Category Archives: dance
There are waypoints, if you will, on the path of life as a dancer … the first audition. The first job. The first show. The first featured role. The first pas de deux.
I fumbled my way onto this path with a fairly simple goal: basically, I just needed to dance. It would be enough to find myself a corps spot somewhere.
I never expected to find myself among the principal artists of any company, and certainly not now.
Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you, though. You find the thing that makes you tick, you keep your head down, you do the work … And maybe you find yourself in a place you never expected to be.
Gale Force is a brand-new company. They didn’t have to roll the dice on me: but apparently, when I auditioned, Shannon saw something in me that maybe I don’t always see. She made me an A-company dancer: which is to say, more or less, a principal. She handed me a solo piece, several featured roles, and a pas de deux.
When I got that email, back before we started rehearsals, I just about exploded (in a good way).
That said, my undying case of Impostor Syndrome definitely made its influence felt.
Part of me was all “I BELIEVE I CAN FLY!” Another part, of course, was like “CHECK YOSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOSELF.”
I didn’t exactly tell that second voice to GTFO, but I did ask it to kindly please step back behind the yellow line, sit down, and stop distracting the bus driver.
Needless to say, there were more than a few moments at which Impostor Syndrome stood up and said, “EXCUSE ME, WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, MR. BIG STUFF?”
But basically I’m too much of a coward to say, “I think you should demote me out of this dance because I can’t learn,” so instead I had to actually learn the dances and go on being an A-company boy.
Anyway. The bus finally made it to its destination: the show.
We played two Saturday nights.
During the first date, on the 27th of July, we all caught a highly-contagious case of the Galloping Nerves … including your humble host, who never gets stage fright and thus had literally no idea what to do about it. Those nerves were multiplied by the setting sun during the first half and blazing lights that sat exactly at eye level during the second half, both of which meant we were essentially dancing blind, and by the lack of a stage monitor,which meant that at times we couldn’t hear the music.
Have you ever tried to dance a pas de deux when you can’t hear the music and have only had about four hours to learn the dance together?
In case you’re wondering, it’s about as stressful as it sounds.
Apparently it looked okay to the audience, but there were long moments that EM and I stared into each-others’ eyes and tried to look romantic as we attempted to figure out by telepathy where in the dance we even were.
Probably the only thing that saved us was the fact that we knew the order of the lifts (which is more important than it sounds: when your partner leaps at you, you’d better already know which arm is going where), and could remember which one we did last.
Well, that and the performer’s instinct to just go stolidly on in such a way that the audience never knows you’re completely lost.
The whole company trembled its way through the first show and came out on the other side genuinely delighted that nobody fell down or died. Sometimes, you just have to adjust your goals on the fly.
During the second show, everything changed.
A quarter of the way into the first number, whatever it is in my brain that loves performing and knows no fear once I hit the stage clicked on. I remembered that this is what I love; that this is where I live. My mojo returned.
The pas de deux came third on the program and was my second piece for the night.
We stepped out onto the stage, locked eyes and smiled as the music began, and something magical happened: which is to say that the pas de deux happened. We didn’t just know the order of the lifts: we knew the steps; we knew the story: and for those few minutes we lived the story, and the audience loved us.
When the most artistically challenging piece goes well, it’s easy to feel confident about the rest of the night.
Not to say that I didn’t make a single mistake. In fact, I almost knocked myself over during the jazz piece, and again during the final pas de trois (our portable floor gets slick in humid weather, and I should have re-rosined my shoes 😶). It just so happens that I’m really good at saving myself from potential falls. Likewise, I left out a step here or there, and probably added a few without even noticing, as is my wont.
But overall the show went well. My solo piece was staggeringly well-received even though I had to walk back some of the most impressive choreography because I was dancing on a sprained ankle. I neither forgot entire segments of dances nor swapped the order of phrases.
I also got a nice surprise when I first saw our bios: I’ve joined the faculty at FSB. I love teaching, so that’s a solid step in the right direction.
We have a faculty meeting on Wednesday: the first, I hope,of many faculty meetings to come in my life as a dancer and teacher of dancers.
A while back I realised that somehow, against all odds, I’ve become the person I wanted to be when I was there years old.
Or, well. I mean. I haven’t actually turned into a horse, a dinosaur, unicorn, a cheetah, or a giant shark.
But that three-year-old me that sat up in the balcony and watched the Russian dance in the Nutcracker and said, “I wanna do that!” … Well, that’s the me I’ve become. Which is actually only slightly more probable than transforming into a horse or whatevs, and honestly rad AF.
I’m old enough now to grok that the book or movie that is your life never coasts into the credits … Or, well, not ’til you die, and I’m pretty sure I’m still alive, philosophical wranglings notwithstanding.
But I do feel pretty comfortable saying that this feels, to me, like the close of the first chapter, the first section of the book, or maybe even the first book in the trilogy. Like, I’m standing here at the end of my origin story (or at least this origin story: perhaps the greatest human capacity is that of reinvention; of starting over) and looking out for that moment when you, dear reader, finish reading this sentence and turn the page.
