Category Archives: learning my craft
Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment. There might be times that the strategy to follow won’t work—heck, it could even backfire—so don’t feel like it’s something you must try, or like you’re less of a dancer (or a person, or what have you) if you don’t.
Take care of yourself in the moment you’re in. You don’t have to do everything today; heck, you don’t have to do everything at all. It’s amazingly liberating to realize that, to be honest, a lot of things can wait, and that you’re not even the tiniest bit obligated to try ever possible approach to a problem.
Now, that being said, buckle in if you’d like to join me on a wee excursion into the territory of Imposterland.
Okay, so earlier I was working around the house and listening to Broche Ballet’s podcast and thinking about imposter syndrome (as you do).
Somewhere in there, something reminded me of my early days in the company at Lexington Ballet, back in the Before Times, c 2018.
- Seriously, that feels like about a MILLION YEARS AGO 😱
At the time, I was grappling with a terrible case of imposter syndrome (as you do). It was a rough time. I struggled a lot. On the regular, usually when everything else was also going wrong, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and whispered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not good enough. And they’re gonna figure it out.“
And every now and then, like a lifeline from the Universe, another thought would counter, “So what? Who cares? You’re here. Get to work. Prove them wrong. Rise to the occasion. Earn your spot.“
My life, of course, is not a Hollywood blockbuster, so it didn’t immediately fix everything. Not by a long shot. I still had rough days. I still struggled to pick things up in class more often than I care to admit. I still frequently felt like a squid attempting to dance in size 114 clown shoes.
But at the end of the season, I was offered a contract for the following year—and that comes down, in part, to the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that says, “So what? Who cares? (etc)” That stubborn streak, and the desire to make my Imposter Syndrome eat its words, kept me from walking out when things were at their roughest.
I’ve never thought of imposter Syndrome as an ally in my efforts to build a career as a dancer. I mean, now that I’m reflecting on it, I guess it makes sense to recognize that it’s trying to protect me, but it really often feels like anything but an ally.
But somehow, today, something went ping! and I realized that, indirectly, it has been not only one of my most faithful companions on this journey, but (at times, anyway) a helpful companion.
Imposter syndrome’s timorous whisper has served to feed my tenacity. At critical moments, it has awakened a kind of perverse grit. It has jabbed at the part of me that hates to fail.
I’m not saying this is true for everyone: it’s not even true for me all the time. With two years more-or-less on hiatus under my belt and little to show for it except better port de bras, a somewhat-more-reliable double tour, and a bit more, ahem, insulation than I had when the pandemic began, I’m staring down the barrel of a cross-country move into what is, in terms of dance, terra incognita.
You can bet your bippy that my inner imposter has a lot to say right now, and that the other voice, that stubborn inner voice, doesn’t always reply.
But now I know that I can say to my imposter syndrome, “Yo, thanks for looking out for me, but I’m not quitting. Whether or not I deserved to be where here when I walked through the door, I’m here now, and I’m gonna stick it out and earn my place.”
The funny thing is that sticking it out, in and of itself, really does help. You can do something day in, day out for years without improving at all, but only if your circumstances significantly limit the chance of improvement. Spend enough time doing almost anything with a least a little guidance, and you’re gonna improve.
Back in the fall of 2018, I was as insecure as a teacher of dance and as a choreographer as I was as a dancer.
Flash forward to today, and I’m a reasonably confident teacher: I know I’m not perfect, and that I have a lot to learn, but when I look at my students’ progress, it’s pretty clear that something’s working.
I’m also a reasonably confident choreographer: I set dances that people enjoy watching, and I don’t feel like I haven’t earned the right to do so. When I’m alone in the studio, setting a pas de deux or the corps parts for Act II of Simon Crane, it no longer feels like a pipe dream, or like a vision I shouldn’t look at too directly. Sure, setting an entire gigantic ballet is an enormous goal, and I still have literally no idea how to get there, but I no longer feel like I’m somehow not worthy to try.
I’m not as confident, yet, that I’ve earned my place as a dancer, but I’m getting there poco à poco. Opportunities are appearing that I doubt I could have imagined a few years back.
That’s where sticking it out, even out of nothing but sheer spite, really shines.
It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall. You get scraped up. You kick the curb, the bike, and especially yourself. You get back on. You crash some more. You keep getting back on because like heck some stupid inanimate object is going to beat you. And then at some point you’re sort of tottering along, and you start to pick up some speed, and the air moves over your skin like the breath of G-d moving over the face of the deep, and YOU ARE DOING IT!
- As a cyclist and lover of bikes, I am willing to certify that bikes are only inanimate objects in the loosest sense. Every single bike has a soul, and that soul is the soul of a pony that goes like a dream for a skilled rider with quiet hands, but will dump a N00b in a puddle STAT and then stand there laughing about it: not malicious, exactly, but perhaps a bit cynical, with a keen sense of the Order of Things. Every horse person on earth has met some version of this pony. So has every cyclist.
And then, of course, you crash again. You tend to crash a lot in the beginning, because that’s how beginnings work. Heck, if you’re a baby wood duck, your first experience of flight is being shoved out of the nest to crash in the underbrush, presumably so when is time to learn to fly, you’ll already know what crashing is like, and you won’t let it stop you (or possibly because some distant ancestor long ago decided that eggs were safer in trees, and here we are).
But, anyway, wood duck, cyclist, or dancer, you get up and dust off and get back to it. You’ve started, so you might as well keep on going.
And if you keep going long enough, you might just figure it out. You might discover, after all, that while you were looking elsewhere, you’ve earned your spot.
I used to think every other professional dancer I knew could see all my flaws. Now, I know they can: but most of them also choose—and I’m immensely grateful for this—to see my strengths.
The strength that is a spiteful refusal to give in to my imposter syndrome—or, seen from another angle, the conviction to endure through whatever trial arises—may or may not be invisible. I suspect my AD at LexBallet saw it plainly from time to time.
But, looking back, it’s a strength that I guess I can see.
One last thing: I know that privilege is a part of this. Opportunity is unequally distributed, especially for male ballet dancers, who are still pretty thin on the ground and who thus enjoy a far greater chance of finding a spot. So is the kind of financial security that affords both good training and the ability to absorb the financial challenges that come with being an artist. So is health.
Likewise, I have done exactly none of this on my own. Dancers are unicorns not only in that we’re kind of rare, but in that we—like Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn—need others to see us; to believe in us; to know what we are. We’re a communal concern, whether we like it or not.
The thought of exactly how much artistic potential goes untapped either through lack of opportunity or through lack of recognition and support is, quite frankly, staggering.
- Not recognition in the public, award-receiving sense, but in the private, “I am your teacher and I see that you have a gift and I’m going to tell you about it, along with anyone I know who can help you develop it” sense
Please know that if lack of privilege, of opportunity, of means, of health, of recognition, or of support—or, really, anything else: life is full of obstacles—stands in your way, I am not saying, “Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps!”
Imposter syndrome is a mirage, but there are plenty of real obstacles in the world, and imposter syndrome can make it even harder to overcome them.
If you’re in the woods, if you’re in the country of obstacles, I hope you’ll find your way clear (and I’ll help any way that I’m able, though I have no idea what that might look like).
I hope also that you might be able to harness your inner imposter. Maybe even make friends with them.
I’m not really there yet, but why not?
Suddenly, here it is almost May.
This happens to me every year, but it’s definitely worse without the structure of the ballet company schedule(1).
- How am I supposed to keep track of which month it is if the only major landmark is Nutcracker? Jeez.
Which, in turn, means that summer is barreling down on us at a staggering rate of *checks google* 1038ish miles per hour, give or take(2), replete with its array of Summer Intensives.
- circumference of the earth/24 (3)
- Wow, only a few sentences in and I’ve already included 2 notes and a note-on-a-note
I’ve already committed to LouBallet’s Adult Summer Intensive, which seems like a really good way to finish out my … seven??? years of training there—a way to spend some concentrated time with some of my favorite teachers and classmates while also, of course, keeping my ballet skills on point(e). Besides, it’s a great program, and we get to learn cool original choreography (some of which has made it to my video CV/audition reel, because I actually felt good about it after watching it).
It’s also fairly affordable, which is more important than usual, since I don’t yet have paid work lined up for, like, after this summer (fortunately, D does).
