That’s kind of what I’m about. Writing is—I don’t want to diminish writing by saying it’s “just what I do,” but writing is my vocation. But I think I have a higher vocation that I respond to, which is living." --Elizabeth Gilbert, Author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things.
This quote was one of the first things Elizabeth Gilbert said during an interview with Tami Simon on the Insights at the Edge podcast*. Once I heard it, I was hooked. I knew I found the beginning of an answer to a years-long meditation.
I've been wrestling with the question of identity--identity as a human being who happens to be an artist. I love my art. I love being creative. I love sharing my creativity and my passion for my chosen form of expression. What I do not love, however, is the way of living that comes with an over-identification with the label of "Artist".
I do not love living in the world of "Who is better?" or specifically in my profession, "Who is more 'Flamenco' or 'Flamenca'?". I do not love living in the world where this question then leads to constant gossiping about our fellow artists in an attempt to prove that we are the one who is "more". I do not love living in the world that it so over-identified with the "suffering artist" or "suffering Flamenco" stereotype, that we spend hours abusing alcohol, ourselves, and each other, in order to prove we belong or don't belong--whichever seems truer to our artistry at that given moment.
Now before you think that I am sitting here in judgement of my fellow artists, please know that I am including myself in this honest critique. I have been just as guilty as anyone. I too get wrapped up in this, "aren't I amazing and unique and original because I've chosen this niche art form that is so niche it's hard to make money, but that's okay because that just means I'm a truer artist and Flamenca? Aren't I, aren't I, aren't I?"
They say the teacher teaches what she needs to learn. I believe this is what is behind my writing. I am writing about this because it is a struggle of mine. I have spent the last few years working very hard on figuring out who I really am. Through meditation, through reflection, through volunteering and even through my dancing and teaching of dance, I have been exploring what my life means if I am not "Flamenca" or not "an Artist" or not "Bohemian" or not "a Gypsy-in-spirit".
What if I were stripped of all these labels and I was just a human who happens to dance?
This is one of the scariest questions in my life. I overcame so many obstacles in order to become a professional dancer. I have done years of training. I study various aspects of Flamenco and the Flamenco culture. I have done and continue to do the work that gives me some modicum of credibility in my field. I have dedicated so much of my life to Flamenco and dance itself that it seems crazy not to completely identify with it.
And there is nothing wrong with enjoying the accolades you receive when you have done all that work. You should be proud of getting to a place that shows you've put in your time. I have often had the joyful conversation with fellow artists that starts with "Remember when we didn't know anything? Look how good we've gotten". Those conversations are worthwhile. Those conversations celebrate the process, not the labels. Those conversations celebrate each other.
The problem comes when we lose touch with the process, when we lose touch with the time when we were just a curious dabbler, a beginner. Do you remember the joy there was in discovering something new that was so amazing to you it piqued your curiosity and all you wanted to do was learn more? Remember when all you did was enjoy your time learning and dreaming of when you'll be good at it?
In this same interview, Elizabeth Gilbert goes on to say that art is a place to process our pain, but that the process of creation itself shouldn't come from pain, but from joy. She also says that the process comes from pain when an artist feels they have to suffer in order to create. When art comes from a pained creative process, you're sharing that energy of pain with the world rather than sharing your love for your art.
In my experience, this is exactly what happens when we get caught up in the labeling and unnecessary competition. We start to approach our art from a place of fear, resentment, frustration, and anger. Doing the thing you love suddenly becomes a chore, even an annoyance.
We often get confused, thinking that Flamenco makes room for the dark emotions. After all, the mother of all the rhythms is the Solea, or the dance about loneliness, but that is not what I am talking about.
I am the first to say that I prefer the jondo in Flamenco, the songs about sadness and anger. However, when I create my solos or when I go to my shows, I always set the intention that I am channeling these feelings in order to tap into something greater. I hope that I am stepping into some divine stream of consciousness where I can communicate the universality of my feelings with anyone who is watching because I know they feel this way too. And I hope that together, audience and I, can find some resolution. However, I'm also aware that this may not happen. I could come to the most amazing resolution and an audience member can simply arrive at, "well, isn't that pretty?".
I love to remember this because ultimately, I am no more special than the non-dancer audience member who is watching me. For all I know, they save lives.
So again I come to that question of identity. There was a time when we weren't the professional artist we have come to be. Who is that person? The sister, the brother, the daughter, the son, the friend. The audience member. Who is the person beyond even those labels? Who are you...really?
Yes, these questions are scary, but when you really think about them, there is so much freedom to be found. There is the freedom to do what you love, simply for the sake of doing what you love. There is the freedom to choose who you will work with, where you will work, and how you will work--the freedom to create healthy boundaries and relationships. The freedom to create art from a place that heals you and others.
Finally, Elizabeth Gilbert quotes Tom Waits as saying that when he starts to take himself too seriously he reminds himself that as a songwriter he is simply making "jewelry for peoples' minds". Nothing more, nothing less. It is beautiful, yes, but it is adornment. We artists make life more interesting and we do fill a necessary role, but we are not above and beyond anyone else.
While doing my hospice work, I always remind myself, "This will be you one day". One day, I will not be able to dance. In fact, that could even be tomorrow. So then, why take my "Artist" self so seriously?
Instead, I would rather do what Gilbert says in the quote at the beginning; I'd rather "figure out how to be a better friend", daughter, sister, wife, aunt, teacher. Even more than that, I want to figure out this human business. And while I can, I'll do it all while dancing.
*If you identify with any of what I'm saying, I highly recommend listening to this interview: http://www.soundstrue.com/weeklywisdom/?source=podcast&p=9535&category=IATE&version=full