Each week we will feature the kind of everyday heroes you can look up to. They come from all walks of life, age groups and beliefs. We hope you’ll learn as much from them as we have!
Karen Castleman is the kind of personality you won’t soon get out of your head. We first met ten years ago when I was a struggling 21-year-old, dealing terribly with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. My grades were in a bigger mess than my body and mind, and I was looking for a little escape from the terror. I signed up for her Ballet I course hoping to land an easy A, but discovered something unexpected : peace.
Mrs. Castleman was immediately endearing; with her athletic frame, Southern accent, and easy-going sense of humor, she was not at all what I believed dancers could be. In every session she chipped away at our physical rigidity, pushed our minds to release it’s fearful hold over our perceived limitations, and – honestly – she got us to chill out. Karen never yelled, or embarrassed us, nor did she let us off the hook if we were afraid to try, which broke down walls and led to friendships.
I began the semester hoping I wouldn’t have to think at all. So, it came as quite a surprise that I looked forward to practicing positions and stretches at the end of each day, simply because it felt right. When she offered us the choice of participating in an end of the semester performance for extra credit, I jumped at the opportunity without a thought to the points. That’s how good she was, and, I’m sure, how good she still is.
As I stated earlier, Karen Castleman isn’t someone you’re going to easily forget, which is why I reached out to her 10 years from our first meeting to ask for a bit of her time and words. Ever the wonderful teacher, she obliged. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.
What is your profession?
I am a full time dance teacher at Arkansas Arts Academy, a public, charter high school with an arts focus. I am also a freelance choreographer and performer.
How did you break into your position?
I wouldn’t say there was any breaking into it. I have been a student of dance as long as I can remember, and then some. After college I began what would be a 15 year career in professional dance. Through many different dance jobs, the one constant was teaching. I’ve always been teaching. The more I learn and grow as a dancer, the more I can offer my students. And, fortunately, I never want to stop learning!
If you could change your life, what would you do instead? Why?
My life has made me who I am right now. And I’m ok with that. If I changed things, I’d surely be changed in the process. That would be ok too, but it isn’t reality. I’m ok with my reality and changing things about it everyday. Next, I think I’ll make changes to take better care of myself.
What are some ways you take care of yourself?
I can honestly say this is not one of my strengths. I have had little kids in my life for 13 years now, and I tend to take care of others first. Sometimes staying up late is taking care of myself. Just to have a little time to myself, for my brain to process. Sometimes just going to bed is taking care of myself. I love a good nap. I drink a glass of hot water with lemon and ACV every morning. I shower everyday. EVERY DAY. Even with little kids. I love my morning routine, even though it is short. I like to start the day feeling clean, fresh and ready to tackle whatever comes. I eat green things, and colorful things, and whole things. Maybe I’m better at this than I thought… I do look forward to when taking care of myself looks like actually going to yoga on a regular basis, dancing around just for fun, and having space in my life to make things again. I’m a closet crafter.
Can you share a time or event you didn’t think you could survive?
In the middle of my dance career, during the economic crisis of 2008/9, I lost my dream job dancing with my all time favorite company. I couldn’t understand why this could happen when I had worked so hard to achieve this dream and it was the perfect fit. It had been my dream since childhood and I just didn’t know what else to do.
What/Who pulled you through it?
My husband (of 9 years at the time, and 18 years now) was an incredible listener as I ranted and raved. He suggested that I could now dream a new dream. I thought he was crazy. I didn’t have another dream. So I let a little anger and a little disappointment blow the roof off of what I decided to expect of myself. I danced with a company where I had to breakdance and they taught this old dog some new tricks. I performed classical pas de deux, en pointe, some of the most challenging roles I had done up to that point. I danced in operas, once while pregnant. I had two more kids and kept right on dancing. I choreographed and earned commissions and am still just going, going, going.
How did the event/time shape the way you live now?
I will never give in to the idea that there is anything I can’t do. There are things that I won’t do. And things that will just never pan out given the choices I’ve made and priorities I’ve set. But I believe that whatever I throw my heart, energy, discipline, intellect and talent towards, I can achieve. I am constantly redefining for myself what and who I am and can be. I strive to raise the bar wherever I am by expecting excellence from myself and those around me. (And I understand that sometimes, you just have to crash for a bit.)
What was the best/ funniest/ most memorable piece of advice you’ve received?
As a younger dancer I asked a role model of mine how she kept going, kept dancing and taking class and teaching (in my mind she was an “older” dancer although in reality she was probably then very near my current age). She said, “Just never stop.” I see that now as an “older” dancer. As we age, the bodies that “just never stop” seem to age more healthily. That doesn’t mean I’ll take ballet forever (a good ballet class is hard to find, and find time for, where I live) but I do hope to be a body that keeps moving. I have lots of beautiful role models to follow in the path of always moving.
When do you feel the most free?
When I recall that my true identity is that of a child of God, absolutely loved, and nothing can ever change that. And also when dancing some cheezy lyrical jazz choreography. Cheezy lyrical is my jam.
What do you want to be remembered for?
For giving everything I have. And for kindness.