I’m doing the National Choreography Month thing, and I’ve been enjoying the heck out of creating improv video clips and watching those created by other artists.
Today, I commented, “#contactimprov is the best. This is beautiful” on one created by LA’s Leigh Purtill Ballet Company (Insta: @LeighPurtillBalletCompany), and they replied, “I love seeing what develops between people who trust each other,” and I thought, Yes.
So much yes.
So much of my current work as a dancer can be traced back to moments of profound trust: to moments at the first Pilobolus workshops I attended in which a momentary connection became, “Yes, we can carry each-other.”
…To the first time Brian set a piece on the open program students at Louisville Ballet School, and entrusted me with solo choreography and, even though I’d never done it before, partnering.
…To a very conscious decision to trust Edwin Olvera when he approached me after a Pilobolus masterclass to suggest that I audition for the company and that I come to the summer intensive (I still haven’t managed to make an audition for the company, but I hope I will … And the SI was everything. Everything.).
…To Mike’s willingness to trust me to lead him in a blind walk dance, and the trust I found so easy to give to Quincy when I was the blind one in the dance, both at my first Pilobolus SI.
…To Rachel’s decision to trust me as an untried choreographer in creating a piece for the Americana Center Fundraiser.
…To Kathy’s and Christina’s willingness to jump in and trust my creative process as I set my first contemporary ballet piece. To my willingness to trust the changes they suggested, which made the piece that much stronger.
…To Dot’s, Jaddyn’s, and EM’S willingness to trust me with their life and limbs while we built pieces together and learned pieces being set on us this past summer.
… To the countless moments that Mr D has probably looked at me flailing through a Bad Ballet Moment and thought, “Jeez, what have I gotten myself into?” but has decided to keep me on anyway.
… To so, so many other moments in which someone has trusted me, or in which I have been able to trust someone else, and beautiful things have grown out of it.
I can say with conviction that my first Pilobolus intensive changed my life. Really and deeply. It was the catalyst for a sea change in so many ways.
The ground of that catalyst, in the end, was trust. Trusting the moments and the process and, eventually, my fellow dancers, until bit by bit I stood on a foundation of trust the like if which I couldn’t have imagined beforehand.
Trust is a springboard. Trust is a ladder. Trust is (sometimes literally) a pair of hands that lift you up into the light.
I love working with Dot and with Jaddyn because we know we’re crazy, but we trust each-other anyway. We trust each-other’s crazy.
There’s something sacred in knowing someone trusts you enough to say, “Hey, here’s this crazy and potentially dangerous lift in which you throw me over your shoulder at high speed, wanna try it?”
There’s something sacred in knowing yourself to be worthy of that trust.
All these moments of trust have been critical in making me what I am right now (for whatever that is 😅).
I would say that I’m surprised by the incredible things my friends from that one Pilobolus intensive are doing, but I’m really not. That group was something else, and in that week we all grew immensely in artistry and in trust. We were all sprinkled with the same magic dust, and the funny thing about magic dust is that it multiplies.
So I guess now the next step, besides continuing to improve as a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, and an artist (oh, look, I said it again) is to figure out how to get better at spreading that magic dust around.
We are made by moments; moments (both bad and good; awkward AF and sublimely beautiful) that loom large in our autobiographical memories.
Just as in contact improv we share weight to create something beautiful, in life we balance and lean on each-other. We become the catalysts for the moments that make other people.
That, too, seems like it must be a sacred trust.
1. Omg, look at me slipping in the phrase “other artists” as if I’m not still routinely consumed by imposter syndrome wrt the right to call myself an artist 🤣🤣🤣
Have you ever seen the entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades (from La Bayadere, one of the “White Ballets” of the classical cannon)? Or the first breathtaking appearance of the swans in a large-scale production of Swan Lake? Or the Snow scene from Nutcracker?
I mean, that’s probably a given. You’re reading this blog, and that means you have internet access and are probably at least a little bit interested in ballet, so that means you can at least watch them on YouTube, probably. (If you came via one of my bike posts, hi! and I’ve got a couple for you, too: a big group ride sweeping around a corner or a tight paceline swapping pulls).
These are some of the best-known scenes in ballet, and with good reason: they display the fundamental truth that there’s immense power in a group of individual people working together.
The entrance of the Shades might be the keenest example.
The dancers enter one by one, in a long line that will eventually double back on itself. They perform the same simple (not easy: simple), repetitive phrase over and over: arabesque (penché, in most versions), temps lié to posé tendu devant, step step, repeat.
They are not massed in a cloud, as the corps so often is. They are not aggregated in attractive little clusters, or in coruscating diagonals, or in opposing echelons. At least, not at first.
Instead, each of the Shades is essentially alone—and yet she’s also part of a whole.
The repeating phrase is nice enough on its own, but nothing you’d necessarily be transfixed by for minutes on end (or, indeed, for one minute on end, unless you’re busily analyzing technique, I guess).
The repeating phrase performed by an ever-lengthening (and eventually redoubling) line of dancers, on the other hand, is mesmerizing. It’s kaleidoscopic.