I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to do basically anything else this summer that doesn’t at least offer me a full scholarship or the equivalent thereof, but there are several programs I’m flat-out dying to attend (DuCon!!!!! ADF! Pilobolus!) if finances magically allow. Likewise, I’m ever-curious about adult SI offerings, and I like to keep an ear to the wind about what’s available—so, from time to time, I go hunting.
And in the process of hunting, I’ve noticed something.
Adult SI Pricing Can Bring You To (Two?), Ahem, Tiers
Yeah, you’re right. That was terrible. Sorry.
In the growing world of adult summer intensives and workshops, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern: there are basically two pricing tiers.
- Tier One: programs that are actually less expensive per week than a lot of (perhaps even most) youth SIs
- Tier Two: programs that are either as expensive as or actually wildly more expensive per week than even top-notch youth SIs
Tuition for the second tier of adult SIs typically runs more than twice the weekly cost of tuition at the first tier, though the dance offerings are often comparable (or, in some cases, richer at the Tier One programs).
I’m curious about what drives the difference in price, and whether the organizers of the different programs (especially Tier Two programs) realize how deeply pricing might impact the makeup of the student body at any individual program.
Given that none of these programs, as far as I know, are restricted to local students only, and that the adult ballet community justly thirsts for quality SIs like hummingbirds thirst for nectar (though it’s fair to say we dancers are less likely to stab each-other in the pursuit of coveted spots around the feeder), “what the market will bear” clearly isn’t the only factor at play. Likewise, all of them have limited spaces, and the number of available spots doesn’t seem to have much to do with pricing models (if it did, we could expect both LouBallet’s and LexBallet’s SIs, which are limited to fairly small numbers, to command much higher prices).
Bringing Tiers To You: A Look At Prices
A brief survey of adult SI pricing reveals a pretty broad range, but it’s worth noting that many of the Tier One programs, though typically open to dancers at all levels, are designed in ways that allow them to serve serious dancers across the spectrum from fairly new beginners to emerging professionals.
Lexington Ballet’s adult SI (scroll to the bottom of the linked page for registration info), at $240 for five four-hour days, continues to be an absolute steal, and I’m not just saying that because LexBallet has been my company and my ballet home for the past few years. The quality of instruction is superb, and I don’t know of an adult SI that’s priced more affordably (unless we start breaking things down per hour, in which case it’s Mutual Dance Theater, hands down). Participants from this SI have found also their way into character roles and even company contracts, thanks to the close participation of LexBallet’s AD, School Director, and other artistic staff.
Mutual Dance Theater’s Modern SI–the one I took a few years ago, before Mam-Luft & Co merged with Mutual–runs $399 at most (late-bird tuition, for disorganized folks like me) for a packed week, with programming 9 AM to 5 PM every day. It’s not ballet-specific, and it’s not one I’d recommend to a true beginner in any dance idiom, but it’s a beast of an intensive (in a good way), and hella affordable. It’s also very much geared towards emerging professionals.
LouBallet, fairly typical of the first tier with its $550 tuition for a 5.5-day program, could almost certainly double its tuition and then some and still fill the spaces. Instead, they’ve chosen to keep the tuition right where it’s been (for which I am deeply grateful). Ashley Thursby-Kern, who runs the program, specifically considers its role in offering an intensive program for college dancers and emerging professionals who may have aged out of youth SIs, while continuing to foster an environment that supports new dancers as well.
Westside Ballet’s program, located in Santa Monica, is a bit shorter per session (3 hours/day over 4 days) but offers three sessions priced at $500 each. The faculty includes Martine Harley, who is the company’s AD, and Sven Toorvald, along with others representing some top-tier companies. The third week focuses on pas de deux and variations, and if I wasn’t teaching an SI that week, I’d find some way to get my behind out there for that.
ArtEmotion‘s offering– the most expensive I’ve included in this category–looks very comparable to LouBallet’s and, at $800, still seems pretty approachable to those of us in the “broke-ass dancer” category. This is one of the oldest ongoing adult intensives, held at Ballet West’s Salt Lake City studio, and has long been on my list of Intensives I’d Attend If They Weren’t The Same Week As Something Else I’m Already Doing.
- This is a fugly link, so if it doesn’t work, try this one: LouBallet MBB Landing Page
- Assume that this category includes both “lay” dancers with limited disposable income and those of us among the professional segment who usually have access to at least some summer programming for free, but who might have been impacted by pandmic-related closures and/or impending moves (hi) and, either way, still need to stay in shape until September.
These programs, and programs like them–my “First Tier” adult SIs–are largely affiliated with established ballet companies or schools. Access to existing studio space and, perhaps, a built-in supply of students and teachers explain at least some of their relatively affordable prices.
They also tend to be light on extracurriculars–those factors that might make things feel a bit more like a vacation, I guess. Not that you need them after, for example, eight straight hours of modern dance buttkickery.
Tier Two, meanwhile, is a bit more of a mixed bag: one of the programs in question features one of my favorite master teachers and looks like an absolute banger of a program for focused advanced dancers; others seem a bit more like relaxing ballet-themed getaways.
I realize that this perception is very much colored by my experience as one of the aforementioned Emerging Professionals, with its attendant feature of being both chronically broke and accustomed to dancing 30+ hours per week. As my friend Tony (who looks like a tall Steven McRae) says, “Hi Ho, the theatrical life.”
So what kind of programs, you might ask, are in Tier Two?
First, of course: SunKing, the granddaddy of adult SIs. At the time of this writing, SunKing doesn’t have a website up, and I’m not clear on whether or not it’s actually happening this year (links to SK’s Facebarge), but it was always out of my price range anyway. It was one of the few that had enough draw to offer a partnering class, which would’ve been awesome to take before I embarked on Ballet Company Lyfe (y’all, learning partnering piecemeal while rehearsing actual ballets isn’t ideal, is what I’m saying), but not quite awesome enough to warrant launching an OnlyFans or something at this point in my career. Still, I’ve always had the impression that the actual instruction overall was quite good.
Given the serious, focused programs and excellent instruction available in Tier One, there’s only one Tier Two program that leaves me feeling butthurt about being, well, semi-broke, and that’s Runqiao Du’s inaugural DuCon–which I’d leap to attend, if I could afford it (but I can’t, unless I figure out how to make a few thosand dollars PRONTO). DuCon falls at the, well, less-inaccessible end of my second tier: tuition runs $1499 for one week or $2799 for both weeks, and the program offers an excellent teaching staff (Mr. Du himself, plus others), a 6-day week, and programming that runs from 9:30 AM ’til 8:00 PM Monday through Friday. Moreover, Du’s youth SI (which also runs for two weeks) is priced exactly the same, so we (would-be) adult participants aren’t left feeling like cash cows.
At the far end of Tier 2 is another brand-new event: International Adult Ballet Festival. Not gonna lie—I was intrigued when I heard about this one on the Broche Ballet podcast: the program offers a workshop, showcase, and a competition (not a selling point for me, but certainly a unique offering). However, at only 4 days long, IABF comes with a staggering $2950 price tag. To be fair, that does include hotel room, breakfast, lunch, and a couple other meals–but broke-ass dancers are pretty good at finding cheap housing and food, and if I’ma drop $3k on tuition, it’s going to be at DuCon or ADF.
Don’t get me wrong, IABF sounds like a really fun event–but it’s pretty clear that I’m not really their target audience (this isn’t a program that believes adult dancers can’t build careers in dance, but I don’t think it’s really intended for those of us who are already doing so). Likewise, the website’s vibe is more Awesome Ballet Vacation than Come Get Your Ass Handed To You For A Week Or Two. There’s value in both those approaches, of course. Likewise, the event does bill itself as a festival, rather than as a Summer Intensive: more, “Come celebrate ballet!” than “Come suffer with us!” And it’s good that such a thing can exist.
But still. $2950 for 4 days. Wow.
Do Different Tiers Reflect Different Audiences?
As an autistic person, I am perhaps more inclined than most to sort of forget that people can be interested in the same things I’m interested in, but experience those interests very differently(6).
- Some people can apparently like things without tending to rebuild their entire lives around those things! Who knew?!
It doesn’t automatically occur to me that someone else might want to take a summer intensive for different reasons than I do, or maybe, for the same reasons, but perhaps prioritized differently.
