Sarah Farnsley is a fellow Butler University grad who has had a successful freelance dance career for many years. Here she shares her passion, motivation and what being a “Whole Dancer” means to her.
As a 3 year old my mum took me to see a local production of the Nutcracker. I knew someone in the show, she was probably a young teenager at the time, and I remember feeling so cool for knowing someone on stage.
After that I told my mum that she had to cut off my long bangs because ballerinas don’t have bangs and I was going to be a ballerina. I started ballet classes and never stopped…and I didn’t cut bangs back into my hair until I was about 16.
In a way I’m not sure I really consciously “chose” to dance professionally. The closest I came to that was deciding where to go for college. At the end of high school I was applying for colleges, and at this point I had no idea how good I was compared to other dancers in the world. I did a few company auditions that didn’t pan out, and I applied to college dance programs as well as a few universities where I would major in something academic.
At that point I was really hedging my bets against not getting in anywhere for dance, and accepting that I’d reached the end of the line. My parents and I are extremely pragmatic people and we’ve always had an agreement that they would tell me if they thought I’d reached the end of a professional dance career…they would tell me if I wasn’t being realistic and if I needed to seriously consider switching paths.
So as I waited for responses from universities I prepared myself that this may be the moment I stop dancing as a full time activity. I got accepted to Smith, a women’s college on the east coast that was a sort of dream school for me for academics. I started imagining my life there, majoring in Biology, studying genetics, dancing as a hobby.
I thought, “This will be such a hard choice, now, if I get accepted into a dance program.” Then I got my acceptance letter to Butler University’s dance program, and there was not a single doubt in my mind that I was going.
Turning down Smith felt like one of the riskiest things I’d ever done, but there was never a moment I considered turning down the opportunity to keep trying to be a dancer. So I suppose it was that moment that I realized I might actually be good enough to do this professionally, that someone else thought I had a chance, and there was no way I was going to pass that up.
My current focus is finding a job! As a freelancer you’re constantly in and out of work, and in the down time you find projects, you do auditions, you work on other stuff. I’m always networking, trying to meet people and make sure I know about upcoming auditions and projects.
At the moment, though, I’ve just finished a contract a few months ago with New English Ballet Theatre, and now I’m working on a film project with Ballet Theatre of Indiana. I choreographed a piece for them in October of last year, and my friend Stirling Matheson – the Artistic Director asked me if I’d like to collaborate on a film version of it. We finally settled on a date for filming when I would be available and back in Indiana (at the end of August) and we restaged the piece for film. Now we’re working through editing and finalizing.
The timing has actually been really ideal, too, because after a contract ends, particularly one as full-time as NEBT, it can be really difficult to go back to the freelance life of creating your own schedule. I like to be busy and all of a sudden I have a lot of unscheduled time on my hands, so having this project to occupy myself has been great.
I’m driven, like a lot of dancers, by an almost insatiable need for excellence. For better or worse, ballet is relatively essential to my being at this point, and I get real joy out of taking class every day and hopefully discovering new things about my body, about technique, and about artistry. The way I take class changes over time, as does the way I approach rehearsals, auditions, the profession as a whole, and the fact that I’ve been learning dance for 26 years and there are still new things to discover makes me want to stay with it.
I’m inspired by other dancers, I’m inspired by other artists, I’m inspired by anyone doing something important or remarkable in the world. I think we all want to feel like what we’re doing is important and has the power to make an impact, and I do feel like devoting your life to one study or discipline, and pouring your mental and emotional energy into it can create extraordinary moments that transcend. Even if those moments only ever matter to me, it’s at least worth the effort to try.
My path has been nothing like I expected. I thought I would get a full-time job in a company and that would be it, that would be my launching pad to the rest of the world, to traveling, to performing with different companies, always employed. I still hold onto that a little bit: the idea that being offered a full-time contract will mean I “made it”. It has taken me many years to sort of accept that the way my career has turned out is also valid, and actually has a lot of bonuses I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
I suppose for me the major turning point was when I realized I was capable of so much more than I had credited myself with, and that me, as Sarah, as a unique individual, had something of value to offer. I wish I could say that happened independently through a moment of self-reflection, but instead it came through external validation from someone whose opinion I did, and do, value so highly.
