Am I A Dancer Who Gave Up?

In 2006, I met the real Twyla Tharp for the second time in my life. The first time was at Jacob’s Pillow where I got the opportunity to perform front row in The One Hundreds. My nickname growing up was “Lil Twyla” and I wanted to be a smart, sassy choreographer/dancer like her. When we met in 2006, we joked, posed back-to-back, and discussed the role of humor and wit in modern dance. Then I brought out the handwritten invitation that she sent to me when I was 16. I never made it to her studio, but getting that letter in my mailbox was one of the greatest moments in my life.

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Twyla (left). Shawn (right).

In 2010, I went back to my alma mater, Millikin University, as one of two alumni selected to speak to the then current theatre and dance undergraduate body. I spoke about working with a child with cancer, leading an arts project with juvenile offenders at a community center in East London, and the role of arts in public schools. This speech was before my projects in Bosnia, Egypt, etc.

After my talk, I opened the floor to questions. One of the undergraduates asked me the following, seriously,

“Did you have any sort of breakdown when you gave up on your dreams?”

It took me a moment to process her question. For her and her peers, dance and theatre students focused on training, headshots, audition skills, and getting their big break, my career trajectory as an artist seemed to be a failure, a major detour. I composed myself and explained that I had not given up on my dream; my dream had gotten bigger.

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Dancing with the children of 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt

I am dancing, with and for others. I am and will always be a dancer. I take that with me, in the ways I think, develop ideas, collaborate, move. I haven’t been on a professional or semi-professional stage in six years, but I am a dancer. Yup. Because I say so. I am an artist who had decided to join tables off the professional stage.

When it comes to diplomacy, an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to the Board of Directors or a School Board, an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to sustainability policy, an artist needs to be at the table.

When it comes to facing death, an artist needs to be at the table.

 

Artists need to be in on…

  • Cancer research and treatment
  • Conflict prevention, mediation and resolution
  • Inter-religious and Inter-cultural dialogue and education
  • Military training and homecoming
  • Youth development
  • Addressing racism and bigotry
  • Community development and organizing
  • Divided and insular communities
  • Hospitals, prisons/detention facilities, corporations, public schools
  • City planning, housing and urban development
  • Policing and crime prevention
  • Parades and festivals
  • Education and professional development
  • Elder care, day care…

The artistic contribution to these areas can be revolutionary. And I am writing from Cairo, Egypt, so I do not use that word lightly.

The dream is huge.

Scott Walters says in his latest article, A New Education for a New Theatre, “So much of our education in the arts is focused on artistry as a product to be sold in the marketplace. I think we also need to teach young artists that part of their responsibility is to share the process with others. Instead of seeing themselves as special and separate from their community, instead of seeing their role as ‘saying it to their faces’ young artists need to commit to using their talents in service of others.”

I decided to be an artist in the world. I teach dance, I lead dance experiences, I choreograph, I manage and evaluate programs, consult, share, think, write. I’m a professional and a dancer, but you probably wouldn’t call me a professional dancer. I read and join projects relating not to Broadway but to cancer, death, green cemeteries, cultural diplomacy, religion, genocide, geography, databases, divided communities (from Belfast to Bosnia).

And it certainly feels like fulfilling a dream, rather than giving up on one.

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Truth is, I never truly pursued the traditional path of a professional dancer heartedly. I was sick of being told what to do, where every part of my body should be at every moment. A career as a professional dancer focuses on one’s faults, not one’s contributions. I have always been a pretty smart dancer, picking up on movement quickly. And I can really move, travel, jump, turn, extend, flip, and perform. I’m a good dance artist. My choreography is accessible and provocative, empowering even a beginner dancer to find a sense of agency and abandon. As a teacher, I help my students learn to rely on themselves for focus and self-correction, find the joy in their own movement, empathize and grow in a community of learners.

But because my legs and back were less than flexible, my plie’ less than adequate, my feet less than articulate, my extensions far from impressive; I was judged but those elements mostly. And they would be a block in any audition, including Cirque du Soleil who flew me to New York to audition nearly a decade ago.

If I had worked hard to improve those faults and had somehow succeeded in an audition, I would have found myself in the back of a music video, donning feathers and fishnets in Vegas, shuffling in a non-singing Broadway ensemble, getting seasick as a cruiseline performer, or being directed to dance someone else’s contemporary vision.

Those directions work for thousands of dancers, including my dear friends. They are respectable and impressive careers. But not for me. A couple months ago I found a title that made sense in my head… social practice dance artist and manager. This works for now.

My former colleague gave me the honor of saying the following, “Shawn is the rare individual that excels at both the visionary and operational work of running a program. She is trained as a dancer and choreographer and is also a consummate, professional manager. She can access the best from both worlds and offers an expansive new model of leadership well suited to the needs of the culturally diverse global economy.” Cynthia Weiss, former Assistant Director at the Center for Community Arts Partnerships, Columbia College Chicago.

And now I’m looking to build a new chapter in my life that incorporates all of this. Maybe the University of Chicago, or UN, or Make-A-Wish, or the British Council, or a city headquarters, a community arts program in some country, revolutionizing dance and theatre education…   I am realizing the job hunt can only be truly successful at this point by reaching out, throwing my arms open, and seeing what I find.

No, I never gave up on my dream. Do you agree?

My bio and CV can be found here.

Comments

  • Wow! An incredible post. Having only known you since Donna, I have never thought of you as anything less than amazing. I am sharing this post with one of Shea’s best friends, who is entering her second year of dance at Western Michigan U. Your life is a beautiful example of the way an education can be used in many ways, sometimes in better ways than ever imagined, sometimes for the greater good. I am proud and honored to have crossed paths with you… and that was so before I knew you’d met Twyla Tharp. Rock on, Miss Shawn.

    LizJuly 30, 2013
  • Scott Walters forwarded your post to me. You are not a failed dancer. You are a successful human being and I wish I knew you. Had I had your vision 40 years ago, I might have taken a completely different path. I left dance even after Helen McGehee told me, rather overdramatically, “YOU SHOULD DANCE.” I could not justify spending so many hours upon hours in the studio and in rehearsal so that for one hour wealthy people could come see me perform. I went into social work instead. Keep dancing. Keep being at the table. You are magical.