Life, for me, the drivers (at least, the ones I can think of right now), ordered by priority, might look like this:
- Refine and improve technique for upcoming season and/or auditions
- Dance AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
- Learn new steps and/or new partnering skills
- Learn repertoire
- Maintain at least the bare minimum fitness level that will prevent me dying on Day 1 of new company class, assuming successful auditions
- Ideally, add a useful piece to my audition reel
- Hang out with my peeps, new and existing
Explicitly not in my list are the following:
- Take a break from my regular job (because ballet is my regular job)
- Find out what it’s like to be able to dance full-time (again, bc that’s basically already my life)
This makes it difficult to imagine choosing a 4-day intensive at any price when there are so many available that run 5 or 6 days or longer: my primary goal is to immerse myself in a demanding curriculum for as long as possible.
Likewise, I find it difficult to imagine being a dancer, but also being satisfied living a life in which a four-day ballet immersion would feel that much different from, like, normal life, because my experience of being a dancer has basically been, “Holy heck, drop everything else, this is the thing
i MUST do.”
And yet, rationally, I am aware that I know people in that exact target market—people who have very demanding careers that they love outside of dance, not to mention family lives that don’t basically also revolve around ballet, but who also passionately love dancing.
Quite a few of them could easily afford a few thousand dollars for a short, almost-all-inclusive ballet intensive. Time is probably in shorter supply for them than it is for me, and the sheer convenience of having almost everything planned out might mean saying, “Hey, I can do this!” instead of “Wow, yeah, I don’t have the time/mental bandwidth/whatever for all this planning.”
Likewise, the fact that I straight up forgot to put “have fun” on my list of priorities says a LOT … though mostly what it’s saying is that, even during the roughest parts of my first year with LexBallet, I still had fun, and I still wanted to be there more than I wanted to be anywhere else in the world.
So it doesn’t occur to me to put “have fun” on the list, because, even if the atmosphere somewhere turns out to be awful, I’m going to enjoy dancing anyway. Especially if I know I’m only there for, at best, a few weeks.
For someone who’s returning to work in another field after their summer program, on the other hand, fun and relaxation might be much higher priorities. There’s something to be said for options existing that fit the needs of people in that situation, too.
Conclusion: I Which I Leave You In Tiers
(Or not, depending on if adult summer intensives are of any interest to you at all.)
Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the Most Important Thing In The World.
But it’s a valuable insight for me (as someone who is fully behind the idea that different people have different wants and needs but who is also sometimes an absolute bonehead at imagining them), and I hope it might be helpful to others considering adult summer programs—especially, maybe, those considering their first adult summer program.
For me, for example, Mam-Luft (now Mutual) was in many ways a great first summer program—but it was also extremely demanding, often emotionally challenging, sometimes lonely, and just plain physically exhausting. I definitely had some major breakthro moments, but I also failed A LOTTTTT in front of 50 people, with no hope of fading into anonymity, since I was the ONLY guy that year. Oh, and I shredded my foot.
If I hadn’t, by then, already been a pretty experienced student, quietly putting in the foundations for a career in dance; if I was of a less stubborn constitution; maybe especially if I’d taken that SI knowing I had to go back to stressful job, I might’ve felt very differently about exactly the same experience. It might even have made me conclude that SIs weren’t for me, which would’ve been a shame.
So maybe the real TL;DR for this post goes like this:
- There are a lot of adult summer programs now! That’s awesome!
- The programs can be roughly divided into two pricing tiers
- The price of a program doesn’t directly reflect the quality of instruction—most of them look pretty solid!
- The less-expensive programs seem more likely to attract a mixed student body of both amateur and professional dancers
- The more expensive programs are more likely to include things like meals and extracurricular events
- Before you choose a program, it’s a good idea to hash out your needs, goals, and priorities (Will you be going straight back to work in a busy emergency room? Consider a shorter or more relaxed program—you’ll still learn a lot, but you won’t return to work exhausted)
- If you choose a shorter or more relaxed program this year and discover that you want to go harder, you’ll have gained valuable insight for next time
- On the other hand, if you choose a challenging program send find it’s a little too much right now, you can either try again next year or try an easier one next year
- If you get to go to DuCon, please tell me whether it’s as awesome as it sounds so i can figure out whether i need $3000 extra next year 😅
A Final Note: American Dance Festival & Pilobolus
Although I could arguably include American Dance Festival’s Summer Dance Institute in either one of my tiers, and would love to attend the full program, I’m setting it off to one side for now. In short, although full-time tuition runs $2,275, it’s comparable in length to a full-scale youth SI, and offers a staggering array of programming geared towards developing professional dancers. Likewise, you can actually Choose-Your-Own-Adventure your way through it by taking individual classes at $750/4-week class.
Likewise, although the cost-per-session of Pilobolus’ excellent program has increased to around $1000, its generous scholarship program makes it relatively accessible, though you can still rack up $3000 in tuition if you go for all three sessions at full cost. It’s also kind of in its own category because, honestly, a lot of ballet people probably wouldn’t be super interested, which is fine.
I know I’ve written about this before, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again, but because for some unfathomable reason I’ve spent basically my entire day on Twitter grooving on threads from the neurodivergent, EDS, and disability communities, it occurs to me to write about why the ballet is a good fit for me, specifically as it interfaces with autism.
Everyone on earth has now written a summary of the basic diagnostic criteria for autism, so I’m not going to do that, here. Y’all know how to Google if you need more info -.^
Instead, I’m going to touch on how working as a dancer in a ballet company is a good fit for me as an autistic person, breaking things down as I go by the specific traits in question.
So, here we go.
Narrow Range Of Specialized Interests
Hooooo, boy. With the exception of the equestrian world and certain subsets of academia (I see you, paleobiologists!), I’m not sure there are too many actual career paths that dovetail as neatly here.
Ballet is an all-encompassing special interest. It requires your body, your mind, and basically all of your time. It’s one of the very few career paths in which obsessive focus on the subject is essentially an entry-level requirement—like, the only way to make it through the training is to be motivated enough by ballet itself, which is why dancers everywhere giggle at t-shirts that read, “I CAN’T. I HAVE CLASS.”
Like, we’ve all been there, and (excepting the few who get shoved into it by overbearing parents), we all chose that life.
As autistics, we experience this thing where people get really sick of our special interests. I honestly have only met one person in the ballet world who occasionally gets tired of talking about ballet, and even he doesn’t get tried enough of it to resent it—he’s just delighted when people bring their non-dancing partners to dancer shindigs so he can talk to them about, like, politics or futböl ^-^
It’s not that we dancers never talk about anything else—but in the studio after rehearsal, or at gatherings of dancers, nobody gets mad if you talk about ballet, or if all your jokes are specific to dance.
I suppose part of this is that ballet leaves precious little time for other pursuits—but, also, you only get that far if it basically consumes your whole being.
Rigid Adherence To Routine
I go to class even when I’m on holiday.
This is, of course, partly because I like going to class, and partly because the only way to stay in shape for ballet is, well, ballet.
But I’ve realized it’s also, to a significant extent, because no matter where I go, class is class. Barre is barre. Centre is centre. Allegro is the best thing that ever—erm, sorry, allegro is allegro.
There may be minor variations (Ha! Ballet puns!) in the routine, but overall, when I step into the studio, I can relax a bit more than I normally do, because I understand the process, and I know what will happen.
That Whole “Systematizing” Thing
NGL, I love a good system—and ballet is a system.
It comes with its own entire language and four hundred years of etiquette, which (bonus!) is largely explicit.
Better still, it combines beautifully with a systematic understanding of anatomy and physiology.
Yes, parts of the system are problematic and due for overhaul—but that can happen in any system. A strong system will weather those changes and come out the other side better than it was.
Ballet has been doing that for four hundred years. As long as we allow it to, it will continue.
Being a member of a company also provides a systematic framework for managing time. Class begins at the same time six days a week; rehearsal and performance schedules are posted where you can see them enter day, but you’ve also got your fellow dancers to remind you that, oh yeah, this Friday we have an outreach gig after lunch.
In a well-organized company, you know the temporal framework for the entire season when you arrive on Day One. Specific parts of it may change due to casting or whatever (for example, global pandemics o.O), but the broad strokes are there.
