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If You Must, Dance First

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If You Must, Dance First

Alena Gerst

Years ago, I was on the road performing in a show starring a seasoned, wildly talented, Tony award winning actress. I admired her work, and I wanted to learn as much as I could from her.

I sought opportunities to ask her specific questions about her training, her approach to roles, and how she developed her career. She was always open to talking to me, and was genuinely very helpful.

One day I broached a subject that is little discussed in the performing world, but I harbored a question and I was almost ashamed to admit it. I hoped asking her would not betray my dedication to our chosen field.

“Did you ever think you wanted to have any career besides show business?”

Her answer was immediate and emphatic: “No. Never. Never.

I hoped she would not ask me the same question in return. She did not, but that brief dialogue almost felt like our little secret. It never came up between us again.

If You Can Do Anything Else

As a young dancer and aspiring performing artist in training, the message I and my peers received time and again was, “If you can do anything else in the world, anything at all, then do that; don’t become a performing artist. You do this because you have to. Because you cannot do anything else.”

I always knew I had other interests and talents. I trusted at some point I would come to indulge them too. But from childhood I had a deep desire more more than anything else to be on the stage.

I did not know where the opportunity to pursue my dreams would would come from, but I prayed for the courage to seize it if and when it did.

In the meantime, I took part in as many shows in my little college town as I could find, at my university, at the local community theater, and at a professional regional theater in town, where, for the first time in my life, I had the good fortune to get to know real live working professional actors.

I got as involved as the the theaters would let me, as a performer, choreographer, and a couple instances when I did not make the cast list, I made it my job to come to every single rehearsal to observe and learn.

Just after graduating from college with my Bachelors in Psychology/pre-law emphasis (other interests), the opportunity arose. A childhood friend of mine, a dancer who lived in Manhattan, offered me a short-term rental in her apartment in the west village.

Faced with a fair amount of pressure from people who loved me to pursue my law degree, I was torn between the choice of a “safer” path and a decidedly uncertain one.

Your First Career

Ironically it was my pre-law advisor, of all people, who set me straight.

After listening to my options, hopes and fears about moving to New York City, she confronted me with with the wisest words a young person needs to hear:

“This is your first career. Go.”

I had prayed for the courage to try my hand as a performer. The next day, I took a deep breath and bought a one-way ticket.

Over the next 10 years, I embraced the fluctuations of physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual challenges and rewards that came from life in show business. I loved my work, my colleagues, and the city.

It was several years after that conversation with my Tony-award winning actress friend that I came to realize that my varied interests were nothing to be ashamed of.

I never lost sight of my hope for the clarity to know when it would be time to move on during those years. I came to consider them one of my strengths as a performer, and eventually as a teacher to performers.

So What Else Can You Do?

I loved teaching younger dancers technique, different styles of choreography, and the nuts and bolts of the business. But one of my favorite things about teaching college level aspiring performers was learning about their other interests.

These talented students wanted to become everything from educators to physicians, writers, directors, and even a pilot. I cherished encouraging them to embrace their lives as dancers for the window of time they have with their bodies.

I taught my students to give it all they’ve got. With some luck and a lot of dedication, dance would be their first career. For many of them, probably not their last.

I would argue that it is strengthening and heartening to encourage dancers and performers to entertain their other interests. For one thing, it can make for a more compelling artist. I knew my time was limited, and I left everything I had access to on the stage.

And it can alleviate the anxiety young performers have should they question their long-term commitment to their art.

After all, we are of course creating art, but just as important, aren’t we also creating our lives?

Of course there are some people who feel so compelled and dedicated to their craft that considering any other occupation is not even a question. But they are not the only people who deserve to follow their dreams of being on stage.

For those who have the desire, the courage, and the drive, I am here to say if you can do something else, that is fine. But if you must dance first, then dance first.

You will have experienced the ecstasy of being driven by courage and not fear, a strength you will take with you no matter where you choose to work. And you will have fulfilled your desire to challenge your whole body, mind, and spirit in your work.

You will not regret it.

You will never wonder, “What if…”

If you must, dance. Let it be your first career. Go. 

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