    Laura WaltersJuly 31, 2013
  • Awesome post Shawn!

    Nick PerryJuly 31, 2013
  • Shawn,
    It kind of pains me to know that a student from our alma mater would ask that of you. You especially. But then I think of what we all were learning about when we went there. And I did read Scott Walter’s article. I feel school kind of went in that direction of marketing every side of yourself. But not enough. Not enough to know that if you don’t make it big you’re not a failure. You inspire me Shawn. Everytime that I see you do something wonderful, it doesn’t surprise me this is the route you took. I definitely don’t see that you gave up on your dream. And every time I have to do something crazy in a dance class or a movement audition I think of you. Every time someone talks about Twyla, I automatically think of you. Keep it up girl. You’re amazing. You are the perfect example of not giving up.

    Jenny Weaver BarbieriJuly 31, 2013
  • Shawn,
    I am also a Millikin Alum, graduated last spring with my BA in Theatre and a dance minor. I cannot tell you how much of this resonated so deeply in my soul. I’m currently working in Chicago as a choreographer and theatre artist for the Beverly Arts Center (and freelance), where I go into schools on the south side to choreograph musicals or teach outreach programs for underprivileged youth. Its pretty satisfying, especially since I find myself pondering the same questions you do about the purpose of creating art. Should it be for profit, or should we be focusing more o n creating positive impact and change on our world? Its something I struggle with, and find myself in an existential state about sometimes – what the hell is my purpose in this whole realm of theatre, in the whole wide world? I know I am meant to make art, and to lead others in creating, but how and what? I’m so passionate about social change, about ecological awareness and so many things that are in such need of serious attention, but I’m at a loss as to where to start with it all. I’m sure I’ll find my way with it – I always do with everything else in life – but I seriously could not have read this at a more perfect time in life. One year out of college, and its like I’m finally starting to form my personal vision and trajectory for how I can change the world through my art. I hope to join you in this absolutely REVOLUTIONARY movement of using our art as a tool for influence and change.
    If you ever get the chance, I’d love to talk more with you. Thank you for being a comfort and an inspiration in my early and somewhat painful time in my career. KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON!!! :)
    -Grace

    GraceJuly 31, 2013
  • Ms. Lent:
    What a brilliant, thoughtful and lovely post. And your story so reminds me of my own and others I know of, who turned their talents to the world instead of just executing on stage or camera.
    As a young actor who took a year in NYC (after 2 years as a theater major), only to get crushed by the cattle calls and the body count, I then went back and finished college with a wider sense of the world, but still got the degree in theater, plus more. Then I entered the working world and have spent 30 years bringing theater into business. Today’s explosion of videos and exciting pitches and presentations make me laugh because it feels like this was waiting for me to get here. I also contributed to arts in schools and their curricula, participated in community theaters, and of course tried to play a major part in my own children’s sense of how to apply talent in myriad ways besides selling it for the chance to go to the next audition. Today my daughter works for the Met Opera, classically trained singer, but she is not on stage, she is in the business.
    From age 61 I can tell you that looking back at this path doesn’t ever hurt, it feels great. Keep going.
    Joe B.

    Joseph C BurkeAugust 1, 2013
  • So, so very true. My philosophy and motto is that: Everyone is a dancer
    Bravo Shawn!

    Yoav KaddarAugust 1, 2013
  • Shawn,

    As one of your teachers sitting in the back of the room the day you were asked the question about your dreams I couldn’t have been prouder of how you handled that moment. As a retired professional dancer, I couldn’t have been more inspired, by how you handled that moment. As an artist and educator, I couldn’t have been more impressed by how you took ownership of that moment and turned into a valuable teaching opportunity.

    Dancers have a shelf life and with the exception of a few genetic anomalies eligible to use medicare to pay for their physical therapy bills, (Chita), we all must eventually make a final exit from the performance stage. However, those with their eyes open realize that the exit they are making is actually an entrance – to the next phase of their careers. Embracing the notion that dreams can change and being courageous enough to let old ones go and welcome new ones is a liberating feeling and nourishment for the artistic spirit.

    You’re a smart, talented, creative woman willing to take risks and open to new experiences. That is what will take you as far as you want to go. National Endowment for the Arts, Entrepreneur, Pioneer of Groundbreaking Arts Education Pedagogies, US Ambassador, It’s yours for the taking. You’re already changing lives and leaving lasting impressions… How far are you willing to take it??? I so look forward to finding out.

    -Sean

    Sean MorrisseyAugust 1, 2013
  • You have inspired me this morning through this post. Thank you.

    John SchratwieserAugust 1, 2013
  • Thank you for such a wonderful article. My 15 year old daughter, who has been a hard-core ballet student has had some recent difficulty breaking out of “the mold” and tried a different (modern/contemporary based) summer program this year; the Earl Mosley Institute of the Arts. Many of her peers (and some teachers) did not accept this. It was not “ballet”. However, in the 4 weeks she has been there she has been exposed to so many different mindsets in dance, culture, and family. It has helped her see that the dance world is a very big place and much more goes on “beyond the barre”. Your story emphasizes that. I foresee my daughter also taking a non-traditional dance path in life…maybe dancing professionally for a while but educating and giving back to our community.

    Michele Fischer-PaulAugust 1, 2013
  • August 1, 2013

    [...] speaks the breadth and depth of my experiences and the field of dance. This morning via Facebook, this article by Shawn Lent came across my phone and my wheels have been turning ever [...]

  • Great article Shawn. It sounds like you are doing well. Good luck with your future endeavors.

    Jeremy BlairAugust 1, 2013
  • After graduating with a degree in dance, I find myself traveling the world and learning about life with my whole body. Thank you for the article.

    Desiree MarieAugust 1, 2013
  • Wow Shawn. Thank you for your eloquence and forthrightness. Your post provokes long moments of pause and awareness in what it means to have a meaningful life as an artist. I agree with you: we need to be at every table. I will keep showing up inspired by you ;-) Love to you kindred spirit.

    Anne-Marie DucheneAugust 1, 2013
  • I love this. I give you a big thumbs up. Thank you for contributing your artistry to the world.

