In the arts industry, proving yourself is the name of the game. Skills and techniques need to stay in top form; networking is perpetual, and a high tolerance for grind and hustle is the key to staying afloat. I’ll admit, I do attribute much of my personal success to being good at that push, and I’m proud of the life I’ve created for myself. 

But while working as a professional dancer in New York City is certainly exciting, it’s also exhausting. Somehow it seems as if there’s always more to do with not enough time to do it. Now, as I get older and my energy output becomes more precious to me, I’m reflecting on my career thus far and one thing is glaringly absent: days off. 

The COVID-19 pandemic hit last March and my entire industry completely shut down. As a result, I was suddenly afforded the perfect opportunity to do nothing. The excuse to finally relax handed to me on a silver platter. Shows stopped running and all auditions were canceled. I was shipped home from the national tour I was on and suddenly found myself sitting outside on the deck of my parents’ house in northern New Jersey, staring absentmindedly into the woods.

Sure, I initially baked bread and played Monopoly like everyone else, and I was able to catch up on some much-needed sleep. But filling my time with mundane activities wore off quickly. The panic over not feeling productive snuck back in after only a few weeks. It’s now been over a year since the pandemic began to take effect. The art world is still on hiatus, my touring job remains on hold, and I am (luckily) comfortably collecting unemployment. But somehow, for some reason, I have made myself busier and more exhausted than ever.

I am currently in graduate school full-time, working as a nanny, teaching, and serving as a creative collaborator for at least three projects simultaneously. In addition, I’m filling every other minute with photoshoots, films, studio rentals, and emails. When I’m home, and not tackling the heavy load of schoolwork, I have cleaned out my closets and repainted my apartment. Then I ultimately decided to move to a new apartment entirely, which is not a stress-free feat in NYC. 

I complain that I am tired, but the exhaustion is all of my own doing. Busyness is an addiction I just can’t quit. I get shifty and anxious when the schedule isn’t full. In my head, an empty white square on my calendar stares back at me like a schoolyard bully with its tongue out, mocking me for carelessly forgetting to fill that open time. To me, laziness hides under the guise of relaxation.

Though, I’m aware this is a fractured mentality. On one hand, busyness is often equated with productivity, and this can certainly be true. Keeping myself in motion has undeniably helped me reach the desired level in my career. On the other hand, however, I know hyper-productivity serves other hidden purposes, most of which are actually counterproductive to a well-rounded life. 

I wasn’t surprised to learn that I am not alone in this conundrum. I crowdsourced my artist friends on social media and asked if anyone else has this same tendency. And if so, what do they think it means? 

One person said, “Staying busy is a band-aid over a warped sense of self-worth where I need to be seen as valuable in some way.” Another added, “Our constant busyness gives us a sense of being enough. We are fulfilled by showing ourselves and others that we are important.” Others referenced how they relate feeling tired to being accomplished, or how afraid they are of losing progress and falling behind the curve. One friend even labeled it as “a defense mechanism for avoiding much-needed conversations with myself. A form of escapism for sure.”

All of these people are highly successful. But is this why? Does our success come on the back of a falsified notion that slowing down is a negative thing? According to recent data collected by the National Endowment for the Arts, the unemployment rate of dancers and actors rose to 53% in 2020, and other sources place that number even higher, up to 70%. Also, even while working, actors and dancers are typically the lowest paid artists of all, with an average yearly income of just $31,000 and $38,000, respectively. 

Understandably, it seems necessary to keep hustling just to have a shot at paying the bills. But losing our grasp on our self-worth in the process is increasingly feeling like the larger expense. 

Busyness allows us to stave off truths and hide from their weight. Underneath we are drowning; above the water, our stroke is as strong as ever. Bill Harrison, a Chicago-based psychotherapist who focuses his work on helping artists, explained this response to me in terms of the familiar fight-or-flight mechanism. 

“When danger is perceived, some people are aggressive, they’ll stay and fight. Some people are not quite as courageous or are more fearful, so they will run. And then there’s another group of people who become paralyzed and can’t really do anything,” he says. “You are the fight person. You’re going to hang in there and do everything possible, throw everything you can at Goliath to keep that anxiety at bay. That’s pretty adaptive unless you get too worn out. Then exhaustion can follow.”

