Author Archives: asher
It’s Been A Minute
This season has been wild. My company had a bumpy road to the opening of Penelope’s Odyssey, with a couple of setbacks due to injuries and other life circumstances that led to last-minute casting changes, which is a huge thing in a very, very character-driven piece with a cast of 8.
We finally gave the first fully-staged performances on a wee tour to beautiful, snowy Vermont early this February (2023), and now that we’ve got the bumps ironed out, we’re looking forward to further performances.
I’ve been taking class with Ballet Hartford, and if you’re in the area and you’re a professional or strong non-professional dancer, I highly recommend checking out their open company class, which runs M/W/F during their season.
Though I’m very much enjoying my work with SPDC, I’ve really missed ballet company life immensely, and returning to a regular, rigorous class over the past couple of weeks has really helped.
At the moment, I plan to audition for local ballet companies, though I’d like to continue working with SPDC on a per-project basis even if I do get hired on by a ballet company. I guess we’ll see how things shake out.
For now, I’m just finding my way back into my body, shaking the rust off my technique, and rebuilding strength. We did a grand allegro today that was a blast, and though I quickly discovered that I don’t actually have a double cabriole devant right now (erm … lol), I am quickly regaining speed and power. Even my petit allegro is coming back together ^-^
Things have been a little rocky at home — not in an interpersonal drama kind of way, but just, like, Alzheimer’s is a difficult thing. I’m very glad that we’re here, both because we have a chance to spend time with my Stepdad while he’s still able to really enjoy our company and because I can’t imagine Mom having to cope on her own.
We have great in-home support three days each week, but even still, having us here means that Mom can go do her own thing sometimes, and know that someone who knows and loves R is here to be with him. D’s experience in working with patients with various dementias comes in handy, as does my experience in finding useful things on the internet ^-^’
I have had some periods of kind of … emotional not-quite-collapse? … when the complexities of my schedule and the lack of alone time have really knocked me flat, so I’m working on being more proactive about taking the down-time I need to make sure that doesn’t happen as often.
Right now, the circumstances of my life are such that I can’t always take time like that, though, and I’m trying to figure out other strategies as well.
Oh, and I’m migrating over to Mastodon from the Bird Site for a number of reasons. More on that later, though — for now, I need to jete ^-^
Today I took my first class with my company’s ballet teacher. She’s fantastic.
I particularly like her focus on strengthening the elements that are really essential to technique (her approach is very Vaganova-based; I think Ste. Agrippina would approve)
She also has a fantastic eye for the small-but-important elements that really solidify technique.
When we finished, she asked us what specific things we were going to remember from today’s class. Here are mine:
- *Really* connect the retiré, and connect it a little closer to the kneecap (I’ve been connecting mine about a cm or 2 too far towards the inside of the knee, which functionally means that a lot of the time I’m not really connecting at all, even though I THINK I’m connecting). Also, send the knee all the way to the side, and be a revolving door.
- In petit allegro, using pas de bourée en l’air can help you keep your legs contained. Basically, you tombé and close the back leg in a little assemblé, then do the “side, front” bit of the PdB. This gathers your power under you instead of sending you forward.
- In exercises battu, think about whether the beat changes or doesn’t change. If you pay attention to this when receiving the combination, you won’t find yourself desperately doing FeetMath en l’air
These are really elemental things—things that as dancers who’ve been dancing for years and years, we probably think we’re doing already.
It’s remarkable how much difference it can make when someone gives you an effective correction on one of these things.
Anyway, that’s it for today.
I am, of course, planning to steal these ideas and bring them to my students tonight, because part of becoming an effective teacher is cribbing things directly from other teachers who are themselves highly effective.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this contract that I landed, and about the (overwhelmingly positive) language my new AD used when she called me up to make the offer.
I’ve been thinking about it because I walked into my last contract as a trainee—basically with the knowledge that I was the dancer in the company with the least experience and that I had the most to catch up on in terms of technique and skills.
In some ways, that was great! It meant I felt safe in the knowledge that I had a lot to learn and was gonna struggle sometimes, and overall being able to think about it that way helped me stay a little calmer about things when I did struggle.
However, I’m now doing this thing where I’m walking on in kind of the opposite position—a full company member beginning the season with a pretty big role in a pretty important show.
And it’s made me re-evaluate my feelings about myself as a dancer.
Like, at first, I was like, Holy heck, what if I’m not really as good as SP thinks I am?
And then I thought: No. She’s seen me in ballet class; she’s seen me in company class already . Also, she’s been doing this for THIRTY YEARS. I’m guessing she knows what she’s about.
- Once again, y’all: if you can ever take company class a time or two before you audition somewhere, DO IT! Also, should I ever actually get Antiphon off the ground, I think I’m going to do open company class for exactly this reason
And thinking that, knowing that I’ve been given a pretty intense brief, I’m like, Okay, in going to try to see myself as the dancer she sees.
And although giving myself the grace of being a trainee helped in the beginning of my career, I wonder if it didn’t also hold me back. There were definitely times that I felt like, Oh, I shouldn’t ask for x or y, or try this or that; I’m just a trainee.
Admittedly, some of this came down to the culture of the specific company: it was very traditional, and thus very top-down. In many ways, that was good for me, but it definitely made me more hesitant to speak up.
Anyway, that mindset stuck and even after I started to realize I was seriously growing as a dancer. I think maybe D is right and I under-valued my own ability and value as a dancer, possibly by quite a bit.
So now I’ve got this new role in my life as a dancer to step into. And that’s really cool, and really challenging, and it’s forcing me to regularly say to myself, No. You’ve got this. Stop thinking of yourself as “not really that good” and work on being the dancer SP saw in the audition
So there it is.
I guess this is a normal thing that happens when you make a big step forward in your career? But I never thought about it because honestly I never imagined having a career until I stumbled into my professional dance career.
I never imagined being able to do anything long enough to get promoted, really (even though I’d actually been promoted in two jobs by then; neither were jobs I could imagine doing for a decade or longer).
Anyway, here we are.
Oh, one last thing: our first show is in the first theater where I ever saw ballet. So this is really like coming full circle and coming home, and I am HERE FOR IT.
