Category Archives: ballet lessons

Ballet Lessons: Get Out Of Your Own Way

Little by little, piece by piece, Ms. B of Hard Mode Ballet Class is making a dancer out of me.

Not just a guy who knows how to execute a bunch of ballet steps, but a dancer — someone who executes a bunch of ballet steps with élan; who uses his head and his eyes and his port de bras; who relates to the music intelligently and expressively; who doesn’t grip with his neck, for frack’s sake.

In order to do that, one must learn one’s own body in depth: how to feel the minute muscles in the hip socket; how to knit the ribs together without collapsing; how to open the collarbones without throwing the shoulders back behind the hips.

One must also learn how to get out of one’s own way.

There’s a magical thing that happens when you learn how to get out of your own way: suddenly, things get easier.

In order to execute a high, smooth grand rond-de-jambe, you must know where to place your pelvis so you don’t block either your extension or your turnout. The first time you find that balance (perhaps after having had it and then lost it), it’s like magic.

Curiously, some dancers naturally find it early in their training only to lose it again as they begin to work more consciously on turnout, placement, and extension.

That’s pretty much what happened to me: I started really thinking about pelvic placement about a year ago — and at first I over-corrected, as is my wont. As I began to work into more advanced classes and to work towards higher extensions, I found myself inexplicably blocked at times: and then Ms. B got around to sorting my pelvis, and it turned out that I was basically getting in my own way.

Once I let my pelvis find its own neutral spot and stopped thinking so hard — once I got out of my own way — my extensions got better, my turnout got better, and I could start really thinking about other stuff.

Ironically, the whole source of the problem with extensions and turnout resulted from a conscious effort to place my pelvis so I could … like … better access turnout and alignment.

I think this makes a good allegory.

Often, in life, we get so concerned about being correct that, in fact, we over-correct. We try really hard to do things just right, and we find ourselves stumbling into unexpected road-blocks; tangled in the intricacies of the details.

In short, we get in our own way.

Sometimes, the best answer is to stop thinking, stop concentrating so hard on being correct, and get out of our own way. (This is, I am almost certain, a corollary to the rule, “Don’t make it happen — let it happen.”)

So there you have it. If you’re having difficulty in your dancing or in your life, maybe try loosening the reins and getting out of your own way. It might just help!

So that’s my Ballet Lesson for today.


In other news, I apologize for my recent absence. I’ve had a sinus infection, and the first really noticeable symptom (besides, randomly, pain in my teeth) was a wicked fatigue that seemed to come from nowhere. I haven’t been posting because, in short, I’ve had nothing to post. I’ve basically been asleep, for the most part, for the past week.

I did do part of class (and part of juggling class) on Saturday, but I was actually too tired to write about it afterwards, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. If I’m too tired to write, I’m probably too darn tired to do just about anything.

First World Ballet Problems

Yesterday, I struggled to get my développé to 90 degrees, let alone above. The muscles whose job it is to carry the legs just said, “90 is all you’re getting today, and you’re only getting it at the cost of immense effort.”

I blamed my lack of condition, of course — which was fair, but missed a critical element: the cross-training problem.

” Cross-training” means training until you’re feeling cranky and irritable, then kvetching at your poor innocent husband for no good reason.

Wait, that’s not right.

“Cross-training” means, in short, mixing it up to keep things balanced — tossing in a little cycling if you’re a dancer, or a little dance if you’re a cyclist.

The operative phrase, here, being “a little.” Or, well, “just enough.”

Last week, I banged out several hours on the bike, including a bunch of zippy climbing sprints, and basically none in the studio.

Should it come as any surprise, then, that I’ve managed to lose a bunch of the ground I had gained in correcting the muscle-balance problem attendant in being someone who, for several years, spent around twenty hours a week riding a bike and did essentially no cross-training?

I am lucky, in a sense, in that my body adapts very readily to exercise — but I tend to forget that, as in everything else, if I want the balanced muscles necessary for ballet, I need to make sure I’m not essentially overspending in one area while underspending in another (an aside, here: it says a great deal that autocorrupt — ahem, that is, predictive text — recognizes overspending as an existing word, but not underspending).

While a trained cyclist does make some use of the muscles that flex the thighs, it’s paltry in comparison to the use made of those that push down (I’ve touched on this before). Especially for someone like me — one who straddles the line between light rouleur and climber, and thus relishes his ability to crank out brutal speed on short- to medium-climbs — it’s all too easy to lose sight of how quickly that can add up to a disaster at the barre.

When I wrote yesterday’s post, I had forgotten that a couple of Saturdays back I was enjoying easy extensions well above 90 degrees even though my right hip was still weirdly tight.  A couple of classes before that, I wrote about the fact that getting the leg higher made a promenade en dedans in écarté derriere (or was it avant? I’ll have to check that later) much easier — and when I said higher, I meant “hey, my toes are basically at shoulder-height right now!”

So basically, I’ve now created a situation in which I’ll need to overcome a muscle balance problem again, one which I’d sorted before.

In short, this means dancing more and riding less (and more gently; probably no more 20+MPH sprints on the rolling climbs for a while) — in short, shifting the balance back so I’m actually allowing cycling (which I do as a matter of course, although I love it) to act as cross-training for ballet (which may be the one thing I love more than cycling).

