Am I Still a Dancer If I Don’t Dance For a Living?

Let's reject the antiquated idea that you're either entirely in or out of the arts.

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dancer
When you're a dancer, you're always dancing.

When responding to the question “Are you a dancer?,” I notice that I have been freezing and mumbling something to the effect of “Well, I was, but I don’t dance professionally anymore, but I do teach and go to a ton of shows; I now work in politics,” trailing off into incoherence as the questioner forms a bewildered expression and wonders why they asked. It has been five years since my last professional dance performance, easily answering the question with a resounding and proud “Yes!”

Am I still a dancer if I no longer dance for a living? Am I still an artist if I no longer present work before an audience? Am I still a dancer, am I still an artist, If I don’t spend hours in the studio with fellow dancers, fellow artists, working toward a common goal, striving for continuous improvement? Am I still a dancer, am I still an artist if I spend hours, days, weeks and years engaged in something quite often removed from the arts?

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My leotards, tights and pointe shoes have been replaced by work clothes, a laptop and a constantly ringing cell phone. What were once hours on end in the dance studio and in the theater are now spent in meetings or in front of said laptop. I take dance class when possible, but this is increasingly less often. When I do find myself in the studio teaching ballet class, it takes a bit longer than it used to in order to switch from the self that exists from nine to five to that of the teacher completely present for her students.

The simple answer to the question is yes. I am still a dancer; I always was and I always will be. While the makeup of my day has shifted to allow room for a different type of intellectual rigor, a different type of camaraderie, a different kind of work, the grit that I developed through dance lives in me. The dedication, discipline, perseverance, creativity, fortitude and constant work toward betterment all remain front and center. The performing aspect has also come in handy when colleagues get frazzled as this or that project changes last-minute or something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

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But I continue to contend with the feeling that I abandoned the dance world and gave up a career that couldn’t possibly be matched by whatever occupation was to come. However, I find that I’m more often able to hold and to honor my new — let’s say additional — identity. The uneasiness of leaving the professional dance world a bit too soon, of not performing this role or that role, is being replaced by an honest reverence for the career I did have and for this new life that I have created for myself in Washington, DC.

More important, I find myself increasingly unapologetic in this new space when confronted by those who view my arts background as irrelevant or ill-suited for a burgeoning career in policy. I think to myself:

You try dedicating yourself wholly and fully to something you both love and sometimes despise — not because it will bring you financial success, status or the ability to move up a corporate ladder in order to demonstrate your worth, but out of a deep-seated dedication to the art.

Little by little, day by day, I am better able to hold my artistic and political identities — not as separate parts of myself, but, in fact, intertwined; these equally important elements make me whole. So the answer is yes: I am still a dancer. Just as I learned a piece of choreography or prepped for a performance, every day is an opportunity to show up, work hard, work through the physical and mental roadblocks that emerge, and be better. While I no longer travel with countless pairs of pointe shoes in tow, I reject the antiquated idea of either being in or out of the arts. All or nothing. No grey area. I exist in this grey area. And let me tell you, it’s better than I ever could have expected.

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Stacie Williams
Stacie L. Williams is a dancer, producer and foreign policy practitioner. She enjoyed a 13-year professional dance career, dancing with The Dance Theatre of Harlem, Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater, and Ballet Memphis. In 2013, Stacie was selected by the US Department of State to join the DanceMotion USA Program, where she utilized dance to engage over 2,000 students in South Asia. After hanging up her pointe shoes in 2014, Stacie completed a Master’s degree in Global Politics and Security from Georgetown University. She served as an Obama Administration appointee at the US Department of Commerce before joining The Rothkopf Group as Vice President, where she recently produced an international arts and policy conference. Stacie continues to teach ballet in the Washington, DC area and takes class whenever humanly possible.