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Make Them Ask How, Not Why

Just get good. Travel the world and then they'll ask you how... not why. Hear how Aflie turned self-doubt into confidence.

Do you ever catch your reflection and immediately start to correct something… the way you’re walking, standing, carrying your bag? For professional ballet dancer Alfie, self-criticism is a normal part of his day. In this episode, hear how he turned years of insecurities into a life that he’s proud to live.

Connect with Alfie Jago here.

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Episode Transcript

TRENDHIM: Welcome to Trendhim’s Tell Your Story Podcast. Today we're hearing Alfie’s story. And how he sees opportunities as more than just something he didn't want. So, Alfie, we've talked before, it's really about pit stops and destinations. I mean, you're a professional ballet dancer working in the Sofia National Opera and Ballet. What kind of pit stops have you had to get where you are today?

ALFIE: Hello. Thank you for having me. Yeah. Um, during the second season of my professional career, I was working in the Czech Republic and I had an injury and that was a really difficult thing mentally and physically, obviously, you know. I was getting more and more out of shape and I didn't have a job and I didn't have that kind of support network from the company as much. So I was working with a physiotherapist, um, but in the end, I moved to London and I had to kind of find temporary work. But I still had this goal of getting back to ballet. So I didn't want to take a job that I would have to really commit to or study or sign a long contract for. So I ended up with two jobs. I worked as a pot wash in a hotel, and I also worked in the evenings in a nightclub. Just like behind the bar. So yeah, that was kind of never somewhere I expected to be, particularly not having started my professional career as a dancer.

Doing these... I was working crazy hours. I think I normally did between 55 and 60 hours a week. Doing those two jobs with, yeah, that I really wasn't such a big fan of. But I think actually now that was like a really, really valuable experience for me.

I think I was very much living in the past so I think then working in those jobs in London, and I was always very inspired by some of my colleagues, like the way they approached washing dishes and they were so like, there was some of them that had come from like third world countries and they were just so happy and so proud to have the opportunity to wash dishes.

And I was just kind of taken aback. That, you know, the pride they put into what they do. And that really motivated me to be the best pot wash that I could be. You know, where I was working so hard doing these two jobs, doing crazy hours, I think, yeah, it was kind of a wake-up call that actually I was working harder doing stuff that I didn't like than maybe at times I did when I was doing what I was passionate about.

So I think once I got back into dancing, that was really something like I took with me. I can remember, you know, when we were coming up to a new show and I was so tired, I would kind of like, I kept the t-shirts from my old work and like on days where I really didn't want to go to work, I would wear those particular t-shirts because it was kind of like, you know, a reminder for me that what I already survived, you know, this was, you know, this was what I wanted to do.

But yeah, I definitely think that's like a really powerful motivation for me. I can really remember when I was working in those kitchens. I used to watch the clock, like my shift was eight hours and I would get paid this much. And like, I think the way I kind of distracted myself with, I was just all the time doing mental arithmetic and just being like, okay, the next 15 minutes are worth X amount the next, you know, I've got this long until my break.

And then obviously I kind of came back to dancing and then you just do three hours overtime and you don't even notice. And so I think that's the thing. I'm really lucky now that I don't have to, you know, like I just wake up and I'm excited for the day. And I'm excited to go to work. And I think the other thing I found is like, the harder I push myself, the more I seem to enjoy it. So yeah, I think that's a really nice thing.

TRENDHIM: But had you not met them and had you not been able to see the value in what they do and the value in what you were doing, maybe you wouldn't appreciate where you are now. Even as much.

ALFIE: Oh, a hundred percent. That's so true. They took such pride in what they were doing. And I think that always made me give that extra push.

Like had I not worked so hard, I wouldn't have got the same lessons, which I kind of have taken now to be a really big part of how I work now. Now I'm grateful for that injury. Yeah. and I think also like the kind of, the way I came back, and I kind of had to reteach myself. Like I still knew how to dance, but I think the only thing was my kind of coping mechanism in that period was working out. I was always like a really naturally skinny kid, so I always kind of had to work out and I really wanted to try and get bigger and stronger cause that was a real insecurity of mine.