In January 2012 I was in Montreal auditioning for the now dissolved neo-classical company La La La Human Steps. I was first introduced to this company in college, and had sort of idolized the dancers and the choreographer, Edouard Lock, ever since. This company, in particular the dance film Amelia, changed my understanding of what dance could be.
So when I got to opportunity to go there I was absolutely terrified, and pretty convinced I had no shot at this. I’d been told in college I was too boring, too safe, and to not try for anything too contemporary because I wouldn’t fit. Unfortunately, I really held on to that bad advice for years, and it made me apologetic about my dancing and my own technical shortcomings.
Then I danced for Edouard Lock on Friday 13th in a small studio in Montreal with Coldplay on in the background, and I was terrified. After the “audition” (it was only me and one other girl doing a bit of repertoire) Edouard pulled me aside and said he thought I was strong, I was interesting, and he wanted to work with me.
It sticks out in my memory as one of the most surreal and incredible days of my life, and those few words from him completely changed the way I perceived myself as a dancer. Incidentally, the company closed down for financial reasons after the tour they were doing at the time, so I never got the chance to work with Edouard. But we remained friends, and do still have dinner occasionally (which is a strange sentence I never expected myself to say) and his confidence in me has dramatically shaped how I view myself and what I believe I’m capable of as a dancer both in and out of the studio.
The biggest thing I had to get over was having such a clear expectation of what it means to be a “dancer” and what it means to be “successful” in this career. I thought getting a full-time contract was the only way forward, so for years I only saw myself as failing: constantly auditioning, piecing things together until I got that contract and actually “started” my career. Then I slowly realized, “This is it, this is the career, and you need to start enjoying the things that are happening now.” I had to stop seeing every project as a stepping stone or resume builder, and start appreciating them as essential components of my dance and performance career.
I’ve been vegetarian for 13 years, so that informs a massive part of my diet. In the past year I’ve made some big changes to my eating habits, though, that I think have been really beneficial: my husband got really interested in keto and encouraged me to do some research on female athletes and low carb eating.
Now, I’m not at all trying to say I stick to a keto diet, because as it turns out I’m not really disciplined enough to do that! But, I have changed my eating to be relatively low carb (under 150g of carbs per day), low sugar, high fat, moderate protein. For example: for breakfast almost every day I eat 3 scrambled eggs with a pile of ricotta cheese, a small bowl of full fat greek yogurt with ground hemp, flax, and chia seeds and some honey, and a giant mug of English Breakfast tea.
Most people consider it a lot of food for the morning, but for me it’s essential. The fat keeps me full and energized and I don’t have a sugar slump during the morning. Around 2pm I usually have a lunch/snack box I make in the morning with carrot sticks, mixed nuts, and 2 types of cheese sliced up.
Then for dinner my husband and I cook some variety of vegetable-based low carb dinner. We’re still working on what we like and what makes sense, but we eat a lot of salads with beans and cheese and sundried tomatoes, we make low carb “fathead” pizza crusts and load them with toppings, we do stir fries with soy “chick’n”, broccoli and mushrooms.
We’re not perfect about it, and on weekends I do love making pancakes, waffles, and biscuits, full of carbs and sugar, but we try to keep ourselves on track during the week. So far I’ve found my consistent energy levels are better, I don’t feel sick or hungry, and I’m actually eating a bit less because fat fills you up and keeps you sated longer.
I’m a big believer in finding a diet that works for your specific body and routine, and so far, this has been a positive change for me.
To me, healthy dancing means listening to your body. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re hurting, rest. Dancers aren’t generally very good at this, and sometimes it can be necessary to push through fatigue or pain, but I don’t personally believe to be a dancer is to be in pain, or to suffer.
