Category Archives: ballet lessons
Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment. There might be times that the strategy to follow won’t work—heck, it could even backfire—so don’t feel like it’s something you must try, or like you’re less of a dancer (or a person, or what have you) if you don’t.
Take care of yourself in the moment you’re in. You don’t have to do everything today; heck, you don’t have to do everything at all. It’s amazingly liberating to realize that, to be honest, a lot of things can wait, and that you’re not even the tiniest bit obligated to try ever possible approach to a problem.
Now, that being said, buckle in if you’d like to join me on a wee excursion into the territory of Imposterland.
Okay, so earlier I was working around the house and listening to Broche Ballet’s podcast and thinking about imposter syndrome (as you do).
Somewhere in there, something reminded me of my early days in the company at Lexington Ballet, back in the Before Times, c 2018.
- Seriously, that feels like about a MILLION YEARS AGO 😱
At the time, I was grappling with a terrible case of imposter syndrome (as you do). It was a rough time. I struggled a lot. On the regular, usually when everything else was also going wrong, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and whispered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not good enough. And they’re gonna figure it out.“
And every now and then, like a lifeline from the Universe, another thought would counter, “So what? Who cares? You’re here. Get to work. Prove them wrong. Rise to the occasion. Earn your spot.“
My life, of course, is not a Hollywood blockbuster, so it didn’t immediately fix everything. Not by a long shot. I still had rough days. I still struggled to pick things up in class more often than I care to admit. I still frequently felt like a squid attempting to dance in size 114 clown shoes.
But at the end of the season, I was offered a contract for the following year—and that comes down, in part, to the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that says, “So what? Who cares? (etc)” That stubborn streak, and the desire to make my Imposter Syndrome eat its words, kept me from walking out when things were at their roughest.
I’ve never thought of imposter Syndrome as an ally in my efforts to build a career as a dancer. I mean, now that I’m reflecting on it, I guess it makes sense to recognize that it’s trying to protect me, but it really often feels like anything but an ally.
But somehow, today, something went ping! and I realized that, indirectly, it has been not only one of my most faithful companions on this journey, but (at times, anyway) a helpful companion.
Imposter syndrome’s timorous whisper has served to feed my tenacity. At critical moments, it has awakened a kind of perverse grit. It has jabbed at the part of me that hates to fail.
I’m not saying this is true for everyone: it’s not even true for me all the time. With two years more-or-less on hiatus under my belt and little to show for it except better port de bras, a somewhat-more-reliable double tour, and a bit more, ahem, insulation than I had when the pandemic began, I’m staring down the barrel of a cross-country move into what is, in terms of dance, terra incognita.
You can bet your bippy that my inner imposter has a lot to say right now, and that the other voice, that stubborn inner voice, doesn’t always reply.
But now I know that I can say to my imposter syndrome, “Yo, thanks for looking out for me, but I’m not quitting. Whether or not I deserved to be where here when I walked through the door, I’m here now, and I’m gonna stick it out and earn my place.”
The funny thing is that sticking it out, in and of itself, really does help. You can do something day in, day out for years without improving at all, but only if your circumstances significantly limit the chance of improvement. Spend enough time doing almost anything with a least a little guidance, and you’re gonna improve.
Back in the fall of 2018, I was as insecure as a teacher of dance and as a choreographer as I was as a dancer.
Flash forward to today, and I’m a reasonably confident teacher: I know I’m not perfect, and that I have a lot to learn, but when I look at my students’ progress, it’s pretty clear that something’s working.
I’m also a reasonably confident choreographer: I set dances that people enjoy watching, and I don’t feel like I haven’t earned the right to do so. When I’m alone in the studio, setting a pas de deux or the corps parts for Act II of Simon Crane, it no longer feels like a pipe dream, or like a vision I shouldn’t look at too directly. Sure, setting an entire gigantic ballet is an enormous goal, and I still have literally no idea how to get there, but I no longer feel like I’m somehow not worthy to try.
I’m not as confident, yet, that I’ve earned my place as a dancer, but I’m getting there poco à poco. Opportunities are appearing that I doubt I could have imagined a few years back.
That’s where sticking it out, even out of nothing but sheer spite, really shines.
