Category Archives: ballet lessons

I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot

(Full Disclosure: I still haven’t seen Hamilton. I know. I suck.)

… Because I can’t, because it’s already in my arm.

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations has been interesting. Connecticut, where my parents live, has it ticking over like clockwork. Indiana (the state next door) is doing … something? Idk. It seems more chaotic than what we’re doing.

And here, in Kentucky, we seem to be figuring it out bit by bit.

A decision was made recently to open up vaccinations for teachers & volunteers who work with K-12 students, which is how I wound up getting called up for a shot. At least, I assume that’s why they sent me an email saying, “Ayyyyyyyyy! Come get your shot!”

I mean, not in those exact words.

The actual process of setting up an appointment was pretty simple—really, the hardest part was figuring out where in my wallet I’d stashed my insurance card.

As for the process of actually getting the vaccine, it was smooth & efficient. They’re using Broadbent Arena, part of our Fairgrounds & Expo Center. You drive in and drive right through (pausing at appropriate points) and never even get out of your car (there are other options for people who don’t drive or who don’t have have access to cars, also).

Because it was A New Situation, my brain was a little spooked about it, but the protocols were extremely clear (except for the unexpected sign near the entrance to the fairgrounds that read COVID TESTING USE GATE 1 ONLY and didn’t mention vaccinations at all—but since my email told me which gate to use, I kept breathing and proceeded as planned).

This is really helpful for neurodiverse people. If we know what the procedure is, it’s much less difficult to go do the thing. I appreciated that—and the fact that, in the course of two days, I got like five emails about my appointment so I would be able to find the confirmation code no matter what). Normally, that might seem a bit excessive, but in this case it was helpful and comforting.

I got the Pfizer vaccine, which is the same one D got. It’s a good week for it—we don’t have men’s technique class on Saturday, if I wind up feeling meh and staying home I’ll just miss normal class.

Because my wildly overreactive respiratory system places me at pretty high risk of being seriously ill if I did catch COVID-19, knowing that my first vaccination is behind me and the second is scheduled is a major relief. Obviously I’m not going to go turn cartwheels in Walmart without a mask, but with things like summer intensives and workshops on the way, it’s good to have that pinned down.

In ballet news, I’ve been taking a good, extremely detail-oriented Zoom class with Devi Piper on Wednesdays. The opportunity to really pick my technique apart and refine key elements is immensely valuable.

Today she gave us a killer plié that I’ll be using on the regs when I’m warming up to work on choreography or whatever.

A lot of really cool stuff has been happening in my life as a dancer of late—stuff that makes me feel awed at the way people reach out to guide developing dancers as we progress and grateful beyond measure for it.

In a week, I’ll be seven years into my resurrected ballet life. When I launched myself on this journey, I definitely carried a sliver of hope that maybe I’d find a way to make a life of of it, but it was so precious and fragile a hope that I rarely dared even to think about it.

Every single day, I’m staggered by this sense of immense privilege (not in the political sense, though there’s that, too—as a male ballet dancer, that’s a huge thing). To have somehow built a life in which I’m valued as a dancer and as a teacher and, increasingly, as a choreographer is something that, in all honesty, I couldn’t have imagined seven years ago.

The hope I had was that I might find a place to fit as a corps boy for a while. I was perfectly fine with the idea of just being a semi-anonymous body of it meant I got to really dance.

I seem to have found, instead, a place where I fit as someone who actually gets to do complex, visible roles. I’m probably never going to find myself in one of the big, world-famous companies, or even one of the ones that are more broadly known on a national scale, but that’s fine. I don’t care about things like that. I still just want to dance (and to make dances, and to teach dancers).

The biggest change, though, isn’t feeling that others value me as a dancer, as a teacher, and as a choreographer. It that I’m beginning to feel worthy of that esteem. That I’m beginning to value myself as a dancer, a teacher, and a choreographer—and, really, as an artist.

I owe a good part of that to the people who’ve gone out of their way to coach me; to suggest that I come take class; to draw me out of my own sense of inadequacy. To show me my strengths.

I also owe some of it to my students, who show up and focus and work hard even when I give them the world’s hardest[1] rond de jambe every week for six months.

  1. I mean—it’s not the hardest, hardest. In terms of technique, it’s really pretty basic—but the musicality is tricky and central to the exercise, and requires them to listen to the music and dance instead of just being like, “Yawn, barre work is boring.” Which is kind of the point.

