Every dance educator owns some version of this story.
In the first two months of 2020, I managed to create and stage 80 minutes of choreography for the debut of my new troupe, Movement Headquarters Ballet Company. I also traveled to Colorado and Mississippi to judge for Youth America Grand Prix and Dance Teachers United. I did this all while maintaining a rigorous weekly schedule teaching at Broadway Dance Center and a tuition-based program in Connecticut.
Over the past five years as I transitioned from performing to education and choreography, there have been many months like these. So, it should come as no surprise that I frequently find myself worn down both physically and emotionally.
I often joke that I am a burnout expert, because I have been known to push myself to the limit time and time again. At this point, I can feel it coming on like a cold. As March began, I noted another bout coming forth. I found myself lacking motivation prior to classes and questioning certain employment situations.
I was also having chronic pain in my shoulder, lower back and knee that went unaddressed due to my rigorous schedule.
In my experience, there are three telltale signs that reveal I’ve burned the candle at both ends, and I was checking each box.
First, a wave of foreboding comes over me when I consider addressing issues that affect me negatively. I start to feel so overwhelmed that simple conversations appear to be minefields. This often causes me to delay speaking up, which opens the door for negativity and unnecessary emotion to manifest.
The second cautionary signal is a feeling of complacency, interrupted by sharp bouts of frustration aimed at people or organizations I feel are taking more from me than they are giving. Sometimes, this frustration is founded. Yet, at other times, it is merely a projection of my oncoming burnout. The complacency often leaves me underprepared to teach classes. I’m either taking too much on without enough time to prep or too overwhelmed to think about teaching before I am actually in the studio. In these times, I may teach off-the-cuff, which requires more energy in the moment and often makes teaching more stressful and less enjoyable.
The final symptom is the slow deterioration of my physical form. When I am more concerned about pleasing employers or procuring enough work to make ends meet, I am unlikely to open space on my schedule for healthcare appointments. The affordability of these sessions play into this conversation, as well.
As burnout crept up on me, I also felt stressed by the specter of COVID-19.
But while listening to the endless wail of sirens and watching civil unrest bubble to the surface of society has been horribly challenging, it has also allotted me unexpected breathing room to focus on myself.
As New York shut down and educators committed to regular schedules of virtual classes, I kept mostly to myself. I created a handful of at-home barre and conditioning classes on YouTube to ensure I had food on my table. But I didn’t express any outward interest in teaching virtually.
Being stuck in my one-bedroom apartment for 100 days, I suddenly had the time and energy to actively heal. With nowhere to be, no students to focus on and no employers to hold me accountable, I could finally take care of me, myself and I. Prior to quarantine, I would take Nancy Bielski’s class at Steps on Broadway twice weekly and go to the gym to lift weights. But without distractions, I found I could give myself class four to five days each week, while also reviving my yoga practice. I even found time to roll out my muscles regularly and strengthen to fend off injury.
It is incredible how your mood is affected when you are in pain. As educators, we often ignore aches brought on by teaching until we are immobilized. I finally had the time to listen to my body, and it is feeling better than it has in years.
As time has passed, I have taken on teaching a handful of classes for Broadway Dance Center, virtual intensives, dance studios and individual students. My motivation is returning, and my creativity is coming back stronger than before. I have found myself building more creative material for ballet classes and breaking old choreography habits for contemporary classes. Without a regular teaching schedule these past few months, I’m approaching each class with a fresh perspective.
While this pandemic has cost me more than $20,000 in income, I have also regained much during this time. Today, I’m feeling more positive about returning to a full schedule of teaching when it is safe. And I am really looking forward to seeing my students again and sharing my passion for dance with a revitalized energy and outlook. Perhaps this is the gift of COVID-19.