The Beauty of Self Exploration

Hi everyone! It is a beautiful Wednesday afternoon as I write from the comfort of my desk, the sounds of a distant airplane and my brother’s tempestuous interpretation of Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz intermingling in a discordant symphony.

Regretfully, I woke up this morning feeling slightly under the weather. As the day progressed, my illness worsened. These past few days have pushed me, from gymnastics coaching, dance training, my writing internship to commuting all over the Bay Area via Caltrain and Uber. I love the feeling of working hard and staying busy, so I hope to recover from this bug as quickly as possible.

This morning, I had the greatest pleasure of eating breakfast at the Café Borrone with an amazing friend, mentor and fellow dancer, Liz.

A Stanford University alumnus and graduate from Harvard Law School, Liz perfectly embodies society’s ideal of “success”– a mould that so many young people today wish to fit in. But Liz is so much more than her career success as a trial lawyer. She is a wife, a mother of two, a musician, dancer, performer and life-long learner. As much an artist as a professional, Liz is a multi-talented being graced with a brilliant mind and, most importantly, the kindest heart. She has helped me tremendously through my first year of college, providing me with guidance, direction and whole-hearted support as I embark on this beautiful journey of self-exploration.

We discussed many topics over breakfast, including dance, career paths, boys, mental health and writing. My conversation with her was one of complete clarity and utmost honesty. Without fear of judgement, I relayed to her my current state of mind regarding my decision to dance.

In this post, I want to share with you guys the same conclusion I’ve shared with Liz this morning. So, here it goes.

Dancing is not where my heart lies.

I know. Let it sink in for a moment.

This may come as a shock to those who’ve been following my journey closely. Not long ago, I made the decision to take a break from UCLA to explore dancing further, as I suspected it was in this art where my heart wanted to be. Now, here I am, not even a week into summer vacation, declaring that dancing, in fact, is not my calling.

Before I go on, I need to say this. I realize that, in choosing transparency, I make myself vulnerable to the scrutiny and judgement of the outside world. Of course, the way those outside ourselves perceive us is a mere shadow of our true stories, which can only be crafted from within.

So, you are absolutely allowed to think what you will of my latest life decision. Of the few friends I’ve disclosed this to, some have expressed support, others confusion, and still others disapproval at my seemingly cowardly decision to “give up” on dance so soon. I know how this may look from an outsider’s perspective. For so long, I’ve been rambling on about how dance is my calling, and finally, at the end of my freshman year at UCLA, I gathered the strength and courage to make the bold decision to put my education on hold to chase my dreams. I’ve received countless messages of support, admiration and respect from friends, classmates and mentors regarding my decision to be a trailblazer, a renegade, a maverick. I’ve very publicly said goodbye to UCLA, a school I love with all my heart. And now, here I am, telling you guys that, in reality, I don’t believe a professional dance career will give me maximum life fulfillment. I will be back at UCLA this coming fall to continue onward on my journey of exploration.

I aim not to convince you why I’ve come to the conclusion I have, nor do I seek anyone’s approval in any way. Throughout this whole journey of finding myself, I’ve learned the important life lesson that you don’t owe anyone an explanation of what you do or why you do it. You don’t need others’ approval to justify your actions. You do what you must to stay true to yourself.

But, my dear readers, so many of you have supported me greatly through my angst, questioning and uncertainty during this scary, adventurous and thrilling life chapter, and for that, I am beyond grateful. I’ve already shared so much of myself with you guys, and I’d think it an injustice to withhold my  thought processes that have guided me to my latest development. I hope that, in my story, you will find courage to follow your own hearts and never, ever settle, until you’ve found that special something that gives you a reason to wake up each morning. Also note that there is no shame in exploring and choosing to turn around once you hit a dead end, rather than trudging along a path that, in your heart, you know is not right for you.

So, without further ado, here is the ending of one chapter, and the beginning of another.

When I first made the decision to leave UCLA during the beginning of spring quarter to focus on dancing, I was ecstatic. I had declined my housing offer for the 2017-2018 academic year, and in my mind, I was on track to pursue professional dancing. Whether my parents were completely on board or not did not matter to me. I was going to be a dancer, and nothing was going to stop me. I distinctly remember walking to my dorm room one evening and suddenly being overwhelmed with emotion– happiness and excitement at the start of a new journey, sadness and regret at the necessary sacrifices I’d have to make for my dream. In that moment, though, I felt that I had made the right choice in picking dance. Something clicked in me. When I was no longer fighting this great divide between passion and career, art and reality; when I finally asked myself, “Well why can’t my passion also be my career?”; when, for the first time in my life, I decided to put everything into dance, I felt… relief. Peace. Excitement. Anything was better than the limbo state I’d been in for the past year. I was finally carving a path for myself, completely different from the one I’d been raised on. It was a lot to take in, indeed. It was thrilling.

