Category Archives: learning my craft
I started to write a year-end post, then got involved with doing a bunch of housework and never got around to finishing it–so, instead, here’s a year-beginning post.
It’s going to be short because it’s almost 11 PM and I’m tired. I have too many thoughts about 2020 to hash out in a single post, anyway.
Instead, this post serves basically one purpose: setting an intention.
I’m not a maker of “resolutions”–but last year I set an intention: Don’t Overcommit.
Curiously, although I still managed, at times, to pack more onto my plate than I perhaps ought to have done, I did pack much less onto my plate than I otherwise might have even in the midst of a global pandemic.
It wasn’t magic–it was just a kind of mindfulness thing. An opportunity would come up, and I’d remember this intention to not overcommit, and it made me pause for a second instead of diving headlong into absolutely every single thing like I usually do.
So that was really useful, and I’m glad I did it.
Anyway. Last year’s intention was influenced by the growing knowledge that I needed to stop stacking my calendar the way I had been, and I think that’s part of what made it actually work–it was addressing something that had already begun to surface in my consciousness.
Moreover, it was both concrete and actionable. Or … inactionable?
IDK. It’s weird when the goal you’ve set is to NOT do a thing.
So, basically, that intention became a way of giving myself permission to say, “No,” or at least, “Not this time.” I wasn’t sure I’d actually do it, but I did. Not perfectly, but that’s fine. It’s a learning process.
Anyway. I think last year I hit on a halfway decent formula for a useful intention: concrete, actionable, and already percolating.
So this year’s intention, which will also be a challenge for me, is simple: Ask for help and/or coaching.
One of the best lessons I learned while working on this year’s second Nutcracker is that there are a lot of people who like the idea of helping me become a better dancer, and are very willing to step up and work with me. I just have to ask.
I’m beyond grateful for that community, and also beyond grateful for the weird experience of trying to learn an apparently rather-complex pas de deux in the middle of a global pandemic, because it was the thing that finally made me brave enough to say, “Hey, we could use some coaching, would you be willing?”
I have some specific ballet skills things I want to polish up this year, and I feel much less afraid now to seek out help in reaching those goals.
So that’s my simple intention for this year.
Ask for help.
Just like it’s okay to say no to things, it’s okay to say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this thing, can we find a time to get together and look at it and work on it?”
Obviously, I plan to continue working on the whole Don’t Overcommit thing also, because that makes a huge difference in my life.
So that’s it for now. One fresh intention for a fresh year. Here’s hoping 2021 will bring better things than 2020 (I mean, not to tempt fate, but that wouldn’t really be too difficult in many areas, so even if we set the bar pretty low…).
I don’t usually write about aerials technique because the potential for disaster is way too high, but today I’m making an exception to address one minor but useful point.
I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who more or less specializes in bar apparatus, but it can be translated to vertical apparatus (fabric, rope, pole, etc) with a little thought. It’s useful no matter what kind of junk you’ve got in your drawers, but particularly helpful for people with dangly bits.
At the studio where I train, there’s a segment of the human anatomy we like to call the “No-Fly Zone.” It’s the zone you really, really don’t want to land on, or roll over, or otherwise crush, spindle, or mangle. I think you get the picture.
Anyway! That said, a lot of moves all but invite you to do exactly that—vine climb, almost anything you do in horse, arabesque on the bar, etc.
If you’re like most aerialists, you’ll Land in your No-Fly Zone maybe once or twice, and then your body will figure out ways to avoid it.
That said, the ways our bodies work out aren’t always as efficient as they could be—hence this post.
So here we go!
Here’s a sequence of stills from a video I took on class this morning. The sequence is simply a transfer on the bar from a hooked knee on one side to a hooked knee on the other side.
In the photo above, I’ve just straddled up to the bar and hooked a knee. Because I began with my grip a bit low. This lyra hangs fairly high, and I was tired so I didn’t take a higher grip that would require a bigger pull-up. As a result, I’m bringing my hands up higher on the apparatus to give myself room later on.
Depending on what you’re doing, that step may or may not be necessary, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Here, I’m beginning the process of rolling myself over the bar by pressing my top leg as I straighten it. At the same time, I’m using my arms to give myself a bit of lift.
It probably looks like I’m about to land right on my No-Fly Zone—but I’m not.
Above (although I apparently grabbed the screenshot from the other side … oh well), you can see what prevents me from crashing in the No-Fly Zone: squeezing the extended legs together as if I’m doing an assemblé.
This allows me to control how high the bar can travel on my legs. At this point, my arms aren’t really taking much weight at all—they’re just helping to steer.
Here, you can see how much control I have over where the bar goes. I’m squeezing my thighs together and using a moving very much like a soutenu to push it around relative to my body.
One quick note: this is easier to do on lyra than trapeze—on trap, you also have to manage rope tension relative to your movement. Same goes for rope, hammock, fabric, and sling: you can transfer this basic idea, but the mechanics are a bit trickier.