The weirdest feeling in the world might be the specific limbo between the time when the AD calls to offer you the contract—a really good one—and the moment when you actually sign it, when some part of you keeps feeling like, But what if it’s all a dream, or a mistake, or, or, or—
I’m still wading carefully into these waters; still got one foot in the land of “To Know, To Will, To Dare, To Keep Silent.” But it’s very hard to keep the lid on—even partway on—when you just want to jump up and down and sing.
First, in October, I’ll be trekking out to California to perform the role of Romeo in Leigh Putting Ballet Company’s signature production, Sweet Sorrow: A Zombie Ballet
When Leigh first asked if I’d be willing to come out for this role, I was ecstatic, obviously. I mean, it’s not every day one gets offered a leading role, and I’ll finally get to meet a lot of the dancers I’ve worked with remotely.
It’s a particular honor because this is the 5th anniversary production of this show, after which it’ll be taking a hiatus for a couple of years. No pressure, right? ^-^’
Next, I’m starting a new teaching job soon, just started training at a new cirque studio, and I’ve got an audition next Wednesday for a company that I’m excited about potentially joining. I dropped in on their open company class this week, and the company dancers asked if I was planning on auditioning and told me I should definitely audition, which was awesome.
That’s kind of a huge step from my early days in the company at LexBallet, when I felt like nobody, including me, was sure I should really be there.
(I actually had no idea there were auditions coming up, so I’m doubly glad they mentioned it! Part of my brain is still stuck in the pre-pandemic ballet world norm of auditions taking place in late winter/early spring.)
If you ever have the chance to visit a company and take company class before you decide whether or not to audition, I highly recommend it.
One of the reasons I didn’t audition before relocating was simply that I wanted to get a feel for different companies first. That isn’t always possible—a lot of companies don’t do the “open company class” thing, though some will invite you to take company class if you’re a member of another company and you message ahead about classes in their school—but it seems like the ideal approach whenever possible.
As an autistic dancer, it’s probably even more important. It really helps to know in advance if the vibe is going to work and whether the artistic staff communicate in ways that work for your brain.
I was extra lucky in this case, because I got to take class two days in a row with the founder and AD of the company. It was definitely a little intimidating, because this is a well-reputed company I knew of when I was growing up (I mean, not one that’s a household name like ABT or anything—that’s never been a goal for me). It turns out, though, that the founder of the company seems like a lovely person; very grounded, down-to-earth, and firm-but-kind in a way that works really well when wrangling dancers.
I’m very much looking forward to the audition, which seems like a bit of a bizarre thing to say, but here we are.
It helps that it’s in the same time slot as a class I was planning to take anyway—my brain is just looking at it as a class or a workshop, which is exactly how everyone advises dancers to see auditions in the first place.
It’s impossible, of course, to know if I’ll make the cut—but it’s worth going regardless.
I’m reminded once again of the experience of learning how to track-stand on a geared bike: you begin knowing you don’t know how and failing often, then somewhere along the way you begin to figure it out. Later, at some point you sort of “come to” mid-trackstand and go, “I’m doing it!” (and immediately startle yourself into having to put a foot down).
Later still, you look back and realize it’s been a while since you really thought about it consciously. You might not be a past master at the track-stand, and you might not be breaking any records, but it’s a thing that’s there in your physical repertoire of cycling skills.
More and more often, this is how I feel about my career in dance. I’m still immensely grateful for the circumstances that brought me here, but I feel less and less often like I don’t really belong and like I hope nobody will notice that I’m desperately faking my way through absolutely everything.
I suppose that, like most things, if you fake it long enough while making an effort to actually learn, sooner or later you’re no longer faking it at all.
Anyway, that’s it for now, more or less. In the interest of my general policy of not jinxing things by saying too much, I’m keeping further audition details under wraps for now (probably until I know how the audition turns out).
I keep saying I’ll try to post more often and then being discombobulated by life, but I’ll say it again anyway, now that the relocation process is largely behind us.
Either way, until then, tuck and roll, my friends!
Harness The Imposter
Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment. There might be times that the strategy to follow won’t work—heck, it could even backfire—so don’t feel like it’s something you must try, or like you’re less of a dancer (or a person, or what have you) if you don’t.
Take care of yourself in the moment you’re in. You don’t have to do everything today; heck, you don’t have to do everything at all. It’s amazingly liberating to realize that, to be honest, a lot of things can wait, and that you’re not even the tiniest bit obligated to try ever possible approach to a problem.
Now, that being said, buckle in if you’d like to join me on a wee excursion into the territory of Imposterland.
Okay, so earlier I was working around the house and listening to Broche Ballet’s podcast and thinking about imposter syndrome (as you do).
Somewhere in there, something reminded me of my early days in the company at Lexington Ballet, back in the Before Times, c 2018.
- Seriously, that feels like about a MILLION YEARS AGO 😱
At the time, I was grappling with a terrible case of imposter syndrome (as you do). It was a rough time. I struggled a lot. On the regular, usually when everything else was also going wrong, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and whispered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not good enough. And they’re gonna figure it out.“
And every now and then, like a lifeline from the Universe, another thought would counter, “So what? Who cares? You’re here. Get to work. Prove them wrong. Rise to the occasion. Earn your spot.“
My life, of course, is not a Hollywood blockbuster, so it didn’t immediately fix everything. Not by a long shot. I still had rough days. I still struggled to pick things up in class more often than I care to admit. I still frequently felt like a squid attempting to dance in size 114 clown shoes.
But at the end of the season, I was offered a contract for the following year—and that comes down, in part, to the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that says, “So what? Who cares? (etc)” That stubborn streak, and the desire to make my Imposter Syndrome eat its words, kept me from walking out when things were at their roughest.
I’ve never thought of imposter Syndrome as an ally in my efforts to build a career as a dancer. I mean, now that I’m reflecting on it, I guess it makes sense to recognize that it’s trying to protect me, but it really often feels like anything but an ally.
But somehow, today, something went ping! and I realized that, indirectly, it has been not only one of my most faithful companions on this journey, but (at times, anyway) a helpful companion.
Imposter syndrome’s timorous whisper has served to feed my tenacity. At critical moments, it has awakened a kind of perverse grit. It has jabbed at the part of me that hates to fail.
