10/22/2014 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

I Live Because I Dance

I think that the first step to happiness is figuring out what you love to do, and the second step is figuring out why you love to do what you love to do. I always knew that I loved dancing, from the moment I laced my first pair of ballet shoes at age three, and hit the stage for a stirring performance to "I Got Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes" a few months later. Dancing is what makes me feel alive, energized, complete. But if I never considered why I love dancing, I don't know if I would still love it today.

After my first dance recital, I kept dancing with the same studio, training in ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, and acro. I absolutely loved it, but as I got older, I began to feel like I needed to get "serious" about it. Eventually I became engulfed in the aggressive nature of competitive dance; it seemed there was a constant rivalry all around me, all the time. I started feeling self-conscious and like I wasn't good enough unless I was perfect; dancing started to become more about the result, less about the process. Opportunities to dance weren't opportunities to be the best version of myself, but rather opportunities to try to be better than the person dancing next to me, which often included groups of catty girls in false eyelashes.

But when I turned sixteen, the opportunity to love dancing again knocked at my door. A local community theater was looking for dancers to be in their production of 42nd Street. I spontaneously auditioned and got a role that required rehearsals four or five days per week. I decided to drop dancing at my studio for a few months to be part of this musical production. This decision ended up changing my world. As I diligently practiced the routines for the show, I noticed something surprising: the director, choreographer, and producer that instructed me were not looking at every angle of my body. They were not looking at the crispness of every leap and turn. Instead, they were looking at me.

They were looking at the expressions I made and the performance I gave. They were looking at how much I seemed to enjoy what I was doing. I had been used to rehearsals that made me focus on systematic techniques. Don't get me wrong, I needed those kinds of rehearsals in order to learn how to dance; but there came a point when I also needed to focus on what would get the most smiles from an audience. Being in this musical allowed me to do that because I would be performing for people who were just looking to enjoy the show, not critique it. So I was not just a dancer on display. I was an interactive performer that felt every right to feel as fulfilled as the audience that watched me. Being part of a musical separated my mind from rigid training and planted my dancing feet, finally, on the ground again, where they danced because they wanted to, not because they felt like practice made perfect.

By the time my performances of 42nd Street were over, I had recognized that my love of dancing did not have to be channeled toward being perfect; it could be channeled toward, well, dancing. I returned to my studio, but participated with a much less anxious mindset. I also performed in five more musicals, started teaching dance at an after-school program for children with disabilities, and became a Zumba instructor at my gym. Then last summer, I was the dance instructor at a summer camp for ages 4-13. Every time I performed or taught a class, it further reinforced that the smiles and the energy gained from dance would always be more important to me than perfect technique, or anything a critic said. Being a performer and a dance teacher for people that are just in need of a good time or exercise gives me more fulfillment than intensive summer programs ever did. I have rediscovered the powerful enthusiasm that I had when I performed at my first recital back in 1999.

I realize now that I don't live to dance, but that I live because I dance. I live because of the moments when I am performing or teaching a class­ and the vigor- of the students, of the audience, or of my own body -- ignites my spirit. I was sixteen years old the day I rediscovered the magic of dance, but I get to relieve the feeling of it everyday. Every moment that I dance is a revitalizing new beginning. My life is driven by the energy that I absorb from these moments. I've realized that I'm not a dancer that is meant to dance for the world. I'm a dancer that is meant to make the world get up and dance with me.

Having the mindset that I have about dance has helped me to make the most of the dance opportunities that exist for me in New York. Most recently, my life as a dancer includes teaching Zumba classes at four different gyms, taking advantage of any awesome class I find around the city (to keep up with ballet and to try new awesome things like African dance), and working for a dance company that does performances at different events (festivals, weddings, art gallery flash mobs) throughout the tristate area. I couldn't be happier than where I am with dance right now. I will never be a professional dancer, and that's okay. Because I'll always be able to perform for someone, teach someone, share the happiness of dancing with someone... and that is all I could hope for.