In this last shot, I’m transferring the bottom bar into the pocket of the opposite hip as I bring my head under the top bar. My No-Fly Zone is safely out of the way.
In short, what allows me to avoid a crash is pressing through a fully-engaged leg, then squeezing both legs (again, fully-engaged) as I pass over the bar.
For someone like me—someone whose pelvis is put together so there’s never going to be a thigh gap, but also a ballet dancer for whom this movement is inherently familiar—this is pretty easy to do.
- Seriously, even at my most underweight, 84 pounds at 5’4” when I was 13, there was no gap. My pelvis isn’t built that way.
For bow-legged aerialists (like D) and those with wider-set hip joints, it’s imperative to really cross the legs from the top of the thighs and squeeeeeeze.
This is one of many places where ballet training can be so useful for aerialists. The degree of overcross and engagement is almost identical to sus-sous, or to a strong assemblé.
In either case, the movement that you’ll use to pass over the bar without crash-landing is still very much like a soutenu turn. You’re squeezing the thighs as you rotate your hips.
In ballet, this turns your body; on lyra, it turns the hoop (on trap and other apparatus, the action varies, but the principle is the same).
Even if you’ve never taken a ballet class, if you’ve ever tried to hold something (a box, a bag, a curious dog that wants to run off and check out the neighbors’ dog) between your thighs while turning around to grab your phone, you’ve probably done this exact sequence on the ground.
You probably don’t want to squeeze your dog as hard as you’d squeeze the lyra, but the principle is the same.
One more note: take it as read that, sooner or later, you’re probably going to crash in your No-Fly Zone. Don’t take it as a sign of failure—it’s just how we learn. For many aerialists, it’s something that happens as we begin to feel more confident and to take risks.
And you’ll probably only do it once, maybe twice. Consider it a rite of passage in your #CircusLife. Trust me, we’ve all done that walk of shame.
I have no qualms about stating up front that my partnering skills are, well, roughly at the level that would, if this was a university class, require one of those 094-level classes (I can see it now: “Partnering 099: It’s Always The Boy’s Fault”).
I’m good enough at this point that I wouldn’t have to take “Partnering 088: Whatever You Do, Don’t Drop Her!” … but I’m definitely still rough around the edges.
Anyway, in the interest of offering some help to my fellow Remedial Partner…ers, here are some strategies that do and don’t work:
- stand too close
- stand too far away
- get nervous and slowly collapse closer and closer, drawing your partner into your collapse like the heavier star in a binary system, leading to a cataclysmic supernova
- panic about every single turn, every single time
- panic about any turn, ever, for that matter
- trust me panicking really doesn’t help
- go walkabout mid-promenade because your eyes are pointing the wrong way (I know this is groundbreaking info but amazingly a promenade should be a circle, not a square)
- fail to communicate … partnering is basically sustained communication, ideally with fewer words but, you know, better to speak than to do something dumb
- panic about penchés
- panic about steps you were doing fine yesterday
- fall into weight-sharing mode … weight-sharing is great, but it doesn’t work for a lot of ballet things
- panic about … anything, really
- REMAIN CALM
- feel out a good distance for various steps
- learn how to be there on time
- let your partner do her end of things
- talk through your dances together
- mark through your dances together
- walk through your dances together
- run all the things until you can’t get it wrong
- but make sure to stop before you both get super tired
- REMAIN CALM srsly it’s better to be Prince Valium than Prince Panic
- be willing to swap a step out for something simpler if you’re on a deadline and you’re having a rough time—it’ll build confidence, and eventually you’ll get the harder step, but that way you’ll know you’ve got something you can take to the stage
- COMMUNICATE! today we both kept going, “Okay that felt weird” from time to time, and discovered that what felt weird to one felt weird to the other (we’re also getting better at sorting out the why)
- ask for help … we’ve been super lucky to have not one, but two very experienced coaches step in to help because they want to see us succeed. Asking for help is scary, but it’s such a good idea.
- believe that you can do it … like horses, ballerinas can sense fear 😅
- and, of course, REMAIN CALM
That’s it for today. I have still neglected to take any photos, so I’m sticking in a screenshot for the featured image 😅
Every once in a while, you have an idea and you think, “Well, this might be a terrible idea, but it might be a great idea,” so you give it a go.
When I asked my (ballet) partner if she’d like to do FSB’s Nutcracker with me, there was a certain degree of that feeling. Like: I at least had some partnering skills … but doing the Grand Pas was going to be a sink-or-swim crash course in lots of partnering skills, including ones I’ve struggled with in the past.
Anyway, we’re now a couple weeks into really working on things, and while I don’t want to jinx us by speaking too soon, I’m rather pleased with how well it’s going.
Bit by bit, I’m learning to do the things. Just as importantly, I’m learning how to troubleshoot my own partnering problems.
We had a rough day on Wednesday. The floor was terrifyingly slick, we were both nervous as a result, and things that had worked in the past suddenly weren’t working. Our excellent pas de deux coach was there, but it was only her second session with us, so she wasn’t sure what was up either.