I’m not sure yet how to achieve this balance — or, well, the exact details elude me.

The “pushing down” muscles in the legs already get a greater workout in daily life (one word: stairs!) than the “pulling up” muscles (or the “pushing up” ones that lift from beneath the buttocks and thigh in ballet), so I need to take that into account.

Regardless, this is entirely a First World Ballet Problem. I recognize that it’s the result of something in my body actually working well (maybe too well), and I’m grateful for that (not that I feel grateful right now, but I’m rationally aware that this is a Good Thing). I also recognize that “développé at 90 degrees” is a goal that many adult dancers find elusive, and I shouldn’t complain too much.

Yet again, I’m reminded that ballet is a great analogy for life (tl;dr: It hurts, and there’s always someone yelling at you — wait, no, that’s not the analogy I wanted ;)). You have to work to keep everything balanced (and not just when your instructor hairy-eyeballs you and growls, “You know you can balance in passé relevé without the barre.”).

So, um, yeah. There we go.

I plan to write about this a bit more, as there are tons of articles out there that day,” Cross-training is good for you!” but not too many aimed at explaining how to figure out how much cross your training actually needs. I should probably Ask Denis about it and just post an interview. Maybe even a video.

Speaking of which, I have not forgotten that I owe all you guys a ballet video about balancé. I’m trying to figure out where to film it.

So that should be coming along soon, too.

Danseur Ignoble: the Playa Plague

We had a rough burn this year – lots of chaos during setup week, then I came down with what we’re calling “the Playa Plague,” which closely resembles a proper bout of ‘flu. I spent the last two and a half days of burn week in bed, feverishly griped my way through tear-down, departure, and all the airports, then went back to bed for another two days. I’m still coughing and “feeling puny,” as it were, but the fever at least seems to have abated.

Needless to say, ballet-related Playa plans were greatly modified over the course of the burn. We had fun doing the first couple of barre classes; the performances, on the other hand, didn’t get off the ground this year because it’s really pretty hard to direct a performance, let alone perform, when you’re in bed with a fever, hacking cough, and no voice o.O

I’ll have to plan for that contingency next year — somehow, it hadn’t even occurred to me that being rather seriously ill on the Playa was even a possibility. I also think I’m going to schedule less stuff — one or two Open Barre sessions, a Taupe Party (which is the logical follow-up to Wednesday night’s White Party), and one performance event, for which I’ll have to appoint a deputy director in case my immune system decides to crap out on me again.

In other ways, this year’s burn was possibly the best yet for me. During the time that I was still up and about, I rolled around the Playa with our camp family on an amazing Mutant Vehicle while our friend John DJed an awesome set, had an utterly transcendental 4AM walkabout with amazing friends, provided ice-schlepping services and improvised dance performances at Arctica, and danced for hours with complete strangers to hits of the disco era in our own little cozy dance bar.

…And even when I was lying around in bed being “pale and interesting” (and mostly asleep), in the moments that I was awake I concluded that I’d still rather be where I was than anywhere else on earth.

I did crawl out of bed on Sunday night for the Temple Burn, which meant a lot to me. We’ve never actually been on the Playa for the Temple Burn before, and at the end of the day I feel like the Temple is a locus of significance.

It’s hard to explain why: as in any sacred space, I guess, each person’s experience is different. For whatever reason, my heart and brain have chosen to invest the ever-changing, transient Temple with particular meaning.

I was surprised by that, the first year. Prior to my first burn, my inner cynic staunchly refused to assign spiritual potency to the Temple simply because it’s the Temple; turns out that once we arrived, my inner cynic had no say in the matter. If there’s anywhere on earth that you discover what it means to take things as they come, it’s in the ephemeral cosmopolis of Black Rock City.

Which is, in the end, what this year’s burn was all about, for me: taking things as they come. Things didn’t go as planned (okay, at Burning Man, things never go as planned, but this year they really, really didn’t go as planned) in so many ways, and yet even in the moments of deepest, grumpiest frustration, I would check myself and ask, “Is there anywhere else I’d rather be on earth right now?”

The answer was always no, which reminded me yet again to be here, now.

Which, in the end, is the only way to take Burning Man — you have to be here, now, because it is much more pressingly clear that later on, the here you’re experiencing won’t be.

The same is true, of course, in every other place on earth: it’s just more obvious in a city that’s built, thrives with the vivid intensity of a post-rain desert bloom, and then is demolished again in a matter of weeks.


PS: There were bugs. I counted exactly three: two different wasps (one of which seemed terrifyingly determined to be my BFF, or something like that) and some kind of lacewing-ish thing.

The stinkbugs and seedbugs had moved on by the time we arrived on Monday of Build Week.

Also, the high desert through which one passes to reach the Playa was decked in heartbreaking, shimmering green. I’ve never seen anything like it. I wrote some more coherent thoughts about it, but I’m not sure where I stored them.

Such is life.

Danseur Ignoble: Now That’s Showbiz

Did Brienne’s class today, and I made it All. The. Way. Through!

(Though I skipped a couple of reps of petit allegro.)