The Social Aspect
My particular autism is probably most observable in the casual social contexts most NT folks seem to really enjoy—the ones where there’s no specific topic or activity, just general chumming around with a bunch of people. I have literally no idea what to do in those circumstances unless someone fires up a conversation that falls in my range of Known Topics ^.^’
And G-d help me if it’s the kind of party where there’s music and lots of different, overlapping conversations but no room to just dance . I can’t with parties like that—my spoken language processing is too limited, and my brain stops bothering, so I typically find the quietest possible place to hole up with a match-3 game on my phone.
- If there’s room to dance, on the other hand, I’m in my element. It didn’t even really matter what kind of music is playing.
There’s some very interesting research happening about much of autistic social difficulty results directly to autistic neurodivergce itself and how much results from the social opportunity costs of being different, particularly during childhood, bu it’s generally agreed that autistics on the whole typically struggle with social stuff.
Ballet might seem like a weird way to address that, since the typical class offers little or no time for what we think of as socializing. But what it lacks in time to chat, it makes up for in spades under the heading of “shared/corporate/communal experience”—which works well for me as someone who grooves on the whole “parallel play” modality, and which in itself provides fodder for chats outside of class and rehearsal (or during breaks).
- In the sense of “people doing things together as a single entity”—ie, a body, or corpus
You don’t have to know how to have a casual conversation to be part of a group of dancers—but being part of a group of dancers can help you get better at having a casual conversation. At least, it did that for me. I’m not going to say I ever totally stopped being The Weird Kid at LexBallet, but people got to know and like me well enough to see past the discomfort that causes.
Addendum: Oh, and because I totally failed to mention it: there’s nothing as social as partnering. (Well, maybe one other thing ^-^’)
You Never Have To Sit Still
Okay, except sometimes, like if you’re a corps girl in parts of Swan Lake or the Master of Ceremonies during certain parts of The Sleeping Beauty. But, even then, it’s a very active way of being still, and will inevitably be relieved by movement.
I often tell people the story of sitting (“sitting,” lol) in a meeting at the last non-ballet job I had and experiencing this intense revelation: like, literally everyone else in the room was physically able to sit still.
I was the only one doing a jig under the table, furiously taking notes to stay engaged, drawing when there was a lull, and constantly shifting in my chair.
That was the moment when I realized with absolute clarity that I did not belong there. Not in a value-judging way—just in a, “Wow, this is not my environment” way. I realized I wasn’t about to “grow into” sitting down at a desk—not then, and probably not ever.
I need to move in order to function. I mean, yes, that’s true for everyone, don’t get me wrong—basically it’s what makes us not plants. Even sessile species like sea anemones go through phases where the they float around irresponsibly before finding grown-up jobs and settling down.
What I mean is that, for whatever reason, my brain/body compels me to move more than most people are compelled to move.
I think better when I’m moving. I feel better when I’m moving. Moving helps me organize my senses and my thoughts.
Honestly, my brain is kind of like one of those sharks that starts to die if it stops swimming, only replace “die” with “dance a stationary jig while quietly losing the plot, but not actually processing information in any meaningful way.”
I don’t necessarily panic—I just get more and more restless, and the excess spills over in the form of more meltdowns and less sleep. Well, and also just having to get up and take a walk, to anywhere, even if it’s just the despised printer, enemy of humankind, or the file cabinet or whatevs.
Also, I just have a metric shedload of extra energy to burn off, and nothing does that like ballet-company life . Teaching gets partway there, but drains my social meter harder than it does my hyperactivity, so it doesn’t lead to the kind of productive exhaustion that makes me actually feel my best and reliably sleep well.
- working with horses also comes very close, but it’s hard to work at a barn and in a ballet company at the same time; being a picker in a gigantic warehouse also burns off tons of energy, but isn’t as helpful in other ways
This is never a problem in ballet, because in ballet, moving is literally your job.
So, Like, In Summary
Anyway, this is long enough.
I’ve written it in part because I’m sure there are people out there who are like, “Wait, I thought all autistics did computers or trains or math,” or even, “How can an autistic person possibly work in ballet?”
I hope this goes a little way towards helping things make sense for people in those camps, but it also helps me understand better what I need from my work environment and why company life, even during my “unpaid trainee/bottom of the pile” days, meant so much to me and worked so well for me.
I’ve been thinking hard about how to make things work going forward, because normally, in dance, you kind of audition everywhere and you go where the job is, but things are happening in my life (nothing ominous, just … responsibilities and stuff) that mean I’ll be moving to a specific place whether or not I get a company spot there.
That has been pretty scary, because I haven’t been sure how to continue building my life as a dancer if that happens. Like, literally, as a not-tall guy who still has some rough spots in his training, that’s a very real possibility. There might not be a company that has a spot for me right now.
But knowing why company life works for me will help me begin to see my way to building a working life that does work, even if that happens.
So it’s been a while.
We’ve been redacting mold, DIYing our basement living space back into shape after redacting said mold, and otherwise generally working on the house like crazy, while at the same time I’m rehearsing four (I think?) separate things and teaching.
So, erm, it’s rather a lot.
I am bad at the kind of adulting that involves juggling four separate, unrelated rehearsal schedules and anything else, never mind that plus everything else. And yet, here we are.
This week I found myself in a frazzle because my brain momentarily decided to latch on to the idea that I might not manage to teach all of my students all of the absolutely correct technique they might need and ten years from now one of them might be in an audition somewhere going, “Oh, snap, I’ve been doing that wrong my entire life.“
And then I realized, like—yeah. That will probably happen. And, to be honest, it’s okay.
I wish it was possible to guarantee that 100% of what I teach would both be absolutely sound and absorbed perfectly. But isn’t, and it never has been.
My own technique has its rough spots (I mean, I don’t call myself “danseur ignoble” for nothin’). My own teachers have probably passed along some quirks, and I certainly came up with plenty of them all by myself.
That’s fine. I don’t resent any of my teachers for the shortcomings I have now; instead, I appreciate how hard they tried to teach me correct, classical technique. I owe my career largely to my teachers’ sound methods, partly to the good graces of directors who have the ability to look beyond my quirks, partly to my ridiculously good feet (still, lol), partly to my own work ethic, and a little bit to raw talent.
People rock up to auditions with all kinds of flaws, because nobody’s perfect. Even if that wasn’t the case, different directors like different versions of things (like: I paused today to ask Mr D whether he wanted our waltz turns to brush through twice or to brush to the front and petit développé/pas de cheval to the back, because both versions are valid and I’ve been doing a lot of the second one lately).
Even students graduating from the best, longest-established schools aren’t perfect. That’s one of the things I love about ballet: no matter how good we are, we can always continue to strive for perfection. The fact that it’s unattainable is immaterial. The practice is the thing.
Likewise, there is no such thing as a perfect teacher. I will make mistakes. I will explain things with crazy analogies that may or may not take root. I will miss some things and overcorrect others.
In the end, I won’t be perfect, either as a dancer or as a teacher, but I suspect that my students will forgive me.
The important part is to teach, to the best of my ability, technique that is as strong and consistent as I can make it, and to continue learning both as a dancer and a teacher so that over time I can teach more effectively.
If I do that, I’ve done my part towards ensuring that most of the technique my students bring to the table will be strong and consistent, provided that the students also do their part, that the winds are favorable, and that, as they say, “the creek don’t riz.”
Because, y’all, I may be a somewhat teacher of regular ballet, but I’m wholly unqualified as an instructor of water ballet.
Once upon a time, when I was eight years old, I received my very first violin—and with it, an introduction to the care of sensitive musical instruments: tune gently, handle with care, be careful of drastic changes in temperature and humidity.
Most of us, even if we don’t explicitly know these things, can intuit them from experiences with things like doors that stick when the humidity is high or swing loosely when it’s low. As such, nobody in their right mind would chastise a concert violinist for deciding not to play a Stradivarius in the rain.
Apparently, however, there’s been something of a fracas over the decision that gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles made to bow out at the Olympics this year (2021, if you’re visiting from the future ^.-).
Many people, it seems, found it very difficult to understand why she might do such a thing, and hurled all manner of invective at her. Biles handled the situation with the same power, grace, and aplomb she displays on the mats.
What her detractors didn’t (and don’t) understand is that Biles’ decision was one that would, for any gymnast, require an immense—even an immeasurable—strength of character. A thousand times more so on the world stage that the Olympics represent.
Because gymnasts, on the whole, grow up in a world that teaches them that there’s no such word as “can’t,” and that winners never quit.
From the first moment budding gymnasts step onto the mat, they’re subjected to a long-standing culture of incredible physical and mental toughness and self-sacrifice. You don’t become even an entry-level competitive gymnast without learning to “tough it out” and “walk it off,” never mind the kind of powerhouse competitor that Biles has become.
To some extent, this is necessary. Gymnastics, like ballet, is hard. It’s tiring and sometimes uncomfortable and demands that an aspiring athlete must learn to reach for deeper reserves of strength than many or even most people living typical, comfortable lives in the developed world can imagine. (Edit: come to think of it, people who’ve given birth prolly get it 🤔)
However, for much of its history, gymnastics training has demanded this in excess, and the result has been injury (and its long-term consequences), careers cut short, and all too often the inability of both gymnasts and coaches to see the body’s breaking point coming until it’s too late. (If this sounds like the ballet world, by the way, it should. Dancers face the same pressures from a similarly young typical age at entry.)
Those of us who have trained seriously in gymnastics understand this. We know what it is to bounce up off the floor after what observers might regards as a terrifying fall and jump right back in without stopping to make sure we’re okay. We know what it is to feel uncertain about whether an injury can withstand the pressure of training or competition and step onto the mats anyway.
We know how very, very effing hard it is, after a lifetime of being told, “Get up; shake it off; you’ve got this,” to say, “You know what? No. I’m staying down and I don’t have this right now, thanks.”
Simone Biles knows her body. She knows her mind. And the fortitude it took to stand before the entire world and say, in essence,”No, I’m not okay to do this right now and I’m not going to take the risk” … That’s a fortitude that a lot of people, to be honest, can’t even imagine.
In short, Biles simply refused to break out her Stradivarius in a hurricane. The fact that the hurricane was an invisible one is irrelevant.
To say, “Biles refused to break out her Stradivarius in 90% humidity” might be more accurate, but it might also be harder for people to understand. So we’ll stick with the hurricane analogy.
Gymnasts, hockey players, dancers, bike racers, aerialists, and many other athletes understand implicitly how very tough Biles had to be to do that.
We also understand that her decision was, whether she thought of it this way or not in the moment, a stand for all the young athletes growing up in athletic cultures in which it’s considered anathema to say, “No.”
In my own life, I’ve injured myself by pushing through things I shouldn’t have, extended the time to full rehabilitation by pushing too hard too soon, and on some occasions avoided serious injury solely by a combination of pure dumb luck with excellent reflexes and an unusually elastic body.
I could’ve avoided most of these things simply by learning, earlier in my life, that there really is a point at which you can and should say, “No.”
My generation grew up with coaches who, as young gymnasts themselves, were inspired by Nadia Comaneci’s endurance under harrowing conditions and Mary Lou Retton’s maxim, “Follow your dreams.”
Those stories bear so much merit—but I can’t explain how much it meant to me, and what a wave of … relief? release? liberation? … broke through me when I heard (through DisabilityTwitter!) about Biles’ decision. I mean I literally, physically felt it—like something exploding deep in my chest, but in the best possible way.
Like the moment when you see someone you love crash their bike hard, and you think, Oh f**K, they’re a goner, but then they get up and look around and kind of dust themselves off, and your heart just goes BOOM because, frankly, you’re so relieved. Or like the first moment in your life you realize that you really, really trust someone.
As an artist-athlete and teacher of artist-athletes, somehow it was Simone Biles that really crystallized for me the idea that, yes—you can say, “I’m not taking my Stradivarius out in the rain.”
I’ve been saying those words for a long time now, but a part of me had a hard time believing them when it came to my own instrument. I could believe them for my students, but not for myself, and that meant I wasn’t always living those words, whether for my students or for myself.
Simone Biles made that idea real for me.
Going forward, of course, negotiating that reality in the world of ballet, where sometimes you’re the only guy and without you the pas de deux isn’t gonna happen, will be another thing entirely. But it always is. Action can’t be divorced from context like that, yo.
Chances are that I’m still going to have to explain, once in a while, why I chose to break out my instrument in the midst of a downpour. I pray that in those moments I’ll be granted the wisdom and grace to do so with clarity, but human beings are imperfect and maybe I won’t, and that’s part of life, too.
You might be wondering what this has to do with Ehlers-Danlos.
Well, two things.
First, from what I understand, Simone Biles also has hypermobile-type EDS and her decision was at least partly based on an episode of “the Twisties,” aka proprioceptive dysfunction.
Proprioceptive dysfunction is a feature of EDS—one that can be really hard for people without EDS to understand, especially where elite athletes and dancers are concerned. It’s understandably hard for them to imagine how you can be someone who’s at the top of the world (or at least, pretty darned good) in a sport or artform that depends on exceptional spatial and body awareness and also be someone whose proprioceptive faculties just … go on strike sometimes.
And yet, that’s how it is. Sometimes the right matrix of stressors makes things go extra haywire, and the systems that allow us to fly through the air with the greatest of ease just plotz. And, trust me, neither you nor we need us flying through the air when that happens.
Second, my excessive sweatiness is very probably also related to EDS—it’s part of the suite of dysautonomic features that come with the package, so to speak—as are my orthostatic hypotension/POTS, episodes of (literally) staggering fatigue, sometimes-weird relationship to hunger and thirst signals, and possibly my tendency to dump salt in my sweat.
So, on Saturday, these conspired to create a situation in which I rocked up to the gym for a doubles coaching session on the apparatus we’ve nicknamed “the rodeo lyra” (bc that mofo will throw you like a bronc if you don’t pay attention) already feeling spacey and fatigued and missed the first mount with the apparatus hung so low I could’ve just forward-folded onto it, lmao (in point of fact, the mount we’re using is harder on a lower apparatus, but not so much harder that I, who literally never miss a mount, would have just completely failed at it if things weren’t decidedly pear-shaped from the word go).
It’s pretty hilarious in retrospect, of course, but at the time scared the hell out of D, who’s my partner in this piece. He’s well aware that I never miss mounts, and because the mount in question results in us facing away from each-other upside-down, he couldn’t see me. His own nervous system decided that the only possible explanation for the fact that my weight wasn’t balancing his was that I had either fallen and broken my neck or was strangling in the span-sets above the hoop o_O””’
I decided (with a little help from ABM, our kind and intrepid coach) to reschedule and go home to take care of whatever the heck was going on with my body (in case you’re wondering, it was what they call “chronic hyponatremia”—the kind you get when your electrolyte levels drop below a certain point over the course of a few days).
Anyway, while I was apologizing to everyone and trying to be okay with that decision, ABM said to me, “You know what we’re calling that now? We’re saying, ‘You Simoned it.'”
As in, you made the right call—you saw that storm coming and put your instrument away.
And I hecking love that.
PS: I got a bunch of rest, sucked down a bunch of noodles with salty broth (and spinach and chicken), and felt like myself again on Sunday. I opted out of morning modern and ballet classes bc I wasn’t sure my electrolyte levels were up to that kind of sweating yet, but was able to get through a slowish-paced lyra class and a rehearsal session on the rodeo lyra.
That’s why you Simone it: because sometimes the best way to get up and kill it tomorrow is to lie the hecking heck down and drink salty, salty broth today.
PPS: I’m working on addressing the dietary imbalances that led to this situation, so hopefully it won’t happen again any time soon. Basically, the past two weeks were unreasonably hot, and there were several days that I forgot to add electrolyte powder to my water but still sweated buckets of salty, salty sweat.
Saturday morning, I had an outdoor performance gig, and although the heat wasn’t as intense as it’s been, I still sweated like a firehose, as I do, and apparently that was the last straw, bc I was a glassy-eyed zombie by 1 PM when our coaching session was scheduled.
One of the joys of hyponatremia will be familiar to endurance athletes who’ve faced the dreaded “Bonk:” your body just … refuses. In the case of the classic Bonk, it’s typically attributed to the depletion of glycogen stores without sufficient carbohydrate replacement, but depletion of electrolytes yields the same basic result (as opposed to extreme over-hydration, which can lead to rapid swelling of the brain, coma, and death before you quite grasp what’s going on o_o).
