Category Archives: balllet

Video: Movement Research for “Thaw”

I don’t post video all that often.

Originally it was because A] I didn’t shoot video all that often and B] when I did, I usually couldn’t stand to look at it and didn’t want anyone else to look at it, either. (Or, well … sometimes also because the decent video I had was typically rehearsal video from someone else’s piece, and I didn’t want to post it without permission.)

Now I just rarely post video because I rarely think of it. I share clips to Insta on the regular, but more often than not they’re clips rather than entire pieces.

Anyway, today I was scrolling through my phone’s camera reel and happened to watch one of my movement research videos from March, when I was beginning to work seriously on the piece that originally became “January Thaw,” and is now just “Thaw.”

And in the process, I found the video below, and discovered that I loved parts of it: the weird parallel developpe that was originally part of this piece (I vaguely recall deciding that, because it had to transition into a turned-out arabesque followed by a penche, I should replace it with a normal developpe); the lovely precipite in the middle that was later eclipsed by a series of arabesques (at least, I’m pretty sure I decided to keep the arabesque version); this moment when I unfurl from a contraction in a lunge; these insane floating turns that reminded me that I can, in fact, turn beautifully[1] when I bother to make the effort.

  1. Some of them are decidedly off-plumb, but they somehow wind up being beautiful anyway. *shrug*

There are flaws, of course. I’ve decided not to itemize them. I know they’re there; you know they’re there–I won’t gain anything by nattering on about them, so for once in my life, I won’t.

Anyhoo, the music, to which I own no rights whatsoever, is Alexandra Dariescu’s aching rendition of Chopin’s Prelude #4, Largo, E minor (Op. 28:4) on Chopin/Dutilleux, Volume 1, Champs Hill Records, 2013.

You can find it on Amazon and probably everywhere else, because seriously. This recording is so good.

Anyway, here’s the video. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

DancerLife: Food (Part 1)

Upfront disclaimer/disclosure thing: I am definitely not a nutritionist, as you’ll probably realize if you read the rest of this post, which is mostly about stupid food-related mistakes I made last season. This post is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, nor should it be taken as advice, unless the advice is: If you have questions about feeding yourself as a dancer, maybe go ask someone who really knows their stuff.

I’ve written about food before. Probably a lot. I like food, though I struggle with food sometimes. I also generally quite like eating[1].

  1. Except, apparently, when I don’t. I’ve recently experienced a baffling lack of interest in food itself: I’ve been in this place in which I would be perfectly content to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or really whatever requires the least thought or effort, day in and day out.

On the whole, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good grasp of basic nutritional science (hard to get through a Bachelor’s of Science degree that includes Anatomy & Physiology without understanding at least a bit).

I’m sufficiently equipped that I mostly manage to steer clear of trends based on junk science or poor data and to regard with equanimity the ones that might, in terms of their originators’ ideas about science, be based on shaky logic, but which still work well for people in practice because they’re motivating in whatever way and manage to get the various nutrients in.

What I haven’t had, as I discovered over the 2019-2020 ballet season, was the slightest shade of an idea as to how to actually feed myself for performance while dancing 30 hours per week, teaching about six hours per week, and driving an extra 80-90 minutes per day 2-3 days per week between those two gigs.

This was especially difficult on days when I left my teaching job at 8:30 PM and didn’t arrive home until after 9, chronically underfed (though I usually didn’t realize that) and with little time to eat, shower, prepare food for the next day, and wind down before I had to be asleep.

The best lunch decision I made all year, probably. Too bad I kept forgetting to buy more.

To a great extent, this was my own darned fault.

I extrapolated as follows:

  • P1: I have a fairly sound working knowledge of basic nutritional science.
  • P2: An awful lot of the nutritional advice I know how to find runs contrary to basic nutritional science.
  • P3: I am broke and can’t afford to go see a nutritionist.
  • Therefore, I should just stick with what I’m doing.

Or, well, something like that.

Yes, y’all, I am an idiot. Sometimes, anyway. Even often.

I think I also wasn’t sure who to ask: like, let’s be frank. Dancers are mostly paid what is known, in the technical language of economics, as “bupkis.” Or possibly “peanuts.” (In fact, since I have volunteered at events where one of the perks was free access to peanut-based trail mix, I can literally say that I’ve worked for peanuts. Hmmmm.)

Against a background of grass, a squirrel eats a peanut while sitting next to a squirrel feeder full of peanuts.
A dancer making a withdrawal from the bank. (Via Pexels)

Regardless, dancers be broke, and qualified nutritionists who have adequate knowledge of the nutritional requirements of full-time ballet dancers be … not cheap. (Nor should they be. They train for years to master their specialty, just like we do.)

So you had better believe that when I learned that LouBallet’s MindBodyBalance program was hosting a Zoom-based nutrition workshop with an actual qualified person who actually understood things about how to feed dancers, I jumped right on that enroll button.

Anyway, today, Becky Lindberg Schroeder of Lindberg Elite Nutrition (she’s also on Insta!) gave us a really solid talk, with time for discussion, about how to feed ourselves for performance as dancers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I realized I’d been going about things … well, not all wrong, but wrong enough.

The two most important things I’ve been doing were basically:

  • Not eating enough
    and
  • Not eating often enough.

Somehow, I felt like I shouldn’t be eating during the 5-minute break between class and the beginning of rehearsal. I would usually surreptitiously scarf an apple, but I felt like I shouldn’t.

Why?

Honestly, I think I just noticed that few of my fellow dancers shoved a snack into their faces during that interval. Outside the studio, I’m fairly resistant to peer pressure, but life inside the ballet studio is different, especially as an apprentice who doesn’t feel super confident about his place in the company.

Now that I’m writing that “out loud,” of course, it seems kind of dumb.