It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall. You get scraped up. You kick the curb, the bike, and especially yourself. You get back on. You crash some more. You keep getting back on because like heck some stupid inanimate object is going to beat you. And then at some point you’re sort of tottering along, and you start to pick up some speed, and the air moves over your skin like the breath of G-d moving over the face of the deep, and YOU ARE DOING IT!
- As a cyclist and lover of bikes, I am willing to certify that bikes are only inanimate objects in the loosest sense. Every single bike has a soul, and that soul is the soul of a pony that goes like a dream for a skilled rider with quiet hands, but will dump a N00b in a puddle STAT and then stand there laughing about it: not malicious, exactly, but perhaps a bit cynical, with a keen sense of the Order of Things. Every horse person on earth has met some version of this pony. So has every cyclist.
And then, of course, you crash again. You tend to crash a lot in the beginning, because that’s how beginnings work. Heck, if you’re a baby wood duck, your first experience of flight is being shoved out of the nest to crash in the underbrush, presumably so when is time to learn to fly, you’ll already know what crashing is like, and you won’t let it stop you (or possibly because some distant ancestor long ago decided that eggs were safer in trees, and here we are).
But, anyway, wood duck, cyclist, or dancer, you get up and dust off and get back to it. You’ve started, so you might as well keep on going.
And if you keep going long enough, you might just figure it out. You might discover, after all, that while you were looking elsewhere, you’ve earned your spot.
I used to think every other professional dancer I knew could see all my flaws. Now, I know they can: but most of them also choose—and I’m immensely grateful for this—to see my strengths.
The strength that is a spiteful refusal to give in to my imposter syndrome—or, seen from another angle, the conviction to endure through whatever trial arises—may or may not be invisible. I suspect my AD at LexBallet saw it plainly from time to time.
But, looking back, it’s a strength that I guess I can see.
One last thing: I know that privilege is a part of this. Opportunity is unequally distributed, especially for male ballet dancers, who are still pretty thin on the ground and who thus enjoy a far greater chance of finding a spot. So is the kind of financial security that affords both good training and the ability to absorb the financial challenges that come with being an artist. So is health.
Likewise, I have done exactly none of this on my own. Dancers are unicorns not only in that we’re kind of rare, but in that we—like Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn—need others to see us; to believe in us; to know what we are. We’re a communal concern, whether we like it or not.
The thought of exactly how much artistic potential goes untapped either through lack of opportunity or through lack of recognition and support is, quite frankly, staggering.
- Not recognition in the public, award-receiving sense, but in the private, “I am your teacher and I see that you have a gift and I’m going to tell you about it, along with anyone I know who can help you develop it” sense
Please know that if lack of privilege, of opportunity, of means, of health, of recognition, or of support—or, really, anything else: life is full of obstacles—stands in your way, I am not saying, “Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps!”
Imposter syndrome is a mirage, but there are plenty of real obstacles in the world, and imposter syndrome can make it even harder to overcome them.
If you’re in the woods, if you’re in the country of obstacles, I hope you’ll find your way clear (and I’ll help any way that I’m able, though I have no idea what that might look like).
I hope also that you might be able to harness your inner imposter. Maybe even make friends with them.
I’m not really there yet, but why not?
CW: Mention of Suicidal Thoughts
Today was … yeah.
It wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had. Not by a long, long, loooooooong measure.
But it was the kind of day that starts with a reminder of the fact that the ballet company I worked my butt off to be worthy of is still on hiatus, and that since I’m moving, it’s very unlikely I’ll be dancing with them much, if at all, ever again, and that as such the part of my career that meant the most to me is still stalled (pending auditions, etc). This is, for me, a big deal.
I’m also tried and probably haven’t eaten enough bc my schedule is weird and nothing sounds like food, so I’m sure some of this is just down to the fact that I turn into a giant toddler when I’m hungry or tired, let alone both.
So, anyway, right now, my brain is simultaneously like YOU ARE AWFUL, LIFE IS AWFUL, EVERYTHING IS AWFUL and also like OMFG STOP BEING SUCH A GIANT DRAMATIC EMO TODDLER (while yet another part is like Can’t we just stop being so judgmental of our own emotions, here? Sheesh).