Dance as a profession is brutal both mentally and physically, and sometimes when I’m feeling so negative about myself or my work I try to take a step back and do something positive for my body, like take a day off, go to yoga, whatever. I don’t always do it, but I try to forgive my body and I’ve been working on doing things (like regular icing and taking hot baths) that give my body a chance to recover.
Currently I don’t do anything specific to cross train, besides the occasional yoga or pilates class, but my evenings and weekends job is relatively physical. My husband I both work at an axe-throwing event center in London where we teach people to throw axes (seriously). After an evening or a whole Saturday there I’m usually pretty tired, so between that and taking class almost every day, I value my rest time at home.
In 2015 I was living in Chicago and working out a lot: personal trainer, gym twice a day. At the time I really loved it. My trainer taught me how to use a ton of the equipment – mostly body weight and resistance apparatus, not the machines – as well as got me into interval sprinting for cardio.
I’d like to get back into it, though not as intensely as I was doing it then. I really enjoyed learning how to create an effective whole body workout that helped strengthen specific muscle groups that I needed for class and performances. And I really liked that my workouts were all focused on strength building, not weight loss.
For mental health I try to take rest days, I try to keep myself busy. Honestly, right now, having the axe throwing job is great because it’s something I enjoy and care about, and it has almost nothing to do with dance. It’s something different that I’m pretty good at, I get to talk to and meet tons of new people all the time and introduce them to something they’ve probably never tried before. It’s really good for me to have time where I’m not just a dancer.
I don’t know that I always succeed at keeping balance, but I try. Mostly I keep a pretty regular schedule, try to check in and make sure I’m not pushing too hard or not being lazy and letting myself off easy. My husband is really integral and does his best to keep me sane and rational : )
When I started the contract with NEBT I was working with them 8 hours a day during the week, and 4 hours on Saturday, plus I was working a 9 hour shift axe-throwing on Sundays. I did this for maybe 4 or 5 weeks, until I came into work one Monday morning, and I didn’t even make it to tendues before I had a little breakdown and had to leave class to lie down.
At that point I emailed my manager at the axe throwing job and explained I needed the time off until the contract was over. They were great and completely understood, so then I was able to have at least 1 day a week off to recover. It made all the difference, but it took a somewhat dramatic incident like that to realize how hard I’d been pushing and how much I needed to take a step back.
In my free time, I love binge-watching Netflix and American late night comedy/news shows. I’ve also gotten super into crossword puzzles recently and have been doing two or three per day. I also have a long list of important books I feel I should read, so right now I’m almost done with Crime and Punishment.
My goal in dance is to perform as long as possible, and to continue to find work as a dancer.
As I’ve thought about my life outside of or after dance, I’ve considered what I can do. I have a passion for choreographing, so being able to do that would be important. I’ve also considered possibly starting my own company. I believe I’ll stay involved in the dance world once I’m done performing, but I really want to do something that can have a positive impact on the dance community. There are many things I think could be better in the dance profession, and I have skills beyond performing that I’d like to utilize, along with my knowledge of the ballet world, to make a change.
There are many people whose advice and guidance I value, particularly my parents. In terms of a mentor in the profession, though, I’d say Derek Reid, one of my professors at Butler University. Derek believed in me in school and encouraged me to push for more, and he’s helped me through some difficult professional hurdles since graduation.
Every dancer, every person, needs to find the path that suits them. I’ve been held back by my own expectations of what I should be doing or how my career should look, and I think the best thing an aspiring dancer can do is open themselves to all possibilities.
In practical terms, as a freelancer I would say you need to be good at networking. You have to learn to make connections and keep your ear to the ground for opportunities. Within reason, go to every audition you can. Don’t limit yourself because you think a company won’t like you or you’re the wrong style. You never know what a director will like.
You’ll receive enough “no’s” in your career, you don’t need to be the one giving them to yourself. Generally, just be open to possibilities and try to enjoy each opportunity as it comes, instead of living in the mindset of “I’ll be successful when X happens.”
