What role does culture play in how we experience anxiety? In this series, three women of diverse backgrounds weigh in.

Candace Thompson moved to New York from Trinidad at the age of 20 to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional dancer. As the only artist in the family, her path was highly unusual—she is the oldest of three children with two economists for parents.

“You know, now as an adult, looking back on my life, I was very anxious for a long time as a child, because I think I was the oldest of three so there was always a lot of pressure placed on me,” she recalls. But in the West Indies, anxiety is not such a common trope as it is among wound-up New Yorkers.

“I don’t feel like people really talked about anxiety [growing up],” she says. “Now, looking back, I can definitely tell there were lots of moments in my life where I was anxious but there’s no emphasis placed on it.”

That pressure was doubled by the achievement emphasis of the Trinidadian school system, in which students have exams every year and have to choose a high school major at the age of 13. The pressure, she says, was not explicit—more of an assumption among her parents and their friends that she should succeed.

While she got good grades in school, academics were not her passion. She knew she wanted to dance.

“Most of my anxiety was about hitting these markers and you know, being successful, but choosing dance—there was no anxiety. That wasn’t a major stressful decision–[because] I knew that I always wanted to do it,” she recalls. “But I also feel that I was a little bit ignorant because I didn’t realize what being a dancer would actually mean in terms of what the rest of my life would look like.”

That life includes the constant pressure of keeping in perfect physical condition, maintaining weight, while making enough to “afford to be a dancer.”

“Nobody pays you to take a dance class. Nobody pays you to stay in shape. Nobody pays you to go and do research on the choreographer that you’re going to audition for,” she says, adding, “You know, because 8 out of 10 times you’re not going to get the job anyway.”

At times, she has been so stressed out that she considered quitting and returning to Trinidad. Her life there, she says, would be very different—a traditional college degree, job, family path. “I feel like being an artist made me a better person,” she says. “I feel like if I’d just followed that path, I don’t think I would have been able to figure out my soul.”

Choreographing, she says, has been a great help in relieving some of that anxiety, even though it adds the pressure of being the woman running the show. “I’m happier now that I’m producing my own work.”

There are also unexpected joys along the way. Her Brooklyn neighborhood is largely West Indian, so her neighbors create an atmosphere of home. She also connects to her cultural roots by teaching a West Indian dance class that allows both her and her students to let loose, move and embody the music purely for the passion.

“If you don’t get a step, just keep moving,” is the philosophy she preaches. “It’s more about the process than the end result.”


Featured image: San Tsuki