I’m not saying this is true for everyone: it’s not even true for me all the time. With two years more-or-less on hiatus under my belt and little to show for it except better port de bras, a somewhat-more-reliable double tour, and a bit more, ahem, insulation than I had when the pandemic began, I’m staring down the barrel of a cross-country move into what is, in terms of dance, terra incognita.
You can bet your bippy that my inner imposter has a lot to say right now, and that the other voice, that stubborn inner voice, doesn’t always reply.
But now I know that I can say to my imposter syndrome, “Yo, thanks for looking out for me, but I’m not quitting. Whether or not I deserved to be where here when I walked through the door, I’m here now, and I’m gonna stick it out and earn my place.”
The funny thing is that sticking it out, in and of itself, really does help. You can do something day in, day out for years without improving at all, but only if your circumstances significantly limit the chance of improvement. Spend enough time doing almost anything with a least a little guidance, and you’re gonna improve.
Back in the fall of 2018, I was as insecure as a teacher of dance and as a choreographer as I was as a dancer.
Flash forward to today, and I’m a reasonably confident teacher: I know I’m not perfect, and that I have a lot to learn, but when I look at my students’ progress, it’s pretty clear that something’s working.
I’m also a reasonably confident choreographer: I set dances that people enjoy watching, and I don’t feel like I haven’t earned the right to do so. When I’m alone in the studio, setting a pas de deux or the corps parts for Act II of Simon Crane, it no longer feels like a pipe dream, or like a vision I shouldn’t look at too directly. Sure, setting an entire gigantic ballet is an enormous goal, and I still have literally no idea how to get there, but I no longer feel like I’m somehow not worthy to try.
I’m not as confident, yet, that I’ve earned my place as a dancer, but I’m getting there poco à poco. Opportunities are appearing that I doubt I could have imagined a few years back.
That’s where sticking it out, even out of nothing but sheer spite, really shines.
It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall. You get scraped up. You kick the curb, the bike, and especially yourself. You get back on. You crash some more. You keep getting back on because like heck some stupid inanimate object is going to beat you. And then at some point you’re sort of tottering along, and you start to pick up some speed, and the air moves over your skin like the breath of G-d moving over the face of the deep, and YOU ARE DOING IT!
- As a cyclist and lover of bikes, I am willing to certify that bikes are only inanimate objects in the loosest sense. Every single bike has a soul, and that soul is the soul of a pony that goes like a dream for a skilled rider with quiet hands, but will dump a N00b in a puddle STAT and then stand there laughing about it: not malicious, exactly, but perhaps a bit cynical, with a keen sense of the Order of Things. Every horse person on earth has met some version of this pony. So has every cyclist.
And then, of course, you crash again. You tend to crash a lot in the beginning, because that’s how beginnings work. Heck, if you’re a baby wood duck, your first experience of flight is being shoved out of the nest to crash in the underbrush, presumably so when is time to learn to fly, you’ll already know what crashing is like, and you won’t let it stop you (or possibly because some distant ancestor long ago decided that eggs were safer in trees, and here we are).
But, anyway, wood duck, cyclist, or dancer, you get up and dust off and get back to it. You’ve started, so you might as well keep on going.
And if you keep going long enough, you might just figure it out. You might discover, after all, that while you were looking elsewhere, you’ve earned your spot.
I used to think every other professional dancer I knew could see all my flaws. Now, I know they can: but most of them also choose—and I’m immensely grateful for this—to see my strengths.
The strength that is a spiteful refusal to give in to my imposter syndrome—or, seen from another angle, the conviction to endure through whatever trial arises—may or may not be invisible. I suspect my AD at LexBallet saw it plainly from time to time.
But, looking back, it’s a strength that I guess I can see.
One last thing: I know that privilege is a part of this. Opportunity is unequally distributed, especially for male ballet dancers, who are still pretty thin on the ground and who thus enjoy a far greater chance of finding a spot. So is the kind of financial security that affords both good training and the ability to absorb the financial challenges that come with being an artist. So is health.
Likewise, I have done exactly none of this on my own. Dancers are unicorns not only in that we’re kind of rare, but in that we—like Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn—need others to see us; to believe in us; to know what we are. We’re a communal concern, whether we like it or not.
The thought of exactly how much artistic potential goes untapped either through lack of opportunity or through lack of recognition and support is, quite frankly, staggering.
- Not recognition in the public, award-receiving sense, but in the private, “I am your teacher and I see that you have a gift and I’m going to tell you about it, along with anyone I know who can help you develop it” sense
Please know that if lack of privilege, of opportunity, of means, of health, of recognition, or of support—or, really, anything else: life is full of obstacles—stands in your way, I am not saying, “Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps!”
Imposter syndrome is a mirage, but there are plenty of real obstacles in the world, and imposter syndrome can make it even harder to overcome them.
If you’re in the woods, if you’re in the country of obstacles, I hope you’ll find your way clear (and I’ll help any way that I’m able, though I have no idea what that might look like).
I hope also that you might be able to harness your inner imposter. Maybe even make friends with them.
I’m not really there yet, but why not?
Thoughts on Adult Intensives
Suddenly, here it is almost May.
This happens to me every year, but it’s definitely worse without the structure of the ballet company schedule(1).
- How am I supposed to keep track of which month it is if the only major landmark is Nutcracker? Jeez.
Which, in turn, means that summer is barreling down on us at a staggering rate of *checks google* 1038ish miles per hour, give or take(2), replete with its array of Summer Intensives.
- circumference of the earth/24 (3)
- Wow, only a few sentences in and I’ve already included 2 notes and a note-on-a-note
I’ve already committed to LouBallet’s Adult Summer Intensive, which seems like a really good way to finish out my … seven??? years of training there—a way to spend some concentrated time with some of my favorite teachers and classmates while also, of course, keeping my ballet skills on point(e). Besides, it’s a great program, and we get to learn cool original choreography (some of which has made it to my video CV/audition reel, because I actually felt good about it after watching it).
It’s also fairly affordable, which is more important than usual, since I don’t yet have paid work lined up for, like, after this summer (fortunately, D does).
I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to do basically anything else this summer that doesn’t at least offer me a full scholarship or the equivalent thereof, but there are several programs I’m flat-out dying to attend (DuCon!!!!! ADF! Pilobolus!) if finances magically allow. Likewise, I’m ever-curious about adult SI offerings, and I like to keep an ear to the wind about what’s available—so, from time to time, I go hunting.
