Author Archives: asher

Oh, BTW, I Got Interviewed!

I’m pretty sure that in my surprisingly-intense anxiety about trying to teach a partnering class via Zoom, I forgot to mention that Ambo Dance Theater‘s* Linsey Rae Gessner recently interviewed me for her new podcast series, Be The Flow, in which she and her guests reflect on “…the importance of ART and the role it plays on the community with the intention of unifying creativity through compassion and knowledge.”**

*yes, that is me front and center on Ambo’s header ^-^ It’s a still from “only weeds will rise in winter,” one of the first pieces I performed in, which examined the ways that poverty influences the lives of the people who experience it.
**from Be The Flow’s landing page

Amazingly, I sound like WAY less of an idiot than I would’ve expected, although my headset mic is adjusted … less than perfectly, shall we say, so I also sound a little fuzzy.

A close-up of the author's face wearing glasses and earphones with an attached microphone (which he has almost certainly adujusted incorrectly).
Pretty sure the problem isn’t so much the headset as me not actually knowing how to use the headset. *shrug*

But still! As someone who listens to podcasts a lot, it’s interesting to hear yourself on an actual podcast and to realize that, hey, you actually sound like a fairly competent person, LOL. (IF ONLY THEY KNEW, amirite? Hahaha…)

Anyway, here’s an embedded player if that sounds like it might float your boat:

And here’s a direct link in case you should feel inclined to check it out that way ^-^ You can also check out Linsey’s other interviews and follow her podcast on Spotify from there.

For some reason I didn’t include a link to this blog in my bio, so while I might not sound like an idiot, clearly I sometimes still am one ^-^’

Interstitial Quickie

…Which. That title maybe sounds wrong, sorry. It’s NOT that kind of post, I promise o.O’

ANYWAY.

Because Golden Retriever Time (see: ADHD), I for some reason decided that it would be a grand idea to launch a new post series with a sub-series right before teaching a workshop as part of this year’s online PlayThink festival.

YOU GUYS. What is WRONG with me.

Time, you say? Time is immaterial. There is only the Now and the Not-Now.
(PC: Garfield Besa via Pexels.com)

Anyway, as such, and also because either my allergies have swung into overdrive or possibly I’m coming down with a sinus infection, here’s a couple of quick thoughts until I get my head back together enough to write #Dancerlife: Food: Part 2.

Thought The First

For some reason, lately I’ve been on a vegetarian hotdog adventure. This week, I ordered ALDI’s Earth Grown Jumbo Vegetarian Hotdogs … and they’re actually quite good.

Given that I like ALDI’s stuff in general, I shouldn’t be even a little bit surprised, but here we are.

Downside: you only get 5 in a package (because they are, in fact, JUMBO).

Upside: they’re quite tasty with ketchup on a slice of multigrain toast*, which is how I normally eat hotdogs anyway.

Sadly, I haven’t bothered taking a picture of them, because I keep cooking them when I’m too hungry to bother, because I keep forgetting to eat. >.< But they’re hefty (dare I say, beefy?) veggiedoggos that look very much like a typical jumbo hotdog, so use your imagination and you’ll probably get close enough.

*If you have a toaster and your toaster has a bagel mode, I recommend this setting when toasting bread for hotdogs. It only toasts one side, so the other side remains flexible. If you don’t have a toaster, or if you’re less lazy and want something that tastes even better, you can lightly coat a pan with butter or olive-oil and crisp up just one side of your bread.

This way, the toasted side (which goes on the “inside”) doesn’t soak up all your condiments, and the un-toasted side stays flexible, so your bread doesn’t crack, but instead cradles your hotdog like a … cradle. IDK. I’m not feeling well, so I’m just not even trying ^-^’

Thought The Second

I had one, but I literally cannot remember what it was. I’m seriously considering just crawling back into bed now that my class and D’s class are done o_o

But then I’d actually have to stand up and move myself (and, let’s be honest, my computer, because I might sleep for a while, but then I’d probably want to play Sims 4 or something).

DancerLife: Food (Part 1)

Upfront disclaimer/disclosure thing: I am definitely not a nutritionist, as you’ll probably realize if you read the rest of this post, which is mostly about stupid food-related mistakes I made last season. This post is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, nor should it be taken as advice, unless the advice is: If you have questions about feeding yourself as a dancer, maybe go ask someone who really knows their stuff.

I’ve written about food before. Probably a lot. I like food, though I struggle with food sometimes. I also generally quite like eating[1].

  1. Except, apparently, when I don’t. I’ve recently experienced a baffling lack of interest in food itself: I’ve been in this place in which I would be perfectly content to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or really whatever requires the least thought or effort, day in and day out.

On the whole, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good grasp of basic nutritional science (hard to get through a Bachelor’s of Science degree that includes Anatomy & Physiology without understanding at least a bit).

I’m sufficiently equipped that I mostly manage to steer clear of trends based on junk science or poor data and to regard with equanimity the ones that might, in terms of their originators’ ideas about science, be based on shaky logic, but which still work well for people in practice because they’re motivating in whatever way and manage to get the various nutrients in.

What I haven’t had, as I discovered over the 2019-2020 ballet season, was the slightest shade of an idea as to how to actually feed myself for performance while dancing 30 hours per week, teaching about six hours per week, and driving an extra 80-90 minutes per day 2-3 days per week between those two gigs.