Somehow, somewhere in the midst of the struggle, one of the steps worked, and I realized that the difference was that I simply wasn’t standing as close to my partner as I has been all day. It was near the end of our rehearsal, so I applied that thought to the bit we were working on, then tucked it away.
Yesterday, we didn’t rehearse because my partner had some stuff she needed to do. I washed the floors so we’d feel safer, then walked trhough the dance by myself to cement some chances we’d made to the choreography, then dragged myself home via 2 hours of ridiculous rush hour rerouting (this, of course, is why I try to avoid traveling at rush hour). I reminded myself to stand a bit farther from my partner.
Today, faced with a very compressed rehearsal schedule and a studio that refused to warm up (the thermostat was working, but the furnace wouldn’t turn on o.O), I applied my idea from the outset … and it worked!
In fact, there were things that only kinda worked before that suddenly worked pretty darned well [1, 3] simply because I stood a little further off.
- Even with both of us stumping around in warm-up boots.
- You haven’t lived until you’ve successfully done an arabesque promenade with your partner en pointe with warm-up boots over her pointe shoes.
- See: “Ballet: it’s easier when you do it right.”
Obviously, “just stand further away” has its limits–but I think it’s probably a useful idea for a lot of people learning partnering.
Our instinct tends to be to get closer. It makes an instinctive kind of sense: if dropping your partner or knocking her over is bad, you want to be close enough to prevent it, or to rescue her if it does happen. This is probably especially true if you’re a T-Rex and your partner is relatively close to your own height: like, I’m pretty sure part of my tendency to stand too close boils down to instinctively understanding that my arms are short, yo.
But, as it turns out, sometimes that doesn’t work.
Anyway, we both left today’s rehearsal feeling more confident about the adagio movement of the Grand Pas (there’s some partnering in the coda, but it’s nowhere near as long or complicated).
And I left feeling more confident in both my current partnering abilities and about my potential for being a good partner.
This whole process has also reminded me, yet again, that when I’m calm, I’m actually pretty good at learning choreography. And that I’m capable of learning in general.
I’m lucky to have, as a partner, a ballerina who is kind, thoughtful, game, technically sound, and a fine teacher (and also a redhead … as someone who’s effectively a dark ginger myself, I’m quite partial to gingers!).
And we’re lucky to have the support of not one, but two good coaches, both experienced dancers with decades of performing between them.
I was very heartened the other day when E, who’s Coach #1, said she feels confident that we can do this, and do it well. Honestly, that reduced my ambient imposter syndrome level by quite a bit.
- And while this appellation has a specific technical definition, I feel comfortable using it here. Not only is she dancing a principal role and being a leader and stuff, she’s a highly accomplished dancer in her own right.
It’s a pretty cool thing to feel like you’re actually making real progress in the calling around which you’ve shaped your life. Which, in fact, I very much do.
Asking my partner to join me in this endeavour was a risk–but it was a good one, I think. I was hoping we’d both come out of it more confident and with a performance we could add to our CVs, and that I’d come out of it a more useful and employable dancer. Thus far, it’s looking like that’s the way things are moving.
Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to the next time we get a chance to dance without our warm-up boots.
- Which will be Sunday evening of this week. I can’t wait!
It starts like this: once upon a time (okay, five minutes ago), I decided (G-d alone knows why) to break the First Law of the Innertubes and read the comments.
The comments in question were those on this lovely rendition of the Adagio movement of the Nutcracker’s Grand Pas, performed by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov of The Royal Ballet:
There were not, I should mention, any dick jokes. Or…well. If there were, I didn’t scroll that far.
But only because I got exactly far enough to discover a troubling undercurrent: an entire quorum of commenters who felt that, compared to the high drama of the musical score, the dancing was, in a word, boring.
Full disclosure: between the ages of, say, three and maybe twelve or so, I would’ve agreed completely, though presumably for different reasons. My reason was that I was, at least in that regard, the very stereotype of a little boy. Romance was GROSS, and also there were no big jumps or, like, explosions.
- Not tryna one-up anyone–but, y’all? MY COMPANY’S NUTCRACKER HAS ACTUAL EXPLOSIONS. Just, you know. Not during the Adagio bit of the Grand Pas.
I’m guessing the opinions of commenters old enough to have their own YouTube accounts are primarily based on less-childish criteria.
Now, I’m not saying people aren’t entitled to their own opinions.
First, that would be incredibly hypocritical, since you know as well as I do that I’m packed to the gills with opinions.
Second, it would be rude.
That said, I think there are probably quite a few people (maybe among these commenters, maybe not: I don’t know their individual ballet-commenting journeys, after all) who don’t actually know what the adagio movement is trying to accomplish, and who might be inclined to judge it by a metric that doesn’t fit.
The Nutcracker’s Grand Pas–and, in particular its adagio movement–is a bit of an anomaly.