And in the process of hunting, I’ve noticed something.
Adult SI Pricing Can Bring You To (Two?), Ahem, Tiers
Yeah, you’re right. That was terrible. Sorry.
In the growing world of adult summer intensives and workshops, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern: there are basically two pricing tiers.
- Tier One: programs that are actually less expensive per week than a lot of (perhaps even most) youth SIs
- Tier Two: programs that are either as expensive as or actually wildly more expensive per week than even top-notch youth SIs
Tuition for the second tier of adult SIs typically runs more than twice the weekly cost of tuition at the first tier, though the dance offerings are often comparable (or, in some cases, richer at the Tier One programs).
I’m curious about what drives the difference in price, and whether the organizers of the different programs (especially Tier Two programs) realize how deeply pricing might impact the makeup of the student body at any individual program.
Given that none of these programs, as far as I know, are restricted to local students only, and that the adult ballet community justly thirsts for quality SIs like hummingbirds thirst for nectar (though it’s fair to say we dancers are less likely to stab each-other in the pursuit of coveted spots around the feeder), “what the market will bear” clearly isn’t the only factor at play. Likewise, all of them have limited spaces, and the number of available spots doesn’t seem to have much to do with pricing models (if it did, we could expect both LouBallet’s and LexBallet’s SIs, which are limited to fairly small numbers, to command much higher prices).
Bringing Tiers To You: A Look At Prices
A brief survey of adult SI pricing reveals a pretty broad range, but it’s worth noting that many of the Tier One programs, though typically open to dancers at all levels, are designed in ways that allow them to serve serious dancers across the spectrum from fairly new beginners to emerging professionals.
Lexington Ballet’s adult SI (scroll to the bottom of the linked page for registration info), at $240 for five four-hour days, continues to be an absolute steal, and I’m not just saying that because LexBallet has been my company and my ballet home for the past few years. The quality of instruction is superb, and I don’t know of an adult SI that’s priced more affordably (unless we start breaking things down per hour, in which case it’s Mutual Dance Theater, hands down). Participants from this SI have found also their way into character roles and even company contracts, thanks to the close participation of LexBallet’s AD, School Director, and other artistic staff.
Mutual Dance Theater’s Modern SI–the one I took a few years ago, before Mam-Luft & Co merged with Mutual–runs $399 at most (late-bird tuition, for disorganized folks like me) for a packed week, with programming 9 AM to 5 PM every day. It’s not ballet-specific, and it’s not one I’d recommend to a true beginner in any dance idiom, but it’s a beast of an intensive (in a good way), and hella affordable. It’s also very much geared towards emerging professionals.
LouBallet, fairly typical of the first tier with its $550 tuition for a 5.5-day program, could almost certainly double its tuition and then some and still fill the spaces. Instead, they’ve chosen to keep the tuition right where it’s been (for which I am deeply grateful). Ashley Thursby-Kern, who runs the program, specifically considers its role in offering an intensive program for college dancers and emerging professionals who may have aged out of youth SIs, while continuing to foster an environment that supports new dancers as well.
Westside Ballet’s program, located in Santa Monica, is a bit shorter per session (3 hours/day over 4 days) but offers three sessions priced at $500 each. The faculty includes Martine Harley, who is the company’s AD, and Sven Toorvald, along with others representing some top-tier companies. The third week focuses on pas de deux and variations, and if I wasn’t teaching an SI that week, I’d find some way to get my behind out there for that.
ArtEmotion‘s offering– the most expensive I’ve included in this category–looks very comparable to LouBallet’s and, at $800, still seems pretty approachable to those of us in the “broke-ass dancer” category. This is one of the oldest ongoing adult intensives, held at Ballet West’s Salt Lake City studio, and has long been on my list of Intensives I’d Attend If They Weren’t The Same Week As Something Else I’m Already Doing.
- This is a fugly link, so if it doesn’t work, try this one: LouBallet MBB Landing Page
- Assume that this category includes both “lay” dancers with limited disposable income and those of us among the professional segment who usually have access to at least some summer programming for free, but who might have been impacted by pandmic-related closures and/or impending moves (hi) and, either way, still need to stay in shape until September.
These programs, and programs like them–my “First Tier” adult SIs–are largely affiliated with established ballet companies or schools. Access to existing studio space and, perhaps, a built-in supply of students and teachers explain at least some of their relatively affordable prices.
They also tend to be light on extracurriculars–those factors that might make things feel a bit more like a vacation, I guess. Not that you need them after, for example, eight straight hours of modern dance buttkickery.
Tier Two, meanwhile, is a bit more of a mixed bag: one of the programs in question features one of my favorite master teachers and looks like an absolute banger of a program for focused advanced dancers; others seem a bit more like relaxing ballet-themed getaways.
I realize that this perception is very much colored by my experience as one of the aforementioned Emerging Professionals, with its attendant feature of being both chronically broke and accustomed to dancing 30+ hours per week. As my friend Tony (who looks like a tall Steven McRae) says, “Hi Ho, the theatrical life.”
So what kind of programs, you might ask, are in Tier Two?
First, of course: SunKing, the granddaddy of adult SIs. At the time of this writing, SunKing doesn’t have a website up, and I’m not clear on whether or not it’s actually happening this year (links to SK’s Facebarge), but it was always out of my price range anyway. It was one of the few that had enough draw to offer a partnering class, which would’ve been awesome to take before I embarked on Ballet Company Lyfe (y’all, learning partnering piecemeal while rehearsing actual ballets isn’t ideal, is what I’m saying), but not quite awesome enough to warrant launching an OnlyFans or something at this point in my career. Still, I’ve always had the impression that the actual instruction overall was quite good.
Given the serious, focused programs and excellent instruction available in Tier One, there’s only one Tier Two program that leaves me feeling butthurt about being, well, semi-broke, and that’s Runqiao Du’s inaugural DuCon–which I’d leap to attend, if I could afford it (but I can’t, unless I figure out how to make a few thosand dollars PRONTO). DuCon falls at the, well, less-inaccessible end of my second tier: tuition runs $1499 for one week or $2799 for both weeks, and the program offers an excellent teaching staff (Mr. Du himself, plus others), a 6-day week, and programming that runs from 9:30 AM ’til 8:00 PM Monday through Friday. Moreover, Du’s youth SI (which also runs for two weeks) is priced exactly the same, so we (would-be) adult participants aren’t left feeling like cash cows.