This was especially difficult on days when I left my teaching job at 8:30 PM and didn’t arrive home until after 9, chronically underfed (though I usually didn’t realize that) and with little time to eat, shower, prepare food for the next day, and wind down before I had to be asleep.

The best lunch decision I made all year, probably. Too bad I kept forgetting to buy more.

To a great extent, this was my own darned fault.

I extrapolated as follows:

  • P1: I have a fairly sound working knowledge of basic nutritional science.
  • P2: An awful lot of the nutritional advice I know how to find runs contrary to basic nutritional science.
  • P3: I am broke and can’t afford to go see a nutritionist.
  • Therefore, I should just stick with what I’m doing.

Or, well, something like that.

Yes, y’all, I am an idiot. Sometimes, anyway. Even often.

I think I also wasn’t sure who to ask: like, let’s be frank. Dancers are mostly paid what is known, in the technical language of economics, as “bupkis.” Or possibly “peanuts.” (In fact, since I have volunteered at events where one of the perks was free access to peanut-based trail mix, I can literally say that I’ve worked for peanuts. Hmmmm.)

Against a background of grass, a squirrel eats a peanut while sitting next to a squirrel feeder full of peanuts.
A dancer making a withdrawal from the bank. (Via Pexels)

Regardless, dancers be broke, and qualified nutritionists who have adequate knowledge of the nutritional requirements of full-time ballet dancers be … not cheap. (Nor should they be. They train for years to master their specialty, just like we do.)

So you had better believe that when I learned that LouBallet’s MindBodyBalance program was hosting a Zoom-based nutrition workshop with an actual qualified person who actually understood things about how to feed dancers, I jumped right on that enroll button.

Anyway, today, Becky Lindberg Schroeder of Lindberg Elite Nutrition (she’s also on Insta!) gave us a really solid talk, with time for discussion, about how to feed ourselves for performance as dancers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I realized I’d been going about things … well, not all wrong, but wrong enough.

The two most important things I’ve been doing were basically:

  • Not eating enough
    and
  • Not eating often enough.

Somehow, I felt like I shouldn’t be eating during the 5-minute break between class and the beginning of rehearsal. I would usually surreptitiously scarf an apple, but I felt like I shouldn’t.

Why?

Honestly, I think I just noticed that few of my fellow dancers shoved a snack into their faces during that interval. Outside the studio, I’m fairly resistant to peer pressure, but life inside the ballet studio is different, especially as an apprentice who doesn’t feel super confident about his place in the company.

Now that I’m writing that “out loud,” of course, it seems kind of dumb.

You can’t stuff yourself with a huge breakfast before class if you want to get through class without, at best, being miserable or, at worst, puking … but if you eat a lighter breakfast at 8:30, by the time class is over at 11:30, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that you’re going need to top up your fuel tank.

If you try to hold out until lunch break at 1, you’re likely to be hangry before you get there. (Regarding which: yes. On days that I’ve failed to eat any kind of snack at all, I’ve usually been deeply hangry before lunch break rolled around.)

A carnivorous dinosaur silhouetted against a night sky.
Me, just before lunch break. (Photo by ~ swinone on Pexels.com)

Becky’s suggestion that we eat every 3-4 hours made that all make sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that I’m now wondering how I failed to grasp it before. Then again, that’s why she’s a high-performance nutritionist, and I’m not.

Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think I really understood the effects of chronically low blood sugar on both performance and body composition.

Becky showed us a diagram illustrating the point that the range in which the human body works best falls between 80 and 100. My fasting blood sugar is rarely higher than 70 (I forget what the units in question are right now, sorry). I’m impressed if it’s 72; the one time in my life it was as high as (GASP!) 74, I wondered if I’d randomly awakened and eaten something in the middle of the night and forgotten about it.

Anyway, <70 is low. The typical response that garners during a medical exam is basically, “Cool, no need to worry about diabetes!”

But it turns out that when your blood sugar level is low, your body really does burn muscle and hold onto fat. I kind of knew that: we’ve all heard of “starvation mode.” What I didn’t know was that your body doesn’t wait around for a couple of weeks before heading down that road.

So, in short, I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by avoiding carbs in the morning.

This certainly explains why I’ve felt better on the rare morning that I impulsively threw a donut into the mix because I happened to stop for gas, or had to use ACTUAL SUGAR in my coffee because I ran out of stevia, or whatever.

If you’re starting with basically an empty tank, putting anything in it is going to help. It’s not like you’re body’s going to ignore fuel simply because it’s not Eleventy Octane Super Premium Ultra Plus, Now With Scrubbing Bubbles.

Your body, at that point, just wants ANYTHING. And if you don’t give it something, it’s going to assume that it should hold on to its emergency stores and tap the muscles instead.

That might also explain why basically surrendering to chronic disorganization, purchasing an immersion blender, and just making huge smoothies with some protein stuff (usually pasteurized eggs) and a handful of trail mix (peanuts and almonds … protein and fat in one happy little package) for breakfast and packing more of said trail mix to eat with lunch correlated with an unexpected drop in my body fat percentage.

Obviously, without a controlled experiment, causality is danged hard to determine–but in retrospect, it seems like maybe one way of accidentally starving myself was worse than the other. The one that gave me some carbs, protein, and fat, while still not ideal, was probably less bad.