So it kind of became that working out was my kind of coping mechanism and my way to deal with – to have a bad day. I go workout if I'm stressed, I go work out. If I have, you know, anything. It was like, okay, go work out, clear your head.

During that London period where I wasn't dancing and my ankle was weak, I really just went for it and it was just really then it was nothing about making myself a better dancer. It was just a coping mechanism because I think at first I thought I'd come back and nothing would have changed. But obviously, I kind of took a year out and gained probably 10 kilos. And you know, it was a big shock for me to be dancing again. So I had to be really patient with myself and kind of understand that it was going to take time.

TRENDHIM: Well, you're also in a career where, I'm assuming that you're rehearsing in a room full of mirrors, and even if you're not, you're at least performing in front of a group of people. So it's really a profession where the look is really important. I mean, you're constantly correcting yourself in the mirror if you have one.

How do you deal with that on a daily basis? The constant… Not good enough.

ALFIE: You are taught from early on to look in the mirror and see what's not right. You know, even if you're walking down the street and you see your reflection, I think we're very, we analyze ourselves a lot. So I think that's something that really actually psychologically does impact us a little bit. That kind of critiquing ourselves all the time. You know, we kind of take that home.

TRENDHIM: How do you separate that from – if I'm in class, this is me. You know, in my profession I can correct, I can take it on a professional level, but if I, if I bring it home, brushing my teeth, and I realize my eyebrows are crooked.

ALFIE: Yeah. I mean, I think that's the thing. I can't speak for all dancers, but actually, I was always very, very insecure. I always really was very self-critical. And then I remember I did like a photoshoot and I shared some of those photos and loads of people kind of like commented on them, but also got in touch with me and were like, well, look at you. You've grown up so much, buddy blah. But I think the thing for me, I found, every time I posted a photo, like the ones that I liked the most didn't seem to have the same effect of, you know, like other people never seem to like those ones so much.

So I think that kind of. Made me realize that what other people see is not what I see. And I think I overanalyze, but like now I'm aware of it. I think I'm less harsh on myself, but I think, I'm kind of programmed to over analyze, but actually what I see in the mirror is completely different to what other people see in the mirror.

And what I see in a photo is completely different from what normal people see in the photo. I think just kind of understanding that, like being aware that I'm self-critical and I'm kind of programmed to be, doesn't mean that that's necessarily how the rest of the world sees what I see. You know?

TRENDHIM: 100% I, it's a process though, I think. I think a lot more guys than we realize are quite self-critical. You know, whether you feel that you're too skinny or you feel like you're too tall or too this or too that… it's, it's becoming a bigger problem than we realize

You're fortunate that you're in a profession where. You know, critique is a part of it. And I mean, fortunate in a way that you learn how to separate those two. Perhaps you've learned how through the ballet. But if you're not surrounded by that, and if it's not part of your profession, you know, it must be difficult to divide that between what I think about myself versus what someone else is seeing

ALFIE: Yeah, and I think a lot of people would talk about this, but things like social media have impacted our view of beauty and aesthetics and that sort of thing. And I think, you know, you're only ever going to post a photo where you've got the perfect lighting or the best angle, it's very rare that someone would show you the less good sides of themselves.

TRENDHIM: I know you post quite a bit of your, your ballet, whether it's rehearsal, whether it's pictures from performance. I have a question. What is it like as a male dancer. To put yourself out there like that? Do you get a lot of – because perhaps there are some negative ideas about men and dancing, masculinity, this sort of thing. Have you, have you dealt with that because you started when you were just a kid?

ALFIE: I think actually I was really, really lucky. Um, I was born in a very small village. and I was actually the only boy in my year, which is kind of how I got into dancing in the first place. So it was never really a thing for me, that dance is for girls or whatever.

I never really had that. And I think my parents raised me and you know, I never questioned if... You know, I never even thought about those kinds of things.

And I think it wasn't until really until I was in university that I ever hid the fact that I was a dancer. And I think at that point, I remember like meeting people and you know like we'd meet friends of friends or whatever… I played for a football team and, you know, sometimes I would tell people I was an actor, or my brother does kind of backstage stuff, so I’d tell people I did that. And it was only kind of by that relatively late age that I kind of began to, let's say hide that. You know, when I told the guys in my football team, like, you know, okay, I wasn't completely honest, I'm actually a ballet dancer. They were just like, wow, that's super cool.

