Over the past two weeks, I’ve begun my first season as a member of the Gypsy Sa’har troupe at the Orlando Bellydance Performance Company. Troupe practices take place at night, following the regular classes, and dancers learn choreographies at a much faster pace. Thus far it’s a fun challenge, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the jump up from Master-level class to professional isn’t an adjustment. The artist in me is excited and a little bit nervous for the challenges ahead—and likely the dramatic question of this year’s “Shimmying Writer” column will remain, is it possible to dedicate oneself fully to two art forms? What will that look like? And to a lesser extent, will I remain sane?
Regarding the latter, I am only half-joking.
No matter the lurking doubts, I wouldn’t have gone for it if I didn’t love to dance and believe I could dedicate myself to the rigorous practice and artistic growth. I’m happy and proud that I took this next step in my dance journey—and suspect the importance of doing so won’t become evident for months down the road.
But why? one might ask. Wasn’t it enough to perform with the Masters’ classes several times a year? Couldn’t you have “grown” on your own terms, without joining a troupe?
These questions unearthed a discussion pertinent to anyone who believes in excellence and desires to join the ranks of history’s greats. Since my audition two months ago, I’ve pondered what it would be like if artists of other disciplines had to “audition” and be accepted by the masters (dead included) to be deemed worthy, a professional? What might that look like for writers? Scary, perhaps, to think of Flannery O’Connor, Tolstoy, and Alice Munro facing you i.e. some kind of literary Flashdance, but what if that’s how advancing to the next level worked? Now, I’m well aware that there are plenty of ways emerging writers “audition” to join the ranks of the established—defending a creative thesis, publishing in literary journals, winning awards and fellowships, and the like—but I’m talking about a bona fide audition, where one of your mentors says, as my dance instructor, Suspira, asked immediately following my audition piece, “So, why do you want to join the dance company?”
There are no definite answers here—only that your response must be true to you. Mine was to push myself and to gain confidence as a performer, because often it’s not until you venture into uncomfortable, challenging territory that you realize what you’re capable of. And that’s when you may truly astound yourself.
So, why do you want to join the greatest writers in literature?
Several crucial points are embedded in such a question as well as the asking of it—namely, who is doing the asking, and why. The question itself is a test of the artist’s self-awareness about her practice. Recently I attended the Key West Literary Seminar, and after one of the panel discussions, someone in the audience asked the authors on stage, one of whom was Margaret Atwood, a question akin to why writers write, and is it to express themselves? The panelists exchanged looks and I believe it may have been Atwood who answered quite glibly that no, the aim of the literary writer was not to express oneself—if one wanted to do that, he or she could run outside and scream—but rather, the literary writer serves the story as it develops on the page. I couldn’t have agreed more. Expressing oneself is perfectly fine when journaling or putting on music and dancing at home, and it may remain part of what the artist does, albeit in a more sophisticated aspect—but “expression” ceases to be the overarching aim if that artist aspires to the highest standards of the discipline, and serving his or her craft.
But why ask this question in the first place? What’s behind it? Again, place yourself on the stool in front of O’Connor, Tolstoy, and Munro (or feel free to imagine other, scarier great authors you admire). They’re staring down at you from the lofty panel because they’ve climbed there, and climbing requires struggle, pain, and sacrifice of ego if not actual physical sacrifice. Their work didn’t attain greatness without perseverance through hardship, rejection, dedication to craft—and now, what’s that you say? You’d like to join them? Well, are you willing to do the same? Hold on, now. Think about it. Are you really willing to take up what they are asking of you?
For when you play out the scenario this way, you realize what they are asking you to commit to—achieving a professional level of artistry—is as serious as marriage vows. Can you answer yes to in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or for worse? For art may take you there. It’s no coincidence Lady Gaga’s song “Marry the Night” is an analogy of the pivotal point in which she decided to “marry her art” as she would a spouse.
Lastly, but just as important, the question is asked by a person or persons representative of the community the artist wants to join. An artist may create in solitude, but as soon as that piece of writing or dance solo is sent out into the world, he or she becomes a representative of those who practice that same craft. The audition question of why do you want to join the dance company? or why do you want to join the greatest writers in literature? is a vital one for fellow serious artists to ask of you, to hear your intentions and commitment to create at a level of excellence. Amateurs, hobbyists, and dabblers need not apply.
I encourage you to write down your fantasy audition and discover what your response is to the question of joining your art form’s top ranks—the answer may take you by as much surprise as the exchange I had several years back, midway through my MFA in Writing at Vermont College. I was studying under Douglas Glover when he stated that a writer should aim to make every piece of writing the best it could be—whether it was an essay, a letter, or an email. That’s the standard to which a master artist aspires. After I swallowed my shock (every piece of writing?) and absorbed his wisdom, I vowed never to take my words for granted again. My craft—blog posts, status updates, and tweets included—has never been the same since.