Growing up, dance was everything. It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing I thought of before going to bed. The dance studio was my second home, the place I’d eat dinner, do homework, and hang out with my friends.

So how is it that here I am, at 23, no longer dancing in any sort of committed way? How is it that I quit the very thing that kept me sane, gave me focus?

Such questions are never answered simply. A large part of my decision to quit dancing had to do with an all-or-nothing attitude, one that was fostered by the competitive dance studios where I spent most of my adolescent life, and also fostered by me.

In the beginning

Maria Dardano is a fourth year Mount Royal University student graduating in June with a degree in communication. Photo courtesy of Julia Browning.My earliest memories of dance are enchanting. I’m three years old. I’m in my first ballet class — pale pink tights, bodysuit, a tutu, my dark brown hair in a slicked back bun. I remember my mom escorting me to class and kissing me goodbye, telling me to have fun at dance class. Little did I know that this routine would play out for 15 years.

Dance slowly became my life; by the time I was 10 years old, I was a part of the dance studio’s elite team, competing against dancers across Canada. One class a week would soon turn into 10, and the studio would soon turn into my home.

I didn’t mind. It was everything I was looking for. I belonged here, I had friends who shared the same passion as I did, and I had a beloved label — I was a dancer.

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A welcome identity

Merriam-Webster defines community as “a unified body of individuals” and that is exactly how I felt about my dance family. We were one. We shared everything from Slurpees to secrets. We laughed together, cried together (really) and most importantly, we grew together.

We lived at the studio, logging as many as 20 hours a week, together. During breaks, we would walk to Mac’s and grab some snacks, take photos of one another with our digital cameras (we didn’t have smartphones back then), and make inside jokes. These were fun breaks that broke up our hard work — memorizing routines, practicing for our dance exams, quizzing each other on dance terminology, and also doing our school work. The physical demands were tough, which had me constantly stretching my legs, bandaging my toes, and going to weekly physio appointments for my ankles. I loved it.

Dance came before almost everything else in my life; if there was a birthday party at the same time as dance class, I chose dance. If my school friends were having a sleepover on a Friday night and I had conflicting dance classes, I chose dance. Eventually, I stopped being invited to non-dance related activities.

Don’t get me wrong. Being a part of this tight-knit community was great. I was a dancer.

But there were costs. I wasn’t enrolled in any other extra-curricular activities, my time was completely controlled by dancing, and my parents were paying for it all. In today’s dollars, the cost of dancing six one-hour classes per week is about $4000 a year. The price had to have doubled when costume, competition and travel costs were factored in.

But the positives outweighed the negatives. I was able to travel to Disneyland, dance in the Dance the Magic parade down Main Street in front of thousands of Disneyland guests, and perform on stage. I performed in a multitude of amazing choreographed numbers where we won award after award in cities across western Canada. I learned how to express myself, be committed, and take constructive criticism. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I was a dancer.

At a crossroads

At 17, I faced a tough decision. Half-way through what would be my last year as a competitive dancer,  I remember looking at universities and trying to figure out if it was even possible to juggle dancing and academics. I received multiple signals — from the dance studios, from other dancers, from my family, from my own head and heart. I would need to choose one or the other.

Faced with this ultimatum, I was lost.

Sports coach and psychologist Shawn Sky suggests quitting dance for someone like me can feel like quitting life. Sky teaches sport and exercise psychology at Mount Royal University and also coaches the men’s volleyball team. I asked him about my all-or-nothing mindset. Was it normal?

“When you first start doing something, it’s very heavy intrinsic in terms of motivation. You do it because you love it, you do it because it’s fun,” says Sky.

“When you get older, it’s still fun but there’s a much more extrinsic nature to it. You’re doing it because you’re having great success, you like competing, and there’s acknowledgment attached to it. If it’s not handled properly the extrinsic eats the intrinsic.”

Intrinsic versus extrinsic creates havoc. For me, the inside voices said I shouldn’t quit; the outside messages said I had to.

Sky reflects that a few times, he too has probably pushed elite athletes too far, too hard, and into that all-or-nothing headspace. The effects can result in athletes walking away from their sport.

“If there aren’t built-in breaks and opportunities to have a different form of fun, this outcome becomes more likely,”  he says.

And when these athletes quit, they lose a part of who they are.

“There’s a level of helplessness to it because even though it might seem incredibly freeing, it’s incredibly scary because what else would I do with my life?”

I’ve talked to many other dancers who at 17 or 18 have faced the same question — what now? And like me, many felt they couldn’t incorporate a moderate amount of dance into their adult lives. My thinking went like this — If I wasn’t dancing more than three classes a week, it would be a waste of my growth as a dancer.

So, I quit.

Walking away

Quitting dance was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made

It was my source of letting go of ordinary troubles I faced as a child, teenager, and young adult. It was my main identifier.

Letting go of dance was letting go of my identity, and that was a lot for my 18-year-old self to come to terms with.

Other dancers, like Laura Barcelo, didn’t let go.

Barcelo has been dancing since she was two and a half years old in studios and professional dance companies.

Unlike me, she never contemplated quitting. Instead, she studied dance and psychology in college. Now 25, Barcelo says dance is her career. Working as a teacher, performer, and choreographer, she says she’s successfully juggling all aspects of her life because dance is no longer in addition to everything else.

“It’s my job. It’s also my hobby — it’s my passion all wrapped up into one thing.”

As I listen to Barcelo’s story, I know it would have brought me great joy to take her route, but I didn’t.

“Letting go of dance was letting go of my identity, and that was a lot for my 18-year-old self to come to terms with.” – Maria Dardano

I also couldn’t seem to find the middle ground that dancer Avery Klein did.

Like me, Klein is a student at Mount Royal University. She studies ecotourism and outdoor leadership. I’m wrapping up a journalism communications degree.

Like me, Klein hit that familiar crossroads. She didn’t know what she was going to do with dance. She decided to take flight,  joining Canada World Youth, an exchange program that allowed her to spend three months in Quebec, and three months in West Africa.

When she returned, she realized the thing she missed most was dance.

Two weeks later, Klein moved to Vancouver where she pursued a career in dance through Harbour Dance Centre, a company in Vancouver that offers drop-in and full-time classes for serious dancers.

After two years, she decided she didn’t want to pursue dance as a career when she realized it was devolving into moving her body based on what the company wanted. It was no longer about expressing her movement.

“That’s when I started losing it,” says Klein, adding “it felt not genuine. It doesn’t feel like a release like dance classes do.”

Klein returned to Calgary and attended university. But unlike me, she didn’t walk away altogether.

Today, she is melding dance and academics, especially since she found O2 Dance Company, a studio where she is dancing three times a week.

“I’m so happy I did it just so I can get my dance fix,” says Klein, “I leave [dance class] feeling so refreshed.”

So where does this leave me?

Today, I still call myself a dancer, even though my dancing amounts to almost nothing.

I am also many other things — a daughter, a sister, a friend, a girlfriend, and a student.

But I remain without a real identity. I tried to play guitar and it didn’t give me the same feeling dance did. It didn’t allow me to express my feelings, it just frustrated me. I have also filled that void with fitness classes such as spin and boxing. I do feel a part of something when I am in these classes, but I don’t identify myself as a cyclist or boxer – I am just a part of the fitness community.

Whatever I do, everything keeps circling back to dance, if even only in my mind.

A song comes on, and all I can think of is a beautifully choreographed combination of movement that I have made up in my head.  Whether I’m doing homework, in a coffee shop, driving home, or with my friends, in that moment that I hear a song, nothing else matters except for the number I just choreographed in my mind. And all I can think of is going home and putting what’s in my head out on the floor of my living room. But in reality, this rarely happens. This isn’t enough. I realize I need more. Why?

Because I’m a dancer.

mdardano@cjournal.ca

Editor: Rosemary De Souza | rdesouza@cjournal.ca