At the far end of Tier 2 is another brand-new event: International Adult Ballet Festival. Not gonna lie—I was intrigued when I heard about this one on the Broche Ballet podcast: the program offers a workshop, showcase, and a competition (not a selling point for me, but certainly a unique offering). However, at only 4 days long, IABF comes with a staggering $2950 price tag. To be fair, that does include hotel room, breakfast, lunch, and a couple other meals–but broke-ass dancers are pretty good at finding cheap housing and food, and if I’ma drop $3k on tuition, it’s going to be at DuCon or ADF.
Don’t get me wrong, IABF sounds like a really fun event–but it’s pretty clear that I’m not really their target audience (this isn’t a program that believes adult dancers can’t build careers in dance, but I don’t think it’s really intended for those of us who are already doing so). Likewise, the website’s vibe is more Awesome Ballet Vacation than Come Get Your Ass Handed To You For A Week Or Two. There’s value in both those approaches, of course. Likewise, the event does bill itself as a festival, rather than as a Summer Intensive: more, “Come celebrate ballet!” than “Come suffer with us!” And it’s good that such a thing can exist.
But still. $2950 for 4 days. Wow.
Do Different Tiers Reflect Different Audiences?
As an autistic person, I am perhaps more inclined than most to sort of forget that people can be interested in the same things I’m interested in, but experience those interests very differently(6).
- Some people can apparently like things without tending to rebuild their entire lives around those things! Who knew?!
It doesn’t automatically occur to me that someone else might want to take a summer intensive for different reasons than I do, or maybe, for the same reasons, but perhaps prioritized differently.
Life, for me, the drivers (at least, the ones I can think of right now), ordered by priority, might look like this:
- Refine and improve technique for upcoming season and/or auditions
- Dance AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
- Learn new steps and/or new partnering skills
- Learn repertoire
- Maintain at least the bare minimum fitness level that will prevent me dying on Day 1 of new company class, assuming successful auditions
- Ideally, add a useful piece to my audition reel
- Hang out with my peeps, new and existing
Explicitly not in my list are the following:
- Take a break from my regular job (because ballet is my regular job)
- Find out what it’s like to be able to dance full-time (again, bc that’s basically already my life)
This makes it difficult to imagine choosing a 4-day intensive at any price when there are so many available that run 5 or 6 days or longer: my primary goal is to immerse myself in a demanding curriculum for as long as possible.
Likewise, I find it difficult to imagine being a dancer, but also being satisfied living a life in which a four-day ballet immersion would feel that much different from, like, normal life, because my experience of being a dancer has basically been, “Holy heck, drop everything else, this is the thing
i MUST do.”
And yet, rationally, I am aware that I know people in that exact target market—people who have very demanding careers that they love outside of dance, not to mention family lives that don’t basically also revolve around ballet, but who also passionately love dancing.
Quite a few of them could easily afford a few thousand dollars for a short, almost-all-inclusive ballet intensive. Time is probably in shorter supply for them than it is for me, and the sheer convenience of having almost everything planned out might mean saying, “Hey, I can do this!” instead of “Wow, yeah, I don’t have the time/mental bandwidth/whatever for all this planning.”
Likewise, the fact that I straight up forgot to put “have fun” on my list of priorities says a LOT … though mostly what it’s saying is that, even during the roughest parts of my first year with LexBallet, I still had fun, and I still wanted to be there more than I wanted to be anywhere else in the world.
So it doesn’t occur to me to put “have fun” on the list, because, even if the atmosphere somewhere turns out to be awful, I’m going to enjoy dancing anyway. Especially if I know I’m only there for, at best, a few weeks.
For someone who’s returning to work in another field after their summer program, on the other hand, fun and relaxation might be much higher priorities. There’s something to be said for options existing that fit the needs of people in that situation, too.
Conclusion: I Which I Leave You In Tiers
(Or not, depending on if adult summer intensives are of any interest to you at all.)
Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the Most Important Thing In The World.
But it’s a valuable insight for me (as someone who is fully behind the idea that different people have different wants and needs but who is also sometimes an absolute bonehead at imagining them), and I hope it might be helpful to others considering adult summer programs—especially, maybe, those considering their first adult summer program.
For me, for example, Mam-Luft (now Mutual) was in many ways a great first summer program—but it was also extremely demanding, often emotionally challenging, sometimes lonely, and just plain physically exhausting. I definitely had some major breakthro moments, but I also failed A LOTTTTT in front of 50 people, with no hope of fading into anonymity, since I was the ONLY guy that year. Oh, and I shredded my foot.
If I hadn’t, by then, already been a pretty experienced student, quietly putting in the foundations for a career in dance; if I was of a less stubborn constitution; maybe especially if I’d taken that SI knowing I had to go back to stressful job, I might’ve felt very differently about exactly the same experience. It might even have made me conclude that SIs weren’t for me, which would’ve been a shame.
So maybe the real TL;DR for this post goes like this:
- There are a lot of adult summer programs now! That’s awesome!
- The programs can be roughly divided into two pricing tiers
- The price of a program doesn’t directly reflect the quality of instruction—most of them look pretty solid!
- The less-expensive programs seem more likely to attract a mixed student body of both amateur and professional dancers
- The more expensive programs are more likely to include things like meals and extracurricular events
- Before you choose a program, it’s a good idea to hash out your needs, goals, and priorities (Will you be going straight back to work in a busy emergency room? Consider a shorter or more relaxed program—you’ll still learn a lot, but you won’t return to work exhausted)
- If you choose a shorter or more relaxed program this year and discover that you want to go harder, you’ll have gained valuable insight for next time
- On the other hand, if you choose a challenging program send find it’s a little too much right now, you can either try again next year or try an easier one next year
- If you get to go to DuCon, please tell me whether it’s as awesome as it sounds so i can figure out whether i need $3000 extra next year 😅
A Final Note: American Dance Festival & Pilobolus
Although I could arguably include American Dance Festival’s Summer Dance Institute in either one of my tiers, and would love to attend the full program, I’m setting it off to one side for now. In short, although full-time tuition runs $2,275, it’s comparable in length to a full-scale youth SI, and offers a staggering array of programming geared towards developing professional dancers. Likewise, you can actually Choose-Your-Own-Adventure your way through it by taking individual classes at $750/4-week class.