It’s like someone cranks the power to your muscles way, way down. That’s how I missed my mount. My brain sent the signals to execute the movement, and my body just kind of didn’t.
It tried, bless its heart, because my body is (as I’m learning to understand) a miraculous beast like one of those fantastic, sweet, patient draught horses who will try with everything in themselves to do whatever you ask of them and will almost always succeed. My friend and teacher Killer B recently summed this up by enthusiastically replying, “… Which can do everything!” when I said, “It’s so good to take class with someone who understands my body.”
But in this case, while the conscious motor controls were sending out the plan for “pullover mount to straddle balance,” the unconscious ones were trying to take care of the body by down-regulating the wattage so I wouldn’t waste any more electrolytes doing athletic stuff and possibly die, and/or there just wasn’t enough sodium left for electrical signaling to be that efficient.
Either way, the immediate result was muscles that wouldn’t fire with enough power to bring me over the bar from a standing position. Instead, I got a powerful lesson in really listening to my body.
This isn’t hyperbole, btw. There is no muscling through that specific experience. You can try all you like, but you’re really no longer the one in primary control of the ship. Until you experience that sensation (and I suspect that in our sodium-enriched and largely sedentary culture, most never will), it’s very difficult—maybe even impossible—to imagine.
Fwiw, as an experience, I don’t recommend it. Like, 2/10, and it only gets the 2 bc hecking heck, does it ever teach you some things. But they’re things you can learn without taking all the way to that extreme, and it’s No Fun At All, as the delightfully hedonistuc elves used to say as they died in whatever magical-realm civ-building game of yore that was.
GIF credits: all via Tenor via WP.
If you are a dancer, or you have a partner or friend or loved one who is, you already know: we dancers are incredibly critical of our work.
So to watch a video in which I’m dancing and think, before I’ve thought anything else, “That was good!” is a big deal.
Anyway, today I finished a week-long summer intensive session in which I (GASP!) actually talked to people I don’t know and, like, made some friends ❤ This was a really lovely group of dancers, and I would happily dance with any of them again any time.
We learned and performed (via livestream and for a small audience outside the big window of our studio) a brand-new piece choreographed by Ashley Thursby-Kern and Theresa Bautista, and when I watched it, I found myself thinking, “That was good!”
Not just their choreography, or the performance of my fellow dancers–but for once I was able to look at myself and think that.
It wasn’t perfect, of course, but ballet never is. And I think that we did rather a fine job learning and polishing it in the span of five days.
Anyway, for the moment, you can catch it here, with an introduction by Ashley, who is a thoroughly lovely human being:
I’m trying hard not to list the shortcomings I do see in my own performance here. It’s enough to know what I could have done better and will do better next time. It’s enough to look at myself dancing and say, for once, “That was good.”
(Full Disclosure: I still haven’t seen Hamilton. I know. I suck.)
… Because I can’t, because it’s already in my arm.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations has been interesting. Connecticut, where my parents live, has it ticking over like clockwork. Indiana (the state next door) is doing … something? Idk. It seems more chaotic than what we’re doing.
And here, in Kentucky, we seem to be figuring it out bit by bit.
A decision was made recently to open up vaccinations for teachers & volunteers who work with K-12 students, which is how I wound up getting called up for a shot. At least, I assume that’s why they sent me an email saying, “Ayyyyyyyyy! Come get your shot!”
I mean, not in those exact words.
The actual process of setting up an appointment was pretty simple—really, the hardest part was figuring out where in my wallet I’d stashed my insurance card.
As for the process of actually getting the vaccine, it was smooth & efficient. They’re using Broadbent Arena, part of our Fairgrounds & Expo Center. You drive in and drive right through (pausing at appropriate points) and never even get out of your car (there are other options for people who don’t drive or who don’t have have access to cars, also).
Because it was A New Situation, my brain was a little spooked about it, but the protocols were extremely clear (except for the unexpected sign near the entrance to the fairgrounds that read COVID TESTING USE GATE 1 ONLY and didn’t mention vaccinations at all—but since my email told me which gate to use, I kept breathing and proceeded as planned).
This is really helpful for neurodiverse people. If we know what the procedure is, it’s much less difficult to go do the thing. I appreciated that—and the fact that, in the course of two days, I got like five emails about my appointment so I would be able to find the confirmation code no matter what). Normally, that might seem a bit excessive, but in this case it was helpful and comforting.
I got the Pfizer vaccine, which is the same one D got. It’s a good week for it—we don’t have men’s technique class on Saturday, if I wind up feeling meh and staying home I’ll just miss normal class.
Because my wildly overreactive respiratory system places me at pretty high risk of being seriously ill if I did catch COVID-19, knowing that my first vaccination is behind me and the second is scheduled is a major relief. Obviously I’m not going to go turn cartwheels in Walmart without a mask, but with things like summer intensives and workshops on the way, it’s good to have that pinned down.
In ballet news, I’ve been taking a good, extremely detail-oriented Zoom class with Devi Piper on Wednesdays. The opportunity to really pick my technique apart and refine key elements is immensely valuable.
Today she gave us a killer plié that I’ll be using on the regs when I’m warming up to work on choreography or whatever.
A lot of really cool stuff has been happening in my life as a dancer of late—stuff that makes me feel awed at the way people reach out to guide developing dancers as we progress and grateful beyond measure for it.
In a week, I’ll be seven years into my resurrected ballet life. When I launched myself on this journey, I definitely carried a sliver of hope that maybe I’d find a way to make a life of of it, but it was so precious and fragile a hope that I rarely dared even to think about it.
Every single day, I’m staggered by this sense of immense privilege (not in the political sense, though there’s that, too—as a male ballet dancer, that’s a huge thing). To have somehow built a life in which I’m valued as a dancer and as a teacher and, increasingly, as a choreographer is something that, in all honesty, I couldn’t have imagined seven years ago.
The hope I had was that I might find a place to fit as a corps boy for a while. I was perfectly fine with the idea of just being a semi-anonymous body of it meant I got to really dance.
I seem to have found, instead, a place where I fit as someone who actually gets to do complex, visible roles. I’m probably never going to find myself in one of the big, world-famous companies, or even one of the ones that are more broadly known on a national scale, but that’s fine. I don’t care about things like that. I still just want to dance (and to make dances, and to teach dancers).
The biggest change, though, isn’t feeling that others value me as a dancer, as a teacher, and as a choreographer. It that I’m beginning to feel worthy of that esteem. That I’m beginning to value myself as a dancer, a teacher, and a choreographer—and, really, as an artist.
I owe a good part of that to the people who’ve gone out of their way to coach me; to suggest that I come take class; to draw me out of my own sense of inadequacy. To show me my strengths.
I also owe some of it to my students, who show up and focus and work hard even when I give them the world’s hardest rond de jambe every week for six months.
- I mean—it’s not the hardest, hardest. In terms of technique, it’s really pretty basic—but the musicality is tricky and central to the exercise, and requires them to listen to the music and dance instead of just being like, “Yawn, barre work is boring.” Which is kind of the point.
I owe yet another part of it to the friends who jump right in whenever I say, “Erm, ah, ssssssoooo, ahhhh, would you like to work on a choreography project I’ve been thinking about?” Or, at any rate, try to jump right in, given how challenging it can be there schedule things even when there’s not a global pandemic 😅
But some small part of it I owe to myself. I came to the ballet studio and found the place where I simply know how to work. And then I started doing the work, and I started looking for opportunities and taking calculated risks. And when the chance came to dance full-time, I took that leap, even though it was honestly pretty scary.
And even though I wasn’t sure I was someone who would ever be good at sticking with anything that didn’t have a finite term, i stuck with it—though honestly that’s really a bit like saying like saying, “The water decided to continue flowing downhill.” It’s honestly the path of least resistance. Quitting would be harder than continuing.
I don’t know where life will take me (I mean: really, nobody does). But I’m no longer afraid that I’ll never find anything that feels like a suitable path.
The periods of mindfulness, of being present in the present, afforded by the work I do—most specifically, taking class and creating choreography—have also been healing in ways I never expected.
I literally never imagined that my brain would ever be as, well, relatively stable as it is now, for one thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying ballet is The Cure, or even The Treatment, for unstable moods for everyone who experiences them. But, for me, it’s a huge piece of the puzzle.