It’s a subtle, exquisite gem set in a brash, flashy setting.
- The Snow Pas is sometimes played this way as well–one of the things I like most about our Nutcracker is the sweet tenderness of the Snow Pas).
The music is dramatic, of course: I mean, it’s Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky hid his subtlety amongst the broad, dramatic strokes. It’s part of why Tchaikovsky’s bombast works: when Tchaikovsky brings out the big guns, so to speak, he doesn’t neglect the battle as a whole.
- Listen to the horns calling back and forth at the beginning of “Capriccio Italien:” the opening fanfare is brassy, even brash, but the fanfare that echoes evokes one replying from a distant hillside. Now, listen to the music of the Adagio. In the most dramatic moments–usually while there’s some visually-impressive lift happening onstage–the highest woodwinds play a wild little descant in which you hear the wind and the snow and the wild spirit that is Sugarplum, who is choosing in this moment to be tame.
- Sorry, guys. This is the worst analogy. I mean, sure, it’s effective, but … battle? Couldn’t I think of something else?
The Royal Ballet’s version of the Adagio choreography, meanwhile, is very British. It’s deeply restrained, and its restraint lends it a specific kind of romance. The Grand Pas adagio isn’t always that restrained, but it’s almost never bombastic, even though at times the music is, perhaps, just a bit bombastic (I mean: it’s Tchaikovsky).
I will note that, perhaps, this particular performance could have been a bit more expressive even within the context of its restrained approach–but I don’t think that means the choreography itself is boring.
I think it means that this is Nutcracker, and that for all we know this particular upload might be video from a performance in which both artists had already done this show thirteen times that week, and fourteen times the week before that, and fourteen times the week before that.
In other words, it seems entirely possible that they were tired.
Dancers joke about hating Nutcracker, but what we mostly mean, as far as I can tell, is that OMFG IT’S EXHAUSTING. Most of us actually seem to either secretly or not-so-secretly love Nutcracker. We’re just also deeply traumatized by it ^-^’
Even in a small company with a relatively short Nutcracker run, three weeks of performing the same ballet 6+ times per week, with up to three performances per day, is physically and mentally taxing.
In a huge, world-class company like The Royal Ballet, Nutcracker is a sort of towering juggernaut; a gauntlet through which dancers must pass each year as if it was some kind of old-world rite of the Winter Solstice like:
WHO WILL MAKE IT THROUGH??? ONLY THE STRONG WILL SURVIVE!!!
So basically what I’m saying is that Nutcracker is a callback to our atavistic fear of the long dark of winter; a kind of sacrificial ritual.
Okay, so no: that’s not really my point at all, though heck, it sure is an interesting idea, and possibly worth revisiting?
But, anyway. My whole point was about the Grand Pas Adagio.
The adagio isn’t exciting in the usual way because it shouldn’t be exciting in that way.
“Adagio” derives from the Italian (wait for it) “ad agio“–literally, “at ease.”
(I’ll pause here so anyone who has ever, during a long adagio in class, wanted to die and then murder their teacher, but hasn’t been sure in which order to do so, can laugh uproariously. Like, “At ease! At ease??!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”)
L’Ancien likes to remind us that, musically speaking, this is understood to mean no stress–as in, no OOMPH. It’s not BOMP-chika-bomp. It’s aaaaaaaaahhh.
Adagio isn’t about grand allegro pyrotechnics. It’s about something far subtler. It is, more than any other part of a ballet, about acting.
And, there, both Nuñez and Muntagirov perform, if not flawlessly, then beautifully. There are some moments that they could, perhaps, be a bit more expressive. Those moments generally happen to coincide with doing things that are, in terms of technique, not so easy. Or lifts. It can be hard to look tender AF when you’re lifting another adult human, no matter how sylphlike they are.
- This is one of the things I admired about C, who danced with us last year. Not only was his technique superb and lovely and clean, but he almost always managed to look sweet and tender and loving or however else he was supposed to look while lifting other adult persons.
Ultimately, Nuñez and Muntagirov’s performance treats the Adagio exactly as it should be treated: gently, deftly.
As an audience, though, many of us aren’t used to that. We’re used to TRANSMOGRIFIERS: END OF THE UNIVERSE!!!
(Which … don’t get me wrong. That stuff is fun, too.)
Even our less-explosive fare tends to be terribly unsubtle (Remember the Twilight series? Subtle as a chainsaw -.-).
So maybe we’re just not sure what to think when we find ourselves hard against the Adagio, in the middle of what might be the Most Bombastic Ballet Ever if it weren’t for Swan Lake, which is what American movies would create if they created a ballet (and which, btw, is also one of my very favorite ballets).
- Okay, so … there’s also Spartacus. Which is even more bombastic, but I always forget about it because I’ve never seen the whole thing. Also Troy Games, hwich I Haven’t seen, but since it’s basically Men’s Technique: The Ballet, I’m assuming it’s probably got actual explosions and the audience probably has to sign a waiver. I’ve never seen any part of Troy Game (Y’ALL! I FOUND IT!!! And, um, it’s funny AF in parts), but I can state with conviction that I would LOVE a role in that ballet.