Likewise, although the cost-per-session of Pilobolus’ excellent program has increased to around $1000, its generous scholarship program makes it relatively accessible, though you can still rack up $3000 in tuition if you go for all three sessions at full cost. It’s also kind of in its own category because, honestly, a lot of ballet people probably wouldn’t be super interested, which is fine.
On Autism And Ballet (Again)
I know I’ve written about this before, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again, but because for some unfathomable reason I’ve spent basically my entire day on Twitter grooving on threads from the neurodivergent, EDS, and disability communities, it occurs to me to write about why the ballet is a good fit for me, specifically as it interfaces with autism.
Everyone on earth has now written a summary of the basic diagnostic criteria for autism, so I’m not going to do that, here. Y’all know how to Google if you need more info -.^
Instead, I’m going to touch on how working as a dancer in a ballet company is a good fit for me as an autistic person, breaking things down as I go by the specific traits in question.
So, here we go.
Narrow Range Of Specialized Interests
Hooooo, boy. With the exception of the equestrian world and certain subsets of academia (I see you, paleobiologists!), I’m not sure there are too many actual career paths that dovetail as neatly here.
Ballet is an all-encompassing special interest. It requires your body, your mind, and basically all of your time. It’s one of the very few career paths in which obsessive focus on the subject is essentially an entry-level requirement—like, the only way to make it through the training is to be motivated enough by ballet itself, which is why dancers everywhere giggle at t-shirts that read, “I CAN’T. I HAVE CLASS.”
Like, we’ve all been there, and (excepting the few who get shoved into it by overbearing parents), we all chose that life.
As autistics, we experience this thing where people get really sick of our special interests. I honestly have only met one person in the ballet world who occasionally gets tired of talking about ballet, and even he doesn’t get tried enough of it to resent it—he’s just delighted when people bring their non-dancing partners to dancer shindigs so he can talk to them about, like, politics or futböl ^-^
It’s not that we dancers never talk about anything else—but in the studio after rehearsal, or at gatherings of dancers, nobody gets mad if you talk about ballet, or if all your jokes are specific to dance.
I suppose part of this is that ballet leaves precious little time for other pursuits—but, also, you only get that far if it basically consumes your whole being.
Rigid Adherence To Routine
I go to class even when I’m on holiday.
This is, of course, partly because I like going to class, and partly because the only way to stay in shape for ballet is, well, ballet.
But I’ve realized it’s also, to a significant extent, because no matter where I go, class is class. Barre is barre. Centre is centre. Allegro is the best thing that ever—erm, sorry, allegro is allegro.
There may be minor variations (Ha! Ballet puns!) in the routine, but overall, when I step into the studio, I can relax a bit more than I normally do, because I understand the process, and I know what will happen.
That Whole “Systematizing” Thing
NGL, I love a good system—and ballet is a system.
It comes with its own entire language and four hundred years of etiquette, which (bonus!) is largely explicit.
Better still, it combines beautifully with a systematic understanding of anatomy and physiology.
Yes, parts of the system are problematic and due for overhaul—but that can happen in any system. A strong system will weather those changes and come out the other side better than it was.
Ballet has been doing that for four hundred years. As long as we allow it to, it will continue.
Being a member of a company also provides a systematic framework for managing time. Class begins at the same time six days a week; rehearsal and performance schedules are posted where you can see them enter day, but you’ve also got your fellow dancers to remind you that, oh yeah, this Friday we have an outreach gig after lunch.
In a well-organized company, you know the temporal framework for the entire season when you arrive on Day One. Specific parts of it may change due to casting or whatever (for example, global pandemics o.O), but the broad strokes are there.
The Social Aspect
My particular autism is probably most observable in the casual social contexts most NT folks seem to really enjoy—the ones where there’s no specific topic or activity, just general chumming around with a bunch of people. I have literally no idea what to do in those circumstances unless someone fires up a conversation that falls in my range of Known Topics ^.^’
And G-d help me if it’s the kind of party where there’s music and lots of different, overlapping conversations but no room to just dance . I can’t with parties like that—my spoken language processing is too limited, and my brain stops bothering, so I typically find the quietest possible place to hole up with a match-3 game on my phone.
- If there’s room to dance, on the other hand, I’m in my element. It didn’t even really matter what kind of music is playing.
There’s some very interesting research happening about much of autistic social difficulty results directly to autistic neurodivergce itself and how much results from the social opportunity costs of being different, particularly during childhood, bu it’s generally agreed that autistics on the whole typically struggle with social stuff.
Ballet might seem like a weird way to address that, since the typical class offers little or no time for what we think of as socializing. But what it lacks in time to chat, it makes up for in spades under the heading of “shared/corporate/communal experience”—which works well for me as someone who grooves on the whole “parallel play” modality, and which in itself provides fodder for chats outside of class and rehearsal (or during breaks).
- In the sense of “people doing things together as a single entity”—ie, a body, or corpus
You don’t have to know how to have a casual conversation to be part of a group of dancers—but being part of a group of dancers can help you get better at having a casual conversation. At least, it did that for me. I’m not going to say I ever totally stopped being The Weird Kid at LexBallet, but people got to know and like me well enough to see past the discomfort that causes.
Addendum: Oh, and because I totally failed to mention it: there’s nothing as social as partnering. (Well, maybe one other thing ^-^’)
You Never Have To Sit Still
Okay, except sometimes, like if you’re a corps girl in parts of Swan Lake or the Master of Ceremonies during certain parts of The Sleeping Beauty. But, even then, it’s a very active way of being still, and will inevitably be relieved by movement.
I often tell people the story of sitting (“sitting,” lol) in a meeting at the last non-ballet job I had and experiencing this intense revelation: like, literally everyone else in the room was physically able to sit still.
I was the only one doing a jig under the table, furiously taking notes to stay engaged, drawing when there was a lull, and constantly shifting in my chair.
That was the moment when I realized with absolute clarity that I did not belong there. Not in a value-judging way—just in a, “Wow, this is not my environment” way. I realized I wasn’t about to “grow into” sitting down at a desk—not then, and probably not ever.