You can’t stuff yourself with a huge breakfast before class if you want to get through class without, at best, being miserable or, at worst, puking … but if you eat a lighter breakfast at 8:30, by the time class is over at 11:30, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that you’re going need to top up your fuel tank.

If you try to hold out until lunch break at 1, you’re likely to be hangry before you get there. (Regarding which: yes. On days that I’ve failed to eat any kind of snack at all, I’ve usually been deeply hangry before lunch break rolled around.)

A carnivorous dinosaur silhouetted against a night sky.
Me, just before lunch break. (Photo by ~ swinone on Pexels.com)

Becky’s suggestion that we eat every 3-4 hours made that all make sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that I’m now wondering how I failed to grasp it before. Then again, that’s why she’s a high-performance nutritionist, and I’m not.

Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think I really understood the effects of chronically low blood sugar on both performance and body composition.

Becky showed us a diagram illustrating the point that the range in which the human body works best falls between 80 and 100. My fasting blood sugar is rarely higher than 70 (I forget what the units in question are right now, sorry). I’m impressed if it’s 72; the one time in my life it was as high as (GASP!) 74, I wondered if I’d randomly awakened and eaten something in the middle of the night and forgotten about it.

Anyway, <70 is low. The typical response that garners during a medical exam is basically, “Cool, no need to worry about diabetes!”

But it turns out that when your blood sugar level is low, your body really does burn muscle and hold onto fat. I kind of knew that: we’ve all heard of “starvation mode.” What I didn’t know was that your body doesn’t wait around for a couple of weeks before heading down that road.

So, in short, I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by avoiding carbs in the morning.

This certainly explains why I’ve felt better on the rare morning that I impulsively threw a donut into the mix because I happened to stop for gas, or had to use ACTUAL SUGAR in my coffee because I ran out of stevia, or whatever.

If you’re starting with basically an empty tank, putting anything in it is going to help. It’s not like you’re body’s going to ignore fuel simply because it’s not Eleventy Octane Super Premium Ultra Plus, Now With Scrubbing Bubbles.

Your body, at that point, just wants ANYTHING. And if you don’t give it something, it’s going to assume that it should hold on to its emergency stores and tap the muscles instead.

That might also explain why basically surrendering to chronic disorganization, purchasing an immersion blender, and just making huge smoothies with some protein stuff (usually pasteurized eggs) and a handful of trail mix (peanuts and almonds … protein and fat in one happy little package) for breakfast and packing more of said trail mix to eat with lunch correlated with an unexpected drop in my body fat percentage.

Obviously, without a controlled experiment, causality is danged hard to determine–but in retrospect, it seems like maybe one way of accidentally starving myself was worse than the other. The one that gave me some carbs, protein, and fat, while still not ideal, was probably less bad.

I also made the mistake of thinking that my other frequent snack choice–inexpensive protein bars, because broke–was somehow … not good enough. Again, that seems silly now. The protein bars in question may be fairly processed (though they’re still mostly made of things that are recognizeable as food, albeit in small chunks), but they do the job of being quick and easy to eat when “quick and easy” are probably the most important criteria. You might have the best apple in the world, but if that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t finish it in 5 minutes, it’s not going to do the job.

Anyway, the most important takeaway for me was that I need to eat more, and to eat more often, than I did last season. Well, that, and to not eschew nutrition in bar form, because that’s often going to be my best bet.

My breakfasts, snacks, and lunches were uniformly underpowered last year (I’m not going to say “too small”), while my dinners were … spotty. I didn’t have time for a full meal between rehearsal and teaching, so by the time my classes let out, I was both incredibly hangry and in no position to drive for 40-50 minutes without eating.

Since I would, inevitably, have also run through the woefully-inadequate supply of food I had packed for the day, I typically resorted to drive-through dining, but usually (in an effort to reduce the artery-clogging effects of fast food) I’d get the smallest meal I could find.

Then I’d be mad at myself when I was starving at 10 PM, or wonder why I was so hungry at 1 AM that I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep without eating something.

You guys. In retrospect, I’m really trying to figure out … like … how I didn’t figure it out -.-

Part of the problem was my tool set. Basically, I was whacking away with a hammer, mentally screaming, “Why is it so hard to saw through this log???!!!!” I kept focusing on how to eat better at dinner time, when I would’ve done better to just eat a little more and a little better across the whole day.

Anyway, one of Becky’s smart, actionable suggestions was to literally write out your daily schedule (not too obsessively: sometimes lunch break is at 12:53; sometimes we get really into rehearsal and at 1:30 Mr D looks up and goes “OMG, sorry, you guys! I haven’t given you a lunch break!”) and figure out how to feed yourself around it.

Which … oh, my G-d. That’s brilliant.

Becky’s presentation also introduced Team USA’s Athlete Plates[2]–three useful visual guides to adjusting nutrition for the demands of your day. They’re less about telling you specifically what to eat than suggesting how to proportion your meals to keep yourself well-fueled. This is exactly the kind of information delivery I’ve been yearning for: visual, so you can use it at a glance, but with lots of deeper information readily available.

  1. You can find PDF guides to the Athlete Plates, along with lots of other great information about nutrition for athletes, on Team USA’s Nutrition page.

In short, I came away from this workshop with a much better sense of how I, a broke-ass dancer with ADHD and time-management challenges, can make a plan to keep myself well-fueled that actually fits into my life.

So that’ll be Part 2 of this post … because right now it’s dinner time, and I’m hungry.

Video: It’s Not Just For Insta Anymore

In ballet, as in life, there are things you know that you know, and things you know that you know but maybe kinda don’t really know[1].

  1. …And also things you know that you don’t know, and things that you don’t know that you don’t know, but … ugh, let’s just start with the stuff we supposedly know. I’m too tired for the, like, epistemology of epistemology right now.

Like, you know that what you do at the barre is important. Foundationally important. Literally everything in ballet, your teachers tell you, is founded on the work you do at the barre.

…And yet it can actually be kind of hard, sometimes, to really feel what that means.

If you’ve been dancing for more than, like, five minutes with good instruction, you’ve probably heard the maxim that everything in ballet is essentially an extension of plie and tendu (some add rond de jambe to the mix; others argue that rond de jambe can be included in the “extension of tendu” category … I think both arguments have merit, so That’s Another Post).

If you’ve been dancing for more than five years with good instruction, you’ve probably experienced that idea directly often enough that it has taken on gut-level meaning.

You have learned to feel that your grand battement is just a tendu at maximum amplitude; that a waltz turn is just a bunch of plies and tendus strung together; that even a double tour is basically a plie that stretches with a lot of oomph.

That does not, however, always translate directly to the complex movements you do once you leave the barre. Knowing with your brain is not the same thing as feeling with your body, etc.

And this is where video comes in.

I think I’ve written a couple of times about the thing that makes video such an exceptionally useful tool for me–specifically, my proprioception is weird because of Ehlers-Danlos, so I can’t always actually feel what my body is doing relative to itself. Video is the best tool I’ve found for figuring out the difference between what I feel like I’m doing and what I’m actually doing.

Sometimes, though, it’s also a goldmine for technique.

Case in point, this:

Never mind the caption–I was poking fun at myself because my eyes either looked or were closed in almost every screencap from this class.

I’ve been trying to make my body sort out the relationship between the Bournonville grand jete and … to be honest, basically everything. I mean, like, yes: of course I realize that it’s a prime example of “it’s just tendu and plie, but with a little chutzpah,” but somehow I still feel like my execution always cuts a corner somewhere.

The reason that I feel that my execution of the Bournonville jete cuts a corner is that it does.

Literally.

I’ve been so busy thinking about Bournonville jete being a leap that I’ve been completely overlooking the fact that the leap will take care of itself if you DO THE REST OF THE TECHNIQUE CORRECTLY.

Functionally, this means that instead of brushing and pressing my leading leg and using the combination of that kinetic energy with the potential energy stored in the plie of the second leg, I’m sort of frantically flinging my first leg and throwing my body after it, taking off before the leading leg can do its job (which is to set the height of the leap and then STAY THERE–that’s where control comes in), and generally bungling the entire procedure.

I’m flexible, so I come closer to getting away with it than someone would who can’t just throw a leg wherever, but it’s still not good enough.

(Ballet: it’s always easier when you just do it right, and somehow that never ceases to be completely shocking.)

So, the picture above isn’t technically of a Bournonville jete. It’s technically a picture of … erm. Some kind of enormous cloche? I’d honestly have to go back and watch the video again; my brain is so cooked right now I don’t even remember which exercise it was (it was before grand battement and after degage *shrug*).

BUT.

When I watched this video, I instantly and powerfully understood that this picture is HOW YOU DO a Bournonville jete, or really any grand jete, and make it count[2].

  1. Okay, full disclosure: my upper body shouldn’t start this far back in an actual grand jete, unless I want it the leap to travel straight up I guess? But that’s actually one of the things I need to fix in my grand jete: I often leave my body behind, costing myself both travel and elevation.

What I do remember about this moment was that it was a cloche through from back to front, brushing strongly through first and pressing the leading leg up (as if against a weight: that was JZ’s main correction for me on Thursday–which, by the way, is exactly the main thing I’m focused on improving in my dancing as a whole).

On the first side, I’d relied (as I always do) too much on momentum and not enough engaged strength: I threw the leg (to be fair, jete literally means “throw”) in a way that meant I was no longer in control of it. My leg was on one journey, and my body was on another–their destination was the same, but for all intents and purposes, the leg was taking the early express train and the body was taking a slightly later local. That makes it kinda hard to keep the movements connected, you know?

JZ said to me, “Less momentum; more strength–like lifting a weight with the working leg.” I applied the correction on the second side, and this was the result.

Even though I’ve done an exercise specific to grand jete that uses this motor pattern–done it in a few different schools, in fact (my childhood studio, LouBallet, the Joffrey, LexBallet, pretty sure Naples Ballet)–I’ve somehow never connected the exercise that I was doing in JZ’s class on Thursday with grand jete.

And yet, there it is. If I sprang off that deeply-loaded right leg, I would … well, okay, in this case, I’d crash directly into the wire storage rack that’s like two centimeters from my left foot o.O’

BUT, if I did that in, say, a proper ballet studio … okay, and if I kept my back a bit more lifted … the result would be a lovely grand jete. The position I’m in doesn’t really need to change (except for the fact that my upper body needs to be a little closer to my free leg); I would just need to kind of … let go of the ground. Just add a little spring[3]. And then sustain the leading leg by pressing it up, as if under a weight[4].

  1. In case you’re not familiar with the distinction, the Bournonville grand jete is done with the back leg in attitude. Obviously, for the … other version, I’d need a little more spring, to get that back leg all the way straight.
  2. I love that analogy, because it summarises everything I love about the way Roberto Bolle moves: his movements are always at once contained and free; controlled and fluid. There’s always a sense almost that he moves against the resistance of a thicker atmosphere than the one most of us inhabit. The idea of pressing into a weight helps me think about how to achieve that feeling without becoming tense and unfree.

Somehow, the video that yielded this picture has helped me understand what I am and am not doing correctly when I do grand jete. (And, in fact, that I’m doing almost everything in grand jete incorrectly much of the time, although sometimes I get it right by accident and something beautiful happens.)

It might’ve taken me another five years to figure that out otherwise, because it’s incredibly difficult to see yourself doing a grand jete or any other large, complex movement (trying to watch yourself in the mirror screws up the body mechanics). I certainly get corrections on my technique all the time (that’s just life as a dancer), but video makes it easier to sort out what all those corrections aim to impart.

In short: if you haven’t tried shooting video of yourself in class, I highly recommend it.

Obviously, in a normal class, you should ask permission first and make sure your classmates are okay with it (my experience has been that they’re usually either like, “Sure as long as I never have to look at myself in it XD” or “OOH YES CAN I HAVE A COPY PLS????”).

Likewise, video alone won’t replace the guidance of a good teacher.

But for me, video has become a critical tool for analysing my own movement and figuring out how to improve it.

At least, once I got over the natural desire to bury my head in the sand and never watch myself dancing again ^-^’

A Tale Of Two Balances

Or, well … two pictures of one balance. Same thing.

Ballet, as I’ve mentioned before, is an art of ever-receding goalposts. You might also say that they’re ever-shrinking goalposts: smaller, and thus harder to spot, and thus harder to hit–but just as important.

This entire post will be devoted to what might seem, to someone who doesn’t dance, like a distinction of no importance–a goalpost minuscule to the point of vanishing. A mere quibble.

But, hang about! I’m about to explain why the differences between the two pictures at the top of this post, which seem nearly invisible until you spot them, but which cannot be unseen once you do, are incredibly important.

But first, let’s zoom in a little.

Can you spot the subtle differences between these two images?

If you noticed that, in the right-hand image, I look like I have a potbelly, you’ve caught at least one! And since I didn’t go and stuff myself with pancakes between these two pictures–in fact, I didn’t go anywhere at all; they’re literally seconds apart during the same actual balance–I’m afraid I can’t blame breakfast.

So what, then, is the cause of this apparent potbelly?

It’s this:

Two images of the same dancer during a balance placed side-by-side with lines indicating the angle of his pelvic tilt.
Pelvic placement: the most important thing in the entire world (if you’re trying to dance ballet, anyway)

On the left, the top of my pelvis is essentially parallel to the floor. My tailbone is reaching down without tucking under, and my ribs and hips are connected by the line of my core … or, well almost. If you look really closely, you can actually see that I’m not quite entirely pulled up between ribs and pelvis, which is part of why everything has gone pear-shaped on the right.

On the right, my tailbone is sticking out towards the wall behind me, and the top of my pelvis is pointing forward and down.

At any moment in a normal person’s life, this sort of thing isn’t necessarily a huge problem. It can predispose you to back pain, but other than that, it’s probably not going to interfere all that much.

At any moment in a dancer’s working life, however, it’s a huge hecking deal, because it opens the door for two huge problems:

  1. Instability: your balances, turns, and just about everything else will be both more difficult than they have to be and, ultimately, worse than they have to be.
  2. Turnout: with my pelvis angled forward, I’m actually blocking my own turnout o_O’

This second point is more important than it might sound. Turnout in ballet isn’t just decorative: rather, it’s functional. Ballet technique is built on the ability to hold turnout, and if your pelvis is doing wacky things that interfere with your turnout, those things become harder to do.

Let’s take another look at that picture, with a few more marks to illuminate things:

Same pic; different caption.

Let’s start from the bottom.

On the left, you can see that I’m both well over the ball of my foot (which is showing off the entire reason I have a job in ballet at all–that arch and instep, right there). If you look closely, you can also see quite a bit of the underside of my shoe, indicating that my turnout is working.

On the right, I’ve fallen backwards, so I’m having to work really hard to stay on a lower demi-pointe. My hips are no longer stacked over the ball of my foot, so I’m forced to hold myself together by muscular effort, instead of allowing bones and gravity to do their job.

Just as importantly, the underside of my shoe is barely visible. My standing-leg turnout is pretty much nil right there.

Moving up to knee height, on the left, my free leg is cranked out close to flat. I’m not at my maximum turnout (or at my maximum retire height … BW would yell at me if he was here ^-^’), but the turnout I’m using here is both respectable and sustainable (in the sense that it’s a degree of turnout that I can readily maintain throughout an exercise or a dance).

On the right, my knee has crept forward. This is the most subtle difference, but it’s there all the same. The angle of my pelvis is making it difficult for me to hold my turnout–blocking it not with bones, but with physics. The angles make it harder for my muscles to keep me positioned on my standing leg without rotating the legs inward.

From mid-hip through just below my arm, on the left, everything is basically one unbroken rectangle (except for a little bit of rounding at the front–a harbinger of things to come, I’m afraid). I’m actually carrying my upper body a little too far back, though not drastically so … or it wouldn’t have been drastic if I’d actually succeeded in keeping my core engaged.

On the right, I’m decidedly swaybacked, but since the shirt I’m wearing makes that hard to see, it winds up looking like I’ve got a potbelly. There’s enough arch in my back to make it very difficult for me to recover without first coming down from the balance.

Lastly, on the left, my eyeline is level. On the right, I’m doing what horse people call “stargazing.” (Interestingly, swaybacked horses do this just like swaybacked people do. It’s almost like all the bones are attached to each-other by muscles, tendons, and ligaments! ^-^’)

I can’t express how incredibly important a level eyeline is.

Heads are heavy, and if you lift your gaze too high, it tends to send your head and everything attached to it backwards. The result tends to be that the pelvis rotates forward and down in an effort to counterbalance the head.

That might not be a recipe for disaster when you’re sitting in an office chair (though, again, it does tend to lead to back pain down the road), but when you’re trying to pirouette, it most certainly is. If I tried an en dedans with the balance on the right as a starting point, I’d fold up like a cheap umbrella.