The grandeur in the adagio movement of Nutcracker’s Grand Pas derives not from virtuoso technical shenanigans, but from the power of the dancers to evoke emotion–in short, from their acting ability. Without that, there’s nothing to keep the audience hooked.
If what an audience expects from a ballet performance is a lot of virtuosic tricks, the Grand Pas Adagio will almost always be a bit of a letdown–as will some entire ballets, like Neumeier’s La Dame Aux Camelias (this will take you to Act I, but the whole thing is out there), which depend more on the dancers’ acting ability than on the (metaphorical) pyrotechnics we all know and love.
This, by the way, is what worries me a bit about audiences trying to make the leap straight from So You Think You Can Dance to full-scale ballet performances. SYTYCD and its kin have helped bring dance to audiences who, in the past, might never have seen it, either because they lacked access or because they didn’t think it was for them.
But, at the same time, because most of the dance-contest shows skew towards short performances built to please the general public, tricks are thick on the ground (and in the air), and subtle, expressive dance is almost unheard of. Same goes for Insta posts (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone): if you want to post video in your regular Insta feed, you get one minute, which really means like 58 seconds. Are you going to post 58 seconds of you staring fervently into your partner’s eyes, or are you going to post that hella cool manege?
Maybe I should swallow my own medicine and start posting the 58 seconds of staring into my partner’s eyes. Or, well, something like that. 58 seconds of nothing but staring could get weird.
Anyway. Watching ballet is like anything else: it’s a skill. When I watch American football, I basically haven’t the foggiest idea what’s happening (beyond the fact that our costumer would MURDER ME, s l o w l y , if I ever got my performance gear that dirty ^-^.
That doesn’t mean I’m an uncultured dolt; it just means I didn’t grow up watching football (my sis, on the other hand, has become an avid fan because someone mentioned to her that football is basically chess with big athletic dudes and she LOVES chess, so now she knows everything about football, too).
By way of a clearer analogy: I grew up on classical music and jazz, with a bit of the more obscure species of pop and folk thrown in here and there. The first time I heard classic rock, I was like, “Huh?”
In short, I didn’t speak the music language. But over time I heard it more and more, because my Stepdad is into classic rock, and I learned to speak its language and came to like it (a lot of it, anyway: there are dog farts in every genre–ballet probably has some, but since ballet is already pretty obscure, they probably don’t make it too far from the offending dog).
And while I usually use this analogy to explain why people often think they don’t like classical music, and then slowly evolve to like it, it works for ballet, too.
Which isn’t to say it’s impossible to dislike this specific Grand Pas adagio even if you’re a balletomane or a dancer. Maybe you just don’t like Muntagirov because he looks kind of like a deer who became a human but on some level is still a deer. I mean, I like that about him, but it might weird some people out. Maybe you like a different version of the choreography (there are a couple I do like better in that regard, though they overlap considerably with this one).
But if you simply think the choreography is boring in relation to the music, I invite you to watch like 25 different versions (as I have, G-d help me, bc I’m formally learning this pas de deux right now) as a means of learning the language.
You may find, of course, that watching 25 Grand Pas Adagios in a row really just makes you want to come to my house and demand that hour and a half or so of your life back, in which case, I cannot offer you a refund, but I’ll be happy to make you some tea?
On the other hand, you may begin to see the subtle shadings that make adagio so powerful when it’s done well.
As an artist, as a dancer who is also autistic, last-minute changes are the bane of my existence.
They’re also just part of the process, especially right now.
The process of filming, with its opportunity for multiple takes, is inherently different from the process of performing a show start-to-finish before a live audience. The certainty in the familiar shape of Nutcracker—the prologue always precedes the crossing, which always precedes party scene, which always precedes “Midnight Scare,” etc—evaporates.
We just finished filming Nutcracker at LexBallet. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it was the single most stressful production of my working life this far—not because anything was mishandled, but simply because, as an autistic person, I feel comfortable when I’m accustomed to the process and stressed when I don’t.
Nutcracker is normally our most-familiar ballet. It’s the same ballet every year: adjustments are made to choreography, but the flow of rehearsal and performance are typically known entities. In a way, it’s like singing the alphabet song versus “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star ”: the lyrics might be different, but the music is the same.
- Shout-out to Autocorrupt, which was absolutely determined to make this, “Terrible, Terrible Little Star” 🤣🤣🤣 Autocorrupt be #judgy y’all
That isn’t a bad thing, but at times it was deeply frustrating. I’m sure it was even more so for dancers cast in multiple roles, who thus had to dash back and forth to exchange Costume A for Costume B and so forth. Drosselmeyer is only Drosselmeyer—the amount of undoing and redoing of costume, hair, and makeup it would take to be able to jump in and do, say, one of the second-act variations would be unmanageable during a live show.
