Photo: Kiki Vassilakis

It’s no secret that our bodies change as we age. Our fingers become less dexterous; our joints less soft; tendons and ligaments have less elasticity; old injuries or regular misuse exacerbate health problems; our eyesight may dim. This is not the stuff dreams of sugarplums are made of, but what can we do in the new year to commit to longevity in our fields?

My first thought is this: Accept that the way you do your creative work may have to change. This comes from a dancer who has long taken her physical ability for granted with a lax personal rehearsal regimen, and a relationship with dance that ebbed and flowed depending on mental health and self-view. As it is, I have dancers who can perform certain feats better than I can because of my “jack-of-all-trades” approach to dance (including the many hours spent running a business), while they have more refined focus and are often at least a decade younger.

I remember the first time regular injuries forced me to teach my classes from a chair. I was in my 20s. It was incredibly frustrating and sadly eye opening: I found myself thinking…What happens when I can’t dance the way I want to? Is this what it feels like? Is this how it will be? Will I teach from a chair?

Chances are, to some extent, yes. And let me tell you, that realization does NOT feel good. I often wonder if my grand jeté will ever return. Yet, as I sit here and yearn for my once powerful and majestic leap, I realize I am not actually doing anything about it. I am simply longing for something while not putting in the work, and that’s dumb. I’m frustrated and a little afraid. I’m mad that I can’t do it the way I used to. When I do go for it, and I land like a lump of bricks (because I have not worked to strengthen my body into a respectable condition), I get upset with myself. Then I’m afraid to do it again. What if I strain my knee on my landing? What if I just keep falling?

Excuses tend to creep in. Then I realize that it takes time to shift my mentality toward my abilities. Maybe, when I fully do so, I will approach this fear and frustration with kindness and encouragement. If you’ve read any of my columns, you know that I’m well aware that this is when the success and sweetness of growth happens.

The other day I decided to buck up and make a clear one-month-at-a-time plan to work on many skills, some that I seem to have lost as well as some that I’ve never done. I sketched out my goals and objectives, complete with frequency per week and checkboxes to keep me on track.

This is an effort to grow as much as I can in my physical skill sets before the undoubted reality of an aging body comes knocking even louder. Why wouldn’t I want to do this? Reminded of the list of things I wish I had done for my dance life when I was in my 20s, I’m choosing to break the cycle. I’m also working hard on growing as a choreographer; communicator of physical shape and movement; storyteller; business owner and developer; and writer because I want to be active, in some way, in this art form that I love for as long as I can.

I realize that how I involve myself in dance may have to change over the years, so I’m hopeful that I am setting the stage for prolonged meaningful involvement in dance. I am not throwing in the towel on my dance journey. I am simply understanding that I need to lay the groundwork for when this path becomes a little harder to traverse, and I’m doing it now. 

What can you do, in your artistic career, to enjoy longevity? Perhaps you are a writer. As long as the brain is sharp and the ideas flow, you have less to worry about. Maybe you craft with your hands, and fear of a debility has come into your mind only to be pushed away. Maybe you’re a dancer who has difficulty finding any other dance-related endeavor to be as exciting, or even as valid, as the act of dancing itself. I totally understand. I’m sure I also have a lot more learning to do to set myself up for a long, successful and fulfilling career.

The first step was in telling myself that accepting a potential future reality doesn’t mean I’m weaker today. If anything, it’s strengthened my resolve to what I can do now. I started a dance company, got back into yoga, began taking skill-targeted private Pilates lessons, and devouring specific technique training. In order to find new ways to invigorate my craft and grow my students’ skill sets as well. I also take online classes on the art of storytelling, acting, performance and more.

Don’t wait until you wish you had done the same. Put some thought and action into longevity and adaptability today so you can enjoy your field longer and increase your understanding about the possibilities of your craft. It’s possible, if you take time to explore and learn to adapt early, that you may never truly have to give up the craft you love most.