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.
Today was not my best dancing day, but it was acceptable at times. Weather fluctuations are leading to mold blooms and so forth that make my allergies crazy. Ears are connected to noses and throats; all three of mine develop problems.
My hearing gets iffy. I miss bits of combinations (L’Ancien delivers his combinations very quietly, which makes us all listen as ahard as we can) and I start to get stressed out and tense, even though L’Ancien tells us over and over again, “Don’t worry if you do the wrong step. This is class. This is an exercise. That’s not what I’m looking for.”
He’s really not. He cares less what you do; more how you do it. An approximation of the exercise done beautifully will make him happier than a perfect log of the steps done without feeling.
But still, sometimes I get nervous when I feel like I can’t hear.
Still, there were good things: the petit allegro combination in which we did fancy pas de bourrees of a kind that none of us (not even Killer B) had learned because evidently almost nobody teaches them(1)—that is, pas de bourrée a quatre pas and –a cinq pas—coupled to entrechats quatres. My entrechats are a thousand times better for L’Ancien’s insistence that we JUMP! and show essentially a second position in the air around the beats.
They’re taught in RAD Advanced 1, apparently, but RAD syllabus programs aren’t exactly a dime a dozen around here.
It’s not just switching the feet: I can do that all day. It’s launch STRIKE! beat STRIKE! landfifth.
Last year, I learned to prevent “flappy feet” by thinking about my beats happening higher up in my legs. L’Ancien is transforming them into something worth looking at.
…Which is good, because apparently my assumption that I’m not built for petit allegro is incorrect.
After class I thanked L’Ancien for reviewing and clearly explaining petit battement. He pointed out that the configuration of my pelvis, which is rather shallow, is good for quick batterie.
I think this shot gives a sense of it. There’s not a lot of distance from the point of my ilium to my pubic symphisis, so I’ve got shorter “cables” to work with and TM or L’Ancien, which makes it easier to move the bones quickly.
I suppose I should’ve figured this out earlier, as I was the first member of my first childhood ballet class to nail down entrechats and so forth.
A few weeks ago L’Ancien mentioned our dancer RS, who does a stellar Bluebird (so much so that when my brain chooses to reboot and I can’t get his name to come to mind, I refer to him as “our Bluebird”), and how his shallow hips and relatively short torso make him well-suited for petit allegro. He said the same thing to me today, about my own body.
This is one thing I really appreciate about his teaching style: he teaches to his individual dancers, and not to some nonspecific imaginary dancer, as much as he can.
It’s worth noting that he does this not only by pointing out our weaknesses, but also by pointing out our strengths. By ballet standards, I’m a muscly kind of boy (which always results in a frisson of cognitive dissonance when I’m moving in cirque or modern dance circles, where I’m borderline dainty).
Are you sick of this screenshot yet? 😉 TM (2nd from left) is built exactly like L’Ancien, to give you an idea.
Too often, as dancers, we find ourselves lamenting what we don’t have (in my case, David Hallberg’s “imperially slim” build, with its endless, beautiful lines) instead of celebrating what we do have (…what K calls “that Bolshoi body,” with the enormous, ridiculous Legs of Power and square shoulders that let you do Bluebird left like it’s NBD).
If you know this poem, you know that it’s beautiful and also a tragedy. I’m not calling Hallberg a tragedy; I just like that phrase. It sounds like him.
In the end, we have to learn to work with the bodies we have: to make the most of them. I think I’ve touched on this before.
Up until now, I have been learning technique—building the elements of movement—but perhaps haven’t learned my body as well as I could have.
By way of analogy, this is like painting in watercolors and being frustrated that they don’t behave like oils. I’m rather a good watercolorist, and that’s partly because I understand how watercolors are and I work with them accordingly.
As a dancer, then, I need to begin to understand how my body is and to work with it accordingly.
I suppose that, once again, it comes down to this basic principle: start where you are.
That means don’t force your turnout, but it also means, discover your gifts.
If you only ever know what’s not great about your body, you’ll never optimize your training as a dancer. Quietly, gently, firmly, L’Ancien says to us, Learn what is great about your body. Every body is different. Every body has gifts.
But also start where you are. Know your strengths; know your weaknesses; train accordingly.