Still, I’m learning to accept last-minute changes with less internal grumbling as I grow into this life. They still make me feel stressed and a bit recalcitrant (feels be like “I DON’T WANNA CHANGE THAT! …even though it actually works better the new way 😑”), but I’m no longer horrified that OMG MR D IS CHANGING THINGS A G A I N 😱😱😱
Instead, it’s just like: *shrug* *eyeroll* #dancerlife #yolo
In that same vein, I learned as I was packing my car that D had been exposed to COVID-19 at work again—he’s a healthcare provider, so it’s pretty much inevitable—and instead of returning home, I’d be landing at our friend KL’s house pending D’s test results.
Fortunately, I know KL well enough to feel comfortable in her home, though her catto (who normally likes me) was a little spooked about my unexpected arrival as an overnight guest.
Cats aren’t super keen on last-minute changes, either.
Anyway, I slept for 10 much-needed hours last night, and I’m recuperating. My body is definitely in restock mode: I’m super hungry and super tired, so clearly the stores of extra energy are tapped out (except, like: Hey, body? we actually do still have plenty of stored energy, so don’t expect me to eat 3500 calories today while I’m sitting on my butt! You’re going to have to manage on like 2000 or so).
My car, which was broken into at the least convenient moment during theater/filming week, is still sporting a temporary plastic driver’s-side window constructed from blue painter’s tape and a clear vinyl shower-curtain liner.
I’m debating whether to order a tiny grocery delivery or actually slither into the driver’s seat and go retrieve some food. Alternatively, I might just order some Chinese or something for today, since I have to go out anyway tmw to vote, rehearse, and teach 🤷♂️
- Dear potential thieves: please consider ANY OTHER WINDOW for your car breaking-in activities. I get that sometimes life puts you in a position where breaking into a car seems like the best or only option, but seriously, guys, come on.
- I’m highly grateful for being moderately-sized and flexible af right now. It’s the only way to get into my car rn without removing the temporary window 🤷♂️
Anyway, that’s all for now. I’m still exhausted and I’m seriously considering a nap, even though if there were a World Ranking for Success In Naps I’d be right at the bottom every time.
(For a month, anyway.)
It’s hard to explain how good it feels to return to the studio, masks and all. It’s good to be back with my people, but also to have externally-imposed structure to my days.
Going into the pandemic, I was beginning to understand how much I need externally-imposed structure. Losing it abruptly really drove that point home.
Getting back to serious aerials training made a difference—that gave me at least some structure, more physical exercise than I had been getting, and a reason to leave the house.
Returning to dancing full-time takes it to another level.
It also gets me out of my own head, which is helpful.
Different things work for different people, but in terms of really staying sane, this seems to be the best option for me.
I had a good class today, all things considered. Rehearsal also went well. Revisiting a role I know well is comforting in a way I never expected—perhaps because it’s a touch of normality in uncertain times.
Speaking of which: while I’ve been reflecting on what role I, as an artist, can play in the ongoing movement for justice, I found myself thinking a lot about how ballet will only evolve as we begin to step away from business as usual in terms of how we teach and recruit dancers of color, dancers with disabilities, and dancers from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
And while that’s an important thing to think about in its own right, it made me realize that I shouldn’t be as worried about not being good at doing the things that have been essential to running a ballet company in the “business as usual” sense.
I mean, I’m still going to be a person with autism and there are still lots of ways in which I will need the help of other people if I’m ever going to really get Antiphon off the ground.
But if, in some very significant ways, the way Antiphon operates looks different from the traditional model of how ballet companies work, then good—because part of its ultimate mission is to be a different animal.
I hope that it will grow to be a company that better reflects the diversity of dancers in terms not only of their physical beings, but of the experiences they’ve had as a result of living lives colored by the experiences that come with those physical beings.
- As an autistic dancer and choreographer, I think neurodiversity and psychological diversity should also be part of Antiphon’s mission. But I’m also super exhausted and couldn’t figure it how to work that into the sentence 😅 Sorry.
I hope that it will become something bigger than me, and that I’ll have the grace to get out of the way and yield the floor so dancers within the company can tell their stories.
I suppose if I do my job right, Antiphon will operate as a springboard: a diverse group of dancers who work together and know each-other well enough that when someone within the company steps up to create a dance, they’ll have a pallette with which they feel confident “painting,” so to speak.
Anyway, that’s it for now. More to follow, but I’m tiiiiiiired.
First, apologies for falling off the radar for a minute. The past couple of weeks have been, in a word, bizzzaayyyyyyyyy
Anyway! I’m back, at least for the moment.
Normally, at this point, my company would be a week or so into rehearsals for New Works, which is our usual first show of the year. Instead, we haven’t even started yet, because it’s #2020 and everything is CRAY.
Instead of a normal season, this year we’re doing Video Nutcracker Extravaganza! (that’s not its actual title) and … that’s it. Unless a miracle occurs.
