When Can You Call Yourself a Dancer?

I had an interesting discussion with a friend and dance partner the other day. I asked her if she considered herself a “dancer” or “someone who dances”. She said the latter because she felt that saying that she’s a “dancer” implies a professional relationship with the pursuit.

Though I’m writing this post from the perspective of being a dancer, I think it is just as relevant to anyone who pursues a hobby in a passionate way be it music, a martial art, or mountain climbing.

I remember when I first decided that I was “a dancer” — It was after taking a Contact Improvisation workshop with Andrew Harwood (a super dance instructor from Montreal). I had been doing Contact, a bit of Contemporary Dance, and a ton of Swing and Blues dancing for years leading up to this point (particularly swing dancing, which I took up first about 16 years ago) but still considered myself a hobbyist — someone who dances. This workshop provided me with an intensive opportunity to practice dance for 5 days with the goal purely to advance myself as a dancer (and of course to challenge myself as a person). Following this workshop I was invited to join a more advanced professionals class held at EDAM dance. Here I began spending my class time with professional and performing amateur dancers from throughout Vancouver.

This greater move toward dance as a form of self-expression and artistic performance advanced my attitude as a dancer. I recognized that my goal in dancing was not simply to connect and have fun with others but to express myself artistically. I also upped my commitment to dancing, placing it more centrally in my life as a method for self-expression and self-exploration. Within all of this I had also achieved a certain level of competence so that I felt able to truly explore expression. I was beyond the purely technical learning stage of the novice (though there is certainly much I have yet to learn). So proficiency, mixed with an internalization of the meaning of dance for me, is what changed me from someone who practices dance as a hobby to someone who IS a dancer.

The real challenge here is being comfortable with answering the ubiquitous “What do you do?” question with “I’m a dancer” and knowing that for many their first assumption will be that you’re a professional. But how fun is that? — you don’t need to misrepresent yourself, simply shift their thinking. Don’t play your dancing down, play it up. If it’s something you’re passionate about and something central to you it is just as valid as your job — for many it is certainly more so.

The truth is that it’s more a ‘choice’ than a particular set of requirements to meet. The question really is are you interested in making that shift? It will require courage to face the vulnerability of both self-identification and the expectation of others when you make such a declaration. But with greater vulnerability there is greater opportunity for self-discovery and for pushing your limits as a creator and practitioner.

I think it’s worth asking yourself what side of your hobbies you sit on and certainly don’t shy away from placing something that is central to you in the centre of how you speak about it with yourself and with others.