She has a really fun CD of class music called “West End to Broadway” (hence, in part, the title of this post), including some nice, slow pieces for torture fondu and barre adagio. 

Barre is improving.  

If you’re a horse person, you know that thing where if you don’t ride or school your horse for a while, sometimes the horse in question acts a bit silly when you put him back to work? That’s kind of where my body is.


I'm back! Mostly!

It does things I didn’t really ask for, then I correct it, and it’s all, “Oh, you mean those turnout muscles!   Okay.   No worries!”

However, it’s doing less of that now than it was last week.  My successive approximations are closer to the goal state.   So, Yay!

Speaking of successive approximations, at center and across the floor, we had nice combos today, and I did the traveling ones, if not worth prefect execution, at least with a lot of elan. 

Now, if I could just stop putting in failles where there aren’t any and leaving them out where there are (and adding an extra saute arabesque here or pique turn there)…

But that’s more of my body being a silly horse.  At least it’s a silly horse that’s got some style?

Which brings me to the other reason for this title: one of the things my classmates kept mentioning was the struggle to remember the combinations (some of which were fairly complex).  

The cool part is that you wouldn’t have known it, for the most part: everyone focused on performing and enjoying themselves, and most of us looked pretty good.  (I’ve determined that if you turn the wrong way on the rear point of a triangle, it actually looks pretty cool anyway, so I don’t even worry about that anymore ;)).

I’m back to a point at which I don’t freeze if I blank on the combo halfway through; instead, I improvise.  It’s a skill I learned as a musician: nobody knows you screwed up if you don’t let them know.

Of course, in class (okay, and sometimes in big corps numbers), that’s not entirely true, but what you practice in class is ultimately what you will do on stage — and, of course, mistakes do happen during performances, even to professionals.   Like we lowly danseurs and danseuses ignobles, they have to learn to make it look good.

And that, too, is showbiz.

(Come to think of it, looking like you meant to do that is an important life skill in general — ask any cat!)

So that’s it for today.  The final combination in today’s class went so well (You guys, I threw in a cabriole just for kicks!   I’m back!) that I finished up feeling jubilant, ebullient, even bubbly.

Now, home to do computery work.

Life: Stepping Onto The Stage

A little more than a year ago, I returned to the ballet studio after a long break from all forms of theatrical dance (note that I didn’t say all forms of dance, period: historically, every time an opportunity to own the floor has arisen, I’ve grabbed it by the horns and spun it like a top).

I didn’t see that as the Beginning of Something, because of course we almost never* spot the Beginnings in the ongoing string of serial novels that comprise our lifetimes, but that’s what it was: a Beginning.

*I think we most reliably notice them when they coincide with a life-milestone recognized by our culture — a birth, a death, a matriculation, a graduation, coming out, a wedding, a divorce… Those ones are easier to spot.

It was a beginning that had been much-rehearsed and much-prepared-for, in a way.

I’d made a lot of changes in the three years prior: met the love of my life; figured out I was unhappy not just with my job, but with my entire career path; left a stable job with decent pay and fair opportunities for advancement; left the field in which I’d accrued all of my meaningful professional experience; returned to school; got married (another Beginning); finally started to get my head around the fact that bipolar disorder was a thing in my life whether I admitted it or not, so I’d better just admit it; etc.

I had been doing a lot of foundational work on myself. Returning to ballet was the outgrowth of that foundational work.

What I didn’t expect was the transformative effect of that return to the studio.

If you’d asked me before I returned to ballet what kind of dancer I expected to grow into, I probably would have pointed to the most fluid, most gender-bending member of the Ballets Trockaderos and said, “I’m going to be him.” If you’d asked whether and how I expected ballet to transform the rest of my life, I might have said, “I dunno, I’ll be more fit, I guess?”

Instead it turns out that, as a dancer, my style is traditionally masculine in the balletic sense (I’m trying to figure out how describe what I mean, here), and that ballet has sent its tentacles into every nook and cranny of my life. Surprise**?

**Anyone who saw me performing either gymnastic floor exercise or ballet as a kid probably wouldn’t be surprised at all, come to think of it. Why am I always the last one to get the memo, even when the memo concerns myself? Likewise, anyone who has been Into Ballet for a while is probably enjoying a knowing snicker at the naivete of my initial thoughts about how ballet would impact my life.

I suppose I can’t be entirely surprised that ballet just kind of took over. That’s how I roll. I don’t do hobbies; I do consuming passions.

That said, I was quite surprised when ballet almost immediately eclipsed cycling. Somehow, I expected them to coexist. Instead, cycling has been recast in a subservient role — still wildly fun, still great for keeping up the cardio and getting from here to there, but let’s not overdo it, because it’s bad for the turnout. Casual centuries are still A Thing from time to time, but racing? Not so much.

Perhaps more genuinely surprising is the fact that I — perhaps not the most incendiary of flamers, but still sufficiently alight to say of my husband, “His steadiness allows me to be the airy-fairy faggot I was built to be” — feel so at home and “right” and comfortable as a danseur.

Historically, I’ve found it kind of awkward to be who and what I am: this boy who is not “straight acting” and has no desire to be, but who nonetheless doesn’t fit neatly into the “total flamer” box either.

I recognize that this is mainly because the limits we’ve drawn around that box are, well, silly — and, actually, quite sexist, in a “flamers are like girls and girls aren’t bold and athletic” kind of way. I’d like to see someone tell Misty Copeland or cycling great Marianne Vos that girls aren’t bold and athletic!

I can’t help but toss an eyeroll at the over-compensating “straight acting” types — not the ones who are just being themselves, but the ones who are trying too hard; the ones who make “masculinity” into some kind of cult object and wear its trappings like ill-fitting trousers while cloaking their own feminine or androgynous sides in shame. The problem is, I also don’t quite fit the mold at the opposite end of the spectrum … and, curiously, queer culture seems to leave precious little room for the recognition of anything else (okay, except bears, wolves, and otters — but I’m not any of those).

I am someone who by his nature likes categories and wants to belong to at least one, but I am also someone who appears to have been created specifically to defy categorization. I am eternally consigned to some kind of purple area, when all I want much of the time is to know whether I’m red or blue. Yea verily, this hath vexed me: I have really, really always wanted to fit somewhere. It never occurred to me that maybe part of what I missed about ballet was that I fit.

Ballet embraces a kind of bouyant masculine grace (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily have to be constrained to male dancers; more on that in another post; G-d help me, I am backlogging myself with “…in another post” posts lately!) that is at once strictly counter-cultural in our modern age of male buffoonery and strictly classical in the sense that gentlemen were expected, Once Upon A Time, to know how to cut a caper or a rug and how to recognize a well-cut suit.

So I am learning to live into this kind of weird masculine grace that’s apparently a native part of my being — I say “weird” because I have, of course, thought of myself as male, but not particularly as an exemplar of any flavor of masculinity; that has, simply put, never been one of my aspirations. And, in so doing, I am learning to live into the whole of my being more thoroughly.

In short, I am feeling at once more whole and more real and developing a burgeoning sense of agency that threatens to topple my lifelong assumption that I would live out my days as a sort of domestic, dependent figure.

Scary stuff.

I say all this by way of a discovery: earlier today, I read a really cool article on Serious Eats called Friday Night Meatballs, immediately Had A Sad because it reflected something I’ve always wanted to do but felt I couldn’t because The House and Where Will People Park and Nobody Wants To Visit Our Neighborhood and Nobody Ever Comes To Our House, etc…

Then, immediately, I thought, “Well, why don’t I do something about that?”

Like, point the fourth, there? Of course nobody ever comes to our house. We never invite people to our house. Maybe if we invited people over on a regular basis, people would come to our house. Maybe that’s how all this works!

You guys, what the heck is happening to me?

It used to be that I would get to, “…but the house” or whatever and stop.

This isn’t to say that our current house is ever going to be ideal for entertaining. It’s not: but that’s life. I can’t practice big jumps in my basement, either, even though it’s the largest clear-span space in the house (our living room, meanwhile, is roughly one tour-jete across, if I keep it small). I make do: turns in the kitchen (because that, as we have established, is what kitchens are for), the occasional big jump in the living room, adagio in the basement. Balances everywhere, on every possible surface.

So packing ten people in for a sit-down meal in our dining room probably isn’t going to happen, at least not unless we get rid of the china cabinet and buy a different table. So what? Who cares? That’s why the human race invented this little thing called “the buffet.” It worked a treat for our family holiday shindig, and I’d like to do more of that: china and food on the dining room table, however many people arrayed on sofas and loveseats and chairs and giant ottomans in the living room. It works, and it actually feels rather nice and friendly.

I’m going to give this a spin, though first I’ll have to get off my butt and finish the Great Spring Break Cleaning.

I’m feeling this way about my life in general. You figure out what you’ve got and you go from there; there’s no point in worrying about what you don’t have right now. I don’t know if coming from a background in which I pretty much had everything made this harder or easier to learn — like, seriously, it seems like it should be easy to learn how to live on a much smaller income. You just spend less, right? But, in fact, it’s actually not all that intuitive when you’ve grown up never really having to worry about the expense of anything.

The difference is that when money really is no object, you can usually make things happen the way you envision them by just laying out some cash. When money is an object, you have to be a little more flexible and a little more creative. You have to learn how to work with what you’ve got.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

You take what you’ve got and you make the most of it, and while you’re doing that you figure out how to make the next step towards realizing the whole of your vision. Except in the most dire of circumstances, you cancel out the negative side of the equation (our dining room is definitely too small!) by recognizing a positive (but our living room is a really fun place for a group of people to hang out!). Then you figure out how to use that positive to meet your goal.

That’s the secret, apparently. That’s what keeps the here and now from seeming like nothing but a grinding wait ’til you get to where you want to be (now, if I can just figure out how to apply this kind of thinking to our bathroom, which I despise with the fire of a thousand suns, and to the fact that our kitchen feels like the most isolated room in our house…).

It’s like the principle of keeping Shabbos: from every Friday at sunset to every Saturday at sunset, the perfected kingdom of G-d is already present; sacred time descends upon and perfects our imperfect world. We invite the Perfect Someday to be here with us, now, and for a little while even our imperfect world is lifted up and perfected. Things still get spilled and little kids still burst into tears for mysterious reasons, but those things happen in the context of the Perfect Someday, and they too are sacred events.