It evokes an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere even (or perhaps most effectively) when performed against a plain backdrop, with no set except a ramp upon which the advancing shades descend.
This simple phrase, without a single iota of elaboration, becomes a symphony. But it only works if the dancers stay together.
Indeed, it works because the dancers stay together.
At the height of the sequence, the redoubled chain of dancers (still executing the same phrase on the same leg) becomes … Oh, I don’t know: a restless sea; a moonlit, windblown fog racketing between two unseen hills; the very breath of the audience.
Choose whichever metaphor suits you: either way, it becomes one thing; one thing made up of a staggering array of smaller things.
But only if the dancers stay together.
This is where I am in my life. I spent so much of my life standing apart that I came to believe, on some level, that it was somehow better.
Participate, I thought, but don’t join.
Or, join, but not because it’s inherently good to be part of something.
Join because it’s how this thing works: but retain a measure of reserve about the very idea of joining. Remain aloof.
If you remain aloof, the unacknowledged subtext would have read, you can’t be caught off guard and hurt when, inevitably, you’re rejected. (Lessons learned in childhood die hard. When enough people have told you, no one really likes you and no one will ever like you, you come to believe it.)
And yet, as the company has transformed into a place where I feel welcome, bit by bit I find that I want to belong.
That the more I begin to feel that I want to be part of this group—that I like the people in it and the group itself and not just the work we’re doing together—the better I actually seem to dance.
When bikes were my life, I loved—loved—the incomparable symbiotic feeling of sweeping around a curve in a flock of bikes traveling at speed.
As a singer, I have always loved choral harmonies more than anything.
Even as a dancer, I love those moments of pure synchrony, especially in grand allegro (here are four separate bodies flinging themselves violently through space, and yet we are one thing because we are all doing this together!) or in partnering (the best moments, for me, are the ones in which each move seems to flow logically, even inevitably, from the last).
Why, then, am I still surprised to want to be part of something—to want, dare we breathe the word, to belong?
Ironically, I know I shouldn’t be surprised (my aloof, proud, defensive side feels downright affronted: “Of course I know that, man, what are you trying to say?!” …. to be surprised is to be less than omniscient; is to be vulnerable). Humans are social animals, and though I’m not always great at being a human, I am one anyway. Neurologically speaking, even I am wired for belonging.
Of course I want to be part of something, even if the something in question is so obscure that a great many people literally don’t understand that it exists.
(Seriously: there are a lot of people, right here in the First World, who have no idea that a professional ballet company is a thing; that we don’t just clean out the barn, rehearse a couple of times after work, and set up ticket sales).
But it surprises me anyway.
Not least, the knock-on effects: when you start cracking open the door to let people in a little—because, here’s the thing, that’s how you do The Belonging—you find that you try new things that the other people in The Thing to which you’re learning to belong like. It’s transitive almost: I like A and A likes Lizzo, therefore maybe I will also like Lizzo.
You discover music you’ve never really given a second glance before (or you discover who makes music that you’ve low-key liked for a long time but haven’t known who to ask about it). You take a risk and wear something ludicrously silly on Pajama Day—like a hoodie with a sparkly pug with antlers on it (I’ll have to get a picture; I can’t even begin to explain this one).
You say hi first once in a while.
You begin to listen without feeling like you might, at any moment, have to defend yourself.
You begin to talk. Just a little: but then one day you realize you’re having, like, a whole conversation. OMGWTFBBQ, IKR?
And you begin to learn that it feels good to be even a little bit on the inside of something.
You begin to realize that it’s okay to want to feel that. That being on the inside isn’t the same as being one of the people who, back in the day when you were a kid, did everything to ensure that people like you stayed out.
You begin to want to stay together because although you by yourself are just fine, the group is another thing, and it’s a really cool thing.
You begin to realize how much it helps to be a unit.
That (apologies to Kipling) the strength of the corps is in the dancer, and the strength of the dancer is in the corps.
I mean, not that it’s all roses and sunshine, etc. But this, for me, is a new feeling. Realizing that part of merging into the group is being willing to merge; is wanting to merge.
Just like the dancers in the Entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades, we do not surrender our individual strength to join the group.
I’m still stunned by how different this year has been compared to last year. When she launched class this morning A said, “Last studio Saturday guys, can you believe it?”
And, of course, it got me thinking.
By this time last year, the season already felt like an interminable battle; a kind of bitter survival slog.
I did my best to stay positive and keep that to myself, but it was hard. I was lonely and anxious and felt like an outsider and like maybe I shouldn’t be trying to do what I was trying to do.
And here we are this year, and it’s basically a full 180° difference.
I’m still pretty sure I’m the worst dancer in this company, but I’m okay with that.
And part of that is that this year I’m the worst dancer in the company, instead of this weird anxious appendage. Instead of being a stressed out and dejected assemblage of people, we’re a unit in a way that I don’t think we were last year at all, and it’s such a cool feeling to be part of that.