- Though, come to think of it, I have been licked and nibbled by any number of horses, who undoubtedly then digested some of my skin cells, which then went on to become part of them, soooo … Win on that one, too, I guess 🤔
There are so many reasons I’m glad that I auditioned for Gale Force, and right now one of the most significant is the opportunity it’s given me to begin honing my partnering skills.I wouldn’t say I’m great at partnering (yet: I might get there, who knows?), but I’m learning fast. I seem to be good at keeping my partners from hitting the deck when things go south,which is comforting, because honestly I mostly have no idea what I’m doing, still.
Anyway, of all the things I’ve learned about partnering thus far, the most important seems at once staggeringly obvious and perhaps a little surprising (which: remember the time you tripped over that brightly-painted curb that you’d noticed before but forgotten and immediately thought, “Jeez, what’s wrong with me?”).
And that most important thing is, of course, trust.
Last night, we started working on a new piece, and AA, the choreographer for this one, gave all of us leeway to toss in elements we thought might fit, including partnering stuff. At one point I looked at Dot and, perhaps because we’re both equally mad and utterly extra, I said, “Cradle to Bluebird?”
And she said something along the lines of, “Slay, Queen!” (Because, as I’ve mentioned, we’re both extra AF.)
And so we tried it, annnnnnnd:
I don’t know if either of us expected this to work on the first try: but we trust each-other, so we both dove in full-steam ahead, and it worked like a charm.
- Though if you know how this lift is supposed to work, you know she’s a little forward of her balance point in this shot, which was the result of my failure to sufficiently account for her skirt. D’oh! Obviously, we made it work.
I would say, “Obviously, you need good technique as well,” but I’m not sure that’s quite as important as it sounds. You need to understand how your body works and possess a feel for the laws of physics. If you’ve got those two things and trust, you’re most of the way there.
Ballet is great at teaching you to use your body. So are acro and gymnastics.
As for physics … People are forever observing that ballet dancers begin training early because it takes ages to teach the brain and body to work together to produce beautiful technique, but I think there’s another element as well.
Only experience can develop a gut sense for the way bodies behave in space. When you’re faced with the daunting task of grabbing your friend and tossing her up into a balance on your shoulder, you don’t have a lot of time to make calculations. You may be strong, but if you try to do it slowly, the laws of physics are likely to come out on top.
You have to be able to mentally spitball the physical process and the trajectory; to be able not only to visualize what’s going to happen, but to tactilize it, if you will: to imagine with your body how the forces involved will feel.
That way, when you attempt the actual lift, you’ve got a model already in place.You don’t have to consciously think it through–which is good, because lifting humans is a finicky business, and you need to be able to respond without delay of something begins to go wrong. You don’t have time for conscious thought.
If something starts to feel off, you instinctively call upon a lifetime of being a body that moves through space with power and freedom. The accumulated experience of that lifetime drives the inner mechanism that makes you shift your weight, lift your shoulder, step back just a little on one foot (all of which I’m doing in the photo above, to compensate for having placed Dot too far forward).
You don’t think about it; you just do it.
The unspoken knowledge that your body will figure out how to keep you safe when things go south is the foundation of the kind of trust that dancing requires. If you need proof, show a sedentary person a sauté fouetté or even a pas de chat en tournant and ask them to give it a try: they’ll probably respond, “Are you out of your mind? I’d kill myself!”
Partnering required that same trust on a different level: when you grab your friend, swing her into a cradle lift, and roll her up onto your shoulder, she’s trusting you to be able to make the necessary split-second adjustments that will stop her falling, and you’re trusting her to make herself as liftable as possible.
You’re tacitly agreeing that both of you operate from a profound applied understanding of gravity, mass, momentum, trajectory, balance…
You’re tacitly agreeing to apply that knowledge even if things feel a little shaky for a second here or there.
That last bit is crucial.
When we feel we’re in physical danger, our true, inborn instincts tell us to ball up and protect our vital organs.
That’s fine in cradle lift–in fact, the tighter your partner tucks, the easier cradle lift becomes, at least until she’s tucked so tightly that she cuts off circulation to one of your arms. Then you’ve got a whole new problem.
It’s not, however, true for any other lift in the repertoire, and especially not for Bluebird.
Excepting cradle, every lift in the classical repertoire involves some degree of extension–which means that the partner doing the lifting has to overcome gravity in challenging ways.
- One of the entry paths to shoulder-sit is also facilitated by your partner turning into a ball, but only for a moment. Also, purists sometimes argue that shoulder-sit isn’t part of the classical canon. I’m no authority on the subject, but my opinion is that while shoulder-sit is a circus trick, so are many of the showstopping elements in the canon: literally. According to Jennifer Homans’ exhaustive and authoritative history Apollo’s Angels, ballet really did adapt many of its steps from the circus. (#TheMoreYouKnow) At any rate, Serebrennikov covers shoulder-sit in his text on partnering,which is good enough for me.
If you’re attempting to sling your partner into a hip-balance (to borrow a term from the aerial arts) on your shoulder, she needs to trust you enough to unfurl herself into a profoundly vulnerable position in which she becomes, in essence, a see-saw.
If she doesn’t, at best, the beautiful bluebird lift turns into something closer to a dead-bird lift. Dead-bird lift probably has its place in tragic ballets and in modern dance, but it’s also a thousand times harder for you, with your feet on the ground, to support.
At worst, she’ll pivot around your shoulder and faceplant, and if you’re lucky she’ll kick you in the back of the head in the process and knock you out cold so you don’t have to live with the shame of having failed to save her (which is why it’s always the boy’s fault, in classical ballet: your job description involves making sure your partner doesn’t get hurt, since you’re the one with your feet on the ground). At least,not til you wake up.
Just about anyone can sling, say, fifty pounds of board lumber of a reasonable length up on one shoulder with relative ease. On the other hand, slinging fifty pounds of potatoes, loosely packed, is a much greater challenge (not least because you’re likely to take a potato or two to the jaw when you least expect it: potatoes fight dirty).
Now multiply that challenge by three, and you begin to see the problem.
Thus, as you’re merrily tossing or slinging or rolling or pushing your partner onto your shoulder, she has to tell her inborn instinct to fold up for safety, “Not now, we’re busy” whilst simultaneously listening very closely to the acquired instincts that help her do the astounding things that make up every ballet dancer’s bread and butter. She also has to listen to whatever your body is doing.
When she trusts her body, so to speak, and you trust yours, then you can trust each-other so much more easily. When you trust each-other, you try things that frankly seem a bit daft and they work.
Curiously, all of this happens without a great deal of talking. In fact,when it works, it’s about as close as I’ve come to experiencing actual, literal telepathic communication .
- Some people might argue that making love must be closer. I doubt any of them have tried dancing a pas de deux, let alone creating one from whole cloth. Sex is great, but if your version involves, say, bluebird lift or overhead press lift, it’s probably much more interesting than mine.
If you don’t trust each-other, at some point in the process, one or both of you will hesitate at a critical moment–and while I’ve yet to drop anyone, the experience that stems from that hesitation is always terrifying.
That moment’s hesitation is a moment in which your partner has no idea what you’re “saying” with your body or what you’ll do next.
Whether you’re the lifter or the liftee, this is akin to the moment in a relationship when Boo says, “If you can’t figure out why I’m so upset I’m certainly not going to tell you!” …Only with the added risk of catastrophic injury. You’re basically left with no way to predict what your partner will do next: you just have to guess and hope you get it right.
Someone with reasonable experience in partnering can often save a lift even then–but when you’re learning, if you’re the one doing the lifting, your goal instantly becomes simply to not drop your partner; to save them by any means possible.
Which, if we’re honest, can be scary as heck for both of you: for you, because suddenly all the responsibility is in your hands; for your partner, because suddenly they have no control and can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Hesitation can also render many lifts pretty much impossible: I’m pretty strong, but I doubt that I could slowly dead-lift, say, 140 pounds above my head.
When I press-lift someone, timing and momentum are crucial. Her jump overcomes enough of the pull of gravity to allow me to lift her past the part of the movement in which I’m weakest—the part where she’s above the level of my shoulders but not yet high enough that I can lock my arms out to sustain her weight above my head (which is totally a circus trick, in my book, but it’s a good one!).
For whatever reason, Dot and I seem to have developed a trust that prevents hesitations and allows us to overcome the inevitable glitches when we try new things together.
I think this stems in part from the fact that we’re both very game experimenters, natural-born crazy monkeys, if you will. But it also stems from familiarity: during our experiments, sometimes things do go sideways, and when that happens, I always manage to catch her, and she always manages not to kick me in the face. Then, I wouldn’t mind if she did: my willingness to risk a kick in the face is crucial to my ability to keep her from hitting the ground when we find ourselves at a sticky wicket.
Anyway, there you have it: the most important thing I’ve learned about partnering.
If you don’t have perfect technique, trust will get you through.
If you don’t have trust, though, nothing will.
I’ve been working now for more than a year (granted, that’s really not very long).
I probably imagined that I’d be used to it by now: that, perhaps, the first time that work felt like, you know, work, I’d sort of wake up and go, “Oh, yeah, I’m a professional dancer, this is my job now, no big deal” on a kind of visceral level.
Turns out, that’s not the case. It’s no longer terribly surprising on a rational level, and the Impostor Syndrome has slackened its grip a bit, but every time something happens that makes me realize that I’m doing this amazing thing I feel this little kind of giddy rush.
It’s like when you pick up some random thing at a thrift store, and you google it because it’s interesting, and you realize that it’s actually kind of a rare and unique treasure. It’s like, “I have this amazing thing, and nobody realizes it’s this amazing thing!”
Also a bit like, “Wow, I’ve been given this amazing gift … do They realize that They’ve given me this amazing gift?”
I could ask my friends who’ve been doing this much longer than I have, I suppose … but I also suppose that every answer would be different, because every journey is different.
I hope I never stop at least occasionally being surprised and delighted that, yo, the Universe seems to have decided on a whim that I should be a dancer, and people seem to agree with the Universe, including people who seem to want to pay people to be dancers.
Anyway, there you have it.
The Americana show went well, by the way. Better than I expected: the floor proved to be incredibly grippy … like, seriously, I think it’s surfaced in some Super High-Friction Space Age Polymer … but the costumes for the piece before ours had glitter tutus, and the tiny bits of glitter greatly reduced the friction, making turns and so forth far easier. My piqué turns in the manège at the end could’ve been better (for some reason, I didn’t crank my turnout … eh), but overall the effect of the piece was really exactly what I’d hoped for … and, of course, both Kathy and Christina are fantastic to work with and perfect partners.
Usually I go to intensives and spend the whole time thinking, Wow, there’s a whole week left or whatever.
LexBallet this year has felt completely different, possibly because I’ve been driving back and forth each day (turns out that it is less expensive even than AirBnB). I’m used to either having the days or the evenings to just loll around and read during intensives, so this is pretty different. Even though the total drive time is only about 2.5 hours each day, I’ve also been at home, doing the things I normally do: going to class, running errands, doing laundry, cooking, amusing the cat … which is really quite different from hanging out in a guest capacity somewhere and not having to do anything except feed myself and eventually put clothes on.
So here it is, almost Friday already. I’ve learned quite a bit. This year only four of us are doing rep, and we’re all in the mix together, learning a scene from Paquita that’s usually all girls but which has a bunch of nice little variations. I am, of course, doing the one with lots of big jumps.
I’m wrestling with some of the corps part still, but feeling pretty decent about my solo (which involves three sauts de Basque, so of course I love it). I’m looking forward to showing it off a little tomorrow.
What comes after gets filed partly under Continuing Education and partly under To Know, To Will, To Dare, To Keep Silent. The CE part is masterclasses: one (maybe two) at LouBallet and one at LexBallet. The other part (parts, really) I’m keeping under my hat for now.
Suffice it to that sometimes you see a fork in the road approaching, and you have to make some decisions, and while either branch has its merits, sometimes you really find yourself rooting for the new horizon.
Somehow, I had become convinced that the LexBallet intensive was in June (even though it has always been in July) and that PlayThink was in July (even though it has always been in June—my sister’s birthday coincides with it every year), and EVEN, even though I made widgets for this very blorg that list the dates.
Needless to say, knowing that The Time Is Almost Upon Us has me, as they say, a little shook.
Mostly because, for the first time, I’m teaching a workshop, and I haven’t even given said workshop a test drive like I meant to (because Golden Retriever Time, y’all).
Anyway. I think it’ll be okay, but my Imposter Syndrome is off the charts with regard to teaching. I’m like, HOW CAN I TEACH, I DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW ANYTHING??!11
I’m sure everything will go just fine and nobody will die. And if anybody does die it will probably because Kentucky is ridiculously hot and humid in June and not because I’m a horrible, incompetent danseur and should never be allowed to teach anything, ever. But I hope nobody dies even then because that would really probably put me off teaching for a while (because I’m horribly superstitious deep in the cockles of my heart).
Regardless, I have a Plan (and not just a Goal) for the workshop and a 2-hour window in which to accomplish that plan, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to be okay. I’ll just, as Señor Beastmode likes to say, Stick To The Plan. Unless the Plan proves completely useless, in which case I’ll throw it out the window.
In case you’re wondering, the exercises I’m planning to use will be sequenced as follows:
- The Little Dance
- Invisible Catch
- City Streets (Solo Version)
- City Streets (Eye Contact Version)
- City Streets (Touch Version)
- Flocking (North, South, East, West)
- Mirroring (into Touchless Partnering)
- Leaning In
- Leaning Out
- Weight-Share Shape-Building
- Lean Tag
- Basic Dynamic Weight-Sharing
- 5-Minute Dances
- 5 minutes to draft a dance
- Brief showing (music: random)
- 20 minutes to revise
- Final Showing (music: random or dancers’ choice)
A lot of this is stuff I’ve learned from Pilobolus—stuff that I feel very comfortable doing, but possibly not like I have the earned authority to teach it. …Which is hilarious, because I’ve taught all of this at various points, with the exception of 5-Minute Dances, which is something you more facilitate than teach.
Ironically, I feel least qualified to teach in the dance idiom I practice the most (ballet) and most qualified to teach in the one I practice the least (modern partnering improv).
I would say that I’m not sure what that says about my faith in my practice, only I am: what it says is that ballet is a highly-technical, rigorously codified idiom, and teaching it incorrectly can really screw someone up. When I talk about the technical aspects of ballet, people routinely tell me I should teach—but I think it’ll take a few more years of learning, performing, and choreography…ing before I feel qualified to teach ballet.
I also need to start rehearsing “…Lover Boy” in earnest, because I haven’t really given that enough time.
Lastly, I need to NOT TAKE ON ANY MORE PROJECTS RIGHT NOW. I’m booked to the gills all summer, which came as something of a surprise even though in retrospect it seems fairly obvious that that’s what happens when you take two contracts and then load freelance gigs on top of them 😛
Not to say I won’t take a ballet job if someone hands it to me, because, you know, ballet.
I get this question a lot.
That and, “How long did it take you to get your center split?”
The answers are, in short, “Very little, in any formal sense,” and, “About two seconds.”
There’s an assumption among dance students that work is the great equalizer.
That assumption is largely correct—and yet it doesn’t mean that individual variations in innate ability do not occur, or that enough work will overcome all of them.
Most human beings will never achieve a center oversplit. This isn’t because they won’t work hard enough, but because they have normal human pelvises that don’t allow it.
Many human beings will never achieve a even a full center split, in fact.
The center split may be the least malleable feat of flexibility. Unlike the front splits, which simply extend the natural range of motion of the average human hip joint complex, it is enormously dependent on genetics. Even early training exerts only a small degree of influence, as far as I can tell. A full center split requires both soft-tissue flexibility and unusual hip sockets. One is amenable to training; the other might possibly be very slightly amenable to rigorous training at an age at which most children’s parents are much more concerned with basic skills than with the potential eventuality of flat center splits.
I don’t think the group of human beings who have center oversplits is very large. Even though I move in ballet and cirque circles, I can count the examples I know personally on one hand with fingers to spare. And that’s counting myself.
In short, the same characteristics of the hip socket that give us the required range of motion also make us unusually prone to hip dislocations (upright bipedalism a harsh mistress).
Back in the day, a dislocated hip was almost certainly a good way to get eaten by the nearest predator (or otherwise eliminate yourself from the gene pool), thus greatly reducing the likelihood of passing on the genes that allow for extreme hip flexibility. In short, center oversplits are maladaptive in an evolutionary context, and thus exceedingly rare even though we’ve largely decoupled ourselves from natural selection pressures (though it would be interesting to see where we stand in another hundred thousand years or so).
So often in Western culture, we equate talent—that is, raw, innate ability —with virtue.
This tendency may be at its most visible in the movement arts: professional training selects for people who both possess innate ability and who work hard, but it’s the innate ability that the average person-on-the-street cites: “Wow, she’s so talented!”
The phenomenon of TV talent shows hasn’t helped. So often, the word talent is right there in the title: America’s Got Talent. It’s too easy to conflate the rocket-to-stardom modality with the myth of talent.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, successful …Got Talent competitors work their butts off (or, in the case of dancers, on) to make the most of whatever measure of innate ability they have—but we see only the five minutes or so that they command the stage in each episode, unknowns to the public at large. They appear to emerge fully-formed, replete with the armor of their art, from the foreheads of the judges.
It’s too easy to ignore the work and sigh, “If only I was that talented!”
But it’s also too easy to fall into the opposite camp, which discounts innate ability entirely.
There’s a familiar impasse that one encounters if one sticks around long enough as an adult ballet student to reach a fairly advanced standard of training.
Newer students admire your talent and/or your work ethic—and then they ask you how they can learn to do the thing you’re doing with such ease (or, at any rate, apparent ease).
Most often, you can truthfully answer, “Work your tuchas off, take class with these three instructors, make three classes per week your bare minimum, and you’ll get there sooner than you think.” You can even gently guide the ones who want the results associated with setting ballet on the front burner without having actually done so. Sometimes this means helping them discover for themselves that they love dancing, but are really just there to have fun, and aren’t actually going to prioritize it enough to make the kind of progress they want (at least, not in the timeframe they’re imagining). Sometimes it means helping them give themselves permission to front-burner ballet.
- This last bit is pretty specific to adult students, who mostly seem to expect everything to take longer than it actually will. Kids can be very much the opposite.
Yet, sometimes, you’re forced to formulate on the fly an answer that gently conveys the idea that no matter how hard they work, their feet aren’t going to look like yours, because your feet are the result of a serendipitous confluence of genetic traits polished by work, or that they’re probably never going to nail a flat center split because their hips aren’t arranged in a way that allows for it. To say, in short: “I don’t have these feet because I’m a professional dancer. I’m a professional dancer because I have these feet … or, well, partly, anyway.”
The challenge, then, is figuring out how to explain the complicated ratio of talent to hard work—that, for the most part, hard work matters much more. It’s mostly at the highest levels (particularly in companies with very specific ideas about how dancers’ bodies look) that both hard work and talent matter almost equally: to dance for ABT or the Royal Ballet or the Kirov, one needs both in almost superhuman doses. Talent alone is certainly not enough, but hard work alone won’t do it, either.
And, then, even at the highest levels, dancers acknowledge that talent is distributed capriciously. Nobody gets it all, in part because some of the genetic gifts associated with success as a dancer (qv, those incredibly mobile feet and ankles everyone wants) actually make technique harder. Every dancer with beautiful feet can point to some other part of her body and say, “Yeah, but…”
As kids, we’re often given the impression that talent is everything. American culture is flush with fictional stories of raw, undeveloped talent that is miraculously discovered and immediately transported to the upper echelons of artistic success. That model sells, and fits in the with fairytale mode of instant transformation that colors so much of the media we market to children.
The downside is that, too often, this means talented people feel like they don’t have to work that hard. Vexingly, there are even some points at which this is true: I don’t really work on flexibility, for example.
- I work on its opposite: strength. A couple weeks without calf raises, and the mobility of my ankles makes one-foot relevé balances beastly hard.
Worse, it can create the impression that a lack of exceptional talent means one shouldn’t bother. This is also fundamentally untrue. The world is full of professional dancers who began with average measures of everything but the motivation to work (not to mention their sublimely-talented peers whose motivation led them to leave ballet). They may not be dancing at the Kirov, but they’re certainly dancing in your local company.
