You got the talent.
You got the training.
You got the job!
Stars appear in your eyes as you imagine that solo in the spotlight. You can’t wait! But then fear sets in. It’s not stage fright. It’s because… you’re leaving home. The dual realization of success and encroaching homesickness makes your head reel.
You got the job. Now what?
Whether a teen leaves home for a ballet apprenticeship, or for a shot at stardom on Broadway, he or she takes that first big leap toward adulthood.
When kids leave home in their late teens, they head off to an unknown territory – college, job, or art. Whether traveling by train, car or bus, they arrive at their destination as newbies, alone in a world of full of strangers. After a while though, they begin to assimilate into the strange environment, forming a bond with others through shared experiences and situation. They create a rag tag version of something called, “family” far from home.
When I went to New York many years ago to become a “starving artist,” I was lucky to live in a women’s residence for young girls new to the city. There was a housemother, a curfew, meals were provided, and it was in a lovely location at Gramercy Park. The dorm-like residence was a cushion between living at home, and living in an apartment, offering safety and protection. While there, I met many girls, and we bonded together to support and alleviate one another’s fears and homesickness. These residences closed the gap between the child and adult experience.
While there used to be many residences for both genders in New York like this, today, there are only two or three. Now, unless a ballet company has a dorm, or one gets a job in a regional theater which provides housing, a young ballerina or actor must live on his or her own in an apartment. This may also impinge on the parent-child comfort zone. Nevertheless, teens do transition across that vast divide of family and career, search for a place to live, and find a set of like-minded friends for that “home away from home” family-like connection.
Performers in many arts, however, go through this transition.
Actors go through this many times over. As a show comes their way, they learn lines, choreography and songs. They rehearse, perform together for the length of the run. The cast party is looked forward to, but also dreaded. People will scatter, friendships will continue, others will dissolve. The closing of a show signals the demise of that special bond of laughter and tears that permeated the theater throughout the run, and propelled the drama behind the scenes. Actors try not to think about the end of the production until that notice goes up. After all, it seems as though the show will run forever. Until then the actors revel in performance and enjoy one another’s company, confidences, complaints, and camaraderie. The cast party, however, signals the end of the closely knit bond – the performing family (and, with it sometimes comes the search for a new place to live).
In ballet, young girls go off to Intensives. Homesickness can make an aspiring ballerina’s two or three week stay away uncertain. It’s their first foray into the adult world – one without mom and dad.
Later an older teen may be accepted into a professional ballet company. This is more of a conundrum. Girls in their late teens begin their careers at a tender age. Ballet is not a hobby anymore. It’s a job. They are required to perform for a paycheck, and anything less than perfection can cost them the position. Living away from home on their own as an adult can be overwhelming. There are no rules now, nor curfews. No one monitors what they eat, or whether they even eat at all.
Young girls who are inexperienced are also more vulnerable, and may suffer from being out of the nest too soon. The conflict is real. Art is the goal, but responsibilities of being an adult can quickly collide. A company of dancers can bond throughout the season though. They become an ersatz family of sorts, until contracts expire, and new dancers enter the ranks of the elite, when a new family is formed for the next season.
In my book, American Ballerina, (sequel to The Strength of Ballerinas) I look at this first journey away from home and hearth. Character, Kendra Sutton has to juggle a job as an apprentice in a large ballet company, live with roommates, budget, solve medical issues and balance guidelines for romance, by herself. With some help though from other ballerinas, she navigates the treacherous waters of being independent. She learns to rely on her own judgments, and accepts a bit of advice from real family back home through laptop and tablet.
Family is important. It can never be replaced, yet bonded families of friends and co-workers develop over time, helping to bridge that important gap between babyhood and adulthood. This bonding, however, is not only a rite of passage. It can go on for an entire career in both theater and ballet, as shows change and evolve. It’s the nature of the art.
What does it mean to be family? It means a group of people who can support you, listen to your problems, rejoice with your victories, and cry with your sorrows. They can be family by proxy – those roommates and coworkers who become temporary brothers and sisters, aunts and moms who teach, offer a shoulder to cry upon, encourage and fight with you, and still end up liking you, just as a primary family does.
These professional families help to fill that psychological gap and get performers through the newness and loneliness of adult life.
Whether it is theater, ballet, music, college or a job, we all step out into the world at some point in our lives, and bravely take that first step into the unknown. Whether it’s at home, or in artistic endeavors in a city three thousand miles away, families will always be there for us.
Monterrey Ballet Corps: By Gabriel Saldana from Monterrey, Mexico (IMG_6622.JPG) [CC BY-SA 2.0(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ballet Class: By Avrora99 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons