Category Archives: balllet
Once upon a time, when I was eight years old, I received my very first violin—and with it, an introduction to the care of sensitive musical instruments: tune gently, handle with care, be careful of drastic changes in temperature and humidity.
Most of us, even if we don’t explicitly know these things, can intuit them from experiences with things like doors that stick when the humidity is high or swing loosely when it’s low. As such, nobody in their right mind would chastise a concert violinist for deciding not to play a Stradivarius in the rain.
Apparently, however, there’s been something of a fracas over the decision that gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles made to bow out at the Olympics this year (2021, if you’re visiting from the future ^.-).
Many people, it seems, found it very difficult to understand why she might do such a thing, and hurled all manner of invective at her. Biles handled the situation with the same power, grace, and aplomb she displays on the mats.
What her detractors didn’t (and don’t) understand is that Biles’ decision was one that would, for any gymnast, require an immense—even an immeasurable—strength of character. A thousand times more so on the world stage that the Olympics represent.
Because gymnasts, on the whole, grow up in a world that teaches them that there’s no such word as “can’t,” and that winners never quit.
From the first moment budding gymnasts step onto the mat, they’re subjected to a long-standing culture of incredible physical and mental toughness and self-sacrifice. You don’t become even an entry-level competitive gymnast without learning to “tough it out” and “walk it off,” never mind the kind of powerhouse competitor that Biles has become.
To some extent, this is necessary. Gymnastics, like ballet, is hard. It’s tiring and sometimes uncomfortable and demands that an aspiring athlete must learn to reach for deeper reserves of strength than many or even most people living typical, comfortable lives in the developed world can imagine. (Edit: come to think of it, people who’ve given birth prolly get it 🤔)
However, for much of its history, gymnastics training has demanded this in excess, and the result has been injury (and its long-term consequences), careers cut short, and all too often the inability of both gymnasts and coaches to see the body’s breaking point coming until it’s too late. (If this sounds like the ballet world, by the way, it should. Dancers face the same pressures from a similarly young typical age at entry.)
Those of us who have trained seriously in gymnastics understand this. We know what it is to bounce up off the floor after what observers might regards as a terrifying fall and jump right back in without stopping to make sure we’re okay. We know what it is to feel uncertain about whether an injury can withstand the pressure of training or competition and step onto the mats anyway.
We know how very, very effing hard it is, after a lifetime of being told, “Get up; shake it off; you’ve got this,” to say, “You know what? No. I’m staying down and I don’t have this right now, thanks.”
Simone Biles knows her body. She knows her mind. And the fortitude it took to stand before the entire world and say, in essence,”No, I’m not okay to do this right now and I’m not going to take the risk” … That’s a fortitude that a lot of people, to be honest, can’t even imagine.
In short, Biles simply refused to break out her Stradivarius in a hurricane. The fact that the hurricane was an invisible one is irrelevant.
To say, “Biles refused to break out her Stradivarius in 90% humidity” might be more accurate, but it might also be harder for people to understand. So we’ll stick with the hurricane analogy.
Gymnasts, hockey players, dancers, bike racers, aerialists, and many other athletes understand implicitly how very tough Biles had to be to do that.
We also understand that her decision was, whether she thought of it this way or not in the moment, a stand for all the young athletes growing up in athletic cultures in which it’s considered anathema to say, “No.”
In my own life, I’ve injured myself by pushing through things I shouldn’t have, extended the time to full rehabilitation by pushing too hard too soon, and on some occasions avoided serious injury solely by a combination of pure dumb luck with excellent reflexes and an unusually elastic body.
I could’ve avoided most of these things simply by learning, earlier in my life, that there really is a point at which you can and should say, “No.”
My generation grew up with coaches who, as young gymnasts themselves, were inspired by Nadia Comaneci’s endurance under harrowing conditions and Mary Lou Retton’s maxim, “Follow your dreams.”
Those stories bear so much merit—but I can’t explain how much it meant to me, and what a wave of … relief? release? liberation? … broke through me when I heard (through DisabilityTwitter!) about Biles’ decision. I mean I literally, physically felt it—like something exploding deep in my chest, but in the best possible way.
Like the moment when you see someone you love crash their bike hard, and you think, Oh f**K, they’re a goner, but then they get up and look around and kind of dust themselves off, and your heart just goes BOOM because, frankly, you’re so relieved. Or like the first moment in your life you realize that you really, really trust someone.
As an artist-athlete and teacher of artist-athletes, somehow it was Simone Biles that really crystallized for me the idea that, yes—you can say, “I’m not taking my Stradivarius out in the rain.”
I’ve been saying those words for a long time now, but a part of me had a hard time believing them when it came to my own instrument. I could believe them for my students, but not for myself, and that meant I wasn’t always living those words, whether for my students or for myself.
Simone Biles made that idea real for me.
Going forward, of course, negotiating that reality in the world of ballet, where sometimes you’re the only guy and without you the pas de deux isn’t gonna happen, will be another thing entirely. But it always is. Action can’t be divorced from context like that, yo.
Chances are that I’m still going to have to explain, once in a while, why I chose to break out my instrument in the midst of a downpour. I pray that in those moments I’ll be granted the wisdom and grace to do so with clarity, but human beings are imperfect and maybe I won’t, and that’s part of life, too.
You might be wondering what this has to do with Ehlers-Danlos.
Well, two things.
First, from what I understand, Simone Biles also has hypermobile-type EDS and her decision was at least partly based on an episode of “the Twisties,” aka proprioceptive dysfunction.
Proprioceptive dysfunction is a feature of EDS—one that can be really hard for people without EDS to understand, especially where elite athletes and dancers are concerned. It’s understandably hard for them to imagine how you can be someone who’s at the top of the world (or at least, pretty darned good) in a sport or artform that depends on exceptional spatial and body awareness and also be someone whose proprioceptive faculties just … go on strike sometimes.
And yet, that’s how it is. Sometimes the right matrix of stressors makes things go extra haywire, and the systems that allow us to fly through the air with the greatest of ease just plotz. And, trust me, neither you nor we need us flying through the air when that happens.
Second, my excessive sweatiness is very probably also related to EDS—it’s part of the suite of dysautonomic features that come with the package, so to speak—as are my orthostatic hypotension/POTS, episodes of (literally) staggering fatigue, sometimes-weird relationship to hunger and thirst signals, and possibly my tendency to dump salt in my sweat.
So, on Saturday, these conspired to create a situation in which I rocked up to the gym for a doubles coaching session on the apparatus we’ve nicknamed “the rodeo lyra” (bc that mofo will throw you like a bronc if you don’t pay attention) already feeling spacey and fatigued and missed the first mount with the apparatus hung so low I could’ve just forward-folded onto it, lmao (in point of fact, the mount we’re using is harder on a lower apparatus, but not so much harder that I, who literally never miss a mount, would have just completely failed at it if things weren’t decidedly pear-shaped from the word go).
It’s pretty hilarious in retrospect, of course, but at the time scared the hell out of D, who’s my partner in this piece. He’s well aware that I never miss mounts, and because the mount in question results in us facing away from each-other upside-down, he couldn’t see me. His own nervous system decided that the only possible explanation for the fact that my weight wasn’t balancing his was that I had either fallen and broken my neck or was strangling in the span-sets above the hoop o_O””’
I decided (with a little help from ABM, our kind and intrepid coach) to reschedule and go home to take care of whatever the heck was going on with my body (in case you’re wondering, it was what they call “chronic hyponatremia”—the kind you get when your electrolyte levels drop below a certain point over the course of a few days).
Anyway, while I was apologizing to everyone and trying to be okay with that decision, ABM said to me, “You know what we’re calling that now? We’re saying, ‘You Simoned it.'”
As in, you made the right call—you saw that storm coming and put your instrument away.
And I hecking love that.
PS: I got a bunch of rest, sucked down a bunch of noodles with salty broth (and spinach and chicken), and felt like myself again on Sunday. I opted out of morning modern and ballet classes bc I wasn’t sure my electrolyte levels were up to that kind of sweating yet, but was able to get through a slowish-paced lyra class and a rehearsal session on the rodeo lyra.
That’s why you Simone it: because sometimes the best way to get up and kill it tomorrow is to lie the hecking heck down and drink salty, salty broth today.
PPS: I’m working on addressing the dietary imbalances that led to this situation, so hopefully it won’t happen again any time soon. Basically, the past two weeks were unreasonably hot, and there were several days that I forgot to add electrolyte powder to my water but still sweated buckets of salty, salty sweat.
Saturday morning, I had an outdoor performance gig, and although the heat wasn’t as intense as it’s been, I still sweated like a firehose, as I do, and apparently that was the last straw, bc I was a glassy-eyed zombie by 1 PM when our coaching session was scheduled.
One of the joys of hyponatremia will be familiar to endurance athletes who’ve faced the dreaded “Bonk:” your body just … refuses. In the case of the classic Bonk, it’s typically attributed to the depletion of glycogen stores without sufficient carbohydrate replacement, but depletion of electrolytes yields the same basic result (as opposed to extreme over-hydration, which can lead to rapid swelling of the brain, coma, and death before you quite grasp what’s going on o_o).
It’s like someone cranks the power to your muscles way, way down. That’s how I missed my mount. My brain sent the signals to execute the movement, and my body just kind of didn’t.
It tried, bless its heart, because my body is (as I’m learning to understand) a miraculous beast like one of those fantastic, sweet, patient draught horses who will try with everything in themselves to do whatever you ask of them and will almost always succeed. My friend and teacher Killer B recently summed this up by enthusiastically replying, “… Which can do everything!” when I said, “It’s so good to take class with someone who understands my body.”
But in this case, while the conscious motor controls were sending out the plan for “pullover mount to straddle balance,” the unconscious ones were trying to take care of the body by down-regulating the wattage so I wouldn’t waste any more electrolytes doing athletic stuff and possibly die, and/or there just wasn’t enough sodium left for electrical signaling to be that efficient.
Either way, the immediate result was muscles that wouldn’t fire with enough power to bring me over the bar from a standing position. Instead, I got a powerful lesson in really listening to my body.
This isn’t hyperbole, btw. There is no muscling through that specific experience. You can try all you like, but you’re really no longer the one in primary control of the ship. Until you experience that sensation (and I suspect that in our sodium-enriched and largely sedentary culture, most never will), it’s very difficult—maybe even impossible—to imagine.
Fwiw, as an experience, I don’t recommend it. Like, 2/10, and it only gets the 2 bc hecking heck, does it ever teach you some things. But they’re things you can learn without taking all the way to that extreme, and it’s No Fun At All, as the delightfully hedonistuc elves used to say as they died in whatever magical-realm civ-building game of yore that was.
GIF credits: all via Tenor via WP.
If you are a dancer, or you have a partner or friend or loved one who is, you already know: we dancers are incredibly critical of our work.
So to watch a video in which I’m dancing and think, before I’ve thought anything else, “That was good!” is a big deal.
Anyway, today I finished a week-long summer intensive session in which I (GASP!) actually talked to people I don’t know and, like, made some friends ❤ This was a really lovely group of dancers, and I would happily dance with any of them again any time.
We learned and performed (via livestream and for a small audience outside the big window of our studio) a brand-new piece choreographed by Ashley Thursby-Kern and Theresa Bautista, and when I watched it, I found myself thinking, “That was good!”
Not just their choreography, or the performance of my fellow dancers–but for once I was able to look at myself and think that.
It wasn’t perfect, of course, but ballet never is. And I think that we did rather a fine job learning and polishing it in the span of five days.
Anyway, for the moment, you can catch it here, with an introduction by Ashley, who is a thoroughly lovely human being:
I’m trying hard not to list the shortcomings I do see in my own performance here. It’s enough to know what I could have done better and will do better next time. It’s enough to look at myself dancing and say, for once, “That was good.”
You know those soundbytes that your brain makes from experiences in your own life and then plays back every time you hear some kind of trigger word or phrase?
“Something’s happening!!!” is one of mine. My friend Mal, who is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known, once shouted this during a particularly complicated group acro thing, and it so beautifully summed up the moment: like, “Something is happening! Is it the right thing? WHO CARES!!! IT’S A RESULT!!! YEAHHHHHHHHH!!!”
If I remember correctly, what was happening was, in fact, the thing we were trying for, so that’s also awesome, but the best part was just the sheer excitement that ANYTHING was happening ^-^
Anyway, it was just one of those really great moments.
As is this.
Yes, COVID-19 is still a thing. We’re still dancing in masks in most circumstances and so forth. People are still getting sick and dying, and I don’t want to make light of that.
But, at the same time, the world of the performing arts and of the movement arts is slowly, cautiously resuming operations.
This week, I’m taking the Louisville Ballet School’s second-annual Adult Summer Intensive. Thus far, it’s been flat-out amazing. I’ve hella missed starting my day with class in a room full of dancers, then spending the whole day at work in the studio. It’s so good to be doing it now, and it’s a great group this year–14 of us doing the full-day program, plus an additional handful doing the half-day version.
Next week, on the 11th, I’m teaching a workshop for aerialists (and other movement-based performers who might not have a strong dance background) specifically on What To Do With Your Hands. Honestly, given my history as a Ballet Squid, I’m both deeply moved that people actually asked me to teach that specific topic and also deeply amused. Honestly, though, the fact that hands have historically been a biiiiiit of a problem for me is one of the reasons I actually feel qualified to teach this.
I am not, for example, all that well well placed to teach flexibility, because my entire approach would be, “IDK LOL MY BODY JUST DOES THAT *shrug*”
But since I’ve actually had to work at making my hands not do stupid and ridiculous things ALL THE TIME, I think I can actually offer some useful insights–like, “your hands will be more graceful if you think of them as extensions of your arms,” for example.
On the 13th, our preview production of Leigh Purtill Ballet Company’s CIRCUS OF WORLDLY WONDERS goes live (or semi-live). The show will have both pre-recorded and live segments, and there will also be a raffle and other cool fundraising stuff.
On the 17th, it’s PLAYTHINK TIME!!! I’ll be teaching my usual workshop, Move And Be Moved, at 6:30 PM on Thursday and performing an original piece with my friend Emma in the main-stage Flowcase, which begins at 8:30 PM on Friday.
Emma has, by the way, been a fabulous partner. She came into this with no real partnering experience, but has been incredibly game about trying everything. We also take regular breaks to act like a couple of five-year olds, which is super important to the partnering relationship IMO.
In July and possibly August, I’ll be teaching at Summer Intensives, and beginning rehearsals for LPBC’s next show, Sweet Sorrow: A Zombie Ballet, in which I get to be a werewolf (AWOOOOOOOOOO!!!).
I also have a bunch of short gigs with Turners’ Smile Parade, which is an awesome sort of pop-up circusette that visits nursing homes, schools, birthday parties, and so forth, and I’m hecking excited about those, because frankly they’re SUPER fun ❤
I may or may not find a way to jam another SI into my summer, though who knows? Right now, I’m feeling pretty booked, and like perhaps I shouldn’t add anything because I need to leave room to, like, actually breathe and relax and put my feet up before I dive into what is somehow the THIRD YEAR of my ballet-teaching career and the … fourth? year of my ballet career.
Tonight, though, I’ll be sliding into the bathtub for a little R&R before I crawl into bed. My body feels great (if a bit tired) right now, but 6ish hours of dancing, followed by an hour pushing the lawn mower around, can take a toll, and a bath will help put things right.
We’ve still got a long way to go before we can say the Pandemic is really under control, but little by little life is finding a way. I’ll be adding things to my calendar soon (possibly tomorrow, though it’s our anniversary, so who knows?).
- Ahhhhh … 90s Kid references.
So, anyway, I’m doing some things—some live-in-person, some virtual.
One of those things is this great little ballet that Leigh Purtill of Leigh Purtill Ballet Company is creating on a group of dancers spanning the North American continent, “Circus of Worldly Wonders.”
Since my own career spans the continents of ballet and circus, I’m all in for a circus-themed ballet … And so I created this little video exploring a bit of the entwined histories of circus and ballet:
I hope you’ll enjoy viewing it as much as I enjoyed making it! 💖
(Full Disclosure: I still haven’t seen Hamilton. I know. I suck.)
… Because I can’t, because it’s already in my arm.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations has been interesting. Connecticut, where my parents live, has it ticking over like clockwork. Indiana (the state next door) is doing … something? Idk. It seems more chaotic than what we’re doing.
And here, in Kentucky, we seem to be figuring it out bit by bit.
A decision was made recently to open up vaccinations for teachers & volunteers who work with K-12 students, which is how I wound up getting called up for a shot. At least, I assume that’s why they sent me an email saying, “Ayyyyyyyyy! Come get your shot!”
I mean, not in those exact words.
The actual process of setting up an appointment was pretty simple—really, the hardest part was figuring out where in my wallet I’d stashed my insurance card.
As for the process of actually getting the vaccine, it was smooth & efficient. They’re using Broadbent Arena, part of our Fairgrounds & Expo Center. You drive in and drive right through (pausing at appropriate points) and never even get out of your car (there are other options for people who don’t drive or who don’t have have access to cars, also).
Because it was A New Situation, my brain was a little spooked about it, but the protocols were extremely clear (except for the unexpected sign near the entrance to the fairgrounds that read COVID TESTING USE GATE 1 ONLY and didn’t mention vaccinations at all—but since my email told me which gate to use, I kept breathing and proceeded as planned).
