NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Ruth Arena, Adjunct Professor at Le Moyne College and Faculty at The Ballet & Dance Center . Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
Dancers strive to listen, respond, explore, and seek deeper understanding of the mysterious connection between the physical and mental/emotional/spiritual self. For most, this connection is porous, constantly fluctuating as self-knowledge increases. My cancer diagnosis presented new learning opportunities and forced me to delineate between body and mind in order to communicate with others: doctors, family, and friends who aren’t dancers or cancer patients.
Dancers can spend a lifetime working to reconcile the objective gaze of training in front of a mirror and performing in front of an audience, with the personal lived experience of dancing. I have an image of my body that I see in the mirror and most often relate to through critical appraisal and comparison to other bodies in the studio; and I have my identity, grounded in body understanding and honed through practices centered on self-awareness and internal listening. These two do not always find harmonious balance, and often exist quite at odds with one another.
Most of my life I’ve been a person with a solid boundary between me and my self-image. I usually ignored me while pursuing perfection reflected back at me through the mirror. It is common for dancers to have perfectionist tendencies, and these tendencies can be detrimental to training because they divorce the me from the dancer, creating barriers between the experience of dancing, and the perception of the full self as a dancer. Cancer taught me to deepen the mind-body connection and to reinforce healthy boundaries learned through a lifetime of dance training. I found myself relinquishing some boundaries and setting new ones.
Merriam Webster defines boundary as “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent”. Dancers become intimately acquainted with physical boundaries, aware of the length of limbs and torso, the range of motion available in each joint, the strength called upon to defy gravity or to give in to gravity intentionally. Good training helps push those limits and increase capacity, resilience, and physical abilities. The boundaries that exist in our internal lives are also affected by training for a life in dance. It is a field in which the competition is stiff, the work ethic is intense, and hierarchy is inherent in the structure of nearly every institution connected to Western classical dance forms. Being a perfectionist training in dance ingrained the idea that I will never be good enough, and for many years I believed it.
As a young teacher I felt the need to be the authority in the room, and always in control; I was echoing the model of most of my own dance training. With experience and a lot of continuing education I learned that by allowing a measure of vulnerability in the studio, students gained space to take ownership of their learning. Being vulnerable means students contemplate and set their own goals, have opportunities to make their own movement choices, and see me fumble, make mistakes, and recover. As I matured as a dancer and a person, became a parent and an educator, and broadened my exposure to dance, I began to let go of holding my self-image as the source of my self-worth. I had begun to trust me as a valuable entity, and my life in dance started to feel more aligned with the framework of a dancer who trusts their body.
Having already established a path toward this kind of teaching has made it much easier to continue being a dance educator through cancer diagnosis and treatment. Through being open and sharing my challenging experiences with fatigue, physical limitations, mental fog, etc. as well as the joyous instances of recovering flexibility, strength, stamina, and brain power, I am setting an example of vulnerability and resiliency. Dance supports us in unexpected ways and our life of training always provides resources to tap into. Teaching taught me how to be a student of my own lived experience. The lessons I learn as a dancer help me face challenges with a balanced approach, and the lessons I learn as a cancer survivor show me how to trust myself as a teacher- I do know how to observe, listen, respond, and create not only in the studio, but in all areas of life.
Cancer gave me the gift of exposing the internal boundary between my self-image and my self, and perforating it. I began to understand where to push and where to yield to this boundary. I did not recognize this gift until joining the community of Dance Educators Living With/Through Cancer (DELC), a group started by Dr. Doug Risner in 2021 with the goal of supporting dance educators with cancer experience and disseminating knowledge about how cancer impacts life as dance educators.
In one meeting, my group-mate Wendy Masterson pointed out that when I refused to be angry with, or feel betrayed by my body, I was setting a boundary. She guided me to understand that my dance training had taught me how far I would let negative self-talk influence my being. This realization illuminated valuable growth in my life as a dancer: I was letting me, my self, lead rather than giving priority to my self-image. Working with DELC in a leadership role deepened trust in myself as I saw the supportive impact this community has through virtual meetings, written inquiry and publication, and conference sessions. Cancer presents many challenges, and for me the physical changes and obstacles were some of the hardest. Knowing that others share this experience is validating and encouraging- I trust myself to acknowledge and share limitations as well as growth. Working with DELC is teaching me that dance gives me the superpowers needed to meet life’s biggest challenges.
This conversation, about how we navigate cancer as kinesthetic beings with responsibility for guiding others’ learning, student-teacher relationships, ways that dance training supports and hinders healing, and how we unexpectedly develop as leaders, will be the foundation of a panel session at the NDEO conference in September 2023.
Ruth K. Arena is an Adjunct Professor of Dance at Le Moyne College, where she was recognized as the 2021 Outstanding Part-Time Faculty Member of the Year, and on faculty at The Ballet & Dance Center (BDC). Ruth holds a BFA in Dance from the University of Arizona and a MA i Teaching Artistry from Wayne State University. She studied on scholarship at the Paul Taylor Dance Company School, and performed with Dzul Dance in New York City. Her choreography has been presented at the Syracuse Fringe Festival, in Le Moyne Theatre Department productions, and with BDC including in concert with the local symphony orchestra. Ruth is a Managing Director of Dance Educators Living With/Through Cancer.
Photo Credits: Two action shots by Jay Evelyn, head shot by Charles Wainwright