Whenever people asked me what extracurriculars I did before college, I would always hesitate to say that I danced — with the disclaimers that I wasn’t very good and that I never did it very competitively.
The truth is that I love performing arts, and I did just about any activity related to music growing up. I’ve played piano, guitar, flute and saxophone over the years. I did theater, singing lessons, glee club and marching band. It all began with dance, which I started at around 3 years old and continued for 15 years.
Somewhere along the way, I lost pride in doing what I loved so much. Maybe it’s the competitive nature of these types of activities. I have a bit of a competitive side.
However, when the time came in elementary school where all my friends that I danced with were moving into competitive dance classes, my parents said no year after year. I knew it was because of time and financial restrictions, but I still felt left behind watching my peers that I grew up performing with move on without me.
According to a study by Hilary Levey Friedman, a Harvard sociologist, the average cost for one child doing competitive dance in 2012 ranged from $5,000 to $10,000. In recent years, parents estimated costs up to nearly $14,000. I had a little sister and only one parent who could drive us to and from activities, so for any dance class I took, I had to hope there was a class at the same time for her age.
I also went to a “triple threat” performing arts studio: a studio focused on training kids in singing, dancing and acting. This meant added costs for theatre productions and singing lessons. My parents refused to let me take singing classes until ninth grade, but it seemed as though there was no making up for years of lost training.
I did finally convince my parents to let me join competitive dance in 7th grade. I was at a point where I should have been with the older dancers on the basis of age, yet I was matched with the younger dancers on the basis of experience. Getting the chance to push myself to “catch up,” I ended up with the older group.
I knew I was the weak link in those dances. I was scared to talk to anyone for fear of judgement.
While performing arts are supposed to increase self-confidence, there are also links between competitive dance and neurotic perfectionism.
I wonder if a sense of perfectionism is what led me to fear the other dancers who were, by objective means, not intimidating or judgemental people. We also weren’t in the 30-hour-week practice environment that more competitive dance studios fostered, yet I still always felt a constant sense of being behind.
In middle school, I chose to continue competitive dance over travel volleyball. This decision was difficult, but I couldn’t imagine leaving the studio where I had danced since I was a toddler. In retrospect, I wonder if this decision was made out of comfort in having a sense of familiarity.
In high school, I never tried out for the dance team because I was scared of rejection. I made up excuses, but looking back I think I was worried about being the underdog again.
Coming to college, I was hoping that what I lacked in self-confidence and skills, I would make up for in sheer years of experience. All the dance groups I was interested in were either beyond my skill level or meant for beginners, with none in between. I justified it by saying I didn’t have time anyways, that I had to focus on other extracurriculars to boost my future applications.
I took a one-credit ballet class last semester with the mentality that I was going to drop it. I remember wondering whether or not it was worth it to attend a virtual dance class, but I ended up sticking with it all semester and loving it, Zoom and all.
Years after being in competitive dance I wonder — why do I constantly feel the need to justify why I wanted to dance?
A study on the psychology of competitive dance in teenagers asked 58 undergraduate dance students various questions about their decisions to dance competitively. About half (45.3%) felt that, even though they often miss out on school and social events, they don’t regret their commitment to dance.
There were four statements representative of the participants. As someone who is constantly questioning if I’m making the best use of my time, I really resonated with one of them.
“I had a whole spectrum of interests and dance took all of my time outside of the school day. I was unable to pursue other interests. I don’t regret focusing on dance, but do wish I’d had the chance to develop other areas of my life.”
During my first year of college, I faced an additional dilemma: How does one continue their hobbies in college? When do you choose between your career path and your passions?
For me, embarking on the pre-med path in my freshman year of college meant finding research and volunteering opportunities that would work towards my eventual applications. Whatever time I had left was dedicated to working at The Daily, other extracurriculars related to science and studying for classes.
I always wondered what a commitment to dance in college would look like, especially for those who study it. I talked to two dance majors at Michigan to get a sense of their commitment to dance both before college and now.
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Olivia Johnson was homeschooled in middle school, which helped make time for her dance training. Johnson compared her dance commitment before college to a part time job of 20-25 hours a week and her college dance commitment to more of a full-time job of over 30 hours.