I also made the mistake of thinking that my other frequent snack choice–inexpensive protein bars, because broke–was somehow … not good enough. Again, that seems silly now. The protein bars in question may be fairly processed (though they’re still mostly made of things that are recognizeable as food, albeit in small chunks), but they do the job of being quick and easy to eat when “quick and easy” are probably the most important criteria. You might have the best apple in the world, but if that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t finish it in 5 minutes, it’s not going to do the job.

Anyway, the most important takeaway for me was that I need to eat more, and to eat more often, than I did last season. Well, that, and to not eschew nutrition in bar form, because that’s often going to be my best bet.

My breakfasts, snacks, and lunches were uniformly underpowered last year (I’m not going to say “too small”), while my dinners were … spotty. I didn’t have time for a full meal between rehearsal and teaching, so by the time my classes let out, I was both incredibly hangry and in no position to drive for 40-50 minutes without eating.

Since I would, inevitably, have also run through the woefully-inadequate supply of food I had packed for the day, I typically resorted to drive-through dining, but usually (in an effort to reduce the artery-clogging effects of fast food) I’d get the smallest meal I could find.

Then I’d be mad at myself when I was starving at 10 PM, or wonder why I was so hungry at 1 AM that I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep without eating something.

You guys. In retrospect, I’m really trying to figure out … like … how I didn’t figure it out -.-

Part of the problem was my tool set. Basically, I was whacking away with a hammer, mentally screaming, “Why is it so hard to saw through this log???!!!!” I kept focusing on how to eat better at dinner time, when I would’ve done better to just eat a little more and a little better across the whole day.

Anyway, one of Becky’s smart, actionable suggestions was to literally write out your daily schedule (not too obsessively: sometimes lunch break is at 12:53; sometimes we get really into rehearsal and at 1:30 Mr D looks up and goes “OMG, sorry, you guys! I haven’t given you a lunch break!”) and figure out how to feed yourself around it.

Which … oh, my G-d. That’s brilliant.

Becky’s presentation also introduced Team USA’s Athlete Plates[2]–three useful visual guides to adjusting nutrition for the demands of your day. They’re less about telling you specifically what to eat than suggesting how to proportion your meals to keep yourself well-fueled. This is exactly the kind of information delivery I’ve been yearning for: visual, so you can use it at a glance, but with lots of deeper information readily available.

  1. You can find PDF guides to the Athlete Plates, along with lots of other great information about nutrition for athletes, on Team USA’s Nutrition page.

In short, I came away from this workshop with a much better sense of how I, a broke-ass dancer with ADHD and time-management challenges, can make a plan to keep myself well-fueled that actually fits into my life.

So that’ll be Part 2 of this post … because right now it’s dinner time, and I’m hungry.

DancerLife: A Series

Okay, while the world is (justifiably) exploding, it turns out that I do need to prepare myself to go back to work in the fall: my contract has arrived, and with it the knowledge that all my efforts to plan and implement plans between now and then are likely to go awry, but that it’s still worth attempting to plan and to apply lessons from last season to making next season better.

Since writing this blog is part of how I think about things (indeed, that’s more or less its primary purpose), here we are.

Anyway.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned that, for many of us, ballet isn’t so much a hobby or a job as an all-encompassing avocation that basically asks everything of us.

As a dancer, you reach a point at which either you’re like, “Nah, I’m good,” and just go on doing a recreational class once or twice a week, or you’re like, “I AM CALLED” and you basically hand Ballet (or Modern, or Hip Hop … whatever your idiom is) the keys to your life and it moves in.

That might happen when you’re six or when you’re sixty, and other things might try to get in the way, but when you’re called, you’re called.

(Quick note: whether dance is recreation or vocation, you get what you need out of it. No shade from me for recreational dancers. For that matter, honestly, they’re probably the saner demographic anyway.)

In everyday English, we mostly use the word “vocation” to mean, basically, “job.” For many, it’s that thing you do so you can do all the other things you’d do anyway (and that’s fine, too, though our work culture tends to make it feel unfulfilling -.-,).

In other contexts, the word “vocation” means “a calling:” the thing you do because your soul, or whatever, is irresistably drawn to it. It’s why people become monks and nuns and solitary ascetics that live in the desert. (And probably also physicists and mathematicians and academics in general.)

The lives to which such people are called can’t be neatly divided between “work” and “life.”[1] To be a monastic or, for that matter, any serious practitioner of Zen, is to live a life in which there is no division between religious/spiritual/philosophical and secular life (qv Jack Kornfield’s After The Ecstacy, The Laundry or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step).

  1. Hypothetically, this is equally true for everyone? But in terms of lived experience, these tend to be quite different animals.

Being a dancer is very much the same. Dance as a vocation demands wholesale devotion.[2] It sets up shop in your kitchen, your bedroom, your wardrobe. It decides when you can hang out with friends who don’t dance, when you can stay up late, when you need to spend three straight weeks lying in a hot bath because #Nutcracker has just ended.

  1. This is largely true for artists in general, come to think of it–but dance, because it is so physical, is really good at making its demands felt. It’s also one of the rare artforms for which solo practice is an exception, rather than a rule.
The author dancing in the living room of a shared apartment, with one leg atop the back of an office chair.
You may think that dance won’t find a way to take over your living room.
If so, you are mistaken.

