I routinely wake up from an iteration of the same dream. I’m in a large room or theater, surrounded by people I know from New York, all dancers in a downtown company I pursued for several years in my early 20’s. In the dream, I am one of them. The movements we fight through and release into together are a dream-version of a choreographed phrase my muscles still remember; I can feel them emerging from deep physical layers, bubbling up from my subconscious. There’s a gilded edge to this dream, a sweet, satisfying taste, which, upon waking, turns into a muddled mixture of shame and regret. It’s the feeling of having been chosen — and then, suddenly, remembering that I wasn’t.
I’ve auditioned three times for that company over a period of almost ten years. Each time I was eventually cut. But one rejection was particularly devastating. I’d prepared in nearly every way. I’d been taking company classes at their studio daily, interning there every afternoon, going to job after job after job to afford New York — babysitting in the early mornings, checking in moms at an Upper West Side yoga studio, and hostessing at night. I was cross-training hard and eating nothing refined. I lost ten pounds. I purchased an expensive audition unitard. (Seriously.) People at the company told me they thought I’d be a good fit. They said persist and it will happen. And I thought if I believed enough, it would.
In the end, the decision was all up to one guy. And he just didn’t choose me.
The process of realigning what I thought was supposed to happen with what actually did (or didn’t) was a tough one. Now, having crested into the sage existence of my 30’s, things make more sense.
I disliked my extremely difficult, impoverished life and was constantly waiting for the next audition to change everything — I was fantasizing, a practice the lifestyle and my field frankly encouraged. Because of my pride, I put nearly all of my focus and confidence onto a single, prominent company, rather than following the smaller companies that ultimately could have led me there. I’d gotten a little recognition from them, but never a contract. Instead of blindly believing it was fate, I should have learned how to quiet my nerves during the audition, focus on the choreography, and remain open to all possibilities.
I’ve realized since then that rejection is a constant in every artist’s life. It came up again and again as I interviewed artists in a variety of disciplines for this article. Hannah Jenkinson, a designer with her own knitwear line, told me, “My respect for anyone who decides to make a living building something on their own terms grows as I attempt to do it myself. It comes with so much rejection I almost don’t notice it anymore!”
It’s true. As rejection repeats itself, it gets lighter and easier. Patrick Fraser is a commercial and editorial photographer who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. “The more rejection you get, the more you develop a thick skin as a defense mechanism,” he said. Muriel Louveau, a French singer and composer, echoed this self-preserving sentiment: “To protect myself against the aftermath of rejections, I switch to another mindset, slow down, and economize my energy to recharge my batteries.” Learning how to manage energy is one guideline for getting back up.
Another is trusting in time, which, from my point of view, dancers don’t feel they have a lot of. I wondered how artists could take lightly that thing that meant so much to them, especially considering where I’d obsessively gone wrong.
Jenkinson shared, “It definitely gets easier with time. The more rejection you receive, the less it feels like a big deal, and it becomes way easier to just get on with it.”
And, unexpectedly, a silver lining: “I think rejection can be a great tool for growth and development — you can respond to it and improve with it. But be careful about what you decide to listen to. Rejection can shape and influence, but you need to keep true to yourself, too.”
Often, not getting the job isn’t actually about you at all. Choreographer, Kelley Donovan described her grant-writing process as taking a full work week, but warned, “If no one on the panel knows your work already, you don’t stand much of a chance.” She also conveyed a need for specific feedback from decision-makers — general feedback doesn’t help you move on productively. Fraser finds it helpful to consider the many other candidates who aren’t hired for any given opportunity. He sees missing out as “part of the process, and many times it is political.”
I am struck how much chance is a factor in where we end up. Why even have a dream job? Especially considering that, once you get it, it’s often not what you expected it would be.
Recently, I was listening to an episode of This American Life when Ira Glass seemed to whisper directly in my ear: “This is the thing about doing dance as a job — or any kind of performing: music, comedy, or acting — it’s like, once you turn it into a job, it means that every night you have to get onstage and take something that means so much to you, that means the world to you, and you have to repeat it until it does not mean anything at all.”
I’m not sure why my dream recurs. Maybe it’s the unfinished business of accountability: I said I would do this one thing, and I didn’t. Perhaps, as I get older, it’s the lingering question: Could I still do it? And deeper still: Do I want to? Maybe my brain is doing me a favor, repeating it until, in Glass’ words, it does not mean anything at all. I recognize the irony that in retaliation to rejection — or because I was sick of hearing no, or because I needed to continue my artistic practice regardless of others or circumstances — I set out to pursue my work on my own terms. This, in return, has rained upon me the avalanche of rejections everyone here has withstood.
And like them, I’m still standing.
Lara Wilson Townsend is a writer, brand designer, producer, and movement artist who, along with her husband and puppy, attempts to cram her various interests and occupations into an ongoing project called Compound Yucca Valley (@compoundyv), an art space in the high desert.