This is really helpful for neurodiverse people. If we know what the procedure is, it’s much less difficult to go do the thing. I appreciated that—and the fact that, in the course of two days, I got like five emails about my appointment so I would be able to find the confirmation code no matter what). Normally, that might seem a bit excessive, but in this case it was helpful and comforting.
I got the Pfizer vaccine, which is the same one D got. It’s a good week for it—we don’t have men’s technique class on Saturday, if I wind up feeling meh and staying home I’ll just miss normal class.
Because my wildly overreactive respiratory system places me at pretty high risk of being seriously ill if I did catch COVID-19, knowing that my first vaccination is behind me and the second is scheduled is a major relief. Obviously I’m not going to go turn cartwheels in Walmart without a mask, but with things like summer intensives and workshops on the way, it’s good to have that pinned down.
In ballet news, I’ve been taking a good, extremely detail-oriented Zoom class with Devi Piper on Wednesdays. The opportunity to really pick my technique apart and refine key elements is immensely valuable.
Today she gave us a killer plié that I’ll be using on the regs when I’m warming up to work on choreography or whatever.
A lot of really cool stuff has been happening in my life as a dancer of late—stuff that makes me feel awed at the way people reach out to guide developing dancers as we progress and grateful beyond measure for it.
In a week, I’ll be seven years into my resurrected ballet life. When I launched myself on this journey, I definitely carried a sliver of hope that maybe I’d find a way to make a life of of it, but it was so precious and fragile a hope that I rarely dared even to think about it.
Every single day, I’m staggered by this sense of immense privilege (not in the political sense, though there’s that, too—as a male ballet dancer, that’s a huge thing). To have somehow built a life in which I’m valued as a dancer and as a teacher and, increasingly, as a choreographer is something that, in all honesty, I couldn’t have imagined seven years ago.
The hope I had was that I might find a place to fit as a corps boy for a while. I was perfectly fine with the idea of just being a semi-anonymous body of it meant I got to really dance.
I seem to have found, instead, a place where I fit as someone who actually gets to do complex, visible roles. I’m probably never going to find myself in one of the big, world-famous companies, or even one of the ones that are more broadly known on a national scale, but that’s fine. I don’t care about things like that. I still just want to dance (and to make dances, and to teach dancers).
The biggest change, though, isn’t feeling that others value me as a dancer, as a teacher, and as a choreographer. It that I’m beginning to feel worthy of that esteem. That I’m beginning to value myself as a dancer, a teacher, and a choreographer—and, really, as an artist.
I owe a good part of that to the people who’ve gone out of their way to coach me; to suggest that I come take class; to draw me out of my own sense of inadequacy. To show me my strengths.
I also owe some of it to my students, who show up and focus and work hard even when I give them the world’s hardest rond de jambe every week for six months.
- I mean—it’s not the hardest, hardest. In terms of technique, it’s really pretty basic—but the musicality is tricky and central to the exercise, and requires them to listen to the music and dance instead of just being like, “Yawn, barre work is boring.” Which is kind of the point.
I owe yet another part of it to the friends who jump right in whenever I say, “Erm, ah, ssssssoooo, ahhhh, would you like to work on a choreography project I’ve been thinking about?” Or, at any rate, try to jump right in, given how challenging it can be there schedule things even when there’s not a global pandemic 😅
But some small part of it I owe to myself. I came to the ballet studio and found the place where I simply know how to work. And then I started doing the work, and I started looking for opportunities and taking calculated risks. And when the chance came to dance full-time, I took that leap, even though it was honestly pretty scary.
And even though I wasn’t sure I was someone who would ever be good at sticking with anything that didn’t have a finite term, i stuck with it—though honestly that’s really a bit like saying like saying, “The water decided to continue flowing downhill.” It’s honestly the path of least resistance. Quitting would be harder than continuing.
I don’t know where life will take me (I mean: really, nobody does). But I’m no longer afraid that I’ll never find anything that feels like a suitable path.
The periods of mindfulness, of being present in the present, afforded by the work I do—most specifically, taking class and creating choreography—have also been healing in ways I never expected.
I literally never imagined that my brain would ever be as, well, relatively stable as it is now, for one thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying ballet is The Cure, or even The Treatment, for unstable moods for everyone who experiences them. But, for me, it’s a huge piece of the puzzle.
Likewise, dancing has forced me to engage with both my present and my past more deeply than I ever imagined being able to do. My first Pilobolus SI stands as a watershed: something about that experience broke the seal I’d placed over deep, deep wells of feeling—both beautiful and painful.
There are still plenty of things in my past I’ve never directly dewalt with by the conventional means of talking about them—but somehow, when I dance, sometimes I dance about them without realizing that it’s happening.
Only later do I find that somehow, in the midst of wrestling with choreography, some old and festering wound has been cracked open and washed clean so healing can begin. It doesn’t mean the healing is complete, but it means that healing I long thought impossible has begun.
Anyway. Speaking of long, this is getting really long, and it’s the middle of the night, and Merkah would greatly appreciate it if I’d go to sleep. So I guess I’ll close here.
I don’t know how to end this except to add:
If you’re reading this, I’m also grateful to you.
Often, part of growing into a thing is talking about it. For some reason, I find that easier to do here than in a private journal (largely because I’m terrible at actually keeping up with a private journal, since it doesn’t occur to me to put things into words unless I’m talking/writing to someone else).
So you, too, have been essential in this journey.
So: thank you. And I’ll try to include some pictures in the next post 😁
Author’s Note: I apologize for my lack of proper diacriticals in this post. I’m writing it on my PC, and while I know how to use HTML entities to make them happen, I’m tired and apparently can’t be arsed ^-^’
I.The Secret To Brisee’-Vole’
Back when I was working on the Cavalier variation, I think I mentioned that I hadn’t even really been able to reliably do brisee’-vole’ a year ago. Not that I did it well when I actually performed the variation in question. I most assuredly did not. But I at least knew how to do it, and was able to do it most of the time. Just not, apparently, when it really counts, and will be recorded and slathered all over the innertubes. Le sigh.