So it’s September, we’re not even officially back in the studio until thw 28th, and I’m rehearsing Drosselmeyer all by myself. C’est “la vie 2020”, mes amis!
As ever, I’m recording video so I can fix myself. In that light, here’s an example of glaring hypocrisy in the form of me, dancing:
Okay, so: if you know that I’m mid-fouetté, here, this probably looks mostly fine at first glance. That standing leg could be a touch more turned out (okay, okay—it could be turned out at all), but the shoulders are down, engaged, and essentially square to the hips, and the lines are pretty nice.
Oh, and my feet are nice, because of course they are. They’re the only reliable part of my body. I mean, seriously, dat demi-pointe, doe. Dat arch 😍
Not too shabby, you might think.
Alas, friends! Were it but so!
Sadly, as almost-lovely as this moment is, in the very next second, I decouple my rib cage from my pelvis and failli without turning my hips all the way. Given that the next thing I have to do is run-run-tour de Basque directly across the stage, it makes for an awkward transition.
You know what the main cause of this subtle-but-powerful trainwreck is?
If you’re having trouble with arabesque, piqué arabesque, and fouetté arabesque, ask yourself, “Am I watching myself in the mirror?”
If the answer is yes:
We all want to see our arabesques, etc. We want to know:
- How high is my leg?
- What exactly are my arms doing?
- How are my lines?
Those are all good questions.
Staring into the mirror won’t answer them.
When we watch ourselves closely in the mirror, we create faults that might not otherwise occur.
We find ourselves arabesque-ing on an open hip, with unsquare everything.
We fouetté the upper body only 3/4s of the way and the hips only 1/2 way, and failli onto a parallel leg.
This is because the eyes lead the body.
If you’re ever skiing or riding a bike and find yourself inexorably drawn into the gravitational field of an obstacle, with which you then collide, congratulations! You’ve successfully demonstrated the very same phenomenon!
(Sidebar: Ugh. Sometimes it’s blisteringly obvious that I’m a child of the Participation Trophy Era and grew up with computers shouting things like, “Congratulations! You have successfully closed this file!”)
Likewise, if you find yourself riding a beautiful 20 meter circle on a dressage horse, it’s the same thing.
In the first case, you’re looking directly at the obstacle in an effort to avoid it, and because your body follows your eyes and your skis or bike follow your body, you crash into the thing you’re trying to miss.
In the second, you’re looking where you want your horse to go, and this subtly shifts your shoulders and hips in a way that tells the horse what to do. This is why good dressage riders and their well-trained horses appear to communicate through telepathy.
In the studio, the same principle applies. If you stare at yourself in the mirror, you’ll usually leave your hips and shoulders more open than they should be.
In a proper arabesque, the hips and shoulders are SQUARE and LEVEL.
- For arabesques above 90 degrees, it may be necessary to open the gesture hip slightly. This is why we first work on low arabesques: you must know the biomechanical rules in order to know exactly how much you can break them.
If they’re not, your body has to work much, much harder to maintain balance, placement, and turnout.
But, wait! There’s more! 😭
There’s another problem here.
If you look very closely at the photo of my fouetté, you’ll notice that I’m not in a crossed position. I’m in the infamous “secabesque,” with my gesture leg at like 4:00 instead of crossed to 6:00
This is because I failed to establish the position before making it move.
Just as it’s incredibly difficult to manage a clean, controlled turn from a preparation which your back leg is wide of the centerline, it’s nearly impossible to fouetté correctly if your preparation is wrong (and impossible to correct from there if you also stare into the mirror).
Here’s another example:
Technically, the Apollo jump is a variant of sauté-fouetté. While I can’t argue that this one doesn’t look impressive, I should’ve begun from a preparation facing de côte so at the peak of the jump (the moment captured here) my hips would be facing the de côte in the opposite direction, rather than en face. (In the Apollo jump, as opposed to a standard sauté-fouetté, you open the shoulders towards the audience and arch your body towards the gesture leg).
I should note that, in the case of the Drosselmeyer rehearsal pic, the fault is partly the result of not having actually decided whether an arabesque half-turn or a fouetté was a better idea here.
I have considerable leeway to modify this section of the rôle, where I’m Magicking All The Things prior to the Midnight scare scene, and I hadn’t yet clearly thought through the best way to accomplish this floaty change of direction.
The result is kind of a weird hybrid; a fouettabesque, if you will, that hasn’t decided who to be in life. I’ll have to try doing both—but not at the same time—and see which works better.
The photo proves the rule, btw, that a still shot can be beautiful even if everything that follows is it a complete mess. This is why we should try not to let Instagram get us down. With the exception of the occasional hilariously awkward trapeze video, I mostly post only things that look good, and even then, those pics don’t tell the whole story.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video tells the truth (or, well, more of the truth: video, too, can be deceptive!).
This is why I highly recommend, if at all possible, taking advantage of the powerful tool that is your smartphone’s video camera.
