I often get asked how I reconciled my dance career to my Faith. I simply say that, at the time, I didn’t.
Like many young girls, I was put into twirling at three. Then, at my own request, I enrolled in ballet, tap, and jazz at the age of five. I found I had a natural ability as a little dancer and immediately felt like I had found my calling. Nothing mattered more to me than dance. I accepted any and all forms of critique and demanding training sessions to be the very best.
The dance industry certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. If I wasn’t practicing in the studio, I was clearing the furniture in my bedroom for more space, practicing my leg extensions at the kitchen counter, or using the long grocery store aisles to develop the most graceful leaps. My mother still recounts those grocery store days to me. Now, my husband experiences them, too. What can I say? Once a dancer, always a dancer.
Motivations and Morality
As I matured as a young lady and a performer, I worked hard to be in the more notable classes at my studio. I spent the many following years in the competitive world of dance. Up to this point, there wasn’t anything that I tried out for, or set my mind and body to, that I didn’t achieve in one way or another. Committing myself to being a competitive dancer meant that weeknight rehearsals turned into weekends too, even Sundays. This didn’t bother my family much. While I had received my Sacraments, we weren’t a practicing Catholic family.
Reconciling Catholic morals to my dance career was not a thought, even though there was much that could have been discussed about topics pertaining to modesty, body image, competitiveness, female comparison, and priorities. I was often encouraged by others with the motto, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!”
A Possible Open Door
Into my teen years I won many awards, appeared in different ensembles, danced across the country, and was the youngest girl in my high school’s history to have been made the highest-ranking lead dancer on our team. Yet my impending graduation made me feel absolutely lost thinking of a life without dance. I wasn’t sure what I would pursue.
During the summer after high school graduation, a friend invited me to go with her to try out for the Texans Cheerleaders. Admittedly, I felt lackluster. As many in this arena know, classically-trained dancers and cheerleaders are seen as very different. From my experience, one is usually turning their nose up at the other.
I went forward with this opportunity anyway, thinking this might give my college years the dose of dance that I was looking for. Not only that, but I had spent a brief period of time on a competitive team with a Texans Cheerleader that was on the squad during my audition. I thought I was a shoo in!
The Tryout Process
I arrived to the very intimidating practice tent (not having done any prior research) in a simple but little tryout number, dance sneakers, and my curls sprayed so tight I had to hammer them down at the end of the night. I was not at all prepared for the city camera crews, news photographers, or mass amounts of women there to try out.
As one would expect, the women in the heeled boots and skimpy sequined outfits were the ones that drew the most attention. I knew I was going to have to step it up. So I danced like nobody’s business, flipped my hair with the best of them, and performed with the typical facial technique of mouthing your vowels. While there I began to feel like this was more about looks than about dancing (it turns out I was right).
I made it through two of the three rounds when suddenly I saw a trail of Texans football players enter the tent. They sat down at a long table. They instructed us to dance across the field and act as if the players weren’t there. I was cut during this round and experienced my first dance team “failure,” if one could call it that.
Not long after, I heard through the grapevine why I didn’t make it. Apparently, I looked too young at the time. They encouraged me to come back in a year or two when my look had matured. To me, this indicated a single standard: a member could not look that young and wear that little. I moved on quickly from not making the team, but struggled afterwards with the feeling of humiliation for putting myself on display like that.
A Change of Position
Several months later I sat discontentedly in my college freshman political science class doodling on a notebook. I heard God say in my heart, “You need to be a youth minister.” There have been three times in my life where I sincerely felt that I heard God clearly, and this was one of them. And all I could think was, “Have You seen my life, Lord?”
This call intrigued and bewildered me. I had absolutely no qualifications and hardly had any relationship with God.
In a leap of faith, no pun intended, I reached out to my youth minister to tell him what I had experienced and asked him to help me pursue God’s call. This became the first of many arduously purifying seasons in my life. After months of prayer, study, volunteering, and conversion I became a youth minister at the young age of 19 and I have worked for the Church ever since.
Shortly after, I heard an internal phrase that stopped me in my tracks, “See, you can’t live both ways.”
God was asking me for a complete surrender!
A Singular Focus
Things had never been so clear. It was not possible to carry on juggling two contradictory ways of life. One or the other must be true. And I would have never been a youth minister had I been hanging on the wall of some young man’s bedroom in a scantily-clad outfit. The door closed on my dance career, but God opened another!
“You can’t live both ways,” became my new motto and was the catalyst for a laundry list of other personal conversions pertaining to modesty, comparison, self-worth, purity, and secularism. Looking back, I can see that my Texans Cheerleader tryout experience was the tipping point that gave way to divine providence.
I would either believe what Christ has done for me is actually real and I would fully commit to living this Faith, or I would continue on in discord, picking and choosing whatever felt right in the moment. This didn’t come easily. I looked at almost 20 years of my life lived away from God as a rose bush that needed to be pruned.
This was sometimes incredibly painful and isolating from my family. I had to end certain friendships. At times, it felt like I was losing the only self I knew. Old habits die hard, and parts of my secular worldview tried to carry on unfazed for years after I sought total surrender to a life with God. I didn’t completely change overnight. But I was dedicated to pursuing God no matter the cost.
New Team, New Training
To better the journey and find support in training myself in new habits, I surrounded myself with a phenomenal community of Catholic believers. These people lifted me up and exemplified a faithful lifestyle, including the Saints.
I seek daily to approach my Faith as passionately as I did my dance career with intensity, focus, discipline, practice, and love. And when things get hard, I think of how good it is to rest in Christ and allow that to soothe my heart like a balm while I continue to grow and transform. And for those wondering, I still dance but perhaps in a different outfit and with a much healthier outlook on Who I belong to.
Has God ever shifted the course of your life with closed and open doors? Take some time to reflect on that today!
Steffani Aquila is the Director of Liturgical Life for the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and the owner of His Girl Sunday, a business and blog that helps individuals, families, and parishes live liturgically and build long-lasting, authentic Catholic traditions. She has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and has worked in Catholic high schools as a dean and an honors level Theology teacher. When she’s not doing those things, you can find her reading theological books, hosting feast day parties for family & friends, and dancing down the aisles of Hobby Lobby.