I never knew how I would share this story, while everyone wrote statuses on Facebook getting praises and likes for their bravery I held mine silent for from fear and doubt…but what better space than a website dedicated to my next chapters.
I’m a wild dreamer with the brain of a businesswoman…. or should I say a risk-less woman. I have always loved dance since I was a child but always had those voices in the back of my head that told me it was never possible and that I should make sure I built a platform for a “stable” future given that the arts are not valued at a livable rate in this country. I’m not sure that I even qualify as being able to speak on the transition of following a childhood dream, considering there are still so many pieces to my dream that I have yet to achieve. Then again, my dreams continue to evolve so that plays a major factor in why I’m still striving for bigger, better, and crazier.
So let’s begin…As a senior at The Ohio State University (OSU) I had every intention of pursuing psychology upon graduation. Like most students who focus on something during school I had trouble figuring out how I wanted it to manifest. I knew I liked school and would like to go to grad school to pursue Psychology further, I knew that I also had never followed through with the dance department with regards to trying to double major in it without having to stay an extra year.
Fast-forward half a year and I’m in fun classes during my last two trimesters (called quarters at OSU for whatever reason). We’re talking online Avatar based women’s studies classes, linguistics classes, and just content I had interest in but had zero impact on my area of study or my prerequisites to graduate. My linguistics class led me to after school tutoring in the neighborhood to monitor how African-American Vernacular English played out in kids in lower income/working class neighborhoods. The work I was doing was so inspiring given it was for students who looked like me and were from areas I was from. I started to wonder if a career could come from this. Though teaching isn’t necessarily the biggest financial come up it was more appealing than doing nothing and taking time off to breath after school. God forbid I rest and figure out exactly what I want to spend the rest of my years doing.
Enter Teach for America, the perfect mid ground program. If selected I’d have a stable job for at least 2 years, a master’s degree and hopefully time to figure out some things. Teach for America allowed me to preference my location but also gave me the first huge risk taking option of placing me wherever they saw fit based off skill and interest. I’m a born and raised Chicagoan, got my sister in NYC, and have always thought Los Angeles to be a cool prosperous place for dance, and life for a big city gal like me. When I was placed in LA as a multiple subjects’ Spanish teacher, the ball was rolling.
Pause there for a moment. You have to know that I’m the type of girl who never said phrases like “I can’t wait to grow up!” and in fact told my parents I was going to live with them until I was 32. HAHAHA! What a riot!
Back to my placement, the universe decided to throw me a challenge. I was placed in Los Angeles, over 2,000 miles away from my networks, my friends, my loved ones, my history, and my overall comfort zone. Surprisingly, I said yes! I was soon packing up my dad’s Subaru, which he gifted me with, with my entire life and making a cross country drive for 3 days with him through all sorts of states I had never stepped foot in.
Upon arrival in LA I spent the next two years trying to find balance, literally and figuratively. The program was intense and filled with what felt like America’s brightest young adults. All of who seemed to have confident ideas of what their future would be like either within TFA or after their temporary stint with the program. I felt like I was floating. As smart as I know I am and as hard working as I know I fight to be, I felt nervous. Teaching was only something I had done for a few semesters-Was I qualified? Was I good enough? How did all these overly descriptive “perfect” students who had no cultural connection to the students they were teaching get praised for “saving” inner city youth?
I felt connected to certain aspects of the mission, to the big picture outcome of the program, but I was very disconnected to the majority of the corps who didn’t grow up the way I did nor the way the students they were teaching. Right when I was doubtful I would ever get a job, I was hired by Frederick Douglass Middle School. The unfortunate thing is that this school had little resources. Now I don’t mean we were straight up destitute but I was definitely creating content from scratch and working tirelessly to get book donations and supplies for my classroom. TFA was a huge help in this but also was not fully aware of how difficult it was to be at the school. There was limited community support as well because families had to work or had their own structures that did not always allow for constant communication to the teachers, school, and the needs of their little one.
