Category Archives: #dancerlife
I’m having a very up-and-down first week back, and I want to write a little about it. Mostly about the body image end of things.
Yesterday, I felt like I looked like a stocky-but-fit dancer. Today, I think I look like an elephant seal attempting to dance.
Besides my clothes, nothing much has changed. I’m not super into the particular pair of tights I’m wearing (I have the same ones in a smaller size and I love them, oddly enough).
I’m working on doing the cognitive-behavioral stuff to try to alleviate some of this: reframing my thoughts, etc. But it’s tough.
Objectively, I am the chubbiest guy in my company. Meanwhile, I’m super-duper lean by Kentucky standards. It creates a unique species of cognitive dissonance: the people amongst whom I spend most of my time are almost all leaner than I am. Spending 4 hours in the car every day isn’t helping.
Anyway. This is really just kvetching, to get it out of my head so I can get through my day without imploding.
I really wish I understood why I feel like this sometimes, so I’m working on observing my thoughts and my circumstances to try to figure it out.
Also, last night I dreamed that I was sentenced to jail for one hour, but I can’t remember why. The jail in question was more like a locked group home for adult screw-ups, but it had a lot of books, so that was good?
Anyway, that’s it for now. I think I’m going to write about balancés, the hardest thing that’s actually easy, tomorrow, before returning to my meditation on first position (the easiest thing that’s actually harrrrddddd) next week.
- Fwiw, ballet stocky is not really stocky in any other context, except maybe Twink Night.
- Don’t worry, my terrifyingly judgmental body issues are me-specific … I think other people can look great (or awful) at any size, but I can’t seem to extend that to myself
But first: housekeeping! By which I mean, apologies for totally failing to post anything on Saturday. We had an unexpected visit from my MIL, AKA Momma Fluffy, who is awesome, and who I haven’t seen in quite a while, and as a result I totally blanked on it. I’ll try to get it out ASAP to keep the series going.
Tomorrow, we begin the second half of my first season with ActualBalletCompany.
During the first half of the season, I learned a great deal both about being part of a ballet company and about myself … and one of the things I learned is that I’m still horribly, horribly shy and socially-awkward.
Apparently, over the past few years–years in which I’ve settled comfortably into a dance- and circus-based social scene here in Louisville–I slowly forgot how terribly, terribly hard it is for me to connect with people I don’t know, especially when they already know each-other. (Admittedly, my summer intensive experiences should’ve reminded me of this, but since they resolved successfully, they didn’t.)
I also forgot, apparently, how my particular flavor of social awkwardness can make me seem like a bona-fide idiot.
When I’m nervous, my working memory, like, stops working. And when I’m around a bunch of strangers whose opinions of me matter immensely to the shape of the next year or so of my life, I get nervous. Like, really, really nervous.
I should note my nervousness isn’t a question of fearfully wondering, “What will they think of me?”
It’s more a question of experience. I’m really, really bad at the initial stages of getting to know people. When there are other people in the room who find my flavor of social awkwardness charming, that isn’t a big deal … but that’s a fairly rare circumstance, in my experience.
And dance is one of those contexts in which being a cohesive part of the group is immensely, immensely important.
Ironically, the working-memory failures that come with a bad case of nerves make it even more important.
When you dance, the greatest resource available to you isn’t the music, or the big fat book of ballet technique, or even YouTube.
The greatest resource available to you, right then and there, is your fellow dancers.
Because when you’re learning a dance, you’re going to miss something.
This isn’t because you’re stupid, or careless, or distracted (though, yeah, sometimes you’re probably going to be distracted, especially if you’re me). It’s because choreography comes at you hella fast, and you have to, like, blink sometimes.
To complicate things, you also can’t really see yourself in the way that other people can see you. So you might be absolutely sure that you Know The Steps, and you still might be wrong.
When you’re unsure, or better yet, you know you don’t know a step or a phrase, the single best thing you can do is ask another dancer.
If you’re shy, the thing you’re least likely to do is … you guessed it! Ask another dancer.
Obviously, this is a problem.
It’s an even bigger problem when your AD or your choreographer says, “Hey, you! You don’t know this part!” and it’s a part you’re dead certain that you know (because it’s, like, saute-balance-saute-balance-pique turn-pique turn-chaine-chaine-chaine-run away … why, yes, this is an example from my actual life, what makes you ask?).
Because that means that you’ve missed something without realizing that you’ve missed something, and now you have to figure out exactly what that is.
In my parenthetical example above, what I was missing was the arms. It wasn’t that I was doing something inherently wrong with my arms: my port de bras was one of the eleventy-million acceptable versions for the combination of steps in question.
But it was wrong anyway, because it wasn’t the one our AD wanted.
The problem is, he didn’t say, “You’re doing the arms wrong,” he just said, “You don’t know this step.” Which, to be honest, is valid: in the context of this dance, I didn’t know the step.
You guys: THE ARMS ARE PART OF THE STEP.
At this particular moment in the dance, I couldn’t see what anyone else was doing with their arms, so I didn’t realize that I was doing something different. Mr D called me out on it a few times in a row, but it didn’t occur to me to ask the girl standing next to me (who is actually one of the nicest, sweetest, and funniest people in the world, but because I was in Super Shy Boy! mode, I didn’t know that yet) what I was doing wrong.
It wasn’t until I videoed the piece and sat down to watch it that I figured it out … and because I couldn’t quite tell from my tiny phone screen what I was supposed to do, I finally, like, asked someone.
And it took almost no time to fix once I did, except for the fact that I’d done it wrong so many times that it’s burned into my brain the wrong way, and I still have to double-check it before we perform that particular piece now.
If I’d just asked earlier on (“Hey, BossMan says I’m wrong, here, but I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong … any thoughts?”) I could’ve saved myself that struggle.
When you’re shy, it can be extra hard to feel okay asking people questions that expose your weaknesses.
In a dance context, however, everyone’s performance depends on everyone else’s … so it’s deeply unlikely that someone’s going to say, “OMG, if you’re so dumb you can’t figure that out, I’m not gonna tell you.” (If someone does, you might be dancing in a group that’s toxic enough that you should think about finding somewhere else to dance.) Usually, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s this,” and demonstrate, and then you can go, “Okay, so like this?” and if you’re right, they’ll say, “Yup, that’s it!” and if not, they’ll adjust you accordingly, and you’ll all go on with your lives and learning the rest of the dance.
What it took me for-freaking-ever to realize is that one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to learn new choreography is that I am extraordinarily shy about asking when I don’t feel like I’ve got it.
Then, knowing that I’m very much a kinaesthetic (that is, physical) learner, I don’t walk through the choreography and nail it down, because I’m afraid I’ll learn it wrong and then have to un-learn and re-learn it.
Both of these things put me behind the curve. First, by failing to ask, I don’t patch the holes in my knowledge base. Second, by failing to loosely work through the choreography on my own I greatly lengthen the process of learning it.
In turn, both of these realities make me nervous (when you have to have the piece down and you know you’re not getting it as fast as everyone else, nervousness is pretty much the guaranteed outcome), which makes my working memory stop working, which makes learning anything next to impossible.
Which makes me look like a complete idiot (because in those moments I am one, albeit temporarily). Which makes people think I’m a complete idiot. Which makes them not want to work with me. Which is glaringly obvious even to someone like me who is not very good at reading social cues. Which makes me nervous.
Repeat ad nauseam.
The solution, of course, is obvious.
In this case, there’s only one way forward, and that’s just to bite the bullet and talk to the least-scary-looking person in the room.
Occasionally, you’ll get lucky and discover that she also isn’t sure about the step in question, and then together you’ll go and prevail upon her friend or friends until one of two things happens: you might find someone who’s dead certain that they know it, or you might discover that nobody’s really entirely sure and thus you might work something out by consensus.
And then, the next time you run it, either your AD will go, “Oh, hey, that looks better,” or s/he’ll say, “No! You’re all wrong.” (S/he might also add, “Oh my G-d, how many times do we have to go over this?!” but try not to take it personally: even the sweetest ADs get nervous, too.)
More likely, the person in question will say something like, “No big deal, it’s this,” and will show you (or tell you) what’s supposed to happen.
The thing I have noticed is that other people do this way more proactively than I do. They don’t waste a lot of time trying to muddle through and figure it out by trying to dance and watch at the same time (by which I don’t mean the usual kind of “watching” that you do to make sure your spacing is okay and that you’re in sync with the people in your group: I mean the high-cognitive load kind of watching that you do when you’re trying to learn brand new choreography).
Most people, if they’re really unclear on something, just ask someone.
So I guess one of my goals for the next half of the season is to stop being afraid to ask people when I’m unclear, even if I feel like I should have learned the choreography in question five months ago.
This won’t fix the thing that makes me amazingly adept at saying the wrong thing at the worst possible moment, or the fact that my sense of humor is (to say the least) odd and that people who don’t know me very, very well often don’t seem to understand that I’m joking.
But it will help me learn dances faster, and that’ll be a big step in the right direction.
With, I hope, the correct port de bras.
- You guys, for future reference: if you’re talking to me in person and what I’m saying sounds completely ludicrous, assume I’m joking. Likewise, I’ll continue to work on my delivery, in hope of someday being able to use irony, sarcasm, and guerilla-theatre-of-the-absurd without convincing everyone around me that I am, in fact, actually stupid.
But first, Hi! And I survived Nutcracker, and it was great, and Happy New Year, and Jeez. Now, on to the next thing.
We all focus a lot on where we’re trying to go, and that’s a good thing. It’s good to allow for the possibility–even the probability–that you might wind up somewhere else entirely, but it’s pretty helpful to have a destination in mind when you set out. Also, like, a basic plan; a loose map that allows for the likelihood of dragons, uncontacted peoples, and so forth. Even if your plan is to explore uncharted waters, after all, you still have to get there somehow.