Although the ballet world is full of talented late-starters like Copeland and Hallberg, none of them owe their success to talent alone or even primarily. They are, to a person, incredible workers first and foremost. BW came to ballet very late—but his success owes in no small part to the fact that he does sixteen turns after every class, trains in ankle weights, attends to every detail fastidiously, and simply works like the world depends on it.
And yet: he’s tall-but-not-too-tall, physically beautiful, and gifted with hip mobility equal to mine.
His work is devoted to improving what is already a very fine instrument. His work will probably take him farther than mine does—in part because he actually does work harder than I do, but also because he’s taller than I am (but not too tall). Perhaps it shouldn’t matter, and perhaps at some future time it won’t—but right now it’s a matter of course that ultimately a principal dancer is by default a prince, and we imagine that the prince should be tall and regal. Someone of my middling height and middling talent (as compared to the range of professional dancers, rather than to the population at large) might be Seigfried at Backyard Ballet Theater, but never at PNB or ABT, even if I hadn’t taken a long break from dancing.
I should say that I’m not bitter at all about this. I would never in a million years complain about being asked to dance Seigfried or Albrecht or Cavalier (though, like, couldn’t he have a name, y’all?), not least because I love partnering and the princes get almost all the most tender, most beautiful pas de deux.
But give me, any day, the fireworks of the Russian dance, the simmering sensuality of Arabian, the aerial grace of Bluebird, or the wild abandon of Le Corsaire’s famous slave. Give me the corps part I danced last year in Orpheus: a mad, sensuous, pyrotechnic demon of the shadowy depths. Give me the ridiculous athleticism of the peasant pas in Giselle (two very, very long passages of balls-to-the-wall balletic redlining jammed into a lively pas de deux).
It is to these peripheral roles that I’m best suited both by temperament and by physical aptitude. I don’t begrudge the lack of lofty height that will mean I only ever dance Prince What’s-His-Name at summer programs and if all of the taller guys at Podunk Ballet simultaneously come down with flu.
Ultimately, part of becoming a dancer is accepting your limitations.
BG will be the first to tell you he has biscuits of the highest order: but then he’ll show you his carriage, his élan, and his ballon.
BW explained to me the downside of our shared extreme hip mobility: we work twice as hard doing turns in second, for example, because we have to use our muscles to hold ourselves together where other dancers can rely on their bones to do much of the the work. My flexibility, in fact, means I’m prone to dancing like a slinky.
In the grand scheme of things, whether or not you have a center split means less than whether or not you know how to work with what you’ve got.
I don’t stretch very much because the last thing I need, as a dancer, is looser joints. I have a center oversplit because I’m a mutant with an unstable pelvis.
I’m not a dancer because of either of those things. I’m a dancer because the only thing I really want to do is dance, and because I’m lucky enough to be in a position that allows me to apprentice myself as I’m doing now in professional jobs that pay only intermittently. I’m a dancer, in short, because I dance.
This isn’t to say that I my body is not an advantage. It is. I do no one any service by saying otherwise.
But in the end, it’s top-dressing.
If I’m auditioning and my only competition is a physically-similar dancer with the same degree of training and the same work ethic but a body that’s not quite as purpose-built for ballet, there’s a fair chance I’ll come out on top. Give that other dancer a year or two more training or a work ethic comparable to BW’s, though, and my edge vanishes.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying this:
Don’t worry too much about your center split. You might never have one.
If you want to dance, that’s almost never the deciding factor.
Worry instead about your training and your work ethic. If you’re feeling unmotivated, figure out why and how you can hack your motivational system to work around it (concrete goals work for me; an upcoming show works better than anything).
Ask yourself, in the words of the British rowing team, “Does it make the boat go faster?” If it doesn’t, find a way to put it aside. Come back to it later, maybe: but know that later on it might not seem so important.
Know your weaknesses, and work on them within reason: but not at the expense of knowing and honing your strengths.
Ballet is too hard to spend time and energy making it harder.
… And stays home.
I’ve had a sinus thing going on for a while, and it has finally run me to ground.
I’m just flat-out exhausted despite having slept 10 hours plus per night for the past several days, and since sinus pressure and fatigue are key indicators of sinus infection, I’ve made an appointment with my doctor for Friday morning.
To be fair, I really meant to do this sooner. I got through theater week and the week that followed purely by the good graces of pseudoephedrine, basically, which allowed me to keep going without really solving the underlying problem (which, to be fair, pseudoephedrine isn’t designed to do). Oh, well.
That said, I’m also bored stiff. It’s possible that there’s nothing as ridiculous and pathetic as a dancer who currently lacks the energy to dance. You would think a lifetime of recurrent sinus infections would have inured me to the mental restlessness associated with being physically “on the bench,” but no.
Even though I escaped yesterday evening to help transport some stuff from CL’s old headquarters to our new ones, I’ve reached that point at which one begins to entertain bad ideas (“Maybe I’ll just do barre!”) in order to allay the weird restlessness.
And if this all sounds like so much First World Whining, don’t worry—it 100% totally is, and I know that. It’s not really that horrible to be a sick dancer, just annoying and inconvenient.
Per husband’s orders, I’m playing it safe and most cooling my heels until I can see the doc (though I do have to go to rehearsal tomorrow, because work). With any luck, she’ll declare me fit to fly while we’re getting this sinus thing handled.
Today I started setting my piece for CL’s upcoming collaboration with University of Louisville.
I tapped my friend L, who was my reader for Death Defying Acts and who I’ve had as a student in the Dance for Aerialists class that I co-taught for a while. I don’t remember exactly where the initial impulse came from, but it was a good one. She has time right now, and I think we work well together.
L doesn’t have a lot of dance training, but she’s an aerialist and she practices yoga, so she has the kind of “educated body” that dancers have.
I had two goals for today’s rehearsal: first, teach her how to Tall Ladies (the easy part!); second, set the first phrase of the dance. Both goals were achieved, and it turned out that L and I make really good collaborators. I put in, among other things, fish lift to fondu arabesque (ganked from BG’s piece :D); she added a sub-phrase developed from triangle pose that played really nicely with my instinctive “next thing.”
Choreographing this dance is going to be an interesting challenge. Since the musicians will be working within an improvisational framework (you’re right, that kinda sounds like an oxymoron), I’m programming a series of phrases that can either be used in a set sequence or mixed and remixed in an ongoing improvisation.
I came into this rehearsal with only the most basic sketch of an idea: start with Tall Ladies, set L down facing the audience, rise, work through a series of smooth, circular movements in which we appear to be working together to manipulate the ball (in fact, she’s doing all the ball work at the beginning of this phrase).
The lift grew organically out of the initial ball path: that was a cool discovery. L’s triangle sequence also came about on its own. She was experimenting to see where her body wanted to go from the arabesque (the ball passes from her hand to mine as she transitions out of the arabesque), and I liked what came out.
This is the first time I’ve actually set a dance that’s explicitly a partnered piece, as opposed to one in which bits of partnering occur incidentally to the greater momentum of the piece. I think I’m going to enjoy this particular challenge.
Coincidentally, this is also the first time I’ve partnered a girl who is significantly smaller than I am. L is legitimately tiny, which is both awesome and complicated. It’s awesome because she weighs next to nothing and is super easy to balance (she’s also great at engaging through her body, which really helps). It’s complicated because, in trying to be a good partner, I’m finding that I have to adjust a lot.
That’s actually really good for me, as a guy who enjoys partnering and wants to do more of it. The first three rules of ballet partnering for guys might be, “Don’t Drop The Girl[A],” but the fourth rule is Pay Attention to What She Needs.
Does she feel like she can get her leg under her coming out of Fish? No? Maybe you need a deeper fondu, then, doofus.
Anyway, I think the resulting piece is going to be pretty cool. L and I work well together, and I think we also look good together. That doesn’t hurt, either.
A. Appendix 1: The First Three Rules of Partnering
- Don’t drop the girl.
- DON’T drop the girl!
- DON’T DROP THE GIRL!!!
Yesterday, D and I met up with some of my ballet girls at a showing of the Norwegian documentary Ballet Boys, which follows three teenage dancers at a critical period in their training—the point at which they’re deciding whether to continue training and possibly to pursue careers as dancers.
One of the three is absolutely all-in. The other two aren’t as certain. One of them mentions the reality that one faces as a dancer in training: that there’s no time for a typical adolescent social life. He walks away, briefly, from dance—but he literally can’t stop dancing, and ultimately he returns.
I was reminded of a conversation I had not long ago with my friend RH: I said something about how working in dance involves a lot of sacrifice, but it’s willing sacrifice, joyfully given. He said something to the effect that he didn’t see how sacrifice came into it.
For a second, I honestly felt kind of angry. I almost responded with anger.
Then I realized that my anger was the knee-jerk response that dancers evolve as a defense against the fact that people who don’t dance haven’t the faintest hint of a clue about how hard it is; how much it demands. They often seem to legitimately believe that we spend all our time riding unicorns and eating cotton candy and swimming in the fountains of money we get paid for it, when in fact our lives are more akin to monastic vocations—we work grindingly hard, often for peanuts, because we’re called to the Work.
And then I realized that, okay, from his perspective, the commitment and sacrifice required probably aren’t visible, let alone obvious.
RH doesn’t dance, but he knows that I love dancing. He knows that dancing makes me unbelievably happy.
He works in technology, and he loves tech—but he doesn’t love his work in the all-consuming way that I love dancing. The work that he does in the tech sector isn’t the work he’d choose to do if money was no object, and it doesn’t always really work for him. Dancing is absolutely the work I would choose to do if money was no object, and it works for me in a way that nothing else ever has.
Perhaps a bit ironically, I’m working in dance in part because, at the moment, money is an object: to dance at the level I want to, I need to make dance pay for itself. But it’s still what I’d be doing if we suddenly received a windfall that would set us up for life.
That doesn’t, however, mean there’s no sacrifice involved.
Every now and then, someone will say to me, “I wish I could do what you’re doing.”
I try to listen and respond with kindness; with an openness to the nuances of meaning that underpin what they’re saying. I try to factor in things like financial challenges and family commitments (kids change everything).