    Deanna DoyleAugust 1, 2013
  • I am a former dancer that now works on large-scale healthcare projects as an interior architect. I’m often asked how I made the move to architecture, and the answer is simple: it’s still about shaping space, I’m just working with a more tangible/permanent story now rather than with movement exhisting in the moment only. My interest is in creating successful and dignified enviroments for people healing from injury; both mental and physical. I’m currently researching successful and the not-so-successful urban housing developments and am curious about the way we treat housing for low-income house holds.

    I completely relate to you and your story, Shawn. I was educated at Ohio State University and have a BFA in Dance. The question I’m asked the most is, “Do you miss it?” I can honsetly say, no, because there is nothing to miss. Dance is integrated into my life everyday. In fact, just last week I remembered a crucial lesson I leanred in Ballet; to move faster, you have to slow down. So many of my life lessons and the reason why I think I’m well adjusted is because my years living in dance. I’m not ashaimed of my recent move to interiors and architecture and dance COMPLETLEY RELATES to my life and always will.

    I think I will stop defining myself as a FORMER dancer, and just call myself a DANCER. Thanks Shawn!

    DeanaAugust 1, 2013
  • This is great you took the time to write about that question posed to you that is so common and unsettling! Your post resonated with me as I am someone who also studied dance for most of my life and continue to do so, but also went on another career path than the dance-focused my younger self thought I might pursue. I went into social work, focused on community organizing. I have found that as long as I do work that is meaningful in the world and also get to participate in creative processes with performance opportunities-things feel in balance. Sometimes the desire to marry dance/arts work with community work is strong and other times I am happy with keeping it separate and glad I can connect to the joy of dance more deeply than if it were something my income depended upon. I decided it was okay to be more selfish with dance as a source of self-care and not something I had to make as part of my work. This year though there was a beautiful melding of dance and my work when I led my co-workers at a domestic violence prevention agency in a dance for 1 Billion Rising, the event founded by Eve Ensler to get people to rise up the world over, to stand up against violence and to DANCE together!

    rishaunaAugust 1, 2013
  • This post was incredible. It really struck a chord with me and I know it will with many of my artist friends as well.

    Thank you for sharing! And thank you for encouraging me to allow my dreams to grow into something bigger than I initially thought they would! Your fearlessness and passion will help so many other do the same.

    Megan ManziAugust 1, 2013
  • Dear Shawn,

    Like so many others who have read this, it struck something in me that has been sitting silent for a while.
    I am just at the edge of figuring out all of these things for myself- how dance, career, money, life, my real life goals, my many dreams, and my ‘job’ on the planet, all intermingle. The struggle with ‘success’ is more with an idea that society has given us, more of a problem we put in our own way- now I am beginning to see that success is not actually explainable or quantifiable- except as it relates to each person as an individual. What will be success for me will not be success for you. When someone is successful, it is because they have fullfilled their own goals, and their own purpose- not anyone else’s.

    When you speak about artists being needed all over the world, in all aspects of life, it reminds me of a point that is made in the book “Imagination First”, by Scott Noppe-Brandon and Eric Liu. If you have not read it, believe me, it is worth a read. It is associated with the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, which has a really incredible and unique approach to the Arts in Education. I had the privilege of completing a 6-month Fellowship there, and am now trying to find my path post-college gradation (BFA in dance) and post-fellowship.

    Thanks again for your words, they mean a lot to many people.

    JessieAugust 1, 2013
  • Brilliant! You have captured in one beautiful, thoughtful post, the immense depth that an arts education can take you. It is so far beyond just the stage! Artists change lives, create circumstance and instigate deep thought in ways those within the rigid corporate walls cannot. I applaud you for your candor and all that you have done/continue to do. Well done!

    Gretchen VogelzangAugust 1, 2013
  • Main takeaway: Milikin University Dance majors don’t make it.

    JENNAAugust 1, 2013
  • I was sent to this post by a friend and student of mine and it really touched me. You are an amazing woman with a wonderful life. I am also a dancer…over 50 years old, and I THOUGHT I had given up on my dream at 34 years old. But life takes us on a journey, and I was hired, yesterday, as a ballet teacher at a major conservatory. Dancers’s lives can have many paths.

    As my beloved mento Luigi always says “Never stop moving”

    BillAugust 1, 2013
  • Hi, I live in Berkeley, CA. and I believe there is an opening for staff at a SUPER COOL program here called Destiny Arts… incredible place, check them out!

    Jenny BarrettAugust 1, 2013
  • Once had an editor offer me a job for her magazine at a time when I was trying my hand for the umpteenth time at auditioning for acting jobs (I have appeared occasionally in regional, summer stock, etc. — now the closest thing I do to prof. acting is occasional paid children’s theater, occasional summer stock, and being a standardized patient at a med school, which I call half a teacher, half an actor. I also direct community theater, act frequently…) Anyway, at the time, I told her no, I was hoping to leave my time free to pursue acting opportunities. “Oh,” she said. “Call me back when you decide to take a real job.” From my perspective, I’m still an actor and artist, by vocation and avocation — just not on Broadway or in anything high-profile. Her magazine went under, followed by another… and I wonder where she is now?

    Joe PhillipsAugust 1, 2013
  • Wow! This resonated with me in so many ways. As a dancer, I have always thought of myself as a dancer, even when I took a year hiatus. I started dancing with ballet at 3 and Bellydance at 12. Bellydance is what I stuck with, physical limitations from a car wreck posed too many problems for ballet. But it was not my dance career that this spoke to me about. My dancing has always been with me and recently the hiatus ended and I am back at it.

    I got a B.A. in theatre, graduating over a year ago. Promptly after graduation I began working in healthcare. First, home health, then eventually ending up working for a psych hospital. This is what spoke to me and I felt I could help people. I want to help people not only through healthcare but through programs with theatre and dance. And honestly, with a fiancee an apartment and bills to pay, the idea of traveling about everywhere to do theatre without a steady job, just didn’t seem as appealing. But I felt like I had somehow sold out. Taken the easy road, although let me tell you, working in a psych hospital is not easy. I know I want to integrate the dance side of my life somehow, eventually into helping people through dance. But I’d like to do that with theatre too.

    And honestly, until I read this, I don’t think I thought I could. You are doing amazing things, and this post brought me to tears. Just because you don’t perform professionally doesn’t make you any less of a dancer. And just because you don’t want to do someone else’s things doesn’t make you less valuable as an artist. It just means you have too much creativity to be harnessed like that. You have inspired me. Thank you so much.

