Achieving self-fulfillment while chasing your passions is easier said than done. Sometimes, we become too controlling of ourselves just to hit the phantom goals imposed on us by society, causing confusion on where our true path lies. Susanne Puerschel interviews Suzan Opperman, a dancer in Vienna, to discuss how she found her self-worth and overcome the fear of rejection despite the lack of feedback from the people around her, particularly in her professional circles. She also shares how she found positivity amid the most challenging times of her life, from dealing with the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic and recovering from a severe injury that almost hindered her from dancing forever.
Watch the episode here:
Listen to the podcast here:
Conversation With Suzan Opperman
Suzan, welcome to the show. I’m so happy you are here.
Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Before we get started and dive into all the goodness, I want to start with a few icebreaker questions. Are you good with that?
Where are you living, born and raised?
I was born and raised in South Africa. I was raised more in the UK because I moved there when I was seven and now, I’m living in Vienna in Austria.
Why did you start dancing?
My mom took me to see the Nutcracker in our small town that we were living in. She always tells me that after the show, I begged her to let me start ballet. I said, “Mom, I don’t want to be one of the girls who are dancing altogether. I want to be the one that’s dancing on her own.” I pushed my mom to take me to ballet classes and it snowballed from there.
I didn’t know that. That’s very beautiful.
I love asking people how they started or what made them start. It’s always so beautiful to hear.At the end of the day, we can't depend on the outer stimuli or sources to make ourselves feel appreciated. Click To Tweet
What is your favorite food?
I love pizza but I am obsessed with avocados. I could have avocados every single day. Whenever I go back to South Africa, the only thing that’s on my request list is usually things like these giant avocados, watermelons, papayas, all these exotic fruits.
What is your favorite childhood memory? Something that you remembered that will always stay with you.
I have many. Spending Christmases at our beach house. This is a very young childhood story. Our family used to, they still do now but obviously, I can’t spend Christmases back home every year. Christmas in the sun and the family, Christmas traditions that we always used to have, and to spend Christmas on the beach. I do feel my best when I’m on the beach with the sand and the waves. They’ll always be special memories. It’s my happy place.
What is one thing that you’re not proud of? I’ll give you an example. One thing I’m not proud of is that I’ve come so far in understanding that the time that I have with my children right now is so important. I don’t ever want it to, after quitting my corporate job, to return to that space where my job is more important than my children. I recognized that I had done it again because it is deep in my subconscious that I have to work and produce in order to be valued and seen that I put my work above my family’s needs. It’s something that I’m not proud of. However, I realized that I was able to pivot so much quicker. I don’t schedule my calendar full anymore. It’s four hours a day and that’s it. The rest is for them.
It’s these things that none of us are perfect but the switch when we can make that switch and recognize that. That’s the most important to be honest.
It’s not what we do, we don’t do, what we do right or what we do wrong. It’s how we learn from them and how we are able to pivot and to be okay with, “I see what I did there. I’m not proud of it. However, it doesn’t define who I’m at in my core.” What defines that is how we react and how we can like change through it.
When you said you’re constantly working to feel your worth, I can relate to that because I feel like I tend to put my energies in other places where I do feel I’m worthy. Sometimes, if I’m not having a great time at work or I’m not feeling appreciated, I have a tendency to find other ways to make myself feel appreciated. In a way, it probably did start with restricting what I’m eating because that is a way of controlling. That’s only a small aspect of it. Later on, I have found or done things in my social life to feel appreciated rather than focusing on, why am I not putting the energy into the work? It’s not deviating from the work. It’s coming to terms with things more focused on where they’re lacking rather than searching for it in random other areas.
It is deferring your energy. I had this conversation with my husband. He’s like, “I can’t go to sleep. I can’t do this. I can’t do that.” I was like, “Where are you putting your energy? Are you putting your energy and feeling bad about it or are you looking for a solution?” It is about you’re trying to find your worth in other things versus finding that satisfaction in where you are looking for.
At the end of the day, we can’t depend on the outer stimulus or sources to make ourselves feel appreciated. Of course, they help, I’m not going to lie. We have to find that inner peace within ourselves. That took me a long time to find that inner peace and it’s still a journey. Before, I was always trying to find something to cover it up, trying to fill it, trying to get myself at ease, or feel worthy enough. That’s the keyword.
