The Cost of Following Your Dreams
I really want to order pizza tonight. I have the money, but if I look at my projected budget spreadsheet, my bank account balance will dip in about a month and a half after my next dance lesson payment. So I’ll hold off on the pizza.
Getting take-out doesn’t seem like a big expense, but every little bit counts. A splurge today could mean no dance lessons in a month.
At different stages in life, money takes on different meanings. When you’re a kid, you might think of money in terms of how many candies you can buy or that really cool toy you want. When you first start living on your own, money is defined in terms of this month’s rent, a tank of gas, or yes, even take-out. For the last several years, my money has been defined in terms of dance lessons and competition entry fees.
When I started taking ballroom dance lessons in December 2012, I thought I was going to have a blast learning dance steps and maybe make some new friends. I had no idea it would wake up a part of me that I had assumed had withered away from being buried under layers of fear and self-doubt. That part was still very much alive and just waiting for a chance to burst out and make herself known.
The more I danced, the more a passion fire grew inside me. Ballroom felt like home, where I could be my true self. To this day, I’m still chipping away at those layers of fear and doubt and learning more about that true self. My passion for ballroom has inspired me to pursue other passions, like finally finishing the design for a tree tattoo that I had been working on for 15 years. It went from being put on the back burner to covering my entire back! My passion for writing also exploded. After my tattoo was completed, I created the Girl with the Tree Tattoo blog and, in 2016, published the first two books in my Dance Diaries series.
Through it all, I danced. I found my niche in pro-am (professional-amateur) competition and blossomed even more. I’ve placed first and second in my events at the five competitions I’ve done with my teacher over the past two and a half years. It’s been incredibly satisfying to see my hard work in the studio turn into success on the competition floor. There’s only one thing that’s holding me back from going further: money.
Ballroom dancing as a student is expensive. Competing as a student is ridiculously expensive. You start off with private lessons that cost an average of $80-90 for 45 minutes. Then to enter a competition, you have to pay entry fees, which average $40 per dance. You also have to buy a ticket to the session in which you’re competing ($20-40 depending on the competition and if the session is during the day or evening). Then you have to pay your teacher’s fee for dancing with you at competition and their expenses. You’ll need to rent or buy a costume (dress rentals are usually $250-300), and if you’re a girl without beauty skills like me, you’ll need to have your hair and makeup done (around $150). If the competition is out of town, you also have to account for your and your teacher’s travel and lodging. Most people enter around 20-30 dances and some will even dance hundreds of entries in multiple dance styles at a competition. I enter 8-12 single dances plus one multi-dance round called a scholarship. Even with my minimal number of entries, one local competition can cost me over $1,500. That is on top of paying over $500 per month for private lessons.
I make a decent living with my full-time job as a report writer/editor, but it’s barely enough to cover living expenses AND my ballroom pursuits. I can afford to take private lessons once or twice a week. That’s at most an hour and a half per week with my teacher to learn and practice the four different dances of American smooth (waltz, tango, foxtrot and Viennese waltz), the style in which I compete. In the last few months, since I didn’t have any upcoming competitions, we also started working on the five different dances of American rhythm (cha cha, rumba, East coast swing, bolero and mambo). An hour and a half per week to learn nine different dances is not very much time at all, and so I supplement with a lot of practice time on my own.
My limited funds set me apart from most of my fellow dancers. After paying for private lessons, I usually don’t have enough to attend group classes or workshops, which are also great supplements to learning ballroom. It’s difficult when someone encourages me to come to a class with them by saying “come on, it’ll be fun, it’s only $20.” Only isn’t a word I apply to any of my ballroom expenses. I have struggled with feelings of insignificance or exclusion because of my financial status compared to other students.
Luckily, the other dancers I’ve met and with whom I’ve become friends have never validated these feelings. The ballroom community that I’m a part of is full of support and encouragement. In the end, it is our love of dancing that unites us; it doesn’t matter how much green is in our wallets.
That green, or lack thereof, does put me on a different path for reaching my ballroom dreams, however. Like with the pizza, I evaluate every expense carefully and track everything to ensure I can still pay for my dancing. When it comes to competitions, I have to start saving and planning months in advance. Every competition has been funded in slightly different ways, as I get creative when it comes to producing extra income. I cut other expenses to the bone, I clean out my closet and sell whatever I can to bring in extra cash. I’m always on the lookout for freelance work. I also get extra dancing in by volunteering to work at dance events or parties.
Persistence has been key to my success thus far in following my ballroom dreams. That and avoiding comparison as much as possible. It’s important to remember that even if you’re pursuing a similar dream as someone else, you two will not be on the same path to get there. Sometimes I get caught in the comparison trap and despair over not being able to take as many lessons or enter as many competitions as other students and therefore, never being able to get as good as those other students. But then I remember my success in the few events I have competed in and compare myself now to when I first started. I can’t give up now. I’ve achieved so much with so little already, imagine if I kept going!