Besides, I’m improving.
The thing about being a professional dancer is that you never get to say to the audience, “I’m sorry, I’m usually better than this; I’m having a really bad day.”
Your worst day still has to be good enough.
So when your AD casts a show, she’s thinking about that, and trying to put you in a role that’ll play to your strengths even on your worst bad day.
And when you’re taking class every day, you’re working on making your worst bad day better and better and better.My worst bad days probably aren’t really 100% “ready for prime time,” but they’re getting better. Part of it is just improving technique, of course—but some of it’s also leaning how to laugh it off when I do something utterly bone-headed, and to make my mistakes look good (or, at any rate, less bad).
And that’s all down to confidence. As a dancer, you live and die by the belief that you have the right to be standing where you are, whether in the studio or on the stage.
Or, well … Okay, sometimes you really have to fake it (laughing at yourself helps).
When I’m having a rough time remembering combinations or whatever, I try to remember what L’Ancien says to me whenever he sees me retreating into myself:
“Remember: you are a prince.”
It’s worth noting that he doesn’t say, “Act like a prince” or “imagine you’re a prince” or even “be a prince.”
He always says are.You are a prince.
Which is to say, it’s there, inside you. You evoke something that already is.
I think we’ve all seen random people—some lady on the bus with four kids and her hair up in a messy Mom-bun; some old gent sitting on a park bench; whoever—who just look regal. Princely. Royal.
I think that’s there in all of us.You reach inside and set your feet on the ground at the heart of a quiet, graceful strength, and you square your shoulders and lengthen the back of your neck and you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and there it is:
Remember. You are a prince.
And then you still add an extra tour jeté and almost leave out that pesky balancé dessous and maybe there’s a moment when you suspect that you might just flat out fall out of your turn.
But you do it with your head high and when you’re done you roll your eyes and laugh at yourself.
So that’s it. That’s where I am.
Next week we’re in the theater for Nut, and then we’re off for three weeks, and then it’s on to the rest of Midsummer Night’s Dream and the rest of the season.
Be kind to each-other, and if there’s a weird oddball loner in your company or class, maybe try to reach out and see if you can draw them into the loop, because they might just be too afraid to try to do it themselves.
In the specific alternate universe that is ballet, it’s easy to spend all of your time being horrified by how much you still have to learn. There’s simply so freaking much material that it’s essentially impossible for one single human being to learn all of it in any neat, systematic sense.
That’s why a consistent focus on the basics is so essential: if you have placement, aplomb, a general sense of the structural logic of épaulement, and the deep training of muscles and brain, you can generally learn any step that a choreographer throws in your path.
You don’t have to actually know, for example, pas de harp seal. You see it and do it a few times, and because the laws of ballet are written on your bones (and muscles, and brain) in relatively short order you’ve got an acceptable ballet step[2, 3].
Still, as human beings, we’re wired to look ahead from time to time—and that can be terribly discouraging. We may find ourselves thinking, “There’s so much I still have to learn!” and reaching for the nearest pint, be it of ice cream or beer.
As such, I think it’s healthy, once in a while, to look back. Sometimes it’s very surprising to realize how far you’ve come.
If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing that I’d want to do …is go back to Saturday and fix my arms and shoulders. Good thing this piece isn’t supposed to be classical.
Anyway. Yesterday, at Cirque rehearsal, I was standing on a bouncy tumbling track waiting for one of my partners to return, and because I can’t stand still I randomly did a whole bunch of entrechats sixes.
It didn’t occur to me then, but it wasn’t, in the overall span of things, that long ago that I did my first entrechat six.
It was only a few years ago that I learned Albrecht’s variation at LexBallet’s SI and found it, to say the least, rather a stretch. It was only five years ago and change that, having just returned to ballet, I struggled to get my brain back around glissade-assemblé (which isn’t really a compound step, but as well be, since it shows up all the time as a kind of balletic comma).
When I think back, I can recall the sensation of being vaguely daunted by the appearance of a pas de Basque, since I was taking a class in which knowledge of the same was considered a given and I hadn’t done one since middle school. At the time, I had to think of it as a handful of steps instead of as one entity.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how recently balancé felt challenging (thanks again, Brian!). I spent a year or two just crossing my mental fingers and hoping it would come out right before Brian schooled my entire class by breaking it down, then putting it back together in a way that makes sense.
Two years ago—okay, as recently as a year and a half ago—I hated chaînés (mostly, to be fair, because they seemed to hate me).
Likewise, a year and a half ago and change, I realized that I needed to completely deconstruct my turning technique, and immediately despaired of ever getting back to a reliable triple. Two ear infections and a lot of concentration later, I’m just now at the point where I feel it coming: but my turns look so much better than they used to.
I used to hate adagio. I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with it (though I know I wrote about noticing it one day in class), but In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that long ago.
Last year, quick sissones fried my brain every time.
I’ve reached a point at which learning new steps isn’t a major goal. Once in a while one comes down the pike—Mr D taught us revoltade a few weeks back—but mostly I’m honing what I already have; learning to use my body as a collected and polished machine. Picking up new steps isn’t usually difficult, so I don’t focus on it on the same way.