But, also, another part of my brain is like, “Dude, you know what? I remember that we’ve felt like this before, and it was terrible and sucked and felt like it would go on forever, but then eventually we stopped feeling like this. So, I’ma let you finish, but you know, it’s very possible that eventually this will stop, too.”
It reminds me of a thing I realized about my suicidal episodes, which come on very fast, usually when I find myself feeling trapped: I can tell myself to wait a day (or an hour, or thirty seconds), and if nothing has changed, I can kill myself then. I tell myself that over and over, until finally I stop having to tell myself that. Sometimes it takes weeks. Sometimes it takes less than a day.
But so far I’m still alive, partly because I really mean it in those moments. Like, I tell myself that option is there, and bizarrely, that helps me feel a tiny bit less trapped. That probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but it often works for me (in combination with having people in my life who can help me, of course).
Anyway, I think this is the first time my brain has chimed in with NOOOOOO EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE AND IT WILL BE HORRIBLE FOREVER and another part of my brain has said, “Hey, you know, that could be true, but experience tells me it probably isn’t, so instead of getting caught in this idea–though you can go on feeling that way, over there, it’s okay–I’m going to hang out and wait and see,” and I’ve been able to sit with that paradox without it losing sight of that second thing, really.
- I mean, notwithstanding the fact that in some ways life is unrelentingly horrible to a lot of people. Like, for an incredibly large number of people, that is pretty objectively true, though so many of those people are incredible at enduring things nobody should have to endure. But that’s a different sense of the thing.
I am still struggling with being knocked out of the thing that was so central in my life, and not having somehow gotten my crap together enough to audition last year so I wouldn’t be in this position now (though I’d still be moving, so I’d still be facing the terrifying gamut of auditions). The structure of company life brought a lot of sanity with it, for me; it helped shape my time in ways I’m not good at doing for myself (I don’t mean that as a value judgment: it’s just not a thing my brain does well, and that’s fine). It helped me grow both as a dancer and as a person in ways that I’m not doing, or perhaps not doing as much, under current circumstances (I’m sure I’m learning other things, but the thing you have doesn’t replace the thing you lost; that’s just how grief is).
It’s been hard to talk about this because, quite frankly, the response one often gets is, “Why are you complaining! You have no idea how lucky you are to have had the time that you did in that company.”
Which is both dismissive (grief is not lessened by knowing that one has lost something rare and special; not at all) and, frankly, incorrect. I would hazard that I know better than anyone alive the staggering constellation of circumstances that coincided to give me my time at LexBallet: I know keenly and viscerally just how incredibly lucky I am.
But I also know that luck was only part of it, and that an ocean of hard work and no small measure of sacrifice was also involved.
Grief is real; grief is hard; and still I work not to cling to grief, but to say, “Hello, grief,” and let it be there, while also knowing that other things will come, though I have no idea what they will be, and they might not be the things I imagine that I want.
So here I am, sitting with these things that I feel, and sitting with the uncertainty of things, and part of me is in turmoil about it (though probably more in turmoil about needing to go to bed and/or eat) and part of me is at peace with that turmoil. Which feels kind of neat, in its own way.
And now I’m going to go feed my inner giant emo toddler and go to bed.
PS: the thing that made everything boil over this morning was having a bad day in class in a way that felt like a step backwards: I kept not trusting myself to have the exercises, and instead of just saying, “Ah, feck it,” and going for it, kept watching everyone else in the mirror to make sure I was right, which then actually prevented things from sticking in any meaningful sense, which led to a kind of crisis of nerves in which I couldn’t pick things up because I was busy being afraid that I couldn’t pick things up, to such an extent that L’Ancien called me out on it (which I deserved).
That reminded me how much confidence I’d gained during my time with LexBallet, and which (in that moment) I feared I’d lost, which gave my brain (which was already in a weird place, probably for purely biochemical reasons for once) a thing to hang up about, which colored the rest of the day, which might otherwise have been only a normal day in which some things sucked and other things rocked and most things were just meh.
Besides being okay with sitting with the place where my head is now, part of the answer is to be willing to say, on mornings that I’m as foggy as I was this morning, “OKay, I’m going to hang back and give myself more time to pick things up.”
