My dance instructor is distressed. There is an individual, a professional dancer who is circulating the opinion that amateur dancers have no business on stage. Only professional dancers who are paid deserve to perform in public. The rest of us should stay glued to our balcony seats and just enjoy the show.
I find this attitude not only elitist, it’s also very wrong about art and the people who create.
Since the Enlightenment and the continual professionalization of any art, or any science, the professionals, the individuals with university degrees, monetized social media accounts and dependable cash for their efforts have worked very hard to marginalize all others who do not fit into the deep cavities of professional criteria and marginalize them as other, mere, amateurs.
Except they are wrong. Who else but a mere amateur has the courage, faith and out-of- the-dissertation -requirement thinking to confound and pester the establishment?
We have much to thank our persistent amateurs.
As a girl, five year old Mary Anning (1799–1847) loved to collect fossils and specimens along the chalk cliffs of her Lyme Regis home. At age 12 Mary painstakingly uncovered the 5.2 meter skeleton of the first discovered Her ichthyosaur from the Jurassic period. She was a major contributor to the nascent study of prehistoric life. But like so many amatuers, while she freely shared her work, the male scientists who benefited, did not share the favor, nor give her credit. She died of breast cancer at 47. We could say, oh, what a waste, but that would be wrong. Mary spent her life doing exactly what she wanted, which was a tremendous feat of female agency in the early 19th century. Don’t cry, she is more famous than all those men who had ignored her.
Gregor Johann Mendel was a monk who loved spending this days working with pea plants. After nine years of experimentation, In 1866 he delivered a two-part lecture demonstrating that seven traits of pea plants were either dominant or recessive. Mendel sent his published lecture to all the scientist in the field, including Charles Darwin. But his paper and findings were ignored, who was he? An amateur. Mendel fared better at his monastery elected abbot and living out his days tending his gardens. Finally, in 1900, a four scientist discovered Mendels work which would influence our understanding of genetics for the next century.
Back to fossils and exceptional women. Another ennthusiastic amateur, Susan Hendrickson was working with Peter Larson, the founder of the Black Hills Institute, a private organization specializing in fossil hunting. On August 12, 1990, Hendrickson set off to investigate a cliff that had caught her attention. She spent two weeks on that cliff seaching for fossils, and finally found it: the largest and most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. Unlike Mary Anning, Hendrickson was recognized for her work, the enormous skelton was named “Sue” in her honor.
While Susan failed to finish High School, her her efforts she was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago. So there.
Sylvia Beech left her family in New Jersey to pursue her love of books as well as her love for long time partner, Adrienne Monnier. With no experience, Beech open and ran an excellent bookstore, Shakespeare and Company for decades (at the time in the 20’s it also functioned as a lending library, with some customers, like Ernest Hemmingway never returning the books). When customer James Joyce couldn’t find a publisher for Ulysses, Beech stepped in.
She had no publishing experience but did want to help. She was happy to be part of the process and over the years, delighted in his success. The book not only earned nortoriety, it was also one of the pivotal works that established modernism.
Amateurs are often the artists who speak truth to power. Sometimes because we don’t know better, or don’t fully understand the subtleties of professional (academic) behavior. and sometimes we do it on purpose, purposefully forgoing the club motto and secret handshake.
Like the Wright brothers, those who love, also persist, year after year, until they achieve flight. But don’t confuse the result with the effort. That is the super power of the amateur. We are in it for the effort, for the love. For the dance. We are not in it for the applause.
As an expression of her absolute disagreement that amateurs can’t perform on stage, my instructor created a dance that pitted the sea witches (them) against the mermaids (us). I danced a mermaid part. We presented the dance at the local theater that welcomes both professional and amateur acts. We took our stand, armed with swords and floating fan veils. Like Sylvia Beach, we were satisfied with our expression, our art.
For a culture to thrive, we must include all expressions of art: hanging in the Met or hanging in the local fairgrounds Hall of Flowers.
We all can contribute our art, we all should.
Don’t allow anyone to derail your passion just because you aren’t paid. That is no way to treat a true lover.