Meditate. Find stillness, reflection, self-worth, kindness, and radical self-love in the quiet, in stillness, somewhere. The dance world is cutthroat competitive and beyond the passion necessary to succeed, you will need support for the ongoing disappointments often so entangled with your physical health and identity. Your village, your friends and family can be there for you, but ultimately, your inner peace is dependent upon being self-aware, self-caring and self-loving. With that in place, you will have the fortitude to accept any challenge.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Antonia Deignan.
Antonia Deignan is a mother of five children by choice, a dancer by calling, and a writer by necessity. She was born on the East Coast but spent most of her life in the Midwest, where she danced with multiple dance companies and raised her children. She opened her own dance studio and directed a pre-professional dance company before a bike accident wish-boned her path, and her identity. Now retired, she resides in a beloved island home in Martha’s Vineyard, where she continues to be inspired and write. Her memoir, Underwater Daughter, debuts on May 2, 2023.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a highly intellectual and culturally sophisticated household. My father practiced oncology and was a concert pianist. My mother was fanatical about Shakespeare and the ballet. I became a professional dancer after an entire childhood of training in ballet and theater.
Unfortunately, our family system was dysfunctional which colored a bit how I moved through my twenties, but by age thirty-five I’d taken my last professional dance step and was rounding upward and onward to motherhood and five children!
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I used dance very early on as a coping mechanism to escape the challenges I experienced in my home. I was driven and disciplined enough that while still in high school I was hired to dance professionally in a company, and from there moved to Chicago to join other companies. Dance filled all my needs personally and professionally until my mid-thirties. A bike accident in my fifties inadvertently turned my creative and self-discovery needs towards writing. This ended up in my being a published author.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are many people that influenced my choices along the way. But since my dance career grew out of a necessity to survive, by default, I was my most reliable and trusted guide. I think when it mattered most, when I truly needed help was when I became a single mother of two young children, and my best friend, Angela taught me more than anyone how to be a good mother, how to be a good role model for my children, how to teach my children boundaries and keep them safe.
Can you share a story about that?
It was the first day of potty-training shenanigans. I was a single mother with a two-year-old son, and a nine-month-old daughter. I thought I’d be able to train my son to use a toilet in twenty-four hours. I was mistaken. Frustrated after a day of accidents, I called Angela who was a professional nanny.
“Oh, love, you started his potty training when?” she was more than amused at my thinking I could transition my boy from diapers to a toilet in twenty-four hours. She soothed me. “For f*#k sake, you are too much,” she said, and assured me it could take months or even a year to teach a toddler toileting.
Angela was not only my tutor, but she was also my sounding board, my voice of reason, and an uncompromising opinion giver, all things I had desperately needed. She showered me in friendship, mixed with sarcasm and parenting tools to live by. She was my guardian angel. With Angela’s guidance, I survived, and so did my kids.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I have had a lot of fascinating experiences, yes. One that came to mind first, was when I was hired as one of two back up dancers for a Billboard Top 100 pop artist. We toured in first class, black limousine-ed our way from one gig to the next and played houses in the tens of thousands. During one of those performances when he introduced me, the entire crowd began chanting my name and it caught me off guard in the most magnificent way.
Now that I am embarking on a career post-dance and post-accident, and I am in full-on reinvention mode, I recently attended a well-known author’s panel discussion that coincided with her most recent memoir. In her eighties, this author’s storytelling was profoundly moving, witty, smart, and hilarious. I was smitten. We have since become email pen pals and I am like a sixteen-year-old girl consumed by an impulsive and innocent crush. I love her.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
My mistakes in writing seem to encompass more pain than humor. I’ve made tons. Lots of them have been pointed out to me in the ways I’ve chosen to construct sentences, make up words, syntax and grammar. I write like I used to dance, with complete abandon, perhaps a little too much fearlessness, and an almost complete disregard for the rules.
Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I learned that my voice is what matters the most and no matter what I write or how I choose to write it, there will be haters as well as lovers and everything in between and that is perfectly fine with me. I am a work in progress, and a life-long student.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just finished recording my audiobook with an incredibly talented music producer. It was a phenomenal deep dive into multi layers of creative output, including narrating, storytelling, holding my voice, exposing my heart, singing a cappella, (I am NOT a singer) creating harmonies, editing, fine tuning and just in general, blending two creative souls, our two creative energies into one project.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
I think one must define their ideas of success ahead of time. For me, the act of immersing myself in a creative process is success. Staying aligned with my messaging, not being afraid to write down my truth, and have it out in the public domain is a success. (I did that as a dancer as well. I left everything I had in me, every single time, on the stage.) Showing my children that I have chosen to live openly, bravely, and as authentically as possible, means I am telling them that they can choose to do that as well. They see me, they hear me, and they still love me for it.
That is beyond any measure of success I could hope for. You will find algorithms, luck, chance, who you know and where you’ve been as game changers within every single career path, and that can easily influence the direction of your commercial successes. Be true to your passion and your truth.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Have real interesting hobbies, exercise, and a daily meditation practice.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1. Passion, full stop. If you don’t love it, don’t do it. Because it’s forkin’ hard, as in grueling, depleting, 24//7 body breaking work. What would the other four be?
2. Compete only with yourself, every single day you will have the opportunity to improve. It will never matter how good anyone else in the room is, because there will ALWAYS be someone else better in the room than you. With passion, just keep at it, work as hard as you possibly can.
3. SLEEP. EAT HEALTHY. Try not to party too much. Your body is your money maker. Once that breaks, you’re screwed.
4. YOU will (likely) never make a ton of money. So figure that out. Part-time work enough to get decent insurance so injuries and illnesses don’t break your bank. There are organizations out there now that fundraise to support performance artists which is fantastic.
5. Meditate. Find stillness, reflection, self-worth, kindness, and radical self-love in the quiet, in stillness, somewhere. The dance world is cutthroat competitive and beyond the passion necessary to succeed, you will need support for the ongoing disappointments often so entangled with your physical health and identity. Your village, your friends and family can be there for you, but ultimately, your inner peace is dependent upon being self-aware, self-caring and self-loving. With that in place, you will have the fortitude to accept any challenge.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would be honored to jump on Sonya Renee Taylor’s bandwagon and be a spokesperson and mentor for Radical Self-Love, to help folks honor and celebrate what makes them different, instead of bowing to the demands and norms of conformity. We are a people. We belong to the same group, the human one. And all of the uniqueness-es, the varieties of colors, dialects, faiths, gender identifications and sexual preferences are meant to be EQUAL and celebrated!
Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a lot of favorite quotes. But this one came to me first: “Don’t measure how valuable you are by the way you are treated.” — Charles Mackesy
I don’t think you can move through childhood and not experience difficulties at some point that can quite possibly wreak havoc in your life for years to come. We must learn we are all love, and capable of our fullest potentials. Sometimes things, or people stand in the way of our knowing or believing that. We must be able to see our own worth.
Another one: “Competition is a low vibration stimulus.” –Rick Rubin
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!