Illustration By Miranda Sepúlveda
Here I am at the end of my freshman year of college. It feels so strange. Coming into the fall semester last year, I was timid about my future and unsure what to expect from my years in college. I faced leftover burnout from a high school senior year cut short by the pandemic.
As I’ve learned, one year can change almost everything.
I always loved dance and knew that I wanted a career in dance from a young age. I started dancing when I was three years old and danced recreationally throughout elementary school. At age nine, I started training more seriously with a pre-professional ballet school, where I spent the rest of my high school years. Over the summers, I attended summer intensives with ballet companies when I could.
My senior year of high school was rough. I dealt with several layers of mental health issues, a full schedule of college classes, college applications and auditions for dance companies and college dance programs.
At first, I wanted nothing more than to go to a dance company straight out of high school. My mind was overwhelmed by the troubling message that was impressed on me at a young age by the ballet community: if you do not land a company contract as a teenager, you have already failed, and you are not good enough for a career in dance. Of course, this statement could not be further from the truth, but the idea weighed on my mind.
Facing that idea combined with the body shaming that runs rampant in the dance world, I felt consumed by perfectionism, poor self-esteem, lack of motivation and anxiety. I was burnt out.
Then the pandemic hit. Along with every other senior, I lost prom, graduation and final performances. Instead of finishing the school year with my friends in the dance studio and on stage, I spent several long months dancing in my bedroom on Zoom.
The chances of working with a dance company plummeted to essentially zero, and I grudgingly accepted the fact that I would have to attend college for dance. Out of the 15 or so schools that I applied to, Kent State was the only one that I could afford, so I submitted my enrollment, cried and ate an entire pint of ice cream. Dramatic, I know.
Even though I was burnt out at the time and found very little enjoyment in dance anymore, it was such a huge part of my life for so long that I decided to give it one more year. I resolved to try my best and make the most of what I was sure would be my last year in dance. If nothing improved and it still felt hopeless after a trial year in a college dance program, I would change my major and leave dance in the past completely.
This is the baggage that I brought with me into my freshman year.
Less than a month into the program, my life and mindset did a complete 180. I took modern dance classes and jazz classes and attended rehearsals every day in addition to my ballet classes. The variety gave my body and my mind a break from the constant pressure that I came to associate with ballet.
I met amazing, supportive friends and professors that challenged my mindset and helped me see different perspectives. They opened my mind to the many opportunities for careers in dance, many of which aren’t even limited to performing: dance therapy, teaching, dance writing and dance administration, for example. They encouraged me endlessly and helped me begin to rebuild my confidence.
The biggest thing I learned about a career in dance, and honestly any career in the arts, is that it is not linear; every individual’s path is unique, and having different goals than anyone else does not make you less successful. This idea led me to a few other revelations about careers:
- You are free to make your own career however you want.
- You are allowed to break the mold and defy conventional pathways to success.
- Even if you do not land your dream job with your dream company right away, it does not mean you never will, and it does not mean you won’t be happy. It is all about the process of finding the job that makes you feel excited to come to work every morning, a job where you can grow as an artist and a human. Your ideal job will likely change as you grow and mature.
- Your career is yours. You have the chance to pursue exactly what makes you happy, not what anyone else thinks you should do.
These thoughts helped me rediscover my passion for dance. Now, I go to the studio every day with hope for the future and work hard with my goals in mind. I have made connections, taken opportunities and even got a summer position with my dream ballet company. That’s not to say that I don’t struggle anymore. I am still working on so much, and there is still so far to go with my mental health, my dance abilities and my career. The difference is that I escaped burnout, and I am so excited for all of the opportunities to come.
Unfortunately, there are so many young dancers out there who face burnout and mental health issues because of the intense and unfair pressures of the dance world.
We are not taught early on that we can choose our own path, but rather, we are taught that there is a single pathway to success. We are taught that if we are not skinny, if we do not have the ideal body and if we do not dance every day with grace and perfection despite the crushing weight of perfectionism and burnout, then we will not succeed as dancers. The mindset forced on dancers is toxic, unhealthy and damaging. It needs to change.
Once I realized that it was this mindset that held me back from happiness and that I could change and continue to chase my dreams, I decided that making a change would become my ultimate goal.
I still want to have a performing career, dance with different companies and fulfill my nine-year-old self’s dreams. At the end of the day, though, I aspire to end up in a position where I can advocate for a change in the ideals of the dance industry. Maybe I will be a dance writer, a program director, an artistic director or all of the above.
Wherever I find myself, I will make it a priority to help other dancers feel supported enough to break out of the toxic environment they face and rediscover their passion for dance.
Change is possible, and it is necessary, both in the personal sense and in the realm of the dance industry. Due to the changes I have seen in my life, I know that I will end up where I am meant to be, even if I cannot see the destination yet.
I believe that our generation and the generations that follow will be the ones to spark change so that more dancers can feel comfortable in their own skin, have the opportunity to chase their dreams and fall more in love with what they do every day. With this in mind, we continue to dance, and we work to create the future that we want. Bye bye, freshman year.
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Hi, I’m Holly Liptak, a senior journalism student from Akron and the editor-in-chief of The Burr this semester. My staff and I are committed to bringing you interesting, humorous and hard-hitting stories that tap into current events, trends and the lives of those who have made a home in Kent, Ohio. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate.
Sierra Severt is a freshman dance performance major with minors in arts entrepreneurship and professional and technical writing. She has been dancing since she was three years old, is a company member of the Kent Dance Ensemble and hopes to join a professional dance company in the future. Alongside her dance career, she loves reading and writing, and she aspires to write for a dance magazine someday. When she is not dancing, writing or studying, Sierra loves listening to music, doing yoga, baking and drinking chai lattes. This is Sierra’s second semester working for The Burr, and she is excited to see what opportunities this semester brings. You can follow her on Instagram @sierra_s__ or email her at email@example.com.