In learning ballet, we necessarily work from the specific towards the general.
The first things we learn are profoundly specific: the five positions of the legs and feet become the foundation of our entire body of technique. The coordination engendered by always using port de bras informs every movement in the canon, even if it’s in the unspoken, “The canonical port de bras for this step is backwards.”
Over time, as we absorb the language of ballet into our bodies, we learn to speak it fluently, with no trace of an accent. When I watch video of myself dancing now, I see that process in progress: gaps in my absorption of the language appear as hesitations and faults that might or might not be imperceptible to an untrained eye, depending on circumstances. Where I’m closest to fluency, I’m finally beginning to actually look like a proper professional dancer.
When I look at video from last year—Nutcracker, for example—I’m surprised by which things I clearly have to think about, and by the fact that what now feels like an instinctual awareness of the audience which governs things like the angle of my body in a moment of stillness was definitely not instinctual then. I can see myself thinking about it, and I can see myself forgetting to think about it.
(I suspect that a year from now, I’ll say the same thing. I’ll watch this year’s Nutcracker video and say, “Oh, no! How can you possibly have forgotten to open your downstage shoulder just another ten degrees?!” Maybe I’ll be saying that for the rest of my working life.)
When I look back at video from two or three years ago, I see what I’m guessing Mr D saw when he first invited me to come take company class: a lot of potential coupled with a whole lot left to learn.
All of this reminds me that, although there are days that I feel I’m standing still, or even rolling backwards down Mount Ballet, I’m not. I’ve come a long way.
I’ve written several times about how, in ballet, the goal posts keep moving.
I think that will always be true: ballet is an athletic pursuit, but first and foremost it’s an art. Once you approach raw physical mastery, there’s infinite room for improvement in artistry. Indeed,one governs the other: the requirement that each step be executed with beauty and feeling shapes the way we train our bodies.
But the endless progress of the goalposts doesn’t mean we don’t also progress.
It just means that we are never without the joy of pursuit.
This is not a real step, unless it’s the step where you finish a demanding dance and just lie on the floor and wonder why your AD is trying to club you to death with choreography.
…Though the meaning of “acceptable” varies by context. Because my arms like to do their own thing, it takes me a bit longer to get them to a professional standard than it really should 😑
The caveat is that it may take you years to really feel that you perform the step in question beautifully: but an acceptable minimal professional standard will look beautiful to the bar majority of people who aren’t dancers.
Okay, so my turns are often, erm, not horrible these days (probably because my AD is relentless in his quest to make us do six billion turns per class) … And yet I’m still entirely capable of making a complete hash of them from time to time.
In the interest of full disclosure, clarity, and the greater good, then, here’s a spectacular example caught on video in the wild today and translated into handy screenshots. (I am NOT posting the video. I don’t want to scar you guys for life.)
I just can’t even with this. No part of my core is even a little engaged. I’m jello
Erm … That’s not where that goes. How embarassing.
Look at that standing leg. I dare you. That’s right: I’m serving up fresh horror just in time for Hallowe’en, Betches.
I didn’t fall out of this turn in the sense that I didn’t literally go splat. In every other way, though…
We’re not even going to talk about my arms. They’d just doing it for the attention, and we cannot reward their egregious behavior by acknowledging it. I haven’t been this disappointed since … Well, tbh, 2016, but … you know.
Okay, I will say one thing about my arms. See that first photo? Balanchine prep up top; Cecchetti downstairs. No wonder this turn failed. It was the balletic equivalent of a mullet … replete with hamberder hands.
I’m going to cry.
This turn was not assisted by the fact that there’s a divot in the subfloor under my standing foot, but honestly that excuses nothing. Without said divot, it still would’ve been a fugly turn. You could take it to a salon and give it hours and hours of mud wraps and so forth, and it wouldn’t do any good. Lipstick on a pig*.
*I mean … some members of the porcine family are quite handsome. But lipstick? They don’t really, like, have lips.
Here’s a less bad example, just so I can feel better about life
The non-standard port de bras is intentional.
The gesture leg is attached. The supporting leg is … well, sort-of turned out. My core, like, exists. The balance is fairly straight up and down. And in the video it’s evident that I spotted this turn like a boss.
That last one was of the “effortless double” species. The MOST important factor, for me, is simply keeping my coreengaged. This prevents Slinky Back (would that it could prevent Nickleback), which in turn basically prevents EVERYTHING ELSE THAT IS WRONG WITH THE FIRST TURN.
So engage those core muscles, kids!
…And remember: only YOU can prevent Nickelback slinkyback!
The main difference between your second year as a new ballet student and your second year in a professional company is that in your second year as a professional, you’re basically comfortable with the fact that you still know almost nothing about how to dance.
Maybe that’s because you also know you’re going to spend the rest of your life learning how.
Part of life in any group is occasionally overhearing disparaging comments about yourself. I get that. Part of life as a human is learning to keep those comments from getting to you. I get that, too, but like everyone I’m not always good at it.