Sometimes forcing myself to go in the first group every time is a good strategy. Sometimes it’s not, and it’s silly to cling to that strategy when it’s not working.
PPS: At the end of class, when I finally got out of my own way and decided to just trust that I knew the combination, I got some very nice remarks from L’Ancien. That should tell me a lot. I’m sure it will when that part of my brain is ready to listen.
So it’s been a while.
We’ve been redacting mold, DIYing our basement living space back into shape after redacting said mold, and otherwise generally working on the house like crazy, while at the same time I’m rehearsing four (I think?) separate things and teaching.
So, erm, it’s rather a lot.
I am bad at the kind of adulting that involves juggling four separate, unrelated rehearsal schedules and anything else, never mind that plus everything else. And yet, here we are.
This week I found myself in a frazzle because my brain momentarily decided to latch on to the idea that I might not manage to teach all of my students all of the absolutely correct technique they might need and ten years from now one of them might be in an audition somewhere going, “Oh, snap, I’ve been doing that wrong my entire life.“
And then I realized, like—yeah. That will probably happen. And, to be honest, it’s okay.
I wish it was possible to guarantee that 100% of what I teach would both be absolutely sound and absorbed perfectly. But isn’t, and it never has been.
My own technique has its rough spots (I mean, I don’t call myself “danseur ignoble” for nothin’). My own teachers have probably passed along some quirks, and I certainly came up with plenty of them all by myself.
That’s fine. I don’t resent any of my teachers for the shortcomings I have now; instead, I appreciate how hard they tried to teach me correct, classical technique. I owe my career largely to my teachers’ sound methods, partly to the good graces of directors who have the ability to look beyond my quirks, partly to my ridiculously good feet (still, lol), partly to my own work ethic, and a little bit to raw talent.
People rock up to auditions with all kinds of flaws, because nobody’s perfect. Even if that wasn’t the case, different directors like different versions of things (like: I paused today to ask Mr D whether he wanted our waltz turns to brush through twice or to brush to the front and petit développé/pas de cheval to the back, because both versions are valid and I’ve been doing a lot of the second one lately).
Even students graduating from the best, longest-established schools aren’t perfect. That’s one of the things I love about ballet: no matter how good we are, we can always continue to strive for perfection. The fact that it’s unattainable is immaterial. The practice is the thing.
Likewise, there is no such thing as a perfect teacher. I will make mistakes. I will explain things with crazy analogies that may or may not take root. I will miss some things and overcorrect others.
In the end, I won’t be perfect, either as a dancer or as a teacher, but I suspect that my students will forgive me.
The important part is to teach, to the best of my ability, technique that is as strong and consistent as I can make it, and to continue learning both as a dancer and a teacher so that over time I can teach more effectively.
If I do that, I’ve done my part towards ensuring that most of the technique my students bring to the table will be strong and consistent, provided that the students also do their part, that the winds are favorable, and that, as they say, “the creek don’t riz.”
Because, y’all, I may be a somewhat teacher of regular ballet, but I’m wholly unqualified as an instructor of water ballet.
(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 rond de jambe every week for six months.
- 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.
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 😁
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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).
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???), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.
- 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.
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.
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.
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 💜
I’m doing the National Choreography Month thing, and I’ve been enjoying the heck out of creating improv video clips and watching those created by other artists.
Today, I commented, “#contactimprov is the best. This is beautiful” on one created by LA’s Leigh Purtill Ballet Company (Insta: @LeighPurtillBalletCompany), and they replied, “I love seeing what develops between people who trust each other,” and I thought, Yes.
So much yes.
So much of my current work as a dancer can be traced back to moments of profound trust: to moments at the first Pilobolus workshops I attended in which a momentary connection became, “Yes, we can carry each-other.”
…To the first time Brian set a piece on the open program students at Louisville Ballet School, and entrusted me with solo choreography and, even though I’d never done it before, partnering.
…To a very conscious decision to trust Edwin Olvera when he approached me after a Pilobolus masterclass to suggest that I audition for the company and that I come to the summer intensive (I still haven’t managed to make an audition for the company, but I hope I will … And the SI was everything. Everything.).