I’ll try to remember all this tomorrow at the BDSI audition, though I’ll also try to just have a good class and enjoy the singular pleasure and specific torture of Vaganova technique.
I hope that I’ll make the cut—not so much because it would make me feel good about myself as a dancer (though I’m sure it would), but because I think two weeks of Nothing But The Vaganova, imparted by a roster of master instructors, is enough to make anyone a stronger, better dancer.
And, possibly, a good way to learn to optimize on one’s strengths.
Yesterday, D and I met up with some of my ballet girls at a showing of the Norwegian documentary Ballet Boys, which follows three teenage dancers at a critical period in their training—the point at which they’re deciding whether to continue training and possibly to pursue careers as dancers.
One of the three is absolutely all-in. The other two aren’t as certain. One of them mentions the reality that one faces as a dancer in training: that there’s no time for a typical adolescent social life. He walks away, briefly, from dance—but he literally can’t stop dancing, and ultimately he returns.
I was reminded of a conversation I had not long ago with my friend RH: I said something about how working in dance involves a lot of sacrifice, but it’s willing sacrifice, joyfully given. He said something to the effect that he didn’t see how sacrifice came into it.
For a second, I honestly felt kind of angry. I almost responded with anger.
Then I realized that my anger was the knee-jerk response that dancers evolve as a defense against the fact that people who don’t dance haven’t the faintest hint of a clue about how hard it is; how much it demands. They often seem to legitimately believe that we spend all our time riding unicorns and eating cotton candy and swimming in the fountains of money we get paid for it, when in fact our lives are more akin to monastic vocations—we work grindingly hard, often for peanuts, because we’re called to the Work.
And then I realized that, okay, from his perspective, the commitment and sacrifice required probably aren’t visible, let alone obvious.
RH doesn’t dance, but he knows that I love dancing. He knows that dancing makes me unbelievably happy.
He works in technology, and he loves tech—but he doesn’t love his work in the all-consuming way that I love dancing. The work that he does in the tech sector isn’t the work he’d choose to do if money was no object, and it doesn’t always really work for him. Dancing is absolutely the work I would choose to do if money was no object, and it works for me in a way that nothing else ever has.
Perhaps a bit ironically, I’m working in dance in part because, at the moment, money is an object: to dance at the level I want to, I need to make dance pay for itself. But it’s still what I’d be doing if we suddenly received a windfall that would set us up for life.
That doesn’t, however, mean there’s no sacrifice involved.
Great! Only 10,000,000 more repetitions and you’ll almost have it!
Every now and then, someone will say to me, “I wish I could do what you’re doing.”
I try to listen and respond with kindness; with an openness to the nuances of meaning that underpin what they’re saying. I try to factor in things like financial challenges and family commitments (kids change everything).
But what I want to say, most of the time, is this: You could.
Part of what people are saying, when they say that, is this: I wish I was talented enough.
Sometimes, the people saying it are more talented than I am. They may not have as much training, but in terms of raw aptitude, they have the goods. They just need the training to use their aptitude.
I have pretty strong aptitude for dance, don’t get me wrong—but talent isn’t really the deciding factor.
Sometimes they mean, “I wish I’d danced as a kid.” There’s an assumption that it’s essential to start before your bones stop growing—especially in ballet.
Early training does exert some influence—but it’s not the deciding factor, either. My bones are constructed in a way that allows for 180-degree turnout; my feet were definitely shaped by my early training. But there are much, much better dancers than I—professionals at major companies with a lifetime of training and still have less turnout and mediocre feet; but also late-starters without great turnout or awesome feet who have gone on to forge careers out of nothing.
Early training isn’t the deciding factor, either.
The deciding factor, at the end of the day, is sacrifice.
Welcome to Dancerlife. By continuing, you agree to commit every waking moment for pretty much the rest of forever.
So what, then, do I sacrifice to work in dance?
First and foremost, time.
To work in dance, you have to dance. Dancing eats up oceans of time.
It’s not like training to race bikes as a serious amateur. That you can do around a life that allows some time for other pursuits. You work to develop fitness and riding skills and racing know-how—but a lot it you can do (and ultimately do do) alone, in the interstitial hours around the job that pays for the bike and the racing license and the entry fees.
Dancing requires technique, fitness, and artistry. All of these things, in turn, require a time-commitment that will eat your life. You can potentially fit your training in around another job (and make no mistake, your training is a job), but in so doing you must acknowledge the fact that you will literally have time for nothing else.