    ElenaAugust 1, 2013
  • Shawn-
    I am a classically trained ballerina who had plans to pursue a professional career. Like you, I do not have the ideal body for dancing, so I chose a different career path- youth development. I started working at a Boys & Girls Club recently, and I am planning on starting a ballet program with the kids in the fall. This post has inspired me to work even harder at the program. You are right! We need to share the arts with young people. This should be a priority rather than keeping it as a selfish discipline only for the privileged few. Thank you for all of your hard work around the globe, and I hope that I can have the same impact on my kiddos as you!

    AnnaAugust 1, 2013
  • Dear Shawn,

    Your post is inspiring and impressive. No, I don’t see you as a dancer that has given up. (I worked in arts administration for a few years.) I see you as a dancer that uses your gift of dance to help and inspire others. I see you as a woman that discovered that we are most fulfilled when we are serving others.

    May the Lord bless you and open more opportunities that even you can imagine.

    Sincerely,
    Leslie Teitsort

    Leslie TeitsortAugust 2, 2013
  • Shawn,

    This post is beautifully written, articulate, and is a godsend to me right now. I, too, am a dancer – nothing will ever change that, but now I work with special needs children, lecture about healthy dancing, teach conditioning for dancers and teach dancers ranging in age from 4 to college students, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a stage…I have been struggling with the idea that perhaps I am no longer a dancer….your post has helped me understand where I am in my life and has validated it for me. For that, I thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Diana

    Diana Dart HarrisAugust 2, 2013
  • Bonjour !
    Félicitations pour votre superbe témoignage ! Ça me rejoint complètement ! Je travaille exactement dans la même perspective de développement de la danse. I live about an hour from Montréal, Québec and at 23 I got hurt (hernia) while dancing and my carreer got another tangente…I teach dance and choregraph mainly now and at 36 with a child with Down’ Syndrome, I still dance afterall… almost !Thank you for your words. I feel really much like you. Merci !
    Julie Pilon, Sainte-Béatrix, Québec, Canada

    Julie PilonAugust 2, 2013
  • Brilliant post. This is something I too have struggled with over the years – I never danced professionally and found a passion for teaching fresh out of high school. In addition to working with children & adults with special needs I am blessed to train teachers as well — and lately I have felt that those who pursue teaching feel that they’ve given up on being a dancer, perhaps I have felt this myself as well. Recently I found myself talking to a new group of teacher candidates, reminding them that we are still dancers — who teach. We create dance for our students, we translate music and movement for our students, we share our passion for dance with students & teachers of all abilities, therefore we are dancers. Keep on growing the dream!

    JacquiAugust 2, 2013
  • Incredibly inspiring. I will share this with my teenage daughter, our dancer.

    PatriceAugust 2, 2013
  • I want to Thank you for putting it in words!!! I guess a lot of Dancers who haven’t given up on “being a DANCER” wanted to voice it… Thanks alot !!! You inspire me!!!

    Sampada MoholkarAugust 2, 2013
  • Shawn – Beautiful. I so connect with what you wrote here and what you experienced. I too felt the same way after I transitioned to my current work. I was tired of being judged solely on the basis of my profile, my line, the shape of my smile or how perky or bubbly I could be at any given moment. And you know, sometimes, when I was making the transition I remembered why I was doing it, which was to fulfill a greater passion of healing people and creating a place for healing, and sometimes I didn’t remember why and looked back on my time just pursuing acting as entertainment with a sense of loss. But ultimately, I really agree with you – our dreams just got bigger. We wanted more. We felt we were more than what our careers held for us and we moved forward – not on – we moved forward. So – from an actress to a dancer – I salute you and am so excited for what you will do! It’s only going to get better!

    Gretchen BartonAugust 2, 2013
  • I’m not sure that I can express how much this meant to me in the space of a comment. As yet another classically trained ballerina who didn’t have the body – in my case, my hips were too wide, no matter what I did – I’ve struggled with my identity after giving up the dream of a professional career. What you said made me realize that I didn’t give up a dream, I made it bigger. As a different kind of artist, a writer, I use what I learned from ballet every day, every minute. I use what I learned about myself, about my body, and about my heart each moment.

    Thank You.

    SJo P.August 2, 2013
  • Shawn,
    You’re a super kind, sensitive & amazing person. I admire leaders like you and wish you came to teach in my community! :) All the best!

    KaroAugust 2, 2013
  • Beautiful post. It gives me a lot to think about, as I feel I am moving in the other direction — back to the sense of finding a gift to give from the arts that is more directly person to person and less bound up in roles outside of the moment of creating or apprehending.

    Barbara SaundersAugust 2, 2013
  • As a former dancer on a pre-professional ballet trajectory, your post affected me profoundly. Like so many other posters, I deeply struggled with my identity after deterring from my ballet dreams to attend an ivy league university. I continued to take class, but but when my technique started to suffer, I lost motivation and wrestled with an eating disorder that I thought would still make me at least “look” like a ballerina. Though I study science and engineering, your post helped me realize that no matter where my career path takes me, I am still a dancer and an artist, and I can’t thank you enough.

    RachelAugust 2, 2013
  • Way to go, Shawn. I look forward to hearing more about your contributions to the world. And just so you know, dance/movement therapists do similar types of work with many people in need and all over the world. It’s an awesome field, and you get to be supported in your thinking, moving, influencing by other like-hearted-souled people. You are inspiring.

    Donna Newman-BluesteinAugust 2, 2013
  • This is a beautiful article Shawn. I am a visual artist and art teacher for 34 years. Yours is the career I yearn to have next! I think there are (at least) 2 ways to view the arts. One as a means to an end in itself ie professional dancer painter etc, two as a vehicle for change, growth education etc.

    As a trained educator I tend to fall in the second category although I produce and sell my own work.
    An artist, dancer musician actor– they ALL need to be at the table.

    More power to you woman!! I am very impressed.

    Sharon GorbergAugust 2, 2013
  • This resonates so strongly with me. I started acting and dancing professionally at 10, went to NYU for acting, and worked for a little while, and then quickly found that I liked teaching better. I had learned so much about myself and the world through my acting training, and I found it more important and fulfilling to pass these ideas on to others than to just act and dance myself. Now, I’m also teaching yoga, and I love every moment of what I’m doing! Lately, a decent number of people have been asking me why I’m not auditioning. No one has been malicious, or asked if I failed, they just wonder. But, I still feel kind of weird about it.