Likewise, dancing has forced me to engage with both my present and my past more deeply than I ever imagined being able to do. My first Pilobolus SI stands as a watershed: something about that experience broke the seal I’d placed over deep, deep wells of feeling—both beautiful and painful.
There are still plenty of things in my past I’ve never directly dewalt with by the conventional means of talking about them—but somehow, when I dance, sometimes I dance about them without realizing that it’s happening.
Only later do I find that somehow, in the midst of wrestling with choreography, some old and festering wound has been cracked open and washed clean so healing can begin. It doesn’t mean the healing is complete, but it means that healing I long thought impossible has begun.
Anyway. Speaking of long, this is getting really long, and it’s the middle of the night, and Merkah would greatly appreciate it if I’d go to sleep. So I guess I’ll close here.
I don’t know how to end this except to add:
If you’re reading this, I’m also grateful to you.
Often, part of growing into a thing is talking about it. For some reason, I find that easier to do here than in a private journal (largely because I’m terrible at actually keeping up with a private journal, since it doesn’t occur to me to put things into words unless I’m talking/writing to someone else).
So you, too, have been essential in this journey.
So: thank you. And I’ll try to include some pictures in the next post 😁
Author’s Note: I apologize for my lack of proper diacriticals in this post. I’m writing it on my PC, and while I know how to use HTML entities to make them happen, I’m tired and apparently can’t be arsed ^-^’
I.The Secret To Brisee’-Vole’
Back when I was working on the Cavalier variation, I think I mentioned that I hadn’t even really been able to reliably do brisee’-vole’ a year ago. Not that I did it well when I actually performed the variation in question. I most assuredly did not. But I at least knew how to do it, and was able to do it most of the time. Just not, apparently, when it really counts, and will be recorded and slathered all over the innertubes. Le sigh.
Anyway! At this point, I’ve pretty much nailed it down, though of course it still needs polishing, because this is ballet. You never get to stop polishing things. Everything can always be better.
But the process of nailing down brisee’-vole’ reminded me, yet again, of a Truth About Ballet that I rediscover on the regs.
The truth in question, as it relates to brisee’-vole’, goes like this:
The secret to brisee’-vole’ is … there isn’t one. You just do brisee’, both back and front, until you (almost) can’t get it wrong. Then you learn to link them (which is what turns “brisee’-devant, reorganize the feet, brisee’-derriere, reorganize the feet,” into brisee’-vole’). Then you do brisee’-vole’ until you (almost) can’t get it wrong.
II. How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?
As a physical process, learning ballet involves both the accumulation of masses of experience and breakthroughs that sometimes seem to come out of nowhere and sometimes seem to be the direct result of all that massed experience.
- I’m not using the phrase “massed practice” here because it’s used in two different ways that conflict with each-other. As I learned it, it basically means “cramming”–doing a whole lot of practice all at once, which isn’t a very effective strategy for long-term learning. It can also be used to mean frequent repetition of a skill, accumulated over time, which does work reliably (and is typical of how kids learn things–they learn a new thing and they do it a billion times just for fun, because they can). That’s what I’m talking about here.
One of the challenges that a lot of adult students run into is insufficient opportunity for practice. Either it’s hard to find enough classes, or the classes in question aren’t systematic in a way that allows the accumulation of experience in complex steps, or they have access to systemic classes part of the time, but not often enough to overcome relatively-limited studio time.
- Pre-pro students get hours and hours in the studio–as many as 20/week. It can be much more difficult for adult students to build similar practice schedules. Part of my success as a dancer who wandered away and then returned was a question of sheer volume. I had access to high-quality training at high volume because my schedule allowed me to take both morning and evening classes.
That’s a shame, because one of the things that makes ballet so engaging as a career path, for me, is that you never stop learning new things. There are so many steps that, no matter how long you’ve been dancing, there’s a reasonable chance that there’s something out there that you haven’t tried–and it’s certain that there’s something you haven’t perfected (those ever-receding goalposts again).
The difference for professionals is that daily class, studio access, mentoring by fellow dancers, and coaching all provide ample opportunities to learn and improve new steps. (They also provide the all-important input of eyes other than one’s own. Our bodies are notoriously bad at accurately reporting how they’re doing new ballet steps, so it really helps to have someone who can say, “Dude, your right shoulder needs to come with you,” as my men’s class teacher told me today.)
Success breeds success, so while inevitably one’s first attempts at any new step (or any new approach to an “old” step) are likely to be awkward and frustrating (How? HOW DO I KEEP DOING SWITCH LEAPS ON THE WRONG LEG???), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.
- The answer, of course, is that I’m miscounting running steps, as I often do. Once my body gets used to the coordination required for switch leaps, it’ll figure out how to count running steps.
You can bash through those awful early attempts because you know that, sooner or later, you’re going to figure it out.
III. Okay, Yeah, But … So What?
I write this in part because I’m stoked that brisee’-vole’ has begun to really come together for me (OMG! A petit allegro step I don’t hate! ^-^), and that it’s somehow really sparked this sense that my technique can improve by dedicated practice and not just, like, by chance.
I write it also because it’s a thing I think I should keep in mind both as a teacher and as a dancer.
I have friends who have felt stuck on specific steps for years (reverse’ is probably the most frequent culprit). It occurs to me now that they’re probably stuck simply because they haven’t had opportunity to practice those steps until their motor planning systems (and other neurological systems important to learning movement) and bodies can figure them out.
This knowledge can inform the way I develop teaching plans, particularly for adult students who might not have as much opportunity to amass experience (what with having jobs and families at so forth).
It can also inform the way I approach helping friends with steps they find challenging that I don’t (spoiler alert: I might be able to help you with your double tour, but not because my body has decided that it’s just part of my everyday life–in that case, it’s more that I’m good at spotting it when other people do the same wrong things that I do ^-^’).
It also informs something that’s shifted in the way I think about dancers practicing on their own.
In the past year, we’ve all spent a lot of time practicing on our own. And you know what? Pretty much everyone I know has found a way to make it work.
I used to be one of those people who was deeply ambivalent about the idea. It’s pretty easy to wind up ingraining bad habits when you don’t yet have a lot of experience, and some steps can be a bit on the dangerous side (especially in small spaces crammed with furniture -.-). I had been raised with the idea that YOU DON’T PRACTICE ON YOUR OWN, PERIOD.
And while I thought I was following that rule, I really wasn’t. I used ballet-based movement patterns constantly on–ice skates and rollerskates; when making up choreography with my sister (we like to improv to the Andre’ Previn/LSO recording of Holst’s The Planets, because obviously we were totally normal kids in every day); on the playground; in the gymnastics studio; when fidgeting in line; when doing any number of other things.
I’m sure that I strengthened some bad habits along the way, but I also strengthened good habits. I figured out how to balance my body (which can be unwieldy, thanks to an unusual combination of naturally muscular physique and extreme flexibility).
And you know what? Nobody died. Nobody even got hurt (like many dancers, I mostly seem to injure myself doing anything other than dancing). In fac,t I seem to have not only survived, but gone on to a career as a professional dancer and as a ballet teacher.
So, in short, maybe there’s something to be said for solo practice. And I know we’ve all been doing turns in our kitchens since forever, anyway, so we might as well practice other stuff, too.
And you know what? It’s probably not even the end of the world if you decide to try some steps that might be a bit out of your reach, or even a lot out of your reach.
Kids do it all the time, and it turns out okay. Sure, in some cases, adults might be a bit more breakable, but as long as you’re cognizant of your own physical limits, why not?
We learn ballet like we learn anything else: successive approximations of the goal state. It turns out that sometimes the best way to learn to do a step well is just to start doing it badly. As beginners, we know messing up is part of the deal. It’s too easy to lose sight of that idea.
Anyway. Here’s where I stand, at this point, on the question of solo practice, even for “beginner-beginners:”
Go ahead and do the thing. If you’re just starting to learn a thing and you’re doing it badly, great! You have to start somewhere.
As long as you know that you’re doing it badly (okay–and can video yourself or get another dancer to watch you from time to time or whatever so you can begin to see why you’re doing it badly) you’re already on your way to doing it well.