Two years into the program my Monday’s went from 7 am to 10pm including night classes and working on my 60-page thesis for my master’s degree. I was working hard but I was also signed to an agency and trying to pursue dance more intently. I had gone from just training at some of my favorite studios to auditioning more and more, trying to do performance monthly for free to build my resume and performance ability. My days were crazy. I rarely slept because I would pack for a day of teaching, tutoring, night school, rehearsals and classes. It was all worth it! Or so I claimed…
Little did I know, I was slowly burning out. My flame for dance and for effortful teaching of my students was dimming. Both ends of the candle were burning quickly and I couldn’t stop them. I continued at FDAMS for a third year and this is when things got rough. I found myself dreading going to work. Don’t get me wrong…I loved and still love my students! They encouraged and pushed me to follow my dreams more than anyone but I was losing the ability to focus 100% on building from the ground up for them, which is what it took for success there. On the really rare bad days I would find content relevant to their grade level and challenge them to self-teach. This is a skill they should have but definitely shouldn’t happen continuously. They deserved detailed instruction, guided practice and time to really soak up content before independent practice or for lack of a better description, worksheets and packets of fill in the blanks.
I started to plot…what did I want to do? What made me happy? Dance sure did, but I had never really given it a full go. Spring time rolled around and we got disheartening news that our school was being closed down under the premise of limited budget and our low performing test scores. * My favorite measure of success of course. * I took it as a sign, I wanted to take the opportunity to really leap into this life but I was still scared. There was no security in it. I was an unsigned dancer at this time because in the eyes of my old agent teaching had prevented me from being the most efficient client I could be. She felt I was not pursuing dance hard enough. The true definition of a Jill of all trades moment and master of none because, as I mentioned before, I didn’t feel as though I was effectively teaching at that time either so both careers suffered.
Fear got the best of me, I ended up accepting a “middle” ground position at a sister to school to Frederick Douglass, teaching dance. It would have been an easy cop out. Close but no cigar. I signed a contract, developed a class structure, two entire syllabi of dance programs and prepared for my last summer of freedom before stepping foot into a new school, similar vibes, and no real attempt at my dream.
Pause: remember those free shows I told you about? One of the most popular is Choreographer’s Carnival, of which at this point I had done double digits of because I do LOVE to perform. This July 2015 one was different for some reason. One of my mentors and Rhythm nation group members Reegan Haynes had a piece. This is a woman of power, strength of heart, and more importantly strength of spirituality. She had an almost 2 month long rehearsal period for her piece. I grew close with many of my friends who were full time dancers or just new to LA and trying to pursue their artistic dreams 100%. The process wasn’t really different than any other carnival aside the amount of detail Reegan put into her piece time wise. But something happened after I performed that night.
I left that stage and my whole spirit stayed there. I was crying afterwards. The feeling I had gotten from the infectious love we made those people feel on a night where they watched similar displays of hip hop left me both intoxicated and exhausted. I didn’t want to go back to the safe option. I knew what I had to do. I went home that night, just a few days before professional development began for the new school year. I constructed an honest resignation letter from my position and fearfully sent it.
Surprisingly, they took it well. The little bit of ego that made me feel it was my burden to hold a position because it logically seemed to be the best option was something I made up. I found out that taking a risk and making a choice because it felt right didn’t kill anybody. The world didn’t stop. I could make the choice to follow my dream and life continued…life felt better in fact. I was on cloud 9! With only $2,000 in my savings, which would barely last me a month in LA with the rent and standard of living here, I was going to be a professional dancer! –Put all my chips in the arts bag and not just some. Now don’t get me wrong my safety net is wide, I have a great network of friends and a family to support me in this crazy journey. They are my main investors and though I try to limit my use of them, just knowledge that they are there is all I need. But this was my real chance to dive into this. Applying to any and all LA casting jobs that were somewhat relevant to dance. Taking jobs as long as the rate paid more than 10 an hour because we spend hours performing full out while people attempt to quantify that as a $50 dollar bargain. I got to work with Nicki Minaj that winter and I took it as a sign. Though many people find one job to be small it still was a dream come true for me. I have by no means reached all the dreams I want to achieve in dance. I encourage all who have the ability to dream to follow those fearlessly. The fear is greater than the magic that comes from doing what you fantasized about and getting paid for it.