I owe yet another part of it to the friends who jump right in whenever I say, “Erm, ah, ssssssoooo, ahhhh, would you like to work on a choreography project I’ve been thinking about?” Or, at any rate, try to jump right in, given how challenging it can be there schedule things even when there’s not a global pandemic 😅

But some small part of it I owe to myself. I came to the ballet studio and found the place where I simply know how to work. And then I started doing the work, and I started looking for opportunities and taking calculated risks. And when the chance came to dance full-time, I took that leap, even though it was honestly pretty scary.

And even though I wasn’t sure I was someone who would ever be good at sticking with anything that didn’t have a finite term, i stuck with it—though honestly that’s really a bit like saying like saying, “The water decided to continue flowing downhill.” It’s honestly the path of least resistance. Quitting would be harder than continuing.

So, anyway.

I don’t know where life will take me (I mean: really, nobody does). But I’m no longer afraid that I’ll never find anything that feels like a suitable path.

The periods of mindfulness, of being present in the present, afforded by the work I do—most specifically, taking class and creating choreography—have also been healing in ways I never expected.

I literally never imagined that my brain would ever be as, well, relatively stable as it is now, for one thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying ballet is The Cure, or even The Treatment, for unstable moods for everyone who experiences them. But, for me, it’s a huge piece of the puzzle.

Likewise, dancing has forced me to engage with both my present and my past more deeply than I ever imagined being able to do. My first Pilobolus SI stands as a watershed: something about that experience broke the seal I’d placed over deep, deep wells of feeling—both beautiful and painful.

There are still plenty of things in my past I’ve never directly dewalt with by the conventional means of talking about them—but somehow, when I dance, sometimes I dance about them without realizing that it’s happening.

Only later do I find that somehow, in the midst of wrestling with choreography, some old and festering wound has been cracked open and washed clean so healing can begin. It doesn’t mean the healing is complete, but it means that healing I long thought impossible has begun.

Anyway. Speaking of long, this is getting really long, and it’s the middle of the night, and Merkah would greatly appreciate it if I’d go to sleep. So I guess I’ll close here.

I don’t know how to end this except to add:

If you’re reading this, I’m also grateful to you.

Often, part of growing into a thing is talking about it. For some reason, I find that easier to do here than in a private journal (largely because I’m terrible at actually keeping up with a private journal, since it doesn’t occur to me to put things into words unless I’m talking/writing to someone else).

So you, too, have been essential in this journey.

So: thank you. And I’ll try to include some pictures in the next post 😁

How We Improve

Author’s Note: I apologize for my lack of proper diacriticals in this post. I’m writing it on my PC, and while I know how to use HTML entities to make them happen, I’m tired and apparently can’t be arsed ^-^’

I.The Secret To Brisee’-Vole’

Back when I was working on the Cavalier variation, I think I mentioned that I hadn’t even really been able to reliably do brisee’-vole’ a year ago. Not that I did it well when I actually performed the variation in question. I most assuredly did not. But I at least knew how to do it, and was able to do it most of the time. Just not, apparently, when it really counts, and will be recorded and slathered all over the innertubes. Le sigh.

Anyway! At this point, I’ve pretty much nailed it down, though of course it still needs polishing, because this is ballet. You never get to stop polishing things. Everything can always be better.

But the process of nailing down brisee’-vole’ reminded me, yet again, of a Truth About Ballet that I rediscover on the regs.

The truth in question, as it relates to brisee’-vole’, goes like this:

The secret to brisee’-vole’ is … there isn’t one. You just do brisee’, both back and front, until you (almost) can’t get it wrong. Then you learn to link them (which is what turns “brisee’-devant, reorganize the feet, brisee’-derriere, reorganize the feet,” into brisee’-vole’). Then you do brisee’-vole’ until you (almost) can’t get it wrong.

A male dancer (the author) in an ivory jacket and white tights in midair facing the left of the frame with the arms extended diagonally both legs extended to the front, left leg slightly higher than and ahead of the right. Embarrassingly, he is staring at his feet and sucking his lips into his mouth.
Exhibit A: Okay, this brisee’-vole’ could have been worse. But the ones I did today were a LOT better.

II. How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

As a physical process, learning ballet involves both the accumulation of masses of experience and breakthroughs that sometimes seem to come out of nowhere and sometimes seem to be the direct result of all that massed experience[1].