    This article made me feel like I’m not alone. Thank you.

    EmilyAugust 2, 2013
  • No, you are not a dancer who gave up. You never were a dancer. SORRY, but you do a dis-service to those who are dancers and did not give up. It is an insult to those who DO dance, and work hard to do so, that you would even consider yourself to have been a dancer. I read the entire article, downloaded your “CV”. You are a smart, and motivated woman. You MAY be an artist – but I am guessing patron of the arts is more accurate.
    Just because you are in a garage does not make you a car.
    Just because you are in a studio, surrounded by dancers, does not make you a dancer.
    A dancer PERFORMS! I have far greater respect for the cruise ship dancers you look down upon than you – a quitter.

    RobAugust 2, 2013
  • August 2, 2013

    [...] Bigger Dreams [...]

  • No one’s dreams look the same at 35 or 40 as they did at 18 or 20, thank God! If our dreams don’t grow, neither do we. Kudos to you for living the dream, Shawn!

    GinaAugust 2, 2013
  • I will add my voice to the chorus of “thank yous”. A professional actress/singer turned social worker focusing in health policy. I will always be an artist, and it helps me in my work ALL THE TIME. The life of a dancer/singer/actress/performer is not as glamorous as it seems. I am so much more fulfilled now than I ever was. And while working in a home for homeless women with HIV/AIDS, I sang a song in the talent show with one of the residents, who was developmentally disabled, that brought everyone to tears. That was more meaningful to me than the performances I gave in front of audiences of thousands in the national tour I did. There are a lot of us out there, Shawn! We stand in solidarity :). Isn’t it amazing how many artists go into public service jobs. Speaks volumes about the heart of artists everywhere.

    CristinaAugust 2, 2013
  • Best of luck in your job hunt. You are doing an amazing job getting yourself out there, that’s for sure. May your efforts be fruitful and may you keep dancing.

    I don’t know a lot about dance, but it seems like the traditional training really screws a lot of people up based on these comments! I like the way you see it better. Good luck Shawn, I hope you find a job.

    DarAugust 2, 2013
  • Amazing story Shawnie. May the bigger dreams be realized, and you then dream even bigger still!

    David N.August 2, 2013
  • Shawn ….remarkable post, remarkable life, remarkable accomplishments. I applaud you and you had me fervently cheering you on until you said…..A career as a professional dancer focuses on one’s faults, not one’s contributions. I disagree. Dance is hard…no dancer has ever become successful riding on their natural born talents. I had the great good fortune to have a wonderful and fulfilling career as a concert dancer dancing repertory that included works by Donald Byrd, Warren Spears, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson and many other dedicated and talented artists. I am now still choreographing and teaching and hopefully inspiring young dancers to fulfill their dreams…whatever those dreams may be.
    As performers we are there to inform and present an artist’s vision or our interpretation of that vision…it is important to have an open mind and an ability to collaborate. There is much you can’t control about this process which makes it both exciting and frustrating and in need of an artist with an open mind and a willingness to explore. Being strong in your identity, your technique, and being able to embrace your uniqueness is key to success in this art form and in many other walks of life. Ultimately being “the best” is not important…if the work makes you happy you will find success in every accomplishment and grow from every bump in the road. I am so happy you found your passion and that you are teaching others that dance is more than just the stage , accessible to a large population of people and that a career in dance can mean many different things. Kudos to you!!!!

    Adrienne MinczAugust 2, 2013
  • I think the real question is, Are you a dancer that will get a job?

    Really?!August 2, 2013
  • Wonderful! This was the perfect blog for me to read today. As I view myself in this profession, I understand that regardless of the amount of times I am hired, I will always be an artist. Validation does not come from the jobs but from your core. I also can understand and relate to an artist being at the table of non-entertainment specific professions and using their gifts in the service of others. Great post! Thank you for sharing.

    JenniferAugust 2, 2013
  • Although not a dancer I am a Musician. Recently I have found inspiration working in a managerial capacity and love it. This is exactly what so many artists need to read. Your statement about how our education focuses on our flaws could not be more true, and for some people that works. But the opportunities our creative process and passion allow us reach far beyond entertainment. Thank you for a wonderful read and an inspiring story!

    AlyssaAugust 2, 2013
  • Thank you for sharing this with all of us. I feel the same way you do. I was trying so hard for so many years to get into the music industry with failed attempts. I thought i was no good at being a musician and i quit playing music for the first time in my life. I thought “well thats its, my dream of being a professional musician is over so what’s the point?’ Oh how wrong i was in this thinking. I started to get perspective that not everything is about me and i started to write inspirational music and now i am reaching out to people in the community that need to hear songs just like the one’s i now write. I once wrote for the world singing about failed love, sex, cheating, hate, everything negative about life and not being satisfied writing this type of music. Now my life is full of purpose and love. Its not about me but about encouraging others.

    So did i give up on MY dream….. No…… my dream just got bigger and better than i could ever imagine!!! Thank you for making me realize this even more!!

    Thank you for what you are doing Shawn!!!

    JenniferAugust 2, 2013
  • Thank you for sharing. I’m in the midst of a career transition and your story is truly inspiring.

    Nick SaldivarAugust 2, 2013
  • I can feel that!

    raphael xavierAugust 2, 2013
  • If ever a post deserved to go viral, this is it! I know so many people who make the world a better place through what they do but still cry because they are not rock stars. I myself sometimes find myself looking down at myself because I don’t “do” anything. I’m grateful that there are others out there who seem to feel that I DO a lot.

    Kitty SkrobelaAugust 2, 2013
  • A friend of mine posted this on facebook, and it spoke to me in ways I can’t even say. I’m 50 — an actor/director/teacher and sometime creator — and I never felt I was cut-out to be a “traditional” actor. The whole business — the obsession with head-shots and agents and physical looks, the expense of keeping up with all of this — did not appeal to me. I just loved the WORK — I loved sharing stories with an audience in all kinds of ways. This is still what drives me, and has taken me off the “beaten path” for the most part, which has its own rewards. Even at 50, I sometimes still struggle with the whole idea of “success” and what that means. But I believe each artist has her own path to follow, and trying to compare one’s path with that of other artists is pointless. Thank you for sharing your journey (thus far!) with us.