Anyway, I hope you find this comparison as illuminating as I have. Now I need to dash off and teach a few Zoom classes, so if you’ll excuse me…

Unexpecto Coronum

Bit by itty-bitty bit, I seem to be resuming my life as a dancer.

Not, of course, in the sense of going out and dancing with other people in the studio. Rather, in the sense of finally taking class via Zoom (with a fantastic teacher, Johnny Zhong) on a regular basis … or, at least, I’ve hauled my butt to class twice this week.

Continuing to take class no longer seems like something that’s going to be a struggle against the tides of depression and exhaustion that have beseiged me for however many weeks.

Not that they’re, like, gone … but on Monday this week I hauled myself out of my Personal Doldrums and made myself take an actual class with an actual teacher who could actually see what I’m doing and correct things and (amazingly) tell me when I did something well. And then today I took his class again. And now taking class twice next week seems like given.

(Given the enormous lapse between my last real class and the first one this week, I wasn’t expecting to do anything well.)

Anyway, it took me a long time to get to this point.

I don’t really understand why, but I’m not sure the “why” is really important. I could spend the rest of my life unpicking every single variable that led me to hole up inside myself for, like, two months.

I’ve thought about it, and I’ll think about it again: but now I’m just relieved and grateful.

Grateful for the class.

Grateful for the fact that my body is apparently rather good at putting itself back together.

Grateful especially to my friend SF (if you’re reading this, hi!), who lovingly badgered me into taking JZ’s class, and thereby has probably saved my life, or at least my career … chapeau, girlfriend.

So although I’m still … not okay, I guess, though less not okay than I was a few weeks ago, when I felt like the dark waters of my own internal whatever might finally close over my head and bear me down into their depths … I’m getting there.

I’m not saying, “I’m getting better,” because then I’ll be pissed at myself if I don’t live up to that phrase.

Everything’s back and forth, here and there, ebb and flow. I’m going to have difficult days: we’re all going to have difficult days, always, but especially now in the midst of this novel uncertainty.

But, still, I feel right now like I’ve at least managed to grab a passing bit of flotsam and I’m not fighting so hard to keep my head above water.

Some of that has come with the realization that, although the precipitous and early end of our season torpedoed the twice-weekly unofficial partnering class I was doing with a friend of mine in the company (and everything else), I have an opportunity to really work on becoming a stronger dancer right now.

Working in a less-than-ideal setting* forces me to really focus on the deepest and most essential aspects of technique–holding the core; feeling the turnout; keeping the body together. (Conveniently, JZ’s approach to teaching focuses closely on all of those things.)

*a basement with 7 foot/2.13m ceilings and very freaking hard floors
covered with foam puzzle mats** that make turning a major
challenge ^-^’
**I just put in some new portable dance flooring today. Still hard, so I’ll
be confining jumps to the puzzle mats, but better than it was.

I will be a stronger dancer next season because of the time I’m spending alone(ish) in my basement now.

That doesn’t to any extent reduce the tragedy that has arisen from some breathtakingly poor policy decisions that have led to far, far more death and suffering than was necessary in this crisis (in many countries, but especially in mine).

It doesn’t change the fact that we no longer have a clear sense of what to expect from the future (not that we ever do, but under normal circumstances, we can at least use the standard operating procedures of daily life to infer a kind of baseline normality).

It just means that maybe I, individually, am at the end of one chapter in this unexpected story and at the beginning of another (notwithstanding the utterly imaginary nature of such divisions in the first place ^-^).

I’m planning to post a list of good live video classes, and I’m working on a choreographic project specific to the current quarantine that I’m hoping to post in the next week or so.

For now, stay safe, and keep dancing ❤

Oh, and here’s a pic from last summer, just because:

Still one of my favorite jumps ^-^

The Long Haul

Some thoughts on adapting to the present situation and on teaching … but first, a little housekeeping.

You might notice that my Insta widget has vanished from the sidebar. Last month, Insta decided to make some changes to how it works with WordPress, and users were asked to reconnect the Insta widget. I’ve been trying, and it hasn’t worked yet. It gets halfway through the process and hangs every single time.

Once I figure it out, the widget will be back.

Anyway, onward.

This week would’ve been Theater Week. I liked the role I had in Snow White, and I was looking forward to performing it. Instead, I’m at home, thinking too much and not dancing enough.

This is, I think, probably harder for H, who had the title role for the first time with our company, and L, who graduates from the school this year (and has evolved into quite a fine dancer in the time that I’ve known her), and for whom this would’ve been a grand finale closing this first chapter in her life as a dancer.

But it’s still hard in its own way. I was beginning to find my feet, so to speak, in this ballet. Even though I know it’s for the best, and that what we’re doing right now is critically important, there’s a definite … I don’t even know what the exact word for this feeling is. I had the wind in my sails; the boat was gliding over the waters. Then the wind stopped. Or maybe the boat shot over the edge of an unexpected waterfall.

I try to give myself grace for feeling whatever. As D always says, “If feelings were rational, we wouldn’t call them feelings.” But it’s an active process: actively stopping the voice that says, “Stop feeling x way,” and instead allowing myself what I would allow any other person: the room to feel what I feel.

As a company, we’re doing small video projects, for which I’m grateful. There’s some semblance of continuity; some small reason to force myself to spend at least some time focused on dancing.

That’s helping me cope with the other unexpected outcome, here. Normally, I can’t stop dancing. Right now, I can barely start. My mind shies away from the thought of ballet.

I assumed that was just a question of feeling overwhelmed—first by the circumstances themselves, then by the irritatingly fraught process of buying a car, then by the projects I’m suddenly supposed to be doing around the house (to be fair, they are pretty overwhelming … but it’s not like I don’t have time available). I figured I’d get over it once my mental GPS found an alternative route forward.

