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Mia Heathcote
November 18, 2020

Chapter 16, Mia Heathcote: On Pressure, Paving Your Own Path and Trusting Instincts

Principal Dancer with Queensland Ballet

My name is Mia Heathcote, and I'm originally from Melbourne. I was born into a ballet family, with both my parents being professional dancers with The Australian Ballet. I was immersed in ballet and theatre from before I can remember. This immersion brought great inspiration, an eagerness to learn, and a passionate interest in movement from an early age. Dance encapsulated everything I intuitively needed as a child, and regardless of the influence in my surroundings, I couldn't help but move when I heard music. Growing up, my desire to pursue ballet as a career never wavered, and there was a strong internal drive within me. However, as I reached adolescence, the feeling of pressure to succeed only grew stronger. I wasn't sure if this pressure was stemming from within myself or if it was from the ballet world around me. It sounds silly, but as a child, I felt that somehow I could see the path I was supposed to take set out before me, but I just had to get there to make sure I fulfilled the expectations I perceived were there. I would be asked questions from early on, "So, are you going to follow in your father's footsteps?" "Do you want to dance with The Australian Ballet like your parents did?" Harmless as they seemed, these were the types of things that made me think I had to become something and continue the legacy, or else I would be a failure in the eyes of others. One thing is for sure, though, my parents have never pressured me into pursuing ballet, and for this, I am forever grateful. There is a common misconception that anyone who has been a second or third-generation product of an elite artist or sportsperson has it easy or gets everything handed to them due to their family history - I cannot express how wrong this belief is. I think that anyone who knows firsthand what it takes to become an artist or athlete would understand that it's a truly individual journey of sacrifice and passion with a work ethic just as equal as anyone would need in this industry. In fact, these misconceptions only added more pressure to prove myself worthy.

Photo courtesy of Mia Heathcote

I truly believed that nothing would come of it. I even had a feeling of guilt for auditioning and being offered a place as it wasn't something I necessarily needed right away.

As ballet was the art form I had such a passion for, it did, in a way, make me more determined to "make it," although perfectionism can often get the better of you. Regardless of how much I just loved to dance, this underlying pressure was always prevalent, even if it was predominantly coming from myself. Of course, looking back now, I realize that you never "make it" as such. More so, you are continuously learning, and failures aren't really failures; they are your most valuable and essential lessons. I also learned that if I wanted to succeed in making this my career, it would have to be in my own way and on my own terms and not to please anyone else.

After training with two local ballet schools in Melbourne that gave me a good foundation and a fearless and fun early experience in classical ballet, I joined the Australian Ballet School in 2010 at the age of 14 to begin my full-time training. This felt like the beginning of making my dreams of dancing professionally a reality. My time there was invaluable. I was under the meticulous care of many incredible teachers who helped shape and refine me as a dancer, and I was given some wonderful opportunities. In my fourth year at the school, which was my second to last year of graduating, I had the great opportunity to join the graduate year along with some artists of the company to perform in the annual regional Dancer's Company tour. While this was a great growing experience, prior, during, and after this time in my training, I began to develop deeper feelings of anxiety for various reasons. I started to believe I was inadequate and lost a lot of confidence in myself.

I felt stuck and knew that I needed to do something that would make me feel like fighting again. This is when I learned of the Queensland Ballet Audition being held in Melbourne later that year. With much hesitation, I applied for the audition, and even on the night before the audition, I considered not turning up out of fear. But that was when I realized why I wanted to do it. I wanted to have a completely different, out-of-the-box experience to what I'd always known, without fear or anticipating and worrying about what would come of it. I needed an experience where the outcome was not the sole purpose, but the participation in it was. So that was the attitude I took into the audition. I danced more freely than I ever had before as I wasn't inhibited by the confines of trying to be perfect or making it through. I just wanted to dance without expectation. This has later become one of my biggest lessons in performing.

Photo courtesy of Mia Heathcote

If you need time to recuperate in any shape or form, it must be done, as we are human, not machines.

After the callback class, my number was called out, and it was stated that the director and audition panel wanted to talk to me immediately afterward. I was utterly and honestly shocked to learn that they wanted to offer me a full company contract for the following year. All I remember thinking was, "But that wasn't supposed to happen!" I truly believed that nothing would come of it. I even had a feeling of guilt for auditioning and being offered a place as it wasn't something I necessarily needed right away. Although in retrospect, it prompted the change I was desiring. So, then I had this news to contemplate. As ecstatic as I was to be offered my first professional contract, things got a little more complex after that as I was subsequently offered a contract from the Australian Ballet for the following year. I was so conflicted with what I should do, continue on in my graduate year at school? Or take a professional contract? I realize it was ultimately a very positive predicament to be in! Though many people surrounding me had their opinions on what was the best direction for me to take and while it was in my best interests, it didn't make the final decision any clearer. In contemplating this, there were a few things I came to understand... I knew how incredibly lucky I was to have been offered contracts, and I also realized that for most of my training I had felt this underlying pressure and expectation to uphold. Did I want to keep feeling the way I was feeling at the time? In my mind, something wasn't sitting right in staying with what I had always known and seen. I needed a fundamental change. I needed to get out and away from feeling too comfortable or stuck, to take the path my parents took before me, and do what I thought people were expecting me to do. This is an example in my life where I had to trust my instincts, and they were telling me to take the unexpected and unknown path. I knew I wanted to pave my own way, and I knew that with discomfort and change comes growth. I needed to evolve on a blank canvas and decide the type of artist I wanted to become. This instinct was what prompted my decision to join Queensland Ballet.

I joined the company in January of 2014. Transitioning into a company setting is always a challenge. I don't know anyone who said that their first couple of years were completely easy! Personally, I really struggled both mentally and physically to adapt. Injuries seemed to plague me, and I was not coping with the mental side of that. Being my first year, I needed to make a good impression, but I felt like I was failing. A chronic injury I'd dealt with during my training worsened throughout the year, and I ended up needing to have surgery on it. With granted permission from my director, I went back home to Melbourne for a few months to rehabilitate, but I also needed that time with my family to improve my mental state and feel strong enough to return with a fresh perspective.

Photo courtesy of Mia Heathcote

The journey back to health was a road with many bumps, but I believe the hardest part for me was being mentally strong enough to push through. When I returned, things very slowly started to get better, each day, month, and year and with all the ups and downs, I learned more about myself and how important it is to be as healthy as possible in both body and mind. Something else I came to understand is that no upholding of status or expectation is worth the cost of your health. If you need time to recuperate in any shape or form, it must be done, as we are human, not machines.

The year 2020, in particular, has been a huge challenge for all of us as artists, though it has also been a time of reflection and a chance to look after ourselves and others. I used this opportunity and the cancellation of our season to have a second surgery I was needing on my other ankle, which I am now just returning from, and still as eager as ever to make it back to the stage. I have now been dancing with Queensland Ballet for nearing on 7 years, and I am very grateful for the opportunities I've had here to grow, learn, and continue to make my dancing dreams a reality. I feel very fortunate that I trusted my instincts throughout my career transitions thus far and when things inevitably get tough, no matter how hopeless we can feel at times, I now know something for certain... if you don't go through the discomfort, you won't ever see the change that's on the other side, you'll find it can often be something very beautiful or groundbreaking.

Top image by David Kelly

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