In a way, Sarah Grey’s Friday Night Meatballs, with its recognition that the house is going to be messy and that you might be asked to read picture books, is its own Shabbos***. The world doesn’t stop being imperfect and chaotic (this isn’t to say that having to read picture books, by the way, is imperfect: it just probably isn’t what people think of when they think “Friday evening dinner party”), but for a little while, a different kind of perfection — a transcendent perfection — is invited in.

***Oddly enough, I hadn’t finished reading the article when I wrote this post — but author Sarah Grey calls out the same association!

I’d like to live my life a little more like that. I realize that’s what I’ve been hunting, in my endless journey for a spiritual practice that answers the calling of my soul: something that lifts up the Holy Sparks in all things. I just didn’t realize that it’s been sitting right here in front of me all along. (Voila! Isn’t that always where it is, though?)

It really helps to have an Organizing Principle, of course: Zen, or Yiddishkeit, or Catholic mysticism, or Quaker discernment, or secular humanist discernment, or bike racing, or ballet. Some organizing force that helps you untangle the threads and gather them together and weave them into a tapestry (and to know with ease that there will be imperfections in the tapestry). For whatever reason, Bike Racing didn’t really work for me — perhaps because it wasn’t my Vocation, in the old-school sense of the word.

Ballet has become exactly that in my life. Ballet is, at the moment, a kind of functional Kashruth. It is the thing that helps me decide, and at the same time it’s a sacred aspiration. This is, I think, the heart of the ballet aphorism, “I can’t; I have class.” What we are saying when we say, “I can’t, I have class,” is that we serve a higher calling, and that calling comes before so many of life’s distractions****.

****Of course, it’s possible to misuse this calling; to hide behind it in unhealthy ways — but the same can be said of any calling. To use a calling as an excuse to hide is wrong.

I am not living the kashruth of ballet perfectly, of course, because I am human and because I am just learning: but still it is working in my life, opening roads for wholeness that weren’t there before. It’s like pruning a tree, in a way: you prune away the suckers and the weak branches, and you are left with a strong and graceful tree that bears good fruit.

Ballet is the thing for which I am willing to shove everything else to the side, to make sacrifices that a year ago I wouldn’t have thought possible (Give up bike racing? Take any old job just so I can afford my training? Do :::shudder::: upper-body work?!).

I don’t think I would actually have bothered seeking out medication for my ADHD if it weren’t for ballet — but I realized that I need to get better at handling the other stuff in my life so I can keep dancing and so I can achieve my long-term goal of becoming a Dance-Movement Therapist, and I realized after a while that I wasn’t going to be able to do it without help.

I don’t know if, without ballet, I would have ever been as comfortable being who and what I am. I would have continued to feel weird, out of place, even in the outsider community that is the queer universe. I would have continued to hem and haw about having surgery for my gynecomastia, forever suspended between “living with this body limits me and makes me uncomfortable” and “the whole idea of surgery both makes Denis uncomfortable and reinforces the idea that there is only one right kind of male body.” I would have gone on not deciding until the accumulation of years rendered a decision for me. Ballet makes that decision easy: this is the thing I need to do to be able to move with freedom and strength. I can’t imagine regretting it, but I can absolutely imagine regretting not doing it.

Then again, that was the first bit of wisdom I learned from Denis: in the long run, you rarely regret what you do — instead, you regret what you don’t do.

So, yeah. I think I’m going to finish cleaning the house and try my own Friday Night Meatballs experiment, though maybe I’ll do something other than meatballs (but maybe not). We’ll figure out where to put people and where to put people’s cars and so forth (and if my friends come, they’ll probably come on bikes anyway).

I also think I’m going to keep working on moving forward, on stepping out onto this stage. Because, bizarrely, that’s what this all feels like: so much of my life, up until this point, has been rehearsal.

Now we step onto the stage. Now we take our place before the eyes of the world.

Now we begin to dance.

Quick update: via Fat Heffalump, check out The New Empowering School, a ten-week workshop series for people who like to move it, move it, whether they’re professional dancers or folks who are usually marginalized by dance culture.  The stated goal of the project is to “create space of permission, discussion, transformation and revelation through languages of the body-mind. We want to create a space where otherness is celebrated as standard – a place to come worship the wonder that is you!”

You guys, this sounds like a really, really amazing thing.  I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to London (and stay there for ten weeks), but seriously, this is a fantastic idea. Imagine what could happen if people go to this workshop, take home the best of it, and start sparking similar workshops around the world!

Edit: In other news, I just finished last year’s finances.

It feels weird.

On to catching up this year!

We’re Asking The Wrong Question

Okay, so I’m totally being held hostage by math right now. I am skipping YET ANOTHER ballet class so I can try to actually make a solid grade on my math exam — I want to go in knowing I am 100% on top of this material. This is First World Problems to the max: I have really never had to study before. So, yeah. I apologize to my best friend, Robert, for all those times I was like, “Who needs to study? Screw that! Let’s go run around outside until three in the morning!”

Exam is Wednesday, so on Wednesday night I will be back on the marley dipping (rather than shaking) my tailfeathers like it ain’t no thang. Probably also mixing my metaphors like a grand champion on fire, or whatevs.