He’s right, I am the fighter, and exhaustion definitely does follow. But a decade of fighting for what I knew I deserved as an artist has ingrained a tenacious response in me until the end of time. Sure, it’s valuable in the audition room, but is it helpful or harmful on a personal level? Do the flighters and freezers have it more figured out? Are they less tired? 

Gem Moran, a counselor and mindfulness guide from Manhattan’s Creativity Mental Health Counseling, feels it all stems from an artist’s unique relationship to time. Unlike someone working in a standard corporate environment, our lives are unregulated.

“Artists are actively creating their own space in this world. So their relationship with time can be strenuous and laden with pressure, especially when that world is so ridden with competition and uncertainty. They’re structuring time themselves, they’re independent,” she says. “That constant need to stay busy is a relationship to the fear of time being out of your control or running out. It’s a mental habit, regardless of what the external factors are.”

She also explained why on the outside, the era of COVID presented itself as a wished-for gift of rest. However, the pandemic just multiplied people’s fears tenfold. Moran further explains how “we’re all operating without the same resources we used to cope [with] before this. We’re isolated from our communities, from those who fan our flames, from being excited and motivated and inspired by others. We’re in physical isolation with extra stressors and [fewer] opportunities to blow off steam. It sets us up for failure, or sets us up for the fear of failure and forges running ourselves to the bone.”

This constant busyness also serves another deadly, even more, frustrating purpose — it provides a false sense of relevancy and recognition. If I’m always “working,” I must be in demand. I must be worthy. 

Even if I’m burned out, if I can squeeze in time to create another video, share it on Instagram, and get 12,000 likes, for a fleeting moment it doesn’t matter that the entire dance and theater industry is shut down because I’m still making moves. Therefore, I am still producing and unaffected, and unstoppable. Maybe just the right person will see it and offer me a great new job when things are normal again. My hard work and exhaustion will seem admirable.

But after the moment passes, I can’t help thinking those two hours might have been better used for rest. Or journaling. Or a lazy morning of pillow talk with my partner. Wesley J. Barnes, a fellow musical theater performer, admits to the same practice. “If we stay in our lane and just keep going, the hope is that the momentum from that continues,” he says. “It’s the mentality of ‘work begets work,’ and it’s a form of validation, I suppose.”

So how do I, and we — my fellow buzzing, ticking, tired, artistic comrades — move forward in a healthier way? How do we allow space and time to settle and connect with our deeper selves? The mantra I quietly say after yoga every morning is, “The chains of anxiety are imaginary… plenty of space, plenty of time.” I even have a tattoo of the inner black and white dots of a yin yang symbol to remind me to maintain balance. Though those are solid temporary reminders, they clearly don’t go far enough.

Harrison reminded me that “as a performing artist, you are the thing. It’s not a painting. It’s not a sculpture. It’s not a film. You are the product and the creator all in one.” It’s a heavy burden to bear. I do feel solely responsible for my life staying on track, even when the track has been destroyed due to forces outside my control.

Other typical acts of restoration seem pleasant — more massages, meditation, hot baths — but are also not substantial enough. Sometimes those just manifest as other tasks to add to the already tightly packed schedule.

Although it seems harsh at first, Moran recommends abandoning the hope this anxiety will just go away. “It won’t go away. That is your life endowment, this is the conflict you thrive on. Just bring that with you and learn to relate to it with greater self-compassion. Personalize your center of power. Externalize the stress and learn to work with that energy,” she says.

That is the real self-care, and “it should also be considered work.” Ultimately, Moran suggests proper work balance and discipline should be on your agenda and treated with the importance it deserves.

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  • Sarah Parker

    Sarah Parker is a freelance arts and culture writer and an NYC-based dancer and choreographer. She has had an extensive career performing in dance companies, national tours, tv/film, and on Broadway. Sarah is a current candidate for a Master’s in Journalism from NYU.