But what I want to say, most of the time, is this: You could.
Part of what people are saying, when they say that, is this: I wish I was talented enough.
Sometimes, the people saying it are more talented than I am. They may not have as much training, but in terms of raw aptitude, they have the goods. They just need the training to use their aptitude.
I have pretty strong aptitude for dance, don’t get me wrong—but talent isn’t really the deciding factor.
Sometimes they mean, “I wish I’d danced as a kid.” There’s an assumption that it’s essential to start before your bones stop growing—especially in ballet.
Early training does exert some influence—but it’s not the deciding factor, either. My bones are constructed in a way that allows for 180-degree turnout; my feet were definitely shaped by my early training. But there are much, much better dancers than I—professionals at major companies with a lifetime of training and still have less turnout and mediocre feet; but also late-starters without great turnout or awesome feet who have gone on to forge careers out of nothing.
Early training isn’t the deciding factor, either.
The deciding factor, at the end of the day, is sacrifice.
So what, then, do I sacrifice to work in dance?
First and foremost, time.
To work in dance, you have to dance. Dancing eats up oceans of time.
It’s not like training to race bikes as a serious amateur. That you can do around a life that allows some time for other pursuits. You work to develop fitness and riding skills and racing know-how—but a lot it you can do (and ultimately do do) alone, in the interstitial hours around the job that pays for the bike and the racing license and the entry fees.
Dancing requires technique, fitness, and artistry. All of these things, in turn, require a time-commitment that will eat your life. You can potentially fit your training in around another job (and make no mistake, your training is a job), but in so doing you must acknowledge the fact that you will literally have time for nothing else.
I don’t race bikes anymore. I barely ride anymore. I don’t play video games that can’t be squeezed into a few minutes here or there. I’m never up to date on TV shows. I rarely manage to swing a night out, and when I do, it’s almost always with other dancers from the class or rehearsal that ends right before said night out.
I schedule my “life” around dancing. Even my occasional bouts of paid non-dance work are subject to the demands of class and rehearsal schedules. I give up weeks of the summer, when sane people are enjoying cookouts or canoeing, to sweat my ass off with other dancers in the interest of professional development (but also because I love dancing more than anything else).
I rarely manage to snag an evening alone with my husband. Fortunately, he’s okay with that. We make the most of whatever time we can grab.
If he wasn’t okay with that? To be honest, I’d still choose dance.
My time belongs to dance, and it will for the foreseeable future.
As a function of time, I’m also sacrificing money. I could land a job tomorrow that would pay thirty times or more the amount I made as a dancer last year. It might even allow me time to dance as a hobby. It would, in one fell swoop, make us very secure, financially-speaking.
It would also mean giving up the career, such as it is, that I’m building now.
Dance is a demanding muse.
I have back-burnered every other interest except circus arts, and circus arts make the cut only insofar as they allow me to function within them as a dancer and don’t interfere with actually dancing.
I still write, but I do my writing in shreds of time snatched at the ends and beginnings of my days. I often fall asleep while writing in bed.
I know it’ll take me longer to finish the projects I’m working on, but I don’t care.
These are a handful of the things that I’ve cast into the fire in the name of dance.
I don’t mind. They’re joyfully given. I would do all of it again in a heartbeat. If you forced me to live my life over, I’d even do it sooner.
But a sacrifice is a sacrifice, willing or not. That’s the one and only thing that separates me from my friends who would like to do what I’m doing.
- Except the ones who have kids. Denis is a consenting adult who can walk away if he gets sick of playing second fiddle to a career that pays poverty wages. When you have kids, you’re responsible for them in ways that force you to make different decisions. It can be impossible to do what I’m doing and keep the kids fed and housed. In short, kids change everything.
Sometimes, the same people who say they wish they could do what I’m doing are the ones who skip class to just chill, or who opt not to take rep class because it would conflict with game night, or what have you.
I restrain myself from saying, “You could do what I’m doing if you chose dance over everything else.”
Most of the time, I don’t say it.
I recognize that I wouldn’t have understood, back before I started dancing again and realized, finally, that dancing was the only thing I had ever really wanted to do. Either you step into the studio one day and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you would and will shove everything else off the table to keep dancing, or you don’t.
Both ways of being are valid, good, and necessary—but only one usually leads to working in dance.
As humans, we are great at wanting to want things.
I want to want to paint more often.
I just actually want to dance.
As dancers, we face the generally unconsidered, usually unspoken, and often unconscious assumption that a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice if you do it to achieve something that gives you joy; that helps you to be a whole.
And yet we recognize the sacrifices of medical students, many of whom pursue their calling for exactly same reason that dancers pursue dance.
As dancers, our calling places tremendous strictures on our time and finances; on our relationships and our personal lives. Just because we’re making art, rather than medicine, that doesn’t make our sacrifice less worthwhile.
Doctors, when they’re skilful and lucky, save lives by cracking open chests to work on hearts.
Dancers, when we’re skilful and lucky, save lives by cracking open hearts.
Sometimes, those lives are our own. Sometimes, they’re other lives.
Regardless, at the end of the day day, the life of a dancer—like any other dedicated life—is one of sacrifice.
Because of that, however, it is also one of transcendence.