I’ve been reflecting on this particular thing, because one of the things that bothers me about myself is how very much things people say sometimes bother me (but only sometimes).
Or … well. Not so much when people say things to me. It’s when someone says something about me, but not to me, in a setting in which it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’ll overhear it.
When someone criticizes me directly, I see it as an opportunity.
At best, it’s an opportunity to learn something.
This is undoubtedly one of the best lessons you learn in the ballet studio: criticism gives you room to grow (and means that your instructor or director hasn’t completely given up on you ^-^’). Ideally, it should be offered constructively, but even if it’s excessively blunt, it’s still useful information.
I mean, sure, sometimes it’s mortifying to realize that you’ve been doing something wrong for, like, six years. But it’s still useful. You can’t really improve ballet technique—or, for that matter, anything else—unless someone helps you identify your mistakes. Or, well, you probably can improve, but it’ll probably also take a lot longer.
At worst, direct criticism reflects a misunderstanding. If someone says to me, “Jeez, why don’t you pay attention?” I can tell them, “I have trouble processing language, and sometimes when I’m trying to understand what someone just said I pretty much literally don’t hear anything else for a while.” Or I can say, “Oh, yeah, I totally zoned out, didn’t I? Ack! Sorry about that.” (True story: I caught myself zoning out during barre this morning. It was a rough morning, brain-wise.)
When I was in sixth grade, a kid in my class stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Why are you so stuck up?” It was blunt and awkward as hell, but it was also useful information. I was, in fact, horribly shy (I still am), not to mention stiff and formal (both of which were partly neurology and partly social inexperience). I didn’t realize that I came across as stuck up.
I was so flummoxed that I basically answered, “Um?”
The same year, another classmate told me I talked like a robot.
Neither was exactly subtle, and I initially found both pretty confusing: but those comments helped me realize that what I felt on the inside wasn’t what people saw on the outside (which, admittedly, took a long time). They were blunt, but they weren’t meant to be mean.
Even as the least socially-savvy kid in my class, I’d seen enough of intentional meanness to know what it looked like. It was pretty clear in both cases that the classmates in question were just trying to figure stuff out; trying to put things into words. As someone who struggles with spoken language, I also knew how hard putting things into words could be, and how sometimes that can make you sound pretty blunt.
In short, even if it’s blunt, direct criticism can be helpful (if it couldn’t, nobody would ever survive growing up in New England in the first place).
Sometimes even when people do intend their words to be mean and hurtful, they still manage to say something helpful in the process.
If someone says to me, “Oh my G-d, you’re such a fuck-up. How are you so bad at petit allegro?!” I could potentially still say, “I know, I suck at it, don’t I? I’m not entirely sure what’s up with that, like it gets worse sometimes and then gets better sometimes, but I’m working on it. If you notice anything specific, could you let me know?”
I don’t think anybody has actually ever said this to me, though it’s entirely possible that people have said it about me because I have definitely said it about myself. But this is definitely not a real-life example of something someone has lobbed at me in an excessively blunt way or of something I’ve overheard.
Criticism overheard is something else.
It suggests to me that the person doing the criticizing either doesn’t think it’s worth their time of day to speak to me directly, is just one of those people who says things without really thinking, or maybe just isn’t particularly brave about criticizing people.
Either way, it doesn’t offer the same opportunities. Like, yes, if someone makes a specific comment (“OMG, why doesn’t Asher ever pay attention?”), I can take it as a reminder: Hey, you might’ve blinked out for a sec there; you might want to make sure you are paying attention. But it also rankles.
Moreover, sometimes people say things in ways that are mean, and that you can’t do anything about, and they do so in contexts in which you can’t defend yourself without either being a giant jerk or possibly making things worse, and then you’re just stuck with it.
I don’t know if it bothers me more when I suspect that I’m intended to overhear such comments or when I suspect that I’m not intended to.
I don’t know if it really matters.
I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to discuss someone’s shortcomings with a third person. Sometimes you have to, in order either to figure out how to talk to the person you’re criticising or, if you’re in a position that makes talking to that person impossible, to blow off steam.
It is not, however, in particularly good taste to do so where the person in question is likely to overhear you. And it’s just plain rude to do so intentionally.
But that alone doesn’t explain why sometimes that kind of comment really, really stings.
But this, for me, does: it occurred to me recently that comments I overhear only really bother me when they concern some area in which I already feel unsure of myself.
So that brings us back to doubt.
I don’t imagine that I’ll reach a point in my life at which I don’t wrestle with doubt. I’m not sure that I—or anyone—should.
But there’s reasonable, healthy doubt—the doubt that keeps us humble—and the kind of soul-sucking doubt that grinds down on us and makes it so, so much harder to do the things we’re trying to do.
I’ve spent a lot of this year wrestling my doubt. Sometimes, that’s made it much harder for me to learn: nothing blocks your brain like a good dose of nerves, and nothing makes you nervous like doubt.
I don’t have any groundbreaking insights to add, here.
Doubt is hard. It’s particularly hard when it’s at least partially grounded in reality: when you know how much ground you have to make up, and you’re not really sure if you’re succeeding in that respect.
I can say this, though: pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t even make it easier to grit your teeth and get through it.
The best response I’ve found for my doubt is to give voice to it: to talk to someone who has a clearer head, and who knows both my weaknesses and my strengths, and who can help me discern how much of my doubt is justified and how much isn’t.
Some days, it’s better. Some days, it’s worse. Some days, despite all the things that should move it towards the “better” end of the spectrum, someone says something—about me, but not to me—that just shoots it right back to the Consuming Doubt end of the spectrum.
One of the firmest tenets of my upbringing was this: if you can’t bring yourself to say something to someone’s face, you don’t say it where they can hear you. Ever.
Its corollary goes, “…And if you are going to say something to someone’s face, at least try to say it the way you’d want to hear it, because sooner or later you’re going to be the one on the receiving end.”
The corollary is easy enough to understand.
I don’t know that I’ve given a lot of thought in the past to the first bit: it was just something that got built into my personal code of ethics. I never gave much thought to the why.
So maybe this is the why: everyone has doubts. Everyone has weak spots.
As for me, I will continue to sit with mine, even when it’s hard; to talk to people whose reliable good sense helps keep my compass from spinning off magnetic north; and to try to keep my big mouth shut.
But first: housekeeping! By which I mean, apologies for totally failing to post anything on Saturday. We had an unexpected visit from my MIL, AKA Momma Fluffy, who is awesome, and who I haven’t seen in quite a while, and as a result I totally blanked on it. I’ll try to get it out ASAP to keep the series going.
Tomorrow, we begin the second half of my first season with ActualBalletCompany.
During the first half of the season, I learned a great deal both about being part of a ballet company and about myself … and one of the things I learned is that I’m still horribly, horribly shy and socially-awkward.
Apparently, over the past few years–years in which I’ve settled comfortably into a dance- and circus-based social scene here in Louisville–I slowly forgot how terribly, terribly hard it is for me to connect with people I don’t know, especially when they already know each-other. (Admittedly, my summer intensive experiences should’ve reminded me of this, but since they resolved successfully, they didn’t.)
I also forgot, apparently, how my particular flavor of social awkwardness can make me seem like a bona-fide idiot.
When I’m nervous, my working memory, like, stops working. And when I’m around a bunch of strangers whose opinions of me matter immensely to the shape of the next year or so of my life, I get nervous. Like, really, really nervous.
I should note my nervousness isn’t a question of fearfully wondering, “What will they think of me?”
It’s more a question of experience. I’m really, really bad at the initial stages of getting to know people. When there are other people in the room who find my flavor of social awkwardness charming, that isn’t a big deal … but that’s a fairly rare circumstance, in my experience.
And dance is one of those contexts in which being a cohesive part of the group is immensely, immensely important.
Ironically, the working-memory failures that come with a bad case of nerves make it even more important.
When you dance, the greatest resource available to you isn’t the music, or the big fat book of ballet technique, or even YouTube.
The greatest resource available to you, right then and there, is your fellow dancers.
Because when you’re learning a dance, you’re going to miss something.
This isn’t because you’re stupid, or careless, or distracted (though, yeah, sometimes you’re probably going to be distracted, especially if you’re me). It’s because choreography comes at you hella fast, and you have to, like, blink sometimes.
To complicate things, you also can’t really see yourself in the way that other people can see you. So you might be absolutely sure that you Know The Steps, and you still might be wrong.
When you’re unsure, or better yet, you know you don’t know a step or a phrase, the single best thing you can do is ask another dancer.
If you’re shy, the thing you’re least likely to do is … you guessed it! Ask another dancer.
Obviously, this is a problem.
It’s an even bigger problem when your AD or your choreographer says, “Hey, you! You don’t know this part!” and it’s a part you’re dead certain that you know (because it’s, like, saute-balance-saute-balance-pique turn-pique turn-chaine-chaine-chaine-run away … why, yes, this is an example from my actual life, what makes you ask?).
Because that means that you’ve missed something without realizing that you’ve missed something, and now you have to figure out exactly what that is.
In my parenthetical example above, what I was missing was the arms. It wasn’t that I was doing something inherently wrong with my arms: my port de bras was one of the eleventy-million acceptable versions for the combination of steps in question.
But it was wrong anyway, because it wasn’t the one our AD wanted.
The problem is, he didn’t say, “You’re doing the arms wrong,” he just said, “You don’t know this step.” Which, to be honest, is valid: in the context of this dance, I didn’t know the step.
You guys: THE ARMS ARE PART OF THE STEP.
At this particular moment in the dance, I couldn’t see what anyone else was doing with their arms, so I didn’t realize that I was doing something different. Mr D called me out on it a few times in a row, but it didn’t occur to me to ask the girl standing next to me (who is actually one of the nicest, sweetest, and funniest people in the world, but because I was in Super Shy Boy! mode, I didn’t know that yet) what I was doing wrong.
It wasn’t until I videoed the piece and sat down to watch it that I figured it out … and because I couldn’t quite tell from my tiny phone screen what I was supposed to do, I finally, like, asked someone.
And it took almost no time to fix once I did, except for the fact that I’d done it wrong so many times that it’s burned into my brain the wrong way, and I still have to double-check it before we perform that particular piece now.
If I’d just asked earlier on (“Hey, BossMan says I’m wrong, here, but I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong … any thoughts?”) I could’ve saved myself that struggle.
When you’re shy, it can be extra hard to feel okay asking people questions that expose your weaknesses.
In a dance context, however, everyone’s performance depends on everyone else’s … so it’s deeply unlikely that someone’s going to say, “OMG, if you’re so dumb you can’t figure that out, I’m not gonna tell you.” (If someone does, you might be dancing in a group that’s toxic enough that you should think about finding somewhere else to dance.) Usually, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s this,” and demonstrate, and then you can go, “Okay, so like this?” and if you’re right, they’ll say, “Yup, that’s it!” and if not, they’ll adjust you accordingly, and you’ll all go on with your lives and learning the rest of the dance.
What it took me for-freaking-ever to realize is that one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to learn new choreography is that I am extraordinarily shy about asking when I don’t feel like I’ve got it.
Then, knowing that I’m very much a kinaesthetic (that is, physical) learner, I don’t walk through the choreography and nail it down, because I’m afraid I’ll learn it wrong and then have to un-learn and re-learn it.
Both of these things put me behind the curve. First, by failing to ask, I don’t patch the holes in my knowledge base. Second, by failing to loosely work through the choreography on my own I greatly lengthen the process of learning it.
In turn, both of these realities make me nervous (when you have to have the piece down and you know you’re not getting it as fast as everyone else, nervousness is pretty much the guaranteed outcome), which makes my working memory stop working, which makes learning anything next to impossible.
Which makes me look like a complete idiot (because in those moments I am one, albeit temporarily). Which makes people think I’m a complete idiot. Which makes them not want to work with me. Which is glaringly obvious even to someone like me who is not very good at reading social cues. Which makes me nervous.
Repeat ad nauseam.
The solution, of course, is obvious.
In this case, there’s only one way forward, and that’s just to bite the bullet and talk to the least-scary-looking person in the room.
Occasionally, you’ll get lucky and discover that she also isn’t sure about the step in question, and then together you’ll go and prevail upon her friend or friends until one of two things happens: you might find someone who’s dead certain that they know it, or you might discover that nobody’s really entirely sure and thus you might work something out by consensus.
And then, the next time you run it, either your AD will go, “Oh, hey, that looks better,” or s/he’ll say, “No! You’re all wrong.” (S/he might also add, “Oh my G-d, how many times do we have to go over this?!” but try not to take it personally: even the sweetest ADs get nervous, too.)
More likely, the person in question will say something like, “No big deal, it’s this,” and will show you (or tell you) what’s supposed to happen.
The thing I have noticed is that other people do this way more proactively than I do. They don’t waste a lot of time trying to muddle through and figure it out by trying to dance and watch at the same time (by which I don’t mean the usual kind of “watching” that you do to make sure your spacing is okay and that you’re in sync with the people in your group: I mean the high-cognitive load kind of watching that you do when you’re trying to learn brand new choreography).
Most people, if they’re really unclear on something, just ask someone.
So I guess one of my goals for the next half of the season is to stop being afraid to ask people when I’m unclear, even if I feel like I should have learned the choreography in question five months ago.
This won’t fix the thing that makes me amazingly adept at saying the wrong thing at the worst possible moment, or the fact that my sense of humor is (to say the least) odd and that people who don’t know me very, very well often don’t seem to understand that I’m joking.
But it will help me learn dances faster, and that’ll be a big step in the right direction.
With, I hope, the correct port de bras.
You guys, for future reference: if you’re talking to me in person and what I’m saying sounds completely ludicrous, assume I’m joking. Likewise, I’ll continue to work on my delivery, in hope of someday being able to use irony, sarcasm, and guerilla-theatre-of-the-absurd without convincing everyone around me that I am, in fact, actually stupid.
But first, Hi! And I survived Nutcracker, and it was great, and Happy New Year, and Jeez. Now, on to the next thing.
We all focus a lot on where we’re trying to go, and that’s a good thing. It’s good to allow for the possibility–even the probability–that you might wind up somewhere else entirely, but it’s pretty helpful to have a destination in mind when you set out. Also, like, a basic plan; a loose map that allows for the likelihood of dragons, uncontacted peoples, and so forth. Even if your plan is to explore uncharted waters, after all, you still have to get there somehow.
So that’s an important thing, and a good thing, and helpful up to a point. Specifically, the point at which you reach your destination, and need to move on to Phase 2 of whatever the Grand Plan is … and, curiously, there are precious few resources that explore what happens after you forge a path through whatever obstacles to reach The Far Shore.