  1. I’m not using the phrase “massed practice” here because it’s used in two different ways that conflict with each-other. As I learned it, it basically means “cramming”–doing a whole lot of practice all at once, which isn’t a very effective strategy for long-term learning. It can also be used to mean frequent repetition of a skill, accumulated over time, which does work reliably (and is typical of how kids learn things–they learn a new thing and they do it a billion times just for fun, because they can). That’s what I’m talking about here.
A male dancer (the author) in a burgundy sleeveless shirt, black tights, and black shoes, halfway through a pirouette with his arms curved and raised so his hands are just above eye level, his right leg raised and bent so the toes are touching the bottom of his left knee. He does not appear to be enjoying himself, although as the author and the dancer I can attest that he was.
Here I am, playing in the studio, enjoying my freedom to just dance. As you an 100% tell by the look on my face. Not.

One of the challenges that a lot of adult students run into is insufficient opportunity for practice. Either it’s hard to find enough classes, or the classes in question aren’t systematic in a way that allows the accumulation of experience in complex steps, or they have access to systemic classes part of the time, but not often enough to overcome relatively-limited studio time[2].

  1. Pre-pro students get hours and hours in the studio–as many as 20/week. It can be much more difficult for adult students to build similar practice schedules. Part of my success as a dancer who wandered away and then returned was a question of sheer volume. I had access to high-quality training at high volume because my schedule allowed me to take both morning and evening classes.

That’s a shame, because one of the things that makes ballet so engaging as a career path, for me, is that you never stop learning new things. There are so many steps that, no matter how long you’ve been dancing, there’s a reasonable chance that there’s something out there that you haven’t tried–and it’s certain that there’s something you haven’t perfected (those ever-receding goalposts again).

A male dancer (the author) in the same burgundy sleeveless shirt, black tights, and black ballet shoes. He is standing on his right foot with his right arm extended to the front. His left arm is raised, extended, and blurred. 

His left leg is extended and elevated with the toes above shoulder height. The author was surprised to discover that his toes were actually still that high at that point in the movement, not that you can tell from the picture. 

He looks slightly off balance, because he is.
Oh, look. Something I haven’t perfected. For some reason I kept wanting to turn this grand rond into a renverse’. It isn’t one. Anyway, I would’ve made my life easier by thinking about pulling the right shoulder back and pushing the left (gesture-side) hip forward as I reached the gesture leg back through ecarte’. But I didn’t, and here we are.

The difference for professionals is that daily class, studio access, mentoring by fellow dancers, and coaching all provide ample opportunities to learn and improve new steps. (They also provide the all-important input of eyes other than one’s own. Our bodies are notoriously bad at accurately reporting how they’re doing new ballet steps, so it really helps to have someone who can say, “Dude, your right shoulder needs to come with you,” as my men’s class teacher told me today.)

Success breeds success, so while inevitably one’s first attempts at any new step (or any new approach to an “old” step) are likely to be awkward and frustrating (How? HOW DO I KEEP DOING SWITCH LEAPS ON THE WRONG LEG???[3]), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.

  1. The answer, of course, is that I’m miscounting running steps, as I often do. Once my body gets used to the coordination required for switch leaps, it’ll figure out how to count running steps.

You can bash through those awful early attempts because you know that, sooner or later, you’re going to figure it out.

The same dancer again (still your humble author), seem from the back, in the same burgundy sleeveless shirt (which is tied in a knot in back), black tights, and black ballet shoes, executing a pirouette. 

His arms are extended towards the ceiling. His face is slightly turned to the right. His left leg is bent and raised so the thigh is close to level with the hip and the toes are touching the bottom of the right knee.
Ignore the weird port de bras (I was either bringing my arms up from second or opening to second; I don’t remember which), and instead observe how even my back looks calm. If I can learn to be calm in turns, anyone can learn to be calm in turns.

III. Okay, Yeah, But … So What?

I write this in part because I’m stoked that brisee’-vole’ has begun to really come together for me (OMG! A petit allegro step I don’t hate! ^-^), and that it’s somehow really sparked this sense that my technique can improve by dedicated practice and not just, like, by chance.

I write it also because it’s a thing I think I should keep in mind both as a teacher and as a dancer.

I have friends who have felt stuck on specific steps for years (reverse’ is probably the most frequent culprit). It occurs to me now that they’re probably stuck simply because they haven’t had opportunity to practice those steps until their motor planning systems (and other neurological systems important to learning movement) and bodies can figure them out.