Let’s jump right into this because this is such a big topic I see particularly in the dance industry. Top of the mountain that there is so much unworthiness the, the feeling of unworthy, chasing, wanting or finding your worthiness from the people that are determined, whether or not you get the role or the contract. There is so much inner work that could be done to release that. With the release of that pressure, one could create so much more. Let’s go back to you. You went through school, you had your learnings and struggles. I would love to hear a little bit about your journey through school, the struggle that you encountered there, and how you ended up in Vienna.
I’ll try and sum it up as briefly as possible. I started at a White Lodge, the world ballet school, the lower school when I was thirteen. I joined two years later than everyone else who would normally start at the age of eleven. It was a bit of a challenge for me to catch up with what they’ve learned in the past two years. It would always be the new girl still needs to learn this or isn’t up to standard. For me, it was a constant fight to be recognized as equal as everyone else. Of course, getting past equal, you want to be the better one, you want to look the best, so I put my heart and soul into everything.
I was very determined to then go to the next level, which would ultimately be the upper school. That was always the goal of being in the lower school. Alongside that came questioning what I looked like physically which also caused me to start restricting what I’m eating. I always have this consciousness about my body. That carried itself into the upper school. I did thankfully get a place at the upper school. Alongside all the other struggles, it was also the competition between everyone. We were never bitchy between one another but there was always this competition. With that also came the body consciousness and seeing how this girl is very skinny. She’s getting a lot of attention or she’s getting a lot of roles.
Weirdly, you start over-analyzing everything so much that you start to think to become something or to be seen as the good one or the best in the class and getting a job at the end of the day, you have to tick certain boxes. Those boxes or the list of things to tick are obscure. No one gives you a list that you have to tick off but everything is done subconsciously. It’s also between us as students. We cultivate this thing, the chat that everyone has between one another also like, “This teacher loves this one because she is this and this.” You immediately start to think, “I need to do that. I need to look like that to also get that recognition.”
There is always this chase for being worthy of something. That’s where it’s all started. I did survive school with all these ups and downs. I got a contract with the Vienna State Opera and I moved here when I was nineteen. I underestimated the transition from school into a company. That’s normal for anyone transitioning from school. I’ve been happy since moving here. For me, the lack of feedback is a big thing from school and a company. I didn’t realize how much I relied on that. That’s again where this thing of feeling worthy of something because now suddenly you’re not getting any feedback, maybe here and there. That was a big hurdle for me to get over.
A few things I want to go a little deeper into. When we’re talking about lack of feedback because I know in school it was all about feedback, it was all about correction. I remember there were days where I didn’t want to hear another thing about the things that I didn’t do right because I couldn’t anymore, I couldn’t stomach it. The company was the other way around. Do you think there could be a middle ground and learning prior to getting into a company on how to motivate yourself, give yourself some feedback or find another way to get the feedback that you need in order to accelerate? On the other side, I feel the lack of feedback in companies is something that holds a company from excelling. I love to hear your thoughts on that but let’s start with the school and the feedback model that we’re seeing in schools. How are we sculpting the students to depend on them using their own brain?
I can’t speak for all schools. I just know from my experience and from classmates or also people who are years below me. My brother also went through ballet lower school. There is a sense of fear amongst everyone. You rely on the feedback to determine your fear levels. It sounds so strange but I noticed it as well. Seeing students now in the school, there’s this underlining sense of fear. Even in the way their postures are, you feel like you’re being watched and that everything is being looked at and monitored almost. It doesn’t give you much space to develop your own sense of self and personality. When you take the fear away, it gives you so much more headspace and also that motivation or not without having to be scared about anything. I know that was a very big thing. My sense of artistry was definitely dampened in my first couple of years because I was scared the whole time.
Follow up question because I remembered that fear too. That was what killed my artistry and drive, my wanting for all these beautiful things that we want and feel and experience when we start dancing. Can you label that fear? There are many layers of fear of experience.
Fear of no approval. We always had the fear of not getting a place in the upper school. It was this obsession that everyone had. It was even the whole process to get the place. The whole audition process felt very impersonal somehow.