I’ve been taking a Saturday class that’s usually taught by one of two very effective teachers. It’s one of the classes for advanced students at a school that offers a pre-professional ballet track and a competitive dance track, and includes students from both tracks.
Today, our regular teacher was out sick, and the teacher who would usually cover her had a different class to run, so one of the senior students ran class for us.
The end result was quite unlike the traditional 30/30/30 ballet class I’m used to–we warmed up, then did a couple of across-the-floor exercises, and then we did jumps and turns that were largely definitely not classical, but were, in fact, a lot of fun.
Having fumbled my way into a professional career, typically I approach this Saturday class with a commitment to setting a good example both in terms of classical technique and in terms of classroom deportment. Like, in short, Serious Ballet Is Serious.
Today was different. We did jumps and turns I’ve literally never done in my life. Early on, I realized I had a choice:
- I could be vaguely annoyed that I came for a classical ballet class and was getting something else entirely.
- I could go with the flow and enjoy the class I got.
Being vaguely annoyed wasn’t going to help, so I chose option 2 … and I’m glad I did. It gave me a chance to set aside the mantle of “professional dancer” and just be a student trying new stuff and seeing how it worked.
And you know what? It was really good to be just a student (okay–a student with a killer grand battement) trying new stuff.
Because the steps we were doing often weren’t from the vocabulary of classical ballet, I didn’t waste time thinking about how to do them within the classical framework in order to try to jump-start correct execution. Instead, I just did them … including jazz turns, which are not my greatest strength, since my body typically balks at the idea of turning in parallel.
Sometimes I did the new steps well. Sometimes I did them laughably badly. Often my actual execution fell somewhere in the middle. But the whole time, I was having a blast.
In short, it was really nice to be doing something I didn’t have to be good at.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s also nice to be good at things … but the pursuit of being good at things–that is, at gaining skill–can be stressful.
As an artist, there’s a real (and necessary) pressure to pursue perfection in your medium, even knowing that perfection is literally impossible to achieve. You work to honor your medium–your artform–and to develop your skill to its maximum potential.
Sometimes, that pursuit is like a meditation–our ego gets out of the way and we just do the work, correcting what needs correcting without getting hung up in judgment and attachment to outcomes.
But a lot of the time, because we’re all human, we frown and berate ourselves as we still do that turn in second wrong and as we still pull back instead of up on the pirouette en dehors and as our footwork is still too slow in the petit allegro. And then we think our legs were great in the grand allegro, but we don’t even want to think about what our hands were doing the whole time.
When we’re doing steps from a different dance idiom, it’s a lot easier to let go of all that stuff. We know we don’t know how to do it! We don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like! We can be forgiven if something doesn’t work the first time, or if our hands are doing that weird duckface thing, or if we land on the wrong leg because our bodies are convinced that this step really, really is just a weird saut de basque.
And when we’re not worried about all that stuff, suddenly it’s a lot easier to have fun.
So it can be really fun, sometimes, to step outside your primary medium. When you know that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier just to let go and do (hey, there’s that Beginner’s Mind thing again … hmmm).
When you try something new and different, sometimes you find you can let your hair down (metaphorically, anyway … in terms of pure practicality, when you’re dancing, it’s probably still a good idea to keep it pulled up out of your eyes so you don’t crash into the piano).
I never quite figured out one of the jumps today (I have no idea what it’s called–I should’ve asked). My body kept trying to do the saut de basque from Ali’s variation in Le Corsaire instead of … whatever the jump was actually supposed to be. I kept landing facing the wrong way and with the wrong leg in front.
And you know what? That was okay.
Nobody died! I had fun, and I found a degree of release and freedom that I haven’t felt in a while.
And because of that sense of release and freedom, there were other things I did better than I usually do them–things that you would encounter in a strictly-classical class.
There were also things I did as, erm, less-than-perfectly as I usually do, but in which I was able to figure out some of the factors that are hampering my technique. I was relaxed enough to just kind of feel my own body, without feeling the pressure to analyze my technique and try to do things well that I don’t actually know how to do well.
So this is something that, both as a dancer and as a teacher, I really need to take with me.
It’s important to hone technique and work hard. As a dancer, as an artist, that’s part of how you make progress. Sound technique gives you the tools for musicality; for expression.
But, as much as I tend to lose sight of the fact, it’s also important to relax and have fun … and sometimes, when you relax and have fun, you might even learn things that you wouldn’t otherwise learn.
Ultimately, I guess it’s a question of balance.
It’s easy to get so focused on honing your Srs Ballet Skillz that you don’t get a chance to just enjoy dancing (especially when you’re stuck dancing in your tiny basement most of the time for going on a year). But, ultimately, we dance because we love dancing.
For amateur dancers, love is the only motivation that makes sense. There are much easier and more efficient ways to get exercise, and a lot of them are much less expensive, too. There are artforms in which it’s much, much easier to find opportunities to grow and perform as an amateur artist.
Ultimately, it’s pretty much the same for professionals: you have to love dancing. Working in dance is just too freaking hard if you don’t love it more than anything else; if it’s not, in a sense, the only thing you can do.
Either way, you dance because, deep within you, something is called to dance. You dance because you need to dance; because dancing is in your blood and your bones. Because dancing is your blood and your bones.
You dance because your soul sings in movement.
Today’s class reminded me that sometimes, it’s good to just let your soul sing. And also that sometimes, while your soul is just singing to sing, you learn anyway.
Gentle Readers, a picture from today:
It’s a screenshot of a screenshot bc I’m too lazy at the moment to go get my phone and upload the original screenshot.
Anyway. I snagged this from a video I recorded of a class I took this afternoon.
There were a few nice moments in that video, as well as some that would’ve been nice if I wasn’t doing one or more small, incorrect things.
To my eye, this pic falls in the latter category. Or, well … Maybe it would be more fair to say that it falls in the grey area between the two categories?
So I posted it to Insta because I think it’s kind of funny—I’m clearly committed to this exercise that I’m doing, but also clearly (to my own eye) trying not to crash into the furniture (big mover + small space = potential disaster).
It turns out that maybe not everyone sees this shot the same way I do.
Here’s what I see immediately:
- Not quite on my leg (if you draw a plumb line from my hip socket, in fact, I’m quite a bit behind the ball of my foot)
- Back arm too high
- That stupid thumb again
- Neck retracted
- Supporting leg could be a bit more turned out
- My back leg might not be straight back? (The lighting makes it hard to tell. Rationally, I think it might actually be placed correctly, but my brain keeps quibbling about it anyway.)
- Same quibble about whether my hips are square (with the same caveat)
- At least my back is lifted and my leg is straight, high, and turned out?
What several other people see immediately:
- A nice arabesque.
So … As a dancer, you do have to learn to critique your own technique. If you want to master ballet vocabulary, it’s necessary.
But I think sometimes we get so caught up in criticism that we need to be shaken out of it.
Yes, it’s important to see what we’re doing wrong. But it’s just as important to see what we’re doing right.
Ballet attracts … okay, all kinds of people, really. It retains people who have an taste for focusing on details and working like crazy to overcome faults. It retains people who aren’t too proud of themselves—and maybe, too often, people who aren’t proud enough of themselves.
No, this arabesque isn’t perfect. But there’s a lot there to be proud of (not in the “I’m better than you” sense—just in the quiet way one feels when one works hard and improves on things).
A lot of work goes into getting that back leg high without compromising the placement of the hip. Same for keeping the back that high, working the gensture leg against its opposite shoulder to make a strong, turned-out position.
Yesterday, after a class in which I (still working off my two-week-long sinus-infection nap) felt hella weak, a teacher who I respect quite a lot told me she can tell I’m a very well-trained dancer.
That meant a great deal to me, as I still tend to think of myself almost entirely in terms of my faults. But I have, in fact, come a long way, even in the past year, while dancing under some very unusual conditions.
Sometimes we meet people who only see their own strengths, and it’s easy to regard them as delusional (I mean, not that we’re not all at least a little delusional! But That’s Another Post™). Like, seriously, everyone’s got faults.
But it’s just as delusional to see only faults.
We have to learn to walk in the middle and see both.
By which I mean, really, that I have to.
So I’m going to work on that.
Like: yeah, there’s some faults there, totally. That’s fine. I’m human.
But also, seriously? That is a nice arabesque.