer, too, a better artist. The problem with basing one’s identity and value in the hands of another person’s or institution’s opinion is that you lose autonomy over yourself. The line between keeping your uniqueness and bending to fit a mould becomes very blurry.
Loving dance is loving life. This is something I wish I knew as a young student and professional. Every dancer is more than a dancer. It is your interests, thoughts, and curiosities that make you unique both onstage and offstage.
Written by Suvi Honkanen