This interview is part of the Chasing Dreams interview series. I've interviewed a variety of entrepreneurs and small business owners who have chosen a different path in life in order to go after his or her dream career. Have an entrepreneur in mind you'd like to learn more about? Let me know! Today’s interview is with Crystal Chin, a beautiful ballroom dancer who has worked with some big names in the music industry. I came to know Crystal through her boyfriend, Cobi Mike, who opened for Third Eye Blind a few months back. After following their Instagram accounts, I knew I needed to connect with them. They're an inspiring young couple both following their dreams and living healthy lifestyles.
Read on to learn about her journey and the struggles she’s faced becoming a professional dancer. This interview is a great example of the common struggles people face when chasing their dreams, whether it's opening a business or becoming a performer.
At what point did you know you wanted to follow this career path? How did you know this was the right direction?
I knew I wanted to become a professional Latin ballroom dancer when I was in college. I was attending USC School of Fine Arts and focusing on photography and drawing but wondering what I was going to do with my life after I graduated. I loved my major but it wasn’t exciting me to think of making a career out of it. I had been dancing on the side, always keeping up with my Ballet and Jazz training. One summer I took a Latin Ballroom dance class and that’s when my life changed. I fell madly in love with the dance form and became so passionate about it that I had to do it every chance I got. I became obsessed with becoming the best at it and couldn’t wait to graduate so that I could devote 100% of my time and energy into becoming a professional competitive dancer.
I was able to make a living from teaching and getting a dance agent that would book me for commercial dance work. I knew this was it for me when I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The obsession overcame me and I had never felt this way before about anything else I did. Dancing made me feel alive and I didn’t want to live a life without passion and art.
What are the biggest struggles you've faced while trying to achieve your dreams?
As with many art forms, dance is underpaid and under-appreciated. It isn’t until you are at the top of the field that you can really make a decent living off of it. My dance agents say that there’s only about 7% of professional dancers in the commercial dance world that don’t have to supplement their income with another job. It takes a lot of work to get to the top and I consider all of those unpaid hours in the studio and free gigs I did for experience, sweat equity. It’s hard to get respect for what you do when people don’t see all the work that gets put into it. They see the final product and assume that you aren’t working unless you’re performing, but the performance is only the tip of the iceberg.
Emotionally, the biggest struggles have definitely been learning how to handle extreme criticism and judgment on how I look and move. Being a performer requires a thick skin and if you don’t already have one, you’ll definitely grow one as long as you’re in the business.
Owning your own business can be tough on the body and mind, between long days, instability and really putting yourself out there to reach your goals. How do you stay healthy? Do you have any rituals that help you stay centered?
I try to eat really well. I stay away from red meat, dairy and processed foods. I have always cross- trained by doing Pilates, Yoga and weight training. I start each day with a few glasses of warm lemon water and meditation. Meditating also helps me a lot with pre-performance anxiety. I focus on my breathing and remind myself to stay present in the moment.
Speaking of putting yourself out there, overcoming rejection is a big part of chasing dreams. How do you bounce back?
I have created a nice home for myself that I know I can always come back to- a safe place where I won’t be judged, surrounded by people I love and trust. These are the things that make me feel whole again after being rejected and ripped apart. Then I put myself back out there as soon as I can because I know that it’s the only way to really overcome it.
What do you do when you're having an off day- maybe feeling down, struggling with self-doubt, or just unmotivated?
I stick with what is familiar and easy to me. I do my routine and take care of myself. It can be as simple as cooking, taking my dog for a walk or finishing a book. It’s in these everyday things that I find comfort. I call and talk to my loved ones and mentors who listen to me vent and encourage me to continue. Some times I just need a break and I try not to be too hard on myself if today just isn’t the day. I know that when things are down, they always come back up eventually.
What is one misconception people have about you and/or your profession?
That being a professional dancer is so glamorous. Yes, my job has its perks but people only see the performance. They see the final product and it has been shaped and shined for the public. They don’t see what has gone on behind the scenes and what it took to get up to that point. If they did, they would see, literally, the blood, sweat and tears. The physical pain, the frustration, the discomfort, the failed attempts, and the humiliation endured to get to that point is all hidden. People see me in a fancy costume, or on a commercial all done up but little do they know, I have survived a hundred rejections before I got that job, I have endured hundreds of grueling hours of rehearsal before that show or competition, I have been shooting on set for 14 hours a day in heels on a concrete floor in an un-air conditioned warehouse in the middle of summer. I have to get my foot injected with cortisone to keep dancing and as soon and this job is done, I’m wondering how I will make enough money until I get my next job. None of that sounds glamorous to me, but it’s all done in the name of love and passion.
What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned along the way?
I learned to really listen to my body. I know it sounds obvious but so many of us don’t truly listen to what our bodies are telling us. A headache, a muscle cramp, an injury, or a cold… they’re all signals our body is giving us telling us to back off or do something different. Whether it’s to rest more, eat better, drink more water, or relax, we only have one body and we need to take care of it.
I’ve also learned how connected the mind is to the body. Whatever is going on with me emotionally, always translates into a physical symptom. It may be immediate such as a stomachache when I’m nervous before a show, or it could be cumulative, like chronic neck pain from the tension created by my ongoing anxiety. The body never lies and whenever I feel something physically wrong, I know I need to check in with myself and re-evaluate my situation. Am I doing too much? Is this person someone I want to be around? Am I being true to myself? My body will tell me if I really listen.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a professional dancer?