Anyway! At this point, I’ve pretty much nailed it down, though of course it still needs polishing, because this is ballet. You never get to stop polishing things. Everything can always be better.
But the process of nailing down brisee’-vole’ reminded me, yet again, of a Truth About Ballet that I rediscover on the regs.
The truth in question, as it relates to brisee’-vole’, goes like this:
The secret to brisee’-vole’ is … there isn’t one. You just do brisee’, both back and front, until you (almost) can’t get it wrong. Then you learn to link them (which is what turns “brisee’-devant, reorganize the feet, brisee’-derriere, reorganize the feet,” into brisee’-vole’). Then you do brisee’-vole’ until you (almost) can’t get it wrong.
II. How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?
As a physical process, learning ballet involves both the accumulation of masses of experience and breakthroughs that sometimes seem to come out of nowhere and sometimes seem to be the direct result of all that massed experience.
- I’m not using the phrase “massed practice” here because it’s used in two different ways that conflict with each-other. As I learned it, it basically means “cramming”–doing a whole lot of practice all at once, which isn’t a very effective strategy for long-term learning. It can also be used to mean frequent repetition of a skill, accumulated over time, which does work reliably (and is typical of how kids learn things–they learn a new thing and they do it a billion times just for fun, because they can). That’s what I’m talking about here.
One of the challenges that a lot of adult students run into is insufficient opportunity for practice. Either it’s hard to find enough classes, or the classes in question aren’t systematic in a way that allows the accumulation of experience in complex steps, or they have access to systemic classes part of the time, but not often enough to overcome relatively-limited studio time.
- Pre-pro students get hours and hours in the studio–as many as 20/week. It can be much more difficult for adult students to build similar practice schedules. Part of my success as a dancer who wandered away and then returned was a question of sheer volume. I had access to high-quality training at high volume because my schedule allowed me to take both morning and evening classes.
That’s a shame, because one of the things that makes ballet so engaging as a career path, for me, is that you never stop learning new things. There are so many steps that, no matter how long you’ve been dancing, there’s a reasonable chance that there’s something out there that you haven’t tried–and it’s certain that there’s something you haven’t perfected (those ever-receding goalposts again).
The difference for professionals is that daily class, studio access, mentoring by fellow dancers, and coaching all provide ample opportunities to learn and improve new steps. (They also provide the all-important input of eyes other than one’s own. Our bodies are notoriously bad at accurately reporting how they’re doing new ballet steps, so it really helps to have someone who can say, “Dude, your right shoulder needs to come with you,” as my men’s class teacher told me today.)
Success breeds success, so while inevitably one’s first attempts at any new step (or any new approach to an “old” step) are likely to be awkward and frustrating (How? HOW DO I KEEP DOING SWITCH LEAPS ON THE WRONG LEG???), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.
- The answer, of course, is that I’m miscounting running steps, as I often do. Once my body gets used to the coordination required for switch leaps, it’ll figure out how to count running steps.
You can bash through those awful early attempts because you know that, sooner or later, you’re going to figure it out.
III. Okay, Yeah, But … So What?
I write this in part because I’m stoked that brisee’-vole’ has begun to really come together for me (OMG! A petit allegro step I don’t hate! ^-^), and that it’s somehow really sparked this sense that my technique can improve by dedicated practice and not just, like, by chance.
I write it also because it’s a thing I think I should keep in mind both as a teacher and as a dancer.
I have friends who have felt stuck on specific steps for years (reverse’ is probably the most frequent culprit). It occurs to me now that they’re probably stuck simply because they haven’t had opportunity to practice those steps until their motor planning systems (and other neurological systems important to learning movement) and bodies can figure them out.
This knowledge can inform the way I develop teaching plans, particularly for adult students who might not have as much opportunity to amass experience (what with having jobs and families at so forth).
It can also inform the way I approach helping friends with steps they find challenging that I don’t (spoiler alert: I might be able to help you with your double tour, but not because my body has decided that it’s just part of my everyday life–in that case, it’s more that I’m good at spotting it when other people do the same wrong things that I do ^-^’).
It also informs something that’s shifted in the way I think about dancers practicing on their own.
In the past year, we’ve all spent a lot of time practicing on our own. And you know what? Pretty much everyone I know has found a way to make it work.
I used to be one of those people who was deeply ambivalent about the idea. It’s pretty easy to wind up ingraining bad habits when you don’t yet have a lot of experience, and some steps can be a bit on the dangerous side (especially in small spaces crammed with furniture -.-). I had been raised with the idea that YOU DON’T PRACTICE ON YOUR OWN, PERIOD.
And while I thought I was following that rule, I really wasn’t. I used ballet-based movement patterns constantly on–ice skates and rollerskates; when making up choreography with my sister (we like to improv to the Andre’ Previn/LSO recording of Holst’s The Planets, because obviously we were totally normal kids in every day); on the playground; in the gymnastics studio; when fidgeting in line; when doing any number of other things.
I’m sure that I strengthened some bad habits along the way, but I also strengthened good habits. I figured out how to balance my body (which can be unwieldy, thanks to an unusual combination of naturally muscular physique and extreme flexibility).
And you know what? Nobody died. Nobody even got hurt (like many dancers, I mostly seem to injure myself doing anything other than dancing). In fac,t I seem to have not only survived, but gone on to a career as a professional dancer and as a ballet teacher.
So, in short, maybe there’s something to be said for solo practice. And I know we’ve all been doing turns in our kitchens since forever, anyway, so we might as well practice other stuff, too.
And you know what? It’s probably not even the end of the world if you decide to try some steps that might be a bit out of your reach, or even a lot out of your reach.
Kids do it all the time, and it turns out okay. Sure, in some cases, adults might be a bit more breakable, but as long as you’re cognizant of your own physical limits, why not?
