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Mentors and baskets

Mentors can be a tricky thing. It can make us feel so reassured that somebody wants to take us under their wing.

Who, me? You want to mentor me?

Then we get to boast that so-and-so is our mentor. He/she chose ME. The tricky part is that it can be easy to become emotionally dependent on what they think of you and your work. Mentors, after all, are human. Just as we get validation from training under them, they can get validation in knowing that we feed on their approval and encouragement.

In the end, mentors are people with expertise that teach us a craft/skill/art that we want to learn and someday master. And we should have a multitude of them. It’s best not to put all our eggs in one mentor basket. Those we learn from and those we lean on are not the same people.

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Dig deeper

Some of my friends are the most virtuosic musicians you’ve never heard of. My friend Bobby was playing the most technically demanding guitar solos in his basement when he was 15.

There are countless great artists doing profound work that aren’t garnering 1000 likes on social media every time they post something. Some of the most artfully composed music can’t be heard on mainstream radio or streaming apps.

If we spend our time and energy only fawning over what and who is popular, we are hugely missing out.

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The real thing

If you play guitar hero, you’re not really playing guitar. Barre fitness classes are not ballet. TapFit isn’t tap dancing. We know these activities are barely related to practicing the actual art forms.

There is no doubt fun to be had. It can be social. You might break a sweat.

In your pursuit of education in your chosen art form, make sure you know what you are getting, as clearly as you know that you can’t pick up a guitar and play Jimmy Page solos because you rocked out a Zeppelin tune while playing Guitar Hero.

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It starts at the top

A studio’s vibe, culture and environment is crucial to its success. There are endless articles and studies on this, but we don’t need to go down the rabbit hole that is Google to discover what we already know.

It starts at the top. The responsibility sits on the shoulders of the studio director to continuously ensure that he/she is setting the tone. Expectations of how students show up to class and act in class is set by the top. It doesn’t matter how adept the faculty is.

Interpersonal skills are key. The message we think we send may not be the message that’s being received. Keeping our finger on the pulse helps to know and understand if something isn’t right and needs to be addressed.

It’s a two way street. Dancers and families need to respect the precedent that is set. Show up on time, read the notices and ask questions. Avoid placing blame and understand what’s expected.

Mantras like “We are a family” and team-building retreats with trust falls feel good in the moment, but in the end don’t work. It’s up to the leaders to lead by example.

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The big picture

Being a small yet integral part of a very large production, national or international scale, is a highly valuable experience. It teaches you that it’s not about you (p.s. it’s never about you). It’s about showing up early, prepared and with all you have to give. It’s about responding to any direction or criticism by saying “Thank you” or “Okay”. If you get blamed for running into someone on stage who was in the wrong spot, you say “Thank you” or “Okay”.

The people you answer to have people that they answer to. The people that they answer to decide whether we all have jobs. The people that everyone answers to might be a corporate entity who doesn’t know anything about the art form. We may never understand what goes on behind the scenes.

If there’s ever a chance to experience what this is firsthand, take it. The perspective it leaves you with will inform your career decisions and shape you professionally.

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Go out and make a mess

We live in a world where we see final products, especially in the era of social media. We see winning routines, performances given at the end of the process. We hardly see the failed attempts, frustration, anxiety and tears that went into it.

The actor you see on a Broadway stage practices walking through that door on the set 50 times every day before you take your seat to watch the show. Every detail is crucial.

Artists we see as leaders of the field or celebrities have failed big along the way. Geniuses like Twyla Tharp create a Tony winning hit (“Movin’ Out”) followed by a flop (“Times They Are A Changin'”), then guess what? They dust themselves off and move on to the next thing.

Failure is a mandatory part of the journey to what we consider to be success. So fail big and fail often. Go out there and make a mess.

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Community matters most

Stating the obvious here. We are deeply affected by moments we share and interactions we have with others. Reflecting on them years later can still inspire a smile, or make our stomachs churn.

Some dancers sharing the floor with us at conventions, competitions and festivals will become part of the same line, where every dancer must be 100% or the whole group suffers. They may become our employers or we may someday hire them. We might teach their kids. All of the above came to be for me.

This is why community matters most. Be accessible. Be approachable and open. Be outgoing even if the introvert inside of you wants to stand in the corner. I was not always the best example of this. It may be a letter to my younger self.

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I choose you

Crain’s “20 in their 20’s”, Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” and other lists are publicized each year to highlight people ‘at the top of their game’. Within chosen groups, there are smaller chosen groups. Some people make the list. Some people have their pictures on the wall. Others who sit at the same table do not.

I could never define the logic. I looked hard and thought about it a lot. It came down to, “These people are the ones that get chosen. These people are not.” Why? I couldn’t figure that out.

Conclusion? I’d rather not make the list. It generates a deep superstition. I am happy to hang out over here and do my work.

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It’s technical

Technique can last a lifetime. Routines last for a season. If we have proficient technique, we can reach great heights. And there’s no fast track. You get out what you put in, qualitatively.

Solid foundational technique will ensure a dancer’s physical longevity. It will get dancers into great dance programs or dance companies. If they become lawyers or engineers, they will have a valuable understanding of healthy body alignment and kinesiology.

It’s important to take a look at the time spent refining technique versus the time spent teaching and rehearsing routines. If dancers are spending 5 days a week at the studio, where is the time allocated?

Dance competitions can be valuable opportunities to learn to perform well and work as a team. When dancers start competing in 10, 11, 12, 13+ dances, it’s curious to know how the time is spent, and the reasoning behind money being spent on a dozen costumes and entry fees versus training.

When the season is over and the routines are retired, the costumes are done, the money is spent and the trophies are handed out, technique is the only thing we have left to take with us.

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The Confidence Game

It’s fascinating and eye-opening to read the names of leaders and luminaries that have been addled by self doubt and stage fright anxiety, people at the top of their fields with seemingly limitless talent. Here are just a few: Adele, BeyoncĂ©, Mark Twain, Jennifer Lawrence, Laurence Olivier.

It’s easy to walk into a room or onto a stage in a diminished posture, determined you’re not going to do well before you even start. This is the very easy way to go. You set the bar low. People won’t expect greatness and then you won’t let them down.

How do we get out of this mindset? By pretending. How do you get confident? By pretending you’re confident until you’re actually confident.