I would tell them to always remember why they are dancing. Why did they fall in love with it to begin with? Write it down if need be or have a friend to call that will remind you when things get hard. I have this poem I wrote in the beginning stages of falling in love with Latin Ballroom and it’s filled with raw emotion describing how dance has given me gifts that no person or object in this world could give. How it has carried me through my life into my adulthood making me the woman I am. Reading that poem ten years later when I am feeling down, reminds me of why I do what I do and puts me back into that mindset of a hungry, un-jaded, inspired female dancer.
Never forget the reasons why, because throughout your career, there will be many challenges that will knock you down and if you lose sight of your original intention and passion, it will be very hard to get back up. Never dance for anyone else but yourself because you can never satisfy everyone. Keep a network of supporters nearby and make a routine. Live by that routine because in a career that’s success is built on self- motivation, that routine will save you on days when you aren’t that motivated.
When do you feel the most inspired, alive and the most like YOU?
I feel the most inspired and alive when I’m working on a project that is all my own. So much of the time, I am helping to create someone else’s artistic vision and it’s always invigorating to see your own vision come to life. It could be anything from decorating a room to choreographing my own show piece. I love the rehearsal process most of the time as well. Being in a room full of dancers and artists working together to make something unique and beautiful is always inspiring. Besides that, being home or with close friends and family is when I feel most free to be me. Despite my career choice, I am an introvert at heart.
What people, books, music, etc. inspire you?
I admire people who have the courage to listen and follow their hearts, because I believe as a result of being true to themselves, success follows. Artists like Misty Copeland, the famous African American female soloist of American Ballet Theatre inspire me. She grew up with one road block after another in life that could have easily deterred her from her true path to becoming a dancer, but she listened to the little voice inside her telling her to keep on dancing and soon enough that little voice became a huge one for all the world to hear. She now has a platform to reach out to the public and make a positive change in the world. Her autobiography “Life in Motion: The Story of an Unlikely Ballerina” is a great book. Sera Beak’s book, “Red Hot and Holy” also really inspired me to trust my intuition and listen to my gut even if it’s telling me to do something that goes against what everyone else wants and thinks.
Describe your favorite moment or accomplishment in your career so far.
One of my favorite moments in my career was when when I was chosen to be a featured “China girl” in the Bailey's commercial choreographed by Michael Rooney, one of the most influential and well- known choreographers in our time. I was flown to London where the commercial was being shot and I was the only foreigner they had in the commercial. Every other girl booked was local to London but this was going to be a world wide commercial and they needed featured girls to represent every country.
I was chosen amongst all the Asian girls that were auditioned worldwide, including Hong Kong and the U.S. to dance in this commercial. Apparently, they had a hard time finding another Asian girl with long legs that had the necessary dance ability. The look they were going for was tall, long legged, “Busby Berkeley” style dancers. I felt honored and flattered that they would go to such lengths to book me on this job. I was flown to London in business class for 2 weeks, with a personal car to take me to and from rehearsals. A per diem every day on top of the great rate for the commercial I was going to get paid and a few days off to do whatever I wanted in London. It was a dream job and because I was protected under the Sag union in America, I never got worked over time and I was given special privileges to ensure my comfort.
Most importantly, I was featured in a commercial that my family in Asia would actually be able to see on T.V. It was a proud moment.
What’s the most exciting thing going on in your life right now?
Right now I’m really excited about this book I am writing. It’s a memoir about my career as an Asian American female in the dance industry and how I came to make the choices that I did and how I arrived at the place I am now in my life. You’ll get an inside look on various dance jobs that are so called “glamorous”. You’ll see how much of the dance world is affected by this idea of a fake feminine ideal and how I came to the point in my life where I learned to maintain my integrity and stand up for myself. I give a very personal account of how Asian culture has affected my career choices and how I maintained balance between both worlds in the end. Writing about dancing at this time in my life is what I’m most passionate about. It’s the project that is calling to me most strongly right now, and I’m looking forward to having the final product to share with the world sometime next year.
Crystal is a professional Latin Ballroom dancer born and raised in Los Angeles. She started her dance training as a young child with ballet and jazz. While ballet gave her a strong technical foundation, it wasn't until she discovered Latin Ballroom did she feel her true passion for dance could be expressed. Having trained extensively with World Champion Latin Ballroom Dancers, she has competed professionally all over the United States. Crystal has been teaching art and dance to children and adults for over ten years in the L.A. area. Graduating from USC with a degree in Fine Arts, she continues to perform in shows that include Burlesque and Contemporary mixed in with her Latin Ballroom style.
Crystal is signed with BLOC talent Agency and has been fortunate enough to have danced and worked with great talents such as JLo, Katy Perry, Dancing with the Stars, Hugh Laurie, Natasha Bedingfield, Michael Rooney and Travis Payne to name a few. Crystal not only teaches steps and technique but how to combine the sport of dance with the art of dance. She is currently working on her memoir due out in 2015.
Have questions for Crystal about becoming a professional dancer? Ask her in the comments!