As the weeks of spring quarter went on, I continued to experience a roller-coaster of emotions. There were good days and bad days. Sometimes, I’d be running laps at Drake Stadium, when all of the sudden, I’d find myself gasping in tears, unable to hold it together. How could I leave UCLA and all the amazing people I’ve met here, when my journey had only just begun? Bathrooms became somewhat of an emotional purging station for me. My heart ached for the school I loved. For the first time in my life, I had made true friendships. Why was it that, just as I was starting to feel belongingness, I had to leave? Of course, I didn’t HAVE to do anything— the decision to dance was completely my own, which almost made whole thing so much harder… I didn’t want to leave UCLA, but I also didn’t want to live with the regret of not giving myself the maximum chance at success in dance, which (I thought) necessarily entailed moving back to the Bay Area to continue with my teachers. The anthem of my waking moments were the lyrics, “Inside my heart is breaking, my make-up may be flaking, but my smile still stays on…” (The Show Must Go On, by Queen). I haven’t a clue why that song in particular came to mind. But every time I’d feel regret or nostalgia or sadness with my big decision, those three lines would start blaring in my head like a broken record.

I doubted my decision many times, even before I started living the “dancer’s life”. I thought to myself, “Dance better be freaking worth it, for everything I’m about to leave behind. I don’t have any option but success. If I’m going to leave UCLA and throw away the countless opportunities presented to me at this institution, then I’d better become something in the dance world. I have to give my sacrifice meaning. There’s no other choice but to succeed.” The anthem of my life became Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”: “Success is my only motherf***in’ option, failure’s not.”

And that, my friends, is the moment when dance ceased to become a passion and creative outlet, morphing into this big ugly ball of stress, pressure and work. What began as something pure and good became tainted with the desire for external validation, for titles, for glory. How else would I be able to survive, living as a dancer? The income’s gotta come from somewhere. If I win, my name will carry more clout, and I’ll attract more students for dance lessons. So the goal is simple: win. The path to becoming a champion— not so easy.

When dance became less about a means of expression, and everything to do with achieving, it lost its special magic that drew me to it in the first place, two-and-a-half years ago. Practices became work. I struggled a lot with negativity and frustration. Where did the enjoyment of dance go?

That was the first red flag– losing my love of dance once, in my mind, I declared it my destiny. Initially, I was very confused. I had always thought that, if I could dance every second of the day, I’d be happy. That’s the way it was with gymnastics. All throughout middle school and high school, I begged my parents to let me do online schooling so I could focus solely on my training. When that dream was about to become a reality, this time with dancing, I should have felt more excited, right?

The thing is, though, I am not the same person I was five years ago, when I was still a competitive gymnast with great aspirations. I’ve developed an identity apart from that of gymnastics. College was time for me to explore myself further. It was freedom. The first two quarters were pretty miserable, as I didn’t enjoy my pre-med courses. But I had to go through that, in order to confirm my suspicions that a career in medicine was not for me. Spring quarter was time to explore completely different avenues that piqued my interest. At the start of the quarter, I was enrolled in two theater classes, a philosophy class, a class on HIV, a freshman seminar on Donald Trump and another one on the neuroscience of movement. I was in exploration mode and boy, was I excited.

A series of events that culminated during the first couple weeks of spring quarter led me to reconsider the dance path. When I chose dancing as my main focus, I ended up dropping several of my classes so I’d have more time for dance training. Now, with so much free time to dance, I should have been happy as a clam, as this was what I’d always wanted, right?

Wrong. As aforementioned, I experienced a lot of sadness. In fact, I relapsed into depression and went to the ER for a few hours for immediate psychiatric evaluation/treatment. Dance practices became an ordeal. My relationship with my parents quickly deteriorated. Every phone conversation I had with them ended in a fight. They obviously wanted me to stay in school and continue on the fast track towards graduation and, ultimately, financial independence. Still, despite how miserable I felt with my decision to dance, I chose to believe that this suffering was a necessary step on the path to a greater calling.

Towards the end of the quarter, I’m not sure what kept me in the dance illusion. At that point, thanks to my glorious proclamation on social media, nearly everyone I knew believed I was leaving school to pursue dance (which was not entirely true— the plan was to take a gap quarter to explore dance further, and if I decided that dance was my calling, I’d leave UCLA completely). It was no longer just an internal battle. In being so public about my journey, other people were brought in to my narrative. I felt a sense of obligation to epitomize the trailblazer that everyone saw me as. Each time someone would come up to me, expressing their respect for me and my decision, I’d smile politely, appreciative of their support… but inside, I’d wince a little. If only you all knew what I was thinking. I still questioned dance, even though I said I had made the decision to pursue it fully. I began to confuse what I really wanted with what others wanted for me.

