We often think of the past as something that defines us and in some instances holds us back and keeps us stuck, but what if we also thought of the past as one of our greatest guardians and guides? What if instead of inhibiting us, our past served as our most reliable navigator?
Eight years ago I took a job as the dance company director and choreographer for a large conservative studio in Austin, Texas. My first few years of teaching, directing, and creating there felt fulfilling, and I was deeply connected to my work, students, and dance parents. Teaching fifty plus hours a week, choreographing eighty plus pieces a year, winning dozens of choreography awards around the country, teaching abroad, and realizing success with my own adult dance company had me feeling on top of my creative game. But over time, I felt as though I was becoming an underappreciated creative factory, a shell of my authentic self. Between my boss and hundreds of dance parents and students, I was losing myself in someone else’s vision of who I was expected to be.
Four years into my time there, I was preparing to take my company members to a national dance competition and decided to bring along my girlfriend at the time. When I approached my boss with the idea, she was hesitant, to say the least—this was the woman who has told me for years to keep my “private life private,” knowing good and well that I was gay. She made it clear that I needed to refer to my girlfriend of two years as my “friend”—she was scared my being gay would drive away some of our more conservative dance families. Throughout the weekend, I became increasingly more agitated, heartbroken, and disappointed with myself. I saw the look on my girlfriend’s face every time I had to call her “friend” in front of my students. When we got back to the studio a couple days later, I was overcome with sadness and shut down creatively.
I was thirty years old when I realized that staying in the closet was robbing me my energy, creativity, and authenticity—in short, my life. I was lying to my students, the ones in whom I encouraged, “Be your most authentic self, and your art will follow.” It would be easy to leave the studio if I did not have a deep, soul-level connection with each of my students. To lie to them for years about the thing that made me, me felt awful. The trust between director and student is a sacred thing. I found myself neglecting their needs and being unnecessarily hard on them. I was forced to face the hard reality that I was choosing to be held hostage by my boss. I was no longer able to give my full self because my full self was not allowed in this environment. If I wanted to pursue my art authentically and give my dancers what they deserved, I would need to come out of hiding.
One morning shortly after the national dance competition, I got a call from my dad. My best friend, my grandmother, had died. This reminder that life is short and precious is what gave me the strength to walk into the studio that same day, confront my boss, and quit. Though she took my quitting personally and threatened to destroy my reputation, I knew that I could no longer live, teach, connect, and pursue my art in the way that felt authentic to me. I was no longer physically, mentally, or spiritually able to give my students what they needed. Despite my boss’s reaction, in that moment, I knew I had regained my power. I felt bolstered by a protection I couldn’t explain.
Within a week, I had packed my belongings and moved to the Florida Keys. I had my self-worth and my obese senior poodle, and left what I thought was my entire identity in the rear view mirror. As painful as it was to cut this cord, I needed to let go of what was no longer serving me. After living in Texas and hiding the biggest part of myself for too long, I had had enough. As I drove, I made a silent promise to never again insert myself into any environment where I was not able to be seen as my full self—even if it involved a beautiful connection with my students, financial security, and health insurance. I promised myself that I would let this experience be my guide for the future. The liberation I felt after leaving a place I wasn’t able to feel safe in gave me a clear message: I could never go back. Lesson learned.
This is not to say that the road ahead wasn’t without its difficulties, hardships, and consequences. I felt creatively paralyzed for a long period of time after I left the studio I had given my heart to. Though I moved to New York City four years ago for a reset and creative rebirth, I still find myself recovering from the trauma of living, creating, and working in such an unsafe environment. Aside from a couple of weeks a year, I have taken a major hiatus from being a dance educator and choreographer. But I am regaining my sense of self and confidence, slowly healing from the years of being forced to be someone I wasn’t.
We as a dance community can be extraordinarily hard on ourselves. We’ve all messed up in the studio, lacked empathy with a student, committed to a project we didn’t love, put ourselves in an unhealthy situation, self-sabotaged our creativity, got lost in choreography, or put our authentic selves on hold at some point. Making mistakes is inevitable, but we can also make the decision to gain wisdom from them, to hold them with us for future protection. My hope for the dance community is that we trust the past as our beacon—that we let go of the shame, regret, and guilt in our past and live in the grace of the present moment.
I believe that as we gain more past, we gain more confidence in how we move through life. Time is our ally. Those who honor and acknowledge the past know that it has the power to steer us away from difficulties, failures, mistakes, disappointments, pains, and disillusions. The past is boundless in its ability to protect us. Because I was once made to stay in the closet, I know that I will never betray myself in that way again. My awareness of my past has been instrumental in my evolution.
Our past stands beside us—it is, in many ways, what saves us from danger, misfortune, and unhealthy patterns. It is there watching over us when we are in the present, creating, making decisions, moving about the world, and evolving. To not see our past with open eyes or to minimize it due to shame is to lose grip on our own power. Once we can fully see, accept, and learn from our experiences, we can harness the past as our guardian, our protector from all that seeks to inhibit our full potential.