The fear of not making it, not being enough, not being seen and worthy of going on.Thriving for perfection kills curiosity and the ability to learn. Click To Tweet
We all have the sense that if we didn’t make it into the Royal Ballet Upper School or the Royal Ballet Company, then we weren’t worth anything anymore. It’s not that it was ever explicitly said. It’s this underlining atmosphere somehow. As I said before, it’s also amongst the students. They pick up on this and there’s also amongst ourselves. We’re talking about it a lot. This keeps growing. If you think of it this way, my brother did three years at the lower school, the same as I did and he didn’t get a place at the upper school. He then went to the English National Ballet School and we’re both in the same company now working together.
I never heard stories like this. I never knew about the possibilities that were in Europe or America. For me, it was a tunnel vision in one direction. For many, this is great even now but it’s very important for schools to also talk about these inspirational stories or other places or ways that you, as a dancer, can express yourself because not everyone will get to that company or do those roles. It’s perfectly fine because everyone will also notice that at the end of the day, not everyone wants to be our death ordeal. We all want to express ourselves. It’s not about that label.
I want to add something to that. When we thrive for something that we think is the perfect place, we try to match that perfect. That’s what I see in dance so much. It’s perfection in anything you do. Anything less than perfect is not worthy. Perfectionists see it differently from every possible angle from how people look at it to how people see your body versus another body or your appearance. You can dissect it as much as you want to. This thriving for perfection also kills curiosity and the ability to learn because there’s only one way to perfection.
When you kill curiosity and the willingness to learn, you’re not producing anything that has something to do with art. In my opinion, it is something that we follow, think and wants to be seen on these upper levels at the Royal Ballet or and anything else that doesn’t exist. It’s not perfect. This is where I feel is where the opportunity lies that we start teaching that failing is only the next step that you have to encounter in order to become the success that you want to be. You have to learn how to fail in public. Make schools a place where it is okay to fail. Let’s replace failing with learning. You’re learning your entire life with this thrive for perfection for hitting that upper limit. There is no upper limit. It’s on you where your upper limit is. It’s your determination.
If you’re putting one on there, you stop wanting to learn because you keep chasing something that doesn’t exist. That kills curiosity, which is the essence of a fulfilled life. I feel also in companies, that is a big opportunity to make it a pool of creation versus, “I’m telling you what to do,” and then do. This brings me to my next question to you. The lack of feedback that we are seeing in companies now is something that perhaps has been that way for many decades. I am not blaming the people. I’m not saying this is wrong. All I’m wanting opening up here is perhaps the curtain a little bit to see what other ways are there? What if we would give more feedback to our dancers? What if we could have conversations with our dancers on how they feel, what they want, and opening up that divide that is between artistic director? Davolt, a former artistic director of mine. The building was built in an old bank and his office was literally in the bank’s old world. You don’t talk about separation and security. If we were to open that up, what could happen? My question to you is, what would that make you feel like if you had the possibility to have that two-way conversation going on? The permission to learn, fall down, and get back up without being judged.
I’ve only been in Vienna as a company. I can’t speak a point of view from many different companies. These are things that I’m hearing from friends and other companies but we have gone through a director’s change and a lot of staff changes and everything. I can feel and see a difference in what it is like to have a much more open conversation like you were saying. I don’t have necessarily examples to share but I do already feel that with different personalities or more equal ness between dancers. There’s always a hierarchy. I understand, it should be like that. Sometimes, things can get a little bit messy if the hierarchies between the artistic staff and the dancers gets too mixed up then it can also because of its own problems.
Not to have the fear, you shouldn’t be having the same fear that you have towards your teachers at school, your director, and the staff. From the past couple of years, you feel a bit lost after a performance or something where you did something. It’s special or you were put more in the front and then not hear anything. Sometimes, you would hear some feedback and if it was negative, you would magnify that negativity because you would think that it’s so rare that we get feedback and if it’s negative, it must’ve been awful. You feel lost. You feel like, “I’ve made myself vulnerable on stage. I’ve given it all and then to hear absolutely nothing.” That for me was very hard to get past.
It is also something that we have to accept that we’re not always going to get feedback. We should also make peace with that. It won’t hurt to put a little bit more attention on this topic. Being off for eleven months because of knee surgery after my first performance and not hear anything but hear very positive feedback for someone who joined the company. I’ve been off for one whole season and my career was almost at an end. Not to hear anything like, “Congratulations on your first show back. Good to have you back.” It’s almost as if you’re thinking, “I’m working for you, guys. I’m giving everything and no acknowledgment.” That did hurt a little bit, I have to say.