Anyway, we toss about the hashtag #DancerLife all the time (and often in jest), and I think it’s a useful idea. DancerLife is all-encompassing.

And since there’s a learning curve involved in figuring out how to make it all work, I’m going to spend some time writing about how I’m learning to make it work for me.

I was also going to write only one post today–one about nutrition, preceded by a very brief introduction to the idea of DancerLife: The Series. But since it seems I’m constitutionally incapable of discussing an abstract concept in fewer than a jillion words … here we are.

So consider The Series introduced, and I’ll go write the first “official” post, which will be about nutrition and eating and not becoming ridonculously hangry in the middle of one’s workday and stuff like that.

The Year That Exploded

As I write this, there are still 6.75 months left in 2020.

This year has seen first a global pandemic, then a national crisis of conscience, completely bungled by the folks at the helm. One has exacerbated the other, and the failure of leadership at the top level in the United States has set the stage for a conflagration that, frankly, needs to come.

I’ve been quiet about it, here, for two reasons.

First, this is primarily a ballet blog, and while everything in my life touches ballet, I’m still not always sure what constitutes going off-piste.

Second, I try not to write about politics here (mostly because I feel like I don’t know much about politics … but, let’s be frank, neither do a lot of the people who routinely and loudly opine about it).

But I realized, recently, that to consign the current moment– a moment in which police brutality has ended the lives of several people in my own community, and in which the simmering cauldron of systemic racism and repression has come to a boil–to the realm of “politics” is a function of privilege.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t politics.

It’s people trying to survive. It’s people trying to communicate that they–whether literally or metaphorically–can’t breathe. It’s people saying, enough is enough. It’s people saying, I just want to live.

It’s not that, in the past, I didn’t support the movement in question. I did. But I left talking about it outside of my professional life (I have, to be clear, talked and written about racial inequality in ballet–but in a context very specific to ballet, and not very often in this blog).

The thing is, Black and Brown people don’t get to do that. They don’t get to take their skin color off at the door. It is impossible to separate being Black or Brown from your professional life when you are Black or Brown. And even if you don’t talk about it, the context is there.

So I have realized that I need to talk about it, too. That being silent, even if it’s the silence of “I’m not sure what I should say,” is poor ally-ship.

I can’t speak for people of color. But I can say that I believe them when they talk about their struggles with systemic racism.

Someone I know recently replied to reports of fatal police brutality against Black people with, “Yeah, but this white lady was also killed by the police.” That argument misses the point. It’s not that white people are never subject to police brutality, to workplace discrimination, to profiling, or to the other things Black people experience.

Rather, it’s that for Black people, experiencing these things is the norm.

As a apparently-white male, I can go to a shop with one of my girl friends and hold her bag while she steps into the changing room, and the response I get, even from people who haven’t seen my friend hand me her bag, will almost always be, “Aw, isn’t it sweet of him to hold her bag for her.” Occasionally, someone might look at me with suspicion–but overall, no.

If I was Black, it would be more likely that someone who didn’t see my friend hand me her bag would assume I had stolen it. It would be more likely that I’d be shadowed by store associates or security guards. It would be more likely that if I entered a store that sells expensive things–or one that sells dance stuff, because I need to acknowledge that ballet is still perceived as a lily-white pursuit–people would assume I didn’t belong there. They would assume, at best, that I couldn’t afford the items on display; at worst, that my motives were antisocial and that I should be stopped before I could carry out my nefarious plans[1].

  1. “Antisocial” is often used as a synonym for “unsociable,” and because I’m not trying to be a linguistic prescriptivist, I’m not going to decry that usage as wrong. That said, I’m using the word in its more technical sense, here: antisocial as in stealing things mugging people, not antisocial as in curling up with a good book.

If you think that this sounds utterly ridiculous, please know that I have friends who are Black guys around my age who literally experience this every time they leave the house. People assume they’re up to no good simply because they’re shopping while Black, or driving while Black, or walking in the park while Black, or gardening while Black. Please know that their experiences are not the exception: they’re the norm.

This happens to Black women, too: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my Black women friends talk about being pulled over because someone assumed the car was too nice to belong to a Black woman (that someone isn’t always a cop: sometimes it’s someone who calls the cops, who then have to respond to the scene).

So, in short, this isn’t about politics. Politics will almost certainly be involved in the process of change, because that’s kind of what tends to happen … but at its root this is about peoples’ lives.

As a small detour, it seems particularly fitting to me that so much of this is happening during Pride month. It’s easy to forget that Black and Brown people were right out front at Stonewall: Look up Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera if you’d like to know more.

Queer history tends to get whitewashed just like history in general: but the spark that ignited the movement in this country was lit largely by Black and Brown trans women. D has a facebook profile pic that reads, “The First Pride Was A Riot.”

Because it was. And it was for a reason. No movement goes from 0 to Riot without good reasons, but when people have had enough, they’ve had enough.

I’m going to close with one final thought about how this all relates to ballet. Obviously, we should defer to Black and Brown choreographers in this moment. We can help to make space for their creative voices to be heard, instead of rushing to speak on their behalf. We can promote their works (no better time than now, when lots of companies are making works available to stream free of charge).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t also create work and use our artform in the interest of resistance, of renewal, and of rebuilding. If anything, we not only can, but must.