…To Mike’s willingness to trust me to lead him in a blind walk dance, and the trust I found so easy to give to Quincy when I was the blind one in the dance, both at my first Pilobolus SI.
…To Rachel’s decision to trust me as an untried choreographer in creating a piece for the Americana Center Fundraiser.
…To Kathy’s and Christina’s willingness to jump in and trust my creative process as I set my first contemporary ballet piece. To my willingness to trust the changes they suggested, which made the piece that much stronger.
…To Dot’s, Jaddyn’s, and EM’S willingness to trust me with their life and limbs while we built pieces together and learned pieces being set on us this past summer.
… To the countless moments that Mr D has probably looked at me flailing through a Bad Ballet Moment and thought, “Jeez, what have I gotten myself into?” but has decided to keep me on anyway.
… To so, so many other moments in which someone has trusted me, or in which I have been able to trust someone else, and beautiful things have grown out of it.
I can say with conviction that my first Pilobolus intensive changed my life. Really and deeply. It was the catalyst for a sea change in so many ways.
The ground of that catalyst, in the end, was trust. Trusting the moments and the process and, eventually, my fellow dancers, until bit by bit I stood on a foundation of trust the like if which I couldn’t have imagined beforehand.
Trust is a springboard. Trust is a ladder. Trust is (sometimes literally) a pair of hands that lift you up into the light.
I love working with Dot and with Jaddyn because we know we’re crazy, but we trust each-other anyway. We trust each-other’s crazy.
There’s something sacred in knowing someone trusts you enough to say, “Hey, here’s this crazy and potentially dangerous lift in which you throw me over your shoulder at high speed, wanna try it?”
There’s something sacred in knowing yourself to be worthy of that trust.
All these moments of trust have been critical in making me what I am right now (for whatever that is 😅).
I would say that I’m surprised by the incredible things my friends from that one Pilobolus intensive are doing, but I’m really not. That group was something else, and in that week we all grew immensely in artistry and in trust. We were all sprinkled with the same magic dust, and the funny thing about magic dust is that it multiplies.
So I guess now the next step, besides continuing to improve as a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, and an artist (oh, look, I said it again) is to figure out how to get better at spreading that magic dust around.
We are made by moments; moments (both bad and good; awkward AF and sublimely beautiful) that loom large in our autobiographical memories.
Just as in contact improv we share weight to create something beautiful, in life we balance and lean on each-other. We become the catalysts for the moments that make other people.
That, too, seems like it must be a sacred trust.
1. Omg, look at me slipping in the phrase “other artists” as if I’m not still routinely consumed by imposter syndrome wrt the right to call myself an artist 🤣🤣🤣
Have you ever seen the entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades (from La Bayadere, one of the “White Ballets” of the classical cannon)? Or the first breathtaking appearance of the swans in a large-scale production of Swan Lake? Or the Snow scene from Nutcracker?
I mean, that’s probably a given. You’re reading this blog, and that means you have internet access and are probably at least a little bit interested in ballet, so that means you can at least watch them on YouTube, probably. (If you came via one of my bike posts, hi! and I’ve got a couple for you, too: a big group ride sweeping around a corner or a tight paceline swapping pulls).
These are some of the best-known scenes in ballet, and with good reason: they display the fundamental truth that there’s immense power in a group of individual people working together.
The entrance of the Shades might be the keenest example.
The dancers enter one by one, in a long line that will eventually double back on itself. They perform the same simple (not easy: simple), repetitive phrase over and over: arabesque (penché, in most versions), temps lié to posé tendu devant, step step, repeat.
They are not massed in a cloud, as the corps so often is. They are not aggregated in attractive little clusters, or in coruscating diagonals, or in opposing echelons. At least, not at first.
Instead, each of the Shades is essentially alone—and yet she’s also part of a whole.
The repeating phrase is nice enough on its own, but nothing you’d necessarily be transfixed by for minutes on end (or, indeed, for one minute on end, unless you’re busily analyzing technique, I guess).
The repeating phrase performed by an ever-lengthening (and eventually redoubling) line of dancers, on the other hand, is mesmerizing. It’s kaleidoscopic.
It evokes an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere even (or perhaps most effectively) when performed against a plain backdrop, with no set except a ramp upon which the advancing shades descend.