You don’t feel seen. To work, to give your soul and everything to potentially somebody who doesn’t care about it, you can only do that for a certain amount of time. Let’s go to how hitting “rock bottom” or experiencing an injury can be at the same time a blessing too. Let’s go a little bit into your injury, how you felt about it, how you recovered, and what was the gift in that journey?
It was a huge gift. I get goosebumps now to talk about it because it came completely out of the blue. It was a complicated diagnosis. I won’t go into that but when I did go to a doctor for him to look at the scans and tell me what is it that I have to do and he said, “You definitely need surgery and a minimum of six months.” Up until this point, I was never injured. For me to take two days off was crazy. I had spoken to a dancer who took three months off and I asked him, “What would you do with your life with three months?” I felt so bad for this guy. To hear a minimum of six months before you can do any form of activity was quite hard that I cried out the whole box of tissues that were in his desk. He still reminds me of that.
I said, “I’ll buy you a new box of tissues.” Everything happened very fast and I decided to go back to London for a period of time with my recovery because, after surgery, I would have had to be non-weight bearing, so that’s crutches for ten weeks. Of course, with the language barrier, everything would have made a lot more sense. I was very lucky to get a surgery appointment quite fast with a surgeon that had already operated on ex-classmates of mine. The first ten weeks were a shock because suddenly from being so active every day, I was constantly either at the gym, in the studio or hustling the whole time to then sitting on the couch because I physically couldn’t move.
The most I could have moved was to make some tea, move around my crutches, or to have my mom help me into the bath. You feel like you’ve hit rock bottom. I remember going to a small fitness studio that my physio organized me so I can get into a swimming pool and start moving. There were a lot of pensioners or elderly people who were also recovering from hip and knee replacements. I was exactly on the same physical ability as they were. To think of dancing again, it felt almost impossible. That scared me a lot. It was a very emotional journey and I’m very grateful that my mom was there to help me along the way. It was usually a scheduled emotional breakdown every Friday because I used to get the work schedule for the coming week and it still came into my email inbox.
I always made the mistake of opening it and seeing what was going on at work. My mom knew at 2:00 on Friday, that’s the time. Now, I have to say I had an incredible team of physios and sports scientists. As soon as I was able to walk again, it helped me to focus my mind on a goal. Everything was planned out for me. Every week, I could see progress, new challenges, and new things to keep me excited about like, “Next week, you can add this much weight.” I also learned about a whole new world. I did weightlifting for my recovery. I was in the gym, I was pumping iron. This was amazing for me. It brought this inner strength out of me. It’s something that along with school and everything, this fear, you go into yourself and with this, I felt so empowered.
The rush that I had from every week being able to progress, lifting heavier, jumping higher, I enjoyed it so much. One of the biggest gifts that this whole process gave me was to realize how much stress I was putting on my body before. I was very much underweight and didn’t have much muscles on my body to support my joints and everything. Ultimately, I had to choose either I stay the size I was and follow the same eating habits or I focused in and gained muscle, gain strength, and eat better. Ultimately, I can dance again because they gave me a goal and said, “You have to reach this amount of this strength level before you can even think about doing a ballet class.” I constantly had this. That motivated me and the education that you get throughout the rehab process. It helped so much. Without that, I can’t even imagine where I would have probably ended up.
You had to go against the beliefs that you were taught in order to get back in the studio.
In those few months, I still have the tendency to fall back into the habits but you have to look at the bigger picture and I had the bigger picture there in front of me. It meant reminding myself. I still go to the gym. Now they’re closed, I’m suffering a little bit but still after my rehab, it helped me to have this inner strength and this power. Mentally, it helped me a lot as well.
To let go or to not have time for yourself?
Both. I needed that. I also love doing yoga and that’s also much more of like an inner time for yourself, that feeling like, “I can do this. If I can lift this much weight, I can do that in the studio.” I’m not encouraging anyone to spend hours in the gym. It also has its negatives for dancers. If you do it right and you feel you have the right team behind you who are guiding you with the right program, it’s so beneficial. That’s also a myth that dancers feel a little bit.