This week, though, I’ve realized that it’s not going to be that easy. My mind shies away from the very thought of ballet because I am, in fact, more deeply stunned by the loss of the end of this season than I’ve realized.

Most of my life was spent learning to seal each fresh trauma in its own vault and walk away, numb to the persistent ache of hurt or loss.

This is what happened when I stopped dancing as a kid, and why it was so hard to let myself return: had I never met D, in fact, it’s entirely possible I’d still be ignoring the thing that means the most to me. But D happens to love circus and dance, and every time we watched a cirque show or a dance performance together, the truth trapped inside that vault struck out at the door.

It’s a powerful truth. Sometimes even when you’re actively patching the cracks in the door, a powerful truth breaks free.

But, anyway. This thing where I toss the body (which, obviously, is never dead, trauma being what it is) in a vault and seal it has become a reflex. I do it automatically, now: though I hadn’t realized that until almost this very moment.

So this thing where my mind automatically turns itself away from ballet … it’s a function of a coping mechanism.

I suppose, also, that the trauma in question isn’t just this swift and unexpected change: it’s the weird stress of living with an invisible threat and, honestly, more or less forgetting about it most of the time, because it’s sealed in its Trauma Vault, where it.mostly stays until I have time to sit with it.

The ongoing trauma of this situation, sealed in its vault, acts like a faint buzz in the back of the consciousness—a kind of mental tinnitus. Every now and then, it breaks out and blasts up to the level of a klaxon and my conscious mind suddenly feels, “WE CAN DIE FROM THIS!” for 11 seconds.

Then the unconscious mind steps back into its role as Curator of Trauma Vaults and slams the vault shut again. 

(I do, in fact, take time to actively process this current, ongoing trauma. The last thing I need is for that hinge to get rusty, or for that lock to jam  … that’s when Trauma Vaults really become problematic).

The end of the ballet season, and this ballet itself, are also tied up in that mess.

So the question, then, is how to develop a strategy to bring ballet itself out of that vault so it can function on its own. Partly, I need to do this because I’m not ready to retire from my career in dance. Partly, I need to do this because dancing is, for me, a powerful healing tool.

I’m working on some ideas. 

My friend SF has suggested that we do a class together once a week as peers in addition to the two classes I’m teaching her, and I think that’s a good place to start.

I should probably also haul myself to the Frankfort studio a couple of times each week. There’s no space in my house that’ll allow me to move with the full vigor of my emotions, and I really, really need that if I’m going to stay sane.

I’ve been working on the trapeze as well—it’s not ballet, but it taps the same wellspring, so to speak. A lot of the time I’m just flinging myself around, exploring movement and feeling things out. I’m definitely going to keep doing that as much as I can.

Last, I’ve started a project with four dancers (myself included) that specifically relates to the situation at hand … But I’m filing further details under To Know, To Will, To Dare, To Keep Silent for now, because it’s just a little embryo of a project at the moment.

So much of my history of pain, my lake of bones, feels so close to the surface so much of the time right now. The skeletons that live beneath the ice are restless. Writing this, I realize that I shouldn’t be surprised by that. The Trauma Vaults may be more civilized, but they’re built into the same deep cave where, if one journeys deep enough, one finds the Lake of Bones.

On a purely physiological level, they’re effectively the same thing.

The limbic system, neural circuitry, biochemistry, and physiological responses that are constantly stressed and intermittently freaking out about the Coronavirus are the same ones that lived with the constant stress of a tense early childhood and the intermittent intense stress of fights between my parents and between my sister and myself.

They’re the same one that lived with the constant stress of stalking and the intermittent extreme stress of emotional manipulation and abuse, profound physical violence, and repeated rape.

Of course the current situation drags those skeletons closer to the light. To the body that is the substrate for the mind, the situation is not so different. The circuits are open and the brain is hunting through them for strategies that will help us all survive.

So in the midst of all this, it’s back to trauma work, I guess, because that seems like a better idea than trying to shove the skeletons back into their lake and lean on the doors to all the Trauma Vaults at the same time.

So, anyway, this is me right now. I hope you’re giving yourself grace in the current circumstance. If you’re struggling, I see you. And if your Curator of Trauma Vaults is working overtime and you wonder if any of this will ever actually be something you can feel, I see you, too.

Peace be with you, friends.

Finding North

Right now, I think it’s fairly safe to say that we’re all a bit lost in the woods; a little at sea.

Like, all of us. The whole planet.

We didn’t really know this thing was coming, and now it’s here.

You can prepare all you like for the possibility of some global … I guess disaster is the word; it’s not the word I want, but it’s the only one that to mind. It’s a slow-moving disaster, I guess.

Anyway, you can prepare all you like, but the reality of living in it—the experience of living in it—can’t be anticipated. You can have all the stuff you need to survive and enough to help your neighbors survive, but even that can’t mitigate the shock of the sudden and utter shift, the change when the thing finally comes.

We are, whether we realize it or not, creatures of habit. When we suddenly find ourselves obliged to upend the entire normal course of our days, we kind of derail a bit.

So that’s where I am: derailing a bit, but trying to learn how to drive my train without its track. Trying to figure out which way is up. Trying to orient towards the sun and get my feet under me.

You would think that as someone whose career is inherently cyclical, with long periods of down-time, I would be more okay with this than I am. 

I certainly thought that. I was like, “Yeah, it sucks that our season is over early, and that we never got to do our closing show, but it’s only a month early, really, and we’re okay financially.”

But, really, I thrive on order and ritual, and apparently the ritual for changing gears into summer mode is the last show.

Likewise, “summer mode” usually means I still go to class. It’s easy for me to forget that the thing that keeps my brain on the level is the daily litany of movement. It’s a startling surprise to remember how easily and how quickly things begin to become unbalanced.