This simple phrase, without a single iota of elaboration, becomes a symphony. But it only works if the dancers stay together.
Indeed, it works because the dancers stay together.
At the height of the sequence, the redoubled chain of dancers (still executing the same phrase on the same leg) becomes … Oh, I don’t know: a restless sea; a moonlit, windblown fog racketing between two unseen hills; the very breath of the audience.
Choose whichever metaphor suits you: either way, it becomes one thing; one thing made up of a staggering array of smaller things.
But only if the dancers stay together.
This is where I am in my life. I spent so much of my life standing apart that I came to believe, on some level, that it was somehow better.
Participate, I thought, but don’t join.
Or, join, but not because it’s inherently good to be part of something.
Join because it’s how this thing works: but retain a measure of reserve about the very idea of joining. Remain aloof.
If you remain aloof, the unacknowledged subtext would have read, you can’t be caught off guard and hurt when, inevitably, you’re rejected. (Lessons learned in childhood die hard. When enough people have told you, no one really likes you and no one will ever like you, you come to believe it.)
And yet, as the company has transformed into a place where I feel welcome, bit by bit I find that I want to belong.
That the more I begin to feel that I want to be part of this group—that I like the people in it and the group itself and not just the work we’re doing together—the better I actually seem to dance.
When bikes were my life, I loved—loved—the incomparable symbiotic feeling of sweeping around a curve in a flock of bikes traveling at speed.
As a singer, I have always loved choral harmonies more than anything.
Even as a dancer, I love those moments of pure synchrony, especially in grand allegro (here are four separate bodies flinging themselves violently through space, and yet we are one thing because we are all doing this together!) or in partnering (the best moments, for me, are the ones in which each move seems to flow logically, even inevitably, from the last).
Why, then, am I still surprised to want to be part of something—to want, dare we breathe the word, to belong?
Ironically, I know I shouldn’t be surprised (my aloof, proud, defensive side feels downright affronted: “Of course I know that, man, what are you trying to say?!” …. to be surprised is to be less than omniscient; is to be vulnerable). Humans are social animals, and though I’m not always great at being a human, I am one anyway. Neurologically speaking, even I am wired for belonging.
Of course I want to be part of something, even if the something in question is so obscure that a great many people literally don’t understand that it exists.
(Seriously: there are a lot of people, right here in the First World, who have no idea that a professional ballet company is a thing; that we don’t just clean out the barn, rehearse a couple of times after work, and set up ticket sales).
But it surprises me anyway.
Not least, the knock-on effects: when you start cracking open the door to let people in a little—because, here’s the thing, that’s how you do The Belonging—you find that you try new things that the other people in The Thing to which you’re learning to belong like. It’s transitive almost: I like A and A likes Lizzo, therefore maybe I will also like Lizzo.
You discover music you’ve never really given a second glance before (or you discover who makes music that you’ve low-key liked for a long time but haven’t known who to ask about it). You take a risk and wear something ludicrously silly on Pajama Day—like a hoodie with a sparkly pug with antlers on it (I’ll have to get a picture; I can’t even begin to explain this one).
You say hi first once in a while.
You begin to listen without feeling like you might, at any moment, have to defend yourself.
You begin to talk. Just a little: but then one day you realize you’re having, like, a whole conversation. OMGWTFBBQ, IKR?
And you begin to learn that it feels good to be even a little bit on the inside of something.
You begin to realize that it’s okay to want to feel that. That being on the inside isn’t the same as being one of the people who, back in the day when you were a kid, did everything to ensure that people like you stayed out.
You begin to want to stay together because although you by yourself are just fine, the group is another thing, and it’s a really cool thing.
You begin to realize how much it helps to be a unit.
That (apologies to Kipling) the strength of the corps is in the dancer, and the strength of the dancer is in the corps.
I mean, not that it’s all roses and sunshine, etc. But this, for me, is a new feeling. Realizing that part of merging into the group is being willing to merge; is wanting to merge.
Just like the dancers in the Entrance to the Kingdom of the Shades, we do not surrender our individual strength to join the group.
Instead, we continue to dance on our own legs.
But we dance on our own legs together.
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 😁
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.
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.