Dancing Around Identity
Uncoordinated bumbler that I am, I hold professional dancers in high regard. The poise and grace of stars like Sergei Polunin, Cyd Charisse, and Mikhail Baryshnikov spellbind me. As if their physical prowess weren’t enough, the focused mentality behind their work is equally impressive. For four years I lived across the street from a performing arts school and struck up friendships with ballet students who always had either an ice pack or elastic bandage in hand. Their talent comes at a premium – often in the form of broken toes and repeat hairline fractures. But for many, the greater cost is identity. It would seem the more dedicated the dancer, the more lost the person. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (2016), a documentary shadowing America’s long-time principle ballet darling’s struggle with the prospect of retirement, offers an intimate perspective on what it looks like for a person’s sense of identity to be shaken.
The film picks up with Whelan preparing for a hip surgery that could bring her record-breaking thirty-year career to an end. She knows that even if the surgery is successful, her time in the company is limited. Change of such magnitude – be it career, relocation, expecting a baby, etc. – is daunting for anybody. What struck me, though, as I watched the periodic moments throughout the film when Whelan sits one-on-one with the camera, was how frightened she becomes at the mere mention of not working as a fulltime ballerina anymore.
Whelan’s identity, at least as it is portrayed in Restless Creature, is dependent upon her ability to dance. When injury inhibits that, her whole world rattles to pieces. She doesn’t know who she is or what a functional life looks like without that one thing into which she’s invested everything. Watching her break down again and again, I feel a cocktail of frustration, sympathy, and self-righteousness. I’ve never experienced that groundlessness, never so vulnerable to forces that could strip my entire sense of self away. It’s wretched watching someone crumble under that weight. At the same time I’m frustrated for Whelan and others like her because Jesus’ stability and grace are no secret. Whelan’s faith is never discussed in the film, but based on her comments I see no trace of belief or interest in a higher power apart from how dancing makes her feel. A sense of self-righteousness rears its ugly head, then, as I think If you’d only stop looking to your broken body and to the evidence of Jesus’ body broken for you, you wouldn’t be in such anguish!
Then I hit pause and consider my own identity hang-ups. No, I’ve not questioned my self to the extent Whelan does in the film, but I’ve not given my self over to Jesus perfectly either. Instead, I’ve invested time and energy dancing around roles that provided a sense of validation for a season. My eyes have shifted more than a time or two from God to my own abilities and resources as I questioned the nature of our relationship in my changing circumstances.
But without Jesus a heart will never feel complete or validated enough.
When college ended, I questioned who I was now that I wasn’t a student for the first time in my life. When my role as youth minister concluded, I doubted my place in the church. Thankfully, I knew what scripture said about my identity before confronting those qualms, but they were still difficult times of transition. It’s tragic imagining how fearful and afloat those who haven’t found stability in Christ feel in similar moments of upheaval. We just want to feel secure in our value no matter what frightening possibility looms ahead, don’t we?
We want to connect, be accepted, to belong. Sadly, we tend to court people’s approval through performance rather than resting in the fact God already loves us perfectly as we are – warts, addictions, diagnoses, and all. When we chase labels for ourselves until we don’t know who we are any more, God waits to remind us who he created us to be, which is always the best possible version of ourselves we could become.
What about the in-between time, though, if we don’t have to soft-shoe our ways around others’ expectations and perceptions of us? Who, then, does God see when he looks at me right now? Who does he say you are in this very moment? If we place ourselves in God’s hands, we realize we are extensions of his divine power (John 15:1-5), redeemed (Romans 3:24), freed from sin (Romans 6:6), temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), God’s chosen representatives (Ephesians 1:4), the rejoiced over (Zephaniah 3:17), the wholly and perfectly loved (Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:4-5). This true identity costs us nothing; Jesus already paid the full price to make us new. No injury, career transition, or life change can alter that. Because Jesus’ identity as our Savior is secure, there is nothing to shake us with fears of insecurity about our own. Even if I can’t be a great dancer, I can content myself with the person God is shaping me to be.