So that’s an important thing, and a good thing, and helpful up to a point. Specifically, the point at which you reach your destination, and need to move on to Phase 2 of whatever the Grand Plan is … and, curiously, there are precious few resources that explore what happens after you forge a path through whatever obstacles to reach The Far Shore.
And that, I think, represents an enormous growth area for idiots like me who write blogs about setting completely ridiculous goals and pursuing them.
As such, I present the first of my observations: when you get there, you will still be you.
If you’re socially awkward, you will still be socially awkward. If you’re shy and bad at integrating into established social groups, you’ll still be shy and bad at integrating into established social groups. If you’re a slow learner, you’ll still be a slow learner. If you’re prone to bouts of depression … well, you see where I’m going with this.
In other words, your weaknesses, your struggles, and your blind spots disembark with you on that Far Shore.
So, of course, do your strengths, your victories, and your stunning insights–but I think we all assume that anyway. Besides, our strengths are less likely to create problems for us once we Get There. We tend to visualize success, and it’s a good strategy. But, just as the classic fairy-tale ending, “…And they lived happily ever after” omits the likelihood that Cinderella, though kind and brave and all that, has no idea how to comport herself at court, visualizing the success of reaching a certain end-point (say, working for a ballet company) omits the reality of living with ourselves once we’re there.
I’ve been quiet for the past several weeks because I’ve been trying to figure how to square this circle. I remain a sensitive, shy, touchy introvert with enormous, gaping holes in his training. I still have difficulty processing spoken language. I am physically flexible, but mentally not-so-flexible. I am good at adapting to physical challenges on the fly, but not great at coming up with workarounds for more abstract problems because, ultimately, I’m not really good at thinking*.
*Boy, is that a topic for another post.
So I guess that’s my introduction to Danseur Ignoble, Phase 2: going forward, I’ll continue to explore the process of learning to be a dancer, but I’ll also examine my weaknesses as they intersect with my life as a ballet dancer. I hope that in the process, I’ll be able to reflect on my challenges and possibly brainstorm some strategies for coping with them.
As such, here’s the plan–the tentative plan, because hey, this is me we’re talking about–going forward:
On Mondays, I’ll post about a challenge I’m facing in my work that stems from my own personality: how it impacts my work, both for the worse and for the better, and how I’m dealing with it. From time to time, I’ll also check in with other dancers and creative people about similar challenges they’ve faced in their own careers (Are you reading this? Would you like to be one of my interviewees? Let me know in the comments!).
On Saturdays, unless we have a show, I’ll write about technique. If we have a show, who knows? I’ll try to make it on Sunday, but I’m more likely to sit around letting my brain leak out my ears.
The Monday posts will probably be grouped under the Ballet Lessons heading; the Saturday posts will be grouped under Technical Notes.
I will, of course, totally fail at this from time to time, but I figure having some kind of goal is better than having no kind of goal.
I’m not at all certain that any of this will help me address my challenges in helpful ways, but I figure it probably can’t hurt. And, of course, the insight that I’m still me, and that my major life challenges won’t magically evaporate just because I have somehow fumbled my way into a ballet company.
Still, reflecting does usually help, and writing helps me reflect. So here we go: off onto a new adventure. Ish.
Today was a bad day for double tours, of which I did exactly none, but a good day for petit allegro, albeit in a roundabout way.
I struggled through a combination that shouldn’t have been hard (assemblé, soubresaut, assemblé, soubresaut, assemblé, assemblé, assemblé, entrechat quatre), caught myself in the mirror, and realized that I was brushing my leg out to some weird angle that made closing quickly difficult.
Fixed that, et voilà! Better petit allegro with like 1/10th of the effort.
This did not save me from my inability to do brisée volé correctly in the next combination, but that’s because I am increasingly uncertain that I’ve ever learned it in the first place. Time to RTFM, I guess!
Also, in case you’re wondering, everything in petit allegro works better when you don’t neglect the beautiful plié that you’ve been working on since forever. Sometimes when it gets fast, I still resort to shoving myself into the air using only my feet. It gets me off the ground, but it’s terrible and the landings are a flaming misery.
A while back I figured out that the hard part of dancing professionally is raising the standard of your worst days to a level that won’t make an audience wish they’d gone to see, like, the Drying of the Paint Samples at Home Depot instead.
You can’t stand at the exit saying, “Sorry, it was an off day; here’s a raincheck,” so even your most awful show needs to be good enough.
…Which, in turn, means building the best habits you can, raising your endurance game, learning not to make faces even when everything is a petit right in the allegro, and really just being competent to a very high degree.
For me, it also means learning not to do the weird thing where I bury my brain in a cave of self-directed fury when I do heck things right up. Oddly enough, that doesn’t help. It just makes me late for all my cues.
At the end of the day, we’re human, and we’re going to make a right mess of things now and then. Even the greats fall on their faces sometimes.
Just busy and thinking about where to go next with this blorg of mine. By which I mean not the annoying questions like, “How do monetize?” or whatevs but just, like … how best to write on the regular about where this amazing little journey is taking me.