We just have to figure out how to do it without speaking over the people whose experiences we’re trying to support and amplify.

Remember that the current moment didn’t spring from nowhere. The fires that burn right now were lit by hundreds of years of accumulated wrongs, borne with admirable patience by people whose lives have been harder than they should have been.

Video: It’s Not Just For Insta Anymore

In ballet, as in life, there are things you know that you know, and things you know that you know but maybe kinda don’t really know[1].

  1. …And also things you know that you don’t know, and things that you don’t know that you don’t know, but … ugh, let’s just start with the stuff we supposedly know. I’m too tired for the, like, epistemology of epistemology right now.

Like, you know that what you do at the barre is important. Foundationally important. Literally everything in ballet, your teachers tell you, is founded on the work you do at the barre.

…And yet it can actually be kind of hard, sometimes, to really feel what that means.

If you’ve been dancing for more than, like, five minutes with good instruction, you’ve probably heard the maxim that everything in ballet is essentially an extension of plie and tendu (some add rond de jambe to the mix; others argue that rond de jambe can be included in the “extension of tendu” category … I think both arguments have merit, so That’s Another Post).

If you’ve been dancing for more than five years with good instruction, you’ve probably experienced that idea directly often enough that it has taken on gut-level meaning.

You have learned to feel that your grand battement is just a tendu at maximum amplitude; that a waltz turn is just a bunch of plies and tendus strung together; that even a double tour is basically a plie that stretches with a lot of oomph.

That does not, however, always translate directly to the complex movements you do once you leave the barre. Knowing with your brain is not the same thing as feeling with your body, etc.

And this is where video comes in.

I think I’ve written a couple of times about the thing that makes video such an exceptionally useful tool for me–specifically, my proprioception is weird because of Ehlers-Danlos, so I can’t always actually feel what my body is doing relative to itself. Video is the best tool I’ve found for figuring out the difference between what I feel like I’m doing and what I’m actually doing.

Sometimes, though, it’s also a goldmine for technique.

Case in point, this:

Never mind the caption–I was poking fun at myself because my eyes either looked or were closed in almost every screencap from this class.

I’ve been trying to make my body sort out the relationship between the Bournonville grand jete and … to be honest, basically everything. I mean, like, yes: of course I realize that it’s a prime example of “it’s just tendu and plie, but with a little chutzpah,” but somehow I still feel like my execution always cuts a corner somewhere.

The reason that I feel that my execution of the Bournonville jete cuts a corner is that it does.

Literally.

I’ve been so busy thinking about Bournonville jete being a leap that I’ve been completely overlooking the fact that the leap will take care of itself if you DO THE REST OF THE TECHNIQUE CORRECTLY.

Functionally, this means that instead of brushing and pressing my leading leg and using the combination of that kinetic energy with the potential energy stored in the plie of the second leg, I’m sort of frantically flinging my first leg and throwing my body after it, taking off before the leading leg can do its job (which is to set the height of the leap and then STAY THERE–that’s where control comes in), and generally bungling the entire procedure.

I’m flexible, so I come closer to getting away with it than someone would who can’t just throw a leg wherever, but it’s still not good enough.

(Ballet: it’s always easier when you just do it right, and somehow that never ceases to be completely shocking.)

So, the picture above isn’t technically of a Bournonville jete. It’s technically a picture of … erm. Some kind of enormous cloche? I’d honestly have to go back and watch the video again; my brain is so cooked right now I don’t even remember which exercise it was (it was before grand battement and after degage *shrug*).

BUT.

When I watched this video, I instantly and powerfully understood that this picture is HOW YOU DO a Bournonville jete, or really any grand jete, and make it count[2].

  1. Okay, full disclosure: my upper body shouldn’t start this far back in an actual grand jete, unless I want it the leap to travel straight up I guess? But that’s actually one of the things I need to fix in my grand jete: I often leave my body behind, costing myself both travel and elevation.

What I do remember about this moment was that it was a cloche through from back to front, brushing strongly through first and pressing the leading leg up (as if against a weight: that was JZ’s main correction for me on Thursday–which, by the way, is exactly the main thing I’m focused on improving in my dancing as a whole).

On the first side, I’d relied (as I always do) too much on momentum and not enough engaged strength: I threw the leg (to be fair, jete literally means “throw”) in a way that meant I was no longer in control of it. My leg was on one journey, and my body was on another–their destination was the same, but for all intents and purposes, the leg was taking the early express train and the body was taking a slightly later local. That makes it kinda hard to keep the movements connected, you know?

JZ said to me, “Less momentum; more strength–like lifting a weight with the working leg.” I applied the correction on the second side, and this was the result.

Even though I’ve done an exercise specific to grand jete that uses this motor pattern–done it in a few different schools, in fact (my childhood studio, LouBallet, the Joffrey, LexBallet, pretty sure Naples Ballet)–I’ve somehow never connected the exercise that I was doing in JZ’s class on Thursday with grand jete.

