Life Beyond “Happily Ever After”
One of my first memories of performing was being a bon-bon in the Nutcracker, one of the little kids that comes out from Mother Ginger’s skirt. I remember being backstage, lined up with the other bon-bons, with the blinding spotlights making the stage nothing but light, watching our leader go through her quick change from the previous scene. She was one of the “big girls” and got to wear a real tutu and pointe shoes.
I remember looking up at her with such admiration, and thinking to myself that I wanted to be like her one day.
Almost exactly a year ago this time, I was named a member of the contemporary dance company I was guest dancing for, and I realized that I had finally become everything that the “big girls” in the company personified for me.
The road that led little five-year-old Gillian to become the twenty-six-year-old that was named to the company was winding and varied, and for many years of it I never thought I’d really be a professional dancer. Someone involved with dance, maybe, but not a dancer. It was a dream I didn’t bother to dream, even as I worked towards, steadily if not directly.
And then it happened. Just a day, like all the rest, and then without any fuss, fanfare, slow motion, or dramatic music, the dream was real.
There’s a curious line in Wicked the Musical, when Glinda says that “getting your dreams/it’s strange but it seems/a little bit complicated.” It’s funny, but when you think about it, there’s not a lot of cultural references around — in literature, movies, etc. — that deal with what comes after your dreams come true. Fairytales tell us that it’s happily ever after, and if there are struggles left after the happy ending, they aren’t part of the story.
If my life was a movie, it probably would have ended that day. My life, thankfully, didn’t. It seems Glinda had a point, though, because getting your dreams was uncharted territory, and it was complicated.
Within the first few months, 2017 was already astonishing, and kept getting more so. I had performances, I was a central part of the company, I was invited to speak at a conference, I was accepted to perform at TEDx — things I’d once thought, oh that’d be cool, but never really thought would happen.
I felt I had crossed a threshold, opened a new chapter when I finally wasn’t beginning anymore, when I had at last arrived. There was so much about the year that was amazing, and yet — well, it was still life.
All of my problems were not solved. I was not happy all the time, and indeed, I still struggled with the same restlessness and discontent I often do. I found myself wondering, sometime in April, if I am living my dreams, then why am I not happy?
I felt incredibly guilty about it. After all, so many people are not living their dreams. I loved every second I went to the studio and called it work, that was sure. But those other moments didn’t go away, and I was ashamed of them.
I was also struck with an incredible sense of Now What??. I needed a new goal, yet I also struggled with that — did I really need to? Wasn’t it enough to just enjoy this life without immediately turning to new destination? This coincided with thinking about moving on from Korea, just when I was getting really well-established. I knew — and still believe — that it was/is a good decision for a whole multitude of reasons, but I worry — can I still have my dreams if I leave? Maybe I shouldn’t try to change something that’s not broken. I live my dream job, but what if I lose it?
Like Glinda says — it’s complicated. That’s the thing about dreams, though — when they come true, they’re not dreams anymore. They’re just life, and life is the fully complex, stupid, wonderful, whole thing that it is, with the good and the bad and the ugly.
Yet that’s also the thing about dreams — when they come true, it is beautiful. At a certain point, I had to let go of the need to be happy at all times, and the guilt and shame that came with. It allowed me to acknowledge the moments, and let them live alongside the other, more plentiful, moments of beauty without covering them.
One night this past week I was walking home sometime after midnight. It was the first snow of the year, and everything was covered lightly in white, the flakes still settling firmly into their places. In my ears, the Scissor Sisters sang that “I had a dream we were holding on, and tomorrow has become today.”
They were right. I’d just been at the after-party for the community project I helped teach with the company, guiding a group of older women through a ten minute performance on a professional stage. Their adrenaline, fear, gratitude, and pride at having accomplished this was still warm on my skin, especially knowing that this magical thing they just got to experience is something that I call my work.
The community project performance was the last big obligation of the year, rounding out over thirty performances and five trips abroad, to perform, speak, and play. As wonderful as it has been, I was relieved that it was over and was looking ahead to the month of December, my favorite month of the year, as a time to rest. A time to lay my soul down for a moment and experience the magic and beauty of the season I still have a very child-like joy for.
As I walked, I could feel the weight of the year on my shoulders, and at that moment, all of the complications, restlessness, doubt, and soul hunger faded, leaving only pure gratitude, like all the puzzle pieces aligned for a moment and the universe hummed in time with my steps. After the Scissor Sisters finished fighting Fire with Fire, Tyler Hilton’s “Glad” came up on shuffle.
“Aren’t you glad?” he asked, and I was.
If you’re interested in learning more about my artistic work, I encourage you to check out my website at www.gillianrhodes.com.