“Don’t Be a Sell Out”
To find my true path as an artist, I had to ignore their advice
As I was about to finish my graduate work, I had a director say to me — “Whatever you do, DON’T go into teaching. Don’t sell out on your performing abilities. Don’t sell out, Jenna.”
DON’T. SELL. OUT.
Artists of all genres hear this expression“selling out” so frequently and because most artists are mainly in this circus for the passion of it, (it is certainly not the money) that sentiment strikes a particular fear in us.
Her voice echoed in my mind for weeks. I couldn’t help but believe that she thought I was a sellout. Not bold enough to fulfill my truest passion or what she thought it should be, not brave enough to scratch and claw for that performing spot in a big city, and that somehow, I would be taking the “easy” way out of the arts by going into a career in education.
It was peculiar because I had always known that teaching was a talent, if not my main forte, certainly one of my top. Shout out and hats off to the brilliant, Lisa Taylor- my first real ballet teacher who quite literally forced me to learn the art of teaching ballet at age 11.
I repeat, age 11.
(some childhood, eh?)
Its gets better.
Private 2-hour lessons in her living room before she had her studio.
I loved it.
Truthfully, I owe my livelihood to her. She was the first one to see me. The real me. I needed to know the reasons ballet class was designed the way it was; what the steps meant, how to execute properly, the musicality, and how the body works in every facet to support the technique. I had questions. I had so many questions that could only be answered by learning how to teach it. Lisa knew this. She knew that by getting me to understand teaching as an art form, it would inform my very own practice as a dancer.
Fast forward 10 years:
The first time I took Dance Improvisation was in College. For those that are unfamiliar, it is essentially a class that centers around discovering the ways your body can move that are uniquely “you.” Students are typically given prompts that assist to guide the experience, but the notion is that you are generating movement “on the spot.” There is no right way to do this. Often you can measure success by simply “exploring.”
This was wild to me. No one is going to tell me that I needed to lift my leg higher, I was moving too fast, or to organize my energy in a particular way?
I had never felt so free.
One of my professors came up to me after and said “Wow Jenna, you really like to move don’t you? What a fascinating dialogue you were having with yourself. I never realized how inventive you were.”
Funny — neither had I.
The light of creativity I always had, but never fully watered, was fading away.
Fast forward post-college…(22-year-old me)
The truth is, I had a lot of success when I was studying and auditioning in New York. I was a strong and expressive dancer and as I got better at auditioning the performing opportunities came readily. I was a capable dancer indeed, but I was never quite able to mold into any box. Not fully.
The more I became the dancer choreographers needed for their vision, the further I got from myself. The light of creativity I always had, but never fully watered, was fading away. I knew I did not have the capacity to fulfill someone else’s vision and my own. And in my heart, I was never truly satisfied.
Oftentimes in rehearsal, I would daydream about what choices I would make if I was the choreographer. It was rare as a dancer to be asked what we thought about the work or its direction in the capacities I was performing in, but there is one case that stands out.
I was asked what I thought we should do next in the piece. I quite literally gave away all of my ideas- excitedly. I shared movement phrases, spatial patterns, context, movement qualities and motivation. The choreographer not only used these ideas exactly but I never received any acknowledgment for my contributions. I was genuinely hurt, but I did learn quickly that this field can be cut throat and cruel.
I needed to make my own art — even if it was bad.
After a collection of moments like this, I knew definitively that I was meant to create and that being the dancer with a million ideas buzzing in her head during rehearsal, but fearful of sharing them, wasn’t the best place to be.
I needed to make my own art- even if it was bad.
This was a monumental epiphany as everything I had done, including learning how to teach, was ultimately for the purpose of going into a performance career.
This dilemma was pivotal and terrifying and though the outlook was dismal, I was steadfast in my pursuit to follow my fire. This is not to discredit performing careers by any means, I simply knew that my most authentic voice would not be as a performer.
This decision to abandon my performance opportunities was arguably insane but it did motivate me on a level I had never truly felt. I needed a way into choreography and had no options aside very few teaching opportunities. So, I started saying yes to those teaching gigs. Though not technically choreography, teaching gave me a space and bodies to explore with.
I was crafty about upholding the goals for the particular class while still investigating my own choreographic curiosities. Through that process, I made sure to give artistic autonomy frequently to the students. I worked to find an algorithm that teaches bodies the foundations of dance while opening a portal of the language that feels freeing and can celebrate the individual.
Nothing is more beautiful than a body making a decision that is uniquely them. I knew there were others like me out there and though having a lucrative performance track often stands as the marker of a successful career for young dancers, I was determined to simply get everyone I encountered to fall in love with dance- not fall away from it. I would lead by example- one class at a time.
The beauty of this art is that there are so many deviations of the language that somehow all fall under the category of “universal.”
Communication leads us to question, to understand, to have compassion and ultimately, to love one another for exactly who we are.
Facilitating conversation on this level connected me to my unique purpose in a way I had never experienced. I felt the accountability to endorse the integrity of the art form I loved so dearly and for the first time I really understood what that meant. It wasn’t about performances, training, auditioning, or even teaching. It was about communication. Communication leads us to question, to understand, to have compassion and ultimately, to love one another for exactly who we are.
That was a poignant revelation that would be the capstone of my teaching philosophy to date. And just like that, I knew why I was doing this. A major question answered and I understood the difference between selling out and not selling out, long before that director warned me against it. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten so upset and remembered the path that led me to her in the first place.
It was years of dancing in a living room, for no one but my teacher, but being totally in love with dance. Improvisation class in college when I learned that body language is the most powerful voice I own- One that will always tell me the truth. And finally, being the last one standing in an audition and feeling my heart break because I knew it wasn’t “me” they saw, but a learned version.
These are all times when dance communicated with me, guiding me towards my purpose and making it clear that the most important work I could do was to lovingly bring the truth of this art form to others.
It was these experiences that showed me where I belong.
And with every new student, and their unique response and affiliation to this art form, I understand more deeply why I never gave up on my own.
So in my truth, I didn’t sell out. I bought something big instead.