And yet, there it is. If I sprang off that deeply-loaded right leg, I would … well, okay, in this case, I’d crash directly into the wire storage rack that’s like two centimeters from my left foot o.O’

BUT, if I did that in, say, a proper ballet studio … okay, and if I kept my back a bit more lifted … the result would be a lovely grand jete. The position I’m in doesn’t really need to change (except for the fact that my upper body needs to be a little closer to my free leg); I would just need to kind of … let go of the ground. Just add a little spring[3]. And then sustain the leading leg by pressing it up, as if under a weight[4].

  1. In case you’re not familiar with the distinction, the Bournonville grand jete is done with the back leg in attitude. Obviously, for the … other version, I’d need a little more spring, to get that back leg all the way straight.
  2. I love that analogy, because it summarises everything I love about the way Roberto Bolle moves: his movements are always at once contained and free; controlled and fluid. There’s always a sense almost that he moves against the resistance of a thicker atmosphere than the one most of us inhabit. The idea of pressing into a weight helps me think about how to achieve that feeling without becoming tense and unfree.

Somehow, the video that yielded this picture has helped me understand what I am and am not doing correctly when I do grand jete. (And, in fact, that I’m doing almost everything in grand jete incorrectly much of the time, although sometimes I get it right by accident and something beautiful happens.)

It might’ve taken me another five years to figure that out otherwise, because it’s incredibly difficult to see yourself doing a grand jete or any other large, complex movement (trying to watch yourself in the mirror screws up the body mechanics). I certainly get corrections on my technique all the time (that’s just life as a dancer), but video makes it easier to sort out what all those corrections aim to impart.

In short: if you haven’t tried shooting video of yourself in class, I highly recommend it.

Obviously, in a normal class, you should ask permission first and make sure your classmates are okay with it (my experience has been that they’re usually either like, “Sure as long as I never have to look at myself in it XD” or “OOH YES CAN I HAVE A COPY PLS????”).

Likewise, video alone won’t replace the guidance of a good teacher.

But for me, video has become a critical tool for analysing my own movement and figuring out how to improve it.

At least, once I got over the natural desire to bury my head in the sand and never watch myself dancing again ^-^’

Suddenly Summer o.O

Erm, so, apparently the FSB school year is over! And I missed the memo! (*sarcasm* OMG, can you believe it?! I, of all people, lost track of the calendar! THAT NEVER HAPPENS! */sarcasm*)

Like, seriously, a part of my lesson planning process for my 3-4 Year Olds class, I choose a class theme for each week, and I post the week’s theme with a related printable coloring page to FSB’s facebook page … and I popped it up there for this week and then an hour later our school admin called me up like, “Guess what! We’re on break!” XD

Anyway, I’m sort of vaguely staggered that I have now made it through an entire academic year of teaching.

Sometimes I feel like I’m really getting the hang of it, while other times I feel like I’m still just desperately treading water. Still, there’s nothing like an arbitrary temporal marker to awaken one to the fact that, somehow, one is actually Doing The Thing.

Though I’m also still leaving my left thumb dangling -.-

So I’ve now officially been a ballet teacher (OMGWTFBBQ) for a year and a ballet dancer (in a company) for two years.

Watching video of myself from this morning’s Zoom class[1], I can see that I’ve come a long way as a dancer in the past two years. This morning I was tired and groggy and … stiff might not be the right word, in that my body wasn’t stiff, but my movement quality was stiff AF? Like, I can see that my brain is kind of running in slow motion, ticking off individual steps and kind of grinding gears between them, so The. Phrasing. Is. A. Bit. Staccato.

  1. Video is a phenomenal self-teaching tool, and I keep meaning to write a post about it ^-^’

…And yet watching myself I can still see that this person here, for all his faults, kind of knows what he’s doing. Mostly.

Two years is as long as I’ve ever held any continuous job (or, well–just over two years, really)–but back then I didn’t see the job that I had as a career path. It was a thing I was doing to make money while I figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life ^-^’

Now I’m getting paid a lot less, but working to build a career, which isn’t a thing I ever envisioned doing until I came back to ballet, and even then it took quite a while before I felt like I had a snowball’s chance. Full disclosure: sometimes I still don’t feel like I’ve got a snowball’s chance. Like, part of me is like, “Okay, dude, keep your head down so The Powers That Be don’t notice that you’re Doing The Thing.”

Or in this case, doing a kind of … worried arabesque. (With a semi-dangling thumb. Still.)

Imposter syndrome still makes appearances, of course, and every time I refer to myself as a professional dancer, there’s a part of my brain that winces and goes, “SHUT UP YOU IDIOT DON’T JINX IT.” (That part of my brain apparently doesn’t do commas.)

Imposter syndrome notwithstanding, though, I feel like I’ve found a place in the world in which I actually fit.

Ultimately, I do rather think that’s the only way to become a dancer. It’s too hard otherwise. Either there’s something within you that drives you to dance, no matter how wildly impractical it seems, or there’s not (and that’s okay: like, I’m not driven to be a chef or an investigative journalist, but I love the work they do, and I’m so glad they do it).

I’m not saying that if you don’t dance professionally, you’re not a dancer. training, talent, and physical aptitude alone aren’t enough to make that happen–there’s a lot of chance involved; being in the right place at the right time, basically.