We learn ballet like we learn anything else: successive approximations of the goal state. It turns out that sometimes the best way to learn to do a step well is just to start doing it badly. As beginners, we know messing up is part of the deal. It’s too easy to lose sight of that idea.
Anyway. Here’s where I stand, at this point, on the question of solo practice, even for “beginner-beginners:”
Go ahead and do the thing. If you’re just starting to learn a thing and you’re doing it badly, great! You have to start somewhere.
As long as you know that you’re doing it badly (okay–and can video yourself or get another dancer to watch you from time to time or whatever so you can begin to see why you’re doing it badly) you’re already on your way to doing it well.
I’ve been taking a Saturday class that’s usually taught by one of two very effective teachers. It’s one of the classes for advanced students at a school that offers a pre-professional ballet track and a competitive dance track, and includes students from both tracks.
Today, our regular teacher was out sick, and the teacher who would usually cover her had a different class to run, so one of the senior students ran class for us.
The end result was quite unlike the traditional 30/30/30 ballet class I’m used to–we warmed up, then did a couple of across-the-floor exercises, and then we did jumps and turns that were largely definitely not classical, but were, in fact, a lot of fun.
Having fumbled my way into a professional career, typically I approach this Saturday class with a commitment to setting a good example both in terms of classical technique and in terms of classroom deportment. Like, in short, Serious Ballet Is Serious.
Today was different. We did jumps and turns I’ve literally never done in my life. Early on, I realized I had a choice:
- I could be vaguely annoyed that I came for a classical ballet class and was getting something else entirely.
- I could go with the flow and enjoy the class I got.
Being vaguely annoyed wasn’t going to help, so I chose option 2 … and I’m glad I did. It gave me a chance to set aside the mantle of “professional dancer” and just be a student trying new stuff and seeing how it worked.
And you know what? It was really good to be just a student (okay–a student with a killer grand battement) trying new stuff.
Because the steps we were doing often weren’t from the vocabulary of classical ballet, I didn’t waste time thinking about how to do them within the classical framework in order to try to jump-start correct execution. Instead, I just did them … including jazz turns, which are not my greatest strength, since my body typically balks at the idea of turning in parallel.
Sometimes I did the new steps well. Sometimes I did them laughably badly. Often my actual execution fell somewhere in the middle. But the whole time, I was having a blast.
In short, it was really nice to be doing something I didn’t have to be good at.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s also nice to be good at things … but the pursuit of being good at things–that is, at gaining skill–can be stressful.
As an artist, there’s a real (and necessary) pressure to pursue perfection in your medium, even knowing that perfection is literally impossible to achieve. You work to honor your medium–your artform–and to develop your skill to its maximum potential.
Sometimes, that pursuit is like a meditation–our ego gets out of the way and we just do the work, correcting what needs correcting without getting hung up in judgment and attachment to outcomes.
But a lot of the time, because we’re all human, we frown and berate ourselves as we still do that turn in second wrong and as we still pull back instead of up on the pirouette en dehors and as our footwork is still too slow in the petit allegro. And then we think our legs were great in the grand allegro, but we don’t even want to think about what our hands were doing the whole time.
When we’re doing steps from a different dance idiom, it’s a lot easier to let go of all that stuff. We know we don’t know how to do it! We don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like! We can be forgiven if something doesn’t work the first time, or if our hands are doing that weird duckface thing, or if we land on the wrong leg because our bodies are convinced that this step really, really is just a weird saut de basque.
And when we’re not worried about all that stuff, suddenly it’s a lot easier to have fun.
So it can be really fun, sometimes, to step outside your primary medium. When you know that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier just to let go and do (hey, there’s that Beginner’s Mind thing again … hmmm).
When you try something new and different, sometimes you find you can let your hair down (metaphorically, anyway … in terms of pure practicality, when you’re dancing, it’s probably still a good idea to keep it pulled up out of your eyes so you don’t crash into the piano).
I never quite figured out one of the jumps today (I have no idea what it’s called–I should’ve asked). My body kept trying to do the saut de basque from Ali’s variation in Le Corsaire instead of … whatever the jump was actually supposed to be. I kept landing facing the wrong way and with the wrong leg in front.
And you know what? That was okay.
Nobody died! I had fun, and I found a degree of release and freedom that I haven’t felt in a while.
And because of that sense of release and freedom, there were other things I did better than I usually do them–things that you would encounter in a strictly-classical class.
There were also things I did as, erm, less-than-perfectly as I usually do, but in which I was able to figure out some of the factors that are hampering my technique. I was relaxed enough to just kind of feel my own body, without feeling the pressure to analyze my technique and try to do things well that I don’t actually know how to do well.
So this is something that, both as a dancer and as a teacher, I really need to take with me.
It’s important to hone technique and work hard. As a dancer, as an artist, that’s part of how you make progress. Sound technique gives you the tools for musicality; for expression.
But, as much as I tend to lose sight of the fact, it’s also important to relax and have fun … and sometimes, when you relax and have fun, you might even learn things that you wouldn’t otherwise learn.
Ultimately, I guess it’s a question of balance.
It’s easy to get so focused on honing your Srs Ballet Skillz that you don’t get a chance to just enjoy dancing (especially when you’re stuck dancing in your tiny basement most of the time for going on a year). But, ultimately, we dance because we love dancing.
For amateur dancers, love is the only motivation that makes sense. There are much easier and more efficient ways to get exercise, and a lot of them are much less expensive, too. There are artforms in which it’s much, much easier to find opportunities to grow and perform as an amateur artist.
Ultimately, it’s pretty much the same for professionals: you have to love dancing. Working in dance is just too freaking hard if you don’t love it more than anything else; if it’s not, in a sense, the only thing you can do.
Either way, you dance because, deep within you, something is called to dance. You dance because you need to dance; because dancing is in your blood and your bones. Because dancing is your blood and your bones.
You dance because your soul sings in movement.
Today’s class reminded me that sometimes, it’s good to just let your soul sing. And also that sometimes, while your soul is just singing to sing, you learn anyway.