Anyway: I am forever reading about ballet (who woulda thunk?!). And I am forever running across articles that read like this:

ZOMG Everyone is afraid that ballet dudes are gay and feminine and stuff! But don’t worry! We are the manliest.

Okay, so they’re usually at least a bit more reasoned than that. But, to be honest, it still ruffles my (tail?) feathers just a little.

Here’s why: sure, a lot of ballet dudes aren’t gay. (Apparently, about half of us? Has anyone done an actual scientific study, here?) On the other hand, a lot of us are gay. (Again, about half of us? Has anyone done an actual scientific study, here?)

And instead of saying, “Yeah, half of us are gay. So?”, we’re terrified of Looking Gay to the Not-Gay Universe. We hold up straight male dancers as shining examples and tuck gay male dancers back into the shadows.

For the record, I will straight-up concur (you know, assuming a gay ballet dude even can straight-up concur?) with the notion that manly ballet dudes are, in fact, the manliest. Seriously. I have done one sport that offered an equivalent degree of physical intensity, and that was Muay freaking Thai, people. You know, pretty much like ballet, only you get to kick people in the face. With your shins (they mostly discourage that in ballet; it puts runs in your tights, which seriously ticks off the costume department and/or whoever pays for your ballet kit).

Ballet dudes are hardmen (so are ballet chicks: if I had to choose between a back-alley brawl with a footballer and a back-alley brawl with a ballet lady, I’d go with the footballer). In fact, ballet dancers are so freaking hard that people have to pretty much chain us to things to make us stop dancing when we’re injured (so we won’t permanently damage ourselves) or ill (so, presumably, we won’t A) go all Closing Scene From Black Swan halfway through class or B) infect the entire ballet universe).

In short, the only thing as determined as an injured ballet dancer is an angry rhino(1).

Seriously, don’t mess with injured dancers.

Even those of us who are little androgynous gay dudes, like me (or, to be fair, tall androgynous gay dudes, like David Freaking Hallberg, Prince of the Universe), are pretty freaking manly even within the bounds of the limited, Western-culture specific definition of the term. We may not sport hulking muscles, but we are freaking strong (and unlike some dudes with hulking muscles, we can generally put our arms down and go through doors without turning sideways).

Like, we push through all kinds of pain on a regular basis — oh, and we have to do it while looking relaxed, or even smiling, and while tossing around full-growned wimmins like they don’t weigh a thing(2). We know how to fail, and fail, and fail, and keep on comin’. And also we have thighs like steel-belted radials. Seriously.

Like, we have the confidence and je ne sais quois to step into our dance belts(3), step out in our tights, look out at the world, and say, “How you like them apples?”

If courage is the yardstick by which manliness is measured, every male ballet dancer in the world (even those of us who aren’t professionals) pretty much wins right there. Sometimes, perhaps counter-intuitively, true manliness means being willing to step outside the “rules” by which men are bound in our culture. It means having the fortitude to say, “Who cares? Imma do me.”

However, at the end of the day, the whole matter of manliness strikes me as a distraction (an important one, I guess, but a distraction, nonetheless). The question I keep hoping to hear someone ask is: “So, yeah, ballet is one of the traditional bastions of the gay male universe. So what? Who cares?”

The thing is, every time we harp on about how manly ballet is, and how it’s a perfectly acceptable occupation or hobby for straight dudes, and how dancing isn’t “feminizing” at all, we’re sort of overlooking a problematical cultural assumption. We’re overlooking the fact that what we’re doing is reinforcing the idea that there’s only one acceptable way to be masculine; that feminine guys are not okay; that women (and other feminine beings) are lesser people.

Instead of saying, “Yeah, there’s room in ballet for masculine guys and not-so-masculine guys, and that’s fine,” we’re forever trying to sweep the association between gayness and ballet-ness under the rug.

I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who would argue that, right now, that’s kind of what it takes to get straight guys to consider trying ballet (which everyone wants, because everyone wants more guys of any orientation; no argument with that part, here).

I would argue that kowtowing to that paradigm isn’t going to make meaningful change. Yeah, we’ll see a few more straight guys in the studio if we work to convince people that ballet as Acceptably Manly — but I think what’s really going to raise the numbers is the burgeoning acceptance that there’s more than one way to be manly; that you can’t catch The Gay in the locker room; and that even if you could (and you can’t!!! And we don’t want you to!!!), nobody would care.

So there you have it. Generally, ballet asks us to be pretty freaking masculine on stage (in fact, I sometimes find myself mystified by the weird cultural disconnect between American society, which totally fails to grasp that classical ballet dudes can be masculine, and the gender roles in classical ballet, which are about as rigid as they come) — but what’s so wrong with guys who aren’t?

Nothing. That’s what.

One last bit: if you’re a straight guy, and you’re considering taking up ballet, but you’re afraid you’ll be the only straight dude in your class, or your school, or whatever, remember this: regardless of ridiculous pr0n tropes, most gay dudes have no interest in trying to convert you.

Especially not in ballet class, during which nobody has time to think about anything but ballet in the first place. Seriously, if you can think about anything else during class, you’re either some kind of Zen-Master Level Dancer or you or your teacher are doin’ it wrong (or, you know, taking an easy day, I guess).