Like, I just happened to wander across Mr D’s radar at a time when he needed guys for The Sleeping Beauty, and then the person who was going to be Drosselmeyer had to back out, and since I was going to be there anyway, Mr D figured he’d just put me in all the things. Likewise, I happened to have met Dot at LexBallet’s SI (and again at PlayThink), and she mentioned to me that Gale Force Dance was holding an audition, which ultimately led both to dancing with GFD and teaching at FSB.

Not everyone stumbles upon circumstances like these. But if you can’t imagine living without dancing, if the studio is where you feel most at home, if you do everything in your power to find a way to dance as much as you can (even if that means you don’t get to dance very much), you have the heart and soul of a dancer.

Next year is still up in the air, a bit: we don’t know yet when, or even if, theater venues will reopen, or what that re-opening will look like. We have no way to know what the changes in question will do to ballet company budgets, or to arts funding (public and private) in general. I don’t think we even know what the rehearsal process will be.

For now, though, I’m just happy to have made it through a year of teaching.

I’ve concluded that adapting to a new job–especially one in a new field–is always a bit of a baptism by fire.

Whether or not you’ve completed formal coursework in teaching, it’s impossible to know before you begin what your students will be like, how they’ll respond to your personality, and so forth. You also don’t know how you’ll operate as a teacher.

Likewise, you learn to be in a ballet company by being in ballet company (this is one of the reasons that Youth Ensemble, Studio Company, and Second Company programs are so valuable).

Nobody can ever say for sure what the future will bring, but generally speaking accumulated experience makes it easier to do whatever thing you’re doing.

Anyway, that’s it for now. SI next week, then who knows what will happen.

Keep dancing, friends.

A Tale Of Two Balances

Or, well … two pictures of one balance. Same thing.

Ballet, as I’ve mentioned before, is an art of ever-receding goalposts. You might also say that they’re ever-shrinking goalposts: smaller, and thus harder to spot, and thus harder to hit–but just as important.

This entire post will be devoted to what might seem, to someone who doesn’t dance, like a distinction of no importance–a goalpost minuscule to the point of vanishing. A mere quibble.

But, hang about! I’m about to explain why the differences between the two pictures at the top of this post, which seem nearly invisible until you spot them, but which cannot be unseen once you do, are incredibly important.

But first, let’s zoom in a little.

Can you spot the subtle differences between these two images?

If you noticed that, in the right-hand image, I look like I have a potbelly, you’ve caught at least one! And since I didn’t go and stuff myself with pancakes between these two pictures–in fact, I didn’t go anywhere at all; they’re literally seconds apart during the same actual balance–I’m afraid I can’t blame breakfast.

So what, then, is the cause of this apparent potbelly?

It’s this:

Two images of the same dancer during a balance placed side-by-side with lines indicating the angle of his pelvic tilt.
Pelvic placement: the most important thing in the entire world (if you’re trying to dance ballet, anyway)

On the left, the top of my pelvis is essentially parallel to the floor. My tailbone is reaching down without tucking under, and my ribs and hips are connected by the line of my core … or, well almost. If you look really closely, you can actually see that I’m not quite entirely pulled up between ribs and pelvis, which is part of why everything has gone pear-shaped on the right.

On the right, my tailbone is sticking out towards the wall behind me, and the top of my pelvis is pointing forward and down.

At any moment in a normal person’s life, this sort of thing isn’t necessarily a huge problem. It can predispose you to back pain, but other than that, it’s probably not going to interfere all that much.

At any moment in a dancer’s working life, however, it’s a huge hecking deal, because it opens the door for two huge problems:

  1. Instability: your balances, turns, and just about everything else will be both more difficult than they have to be and, ultimately, worse than they have to be.
  2. Turnout: with my pelvis angled forward, I’m actually blocking my own turnout o_O’

This second point is more important than it might sound. Turnout in ballet isn’t just decorative: rather, it’s functional. Ballet technique is built on the ability to hold turnout, and if your pelvis is doing wacky things that interfere with your turnout, those things become harder to do.

Let’s take another look at that picture, with a few more marks to illuminate things:

Same pic; different caption.

Let’s start from the bottom.

On the left, you can see that I’m both well over the ball of my foot (which is showing off the entire reason I have a job in ballet at all–that arch and instep, right there). If you look closely, you can also see quite a bit of the underside of my shoe, indicating that my turnout is working.

On the right, I’ve fallen backwards, so I’m having to work really hard to stay on a lower demi-pointe. My hips are no longer stacked over the ball of my foot, so I’m forced to hold myself together by muscular effort, instead of allowing bones and gravity to do their job.

Just as importantly, the underside of my shoe is barely visible. My standing-leg turnout is pretty much nil right there.

Moving up to knee height, on the left, my free leg is cranked out close to flat. I’m not at my maximum turnout (or at my maximum retire height … BW would yell at me if he was here ^-^’), but the turnout I’m using here is both respectable and sustainable (in the sense that it’s a degree of turnout that I can readily maintain throughout an exercise or a dance).

On the right, my knee has crept forward. This is the most subtle difference, but it’s there all the same. The angle of my pelvis is making it difficult for me to hold my turnout–blocking it not with bones, but with physics. The angles make it harder for my muscles to keep me positioned on my standing leg without rotating the legs inward.

From mid-hip through just below my arm, on the left, everything is basically one unbroken rectangle (except for a little bit of rounding at the front–a harbinger of things to come, I’m afraid). I’m actually carrying my upper body a little too far back, though not drastically so … or it wouldn’t have been drastic if I’d actually succeeded in keeping my core engaged.

