DEFYNE: Dreams and their Aftershocks

Photo credit: Michael J. Needham

Monday 6th March 2017 has been blocked out on my calendar since the end of last year. That’s when LSE Dance Club began preparing its annual dance show, conceptualising, schematising and planning the next big venture for our society. After a kickass show last year, all of us were eager to go bigger and better. We sold out last year? Let’s sell out again. We wowed the audience in 2016? Let’s blow their minds in 2017. We were well aware of the hard work that this would all entail, but we were optimistic. After all, as Gloria Steinem once said: “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning”.

So what exactly were we dreaming of? Our Show Director, Jeslyn Soh, came up with an inspiring theme that would link all the pieces together: “Defyne”, a clever little play on words entailing the breaking of boundaries and forging of new identities and ideas. This theme struck a chord with me. Like a lot of people, I’ve struggled with social pressures and self-imposed rules. Like many others, I’ve battled to define myself apart from what others think of me, and the ideals I try to squeeze myself into fitting. I was excited to be part of something that would touch so many people, exploring insecurities and journeys and triumphs in a way that is accessible to all. Dance speaks where words leave off – what better medium with which to tackle such an inexplicable process as self-definition?

The whole society threw itself into doing so. For the past two months, we’ve been sweating our butts off. There are those who’ve conceptualised, choreographed, and taught. There are those who’ve listened, learned, and rehearsed over and over. There are those who had never danced before who found the courage to put themselves forward, and others who have danced for years and wanted to try a new style. Each of us faced our own challenges in creating this larger-than-life performance. Yesterday night, after selling out the Peacock Theatre and performing to an overjoyed audience, each of us reaped rewards unique to our personal journeys.

For me, the challenges this year were fierce. For the second time in my life I was asked to choreograph for the stage. I was also entrusted with co-managing a group of 35 dancers, helping them to learn and perform a crazy amazing piece by our jazz teacher, Thomas. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I’d really thrown myself in the deep end here. Not only was I in a position of responsibility, with people depending on my capacity and ability to lead, but I was also in a position of exposure. Choreographing is incredibly personal; you put yourself in what you create without consciously deciding to do so! Likewise, leading people brings out sides of your persona that you didn’t even realise you had. It can be extremely discomfiting – and hence, anxiety-provoking.

Now, I’ve traditionally struggled with anxiety-provoking situations. My go-to coping methods have previously included A) sublimating my stress into controlling my diet and exercise, B) giving up when the going gets tough, and C) avoiding getting involved in scary situations in the first place. In dance this year I tried to do something different. I told myself I could face the challenges of choreographing and leading without losing weight, without giving up, and without running away before I’d even set foot on the path I’d agreed to travel. I told myself I would not quit and I would succeed.

Easier said than done. It’s all well and good setting yourself goals, but it’s important to have a road-map of how to achieve them! I decidedly forgot about that part. What I ended up doing was forbidding myself to relapse/give up/run away, instead of building in coping mechanisms to prevent me from doing so. My subsequent Defyne journey was thus no walk in the park, and one I struggled to complete.

For a whole month I faced the dancer’s equivalent of writer’s block; I was listening to the music I was supposed to choreograph to over and over again without any sense of inspiration, my body refusing to express even the tiniest emotion. Each time I prepared myself to choreograph I’d be hit with such a torrent of insecurities (you’re no good at this, you won’t produce anything worthwhile, everyone will hate your piece) that I was rendered immobile. And yet I’d already forbidden myself to quit. I refused to stop and analyse what it was that I was feeling (insecure, scared, inadequate) and work through it, afraid that if I did so I’d want to run away. Instead, in a desperate effort to overcome this self-imposed paralysis, I enforced a strict choreographical regime upon myself, spending hours going over and over the same one minute of music until at last something happened.

And then I had to teach. I actually love teaching. I love helping people understand new ideas, relate to them, express them in their own way. I love watching that eureka moment when the penny finally drops. Yet like anything worthwhile, it’s not without its challenges. This was the biggest group of dancers I’d ever worked with, and I was teaching them a choreography I wasn’t confident in or comfortable with. Whenever people asked me questions, I got frustrated with myself: why couldn’t I be a better teacher, be better prepared, be better full stop? The perfectionist in me was screaming the entire time.