We closed CL’s show “Gravity’s Variety” yesterday, and I think it represented a significant step forward artistically both for my Cirque company and our AD. I loved working on that show, but I’m also glad I’ll have a few two-day weekends (Sunday-Monday weekends, because Saturday is Full Cast Nutcracker Mayhem) before the madness that is Nutcracker: the performance run.
I’m still in the up and down of learning to be a company dancer. Some days I’m like, “I’m coming along” be others I’m like, “What do I even think I’m doing?” I think that’s probably normal, though, especially when you’ve made your entrée into company life by the “wing and a prayer” method.
I have a ways to go before I feel like my worst ballet days are stage-worthyish, which really has to be your standard when you are part of a company people pay good money to see. Fortunately, the roles I’m doing in the shows that cost money are light on the fancy technique as yet.
The Friday before last, Mr D said to me, “You have so much talent. You just need to hone it.” That was a powerful thing. It helps to be reminded, from time to time, that I’m not just experiencing delusions of grandeur, here.
Anyway, I’m here and I’m dancing and sometimes I’m even okay at it. Hope you’re out there killing it, whatever it is you do.
…And belated third-quarterly #goals review 😛
I’ve lost track of which week we’re on, since it turns out that break weeks aren’t counted in the company calendar and I apparently can’t be bothered to check ours while I’m writing this.
This week was all over the place. I felt pretty good on Monday and Tuesday, left my brain at home and just couldn’t even on Wednesday, wasn’t at the ballet on Thursday (I had a previous engagement for Cirque), and had a pretty darned good Friday, even though I was in Goldfish Mode* throughout most of class in the morning.
*Yes, I am aware that goldfish actually have decent memories. Work with me, here, people.
Technique-wise, this wasn’t always the best week ever. I realized during break week that since I’ve managed to stick myself with the Shawty barre, I need to learn to work with it and not just be like “OF COURSE I LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT THIS BARRE IS WAY TOO SHORT FOR ME.” Which in turn made me realize that I’ve been using the Shawty Barre as an internal excuse for things like leaving too much of my weight in my heels (note to self: WTF?), not being tall on both sides of my body, only halfway pointing my feet, doing this bizarre thing where I let my weight drift towards my free leg which doesn’t help anyone, etc, etc, etc.
So this week was, like, Remedial Ballet 083 while I concentrated on undoing all the stuff I did to my body while I was being an idiot. Which meant sucking it up and dialing down the turnout, etc.
On the upside, Mrs D gave us this useful and memorable correction about using our cores: “You know those six-packs** you all have because you work so hard? DON’T LET THOSE CANS FALL OUT OF THE FRIDGE.”
**The visibility of mine varies … but, holy heck, am I ever growing some abs.
For whatever reason, that particular visual is really helpful for me. It also made me realize that when I notice that I’m getting swaybacked, I tend to try to use my actual back to fix the problem instead of re-engaging my core, which is how you really fix that problem.
I guess that none of those things are really negative, now that I’m thinking about them. Working like this every single day, twenty-plus hours per week, gives me a lot of time to think about everything.
Also, I finally nailed my first double cabrioles through the sheer force of peer pressure … or, really, the effect of a sentiment very like, “If they can do it, I can do it; don’t want to let the side down.”
So that’s a couple of goals knocked off the Great List Of Technical Goals.
We’re well into Nutcracker now, and next Saturday is New Works & Other Voices (which, due to some marketing SNAFUs, has garnered such nicknames as “New Works & Other Stories” and “Works and Other Works”). We’re going to be sharing the stage with a pair of artists who will be painting a giant mural as we dance. Depending on the materials that the muralists will be using, it’ll either be really cool or, “Dude, waaaaaaaaay far out bra.” Good thing that the works and other works are pretty contemporary.
In related news, I’m now on the company page on the website under “Trainees,” which is AWESOME, though I don’t have a headshot yet because I wasn’t there on headshot day. I will content myself for now with being the official Man of Mystery (regarding which, I am as mysterious as a shoebox, y’all). I have a cute li’l bio and everything.
…Which brings me, albeit indirectly, to the quarterly-ish goals review bit.
I’m rather surprised to say that I’m making quite good progress on them. I’ve finally nailed down that pesky double tour, and the progress of my turns has been solid–not in terms of the number of revolutions I can achieve, but in terms of the overall quality of the turns themselves.
I’ve gone to enough auditions this year that auditioning is starting to feel fairly routine, and I’ve had more work at times than I’ve known what to do with. I didn’t actually audition at LexBallet, but I’ve wound up dancing there anyway, which in turn is affording me the opportunity to work on artistry, coordination, and all that stuff consistently.
I set the first two-thirds of “Tenebrae” and had an opportunity to show it at an actual, real dance concert; I choreographed and performed “Loverboy;” and I’ve made vague advances towards working on “Bolero,” which is no longer part of Simon Crane, but simply a dance about riding the South Shore Line into Chicago.
