• Zosia Jo

On giving up not giving up

For the last 12 years I have haphazardly thrown together a portfolio career using dance, theatre and movement in various ways to (attempt to) make a living. Though on the surface it has been increasingly possible to work within the gloriously wide field of ‘dance’ and survive, the reality is that the administrative and managerial side of my work has been what has supported me financially. As it gradually replaced my bar work, childminding and equine labour, it became my ‘day job’ despite being inextricably linked to the creative practice that it was supposedly enabling.

In the last couple of years I have become relatively comfortable financially, though as much due to familial support as my own hard graft. The word relative is vital here, because compared to most people outside of the arts sector and to those in the top jobs, I am still pretty impoverished. Meanwhile, while most people apply for a job perhaps every few years, we independent artists have to undergo that process roughly on a month basis. Add to this the administrative labour associated with projects themselves and most of us are working at our computers more often than we are working at our art form. The business of dance keeps getting in the way of the dancing.

Now, in a pandemic, at a time of global instability and personal insecurity, it has become too much. I lost several projects and jobs. I panicked. I applied for everything. I was able to keep my admin job and a few bits of teaching but every single choreographic and creative proposal was refused. 6 rejections in 4 months. Days of work and weeks of planning for nothing, and so many ideas with no resource for development. At the beginning of lockdown I was full of inspiration and ready to create, but because I sought financial support for my ideas, I have been left too exhausted to act on them. When the last rejection came through I thought, ‘oh thank goodness, at least I’ll have more time with my house plants, and maybe I’ll get that crochet project done.’ I can’t help but wonder, if I hadn’t asked for the external validation of my ideas, would I now have a handful of dance films, outdoor dances and workshop ideas instead of a headache and a tear stained pillow?

We are told “create and sell a unique product”- even if that product is your self. And like it or not, we independent artists enable the capitalist idea. Competitive funding structures and a market flooded with talented people, along with our wider cultural context create the illusion of scarcity, and present a mythical oasis of “success”, with no real indication of what it is it as the end of that tunnel. Hence, I myself am complicit in my own dissatisfaction. I keep embodying that myth, I continue to compare myself with others, keep applying for everything, and I keep falling apart with every rejection. I’ve had a handful of funded projects, made some shows, shown some work. I’m lucky enough to occasionally be approached now by people who want me to teach for them or want to collaborate. I still say yes to everything, pack my diary and then apply for grants to do my own projects on top- because I need to make work, because I have a great idea, because I might be on the brink of success, because I need the money, or because I love what I do or because…. Why? I still feel every rejection like a knife to the heart. It makes me question my own worth. In dance school I experienced physical tiredness beyond anything I could have imagined. But it didn’t prepare me for the emotional exhaustion being a freelancer would involve. My resilience is wearing down.

When I was younger and a little naive, I threw pieces together instinctively and bounced from project to project. Now, after a decade of experience, an in-depth masters degree and a great deal of research, I have just about figured out how to do this thing… but I am also less sure of myself than ever. Questions breed more questions. I look around Wales and see a handful of artists more experienced than me, whom I look up to, and they are all either working within the same limited resources and confronting the same problems as me, or they have found a separate or adjacent source of income (like body work, therapy, teaching, renting cottages, doing up houses…) I am so grateful for the support, funding, interest and enthusiasm my work has received in the past and I am also aware that I cannot work like this anymore. The system is broken, and so am I. I can just about glimpse the other end of the tunnel and it is simply a mirror, with my own tired face looking back at me. Running up behind me are younger artists full of the determination I once had. A few young (men) have even over taken me (puke), either more appealing to a society obsessed with the masculine or simply more adept at that popular dance floor number - The Capitalist Hustle. I wrote recently proposing a different model, and it is being considered, so perhaps things may change, perhaps not. Either way, things need to change in my life because I simply can’t do it anymore.

The problem with, and the wonder of, dancing as a way of life is that there is no way of separating the body from the self. The intense vulnerability that we cultivate, knowingly or unknowingly, in order to make and/or share dances that speak truth leaves us open in a peculiar way. That is the crux of why dance paradoxically can fill people with confidence, whilst also being such a high risk factor for eating disorders and various other mental health problems. Why the best dance teachers empower their students, and the worst ones destroy them. One of the reasons I stay on the treadmill is, I find it impossible to separate my dancing from my self- to reject one is to wound the other.

We humans are made up of feeling parts, thinking parts and doing parts. Our whole soma/self/organism is also constitutionally oriented towards a preference between these ways of being. Mesomorphs are do-ers, they respond with action. Ectomorphs are thinkers, full of logic and reasoning. Endomorphs are feelers, responding slowly and deeply*. As the only child of a single mother mesomorphic action hero-come-dynamo, and working in a field led by action and physicality, I constantly put myself under pressure to do, do again and do some more. And our capitalist society reinforces that message. The snag is, I am an Endomorph. My deepest, truest self craves a slow moving process, rest, reflection, comfort and empathy. I thrive in relationship to others and when allowed time and space to process my feelings. Though our society doesn’t particularly value feelings, due to their being near impossible to quantify or monetise, I am choosing to value my true self, and prioritise my own needs and I am becoming skilled in encouraging others to do so too. My sensitivity is what makes me a good facilitator and is reflected in my best creative work.The thick skin I cultivate to deal with the industry is in direct conflict with the openness I need access to in order to do my work at my optimum.

I have been questioning if the world really needs my dances, my stories, my voice. This all might sound like I am throwing my toys out of the pram, but in a very real, very honest way I am genuinely not convinced I should be making work. Putting aside my earlier assertion that scarcity is a myth, and acknowledging the lack of funding under the current regime, there actually isn’t enough money for everyone. As I scroll down my Facebook feed all I see is ideas and projects that, if faced with the choice, I would have chosen over my proposal too. Whats more some of the recent commissions that I didn’t receive have gone to some brilliant artists who also happen to be people of colour. With the world’s attention currently on the fight for equality, I hope that this energy towards inclusion and equal representation continues. I can’t help but think- if I stop applying, who might that leave room for?

So here it is- my decision.

Between admin work and teaching I can sustain myself if I live fairly frugally. I want to live differently. I want to get off the treadmill. I am challenging myself to go a minimum of one year without writing an application for funding, projects or commissions. Perhaps I will never write one again. I will have to contribute to an application for Groundwork’s continued survival but I am taking a back seat on the business side of my own work. I want to put my time and energy into my research, my dancing, my own wellbeing instead. I will only to the work that comes my way organically. If I have an idea I will work on it in my own time, on my own steam and without all the hoo-ha, hoopla, hoop jumping of funding and marketing and blah blah blah. In the long term, I will work towards finishing my therapy qualification so that I can work with people and have an impact in a more sustainable way.

I am not giving up on dance, that would be impossible. I still believe in dance and its powers of healing the way it acts positively in the world. I am giving up the hustle. I am giving up the business of dance but not dancing. I am giving up the endless struggle- the not giving up. I am releasing myself from the pressure, giving it all up and leaving it to fate. If you want to dance with me, work with me, see my work, let me know. I will be much better equipped to do my work with integrity, depth and craft having given myself this time, having freed myself from the process of carving my ideas into the shape of other people’s agendas.

What might it be like not to work so hard? I think I am finally ready to find out. It’s going to take some complex somatic work to un-learn the muscle memory of over-work, but I have the skills to do it- after all, I am a dancer.

*For more information on Formative Psychology see the work of Stanley Keleman, particularly Emotional Anatomy and Love, A Somatic View

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