I came to dance comparatively late for one who wants to pursue the art form as a career. As a child, I was always artistic. I doodled and drew pictures of characters from my Dr. Seuss books (even winning first-grade art contests) and loved to draw willowy women in long, linear poses. In the third grade I danced in a May Day festival as Ray, a drop of golden sun, and learned square dancing in elementary school (I’m from Vinton, Virginia, and in those days, dance was still a part of physical education curriculum), but never had any formal training or even thought about it as a child.
My parents knew that I was drawn to the arts. I would make up plays for my marionettes and then have epic showcases for them with lots of dramatic movement —more than actual storyline. My parents would patiently watch and applaud, but they were proud that their shy son could be so expressive using these wonderful moving dolls they had bought for him at FAO Schwartz. In fact, both my parents encouraged me to do more: put on puppet shows, draw, and play the piano. My mother, the pragmatist, thought it was good way to get me out of my shell and become more engaged socially at school. My father, the dreamer, loved my imagination and praised my “talent.” I came by my love of art naturally, as both my parents were artistic their own ways. My mother sang, but had become a registered nurse; and my father was a very good sketch artist, but had become a dentist. His father, a strict patriarch, required that all his children go into the medical profession. My father was enamored of the arts, especially the performing arts, and would usher for free at the theaters in Richmond, Virginia, so he could see all the shows from Frank Sinatra to the last incarnation of the Ballet Russe. My father was an incredible dancer on the social scene, winning jitterbug contests in the hottest nightclubs in Washington, D.C., where he had his first dental practice.
So as a child I was exposed many evenings of Mother practicing for her solo for the church choir or Mother and Dad practicing their dancing for the upcoming cotillion (a southern tradition of monthly dinner dances).
But it wasn’t until the girl next door suggested we learn some of those dances in her garage from her mother, a former ballroom dance teacher, that I found my personal passion for dance. Then there was no stopping me. When I was 16, I enrolled in a local dance school for jazz classes and under protest took ballet as required of all boys who took classes at the school. My teacher, a former professional ballet dancer, encouraged me, and I decided that dance was what I wanted to pursue as my career. My father was delighted, my mother nervous. How was I going to make a living? Couldn’t I go to college and minor in dance? They were both very supportive, never denying me the chance to pursue my passion; they just had different approaches to encourage me. So I went to college for a year, enrolled in the dance classes in the theater department, while declaring graphic art as my major. But as fate would have it, the college dance teacher, who had been with the Royal Ballet in London, gave me my first paying dance gig when I was 19; and I was off. Mother was apprehensive but willing, and Dad was ecstatic. I was doing what he had secretly always wanted to try—being a working artist.
I transferred to a performing arts school, stayed for two semesters, and left for New York City, a move very hard on my Mom, but still she supported me. I have been so lucky—luck made from determination, dedication and passion—to have made my career in the performing arts, and I could not have done it without the loving support of my parents. Now, as a director of a dance company and school, I see this scenario played out in so many ways among the students and young professionals with whom I work.
Some people still don’t see a life in the arts as a viable career. But what artists do is essential to our culture—it’s what makes us have a culture. The arts define who we are as people, as a community, as a culture. The arts reflect our humanity and give form to the imagination and creativity that make our lives vital and progressive.
So this is what I tell parents who might be like my mother, a bit nervous for their children who have a passion for and desire to work in the arts. These children are fulfilling a dream and bringing a needed service to the world. Beauty, grace, and self-expression through the arts provide us with the ability to see that we can achieve our goals, whatever they may be. What greater gift to give children than to allow them to go after their dream. It won’t be easy; but no path is smooth, and the rewards can be great. So the parents are there to encourage and listen and believe.
My parents were so proud of me from my first drawing of the Cat in the Hat, my first job dancing in an outdoor drama in Arkansas, my first principal role in a Balanchine Ballet, my touring the world with Joffrey II, my becoming the Associate Artistic Director of the Minnesota Ballet. My father didn’t live to see me take over the company, but my mother was so supportive when I became Artistic Director, still giving me the love and pride and assurance that I could do anything. I believe that’s one of the greatest reasons to have children: to love and believe in them and their abilities.
We need working artists now more than ever, and I applaud all parents who give their children support to go after a life that brings beauty to this world.Robert Gardner is the artistic director of the Minnesota Ballet.