The one glaring oversight is the commitment I made to BW to work on balances. I paused that effort a while back when I was getting over that case of strep that made my ears weird, and it’s time to really get back on it.
Back at the beginning of this year, I hoped I would be where I am now, but I don’t think I really believed that I would.
Now it’s up to me to keep working and to actually begin using my brain as a dancer. I still have a lot to learn, and because I’m a bit older than your average company trainee, I need to learn it fast and well.
Also, because I faffed around forever with headshots on Thursday, here, have this one:
I’m not sure that break weeks count as weeks in the company calendar, but I’m counting them anyway.
This week was a step forward. I began figuring out how to adapt to the fact that I have inadvertently assigned myself to a barre that’s significantly too short for me (and for my counterpart, who’s about my height) so it doesn’t screw up my entire day. I remembered how to use my turnout muscles. I realized that I’ve been letting my standing leg be lazy … or, well, not so much lazy as shy.
For whatever reason, I’d been having a gigantic crisis is confidence in myself as a dancer (partly because I had a rough several days distributed between weeks 2 and 3). I also realized that my innate shyness was probably coming off as standoffish. As such, I decided to take it upon myself to actually, like, talk to people this past week, and to apply every performing artist’s favorite maxim:
Fake it ’til you make it.
Basically, I decided that I’d pretend to be confident in hopes that it would actually work.
Lo and behold, it did. What a shock (yes, I’m being sarcastic).
When you’re not confident, the natural tendency is to kind of shrink into your body. Not only does that look ridiculous on someone with my build, but it makes ballet about a thousand times harder. You can’t do a good piqué turn on a tentative leg, let alone the triple-turn-on-demand that our AD routinely requests in class. You can’t do a double tour if you don’t commit.
The funny thing is that when you start acting with confidence, you dance better, and that makes you more confident.
On Friday I actually got a positive shout-out from another dancer in class while we were doing turns … and, amazingly, I did not then proceed to hose up the rest of the combination.
I did eff up the left side, but not unexpectedly. I’m having an intermittent issue doing things when the right leg is in the standing role due, I suspect, to way the heck too much driving. I’ve figured out how to work on that, though (pop the pelvis back together as needed, then do the piriformis stretch and all the hip flexor stretches as frequently as possibly).
Anyway, we started in on Nutcracker this week, and I’m learning my rôle and enjoying it. We’re two weeks out from our next show, I have a Cirque show the week after that, and then we’ll be in the teeth of the Nutcracker before we know it.
That said, I also have an audition this morning, so I must close here and get my butt in gear. I have some thoughts on technique that I’ll try to write up soon.
This week has been all over the place.
On Monday, I hydroplaned driving home and totaled the truck, though you wouldn’t have known it was totaled to look at it.
I’m fine. Yes, I was driving carefully: in fact, rather ironically, I was changing lanes to avoid a deep puddle … so that went well 😅
Our truck has almost 305,000 miles on it, so the insurance company pretty much would’ve totaled it out over a decent-sized scratch. Tink the Tacoma and I did a nice little pirouette, slid backwards on the diagonal, and bulls-eyed the passenger-side taillight into a concrete barrier.
All this was way less scary than it sounds. I seem to be prone to spells of absolute calm in times of physical danger: nothing will drop you right into a philosophical frame of mind like knowing you’ve done exactly what you’re supposed to in a given situation and that it’s well and truly beyond your control now.
I think a part of me was like, “Well, if I die now, I’ve actually basically achieved all of my current major goals, so…”
Including looking like a pumpkinhead in this picture, evidently.
Still, I will miss our truck a bit in my somewhat Shinto-flavored way. Some animistic portion of my being thinks of it as a faithful friend. Tink The Tacoma did so much for us, so uncomplainingly.
Tuesday I sweated balls due to poor sartorial judgment.
Wednesday I struggled with the piece Mr D is setting.
Thursday, Mr D’s piece started to gel, thanks in no small part to S, who suggested videoing the piece, and some input from the girls. Mr D seemed both excited about that and deeply relieved.
Several of us also had this very revealing conversation about the closing piece in last week’s show–evidently I wasn’t alone in feeling like I barely had it or in winding up on the wrong leg here or there.
Friday I started to feel like I’ve got my feet under me. I’m learning how I learn and how to make up for my shortcomings. I’m beginning to feel like I can ask my fellow dancers questions.
Going forward, I feel like I need to stop shortchanging myself by allowing the excuse “I have less training than everyone else here” and really step up my attention to detail and so forth. I’ve had three weeks to settle in to company life, so now it’s time to really buckle down.
That said, it’s fall break for us this week. When we return, we’ll be diving right into Sleeping Beauty and continuing to work on everything we’re already working on.
For us, Nutcracker rehearsals begin later in October; the kids have already started.
My entire family is coming to the opening night of Nutcracker, which is really cool. My sister has never been to Kentucky, so it’ll be a neat trip for her and her husband, I think.
Anyway, I worked a late gig for Cirque last night, so I’m taking a day for R&R today, doctor’s* orders.