The first week of this, D and I were in the middle of finally replacing the Camry—originally with the Electric Jellybean, but since that didn’t work out (the battery wasn’t up to D’s commute), eventually with VW Jetta TDI. That made planning my days difficult for me, so I didn’t dive feet-first into the array of ballet classes available by streaming.

Between the mental stress of the Emerging New Normal and the lack of sufficient physical exercise, my sleep quality and quantity took a nosedive.

Because the rhythm of my day was just plain gone, I kept forgetting to take my Adderall. That meant my brain was … Less able to adjust, shall we say.

Over the past several days, I slowly realized that I was starting to slip, and that it was time to do something about it. I started taking a sleeping pill early each evening in hope of getting some solid sleep.

Last night, it finally worked. I slept until 9:30 today and woke up feeling … if not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at least, like, eyed and tailed. You know. Basically equipped to more or less function.

I remembered to make myself a cup of coffee: it’s become part of my morning ritual, and one that I enjoy. It helps my brain know that there’s a day happening and we’re going to go do the things. I remembered to take my Adderall.

I’m late getting started, but once I finish this coffee and this post I’m going to go take class … albeit, in my living room, and probably in socks. When I’m done with that, I’ll do my assignment for the company, because I’d like to still have a job when the current storm blows itself out.

I’m not going to sermonize or tell anyone how to handle this crisis. We’re all grieving, and grief is a deeply individual process.

Nor am I going to confidently assert that I’ve got this handled, now: I’ve only got this present moment handled, and if things start to derail again, I’m going to try to give myself in una poca de gracia, as the song[1] says.

  1. The song, of course, is La Bamba, which arguably has nothing to do with any of this … Except doesn’t the line, “To dance the Bamba, it’s necessary to have a little grace,” rather beautifully describe how to cope with a sea-change like this one[2]?
  2. Dancing, after all, is just falling and catching yourself, over and over, until it looks beautiful.

 I’m going to remember the tools I’ve learned to use over the past few years. I’m going to:

  • do two things
  • grant myself grace
  • take my Adderall
  • breathe
  • and last, but not least, take class.

Going forward, I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes. That’s okay. We humans are makers of mistakes, but also makers of magic and music and beauty and art.

We’ll get through this, and we’ll find north again.

And until then, we’ll stay home and remember to wash our hands.

Oh, and since I wouldn’t be me without a little irreverent humor, here:

It’s Complicated

So, given the fact that you’re on the internets, chances are that you’ve heard about this whole COVID-19 thing.

Resource hoarding aside (I’m looking you, single dude who lives alone and who just bought 17 cases of toilet paper), the United States actually sense to be doing a sensible, public-spirited thing and closing a lot of things down for a bit in an attempt to reduce transmission of the virus.

And I’m all for that, but at the same time it’s kind of weird and surreal.

The company’s off for the next couple of weeks, and we have no idea what’s going to happen with our last show of the season right now (Cancelled? Postponed? Performed via livestream, in HAZMAT suits?).

We did class this morning and didn’t rehearse. Starting tomorrow, we’re technically on hiatus, though we’re trying to find out if we’ll have access to the studio so we can do class together.

I genuinely had never imagined this particular outcome. It’s a weird place to be. Not bad: just weird.

I guess we’ll figure it out, going forward, a bit at a time.

Meanwhile, my teaching job is moving to an online format that’s going to be … Interesting. I’m not at all certain how I’m going to make that work, given that my house is not danceable and my data plan is utter crap. But I’ll figure something out, anyway … If we have wifi at the studio, maybe they’ll let us look in and use it for streaming.

So that’s where we are in mid-March, 2020. Things are up in the air.

My class notes today were, in short:

  • Turns in 2nd: really snap that second shoulder around
  • “Always finish grand allegro with a double tour, if you can” (Not sure how practicable that is, but I like the audacity of it 😁)
  • Don’t create extra work for yourself

That last one pertains to a couple of things I’m working on: first, unnecessary accessory movements that require additional adjustments to balance, placement, etc; second, keeping things engaged in the right ways so the body moves as efficiently as possible.

Not rocket surgery, but worth contemplating from time to time.

Lastly, (I think) I’m done setting the choreography for “January Thaw,” so I’m planning to start polishing it next week, and I’ve started work on a new piece that I’m developing through choreographic improvisation as well.

The new piece is longer (almost 6 minutes) and a bit more complex in terms of both mechanics and artistry, and I plan to take advantage of the extra time in my schedule to really crack away at it.

Also, the new piece has gigantic sauts de Basque (with a very contemporary port de bras). Because of course it does.

I don’t have a title for it yet, but the music is Chopin again. I’ve got some rather decent video from last night, so I’ll post that sometime soon.

And remember: always pull your tights up AS HIGH AS POSSIBLE before stepping into your balance board.

Partnering: It’s Ballet, Asher

For the longest time, the number one correction I got in any dance context other than ballet was, “It’s not ballet, Asher!”

Now, I’ve finally come full circle.

After rehearsal, L and I have been working on partnering stuff together, since we both want to get better at it. This has led me to realize that the sheer volume of non-traditional partnering I’ve done has been tripping me up in a ballet partnering context.

A lot of modern partnering is based in weight-sharing. You can share weight concentrically or eccentrically—in short, by pouring towards or away from your partner or partners—but either option involves a kind of nonverbal negotiation of balance.

Weighting-in: Kathy and I shared each-others’ weight to make this slow lunge effortless.

Unless you know your partner really well and you’ve developed a strong rapport, you begin slowly.

If you’re “weighting-out,” you tentatively pour yourself away from your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite pull.

If you’re “weighting-in,” you tentatively pour yourself towards your partner, feeling for an equal and opposite push.