I don’t race bikes anymore. I barely ride anymore. I don’t play video games that can’t be squeezed into a few minutes here or there. I’m never up to date on TV shows. I rarely manage to swing a night out, and when I do, it’s almost always with other dancers from the class or rehearsal that ends right before said night out.
I thought this was a choreography still, but actually it could totally be a depiction of dancers trying to have a social life (via the amazing NYC Dance Project, via…erm…Instagram?).
I schedule my “life” around dancing. Even my occasional bouts of paid non-dance work are subject to the demands of class and rehearsal schedules. I give up weeks of the summer, when sane people are enjoying cookouts or canoeing, to sweat my ass off with other dancers in the interest of professional development (but also because I love dancing more than anything else).
SI: not, “Are you going?” but “Where are you going?”
I rarely manage to snag an evening alone with my husband. Fortunately, he’s okay with that. We make the most of whatever time we can grab.
If he wasn’t okay with that? To be honest, I’d still choose dance.
My time belongs to dance, and it will for the foreseeable future.
As a function of time, I’m also sacrificing money. I could land a job tomorrow that would pay thirty times or more the amount I made as a dancer last year. It might even allow me time to dance as a hobby. It would, in one fell swoop, make us very secure, financially-speaking.
It would also mean giving up the career, such as it is, that I’m building now.
Dance is a demanding muse.
I have back-burnered every other interest except circus arts, and circus arts make the cut only insofar as they allow me to function within them as a dancer and don’t interfere with actually dancing.
I still write, but I do my writing in shreds of time snatched at the ends and beginnings of my days. I often fall asleep while writing in bed.
I know it’ll take me longer to finish the projects I’m working on, but I don’t care.
These are a handful of the things that I’ve cast into the fire in the name of dance.
I don’t mind. They’re joyfully given. I would do all of it again in a heartbeat. If you forced me to live my life over, I’d even do it sooner.
But a sacrifice is a sacrifice, willing or not. That’s the one and only thing that separates me from my friends who would like to do what I’m doing.
Except the ones who have kids. Denis is a consenting adult who can walk away if he gets sick of playing second fiddle to a career that pays poverty wages. When you have kids, you’re responsible for them in ways that force you to make different decisions. It can be impossible to do what I’m doing and keep the kids fed and housed. In short, kids change everything.
Sometimes, the same people who say they wish they could do what I’m doing are the ones who skip class to just chill, or who opt not to take rep class because it would conflict with game night, or what have you.
I restrain myself from saying, “You could do what I’m doing if you chose dance over everything else.”
I can’t play this lute! I have rehearsal!
Most of the time, I don’t say it.
I recognize that I wouldn’t have understood, back before I started dancing again and realized, finally, that dancing was the only thing I had ever really wanted to do. Either you step into the studio one day and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you would and will shove everything else off the table to keep dancing, or you don’t.
Both ways of being are valid, good, and necessary—but only one usually leads to working in dance.
As humans, we are great at wanting to want things.
I want to want to paint more often.
I just actually want to dance.
This doesn’t need a caption, does it?
As dancers, we face the generally unconsidered, usually unspoken, and often unconscious assumption that a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice if you do it to achieve something that gives you joy; that helps you to be a whole.
And yet we recognize the sacrifices of medical students, many of whom pursue their calling for exactly same reason that dancers pursue dance.
As dancers, our calling places tremendous strictures on our time and finances; on our relationships and our personal lives. Just because we’re making art, rather than medicine, that doesn’t make our sacrifice less worthwhile.
Doctors, when they’re skilful and lucky, save lives by cracking open chests to work on hearts.
Dancers, when we’re skilful and lucky, save lives by cracking open hearts.
Sometimes, those lives are our own. Sometimes, they’re other lives.
Regardless, at the end of the day day, the life of a dancer—like any other dedicated life—is one of sacrifice.
Because of that, however, it is also one of transcendence.
Recently I had a chat with a good friend of mine about goals and so forth, and later it occurred to me that I’d failed to say a few really important things—or, well, things that have been important in my own journey, anyway.
They’re things other people have said to me, mostly, though a couple are insights I gleaned by osmosis growing up. They’re things I need to hear too, from time to time, in order to help keep myself on track. I’m writing them down here, where I can always find them if I need them.