Tomorrow, I have a Cirque rehearsal, and then the rest of the week will be devoted to The Great Cleaning Of The Entire House.
PS, how do you like my “catto joggers and ballet booties” look?
*I mean Dr. Merkah, of course.
This week, I did some stuff well, some stuff really badly, and a lot of stuff somewhere in between. I nailed the overhead press lift. I didn’t fall over, drop anyone, or knock anyone else over, nor did I kick the audience in our show last night (it was in our building’s performance space, which is more like a ballroom kind of thing, so the audience sits in chairs along the wall).
To be fair, I would have to have REALLY messed up to kick the audience, as I’m mostly in the back in the stuff I’m in right now.
I’ve made a deal with myself. I’m a trainee, really; a company apprentice. So I’m here to learn, and I have a LOT to learn. Every time I’m tempted to make an excuse, then, I stop and ask myself, “Okay, so X is a thing that’s getting in the way. How can I solve that problem?”
I am still shy in person: like many introverts, I have trouble getting to know new people most of the time, and especially when most of them already know each-other. I’ve been letting that get in my way a little. This week, I decided it’s time to step up and ask about the choreography when I haven’t caught something or don’t remember something. So far, nobody has rolled their eyes and gone “O FFS HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW THAT?”
I have trouble processing spoken language, especially when I’m doing something, and especially especially in a big, echoey room. It’s just a function of how my brain works. There’s a bit more of a delay for me than for most people between when someone says something and when my brain works out what it was they said.
In class, I can deal with the echoey room part by standing closer to Mr D when he’s giving us a combination. In rehearsal, sometimes he tosses choreography at us from across the room while we’re standing where we finished the last bit, so I’ll have to work out a different strategy for that. I think just asking my fellow dancers is a good way to go; often, they have similar questions. Sometimes we just all look at each-other and shrug.
I’m … erm … moderate at remembering choreography.
I’ve realized that I’m worse at remembering choreography in group pieces than I am in other situations because you can’t not look at people (when there are 20 of you in a circle, you have to use your eyes if you’re going to avoidd kicking each-other in the face). When I’m looking at my fellow dancers, I tend to automatically follow them, and things don’t always make it into my long-term memory for some reason.
This means that I need to review like crazy on my own either in the studio or at home. Fortunately, I have video of the main thing I’m working on remembering.
Steps-wise, for some reason, it’s still the petite Sissones that do my head in. And, of course, knowing that makes me nervous, which prevents me from picking up the petite Sissone combinations correctly. Feck.
So obviously I need to practice the hecking heck out of petite-allegro stylie Sissones on my own. Ditto brisées. Other stuff is mostly coming together on its own, including fancy grand allegro things that I don’t know I can do until I’m throw into the deep and and just do them.
I need to come up with a strategy for sticking a pin in parts of dances that I don’t have when I’m reviewing and I don’t have video. Historically, I’ve dealt with those bits by getting stuck, which only trains you to get stuck. I queried one of my fb ballet communities for suggestions, and one of the best was coming up with some kind shorthand and writing down the choreography as soon we learn it (or at any rate as soon as possible). I think that will help, and it will also hep me understand where I’m missing bits.
Double tours are progressing, though I sometimes get frustrated and start doing them like I’m angry and then Mr D says, “Easy …. easy.” But I’m remembering to spot them more reliably (it occurred to me that it’s impossible to count your revolutions if you don’t spot!) and to go Full Pencil most of the time.
I’m also remembering to jump from the ground up, which is a function of working on snapping into Pencil Mode. In case you’re wondering, attempting to disconnect your upper body from your lower body and toss it into the air under its own power doesn’t actually improve your jumps.
Repeat to yourself, “THE LEGS LIFT THE BODY.”
Like all jumps, double tours begin with pliés. Everything squinches down to load the sproings, and then the reaction of the loaded sproings launches the jump from the ground up. You let the legs lift the hips (this was a David Reuille thing). Then you let the hips lift the body, in part by keeping everything attached and not turning into a slinky.
I’m going to have to get with someone who is relatively fearless about partnering and work on assisted turns, because I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.I would not have expected to be like, “Yah, the lifts are the easy part,” but actually they kind of are? I mean, as long as your partner doesn’t turn into a sack of potatoes. Lifting even 120 pounds of potatoes is about a billion times harder than lifting even 150 pounds of dancer.
On the other hand, I have rather a lot of experience lifting other humans and absolutely none spinning girls in pointe shoes around with my hands. I’m afraid I’m going to knock someone over. On the other, other hand, Mr D announced after Friday’s parade of all the boys spinning various girls in pointe shoes that we’ll be working on that a lot more. Also, I think I’ll be ordering the other half of the set of books on partnering of which I for some reason only have volume 2, which very reasonably assumes you already know how to do the basic stuff.
Also, I suck at the promenade version of the same, for the same reasons.
But I guess that means I can’t actually get worse at it, so there’s that?