She screamed with similar ferocity when it came to rehearsing with Thomas’s jazz dancers. First, she was annoyed that I didn’t know the dance well enough. If I didn’t know it inside out, how could I teach it? I spent hours going over Thomas’s choreography to ensure I didn’t fuck up. Then, my inner perfectionist was frustrated that I wasn’t patient enough. Why was I getting frustrated with people who were trying their best? Why was I panicking that we wouldn’t pull it off when we still had three weeks of rehearsals to go? Finally, she was pissed with me for not being reliable enough. When people messaged me with questions, or asked for extra rehearsals – why wasn’t I always prompt and reassuring in responding to their needs? The constant self-doubt was exhausting.

To be sure, I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. I know everyone in the show faced their own demons, struggling to balance wanting to perform to the best of their ability with a full-time degree whilst taking care of themselves and their health. I know there are folks who sacrificed a lot more than I did to make this show incredible, who threw themselves into this with everything they had. By show day a lot of tempers were frayed, a lot of stress had brewed, and a lot of pent-up emotion was threatening to spill over.

Then the curtain went up and we were live, performing for one thousand spectators. All the blood, toil, sweat, and tears, the hours of rehearsals, the sacrificed study time, the lost sleep, boiled down to this moment. And we collectively killed it. As I took my bow with the one hundred and forty four other dancers, I felt elated, proud of every single person in that company. All those dreams we’d talked about back in December had finally come into fruition, and they were beautiful.

Yet I left the theatre that evening feeling lower than I had done in months. I found myself amidst hundreds of familiar faces, many of whom I’d seen almost everyday in the run up to the show, yet feeling absolutely, crushingly alone. As I stood in Tuns surrounded by my fellow dancers, watching people laugh and drink and dance, I realised that I’d never taken the time to actually get to know these people. I realised that, once again, I’d privileged acing the task at hand over and above forming relationships. I realised that after all that energy I’d channeled into challenging myself, pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, redefining the roles I play, I felt no happier than when I’d begun. In fact, I really just felt…empty.

Now, I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade here. Defyne was an incredible show, and I feel very proud to have been a part of it, very privileged to have been offered the opportunity to choreograph and lead within it. I am also very grateful for the support of those in the company who made the show happen, for the hard and often invisible work that everyone put in. Yet what’s dawning on me as I reflect on my Defyne experience is that I think I got the balance wrong this time. As the exhilaration of being onstage subsides, I’m realising that I overspent my emotional and physical resources on pushing myself as a choreographer and teacher, devoting too much of myself to what was, at the end of the day, supposed to be fun. In that process, I neglected my mental health, my studies, and my friendships. At the end of it all, I’m not sure how I feel about dancing anymore, and I’m not sure whether any of this has actually been good for me.

A lot of these feelings are probably coming from a place of exhaustion. I’m sure by next week, I’ll be eager to get back to class, spending many blissful hours dancing without a second thought. But it has made me question myself: is being a great dancer worth sacrificing so much emotional energy? Is it worth putting friendships on the back burner? Is it worth risking relapse? At several points these past few months I’ve been almost overcome with an internal pressure to be skinnier, more toned, more athletic – to eat more cleanly, and exercise more effectively. This pressure, I know by now, arises when I put myself in stressful situations without a plan for managing my emotions. Defyne has made me question my ability to cope, and the strength of my strategies and support network too.

None of these feelings take away from the pride I feel in the Defyne team. I have been awed by their creativity, dedication, and spirit. I guess what I’m going through now is the aftershock of the dream, sifting through the ashes now the flame has burned out. I’m trying to work out who I am after this journey, where it has taken me, and whether I like the person I’ve become. This is going to take time. I only hope that the more time goes by, the more perspective I’ll gain and the more optimistic I’ll feel about dreaming again.

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