    Margie AnichAugust 2, 2013
  • Beautiful. Giving your dream space to grow however it wants to grow, to become whatever it wants to become. That’s what it means to follow your dreams. Lovely post.

    Kim FairesAugust 2, 2013
  • I totally agree, Shawn, and I loved what you wrote! May everyone’s dreams grow like yours! Sounds incredibly fulfilling!

    LauraAugust 2, 2013
  • I hear you. I wish you every success. My oldest daughter asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said “a dancer… “She said (aged 7 then) “well you didn’t want it enough”
    It struck me that she must be correct, but with a little compassion and a lot of luck I’ve been dancing for the past year , I’ve never been so happy or felt so complete. It is healing. I agree with your future plans, dance should be a part of everyone’s life, it heals ,a balm for all. Thank you for this amazing post x

    Anne DeanAugust 2, 2013
  • Thank you so much for this well written, thought provoking post. Your outlook and your self security is an inspiration. This was a very timely read for me. I’ll be cooking on it for days, I’m sure.

    Erin ParkerAugust 2, 2013
  • Shawn, I do not know you, My alma mata is University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, masters. I am the director of a contemporary dance company en Monterrey, N.L. mexico. I would love to know more about your work. I am amazed at your honesty and security of who you are and of how being an artist is one’s own desicion and committment. I always work and strive to help my students find that. Your story is an example for all looking for themselves. Thank you for sharing. I am on Facebook, Sunny Savoy and compania sunny savoy. Would love to talk about sharing or collaborating. Un abrazo.
    Sunny Savoy

    Sunny SavoyAugust 2, 2013
  • Shawn – I, too, was sort of startled by the question from the youngster at your Alma Mater. After thinking about it, the sad part was not that it was asked, but that this young person only saw dreams as HUGH fulfillments with no expansion on the original dream. It looks as though your dreams surpassed where you were initially headed, but, the most important thing, you seem to be very happy. That is a successful dream in itself. Continued success and I wish you many more wonderful dreams that you will fulfill. (I am a former dancer who gave up on that dream too soon and some days I regret it – a little – but I have a wonderful, beautiful daughter who is also a dancer and she has given me a great son-in-law , who is also a dancer/singer and two beautiful grands. I am very happy now.) All the best.

    Barbara M. MurphyAugust 2, 2013
  • I’m so brilliantly proud of your beautiful insightful words. There is a reason why this post is going viral…you are the heart of dance…

    I’ve always admired your true art and talent at every one of Millikin’s Dance Concerts, always a story behind your choreographed piece and I always wondered what those stories were…I didn’t ever ask you, but now I know.

    I know great things are happening and I couldn’t be more excited or happy for you & our world…
    In fact, I just sent a card to my “mom for a week” a few days ago to let her know how amazing “my sister” is, as well as her mom!

    Continued blessings & love abound,
    Kaili

    KASAugust 2, 2013
  • this is perfect. thank yo so much for posting.

    brentAugust 2, 2013
  • This post is exactly what I needed to read. I’m going through the same phase where I’m a dance graduate but still searching and interested in other areas off stage. It’s not a lie that I’ve been afraid and sometimes feel bad or unsure of my decision to pursue a career that doesn’t involve the crazy costumes and lights mostly because of what people say, many of my classmates and dance friends say I’m wasting my time or giving up on dancing, thankfully my parents are supportive and know that besides dancing I have other interest that I want to relate to dance. Really thank you for this post.

    LucyAugust 2, 2013
  • What an inspirational post! I struggle with feeling successful in my work for various reasons all of them relatively meaningless. As a very mature student of dance (taking it up in my early forties) I gave up studying ten years ago because I thought it was foolish as I could never be a ‘real’ dancer! I have this year returned to classes and feel my world and my work is enriched because I have dance in my life. Thank you for all your good work in the world and most of all for sharing your story!

    ArleneAugust 2, 2013
  • Very nice to read your post. I studied dance for ten years (when I was young!) and then slowly transitioned away from it, but I think that a dancer will always be a dancer; professional or not we take that training with us and it is incorporated in whatever we do.
    Congratulations for not giving up and for finding your own definition for your gift of dance and creativity.

    “Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” – H.H. The Dalai Lama

    You As A MachineAugust 3, 2013
  • August 3, 2013

    [...] This blog post by Shawn Lent is worth reading for any dancer, or anyone with artistic dreams of any kind. [...]

  • Awesome awesome awesome. I think I actually considered myself a failed dancer until I read your post, because I also have always lacked extension and plies and all that good stuff (and I’m short and stocky no matter how much I diet).

    Thing is, even without a perfect body and even while enslaved to a demanding job that leaves little free time for training, I’ve still been able to inspire people and make their lives better through creating and sharing dance experiences.

    You’ve made public what I’ve always hoped and suspected was true. Because the arts should be for everyone. They are not something we can or should simply outsource, even though there are extremely talented and hardworking professional artists and dancers out there. People want to *be a part* of creative things, and think they can’t because someone told them they weren’t good enough. You’re part of bringing art to everyone and I take my hat off to you. Blessings!

    LinmayuAugust 3, 2013
  • sour grapes! Those that can do…those that can’t teach!

    susanAugust 3, 2013
  • I wish I could be one of the positive voices here. If you had this in mind when you were 8 years old in you dance classes and dreaming of your future career as a teen, then yes, you have achieved your dream.

    If, as I suspect, you had similar aspirations as your friends to have what we think of as a traditional Professional Dance career, then you have fallen short. Perhaps you’ve changed your focus as a way to deal with it, or perhaps your second dream is the management and you’ve happened to incorporate the dance aspect.

    I teach, I perform when I’m not at my main day job that is not something that I want to do, but that kernel of a dream that fueled my passionate study of my art is not gone. It will never die. And it feels dishonest and inauthentic, for me at least, to say that some other form is equally as good as that initial dream.