If I was less shy, I would just ask S or C or L, all of whom know more about this whole partnering thing than I do, having actually been formally trained in it instead of just experiencing the patchwork of, “Here, do this,” and occasionally, “Oh, and you do it like this!” that makes up my partnering background ^-^’
I’m also working on solving problems like: I have sound upper-back flexibility, so why does my cambré derriere suck a lot of the time? Mr D demonstrated to me that I can basically fold myself like a napkin if someone just runs a hand up the underside of my arm, so … huh. I think the problem is that I get tense and wind up working against myself, so I’m going to have to figure that out.
Also, I need to get my head coordinated with everything. It’s still a bit intermittent, whereas it needs to be automatic. I need to train it so I don’t have to go, “Oh, yeah, use your head” (in the ballet sense ^-^’). Ditto my arms, which are getting better but still sometimes forget to do anything.
So there you go. All I have to do is learn the rest of how to be a professional dancer by the middle of December. No pressure ^-^’
Today, I saw this lovely comment from a dancer named Andy, and I thought it deserved a more thorough reply than would really be ideal for the comments section.
Andy asks some really salient questions about developing technique. To be honest, that’s the main thing I’m doing right now (I mean developing technique: oy vey, there is so much technique you guys) … maybe it’s one of the main things we’re always doing as dancers, really. So, really, answering Andy’s questions will also help me think about how I’m doing what I’m doing.
Which, I hope, won’t immediately cause me to encounter the Centipede’s Dilemma ^-^’
Since I’m hitting the hay pretty early these days, which means finding my way to bed pretty early, this might become a brief series. Which might also tie into finally getting around to finishing my notes from the Contemporary masterclass I took an entire freaking month ago ^-^’
Anyway, here’s Andy’s comment in its entirety:
Hi, I just came across your blog today. I’m a guy getting more serious in my ballet training, and am interested in trading notes with you on how you have gotten better and improved, particularly at men’s technique. I am in St. Louis, and the men’s classes I have tried have mostly young teens starting out, so it was only the basics covered in those classes. I am coming off a knee injury and am focusing on building up the legs the right way (I had been rolling in on squats, plies, running without realizing it). I’d like to know how you progressed on turns, beats and tours. I can do singles but anything more than that is hit or miss, and I know I need more practice.
So here’s my bird’s-eye view thought: any men’s technique class is better than none, I think, and the longer you dance the more you realize it’s all just elaborations on the basics anyway. So if you have access to a men’s technique that you can take on the regular and it fits into the schedule and the budget, do it, even if it seems a bit too basic.
Even the most basic men’s tech class, if it’s being taught by someone who knows what they’re doing, will underline from the word go how the basics slot into the more advanced bits of men’s technique.
This is one of the things I really love about L’Ancien: he’s constantly saying things like, “A cabriole is just three grand battements,” and “Everything you do at the barre is preparation for allegro.” He even maintains that adagio is preparation for allegro. Which, I guess? But I have learned to love adagio for its own sake, and I prefer to try to keep a degree of distance between them, because I also love jumping so freaking much that I’m likely to let it spoil both my enjoyment of adagio and my performance therof.
Building up the legs the right way is a really solid start. So much of men’s technique is about big, impressive jumps. Every jump, no matter how large or small, depends on the power of the plié. Even grand jeté, which we tend to think of as beginning with a grand battement, can’t go anywhere if you don’t plié the back leg and sproing off of it.
Moreover, building up the legs the really, really right way involves working the hecking heck out of the adductors, which are absolutely critical to things like cabrioles, beats, and even double tours.
I’m still working on making my double tour, like, really reliable. I can generally do them now, but sometimes I still don’t manage the second rotation, especially if we’re doing emboité, emboité, emboité, double tour across the diagonal. Mostly the first one goes off soundly, they get muddly somewhere in the middle, and then I get myself sorted again by the last one so.
That said, my progress has depended on two things.
First, I’m using my plié more effectively both in my jumps and also at the barre.
Andy, it sounds like you’re already working on that. I’m sure you already know that the plié is both the power train and the shock absorber for every jump, and especially for big jumps like double tours, so continuing to work on using the legs correctly in plié will take you a long way.
L’Ancien always points out that you should take advantage of the fact that you have access to the greatest amount of hip rotation at the bottom of your grand plié, and that you should feel as if there’s one muscle connecting across the front of your plié. This is easiest to feel in a second-position grand plié, possibly because it’s really important in terms of stability.
- I realize now that that’s a difficult idea to illustrate in words, so I’ll have to make some terrible illustrations later on and hope that they help.
Second, my adductor game is fierce.
I lamented at one point not long ago in a comment that “The adductors are not strong with this one.” I didn’t really mean they were literally weak—just that I wasn’t using them as well as I should be.
- Perhaps ironically, the strength of my adductors is partly a byproduct of my collagen disorder—my iliosacral joint likes to subluxate, and the exercise that I use both to fix it and to (one hopes) prevent it from doing so quite as often is great for the adductors 😀
Since then, I’ve really focused on improving how I use my adductors, and not just improving their strength.
