I am a dancer. It’s something people always comment on - you can see it in the way I sit, how I do my hair, and because I’m usually wearing trainers and carrying a backpack with emergency snacks inside.
The fact that I have spent my whole life training and performing is so much a part of me that I couldn’t begin to disentangle myself from dance - who would I be, if I had never been to a dance class? I have no idea, but I’m not sure I’d recognise myself.
This all makes it very tricky when you have to stop, for whatever reason. In sport, “athlete identity” is a well documented issue, and is defined by Sports Psychologist Rebecca Symes as:
“the degree to which a person identifies with the role of an athlete…the extent to which an individual thinks and feels like and athlete…the extent to which an individual is known and recognised by others as an athlete.”
(see below for link to full article)
Substitute "athlete" for "dancer" (though perhaps dancers are athletes anyway - that’s a subject for another blog!) and it’s exactly the same - if you started young, have always been known and celebrated by others for your dancing success, and put your training needs above the rest of your life - well, then you’re likely to start seeing yourself through a narrow, dance-focussed lens. Dance becomes your identity. This might seem useful when you’re concentrating on intense training, performance, or competition, but such a single-minded view of yourself leaves you vulnerable when it comes to an end. If I’m not dancing any more...who am I?
I’ve already been grappling with this for a while, after deciding to have 18 months away from performing, to have a change and some time to retrain in fitness and healthcare. It has been weird - I catch myself thinking that I need to pack something, stretch something, eat something, rehearse something - then realise that I don’t, as all these things become optional when I don’t have to perform tonight or go to an audition next week. Stepping away from these restrictions and worries is freeing - but it leaves a gap. My body was a part of my beloved job, and looking after it appropriately was not an option, but a responsibility. What do you do when you are free to choose?
Well, that’s the thing - you choose. You can make a choice to eat something, stretch something, wear something - not because you have to in order to get through the evening show or tomorrow's class, but because it gets you where you want to be, and it makes you who you are - and that person hasn’t actually changed at all.
Dancer identity has been on my mind this week, as I finally (and very excitedly!) made it back to a ballet class for the first time since March. The classes I usually take aren’t running yet, so this one was new to me - as were the practicalities of taking a class with the current regulations in place. We had the strange social awkwardness of finding a space on the barre that wasn't too close to anyone else, and we spent centre in our own marked boxes on the floor with no corner work or grande allegro (sob). We even did the class to a soundtrack of random music and counts from all the other studios nearby - everyone has to keep the doors open, so there was a brain-baffling megamix once we all got going. But, despite all this weirdness (and the fact that you can’t grande jeté in a box, which is the best part of the class as far as I’m concerned), I welled up at the first plié and left the class feeling elated. I had DANCED - and my goodness, I had missed it!
Afterwards, I made my way home in my comfy trainers, ate some emergency hobnobs from my backpack, winced at my shaky legs as I stepped off the train, and felt fully justified that my hair was in a bun. Yes world - I might not be getting paid for it, there isn’t an audience watching, and I don’t know what the future holds - but you can’t change my identity. I’m a dancer, and I always will be.
Want to know more?
- Rebecca Symes on Athlete identity: https://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2010/05/24/understanding-athletic-identity-who-am-i/
- OpenLearn from the OU - Athlete identity, sport burnout and overtraining: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=96142§ion=_unit4.3
- Research paper from Webb & Altobello: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284285537_Athlete_identity_and_reactions_to_retirement_from_sports