Dancers can seem like quite extroverted people, immune from the insecurities and doubts of mere mortals. Yet like most artists, the doubt is just as present in our everyday practice as our need for self-expression. We put ourselves out there for all to admire or judge and in the same breath we are wondering if anyone can notice that we are trembling on the inside. Or in a strange paradox, the most introverted people are set free when they dance on stage. It can be the one place they feel truly free and comfortable in themselves.
Before I was pregnant, I was dancing the best I had ever danced. I want to say that one day something just clicked but that would suggest something clear or straightforward. One moment in time and just like that, you get it and it all makes sense. That would only discount the daily trek we take through the glory lands of triumph and hope into the quagmire of failure and despair.
Working it all out
I can’t seem to find the right words but I think I had found ‘my thing’ or maybe I just was able to see that ‘my thing’ was valuable. There was a quiet sense of pride building in my dancing that came from knowing what I was meant to be doing when I stood at barre each day. Believe it or not, it had taken the best part of 10 years in a professional ballet company after years of training, to actually know what I was doing.
For the most part I was riding the wave of company life just as well as anyone else. I was living a very good life, I mostly loved my job, I worked with brilliant and talented people who were also my friends. We laughed together, we cried together, we grew up together and the bond I have with these people is so unique. I was travelling Australia and the world. I was extremely fortunate, I had managed to get promoted to Soloist which I honestly thought would never happen, especially given how close I was to quitting because of my poor health and the internal battle that came alongside. I had danced some incredible roles across the repertoire; I was fortunate to be challenged by visiting choreographers who saw something different in me and gave me a go in their ballets. I was mostly busy and always gaining more experience every day. David McAllister, my boss, the Director of The Australian Ballet, gave me a contract every year to be one of his dancers. That point alone is never something to be complacent about.
Doubt – a vicious cycle
But the doubt, oh the doubt – an artist’s demon, forever rearing its ugly head over the years. Even with wonderful opportunities and great performances under my belt, doubt was often there in long stretches. I couldn’t get away from it, even on the good days it was kind of just waiting behind the stage lights. I struggled with consistency, more so consistency in feeling good about myself and taking that forwards into the next month, the next class, the next role. I ebbed and flowed all over the place, up and down, struggling to find that middle road.
I did have a lot of fun, I did enjoy so much of what I was doing. But I just couldn’t consistently go out on stage and be me, authentic and clear with what I was offering all of the time. It just kind of niggled away at me. And sadly when a dancer isn’t feeling great, isn’t working well, is doubting themselves and is looking a bit down and out, it screams louder than most of your best performances. You’re floundering and everyone knows it which in turn only reaffirms what you’re feeling and thinking about yourself.
And the vicious cycle continues. It’s a shame really but if you can’t convince yourself that you know what you’re doing, you can’t possibly begin to convince someone else or a whole audience of people. You especially won’t be able to convince someone who has control over what roles you might be cast in and therefore a big chunk of your time. It can seem a bit cruel that the times you really need some wise words or reassurance, it’s also the glaringly obvious time that you’re just not ready for the opportunity. You will probably miss out.
Even now, I seem to be in a bit of a funk when our ballet staff come in to cast ballets, for whatever untimely reason that might be. It’s unfortunate timing and I’ve always struggled with the ‘putting your best face forward’ nature of these moments. Internally I cringe, take a few deep breaths, then slowly I ease myself back into my own little world, just doing what was working for me that day. That day might not get me cast in something fantastic but there’s still a lot to be done with a day. I have to let the rest go to fate and try to trust all the work I’ve done before this moment.
Friend or foe?
I still have the doubt and it’s not always a welcome friend. I can acknowledge it’s presence and the role it plays in helping me stop and question things. Doubt can be what makes you get clearer on things. Doubt shines a light on when I’m comparing myself unfairly with others. Doubt often tells me I could be heading in the wrong direction and it might be time to change course. Doubt is a red flag for me to stop and reassess.
Doubt can surely take over and overshadow anything else we might be feeling. It might taint our thoughts about other aspects of our lives and erode our very sense of self if left to fester too long. It can be dangerous and we all know that it can break us. It’s a fine balance but I do think it’s something over time we can learn to reframe. I think it probably makes you believe in yourself a bit more over the long run.
Doubt if seen in the right context, can help you seek fresh inspiration. It certainly makes you dig deep and find something else. It’s character building, you grow an extra layer of skin each time you overcome it and create something that you’re proud of on the flip side. It forces you to build resilience and become self-reliant even if it feels like you’re taking the not-so-scenic route to fulfilment.
For an artist, doubt can fuel some really authentic performances that we all know are the best kind of performances. If only we could all recognise the gift that is not knowing, of doubting and questioning and the role it plays daily for all of us.
Being vulnerable but brave and doing it anyway is something I try to live by. It couldn’t be more fitting than in the real time experience that is live performance. Because in that murky space between comfort and courage, between ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I’m going to give it my best shot,’ that is where real life magic lies.