And that, I think, represents an enormous growth area for idiots like me who write blogs about setting completely ridiculous goals and pursuing them.
As such, I present the first of my observations: when you get there, you will still be you.
If you’re socially awkward, you will still be socially awkward. If you’re shy and bad at integrating into established social groups, you’ll still be shy and bad at integrating into established social groups. If you’re a slow learner, you’ll still be a slow learner. If you’re prone to bouts of depression … well, you see where I’m going with this.
In other words, your weaknesses, your struggles, and your blind spots disembark with you on that Far Shore.
So, of course, do your strengths, your victories, and your stunning insights–but I think we all assume that anyway. Besides, our strengths are less likely to create problems for us once we Get There. We tend to visualize success, and it’s a good strategy. But, just as the classic fairy-tale ending, “…And they lived happily ever after” omits the likelihood that Cinderella, though kind and brave and all that, has no idea how to comport herself at court, visualizing the success of reaching a certain end-point (say, working for a ballet company) omits the reality of living with ourselves once we’re there.
I’ve been quiet for the past several weeks because I’ve been trying to figure how to square this circle. I remain a sensitive, shy, touchy introvert with enormous, gaping holes in his training. I still have difficulty processing spoken language. I am physically flexible, but mentally not-so-flexible. I am good at adapting to physical challenges on the fly, but not great at coming up with workarounds for more abstract problems because, ultimately, I’m not really good at thinking*.
*Boy, is that a topic for another post.
So I guess that’s my introduction to Danseur Ignoble, Phase 2: going forward, I’ll continue to explore the process of learning to be a dancer, but I’ll also examine my weaknesses as they intersect with my life as a ballet dancer. I hope that in the process, I’ll be able to reflect on my challenges and possibly brainstorm some strategies for coping with them.
As such, here’s the plan–the tentative plan, because hey, this is me we’re talking about–going forward:
On Mondays, I’ll post about a challenge I’m facing in my work that stems from my own personality: how it impacts my work, both for the worse and for the better, and how I’m dealing with it. From time to time, I’ll also check in with other dancers and creative people about similar challenges they’ve faced in their own careers (Are you reading this? Would you like to be one of my interviewees? Let me know in the comments!).
On Saturdays, unless we have a show, I’ll write about technique. If we have a show, who knows? I’ll try to make it on Sunday, but I’m more likely to sit around letting my brain leak out my ears.
The Monday posts will probably be grouped under the Ballet Lessons heading; the Saturday posts will be grouped under Technical Notes.
I will, of course, totally fail at this from time to time, but I figure having some kind of goal is better than having no kind of goal.
I’m not at all certain that any of this will help me address my challenges in helpful ways, but I figure it probably can’t hurt. And, of course, the insight that I’m still me, and that my major life challenges won’t magically evaporate just because I have somehow fumbled my way into a ballet company.
Still, reflecting does usually help, and writing helps me reflect. So here we go: off onto a new adventure. Ish.
Today was a bad day for double tours, of which I did exactly none, but a good day for petit allegro, albeit in a roundabout way.
I struggled through a combination that shouldn’t have been hard (assemblé, soubresaut, assemblé, soubresaut, assemblé, assemblé, assemblé, entrechat quatre), caught myself in the mirror, and realized that I was brushing my leg out to some weird angle that made closing quickly difficult.
Fixed that, et voilà! Better petit allegro with like 1/10th of the effort.
This did not save me from my inability to do brisée volé correctly in the next combination, but that’s because I am increasingly uncertain that I’ve ever learned it in the first place. Time to RTFM, I guess!
Also, in case you’re wondering, everything in petit allegro works better when you don’t neglect the beautiful plié that you’ve been working on since forever. Sometimes when it gets fast, I still resort to shoving myself into the air using only my feet. It gets me off the ground, but it’s terrible and the landings are a flaming misery.
A while back I figured out that the hard part of dancing professionally is raising the standard of your worst days to a level that won’t make an audience wish they’d gone to see, like, the Drying of the Paint Samples at Home Depot instead.
You can’t stand at the exit saying, “Sorry, it was an off day; here’s a raincheck,” so even your most awful show needs to be good enough.
…Which, in turn, means building the best habits you can, raising your endurance game, learning not to make faces even when everything is a petit right in the allegro, and really just being competent to a very high degree.
For me, it also means learning not to do the weird thing where I bury my brain in a cave of self-directed fury when I do heck things right up. Oddly enough, that doesn’t help. It just makes me late for all my cues.
At the end of the day, we’re human, and we’re going to make a right mess of things now and then. Even the greats fall on their faces sometimes.
Lexington Ballet: Our Sapphire Season
Join us for our 45th Anniversary Season, with two mainstage performances and several Gallery Hop events remaining!
A Midsummer Night's Dream Lexington Opera House
14-15 February, 2020
Snow White Lexington Opera House
11 April, 2020
Louisville Ballet School's Spring Dance Festival The Brown Theater, Louisville, KY
May, 2020 (dates TBA)
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