It was 2007.
The class hadn't properly started yet and beads of sweat were already running down my forehead.
I had been given the opportunity to take any and all classes I wanted at one of the dance schools in town. I chose to attend a class taught by one of the best and, as the other members of the faculty would describe him, "honest" teachers.
As I awkwardly adjusted my poor excuse of a seated fourth position, he walked over to me. He hinged at the hips with the nonchalance of a seasoned dancer, put his face next to mine and spoke so only I could hear:
You're a dancer now, boy. Not a gymnast.
Time to earn it.
I remember wanting to protest.
I didn't want to be a dancer. I just wanted to dance better. Never had I considered myself a gymnast either. In my mind, I was still a plump kid with lots to prove and a voice too meek to be raised.
I ended up not talking back to him.
Instead, I simply put my head down and told myself: If he's willing to call me a dancer, then so will I.
I got back to work, only this time I was fueled by a new source of fuel: The obligation and empowerment of my title.
We wouldn't speak again for a year.
Not a gymnast.
There are many valid reasons to avoid labels.
We don't want to conform to other people's ideas of who we are and for some it might also feel offensive that someone would refer to you by the group they assume you belong to.
Also, a label carries with it certain expectations. Some of which we fear that we won't live up to.
Be that as it may, you can't control what other people think or say about you and the fear of someone using an idea against you does not mean the idea itself is bad.
In fact, it might be a source of power.
Labelling myself a dancer changed my relationship to my training, as well as how I related to myself, for the better.
Since then I've used several other labels.
Handbalancer, juggler, strongman, grappler, diver, runner, musician, powerlifter..
Regardless of which activity I've decided to practice, I've also taken the corresponding classification and smacked it firmly onto my understanding of who I am.
The reason I've done this is because of another, not so mentioned, excuse as to why we wish to avoid being labelled:
These responsibilities are occasionally mentioned in introductions to tutorials. Sometimes they can be found, hidden in the footnotes of an instructional article. They don't get a lot of attention presumably because it isn't expected that we'll want to pay them attention.
However - if you want the capabilities of people who go by a certain label, then you need to assume at least some of the responsibilites that those people have.
Time to earn it.
Involving yourself in the culture.
There are aspects of skills that can only be experienced in the cultures and communities in which they're honed. Being in the trenches, surrounded by people whose abilities you're working towards, will give you a new sense of appreciation and understanding of what you're doing.
Being exposed to techniques and exercises is one thing, but experiencing the nuances of how and why these people train will take your own training to a level that instructions and progressions alone cannot.
Articles, books and instagram tutorials might be informative, but human interactions and relationships are transformative.
Making it a priority.
If you want to become proficient at something you cannot afford the luxury of being everything else at the same time.
You might become a generalist as a result of several processes, but a process that is chronically "general" (one that involves you doing everything, all at once and at the same time) will not yield the results you want.
You need to hold yourself to a certain standard.
Instead of simply practicing handstands, become your own idea of what a handbalancer is and live accordingly. You need to get your hands dirty, get some skin in the game and care enough to risk and fear failure.
There's no guarantee as to what kind of results you'll produce. However, one thing that is guaranteed to hamper your progression is if you wish to avoid failure so much that your practice becomes a spectator sport - one in which you stop playing "on the field" because you don't want to be a part of the losing team.
You're a dancer now.
A year or so after that fateful and slightly traumatizing day I met the teacher again - this time backstage. I had just finished a show of the first stage production where I'd been hired to work as a dancer.
I would like, for the sake of narrative, to say that he said something extremely acknowledging like "What light through yonder window breaks? It is a dancer, and Jon is the east,".
But no. He put his hand on my shoulder, gave me an approving nod and said something along the lines of "Very good,".
But I didn't need more than that.
My label as a dancer was not for him. It was, and still is, for me.
When I choose to dance, I am a dancer through and through.
In the water, I'm a swimmer. On the rocks, I'm a climber. In those moments there are no other excuses, responsibilities or thoughts to distract me from what I'm doing.
I am what I want to be - by doing what needs to be done.