    Believe me, I wish I could let it go…

    MattAugust 3, 2013
  • Wonderful story! I completely relate to it. I have found myself in very similar situations in my dance career when after so many years of dancing for professional companies and resorts on an ongoing basis, I moved to a new country where I had no connections and all the arts contracts are mostly allocated to the same people. Now, I dance mostly for my mentally challenged students, community events and schools. There is not always an opportunity to be on stage on an ongoing basis but we are dancing in the world real life stage making our unique contributions to the lives of others.

    Luis G Canton RocherAugust 3, 2013
  • I wish I had time to write more… I will simply say, “YOU GET IT.” The world needs more thinkers like you.

    BillyAugust 3, 2013
  • Well said, and well done! I absolutely agree with you.

    CarolineAugust 3, 2013
  • Shawn,

    Wonderful words! You will always be a dancer because you have a heart and share it…

    JohanneAugust 3, 2013
  • I’m sorry some people are responding negatively to this. Only shows their ignorance, lack of insight, and also lack of experience. Anyone that is a working dancer of actor understands and appreciates the importance of education, of an artistic presence in the world. It’s those that are bitter they aren’t working who have opinions and ideas of what this profession is or Should be, without really knowing for themselves because they aren’t in it.

    Keep being the inspiration you are, the dancer you are, and the joy that you are. Your dream is bigger than all of tbis

    GregAugust 3, 2013
  • LOVE your outlook on dance and expressing it. If you ever want to go to Germany, let me know. I live here in Ramstein and teach dance at a local studio. Keep up the good work!

    AmandaAugust 3, 2013
  • Hi. My freind Leah Mann forwarded me your article. I know what you mean. I trained in Dance in UCLA in the 80′s. I like to say I have perfect turn-in. I wound up founding an improv technique and philosophy called InterPlay that is being used to support health and wisdom for all kinds of people all over. I just followed the thread one step at a time. Learned I could teach, organize, fundraise, learn, write, be an artist and run a non-profit. None of this was on my radar.

    I love your writing and this piece. I am posting it on the InterPlay page and also to our Art and Social Change Millennial InterPlayers. THANK YOU!

    I sense that whoever gets to play with you is lucky! If you are in the bay area, I’d love to say hello. Great studio at the center of Oakland’s art and social change explosions. InterPlayce!

    cynthia winton-henryAugust 3, 2013
  • hi! thanks for this wonderful post! definitely resonate with it!

    i’m working with a great group of dancers in SF, starting to take some agency and change this up:
    “A career as a professional dancer focuses on one’s faults, not one’s contributions…”
    dancewiththeprogram.wordpress.com
    it’s always nice to hear other folks sensing what we’ve noticed and finding their own ways to make a gorgeous life!

    rocheAugust 3, 2013
  • I agree with you, you’ve never given up hope, you’ve just chosen your own path to happiness.
    Something that all will envy you for in the long run.
    Thanks for this wonderful post.
    Looking forward seeing your next dream projects come true.
    Thank you for being such an inspirational dancer

    KwokAugust 4, 2013
  • shared on The Healing Dance Network

    http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/healingdance/

    The Healing Dance Network: a web between the various healing dance studies, theories, practitioners and proponents through which to find, share and expand the study of healing through dance.

    Laurie CorzettAugust 4, 2013
  • Thank you for the inspiration!

    Ellen ShrinerAugust 4, 2013
  • This is exactly what I needed to read.

    MarianneAugust 4, 2013
  • I am so impressed with your boldness in bringing your art out into the world. Thank you for this post.

    Susanne ThomasAugust 4, 2013
  • You are spot-on! Artistry and Life are inseparable, indeed! As an artist, singer, musician, psych professional, business creator, non-profit supporter, mother, wife, daughter, sometimes professor and conductor, educator, wearing lots and lots of hats… EVERYTHING I do, breathe, touch, see, hear, taste, is visualized and expressed via music and theatre. In fact, my artistic journey has blossomed over time, totally integrated within my being and being with other beings. It is a spiritual connection to life as it unfolds. Thanks for your wisdom. I love this post.

    Jeanne Camp WilliamsAugust 4, 2013
  • August 4, 2013
  • I just wanted to say thank you for this. Midway through graduate school (MFA in Theatre Performance) I decided to leave and become a physician. I have often both questioned myself and been questioned if I simply “gave up” on my arts career. I have tried to emphasize that it isn’t possible to lose the artist within yourself, but rather, it is integral to take your innate creativity, ability to compromise and collaborate, and your unique perspective on life and use it to help the world and change people for the best. Art for me was about service, and I fully intend to bring the gifts theatre gave me to my practice of medicine. Thank you so much for being brave enough to put this out there. You have put to paper, the words I have been thinking for the past few years. You’re awesome!!

    Lauren KlingmanAugust 5, 2013
  • Shawn,
    Thank you for this. As a 43 year old dancer and social justice choreographer, (and yes, I, too, define myself that way although it is rare I am financially compensated for my work), my profession is as a Teaching Artist. I so appreciate and agree with your perspective. We must teach others that to dance is not only to learn technique; the real learning comes when one introduces kids or adults to the fundamentals of dance and choreography, reflects upon and discusses a chosen theme, and then provides just enough guidelines for them to creating their own, expressive movement. They need not be able to leap or point toes or balance on releve to do this; it is authenticity and expression that matters, hopefully made more dynamic by the artful use of body, energy, space and time. As a culture we need to steer more towards developing the artistic voice in the arts rather than so much focus on technique only, as well as process over product. Spending a few hours with students reflecting upon and then creating their own dances which express community and what each one has to give back to their community, for instance, is likely to go much further in cultivating understanding, empathy and empowerment and making their community a better place than time spent learning plies or barrel turns. I think we are inching closer to the understanding of this. Good work ~ keep it up.

    Amanda Cantrell RocheAugust 5, 2013
  • It can be an odd feeling reading a blog of someone you’ve never met, and it bringing tears to my eyes.

    The most moving part of reading this is knowing the impact that a single person can have on so many lives. When I would go in for chemo and radiation, often times I would be taken near the children’s clinics. I can tell you that there is nothing in the world more heart-wrenching than to see those children. Nearly every pass through the clinic would bring me to tears, as I felt so helpless.

    I admire what you’ve done. While I had no idea who you were before this day, and will likely never meet you, you’ve had an impact on yet another person’s life. Good on ya.

