How to Follow Your Dreams and Study Something You Love
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Meet the Interviewee: Angela Xu
Angela Xu is going into her third year in a competitive dance program at York University. She spent her childhood and teenage years navigating between Shanghai, China and Toronto, Canada, living in Shanghai for six years and then coming back to Toronto in Grade 11. While pursuing her passion for dance, Angela experienced some pressure from her parents to take a different post-secondary path. But she dove into her preferred field anyway. I had the opportunity to interview Angela about how she came to this decision.
What program are you attending?
“I’m currently in the BFA Dance – Performance/Choreography stream at York University.”
What sparked your interest in dance?
“Dance has always held a special place in my heart. It is beauty and grace and most of all, healing. For as long as I can remember, I have been entranced by the movement and physicality of dance in all its genres and styles. My mom says I threw a temper tantrum to get her to enrol me in ballet class!
As I grew up, dance quickly became more than just an extracurricular; it was my stress-reliever, my social life, and the one place I felt I truly belonged. In short, it was my entire wellbeing. I moved to another country — unwillingly — in the middle of my childhood, and the clash of cultures between academics, peers, and languages took a heavy toll on my mental health. I just couldn’t relate to anything in these new surroundings. Though I had been described as “happy-go-lucky” and tried to maintain a pleasant attitude throughout most of it, in reality, I suspect I was deeply depressed during those years. Dance was my saviour: it’s the one beautiful prospect for the future that kept me going day to day.”
How did you deal with pressure from external sources preventing you from pursuing what you were passionate about?
“As an artist, you’re always going to be dealing with external pressure. Whether that means people who don’t believe in you, people who think you have potential to be studying something much “smarter,” or people who believe it’s just a phase you’ll grow out of eventually, being an artist entails that not everybody is going to like what you do or the work you make. Even my own dance teacher encouraged me to choose a different path, claiming that this profession is too hard on the body.
My parents and extended family, in particular, hoped that I would go into a profession with a stable income and reputable standing. I understand that they mean well and just want me to be able to support myself, but the constant judging and sometimes ridicule of my passion more than not left me in tears. Despite all its benefits, dance was also the major source of conflict between my parents and I.
So, I went back to dance. If I was feeling down, I went to dance. If I had a bad day at school, I went to dance. Just taking a single class would leave me feeling so much better about everything and remind me why I continue to do so despite objections all around.
I found out rather late that counselling can really help sort out those mixed emotions as well. Having someone willing to listen to anything you need to let out and maintaining a non-judgmental perspective can relieve yourself of so much internal struggling. For that, I am grateful to my school counsellor and any friends and teachers who patiently sat with me as I ran through their tissue box.
And in the end, I made my ultimate decision to go back to the country I considered my home. It was a question I didn’t have the courage to bring up before, but I realized that for my own sake and wellbeing, I needed to be in an environment where I could receive the training I wanted and find myself again after years of feeling lost. Even with no family around, it was a change I needed to make for my own happiness.”
What motivated you to opt to go into the field regardless of that pressure?
“I remember that anxious period of time at the end of high school, trying to decide on a post-secondary major. It got to the point that I wrote down my main selections on slips of paper and made a draw.
By that time, I had settled down wonderfully into my new school and made new friends. Life was good! But because of this, I was questioning my motives for going into dance once again. Was I just using it as an outlet for pent-up emotions and nothing more, or did I truly want to make a career out of dance? Confused again, I sought out the advice of many teachers and friends, but the internal turmoil continued.
Until I reached for that defining slip of paper, I didn’t know what would be best for me. Then something happened: I felt a little tug on my heart and realized that no matter what the outcome was, I hoped to get “dance” as my draw. That’s when I understood for sure that I didn’t want to regret anything in the future. Maybe I wouldn’t become a successful choreographer or performer or teacher, but no one can say I never tried.”
What tips would you give to a student looking to study or do what they love but is being pushed in another direction?
“My number one advice is to do what you won’t regret. If you know that you’ll regret not going into your field of passion in the future, then opt to choose what you love. Don’t leave yourself any excuses for not trying enough. In the end, this is about you and your happiness.
My second piece of advice comes from a marvellous, wise dance teacher I worked with in high school. I went to her one day for advice on choosing a path and ended up weeping in front of her. She gave me a long hug, looked into my eyes, and told me that no matter the choice, “you are not closing any doors.”
It’s true. I was looking at this as if my whole life depended on this one decision. She made me realize that there are millions of different paths to achieve my goals in life, and if I wanted to pursue a different interest, then, by all means, go for it! That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on my lifelong passion, and it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t be able to go back to it. Opportunities are everywhere if you make the effort to seek them out.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add or mention?
“It’s OK to leave. It’s OK to take a break. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in training and performing over and over that I feel like I’m on autopilot. There are moments when I have to slow down and remember why I fell in love with dance in the first place. Of course, there are many days when I don’t even want to dance at all! But that’s alright. I think there’s a sense of fear involved in taking a break from something you’ve been doing your entire life. However, life changes and your outlook changes with it; so if you’ve fallen out of love with something, it’s OK to leave. If you’re in a toxic environment, it’s OK to leave. I’ve seen peers suddenly change directions; they have a new dream, and new goal to aspire to, or they need time off for themselves. Whatever the reason, just remember: You are not closing any doors.”