2023: Sure it was grand, so it was.

Arlene Caffrey photo by Stephen White : The Last Mixed Tape

My default response as an Irish person would be to say that 2023 was ‘grand’ if asked.

The truth is, I am the happiest I have been in years.

It feels like a vainglorious humblebrag to say that it’s been a good year, especially amidst the chaos of existence right now. But, I am happy. If you’d like to read my reflections on how I’ve gotten to this point, I’d love to share it with you.

I’ve been fortunate to have had some amazing experiences and big achievements these past 12 calendar months, such as:

  • Performing onstage with Snoop Dogg (dancing, not rapping)
  • Getting my Masters Degree in Fine Art
  • Transitioning my studio from brick-and-mortar to online

As amazing as these experiences have been, they are not the reason that I am happy.

Don’t get me wrong; for sure I am very appreciative of the above and I had a lot of fun engaging in these activities.

Although there’s great external validation in the shiny signifiers of success, I’ll share a few examples of how my own experience of happiness has become less concerned with identifying who I am with the things that I have done:

I have been very lucky to get to do many amazing performances in beautiful venues at home and abroad, as well as teaching my signature Old School style workshops in studios across Ireland, UK and Europe. A younger version of myself would have taken great pride in defining herself as ‘successful’ because she’s ‘in demand’ and then subsequently filled with anxiety about scheduling the next gig or workshop ‘before she is forgotten about’. Whereas the current version of me finds magic in the moment of those shared experiences: I feel joy in connecting with others who care about dance and performance as much as I do, and satisfaction in passing on knowledge in a subject that I love.

Another example would be getting that once-in-a-lifetime experience in dancing on stage with Snoop Dogg, an opportunity that I know was highly sought after by many of my colleagues. Truth is, I don’t feel like I’m a better dancer just because I got to dance on that stage, or that I’ve now ‘made it’ as a performing artist (although yes I will include it on my biography for the rest of my days!). My memory of that night is the laughs and deep soul chats I had with my fellow dancers backstage, as well as the rush of busting out my favourite pole movements to live music in front of a loud 10,000-strong audience. My younger self would have definitely felt like she had ‘peaked’ and that nothing she would ever experience onstage again would even come close to that, shortly followed by a massive existential crisis. Whereas the current version of myself felt just as much joy and emotion from dancing at a friend’s informal studio showcase to a ‘tiny’ but attentive audience, less than a month after Snoop Dogg. Those who know me best know that I don’t tend to cry in public, but I cried openly at that studio showcase from the warmth and appreciation that the dancers and audience shared for my friend, her studio and each other… Moments like that help me to remember that I perform because I truly love to dance and to feel connection with others, to feel the safety of the stage and show myself that is sensual, strong and brave.

As well as the above, I have been tending to my own inner peace and happiness through 2023 by making a conscious effort to create more space for the things I love most: my art and my relationships. Being intentional about how and where I spend my time and energy has helped me to notice, observe and appreciate beauty around me when it’s in front of me, and seek more of it out.

So at the end of this year, I am more in love than I have ever been. The people in my life right now make me feel genuinely cared for, supported and appreciated. This helps me to feel excited and to create art for art’s sake; no longer defining myself by the outcomes and worrying that I won’t be loved if I am not outwardly successful. I am very, very fortunate in all of this, and those who are closest to me know that getting to this point hasn’t been without a huge amount of work and some sacrifices.

The biggest lesson I have learned this year is in cultivating compassion. That I can care about making the world about me a better place amidst the chaos, without getting burned out or being consumed by it. Awful things can happen in the world and I can also be very happy and content with my own life at the same time. These things are not mutually exclusive. Small, quiet acts of love and practicing compassion with myself and others has been a grounding force so that I don’t get swept away in the tides.

I intend to carry this into 2024. My wish for you is that you will find and do what makes you happy too.

On the subject of doing one’s bit to try to help others who need it, I have made a series of gorgeous signed black and white print of your’s truly, from which the proceeds go to Unicef Ireland Gaza Emergency Appeal. If you’d like to purchase one, there’s still a small handful available at the time of writing this blog.