It’s this push-pull dynamic that gives partnering based in weight-sharing its beautiful fluid quality. As partners learn to work together, they practice conversing in a language of shared gravity—moving smoothly and silently from “weighting-out” to “weighting-in” and vice-versa.

As they learn to trust each-other and to know each-other’s weight and movement styles, the negotiation process can become so fast and smooth that it becomes invisible to the audience, but it’s always there and it’s always the same.

This is not how ballet partnering typically works.

In ballet partnering—and please note that I’m referring to the traditional, gender-specific roles for clarity, here—the girl isn’t looking for the boy to answer her weight with equal weight. She’s looking for him to be a rock-solid foundation; a kind of balletic buttress.

Buttressing: in this penché, I needed to be firm, not negotiate a gradual sharing of weight.

If you’re used to weight-sharing, you answer lightening with lightening: when your partner gives you less of her weight, you give her less of yours. Likewise, you enter into a pushing dynamic gently: it’s easy to pour too much weight into someone too fast and to knock the whole structure over.

In a ballet context, if your partner feels that you’re supporting her too lightly she tends to respond by taking her weight out of your hands to protect herself. If you’re used to weight-sharing, you’ll automatically respond by lightening and softening your contact, because that’s the typical process of negotiation.

The thing is, that’s not how ballet partnering works at all.

In ballet partnering, the girl offers her weight with the expectation that it’ll be met firmly—as if you, her partner, are a living barre.

Chances are good that if she hasn’t worked with you before, she’ll be light in your hand, so to speak: it is in her best interest not to rely too heavily on you until she’s sure that you’re up to the job.

So, basically, the least useful signal you can send in that moment is exactly the one you’re most likely to automatically send if the vast majority of your experience has been in weight-sharing.

If you respond to the lightness of her touch by offering light support, because the instincts developed through weight-sharing make you feel like you’re going to knock her over otherwise, she’ll won’t feel secure, and withdraw. If her withdrawal leads you to automatically lighten even more, she’ll also withdraw further.

It won’t take long to reach a point at which you’re not a support, but an obstacle: something she’s trying not to whack with her knee or her leg when she turns, for example, but which isn’t actually helping her turn. Needless to say, if that happens, you won’t be able to accomplish much together.

Be steady and firm, and she’ll give you more weight, so she can do the cool stuff that ballet partnering allows. She’ll also be more likely to trust you when you lift her.

Once you get past the negotiation bit, of course, things work pretty much the same way: you don’t want overpower your partner[1]. You just want to be steady and lend her just enough of your gravity and (where appropriate) your momentum or force.

  1. Even in lifts: you can lift another human using only your own strength, but most ballet lifts work best if you work together.
Believe it or not, this lift really requires input from both dancers.

The real difference is that in weight-sharing, every movement or sequence of movements begins with and depends on a negotiation that equalizes gravity between the partners.

In ballet partnering, there is an initial negotiation, but it’s a different one. The girl silently asks, “Can I trust you to hold me up?” and the boy must answer, “Yes, I’m here,” or things aren’t going to work.

The remaining negotiation process in a ballet context is, as far as I’ve experienced, more about figuring out the physics of your specific bodies. How do you get yourself out of the way of her knee? How much liftoff does she need to help you get her into an overhead press lift? Where is her center of gravity? How does she compensate for your short li’l t-rex arms?

So, anyway, that was the breakthrough of the week for me. It’s one of those things that seems like it should be bindingly obvious—and yet I had grown so accustomed to the process of weight-sharing that I didn’t realize I was doing this unhelpful thing until this Friday.

I don’t know if any of this will be all that helpful to anyone who doesn’t share a similar set of circumstances to mine—but I hope it’ll be at least somewhat useful.

Class Notes, 03.03.2020

I can read … most of this, anyway.

My penmanship is in “pretty, but not terribly legible” mode today.

“May +/ or August”

Possible masterclass dates.

“UP != BACK! CHOOSE UP!”

We did a lovely cambré, and after recovering I left my ribs a little too open and my sternum in a bit of a high release.

This does not improve one’s turns or one’s balances … Particularly not à la seconde.

Notes about back leg turnout (mostly relevant to barre and things like tendus, poses, etc—not helpful for turns, particularly):

  1. Recover it all the way*
  2. FAVOR it over front leg**
  3. STAY OFF THE HEEL/ON THE BALL

*I tend to be lazy about bringing my back leg fully into turnout when I close to fifth, because my specific combination of mild hyperextensions and huge calves makes it a bit more of a chore than is usual.

**By “favor it,” I really mean actually think about it. My front leg will take care of its own turnout reliably; I need to work on the back leg.

“Bring your tailbone (fouetté to arabesque).”

A lot of us were guilty of finishing a simple piqué fouetté without really bringing the pelvis with us today. I was over of them at least half the time.

“Hunger Arinn & Sefter Plié.”

This actually says, “Longer Arms & Softer Plié,” but you know. Looling for spit, etc.

“& still bring your head.”

It is always a good idea not to leave your head behind. This is especially true in ballet. That thing is heavy, yo, and since your brain’s in it you can’t just, like, take it off and leave it by your water bottle.

“Gliss no change x2, jeté pas de bourré x2, jeté assemble enrechat quatre x2.”

Mathematically speaking, I should really clarify that combination with some parentheses:

“(Gliss no change)*2, (jeté pas de bourré)*2, jeté assemble (entrechat quatre*2).”

I actually did this petit allegro right a couple of times. I mean, it’s not that complicated; it was just fast.

I’m getting better at keeping my legs under me so I don’t gallop off with myself (or over myself).

Anyway, that’s it for today’s class notes. My rehearsal notes are mostly about character development, since we’re mowing through Snow White wow effectively and I actually have time to think about that at this point.

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