Meanwhile, the ballet studio is full of intelligent, super-fit women who (if they’re anything like the women in the cycling world) would love to be able to share their passion with the man in their life (assuming, you know, they’re even into men). And some of them are even single.

Okay, and one more last thing: I do appreciate the efforts of people who point out that ballet isn’t emasculate, or whatever, and that ballet dudes are manly. I do appreciate those efforts. I just think we’ve reached a point, as a culture, at which we can start expanding the conversation a bit.

Anyway, one of these days, I’ll get around to writing a serious, well-reasoned, well-researched article about all this stuff. For now, this is just a catch-all for some thoughts that have been kicking around in my head for a while. So that’s it.

G’night, everybody. Back to the maths.


  1. So, um? You guys? If you Google Angry Rhino, it turns out that apparently it means things, um, other than just “furious quadruped.” I had no freaking idea; there were definitely no questionable subtexts intended here. Sorry 😦
  2. Okay, so I haven’t reached the level yet where they let you toss the girls around. BUT I WILL.
  3. Or, you know, alligator-wrestle our way into them, which totally NEVER happens to me. Or at least the dance belt never wins. Man, that elastic is freaking STRONG.

Ballet Lessons: Don’t Try So Hard

A while ago I wrote about the amazing concept of letting it happen. This week I’m writing about not trying so hard, which might actually be a subset of “letting it happen.”

I had to think about how to explain what I mean. The key, for me, arrived in the form of my Awkward Développé Moment. I realized that sometimes I perform better when I’m just not trying as hard – like when I’m just marking a combination, and I’m not worried about “getting it right.”

I dance gracefully when I’m just messing around between combinations or at home or in the club. I dance less gracefully when I’m trying too hard in class. All that focus makes me tense and tight, and I lose the fluidity that makes ballet, well, ballet.

The same idea applies outside the studio. I had a really hard time learning the subtler social skills, so I have come to rely on a consciously-programmed at of social algorithms instead. Sometimes, this means I get really hung up in the rules, and I try too hard, and I come off as a stiff, arrogant jerk.

When I can convince myself to relax in unfamiliar social settings, though, I can actually be pretty charming. Weird, yes, but a charming kind of weird! And it’s so much easier, and more natural, and — well, more graceful, actually.

I think trying too hard is really epidemic among younger people. I’ve noticed that many of my friends who are in their sixties seem mostly to have overcome that tendency. They’ve had time to really absorb and embody the idea that, most of the time, it’s not worth freaking out.

They’re sparkling, interesting characters (and often very good cyclists or dancers!) and they just don’t seem to get caught up in trying so hard. This makes them really fun to talk to, ride with, and dance with — and I bet it makes their lives easier, in a way.

So I think maybe those of us who are younger should take a page from their playbook and try harder not to try so hard (I couldn’t resist the paradoxical phrase!).

This doesn’t mean, by the way, “Don’t go to class,” or, “Don’t make an effort.”

I wanted to do an extra class this morning, and I didn’t because I had bike issues and was insufficiently organized to fix them on time. I didn’t make it to class, and I’m sure I learned less sitting on my behind at home than I would have in class even if I was trying too hard the whole time.

It does mean that we should somehow learn to temper effort with grace. When we focus too hard on doing it right, we get in our own way.

This is probably the number one lesson for me right now. I’m absolutely a perfectionist, and I think that’s more often a weakness than a strength. You can build technique by successive approximation, but no amount of making faces and clenching your jaw will make it happen any faster.

Ballet sort of happens on its on schedule. Come to think of it, so does life. As dancers and cyclists and human beings, we don’t do ourselves any favors by trying so hard.

At the end, maybe it’s all about mindfulness (as it so often is). It’s about being here, now, with this awful pirouette from fourth instead of not-here, not-now, with the beautiful pirouette from fourth that will happen someday if you just stop worrying about it so much.

Of course, that’s hard to do. The whole of Zen practice has grown up around how hard that is! But it’s good to do hard things (like mindfulness, intentional sissons, or beautiful pirouettes from fourth). Hard things make us grow, if we relax and allow it to happen.

So that’s it for now. I think now I’ll go ride my bike without making faces or clenching my jaw 😉

Ballet Lessons: Don’t Make It Happen. Let It Happen.

I danced as a kid, and I loved dancing.

If I think back, part of what I loved so much about it was the sense of freedom. My childhood ballet teacher was really good at teaching sound technique without turning her students into a herd of little automatons. She guided and shaped us while keeping our innate freedom and joy in movement intact*.

As a kid, I had absolutely no sense of limitation (this was probably both my greatest personal gift and my greatest personal curse!). It never occurred to me to question whether I’d be able to execute any given step — I just did it, and it just happened. It didn’t occur to me that pirouettes or tour jetés “should” be hard for a little kid. They were just variations on the stuff that I did in gymnastics or when I was playing.

In short, though I probably couldn’t have verbalized it back then, I felt like all these movements were already in there, and all I had to do was let them out**.

In other words, I didn’t make them happen. I let them happen.

On what is probably the best ballet forum I’ve ever seen, Ballet Talk for Dancers, a recent thread discussed the question of sweat (yes, sweat: if you dance, you know these feels, too!).

