When I first came to Western, I was only sure of two things: one, dance was an integral part of my life that I never wanted to live without, and two, I only had four years to figure out how I was going to make that happen. My original plan was to double major in dance and education. I told myself it was a great way to combine my love for dance with my strengths of leadership and organization, but I realized it was mostly just an easy way to avoid the “do you really expect to get a job doing that?” question that artists get a lot. I did have a desire to teach, but I could teach dance without putting myself through the rigor of an additional degree.
Classes began, and in our first year performance class, an introduction into the world of dance, our professor, Megan Slayter, began listing jobs available in the dance field that did not involve performing. I remember her saying, “You could be a stage manager, which means you get to tell Shari that her rehearsal is over and she needs to get off your stage.” This instantly sounded really appealing to me, not for the power and control, but it fit my talents of natural leadership, organization, and attention to detail. My next thought was that if I became a stage manager, I would give up on performing, which made me immediately shut down the idea. I was here because I wanted to become a professional dancer… just like almost every other dancer in the department.
Sophomore year I applied for the BFA program, which focuses on choreography and performance. I did not have another major or minor, so I thought why not challenge myself. I think at the time I felt that if I wanted to be respected and valued, or seen as talented and hardworking, this was the only way to do it. If I wasn’t a BFA student and I didn’t have any other interests, it would seem as if I didn’t care. I didn’t get into the program. I was very upset at the time, but now I look at it as a blessing. The truth was that I had no interest in choreographing, so why would I put myself through the pressure and stress of a choreography-based degree? As one door closed, I was forced to search for an open one, and junior year, I found it!
At the start of junior year, I was offered to stage manage the Orchesis Dance Concert. I eagerly accepted, as this was something I wanted to do since freshman year, but I was also disappointed to not be performing in the concert. As my friends were heading off to auditions and rehearsals, I sat at home contemplating if I made the right decision. When it came to tech week, pressure was on. As prepared as I was, I was very scared and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. Rehearsals went very smoothly and everyone was very impressed and encouraging. I felt in my element. My great memory, innate movement and musicality, and attention to detail made it easy for me to learn and call the cues. My experience in leadership well suited me to deal with scheduling, remaining calm under pressure, and interacting with people. But having major responsibilities comes with some drawbacks.
When it came to opening night, things seemed to fall apart. I had missed distinct moments, started a dance with the lights for another piece, and even had a blackout during the middle of a dance. In those moments, I kept calm on the outside but was panicking inside. I wanted to quit and stop but I couldn’t. I had to fix the situation and get back on track. The hardest part was owning up to it afterwards. Although some of those things were not directly because of me, as the stage manager, I had to take the responsibility for it. As bad as it was, the dance faculty and my friends were still very supportive and encouraging. I quickly learned that just like anything else in life, perfection rarely exists. Stage managing a perfect show is very rare. Being the dancer I am, I immediately took that as a challenge and continued to strive for perfection. After the concert, I decided to pursue my newfound passion and declare a focus in Dance Production. For me this was a huge leap, and I was both excited and scared. It was something I had always been thinking in the back of my mind, but too scared to act on because I wanted to be a dancer. "Dancer" had been my identity for so long, and I felt a little bit as if I was giving up on it, since now I would have to be backstage instead of on stage.
What I learned as the rest of the year unfolded was that becoming a stage manager did not mean I could no longer perform. I just needed to find balance and luckily enough the Department of Dance allowed me to do that. When it came time for the Winter Gala Dance Concert, I was cast in one of the six pieces in the concert and also the assistant stage manager. Having two roles made for a hectic show week, but I loved every minute of it and felt like I was truly living my dream. When I wasn’t cast in any graduating presentations, I was slightly disappointed, but also excited to have another opportunity to stage manage. After that, I danced in a friend’s project for choreography class, which was a pretty small show, but still an opportunity to dance. As it turns out, I was also offered the opportunity to design the lighting for the same show. Again, juggling two roles was a bit stressful and required some planning, but I loved both aspects of it.
This summer I went to Europe as a counselor with a group of dance students through Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and it really helped me solidify the idea that I didn’t want to be just a dancer or stage manager, but that I wanted both and could have both. While on tour, I got to perform my own solo in four different countries, as well as design the lighting for each performance, stage manage during the shows, and even teach classes and run rehearsals. Although exhausting and overwhelming, I thrived on having so many roles and responsibilities. This practical application was not only great experience for what the real world would be like after graduation, it also assured me that Western has helped me acquire the skills I need to adapt to any job I want to do. And in the dance field, it is both accepted and necessary to do a variety of jobs.
As I am making my way through senior year, I am continuing to find balance between my two passions. I am planning on stage managing a variety of our concerts and performing a few times. After graduating, my plan is to do a production internship for a dance festival or theater, then move to a new city and continue doing both the things I love. While it seems like I may have my life all figured out, it is still very scary. At times, I feel like when I am performing, I would rather be working backstage and when I am working backstage, I would rather be performing. Constantly being torn between the two can be unsettling, but what I have to keep reminding myself is that I don’t have to choose. I probably won’t be dancing and working backstage in the same production many more times, but I can still make time for both and find a balance that feeds both sides of me.
I think if I were to go back and give advice to my freshman self it would be three things. One, to follow my gut instincts, because it had been steering me in the right direction the whole time, I was just too scared to follow it. Two, what matters most is what you want and what will make you happy. I worried a lot about what I thought I was expected to be, based on my peers and my professors, but really they just want to see me succeed in what I love. And three, hard work will pay off. You don’t have to have all the answers, and you don’t always have to decide. If you put in the work and trust yourself, things will eventually work out on their own.