Poems, songs, novels, and countless rom coms have been written about the magic of New York City. And for those of us who moved here from someplace else, that magic is quite special and a little elusive. Is it the energy? The city-that-never-sleeps-ness. Or maybe it’s the “I’m here to make dreams come true” quality of the city. Is it the art? The fashion? The diversity? Perhaps it’s the bagels. Whatever it may be, NYC has a draw that is indescribable, yet wholly and viscerally felt. And here I am, about to leave after only five years.
I moved here for college when I was 18. I was to begin a BFA Dance track at Marymount Manhattan College. As any performer who pursued higher education knows, the college audition circuit can be grueling and the first time many of us stare into the dead-eyed, indifferent face of rejection. That I managed to get into a college dance program that seemed hand tailored to my needs and wants, (we wore name tags, not numbers, at the audition) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan no less, already seemed enough to change the status on Dreams from Pending to Come True.
Obviously college wasn’t perfect and neither was the city. (One of the best things about being a New Yorker is being able to say “the” city. It must be how people who go to OSU feel when they say THE Ohio State University.) I went through periods of intense hatred and had moments where I would wrap my arms around the city and hold it in adoration if I could. Then there were moments of plain and simple apathy; NYC was just another place and I was just another person living there. But by the time my four years at Marymount were winding down, I had developed a true and deep love for the city. A love that only comes from having hated it.
I’m a person who makes hard and fast decisions and stands firmly behind them. As graduation loomed, I answered the dreaded question, “What’s next?” with “I don’t know, but I’m staying in New York.” It seemed silly to me to move here so young just to leave as soon as I graduated. I signed a lease, I got a part time job. But alas, the best laid plans…
My first professional job was with a dance company called Attack Theatre in Pittsburgh, my home(ish) town. (I’m originally from a smaller town an hour north of the ‘Burgh). I knew the Artistic Director from summer masterclasses and did the company’s summer intensive the June after graduating. The intensive was a nice way to dance while I spent some time at home as well as solidify the connection with said Artistic Director. I definitely wasn’t thinking about it as an audition.
Fast forward to August of last summer, the Artistic Director, who has since become something of a mentor to me, called me saying they needed a dancer for a project in September. It was paid, rehearsal 10-5, Monday-Friday. Suddenly I was a full time, employed, professional dancer, at least for the month of September. The catch? I wouldn’t be doing the full time professional dancing in New York.
I wouldn’t make a liar out of myself just yet. I would return to New York in October and I was thrilled to be back. I reveled in all the things people tend to hate about New York; the subway, the crowds, the smell. I loved it all because my familiarity with it meant that New York had truly become my home.
The acuteness of my joy over being back in the city dredged up a complex question of identity for me: Did I feel more attached to my identity as a New Yorker or as a dancer? I had to reckon with this identity crisis quite quickly because Attack Theatre was calling me again; they wanted me in their winter show and of course I would accept. This time I’d spend six weeks in Pittsburgh and I could feel the shift begin. I had the clear premonition, understanding almost, that a professional dance career would mean leaving the city.
Perhaps because I came here specifically to pursue a degree in dance, or perhaps because I spent summers traveling here to attend dance competitions’ nationals, or maybe because of all the poems, movies, and songs (“If you can make it there…”) my dream of being a professional dancer was irrevocably tethered to my dream of living in this city. In my mind, being a professional dancer meant living in New York and I would live in New York because I would be a professional dancer. Being made aware of an alternative was like doing a re-reading of my life and goals. I didn’t go to five ballet classes a week for four years, bust my tail in rehearsal, and challenge my creativity by choreographing to be a New Yorker. I did it to be a dancer. Being a professional dancer might mean not living in New York, and quite honestly, living in New York might mean not being a professional dancer.
During the first six months of this year I’ve danced in one project. The choreographer was intelligent and I learned a great deal from her. The project was also decently paid. However, it was by no means paying my bills and the majority of my time was spent working a “survival” job so that they could be paid. This ratio, a lot of survival work and a little dance, does not work for me. I don’t mind a side hustle as long as it is truly on the side. Therefore, when I was made an offer from West Virginia Dance Company through my connections at Attack Theatre to join their company full time, I felt compelled to accept.
I am terrified to leave. I am nervous I will hate living so far away from what feels like the center of the universe. But I am more scared of staying, of never reaching my full potential as a dancer because I didn’t have enough opportunity to actually dance. My dream of being a professional dancer may not look how I imagined, but it sure is coming true.