And I was like, okay, you know, if the people I was most scared of judging me, kind of really think is a really cool thing and wanted to know more about that. That was another thing that was like, okay, yeah, you can, you can share this. I think now, you know, I've worked so hard at becoming a dancer that I won’t shut up about it.

TRENDHIM: Well now it's who you are now. It's definitely a big part of your profession. You're, you're making a career out of it. It's definitely something to be proud of. I think it's. Perhaps a lot more difficult on the way there.

ALFIE: Yeah, like I've had incidences where people have DM’ed, me, like young boys who said like, Oh, I want to start ballet, but I'm scared people will call me gay. Like I've had several cases of that, or people saying, you know, I started ballet, but people are laughing at me. Like, how did you deal with that? And, and I mean, I've always had to be honest and say that was never such a big thing for me.

But kind of point out that, if that's what you want to do, you know, do it… don't let other people's insecurities kind of bring you down to that level.

TRENDHIM: And just get really, really good at it.

ALFIE: Just get good. Travel the world and then, you know, they'll ask you how not why.

TRENDHIM: Exactly. Well, speaking of travelling the world, you've worked in lots of different companies in different countries, but it's such a competitive field and it's a very short career. So how do you, how do you find your niche? How do you stand out in a room of everybody wanting the same parts?

ALFIE: Yeah, there's always going to be someone that can do tricks better than you and someone that can do this better than you. So then it's trying to kind of, and it's a really hard thing because we're so self-critical, but to kind of show yourself when you dance, and I think if you try to show yourself, that's never going to look good. So you have to kind of trust yourself and let it happen more naturally. like I remember one choreographer I worked with just kind of saw himself in me. You know, it was not that I was the best, but he just, he could just empathize with me because I guess he thought I was natural and reminded him of himself.

Again, you don't know what they see, so you just have to try and do you, and hopefully, people are going to appreciate that.

And. Yeah. I found, you know, that's a big thing, is that… try stuff, but never, never kind of limit yourself to a certain box.

TRENDHIM: Exactly. Limiting yourself is the ultimate curse. And had you done that, even back at the beginning, back when you first moved to London, had you limited yourself, you wouldn't have even learned the lessons that got you started focusing more on, on what you wanted to do and being grateful for that, you know.

ALFIE: Yeah. I think the thing is just to try and challenge yourself and have a goal, but don't, don't limit yourself by that. Don't say it's that or nothing, because I think kind of opportunities come when you least expect them and if I have one piece of advice is just be open-minded whenever anyone asks you anything.

TRENDHIM: Yeah. Be open-minded and see these opportunities as more than just, like you said, more than just something that you didn't want. And I think that's really what it is. I think you hit the nail on the head. Everyone has something to say and all you really need is someone to encourage you and listen to you say it.

ALFIE: Yeah. And to believe that actually people, people want to hear about you and get to know you and you know, I think that's the thing is... I was, I was so insecure. And it's crazy because now I'm here making a podcast so that hopefully lots of people can hear my story. And that's something that, you know, even now is a bit almost intimidating for me.

You know, you know, like you want to hear my story, and that's a really gratifying thing. And I think, yeah, a lot of people are far more interesting than they would believe because you know, you, you don't see your own life is interesting because it's just your life. But for someone else, you know, it's a story.

TRENDHIM: No, it's exactly true. You, because it's your life. You're there every day, just like you don't really notice that you grow up and you get older until one day you realize, wait, I just got older. So it's the same thing with a story. You live it every day. You, the things that happened to you, happened to you. They're not so monumental until you look back or until someone else brings it to your attention.

ALFIE Yeah, for sure. For sure.

TRENDHIM: Well, I sure do thank you for telling your story today. I think there'll be more than just me who is interested in listening to it, even if it's some of these younger dancers out there who look up to you. That's, that's a really great thing and that's a great legacy to start leaving behind now. So thank you so much for taking the time with us today.

ALFIE: No, no. Thank you. Thank you for having me and for doing this interview.

TRENDHIM: And thank you for listening. Here at Trendhim, we believe that every man has a story worth telling. What's yours?

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