Do you need to look the part…offstage? 

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Do you need to look the part…offstage? 

Apparently, I am some kind of shape shifter…I change clothes and people suddenly don’t recognize me. I change my hair—curly to straight-ish and pulled back—I’m a new person. Then add some make-up, or better yet, glasses, and forget it. Clark Kent has nothing on me.

While this may sound kind of fun, it’s actually been a bit problematic in my career.

People don’t recognize me after a performance.

People don’t believe I’m a flamenco dancer.

PC: Rosen-Jones Photography

I laugh like a five-year-old girl. I’m incredibly shy. Not exactly a demeanor that screams she’s a FLAMENCO dancer–fierce and passionate and exotic (or whatever people associate with flamenco dancers). But something about flamenco let’s my intensity and empathy, that I usually keep hidden from all but my closest friends, freely express itself onstage. Maybe that can be part of my brand—the radical transformation onstage.

I had a friend tell me once that I should dress up more on the day-to-day—you’re an artistyou have to look the part. In that statement exists the idea that artists never stop performing. While I understand she had the best of intentions, I strongly disagree.

Then again, a colleague of mine shared how she missed the days when flamenco dancers showed up for gigs dressed to the nines. I agree—if you’re performing in a classy restaurant, you’d better show up dressed as well as the patrons.

I’m mostly a jeans and t-shirt kind of person, and I don’t want to feel like I am performing flamenco 24/7. Not only would that be incredibly draining, but that wouldn’t be appropriate in many situations nor is that who I am. And yet, it’s that difference that throws people off, and in many ways hurts my “brand” if you want to call it that.

But I try to be fearlessly myself…

My Instagram serves as a sort of photo-journal of my life. Lots of pictures of the outdoors. You’d probably have no idea I am a dancer from 90% of my posts…Maybe that’s a problem, maybe I should work on “branding” myself more and my social media presence. But those everyday experiences shape my work.

We also seem to erase our humanness on social media these days for the sake of our “brand.” (I strongly dislike the idea of artists branding. The word itself—brand—comes from marking something with a hot iron, initially criminals or to mark ownership. My art is not a brand. My art is ever-shifting, ever-evolving, not so much property as a feeling. Heck, do I even have ownership of it? Or is it a feeling that passes from other things/experiences through me—affects me and I affect it—and then pass that to other people?)

I don’t think making art is easy. And it’s not always pretty. Often our personal lives and arts lives are inherently intertwined.

I’ve danced in companies where the culture of the company made me feel that I had to look the part off-stage—a cult-like environment where the sameness the repertoire required seeped into every aspect of the dancers’ lives. You lose a little bit of your identity in a lot of companies—your dance serves a larger vision—so why take that further and lose your identity offstage too? I am wary of companies and organizations where sameness is valued, particularly offstage.

Just as there are trends inside the dance studio—rehearsal clothes that go in and out of style, there are dancer trends outside the studio that come and go—and those don’t make a dancer. These superficial elements become embedded in the dance culture. In flamenco, do you have to love polka dots and wear them all the time—onstage, in rehearsal, to the grocery store—to be flamenca? Um, no. In fact, you can totally hate polk-dots if you want. I think the work done in the studio and onstage make a dancer, not how they dress.

I am applying to a grant where you have to do a 2-minute introduction video. I applied to the same grant last year, didn’t get it, went back to watch my video from last year, and thought—No wonder I didn’t get it!—I was so dry, so boring, so un-interesting, and most importantly, so not myself. I was trying to be professional, to not say “um,” to articulate every word clearly, to be serious, so I would be taken seriously. But I lost myself—my passion for dance erased in a fraught attempt at “professionalism.”

At the National YoungArts Foundation, artist in residence 2018

We all have multiple selves, situations that call for code-switching. From talking to donors at posh fundraising events, to sweaty rehearsals, to talking to techies backstage, to hanging out with friends and family…Personally, I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to our onstage image all the time. Different situations call for different aspects of ourselves. But all in all, I think staying true to who we are, within the constraints of acting appropriately and respectfully in a situation, matters.

After all:

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” –E.E. Cummings

2019-02-26T23:44:34+00:00

About the Author:

Alice Blumenfeld is a flamenco dancer, choreographer, writer, and educator. She holds a MFA in dance from Hollins University and currently directs Abrepaso Flamenco.

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