One respondent dispensed a bit of wisdom she’d heard from presenters at a workshop for ballet teachers:

in classical ballet, dancers shouldn’t so much make their bodies execute movements as let their bodies execute the movements.

A light clicked on in my head. Of course! This is what I’ve been doing so very, very wrongly since I returned to the studio back in March. I’ve been trying to make things happen. In those rare moments that dancing has felt like it used to, it’s because I’ve switched from making it happen to letting it happen.

When you switch from making it happen to letting it happen, all the tension that can plague serious ballet students — especially serious adult students — drops away. Suddenly, you can move freely. You can interpret. You can smile. You can glissade-assemblé without making faces.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.

Deep in the roots of Zen practice — indeed, in Buddhism itself — is the idea that control is an illusion. The harder we grasp at it, the more difficult life becomes.

The same idea crops up in other philosophies, as well — from the Twelve-Step movement’s “Let go and let G-d” to Christianity’s “Consider the lilies of the field” to the broader, new-wave “Go with the flow.”

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to do things — just that we should, perhaps, try to do them with less gnashing of teeth. As in those moments on the bike when a headwind or a hill appears: we can make ourselves ride it, tense and miserable, or we can accept that it’s part of the road we’re on, and let ourselves ride it.

With my bipolar disorder, I can either grit my teeth, resist my own nature, and make my life happen (with exhausting effort and the attending misery and crankiness), or I can accept that I am what I am and learn to work with it.

This does not, of course, mean just rolling over and quitting, any more than just “letting it happen” on the dance floor means not dancing. It means, instead, tapping into the strength and grace that are already there, planted within the depths of my being — and using what I have been given.

I hope this makes at least some kind of sense.

At least where my dancing’s concerned, this may be the single best piece of advice I’ve encountered as a returning adult student. After replying to the thread, I got up, went to the kitchen (where there’s exactly enough space for a small glissade-assemblé or a few chainés turns), took a deep breath, and let myself toss off a lovely little glissade.

It felt really good. In fact, it felt a lot like dancing used to, before I started coming to it with an agenda and a sense of how I “should” go about it. In class, “letting” ballet happen made all the difference.

So perhaps in I’ll work on letting it happen instead of making it happen.

And perhaps I’ll try to apply that lesson to the rest of my life as well.

*Curiously, looking back, this may be one of the reasons that while some of us really thrived, a couple of students I knew left after a year or so. They were both heavier kids who had already learned to feel uncomfortable with their bodies; to be expected to move freely in a class environment where traditional body-conscious ballet kit was the uniform of the day might have been too much for them. That’s something I’ll need to keep in mind in my own future practice.

**This, by the way, is how good dressage training operates in the equestrian world: you’re never teaching a horse to do something unnatural; if you watch horses enough, you’ll see them execute all kinds of advanced dressage maneuvers, from canter pirouettes to glorious collected trots, as they go about their horsey lives (that is, when we’re not messing with them). As riders and trainers (and every ride is training), we don’t make these movements happen. We teach the horse to let them happen.

The “making it happen” approach pretty much reaches its zenith in the the peanut-roller style of “pleasure” horse (well … and in some subsets of park/saddleseat and gaited horses). You’ll rarely see a horse at liberty move that way. The same goes for poorly-trained saddleseat horses or hunters and even poorly-trained dressage horses: with a little experience, you can spot a horse that’s been forced into an unnatural frame.

Unfortunately, when every horse in the ring has been forced into an unnatural frame, the judges still have to pin the ribbons on someone, and in some parts of the country sound training is so rare that the show circuit unintentionally conspires to perpetuate really weird ideas of how hunters or “country pleasure” horses or dressage horses should move.

But, um. Enough horse-nerding for now.

Ballet Lessons: Don’t Think So Much

I’ve noticed something in ballet class: when I stop thinking so darned much, I dance better — sometimes much better.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Zen teachers have been harping on about this for ages now: quiet the monkey mind. Be Here Now.

Proponents of other meditative paths, from Catholic mysticism to just plain ol’ secular meditation, say the same thing. Your mind has to be quiet if you’re going to hear that still, small voice, and so forth.

As people living in the modern world, we’re raised to trust our minds above all else. Wisdom, we think, resides in those billions of neurons; in the chemical sparks jumping the gaps between them. We can best solve problems, we imagine, by thinking about them.

Yet, sometimes, we do our best thinking when we’re not thinking at all.

And I know that I, for one, do my best dancing when I’m not thinking at all.

Not to say there’s anything wrong with thinking — far from it. After all, when we imagine, impart, or learn choreography, that’s thinking. And when we analyze our strengths and weaknesses, that’s thinking, too — but maybe it’s thinking that’s best done after class, after the performance, after we take off our shoes.

During class or on stage, sometimes we do best when we leave the thinking behind — when we make space in ourselves for the still, small voice to move out into the world (where sometimes it becomes sort of a big, loud voice).

Thinking is great. Without thought, we wouldn’t have made it very far as a species.

Sometimes, though, the best thing we can do is stop thinking and let our minds get out of the way.

Sometimes, when we do that, we can really surprise ourselves.

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