I don’t repost very often (mostly because it doesn’t usually occur to me that my puny little voice might amplify anyone else’s), but every now and then I read a post that resonates very powerfully and directly, and I remember that “repost” button is there.
Bill Waldinger is a remarkable artist and a remarkable teacher—but his path to that life was rockier than it could have been. In his post, “Children Will Listen,” he reminds us that even things we overhear can leave deep and lasting impressions.
We can’t be perfect, but we can work to be kinder and more compassionate. What impressions are we leaving? What impressions do we hope to leave?
I have written many articles which include bits of my personal history in dance; my very late start at 25 years of age and a family structure that did not encourage or support a career in the arts. I have previously recounted an incident that occurred during an argument with my mother, when she said: “But you never asked for dance lessons”. And she was right. I never did. And at the time that I wrote that article, I said that the reason why I never asked for dance lessons was because I felt that hearing “No” would have been too painful. And that is true.
But there was another reason.
Our memories and our minds work in mysterious ways, and recently a memory came flooding back with a vengeance.
My sister, who is four years my junior WAS, as a small child, given dance classes. On a few occasions…
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Gentle Readers, a picture from today:
It’s a screenshot of a screenshot bc I’m too lazy at the moment to go get my phone and upload the original screenshot.
Anyway. I snagged this from a video I recorded of a class I took this afternoon.
There were a few nice moments in that video, as well as some that would’ve been nice if I wasn’t doing one or more small, incorrect things.
To my eye, this pic falls in the latter category. Or, well … Maybe it would be more fair to say that it falls in the grey area between the two categories?
So I posted it to Insta because I think it’s kind of funny—I’m clearly committed to this exercise that I’m doing, but also clearly (to my own eye) trying not to crash into the furniture (big mover + small space = potential disaster).
It turns out that maybe not everyone sees this shot the same way I do.
Here’s what I see immediately:
- Not quite on my leg (if you draw a plumb line from my hip socket, in fact, I’m quite a bit behind the ball of my foot)
- Back arm too high
- That stupid thumb again
- Neck retracted
- Supporting leg could be a bit more turned out
- My back leg might not be straight back? (The lighting makes it hard to tell. Rationally, I think it might actually be placed correctly, but my brain keeps quibbling about it anyway.)
- Same quibble about whether my hips are square (with the same caveat)
- At least my back is lifted and my leg is straight, high, and turned out?
What several other people see immediately:
- A nice arabesque.
So … As a dancer, you do have to learn to critique your own technique. If you want to master ballet vocabulary, it’s necessary.
But I think sometimes we get so caught up in criticism that we need to be shaken out of it.
Yes, it’s important to see what we’re doing wrong. But it’s just as important to see what we’re doing right.
Ballet attracts … okay, all kinds of people, really. It retains people who have an taste for focusing on details and working like crazy to overcome faults. It retains people who aren’t too proud of themselves—and maybe, too often, people who aren’t proud enough of themselves.
No, this arabesque isn’t perfect. But there’s a lot there to be proud of (not in the “I’m better than you” sense—just in the quiet way one feels when one works hard and improves on things).
A lot of work goes into getting that back leg high without compromising the placement of the hip. Same for keeping the back that high, working the gensture leg against its opposite shoulder to make a strong, turned-out position.
Yesterday, after a class in which I (still working off my two-week-long sinus-infection nap) felt hella weak, a teacher who I respect quite a lot told me she can tell I’m a very well-trained dancer.
That meant a great deal to me, as I still tend to think of myself almost entirely in terms of my faults. But I have, in fact, come a long way, even in the past year, while dancing under some very unusual conditions.
Sometimes we meet people who only see their own strengths, and it’s easy to regard them as delusional (I mean, not that we’re not all at least a little delusional! But That’s Another Post™). Like, seriously, everyone’s got faults.
But it’s just as delusional to see only faults.
We have to learn to walk in the middle and see both.
By which I mean, really, that I have to.
So I’m going to work on that.
Like: yeah, there’s some faults there, totally. That’s fine. I’m human.
But also, seriously? That is a nice arabesque.
I think I was 20 or so when I first thought to myself, “The first step in growing up is realizing that you’re still a kid” or something like that.
Even at the time, that seemed very obviously like a Step Zero kind of idea: like, not even Step One in the actual program of working on the thing, but the step that makes you realize there’s a thing to maybe work on in the first place.
- … Though, in fact, I’m not at all enamoured with the idea of growing up for its own sake, and never have been. More on that later, ! maybe?
At the time I was still rather blindly invested in the idea of myself as being mature-beyond-my-years. That was a problem because, in fact, I wasn’t so much preternaturally mature as developmentally delayed in a way that completely hoses up the cultural signals of maturity.
Like: it’s hard to get in trouble by doing stupid things with your friends when you don’t have any friends. Not getting in trouble can make it seem like you’re making good choices, when in fact you just haven’t had to make those choices in the first place.
It’s easy to follow the rules when you’re developmentally still at a stage in which you actually really like rules. This can make it seem like you’re a mature and prudent individual with clear foresight when, once again, you might not actually be equipped to make prudent decisions or be at all good at figuring out how your immediate actions might impact your long-term outcomes.
It’s easy to sound like an old soul when you basically learned how humans talk by reading books written by people who died a hundred years ago (and let’s not forget the social weirdness of growing up in the ur-nerdy, monomaniacal worlds of ballet and classical music, in which children tend to behave almost as if they come from another time, because the culture of the artform selects for a kind of old-world obedience). None of those things mean you have any idea how to have adult relationships.
When an actual 8- or 10-year old comes across that way, we assume that—appearances notwithstanding—they’re still not yet in a place, developmentally, that qualifies them to march forth into the adult world and, like, provide for themselves, navigate complex adult relationships, and … all that stuff.
