Courage to Grow: Lessons Learned from One Soul Crushing Russian

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” –e.e. Cummings

Each week we share a piece of us on our photographic journey. We have titled this series, “Courage to Grow”. We hope that our own soul searching will inspire similar introspection in our readers and that together we can make our best art and live our best lives


From the age of 5 I took ballet. I liked it a lot. I was by no means ever the star of the class and there were many things I did in which I was much more naturally talented. Still, I loved to dance. At about age 9 I started going to a more professional school that was about an hour away. We would carpool with a couple other girls and it was great. The teachers were so good and the dancers who were older than me were such an inspiration and it was amazing to look in on their classes and just behold the beauty. Still, it was very rigorous and while I loved it, it was all about the technique. It was also all about the progress. At 5 years old, a teacher had told my mom that I was really at a disadvantage for starting so late in my life. Still, I kept on dancing and overall really enjoyed it.DanceAmandaVoelker In the summer we would have workshops. They were 5 days a week and 7 hours a day. While they were primarily ballet, we also had jazz, musical theory (in which our 40 something male teacher was shocked that a bunch of 12 year olds weren’t immediately able to recognize the rhythm he clapped to be from “In America” from “West Side Story”) and character. If you don’t know what character dance is, it’s pretty fun. You get to wear heels and skirts and jump around a lot. Character was a staple of my summers and I always enjoyed it. That was, until we had the teacher Vasili Montienne. Now I’m sure that’s not how he spelled his name, but oh well. Vasili was Russian and had taught character dance for 30 years. He was the first person who had ever told me (in front of about 18 other girls), that I was horrible at something. To be fair, he told a lot of people they were horrible, so I wasn’t completely isolated, but it still sucked. Those of us who weren’t the best were forced to stand in the middle of a circle and do the move until we got it perfectly.  With that class, and also some other events that summer I learned that I would never be thin enough, short enough or flexible enough to dance professionally. I stopped the long drives and not knowing what else to do, signed up with an old teacher from my home town who was teaching classes at the community college.DanceAmandaVoelker-4

I went into these classes with a crappy attitude. I had been molded by the best. Sure I wasn’t the best, but I knew what the best looked like. I felt like this class was beneath me. It took less than 5 miutes at the barre on my first day to see how wrong I was. These women were dancers. There was one girl who looked nothing like a traditional ballet dancer as far as her body, but when she danced, I was drawn in unlike I ever had been before. She was mesmerizing. Her soul was dancing, not just her body. She wasn’t the only one. I saw many members of the class add their own beauty and flair to something that before I had seen only as a discipline to perfect. DanceAmandaVoelker-5In those classes that I took throughout High School, I worked harder than I ever had, fell more than I ever had and probably cried more too, but I loved those classes. They were amazing. There was no goal other than to dance. No recruiters from SF ballet waiting in the wings, no unofficial weigh ins (because the official ones had been banned a few years before I started), and no one telling you that you weren’t good enough because there was no such thing. We were all just dancing. That’s it.

I often think back to my time in Vasili’s class. Partly because of his hairy potbelly and the way he would tie his buttondown above it, but mostly because of how much I let his words mean to me. I had no desire to be a character dancer. It was an extracurricular dance activity that was supposed to be fun, yet with his judgments I forgot that and allowed his cruel words to determine my value. All I wanted was to dance, but because of what seemed like the goals of everyone around me, I needed to be heartbroken that I was not the stuff for professional dance.

DanceAmandaVoelker-6Upon further reflection, I realized I still have some Vasilis in my life. People whose opinion may be valid, but aren’t important to my progress. Not only are there individual people, I’d say there are whole goals that are just Vasilis in disguise. When I first realized photography was more than a hobby, I immediately felt that in order to truly stake my claim, I needed a booming business. I stressed about business cards, client packets, meetings…all of it, but it didn’t make me a better photographer. It was fine, but it had nothing to do with my artistic journey. Success in the moneymaking sphere did not equate to better photos. It just meant that I was taking photos and making money. DanceAmandaVoelker-3There are also the Vasilis of exclusive groups. There is nothing wrong with organizations that have exclusivity in their members, but don’t let a rejection from such a group ever determine your self worth as an artist. Critique can be amazing and we should use the critique we get from those around us, but if it turns from helpful critique to soul crushing, whether or not that was the intent, leave it alone and walk away. We must not let the weight of others’ opinions determine the trajectory of our path.DanceAmandaVoelker-2

Like my ballet class at the community college, there are so many ways to be an artist and photographer. When we shoot from the heart we may create work that beautifully fits into the mold of popular and that is wonderful! If we don’t, however, our work is no less valid because we are no less valid. Our work, if we listen to our voice, will be more fulfilling than any validation. On the flip side of that, if we don’t listen to our own selves, even if great success comes through our imitation of others’ journeys, we will regret not searching for and discovering our true voices.DanceAmandaVoelker-7

So I leave us all with a challenge. Just photograph this week, or dance, or write, or paint…Just do something you love for no other reason than you love it. See how you feel afterwards. Don’t present it to the world unless you are confident that the value of the work is not dependent on the opinions of others. Just make something or do something this week and let your whole soul shine through.

Amanda VoeAmandaBioPiclker is a fine art and lifestyle photographer, focusing on capturing the fleeting moments of childhood. She is currently located in the Seattle, Washington area. With her children and light as her inspiration, Amanda finds beauty in the everyday and is constantly amazed by all the wonder in her life. She strives to capture the subtleties of human emotion and connection in a beautiful way that showcases both the moment and a piece of herself. Amanda is also the co-Editor in Chief of  “The Long Way Home” magazine and co-founder of 30 Minutes in the Life. Aside from photography and family, Amanda is passionate about the ocean, seeing the world, diet coke, reading, and chocolate. You can find more of her work on her website and facebook


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  1. Amanda! You are SUCH a gifted writer, in addition to the photography. I think I come here equally for the words and the images!

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