Towards the end of the quarter, I felt as though I were living a lie. A lie that had begun as a self-perceived truth, but was in fact a stepping stone on my path of self-exploration. In the beginning, I truly believed dance was where my heart was. Upon exploring further and peeling back the layers of illusion, getting to better understand the industry and its difficult politics-infected reality, I realized that dance wasn’t a battle I wanted to fight.

Looking into my past, I realized that, perhaps, my desire to dance was a mere extension of my unfulfilled Olympic dream in gymnastics. The injury took me out of the sport prematurely, and in dancing, I saw another route to achieve the “glory” I had yearned for, but couldn’t find, as a gymnast. But if that was the only reason I was dancing— to fill a void— then it is not worth the sacrifice. The analogy I like to make is that of a bad breakup. Losing gymnastics was like getting dumped by a guy I loved. It hurt a lot, and I was wrought with worry to find something to fill the void. I’m so grateful for finding Latin dance on Valentine’s Day of 2015, for the art has given me many special gifts, including another mode and language of expression. But the thing is, dance was kind of a rebound for gymnastics. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I ever truly loved dance for dancing’s sake, or if I liked it because a) it was an extension of my unfulfilled gymnastics fantasy, or b) I felt confident in my ability to dance.

Let’s hone in on point b for a second. I think we often confuse what we are good at with what we’re passionate about, for oftentimes the two are one in the same. I mistook dance for my passion because it felt familiar. My first 15 years were spent in the gymnastics world. I’ve always been very confident in my physical ability as an athlete, but less so in the intellectual realm of academia. Perhaps, when I realized pre-med wasn’t what I wanted to do at this time in my life, I was so scared of the ensuing uncertainty. What could I do, if not medicine? Not knowing the answer to the question, I defaulted to the next-most familiar avenue— dance– without thinking if this was what I really wanted.

Of course, the gut feelings I felt at the time of making the decision to dance were real. There was indeed something about dance that kept drawing me in. For whatever reason, I couldn’t let go of the dancing dream… but were my motives pure? If I wanted to dance for any reason other than love for the art, then dancing professionally would not be a good idea. Did I truly love dance? I had to live the reality to find answers.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the dancing was not my calling. Even before my final day at UCLA, I had a feeling that to dance as a career would take away the joy of the art. In fact, it had already done so.

And so, I continue my search. I thought I wanted to dance as a career, hit a wall, turned around, and am now carving a path anew. I’m very excited to come back to UCLA this fall. The short time I thought I’d leave UCLA made me appreciate my school and its people all the more profoundly. My parents are understandably relieved at my change of heart. The thing is, I’m the kind of  person who won’t accept things as truth until I uncover it myself. My mom could’ve preached at me all she wanted until she was blue in the face, but she couldn’t have swayed me away from dance. I needed to come to the decision by myself. I needed to be enlightened on my own terms, and nobody else’s.

I don’t believe I’ve failed. Not in the least. Some may call me whimsical, flaky, or afraid of commitment. Others may see me as one who preaches one thing, but lives a different reality. Believe what you will. I know that to follow your heart is no easy task, especially when you’ve lived most your life a people-pleaser, devoid of confidence in your ability to choose for yourself. This past year alone, I’ve flip-flopped on the dance decision God knows how many times– just ask any of my closest friends/family, and they’ll tell you. I look back on it all, and realize that what I’ve experienced is completely normal and healthy. Sleepless nights and all, I truly believe my experience with uncertainty, this early in life, was a blessing in disguise. When one is blessed with having so many different options, the choices can easily feel overwhelming. Is it chocolate cake or ice cream? Medicine or dance? Or something else altogether? This is the uncertainty that, for so long, I was afraid to embrace. Now, I realize that uncertainty is all part of the human condition. Why torment yourself over something you can’t control? Embrace it! Live it! Love it!

Dance will forever remain an integral part of my identity. I can confidently say that I will not regret my decision to turn by back from professional dancing, for it was a conclusion I reached on my own, after much-needed exploration, thought and soul-searching. I love dance, and I love UCLA. I can continue dancing in LA for nothing/no one but myself, whilst getting a degree at the perfect-fit university and expanding my mind along different dimensions. I am excited to see what the future holds. While I have yet to decide on what I wish to major in, I am thinking of something along the lines of doubling majoring in English and psychology.

The anthem of my heart is now a famous line from  Hamilton: the Musical: “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now!”

Indeed, I am so lucky. So lucky that I can keep dancing, so happy I’m doing it with pure intentions, and eternally grateful that I can do it at a place I love.

 

 

 

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