I mentioned in my last post that one of the key points in actually managing to do double tours is to turn yourself into a pencil.This, by the way, is when you REALLY NEED TO TRUST YOUR DANCE BELT.
It’s not very hard to make yourself spin around your own axis once. Almost anyone can, for example, manage a crappy single pirouette (apparently not everyone can do wacky triples like I used to :P).
When you’re only going around once, it doesn’t really matter how high you are off the ground, or how straight your axis is, or how closely your body parts are aligned to that axis.
Somehow, though, when you’re trying to get around twice, all those things matter like crazy.
The first factor—elevation—can be achieved by a better-coordinated use of the plié, including that handy “one muscle connecting across the front” thing (this helps you to “…fire all of your guns at once and explode into spaaace,” as it were).
You develop that coordination both at the barre and in the little jumps and in increasingly high, tight changements (the double tour is, in essence, simply a changement that spins). High changements in which the legs swivel closely around each-other (as opposed to the primary Vaganova version, where you kind of strike outwards through the change) are a solid preparatory exercise for tours regardless of count. They also contribute to mastering the second factor.
The second factor—a tight, straight axis—depends enormously on your adductors (and a good dance belt, because seriously).
At the apex of your double-tour, your legs should be turned out and clamped tight from top to bottom. Ideally, you shouldn’t be able to pass so much as a piece of paper between them, though there are some guys whose legs are put together in a way that won’t allow them to clamp that tight. I married one. He isn’t a ballet dancer, but even if he was, he’d struggle with double tours even more than the rest of us.
(Conveniently, improving the use of your adductors will also make your beats a million times better. That exercise where you go second-beat-second-beat-second-beat-fifth is the flat-out best demonstration of this principle.)
Your core, back, and shoulders also have a lot to do with getting that second rotation in. I think this has, historically, been one of my difficulties making the jump (ugh, sorry) from single tours (or my infamous 1.5-tours) to double tours: I am a swaybacked little sumbee, and I have spent the past several months working on my posture basically nonstop.
And I do, by the way, mean nonstop. Not just in the studio, but everywhere. If you see some pretentious-looking jackwagon walking through the grocery store like he thinks his shopping trolley is a ballerina and they’re doing some kind of adagio pas, that’s probably me.
Unless he’s like 6 feet tall and blonde. Then it’s probably David Hallberg, who I assume just looks like that anyway, because Ultimate Ballet Prince.
I find it really helpful to remember that anything that deviates from the vertical central axis of the pencil that is me is just wasting energy that could be helping me not wind up doing a 1.5 tour and landing with my face towards all of my fellow dancers and/or my back to my artistic director and/or rehearsal director and/or ballet mistress and/or the audience, if there is an audience.
Obviously, you don’t typically pull your arms in tight on a double tour, but it’s worth mentioning that ice skaters do when they do those octuple-duple toe loops and so forth. Likewise, a lot of guys do double tours with the arms en haut, which both helps you fling yourself into space and probably keeps them aligned to the central axis more effectively than carrying them in first.
That said, I generally carry mine in first (or something like it; it’s hard to tell what my arms are doing when I’m desperately trying to actually spot something specific so our AD doesn’t say, “BOYS! ACTUALLY SPOT SOMETHING WHEN YOU SPOT YOUR DOUBLE TOURS!”). If I pop them up en haut, there’s still a good chance I’ll overdo it, throw my shoulders backwards, and wind up swaybacked and facing the back again.
If you’re not hypermobile in the thorax and shoulder girdle, though, you might not have that problem.
Anyway, it is now officially past my bedtime, so I’ll close here, but consider this the first installment in a series.
Oh, and one last point: the thing that really started me in the right direction was finding a mentor who understood my body and didn’t think my goals were unreasonable (honestly, nobody has yet told me my goals were unreasonable, perhaps in part due to the fact that I have a lot going for me as a dancer, but more likely because I set fairly conservative goals).
I started taking what was nominally a beginning ballet class from BW simply because I wanted to take class from him (his body is not terribly dissimilar from mine, and he’s a fecking amazing dancer). Even before the period of almost a year during which nobody else ever came to his class, he made a point of building exercises that targeted the things I really needed to work on. Sometimes this meant adding variants in for me, since I was most often the most advanced student; sometimes it meant everyone else got to do grueling Vaganova exercises as best they could 😛
Regardless, what really made a huge difference was simply that he understood what it’s like to be someone who is both quite muscular and extremely flexible. By way of example: he knew instinctively that I would have more difficulty than average with turns in second because the extreme mobility of my hips means I have to work to stabilize them in both directions, where most guys just have to worry about not letting them turn in 😛
L’Ancien also has a profound understanding of my body, even though it’s nothing at all like his. He’s just literally been dancing and teaching and making dancers for longer than I’ve been alive. He has the ability to assess one’s capabilities even when one doesn’t have the ability to use them to their maximum effect, which is immensely helpful.
What I’m saying is: it doesn’t matter if you find a teacher whose body is similar to yours, as long as they understand how your body works and how you need to work with it to make the most of your potential.