    ChristopherAugust 5, 2013
  • These are the kinds of stories that make me think artists can use art as a tool for activism and outreach, and maybe that is a part of an artist’s responsibility to our communities (maybe not, but I feel this way about myself). I think it is possible and I feel like this is the kind of thing I want to do with my life. I perform spoken word poetry, and have recently had some possible glimmer of direction in life (at least as something to do for a little while) in that I realized I really enjoy creating spaces where people feel comfortable to express themselves and to speak their truths in a supportive environment. This past year I took an Indigenous Community Development class that used popular education and art as a teaching tool, and through that and my experiences with spoken word I realized that opening up venues for people (especially youth, though I haven’t done much of that yet) to express their experience of the world is something that is really satisfying. It’s good to be reminded that there are people, artists of all kinds, who are doing this kind of thing, and doing it all over the world. Thanks, this was inspiring to read.

    CarolynAugust 6, 2013
  • as a dancer turned yoga teacher/social worker, i applaud this post! i still identify as a performing artist, and i know well that all of my accomplishments and contributions following my 10 year professional performing career are because i am an artist. as a dancer who taught college students and aspiring professionals, i relished being in a position to encourage young dancers to follow their dreams, and KNOW that they can give themselves permission for their dreams to expand and flow into other dreams and passions. one will always inform the other. it’s all about permission. i loved my time in the business and i’m so proud of the work i’ve done. without those experiences, i wouldn’t have had so much to offer my clients who have suffered chronic homelessness, addiction, severe mental illness, and physical disabilities. i just loved what you wrote. thank you.

    alenaAugust 6, 2013
  • August 7, 2013

    [...] “AM I A DANCER WHO GAVE UP?” By Shawn Renee Lent [...]

  • August 7, 2013

    [...] Check out the original blog post here: http://shawnlent.com/?p=1478 [...]

  • definitely inspirational and insightful to read. good to understand there are others out there going through similar feelings about paths in the dance industry anyways. very admirable and i respect where you’ve been and are going with dance. i encourage your purpose and dreams!

    Chris HanAugust 8, 2013
  • August 8, 2013

    [...] recent blog post that has been gaining incredible popularity, written by an incredibly inspiring teaching artist, [...]

  • Going through this right now! I left the U.S. a week after performing with “No Doubt” to travel the world, teach dance and English. After my Mothers passing I was able to wake up from the narcissistic world of Hollywood and realize that a part of our purpose is inspiring and loving others. Dancing professionally in LA for 6 years was not as for-filling as I thought. I was concerned about my body, my paychecks and the whose who of Hollywood. I lost my passion for dance and was sufacating! I later got a job at a non-profit teaching dance to at-risk youth and army veterans. Thank you for the encouragement and the reassurance that I am not “giving up” I’m “Getting Up” and doing something more!

    Isla Rose ForgeronAugust 11, 2013
  • Shawn,
    Like several folks who have posted, I am a Millikin Alum and a Musical Theatre major (class of 1985). I am so proud of you and your amazing outlook on art, dance and social responsibility. For many years I pursued success in the music industry and then transitioned to teaching here in Hollywood. A lot of students think they know what their dream is, but they really don’t. There are a lot of dreams worth having and a lot of dancing careers that aren’t worth having if achieving them means being miserable or behaving miserably to others. The successful artist is the one that both makes art part of her life and contributes to the world we live in. I would have saved myself a lot of heartbreak if I’d learned that earlier. Stay open to art, stay open to dance, stay open to experience and happiness and joy.

    After having taught singing for 20+ years, I recently decided to go back to school for an MFA in creative writing. Who knows what challenges and rewards this will bring? What a fantastic thing life is. It sounds like you’re enjoying yours. Brava.

    Doug

    Douglas WoodAugust 16, 2013
  • August 18, 2013

    [...] In 2006, I met the real Twyla Tharp for the second time in my life. The first time was at Jacob's Pillow where I got the opportunity to perform front row in The One Hundreds. My nickname growing up…  [...]

  • Agreed! And Bravo! This is so inspirational.

    JoanieAugust 21, 2013
  • Hello,

    I quite enjoyed your article and have been speaking with some friends about opening an outreach program/business that teaches dance to underprivleged children all over the globe. Mostly focusing on Summer camps. I have pondered this idea and would love to talk to you over email perhaps about how you took your dancing abroad. I hope you read this and you are able to get back to me; it would mean the world.

    Eric

    Eric HarperAugust 23, 2013
  • August 25, 2013

    [...] That, and this article: http://shawnlent.com/?p=1478 [...]

  • August 29, 2013

    [...] few weeks ago, Casey shared Shawn Lent’s wonderful post with me–a post that went viral in the dance world. This incredible, inspiring woman, who [...]

  • You DID quit. You couldn’t make it. The entertainment industry demands the best of the best in mind, body, and talent. If you didn’t have the body, didn’t have the face, didn’t have the drive, or didn’t have the talent, eventually you leave, or you figure out a way to get it. Ballet is one of the toughest. I hope you don’t regret this when you’re older, because that’s just sad.

    haleySeptember 2, 2013
  • September 4, 2013

    [...] When it comes to diplomacy, an artist needs to be at the table.When it comes to the Board of Directors or a School Board, an artist needs to be at the table.When it comes to sustainability policy, an artist needs to be at the table.When it comes to facing death, an artist needs to be at the table.  [...]

  • September 8, 2013

    [...] read this blog titled Am I a dancer who gave up? right before I went to the reunion. In it the girl talks about a young student asking her if she [...]

  • Can we be best friends?

    I feel a deep kinship. I have recently wondered if I am wrong for leaving the drive to perform and audition behind in pursuit of work that I can build a career upon with meaningful dance components. I feel the pressure of “why don’t you perform more?” but as much as I love dance, I love dance in a bigger way than I ever have before.

    Thanks for this, and best to you.

    NoraYSeptember 15, 2013
  • I’m a sophomore dance major at a major conservatory and have found myself constantly thinking about pursuing a sociology major instead. I have always danced and always thought I wanted to perform my whole life. The idea of dropping dance as a major has left me with a sense of failure or settling for less than my dream– until I read this. I want to do SO much more than twirl around on a stage for onlookers. I want to give back to the world the joy and passion that dance has given me. Thank you for giving me the courage to do so.

    KelsiSeptember 26, 2013

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