She felt that her college dance education gave her a more individualized perspective on dance by allowing her to take classes in kinesiology and physiology specifically tailored for dancers.
“When I was in high school, I just kind of took ballet class and took dance class and learned dances to rehearse them,” Johnson said. “So, I definitely continued my practice of diligence and time management and all that stuff (in college) but it went further in creating as an artist and focusing on myself a little bit more, as opposed to a team.”
Tal Kamin, a Music, Theatre & Dance and LSA senior, started dancing professionally when she was 15. Kamin said she would dance for 15-20 hours a week before college.
“For the first time in my life, I was taking classes that were focused on dance from different perspectives which was really, really cool, and very new and informative,” Kamin said. “I felt that in college, dance was looked at as more than just a sport or even like a practice, but as an art form in its entirety.”
When I asked them if they felt like they had sacrificed any other hobbies or extracurriculars to continue dancing, neither felt they particularly had.
Kamin said she incorporates passions that she had less time for growing up, like acting and singing, into her dance experience when she can. Johnson said she had actually gotten more time for hobbies while dancing in college, as well as being in a different academic environment.
“I spent a lot of time working with dance students my first two years, which broadened my scope of working beyond dance or bringing more things into dance,” Johnson said. “Then I also met a lot of music majors because I was around them in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance … I was surrounded by more people who are also trying to pursue solely artistic paths as opposed to academic paths.”
Through this research, I began to realize that while I always focused on what could’ve been if I had allotted my time differently with dance, or what would’ve been if I continued in college, talking to Kamin and Johnson has made me think about what I did get to do.
I always wished I could be better at dancing, or singing or any of that. But while other dancers spent weekends at competitions, I got to try tennis, swimming and gymnastics. I got to play volleyball in middle school and run cross country in high school and be a part of the marching band and other clubs with some of my closest friends. I didn’t have to miss as many birthday parties or social gatherings as other performers, and I got the luxury of time for myself and my loved ones.
Instead of making excuses for why I might feel I don’t belong in the world of performing arts, I’m starting to shift my mindset. I danced because I love it, and I got to try other things and know that while I also liked those, I enjoyed performing even more. And while I struggled for a long time with the fact that I stopped doing what I love, now I get to work on other interests I have like writing — other interests I didn’t have time to cultivate when I was dancing.
While our paths were very different, the common reason that brought dancers like Kamin, Johnson and myself to the University of Michigan is a love of learning. I’ve gotten to learn things through a liberal arts education that I had never thought of before coming to Ann Arbor. And in Kamin’s case: a dual degree in dance and economics.
“I’ve always loved dance like I said, but in high school, I also really enjoyed school, and I fell in love with sales and marketing around the age of 15,” Kamin said. “I never really looked at (economics) as a backup plan, which I feel is sometimes what the narrative is. I never really had that perspective because I was genuinely passionate about it.”
The more I research, the more I’m coming to terms with the fact that every dancer has their individual paths and relationships with the craft. For those like myself who are chronically indecisive, taking a break from dance to try other things might not necessarily mean we never get back into it.
Doing research now, there are at least 75 student organizations related to dance at Michigan. Maybe my viewpoint coming into freshman year was too narrow, or maybe I was looking so hard for one certain thing that might be comfortable that I didn’t try something new.
Rather than seeing the money and time my parents gave for me to dance and perform as a waste because I didn’t continue it, I look at it as an investment in my learning, even if that learning wasn’t in a traditional classroom.
I have an appreciation for the arts that I would never have had without that experience, and it’s made me more aware of all the opportunities available in performing arts, even outside of performing.
Talking to Kamin and Johnson gave me a newfound appreciation and respect for studying dance and all the fascinating classes offered by Michigan’s dance program. It also made me realize I don’t have the diligence to do what they do, at least on the path they’re embarking on.
But that gave me some sort of closure knowing that although I won’t be the professional performer my childhood self dreamed to be, I can be inspired by those who choose that path to apply that sort of dedication to whatever I end up doing. Indecisive as I may be at times, my experience in performing arts has given me perspective that other sports or extracurriculars would not have given me.
Statement Correspondent Iulia Dobrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.