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 Jennifer O’Neill, Program Director/Faculty at Ace Dance Academy, Master Teaching Artist at Center for Community Arts. 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.
Perfection. I used to believe that my need for perfection, in all aspects of life but namely in dance, was a badge I should and could wear with pride. I likened being a perfectionist with validity, acceptance, and success. I viewed my strive to be/look/act/dance/perform perfectly, as proof that I “fit” and belonged. In hindsight, it was merely a veil I was using to hide my insecurities, fear, and doubt. The constant push for perfection gifted me a false sense of control - only I didn’t know at the time how little control I actually had.
I spent nearly all of my teens and twenties - well into college, dancing professionally and embarking on my teaching career - holding tight to the notion of perfection. While this coupled with my work ethic, passion, and talent, did gain me some wonderful opportunities, it also became a crippling obsession. From my struggle with disordered eating and body issues, to dancing through injuries rather than taking care of my physical health, to the overwhelming anxiety that became a norm, perfection has been at the helm of so much in my life.
Over the last few years, as we have collectively been grappling with so much, I have slowly started to make connections between perfection and vulnerability. For me, vulnerability was always something to be avoided. Too raw, too real, too risky. Perfection was an easier pill to swallow…until it wasn’t. Am I a fully recovered perfectionist? Absolutely not! As I sit here and write this, I am aiming for every word, phrase, and idea to be perfect and jump off the page. The difference now, is that I KNOW that perfection is an illusion; keeping us stuck and hidden.
Vulnerability, if we allow it, is where we can unearth our true power and gifts. I believe this lesson is the greatest gift we can share and give to our students and ourselves.
I have spent nearly my entire life in the dance world in one form or another - student, dancer, performer, choreographer, educator, mentor. While all these roles have required different things, at different times, the common denominator was always me. I was going to be the perfect dancer, with the perfect body. I was going to have perfect grades and flawless performances. My pieces and work were going to be impeccable and one day I would have the perfect career to look back upon.
Well folks, I’m here to tell you that that was the biggest lie! One that I told myself for decades and it’s only in the last handful of years that I have come to see things through a different lens. The lens of letting go, allowing space for mistakes and to be wrong, stripping back the layers that perfectionism has built up over the years and sitting in the uncomfortable. It’s hard work, and a daily practice. It is bumpy, awkward, wildly uncomfortable, and scary. It is also freeing, warm, connective, and true.
So… how? How do we boldly carry our vulnerable selves into the classroom, studio, and stage, and display it for all to see and experience? How do we want to show up-for ourselves and for our students? Who are we, without the shield of perfection? For me, it starts with accepting that if I want to grow, learn, and excel in my work, then I need to show up, present, just as I am - imperfections and all. Some days that means my lesson plans don’t flow as I expected them to, it means verbally admitting to my students (and myself) when I am off or struggling, and being open and honest about what I don’t know. It’s in knowing that so much of what we give to our students is more than steps, choreography, and movement. It is support, safety, life lessons, and gained wisdom. It is care, love, and honesty.
I remember vividly, being in the studio one night with my advanced teens, in the midst of the pandemic that was stealing so much from us daily, and having one of the most honest, vulnerable conversations with them that I had ever had as an educator. We were discussing our art and bodies and movement and how everyone was coping (or not coping) with everything happening in the world. At first, as I usually do with my dancers, I gave them space to unload, express, laugh, vent, cry, and share. The power and emotion coming from these young souls was profound. Slowly, I entered myself into the conversation - not as their teacher per say, but as another human experiencing everything they were. I spoke of my fear and anger about what was happening in the world, my worry about aging in the dance world and what my body would now allow after three plus decades as a dancer. I shared what some of my experiences as a dancer growing up were like, the damage that was caused, and how and why I work to do things differently for my students. How I am still learning and growing as an artist and person. The conversation flowed. The sense of connection, acceptance, and love in the studio that evening is one I will hold tight for years to come.
Without allowing (forcing) myself to be vulnerable that night, I often wonder what would have been lost in that moment. Would the trust my students have in me not be as deep as it is now? Would the cloud of perfection continue to be shlepped in and out of the studio every day? Would I truly be doing my best work as an educator and artist? The answer to these questions echo loudly in my body - serving as my daily reminder to myself to put down my perfectionism, even just briefly, to allow for vulnerability and authenticity. If this is the legacy I leave with and for my students, then I indeed will have the “perfect” career to look back upon one day.
Jennifer O'Neill began her dance training in L.A., studying ballet, jazz, contemporary, tap, hip hop, and gymnastics. Jen graduated from Saint Mary's College of California with a BA in Dance. She was hired as an adjunct at SMC, teaching Jazz and Hip Hop to dance majors and minors. Jen has taught in various settings over the last twenty+ years, including higher education, public and private schools, arts enrichment programs and private studios. Jen is currently on the dance faculty at Center for Community Arts where she has been integral in building and growing the youth and adult dance programs, and is the Artistic Director of the Community Arts Dance Ensemble, a diverse multi-generational dance ensemble that performs new works by Ms. O'Neill. She is on faculty at Ace Dance Academy, where she is a Program Director and a Lead Teacher. Jen is the Co-President of the Community Arts Foundation, an arts non-profit, bringing arts awareness, education, access and funding to those most in need. In addition to her many teaching credits, Jen has trained and performed in LA, NY, and SF. She was a dancer with Paufve Dance, Dana Lawton Dances, Davalos Dance Company and Hart Pulse Dance Company. Headshot by Christi Wright.