I need to move in order to function. I mean, yes, that’s true for everyone, don’t get me wrong—basically it’s what makes us not plants. Even sessile species like sea anemones go through phases where the they float around irresponsibly before finding grown-up jobs and settling down.
What I mean is that, for whatever reason, my brain/body compels me to move more than most people are compelled to move.
I think better when I’m moving. I feel better when I’m moving. Moving helps me organize my senses and my thoughts.
Honestly, my brain is kind of like one of those sharks that starts to die if it stops swimming, only replace “die” with “dance a stationary jig while quietly losing the plot, but not actually processing information in any meaningful way.”
I don’t necessarily panic—I just get more and more restless, and the excess spills over in the form of more meltdowns and less sleep. Well, and also just having to get up and take a walk, to anywhere, even if it’s just the despised printer, enemy of humankind, or the file cabinet or whatevs.
Also, I just have a metric shedload of extra energy to burn off, and nothing does that like ballet-company life . Teaching gets partway there, but drains my social meter harder than it does my hyperactivity, so it doesn’t lead to the kind of productive exhaustion that makes me actually feel my best and reliably sleep well.
- working with horses also comes very close, but it’s hard to work at a barn and in a ballet company at the same time; being a picker in a gigantic warehouse also burns off tons of energy, but isn’t as helpful in other ways
This is never a problem in ballet, because in ballet, moving is literally your job.
So, Like, In Summary
Anyway, this is long enough.
I’ve written it in part because I’m sure there are people out there who are like, “Wait, I thought all autistics did computers or trains or math,” or even, “How can an autistic person possibly work in ballet?”
I hope this goes a little way towards helping things make sense for people in those camps, but it also helps me understand better what I need from my work environment and why company life, even during my “unpaid trainee/bottom of the pile” days, meant so much to me and worked so well for me.
I’ve been thinking hard about how to make things work going forward, because normally, in dance, you kind of audition everywhere and you go where the job is, but things are happening in my life (nothing ominous, just … responsibilities and stuff) that mean I’ll be moving to a specific place whether or not I get a company spot there.
That has been pretty scary, because I haven’t been sure how to continue building my life as a dancer if that happens. Like, literally, as a not-tall guy who still has some rough spots in his training, that’s a very real possibility. There might not be a company that has a spot for me right now.
But knowing why company life works for me will help me begin to see my way to building a working life that does work, even if that happens.
Rough Day, But Not As Rough
CW: Mention of Suicidal Thoughts
Today was … yeah.
It wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had. Not by a long, long, loooooooong measure.
But it was the kind of day that starts with a reminder of the fact that the ballet company I worked my butt off to be worthy of is still on hiatus, and that since I’m moving, it’s very unlikely I’ll be dancing with them much, if at all, ever again, and that as such the part of my career that meant the most to me is still stalled (pending auditions, etc). This is, for me, a big deal.
I’m also tried and probably haven’t eaten enough bc my schedule is weird and nothing sounds like food, so I’m sure some of this is just down to the fact that I turn into a giant toddler when I’m hungry or tired, let alone both.
So, anyway, right now, my brain is simultaneously like YOU ARE AWFUL, LIFE IS AWFUL, EVERYTHING IS AWFUL and also like OMFG STOP BEING SUCH A GIANT DRAMATIC EMO TODDLER (while yet another part is like Can’t we just stop being so judgmental of our own emotions, here? Sheesh).
But, also, another part of my brain is like, “Dude, you know what? I remember that we’ve felt like this before, and it was terrible and sucked and felt like it would go on forever, but then eventually we stopped feeling like this. So, I’ma let you finish, but you know, it’s very possible that eventually this will stop, too.”
It reminds me of a thing I realized about my suicidal episodes, which come on very fast, usually when I find myself feeling trapped: I can tell myself to wait a day (or an hour, or thirty seconds), and if nothing has changed, I can kill myself then. I tell myself that over and over, until finally I stop having to tell myself that. Sometimes it takes weeks. Sometimes it takes less than a day.
But so far I’m still alive, partly because I really mean it in those moments. Like, I tell myself that option is there, and bizarrely, that helps me feel a tiny bit less trapped. That probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but it often works for me (in combination with having people in my life who can help me, of course).
Anyway, I think this is the first time my brain has chimed in with NOOOOOO EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE AND IT WILL BE HORRIBLE FOREVER and another part of my brain has said, “Hey, you know, that could be true, but experience tells me it probably isn’t, so instead of getting caught in this idea–though you can go on feeling that way, over there, it’s okay–I’m going to hang out and wait and see,” and I’ve been able to sit with that paradox without it losing sight of that second thing, really.
- I mean, notwithstanding the fact that in some ways life is unrelentingly horrible to a lot of people. Like, for an incredibly large number of people, that is pretty objectively true, though so many of those people are incredible at enduring things nobody should have to endure. But that’s a different sense of the thing.
I am still struggling with being knocked out of the thing that was so central in my life, and not having somehow gotten my crap together enough to audition last year so I wouldn’t be in this position now (though I’d still be moving, so I’d still be facing the terrifying gamut of auditions). The structure of company life brought a lot of sanity with it, for me; it helped shape my time in ways I’m not good at doing for myself (I don’t mean that as a value judgment: it’s just not a thing my brain does well, and that’s fine). It helped me grow both as a dancer and as a person in ways that I’m not doing, or perhaps not doing as much, under current circumstances (I’m sure I’m learning other things, but the thing you have doesn’t replace the thing you lost; that’s just how grief is).
It’s been hard to talk about this because, quite frankly, the response one often gets is, “Why are you complaining! You have no idea how lucky you are to have had the time that you did in that company.”
Which is both dismissive (grief is not lessened by knowing that one has lost something rare and special; not at all) and, frankly, incorrect. I would hazard that I know better than anyone alive the staggering constellation of circumstances that coincided to give me my time at LexBallet: I know keenly and viscerally just how incredibly lucky I am.
But I also know that luck was only part of it, and that an ocean of hard work and no small measure of sacrifice was also involved.
Grief is real; grief is hard; and still I work not to cling to grief, but to say, “Hello, grief,” and let it be there, while also knowing that other things will come, though I have no idea what they will be, and they might not be the things I imagine that I want.
