Reflecting upon the meaning of ‘success’ in the dance world – by Madeline Harms

(Please note, this article was originally published in Dec 2019 in ’AusDancersOverseas – The Magazine’. Link at the bottom of the page.)

It is the time of year again, where young dancers are graduating from their professional education in the southern hemisphere. They are excited and nervous as they walk out of the doors as free individuals into the professional world. They all have goals of what the want to achieve, and the motivation to set out to reach them. Some will stroll into their first job and others will fight for a while to break through. Some will step into the independent dance scene, whilst others will join a full-time company.

Photo credit: Max van Pelt

I feel there is a similar attitude amongst institutions around the world to mentally prepare dancers for the full-time company life, and that this is the correct “successful” pathway. Freelancing is often disregarded as something one does after being in a company, or as a backup option. Yet, in fact, many dancers will find their way into the independent scene and thrive in it. Not to mention all the other various other pathways in which one can take their dance education..

As a professional dancer, I believe it is important to reflect on what success means to you, and to ask yourself why this is. Everyone has their reasons to be successful and how they want to go about doing it – but it is important to understand what this means for you.

Is it a picture you have been painted of what success should look like and therefore that is what you think you should do? Or is it because you want to be a part of something creative or inspiring? It is important to recognise if the need to succeed in a certain way is coming from an outside pressure or one’s own inspiration. Once I realised this, I could let a lot unnecessary pressure off of myself and do what I felt was right for me.

As a young dancer these wise words spoke to me greatly, helping me to focus my ambition and reflect on the smaller stepping stones:
“Do not aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must be ensued and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself…I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge’. Viktor Frankl

Photo credit: Max van Pelt

Being an independent dancer in the past was an enriching experience for me. I learnt how to open my own one-woman business, I had the freedom to foster my own interests professionally and personally and was able to set my own agenda. I travelled a lot and it was in my hands who I worked for, creating a work-life balance that suited me. Company life for me at the moment offers stability and full-time work, creating and performing 11 months of the year. I’ve learnt a profound amount and worked with incredible people – and this I hope will continue. Who I work with is determined by the artistic direction of the company and is not my choice. It is of course my choice to be in the company, yet my faith lies in the artistic decisions of my employer that we will be brought interesting and inspiring choreographers to work with. 

I want to press that both the independent and company career are equally as valuable and important to the professional dance scene. They both offer full-filling and inspiring work and employment to dancers. They can also both be negative experiences and unfulfilling. The nature of employment (whether the dancer is employed on a short or long term contract) depends on the nature of the organisation, creative needs or financial situation of whom one is working for. The opportunities for employment in the arts scene differs in every country and city, so it relies a lot on the local community and the opportunities given.

We all have goals and intent of what we want to do, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this profession, and we are given ideas of how we should go about doing it. But no two career paths are ever going to be identical. Dance is a fast-changing profession and each generation will experience it differently.

Madeline Harms in SOUL CHAIN by Sharon Eyal with Staatstheater Mainz. Photo credit: Andreas Etter

It is important for all teachers and mentors of today’s young generation to encourage all employment options – to look realistically at what is going on in the local scene and give students the tools to succeed in it; showing them how to start their own personal business as well as teaching them physical technique.

As dancers we are individuals that have the ability to make our own decisions and create opportunities. If we are investing in our own goals, full-filling our creative motivations or physical aspirations, earning a living in one way or another, and simply happy in what we are doing on a daily basis – then THAT is the success.


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