Now, you get bulky when you go to the gym. My point of view is when we train in a studio, we only develop certain muscle groups. When you only rely on certain things, you’re walking on thin ice. It’s like you have one income stream. When you go to the gym, for example, you built the underlying muscle, you’re making what is on top. If you do it right, you are helping that, you’re promoting it. You’re supporting it to be stronger without being seen.
In a ballet class, as you say, you are working on certain things but it turns out, this is not a natural class and you can’t control it. Even if you look at it, in the space of a week, your first position is going to feel different every day depending on the chemical balance in your body or how you’re feeling emotionally that day. Even jumping, you can’t engage your glutes as you would when you’re parallel. The logic would be why not go into a safe space where you can do things controlled? You can decide how many repetitions you do. If you were to add weight, you can control all of that in a safe space. Whereas in a class you’re like, “Do five jumps of this, ten jumps of that.” It’s maybe a bit choreographic. The myth that you can enjoy yourself in the gym or damage your body.By not asking better questions, we will not receive better answers. Click To Tweet
Is that the myth? I didn’t know about that.
I’ve also heard of horror stories that happened in the studio. It’s a way to activate your muscles. If you do the right things with the right amount and you’re smart about it, then it can benefit you so much in the ballet class.
Let’s talk COVID, March 2020 hits. Before we started, you alluded that it was a blessing for you in a way. It was a blessing for me. I would love to hear why it was a blessing for you because many dancers don’t see it as a blessing. I believe that not only for the dance industry but for the arts, all over. This could be the start of something completely new if they’re willing to see it that way.
It’s the same with injuries. People who go off, you can decide how you want to come out of it. Even though for me, psychologically, it was very difficult to deal with. It was very new for me. I distinctly remember packing my suitcase and saying to my best friend, “I’m going to come back stronger. This is not going to kill me.” That initial mindset is the most important. During my injury, it gave me a huge gift and an insight but it didn’t mean that suddenly I went back into work, I’m suddenly back into the company life and everything was completely different. I still had a lot of work to do. With the years that went on, you learn something new about yourself.
You find a different struggle, insights and the whole personal growth, but you always have this environment and this competition that you’re battling against or seeing yourself in the mirror again and then having these insecurities. You don’t have enough time to reflect on anything. Lockdown came so you have this insight or mindset to constantly have many outside distractions, you never focus in and believe it. I feel like it’s only been since this lockdown that I truly believed everything that I wanted to change in my life or the new beliefs that I wanted to adopt.
It’s the silence that we had in the streets that you suddenly realize everything becomes somehow more intense because there was nothing. Sitting at home and thinking, “This is my career. It’s been taken away from me now but what can I do for myself to go back and be a better artist?” You can’t improve and get stronger with Zoom home office with the Zoom classes. You can only become stronger as a person. Ultimately then, I’m more of an artist because also most artists come out of hardship and then produce the most amazing work. I feel like dancers have that capability as well.
Any artist does. It is about if you allow yourself to feel it if it’s worthy of feeling the pain. I personally never felt worthy of feeling even the pain. I stuffed it deep down, so far down that, I’m still working on rototilling it back up to understand what happened over all these years. The power in the pause is the gift I find that we received through COVID. It’s on us to see it that way or to fight against it. I see so many dancers that they find rescue in the mundane and taking the class in the kitchen every day. They’re holding classes online and asking for money for the relief fund because they’re putting on a small little production. It’s like, “Thank you for your initiative.”
What is the bigger question, initiative and picture here that we’re being presented? What’s to learn? We only get the answers to the questions that we ask. If we’re not asking better questions, we’re not going to receive better answers. When you talk about personal growth because I feel that it’s not something that we put much intention or even worth into. We put a lot of attention and worth into what we can do in the studio but not who we’re becoming while we’re growing. For somebody that is reading and wondering what that even describes or what that means, what did you do? What did you start doing in terms of personal growth and what does that look like now on a daily basis for you?
Personal growth. It’s a lot bigger than saying you’re sitting down, asking yourself questions, reading books or whatever. It starts when you think, “What am I or who am I outside of the studio? Who am I when I’m not on stage?” I had to ask myself that question when going back to when I was injured because I was like, “What if I have a big chance of not dancing again? What’s left for me in life because I have no other interests?” I genuinely did not know what I could do with the rest of my life. That is very scary because then you start thinking, “Who am I?”