So here I am, sitting with these things that I feel, and sitting with the uncertainty of things, and part of me is in turmoil about it (though probably more in turmoil about needing to go to bed and/or eat) and part of me is at peace with that turmoil. Which feels kind of neat, in its own way.
And now I’m going to go feed my inner giant emo toddler and go to bed.
PS: the thing that made everything boil over this morning was having a bad day in class in a way that felt like a step backwards: I kept not trusting myself to have the exercises, and instead of just saying, “Ah, feck it,” and going for it, kept watching everyone else in the mirror to make sure I was right, which then actually prevented things from sticking in any meaningful sense, which led to a kind of crisis of nerves in which I couldn’t pick things up because I was busy being afraid that I couldn’t pick things up, to such an extent that L’Ancien called me out on it (which I deserved).
That reminded me how much confidence I’d gained during my time with LexBallet, and which (in that moment) I feared I’d lost, which gave my brain (which was already in a weird place, probably for purely biochemical reasons for once) a thing to hang up about, which colored the rest of the day, which might otherwise have been only a normal day in which some things sucked and other things rocked and most things were just meh.
Besides being okay with sitting with the place where my head is now, part of the answer is to be willing to say, on mornings that I’m as foggy as I was this morning, “OKay, I’m going to hang back and give myself more time to pick things up.”
Sometimes forcing myself to go in the first group every time is a good strategy. Sometimes it’s not, and it’s silly to cling to that strategy when it’s not working.
PPS: At the end of class, when I finally got out of my own way and decided to just trust that I knew the combination, I got some very nice remarks from L’Ancien. That should tell me a lot. I’m sure it will when that part of my brain is ready to listen.
Thinking About Thinking About Mental Illness
In a recent article published in Aeon, clinical psych PhD student Kristopher Nielsen describes a way of thinking about mental disorders as “sticky tendencies” within the framework of embodied enactivism—which is, in turn, a framework to help with trying to understand how we humans function.
I quite like Nielsen’s description. He offered a sensory analogy:
To understand this concept a little more, imagine holding a kitty-litter sized container with both hands. The floor of this container is shaped like a little landscape with hills and valleys. Now imagine placing a marble in the container and moving your hands so that the marble rolls over the landscape. Notice how the marble gets stuck in the valleys and bounces off the hills; how sometimes it falls into patterns or particular tracks across the landscape.Kristopher Nielsen
He goes on to suggest that we might understand mental disorders as places where the marble has trouble getting out of a given spot in the floor—where it gets stuck, so to speak.
This makes a lot of sense to me—it dovetails nicely with the idea of mental disorders as points along a spectrum (for example: we all experience anxiety from time to time, some for frequently than others; it isn’t generalized anxiety disorder unless it reaches a point at which anxiety disrupts and impairs our lives), while perhaps offering a way to help people understand how the near-universal experience of a passing depression might need to be handled differently than the less-common experience of a persistent one.
It also tracks well with my experiential sense that my mood disturbances are very much cases of getting stuck. (Of course, I acknowledge here that confirmation bias is a thing.)
It has also, in a way, helped to clarify a point I’ve had trouble expressing, because it was difficult to translate from my weird, non-verbal way of thinking about abstract things into words, which are pretty darned important to communicating abstract ideas most of the time, which is this:
Outside of the formal field of psychology, we tend to lump all mental “disorders” into one big collection. We unconsciously think of them as functioning the same way—they’re pieces of the machine that have got out of whack somehow.
This can make it very difficult for people to understand things like related and unrelated comorbidities and why a pinpointed therapy or medication might work for one class of disorders, but might not for another.
In the formal field of psychology, on the other hand, we break out groups of disorders based on the idea that they’re somehow related, though we don’t always quite have a sense of how, and sometimes we’re completely wrong have have to move things around, because brains are complicated, yo.
This distinction is often lost in efforts to communicate about mental disorders with the world at large, first because it’s fundamentally kind of a challenging idea to communicate; second because it’s easy and natural and normal to just lose sight of one’s acquired framework. We get so used to seeing things through a certain set of lenses that we forget they’re there, and we fail to include them with our description of the moon (this can also make it much harder for us to see and accept our own errors as new evidence emerges).
Nielsen’s analogy could be immensely helpful, here, if extended just a little further.
For example, we might think of autism as something that changes the substrate and makes the marble roll differently everywhere.
No two substrates will be exactly the same, but on average, NT substrates will be more similar to one-another than to autistic substrates, and vice-versa (there are, of course, other ways of being neurodivergent, and I can think of ways to further layer the analogy that should still work when they overlap).
Perhaps the neurotypical base is smoother, or rougher, or has wider or narrower grooves overall on average, than the autistic one. Regardless, the ball rolls a bit differently on the autistic base than it does on the neurotypical base.
In both cases, however, it’s still possible for the marble to get stuck.
In both cases, the place where the marble gets stuck is real, and once the marble is stuck there, its entire experience is colored by that stuckness. In both cases, the marble might need extra input to get unstuck, though that input might need to look different for a marble in an allistic track than it does for one in an autistic track.
Regardless, as long as we don’t overinvest in the analogy, the ideas of the track, the variations in the topography of the track, and the marble might be really useful in helping people both at large and within the formal field of psychology imagine mental disorders.
This doesn’t directly address the possibility, of course, of many mental disorders being less actual malfunctions than the result of an infinite diversity of minds being force-fitted into a narrowly-defined set of life options—but Nielsen’s model does acknowledge the role of culture and experiences in shaping the tracks in which our mental marbles run, and doesn’t regard the tracks as fixed, changeless entities.
Likewise, as with any model, this one might not be universally useful. For me, it’s a helpful framework; someone else might find it less than useful or even the opposite of useful.
This is why it’s important to offer models, but not to treat them as holy writ. We’re still far from really understanding the human mind, and our failure to acknowledge that can harm both people (who suffer when we try to force-fit them into inaccurate models) and progress (which is stymied when we let ourselves get stuck in our existing models and when we can’t see beyond them).
It’s encouraging to see that researchers and people at large are taking the question of how to think about mental illness seriously. When we think about our thinking, we make room for change.
This kind of change—change that questions assumptions and tries to meet people where they are—has done a lot of good for those of us living with mental illness and those of us who are neurodivergent in ways that might not fight the traditional idea of “mental illness.”
We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s good to know that people are making the journey.