On the right, I’m decidedly swaybacked, but since the shirt I’m wearing makes that hard to see, it winds up looking like I’ve got a potbelly. There’s enough arch in my back to make it very difficult for me to recover without first coming down from the balance.

Lastly, on the left, my eyeline is level. On the right, I’m doing what horse people call “stargazing.” (Interestingly, swaybacked horses do this just like swaybacked people do. It’s almost like all the bones are attached to each-other by muscles, tendons, and ligaments! ^-^’)

I can’t express how incredibly important a level eyeline is.

Heads are heavy, and if you lift your gaze too high, it tends to send your head and everything attached to it backwards. The result tends to be that the pelvis rotates forward and down in an effort to counterbalance the head.

That might not be a recipe for disaster when you’re sitting in an office chair (though, again, it does tend to lead to back pain down the road), but when you’re trying to pirouette, it most certainly is. If I tried an en dedans with the balance on the right as a starting point, I’d fold up like a cheap umbrella.

Anyway, I hope you find this comparison as illuminating as I have. Now I need to dash off and teach a few Zoom classes, so if you’ll excuse me…

Unexpecto Coronum

Bit by itty-bitty bit, I seem to be resuming my life as a dancer.

Not, of course, in the sense of going out and dancing with other people in the studio. Rather, in the sense of finally taking class via Zoom (with a fantastic teacher, Johnny Zhong) on a regular basis … or, at least, I’ve hauled my butt to class twice this week.

Continuing to take class no longer seems like something that’s going to be a struggle against the tides of depression and exhaustion that have beseiged me for however many weeks.

Not that they’re, like, gone … but on Monday this week I hauled myself out of my Personal Doldrums and made myself take an actual class with an actual teacher who could actually see what I’m doing and correct things and (amazingly) tell me when I did something well. And then today I took his class again. And now taking class twice next week seems like given.

(Given the enormous lapse between my last real class and the first one this week, I wasn’t expecting to do anything well.)

Anyway, it took me a long time to get to this point.

I don’t really understand why, but I’m not sure the “why” is really important. I could spend the rest of my life unpicking every single variable that led me to hole up inside myself for, like, two months.

I’ve thought about it, and I’ll think about it again: but now I’m just relieved and grateful.

Grateful for the class.

Grateful for the fact that my body is apparently rather good at putting itself back together.

Grateful especially to my friend SF (if you’re reading this, hi!), who lovingly badgered me into taking JZ’s class, and thereby has probably saved my life, or at least my career … chapeau, girlfriend.

So although I’m still … not okay, I guess, though less not okay than I was a few weeks ago, when I felt like the dark waters of my own internal whatever might finally close over my head and bear me down into their depths … I’m getting there.

I’m not saying, “I’m getting better,” because then I’ll be pissed at myself if I don’t live up to that phrase.

Everything’s back and forth, here and there, ebb and flow. I’m going to have difficult days: we’re all going to have difficult days, always, but especially now in the midst of this novel uncertainty.

But, still, I feel right now like I’ve at least managed to grab a passing bit of flotsam and I’m not fighting so hard to keep my head above water.

Some of that has come with the realization that, although the precipitous and early end of our season torpedoed the twice-weekly unofficial partnering class I was doing with a friend of mine in the company (and everything else), I have an opportunity to really work on becoming a stronger dancer right now.

Working in a less-than-ideal setting* forces me to really focus on the deepest and most essential aspects of technique–holding the core; feeling the turnout; keeping the body together. (Conveniently, JZ’s approach to teaching focuses closely on all of those things.)

*a basement with 7 foot/2.13m ceilings and very freaking hard floors
covered with foam puzzle mats** that make turning a major
challenge ^-^’
**I just put in some new portable dance flooring today. Still hard, so I’ll
be confining jumps to the puzzle mats, but better than it was.

I will be a stronger dancer next season because of the time I’m spending alone(ish) in my basement now.

That doesn’t to any extent reduce the tragedy that has arisen from some breathtakingly poor policy decisions that have led to far, far more death and suffering than was necessary in this crisis (in many countries, but especially in mine).

It doesn’t change the fact that we no longer have a clear sense of what to expect from the future (not that we ever do, but under normal circumstances, we can at least use the standard operating procedures of daily life to infer a kind of baseline normality).

It just means that maybe I, individually, am at the end of one chapter in this unexpected story and at the beginning of another (notwithstanding the utterly imaginary nature of such divisions in the first place ^-^).

I’m planning to post a list of good live video classes, and I’m working on a choreographic project specific to the current quarantine that I’m hoping to post in the next week or so.

For now, stay safe, and keep dancing ❤

Oh, and here’s a pic from last summer, just because:

Still one of my favorite jumps ^-^

April

The day falls dour and dreary.
Rain,
effacing winter’s palimpsest,
prevails upon the weary,
well depriving us of any rest.

The chill air, still and eerie,
looms;
the startled trees lift up their arms;
while lonesome, high, and leery,
one far falcon keens the world’s alarms.

The circling clouds enfold us,
and the whispering rain descends:
but no hour can ever hold us,
and every winter ends.

–25 April, 2020

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