A dancer (still the author, but on a different day) wearing a dark grey tank top, dark grey mid-calf leggings, and tan ballet shoes, performing a renverse'.

His right arm is gracefully bent above his head, his left arm is extended towards the camera. His left leg is lifted to hip level and bent so it forms an arc behind him. His body is slightly canted and forms a continuous arc from his left toes to the top of his head.
For me, renverse’ is a poor example of the effect of practice. It’s one of the steps that someone showed me and I went, “Oh, like this?” and there it was (in fact, for a while, thinking about it and practicing it while doing so made it slightly worse ^-^’). But for a lot of people it’s one of the harder steps.

This knowledge can inform the way I develop teaching plans, particularly for adult students who might not have as much opportunity to amass experience (what with having jobs and families at so forth).

It can also inform the way I approach helping friends with steps they find challenging that I don’t (spoiler alert: I might be able to help you with your double tour, but not because my body has decided that it’s just part of my everyday life–in that case, it’s more that I’m good at spotting it when other people do the same wrong things that I do ^-^’).

It also informs something that’s shifted in the way I think about dancers practicing on their own.

In the past year, we’ve all spent a lot of time practicing on our own. And you know what? Pretty much everyone I know has found a way to make it work.

I used to be one of those people who was deeply ambivalent about the idea. It’s pretty easy to wind up ingraining bad habits when you don’t yet have a lot of experience, and some steps can be a bit on the dangerous side (especially in small spaces crammed with furniture -.-). I had been raised with the idea that YOU DON’T PRACTICE ON YOUR OWN, PERIOD.

And while I thought I was following that rule, I really wasn’t. I used ballet-based movement patterns constantly on–ice skates and rollerskates; when making up choreography with my sister (we like to improv to the Andre’ Previn/LSO recording of Holst’s The Planets, because obviously we were totally normal kids in every day); on the playground; in the gymnastics studio; when fidgeting in line; when doing any number of other things.

I’m sure that I strengthened some bad habits along the way, but I also strengthened good habits. I figured out how to balance my body (which can be unwieldy, thanks to an unusual combination of naturally muscular physique and extreme flexibility).

And you know what? Nobody died. Nobody even got hurt (like many dancers, I mostly seem to injure myself doing anything other than dancing). In fac,t I seem to have not only survived, but gone on to a career as a professional dancer and as a ballet teacher.

So, in short, maybe there’s something to be said for solo practice. And I know we’ve all been doing turns in our kitchens since forever, anyway, so we might as well practice other stuff, too.

And you know what? It’s probably not even the end of the world if you decide to try some steps that might be a bit out of your reach, or even a lot out of your reach.

Kids do it all the time, and it turns out okay. Sure, in some cases, adults might be a bit more breakable, but as long as you’re cognizant of your own physical limits, why not?

We learn ballet like we learn anything else: successive approximations of the goal state. It turns out that sometimes the best way to learn to do a step well is just to start doing it badly. As beginners, we know messing up is part of the deal. It’s too easy to lose sight of that idea.

Anyway. Here’s where I stand, at this point, on the question of solo practice, even for “beginner-beginners:”

Go ahead and do the thing. If you’re just starting to learn a thing and you’re doing it badly, great! You have to start somewhere.

As long as you know that you’re doing it badly (okay–and can video yourself or get another dancer to watch you from time to time or whatever so you can begin to see why you’re doing it badly) you’re already on your way to doing it well.

Class Notes, 02.28.2020

Lest anyone think my class notes are always informative and useful: sometimes it’s just me kvetching into the void.

When you’re struggling, know that someone somewhere is struggling along with you 💜

Moments That Make Us

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[1].

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.

That’s my fam right there 💖

…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.

We carry each-other.

…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.

This is what radical trust looks like.

… 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.

That’s also my fam right there.

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.

If you can’t trust your fellow zombie, who can you trust?

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 🤣🤣🤣

Ballet Lessons: Stay Together

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.

Instead, we continue to dance on our own legs.

But we dance on our own legs together.

Last Studio Saturday

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.

Oh, and here’s a shot of my back, just because 😁

Glancing At The Road Behind

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[1]. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. …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 😑
  3. 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.

On Technique: How Not To Turn From Fourth

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 Difference

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?!”[1] 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?”

  1. 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.

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