Here they are:
1.Identify your actual Wild, Impractical Dream.
This is harder than it sounds. It took me a long time (though it wouldn’t have taken anywhere near as long if I’d just listened to the voice inside me screaming, “GET BACK TO DANCING FFS”).
First, not everyone actually has a wild, impractical dream of this kind: and that’s okay. Honestly, there’s a lot to be said for practicality and reliability, neither of which which are associated with being the kind of lunatic who goes off in pursuit of a Wild, Impractical Dream.
Second, the kind of Wild, Impractical Dream I’m writing about rarely involves the word “and.” It’s an all-in kind of gig: I want to dance for a regional ballet company, not I want to dance for a regional ballet company and ride my way to the top of the FEI stadium jumping circuit.
Occasionally, someone manages a spectacular “and.” Usually, if you look into it, it owes either to truly extraordinary circumstances or happens largely by chance and involves related dreams (dance and musical theater, for example, or visual arts and fashion, or architecture and mathematics).
Usually, though, pursuing a Wild, Impractical Dream requires singularity of focus (not least because tunnel vision helps you ignore naysayers).
Basically, when you discover the thing that makes you willing to put everything else aside, you’ve probably found it.
If the thing is coding or massage therapy, congratulations: you’ve got a Wild, Practical dream. You can still read the rest of this if you want, though. I’m pretty sure that, when it comes down to it, the same basic advice applies.
2. If the phrase “…be (a) famous…” is part of your dream, consider reassessing your goals.
I say this not because any one individual is wildly unlikely to become famous, but because if being famous is part of the motivation, you might actually be barking up the wrong tree.
The passion for the thing, whatever it is—dancing, writing, rotary engines, differential calculus—has to come first.
Otherwise, you’re very probably not going to be motivated enough to stand a snowball’s chance of sticking with it long enough to become mediocre, let alone famous. Wild, Impractical Dreams are harsh mistresses.
If, on the other hand, fame itself is the real Wild, Impractical Dream, own that.
The history of the world is rich with the stories of people who thought, “Man, I’m really not good at anything, but I want to be famous.” The ones who succeed are the ones who acknowledge that fact and dedicate themselves to taking any and every path that might lead to fame until, eventually, one does.
Oddly enough, that’s essentially the same approach that one takes in pursuing any Wild, Impractical Dream.
3. Take Any and Every Path As Long As You Do So With Focus
Maybe ballet is your One True Dream, but in the course of pursuing your Wild, Impractical Ballet Dream, you get an offer from a modern company.
If that’s the thing that’s going to let you keep dancing, take it. Be a good Buddhist and avoid clinging to perceptions and phenomena. Maybe ballet feels like the only thing, but sometimes serendipity leads us via scenic byways. Sometimes modern is the way to ballet—and sometimes, on the way to ballet via modern, you discover you were born for the weird and wonderful world of contemporary ballet.
Just learn to discern between scenic byways and “shortcuts” that leave you in Poughkeepsie. And know that sometimes you might get stuck in traffic for a bit.
4. Stand Up for Your Dream
This might be the hardest one.
A Wild, Impractical Dream is Wild and Impractical at least in part because people don’t “get it.” It might be ahead of its time. It might be way outside of the predominant cultural framework where (and/or when) you are. People might think you’re too young, too old, too black, too white, too poor, too mentally ill, too fat, too skinny, too disabled, too whatever.
Any good Wild, Impractical dream is one you’ll probably have to defend at least once. This requires you to believe not only in your dream, but in yourself—or at least to act like you do.
The funny thing is that by acting as if we believe, we tend to come to believe: we stick around until things start to get real; so real that even we can’t deny it.
5. Accept Change Gracefully (if not Immediately)
Sometimes, in the midst of pursuing your Wild, Impractical Dream, life will intervene in profound and unexpected ways.
It’s okay to be upset when that happens. Feel the feelings. Have the meltdown, if a meltdown comes along.
The death of a dream is a very hard thing. Even the temporary side-lining or minor refitting of a dream can be hard.
But change is inevitable, and sometimes change knocks is off one course and puts us on another.
Fight with conviction for your Wild, Impractical Dream, knowing that in the end you might not get there. It’s worth doing anyway.
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