When someone who’s 18 or 20 comes across that way, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Things Aren’t Always As They Appear. Instead, we congratulate them for their apparent maturity and are then flabbergasted when they make a disastrous hash of actually Adulting.
This can be just as true when the person in question is yourself. It can be hard to see our own deficiencies. We are, by nature, standing too close, so to speak.
Which brings me to The Obvious, Not-Obvious Thing.
I have spent a huge chunk of my life trying to prove that I could Live A Normal Life Despite My Differences/Disabilities, without understanding that simply acting as if they didn’t exist was, perhaps, not the best strategy. (Okay, full disclosure: I still do this on the regs. Long-established habits take time to change.)
As a result, I’ve basically lived a life in which I’m constantly angry at myself for the mentaphorical equivalent of failing to make it up the stairs in a wheelchair when there’s a ramp RIGHT HECKING THERE, for G-d’s sake. Or, at least, there’s an easy enough way to add one.
- Caveat: there are, of course, still many, many situations in which there is neither a literal nor a metaphorical ramp. The fact that the culture at large behaves as if people with disabilities are failures in those situations is another post entirely, and one that lots of people have written better than I might. Likewise, deciding to climb the stairs in your wheelchair because you actually want to is a totally valid pursuit.
Anyway, lately (and belatedly, given that anyone who’s spent more than two minutes around Buddhism should hecking well know better, but there I go becoming attached to a concept again—specifically one about how I should or shouldn’t learn, which seems hilariously apropos), it has begun to occur to me to forgive myself, as it were, for being what I am.
Like … I might be able, with immense effort, to change some of these things to some extent—but why do that when there are other ways to reach the same goals? And why be mad at myself when I struggle? It’s not like being mad actually helps (in this circumstance).
In other words, it has begun to occur to me that instead of continuing to ram my metaphorical wheelchair into the stairs and be angry at myself for failing to climb, I can accept the metaphorical wheelchair situation and, like, add metaphorical ramps instead. (This seems relevant to this year’s intention, “Ask for help.”)
It has begun to occur to me that instead of fighting to change some of the limitations (for lack of a better word) that my brain imposes, I can accept that they’re there and figure out how to work with them—to harness them where it’s possible and to accommodate them where it’s not.
I guess I used to assume (albeit unconsciously) that I would “grow out of” things—that one day I’d learn how to do things the “normal” way (which is difficult enough for “normal” people, come to think of it) and … that would be that, I guess?
It’s not an unreasonable hypothesis—after all, at one point, I didn’t know how to tie my shoes, and then I figured it out and now it’s automatic.
It is, however, an incomplete hypothesis, or maybe a complete one that I’ve overgeneralized. (Teaching has been helpful, I think: it’s made the idea of different people having different strengths and weaknesses real to me in a way that it wasn’t before.)
In the past, for example, whenever I figured out a way to actually get myself to sleep in an almost-normal pattern, I I would simultaneously feel pleased with myself (This is it! I’m finally doing it!) and incredibly anxious (But what if something happens and I can’t sustain it?). I would cling white-knuckled to the System I’d devised. Then I’d be terribly disappointed when, inevitably, something interrupted the System and my brain happily reverted to its night-owl default because, yooooo, chronotypes are a thing.
I felt this way despite understanding that last point (chronotypes are a thing, though they tend to wander a bit over the course of our lives and we can force ourselves, with effort and routine, to live contrarily to them).
It takes several weeks to condition myself to sleep on a different cycle than the one my brain wants, but only about two nights off-pattern to reset back to square one. This is frustrating, obviously—but it doesn’t have to feel like a disaster.
I can remind myself that stressing out about it only makes things harder, and that while more than a few nights in a row of sleep deprivation can have dangerous consequences for my mental health, I now know how to combine a handful of tools (strict sleep hygiene, medication, and sheer physical exhaustion) to make myself sleep. Ideally, I should actually apply them before sleep-deprivation-induced mania takes hold, but even if it reaches that point, I now have the safety nets in place to prevent actual disaster.
In short, I’ve learned to tell myself, “It’s going to be okay” and believe it.
And though I’ve been reading and hearing about it for years, only recently did I develop the ability to apply a measure of radical acceptance. Like, how hard can it be to say, “Ah! I’ve managed to get to sleep by 1 AM and wake up by 9 AM for three days running. That’s convenient,” without feeling like THIS IS IT! I’M FINALLY DOING IT! or freaking out when, inevitably, I don’t get to sleep until 4 AM at some point?
Really hard, apparently.
But I’m learning to both say and feel, “It was handy to be awake by 9 AM and well-rested for a few days, but it’s no big deal that it didn’t work out today.” (Admittedly, it would be harder to do that if the company weren’t on hiatus. But we are, so I might as well work on developing this skill while sleep-scheduling demands are still on easy mode.)
I can also be fine with understanding, for example, that I’m not good at the kind of abstract planning that Adulting requires, or at managing money (or literally anything else) unless I keep things very simple, or at making phone calls (I joke about this all the time, but I also spend a lot of time being annoyed with myself about it). And being fine with understanding those things could help a lot.
Like, it turns out that when you stop being mad at yourself, it actually really is easier to start looking for ways to approach problems and get stuff done, just like everybody has been saying since forever.
So, basically, my current hypothesis is this:
Why not accept that what I am and where I am right now and begin working on building ramps so I can live without constantly feeling like I’m fighting an uphill battle?
I’ve also only just kind of realized that “accepting what I am right now” is different than “clinging to an idea of What I Am.” The first option leaves room for change and, frankly, for just being wrong. I might not actually understand all that well “what I am right now,” but if I accept that I can try different strategies until I find one that works, then it doesn’t really matter that much anyway.
If I can fail without getting angry at myself—that is, without judging myself—it’s not actually that hard to try again, or try something else, or to allow myself to rest before trying something else, or, you know, whatever.
And maybe I can even learn that it’s okay to fail. We can’t all be great at everything, and the world would be boring (and I wouldn’t have a job as a dancer, probably) if we were.