Some of the best advice I ever got, for dance or for life, is to accept that at each moment in our lives we can only make the best decision we can with the information we have before us. It helps me to live without much regret. Looking back on my career there are plenty of things that I think could have happened differently to get me possibly closer to where I want to be now. But I feel generally very confident about the fact that I made the best decisions I could along the way.
I try to hang onto the positives, the wins, the contract offers I’ve had, and try not to let rejection affect me too personally. It’s easier to say that than to actually do it, but you have to learn to accept that you won’t be what everyone wants, or even what most people want. Dance is subjective, and most directors make hiring choices more haphazardly than you’d like to believe.
When I get a contract offer or receive a compliment from someone, I try to hold onto those moments and refer back to them when I’m feeling like nothing I’m doing is working. As a dancer you really have to develop a confidence in your own expertise and your own ability to improve. For times when you lose that, try to surround yourself with people who will remind you of the really good times, and the fact that you’ve put in the work, and deserve to be where you are.
I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still dancing. Being a professional dancer is incredibly difficult both physically and emotionally, and the level of rejection most dancers experience is unparalleled in many other professions. There have been so many instances when it would have been easy to stop or change course, but I’ve adapted each step of the way, and I’m proud to still be doing what I want.
Part of that is because my husband and I made the decision to move to Europe. I felt that I had reached the end of what I wanted to do in Chicago, so Will and I decided that if I wanted to keep dancing and performing, we had to try something different. I’ve moved a lot with my family, but a move of this magnitude, as an adult, was so intimidating for me.
Will and I sold a lot of our things, our lovely families are storing a lot of our stuff, and we bought two tickets and flew to Germany in January 2016. I started taking open classes at a local studio in Düsseldorf and tried to network as much as possible. That spring we went to 7 countries in 7 weeks, auditioning in each one along the way.
It was an incredible year, but in all of that, I only got one contract offer: to perform Swan Lake with English National Ballet. It’s easy to look at it now and say it was a fun year with a happy ending, but the reality of my day-to-day was that I wasn’t getting job offers and I had no idea what would happen next. I’m most proud now that I stayed with it and allowed the unexpected to happen.
Dealing with near-constant rejection is the hardest thing about dancing professionally. It’s incredibly difficult to remember that not everyone will like you or your style of dance or how your body is built. It’s difficult to keep putting yourself out there in class and auditions when nothing is coming your way. My only frame of reference, really, is as a freelance dancer, and for me the hardest part is remembering you’re still a “dancer”, even in the off-time.
Performing is the best part. Being a soloist is wonderful and challenging, but there is nothing like the feeling of being in a great corps, part of a team. I had a few moments during Swan Lake at Royal Albert Hall where I almost couldn’t hold back the tears. Dancing in a venue like, only a few feet away from the audience, with a company and dancers of that caliber, was an experience I could have only dreamed of. It’s those rare perfect moments on stage and sometimes in class that make people fall in love with the profession. They make every other moment worth it.
As a freelance dancer, the other thing that dance allows me is an excuse to travel and see the world in a different way. Auditioning can be expensive, but traveling throughout Europe is surprisingly possible on a small budget, and it’s allowed me to meet and stay with people I never would have encountered otherwise.
At this point in my life, being a ‘whole dancer’ means being kind to my body, listening, and trying to find some semblance of acceptance of myself. It’s also trying to look forward to what I could do after my performing years have ended, and how else I can contribute to the dance world. In college I was told that my best dancing years would be over by 25, but I’m getting closer to 30, and in the past few years I’ve grown so much more as a performer and as an actual artist than I did in my first few years in the profession.
There are some things my body could do better when I was a little younger, but I’ve been surprised how much my technique has grown in the last year. Mentally I’ve changed significantly, my approach to the work has changed, and my approach to myself has improved. It’s still a process and something I’m learning to do, but I think forgiving, accepting, and celebrating yourself are key steps toward being “whole”.