Once I allowed myself to also have other interests, explore other things, and have a social life, I started to realize who I am and what I also enjoy doing. This idea that what would happen if this was your last day at work or dancing. What would that look like for you? It takes the pressure off to think there are many other things in the world that are enriching that even if you do have a bad day in class, it’s not the end of the world. It genuinely isn’t. Once you find who you are, then you can only start the personal growth and then you start thinking, “I love doing this and this brings me this happiness.” That’s the key. It snowballs from there.
I also started doing yoga and I felt like I enjoy that. I’ve begun to understand yoga more. I began to understand the energies in the body and this whole chakra energy flow. That also awoken so many more questions. It’s expanding your circles. The more questions you have, the more answers you’ll get. Coming back to having a social life, I met a lot of people outside of the ballet world in Vienna and I met such inspirational people from many different areas. I have a friend who’s a techno DJ and the way he was talking about his passion for techno music inspired me. I never understood techno music. I had a very weird association with it. The way he was talking about it was inspiring for me that the next day at work, I was like, “I can achieve my dream. If this guy can start his label in his bedroom, then I also can become who I want to be and express what I want on stage.” It’s things like that.
Expand your horizon. You’re don’t have to mingle with your kind all the time in order to become better. The diversity is where the magic lies. Even though that’s not what we’re teaching in the industry, it is the magic pill quite honestly.
I also have very close friends who are also dancers, but I also know when I’m with people and they don’t bring me that excitement, your vibe attracts your tribe at the end of the day. You don’t have to force yourself to spend time with people that aren’t bringing you that good feeling or that motivation.
Before we part, one question I usually ask. What is one thing you would tell your 15, 16-year-old now to either start or to stop?
I wish I could tell myself to meditate, chill out and be yourself. Go back to the little girl that you were. When you’re three years old, that excitement and passion that you had like fearlessness, I lost that when I was fifteen. I had this constant fear and it is a difficult fear to label. Just go for it. A teacher said that to me in one meeting that I had with her. She meant a lot to me in the lower school. She said to me, “Just go for it.” I wish I understood the meaning of that back then. Another teacher said to me, “Don’t let the buggers get to you.” I also will never forget that one.
Go for it, stop judging yourself, and putting weight onto what other people say about you. Suzan, thank you so much for this. I enjoy having conversations. I want to mention on that point, we didn’t know each other before. I reached out to you on Instagram because I like your content and I could see that there is a different way of thinking there. I wanted to thank you that you are finding your voice and courage to put that out there. When we’re holding onto things, we’re selfish because we’re fearful of what other people would think. Be courageous and go for it. Remember that, little girl.
Thank you for reaching out. It’s inspiring also to speak to you and to know that my views or opinions are not completely alien.
They’re not to me. Thank you.
About Suzan Opperman
If there is one woman, who knows how to write an introduction, it’s Jane Austen. Unfortunately, I’m not Jane Austen, I’m not a literature heroine and I haven’t met Mr.Darcy. Nevertheless, my name is Suzan.
I am a classical ballet dancer with the Wiener Staatsballett (Vienna State Opera) and I am very happy to call Vienna home. Well, second home; my true home being South Africa. I am originally from Western Cape, South Africa. Although I only spent a short time of my childhood there, I still proudly consider myself South African and I will always consider it ‘Home’.
I spent most of my ‘growing-up’ years in the UK and completed 6 years of intensive training at The Royal Ballet School in London. Moving to Vienna was a big step into the ‘grownup’ world; exciting, daunting and scary at times. So I did what any smart person would do. I got a dog. A lovable companion to make you smile despite life’s little dramas.
So, I have things to say and stories to share, therefore I started writing a blog. As well as my rambling thoughts, stories, and perspectives, I also want to share the stories of the people who have inspired me. It’s not necessarily the heroic figures who have best-seller biographies -sometimes it’s your family and friends who are the ones who inspire you the most; they shape who you are and how you think, they help you discover your self belief. And if you are lucky to have found the right people; then not a day will go by where you didn’t smile. We find true inspiration, from the people closest to us.
For now, this is all you need to know.
And that we will live happily ever after.
Pointe To Rise links below:
💭SMS Pointe To Rise – +1 (310) 349-3873
Pointe To Rise – Clothing store for items that empower you to remind you of how great you are.