For Divya Ramesh, a typical day in high school started at 3 a.m. On some mornings, she wore tights and a T-shirt. On others, she was clad in a shalwar kameez, a combination of baggy pants that end in cuffs and a long top that cut off at the knees. She would arrive like this at her dance studio, which was tucked away in her teacher’s home basement.

Her mentor would offer her a single banana, giving her fuel for the workout that was to come. She was the epitome of tough love, often giving Ramesh the silent treatment if she was sulking. During those morning practices, Ramesh would first review a 30-minute choreography without breaks, taking note of the critiques her mentor shouted out. A water break and another banana later, she would learn new parts of a different piece, often more centered around intricate hand gestures. She would then review the first 30-minute routine, analyzing her movements in the mirrored walls of the studio before rushing off to 6 a.m. swim practice.

Ramesh, now a Communication senior, considers herself to have been “born into Bharatanatyam,” a classical Indian dance that focuses on storytelling through facial expressions and hand symbols. She trained in this style of dance from the second grade and eventually began a two-year preparation process for her professional debut, called an arangetram. This led to a successful start to her career during her junior year of high school. Though she started off performing near her home in Singapore, she soon began to tour foreign locations, including India and California.

Divya Ramesh dances at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha 59th Music & Dance festival / Photo courtesy of Divya Ramesh

Ramesh laughed as she scrolled through her old action shots on a website dedicated to highlighting her Bharatanatyam career. Behind those saturated and lively stills, though, lie the struggles and rigorous practice that Ramesh endured. Such sacrifices are universal in the dance world as some Northwestern students know, professional dance is nothing without sacrifices.

McCormick freshman Grace Hochberg has been dancing since she was two years old. In seventh grade, she entered the commercialized dance industry, a field for dancers in advertisements, movies and media. She sacrificed activities like soccer for dance, investing so much in the commercialized industry that as a child, she would wear a shirt embellished with a simple message: “I CAN’T. I HAVE DANCE.”

Grace Hochberg, now a McCormick freshman, strikes an arabesque in seventh grade / Photo courtesy of Grace Hochberg

Hochberg practiced 20 to 25 hours a week during high school, forgoing sleep to juggle academics and professional training. There were weeks when she had to miss her Friday classes to travel to competitions, occasionally having to miss school on Thursday as well. In the commercialized dance world, appearance pressures surfaced, too.

“People are judging each other up and down at dance conventions. You’re barely wearing any clothes. You have a number and your makeup is on. It’s all so superficial, and [the judges] don’t really take the time to get to know you,” Hochberg said. “It can be very elitist in a sense. Once you’ve made it, you’re good. But when you’re working to that point, you’re nothing.”

The biggest sacrifice Weinberg junior Emmy Khawsam-Ang made while training professionally was giving up life as a normal teenager. Like Ramesh, Khawsam-Ang was involved in an apprenticeship during her high school years. She was also the captain of her high school’s dance team, traveling to conventions throughout the international school system in Asia. Once, Khawsam-Ang and her team gave such an impressive performance that they even graced the Bangkok Post newspaper.

Weinberg junior Emmy Khawsam-Ang dances at ReFusionShaka 2018 / Photo courtesy of Kristine Liu

As dance requires much energy, Khawsam-Ang soon realized that hanging with friends and attending school was the more comfortable lifestyle. But her decision – whether to pursue dance professionally or not – would soon be made for her. During a dress rehearsal for one of the most anticipated high school competitions, Khawsam-Ang leapt.

So did her teammate.

They crashed mid-air, and Khawsam-Ang fell to the floor, where she collapsed on top of her knee. Her team was set to travel in three days and accommodating for her absence would be practically impossible, so she decided to go through with the competition. But in the process, she only strained her knee even more and ended up with crutches for months after the surgery.

Ramesh, Hochberg and Khawsam-Ang are reminders that emotional and physical pressures are nothing when it comes to pursuing dreams. And now that they’ve left the professional dance world behind, these three dancers can look back on what made dance and their intensive training so special to them.

For Hochberg, professional dance was a teaching force. Once, she learned an emotional piece from a choreographer who was also a recovering drug addict. When Hochberg performed it, she “felt what the choreographer felt.” Independence, discipline and hard work are all things Hochberg says she learned from professional dance, but the ability to empathize and understand other people is a life lesson she will always treasure.

Hochberg in the center of a formation at ReFusionShaka 2019 / Photo courtesy of Evan Robinson-Johnson 

Ramesh realized that her professional dancing background would always be a part of her. While choreographing for ReFusionShaka, a dance showcase collaboration between Refresh, Fusion and Boomshaka, Ramesh “couldn’t think of any other steps except for Bharatanatyam and classical Indian steps” for her Afrobeat-inspired piece. While it was a “weirdly emotional” moment for Ramesh, she will always be grateful for the Bharatanatyam soul within her.

And for Khawsam-Ang, training professionally simply was life.

“The reward of dancing was so great, and it just felt like the right thing to do. I was going through a stage in my life where I couldn’t imagine myself at a desk job. With dance, I wouldn’t make money, but dance is what life is about. Making art and being yourself is what we’re going to be remembered for.”