Record video so you won’t be as tempted to try to watch yourself in the mirror. It’s also super helpful for understanding the difference between what your body feels like it’s doing and what it’s actually doing, which can be rather startling. It won’t replace that guidance of a good teacher, but it will help you dial in your technique.
And it’ll also grant you the gift of absolutely hilarious moments like this one:
Join us next time when, I guess, we discuss how to walk off the stage without looking like either a blithering idiot (my default) or a smoldering idiot (see photo above)!
That’s “little by little” in the Italian of the classical music world.
It often indicates a gradual change in the dynamics of a piece—a gradual crescendo or increase in tempo, perhaps.
Sometimes, when I think about how my life has changed over the past six or so years, it pops into my mind (visually, in that rather curly italic so common to classical scores 😁).
I think that happens for two reasons. First, so much has changed, and so gradually. Second, the ultimate effect on the listener of the direction poco à poco is often that of surprise: the dynamics change so slowly that, at some point, you suddenly awaken to the fact that the whole piece is dramatically different now, but you somehow didn’t notice the change happening.
Today I wrote a short bio for a thing that will remain top-secret for the moment, and in writing it I realized how much easier it has become to describe myself as a dancer, a teacher, and a choreographer.
I was struck with a powerful sense of gratitude, and that sort of delighted “I can’t believe this is really my life” feeling—but not, so much, the impostor syndrome of old.
When I began teaching, it was very much with the sense that I hadn’t really earned the role. I didn’t think I was a good enough dancer, really, to merit a teaching position.
Over the past year, I’ve watched my students grow in technique and confidence, and I haven’t really credited myself with that at all. I’ve sort of regarded it of an automatic process that happens if someone shows you more-or-less correct technique. Yes, now that I’m writing that out, I do suddenly realize how ridiculous it sounds, and that I wouldn’t say that about any of my teachers.
I think I honestly felt that my students were learning in spite of my deficiencies as a teacher.
I’ve begun to realize that, in fact, I have strengths as a teacher. One of them, I suspect, is being aware of the weaknesses in my own technique. It’s strange how glaringly obvious that seems now, when I spent all of last year thinking that the weaknesses in my technique were a reason that I shouldn’t teach.
It occurs to me now (and, yeah, not sure how I overlooked this, either) that even the best dancers have their weak spots, and that if your foundation is fairly solid, what matters as a teacher is knowing what they are so you don’t unwittingly pass them on to your students.
I’m heading into my second year of teaching with a much better sense of how to structure a class across the course of a year, which will help immensely.
I’m heading into my third year—my second “official” year—as a dancer in a ballet company similarly armed with a keener sense of what I need to learn and how to learn it.
I’m heading into both with a sense that this isn’t all some kind of fluke: that I may have taken a circuitous route, but I haven’t slipped in, uninvited, by some forbidden back door and won’t be discovered and unceremoniously ushered back out into the street at any moment. Or, well, probably not.
I wonder, now, if this is how everyone feels when they find their way onto their path. Or, at any rate, how many people feel, in that set of circumstances.
Would I feel differently if I had taken the more usual route through a pre-pro program and auditions or through a university-level ballet pedagogy program?
I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t, but I can’t say for certain that I would.
I can say that I feel more at home doing what I’m doing now than I ever expected to feel. I can say that I can imagine dancing and teaching deep into my future, and the thought doesn’t fill me with the dread and sense of being trapped that I feel when I imagined working at a desk for decades to come.
I can say that while I felt, at the beginning, that I hadn’t really earned my place (regardless of the kind words of my mentors), I failed to realize that even if that were true, I could earn it by staying in it and doing what that place required.
And so, here I am, at the start of a new season, ready to begin.
Today’s episode of Danseur Ignoble is brought to you by the famous palindrome, “A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL: PANAMA.” Which, to be fair, only works properly if you don’t consider the punctuation when reversing it, in which case you’d get “.AMANAP :LANAC A ,NALP A ,NAM A” thus utterly defeating the entire point of palindromes in the first place. Also, full disclosure: at the moment, as far as I know, there isn’t a canal in my plan.
I wrote recently about how planning to eat is a good idea, and how the #dancerlife can make that challenging, etc.
Anyway, now that the season is looming into sight (OH LORD, MAKE HASTE TO HELP US, etc) and I’ve done the fun part of being a responsible adult danseur (New tights! New shoes! New … dance belts. Yeah, well, it can’t all be that exciting.), I’m on to doing the hard part.
Or, well, the part that’s hard for me.
Which is planning.
Anyway, in the spirit of continuing to explore the vagaries of #dancerlife in ways that might potentially be useful to other people, today we’ll take a brief look at my planning process (HA! I’m not sure it qualifies as a process, tbh.)
I find it really helpful to create a broad visual guide to my week: a kind of general picture of how things are likely to look, knowing that they’re going to be different sometimes. Because I’ll take 6,000,000 years to finish it if I try to do it by hand, I typically just create a table in Google Docs.
Here, for your edification, is a screenshot of said table as it currently stands:
My teaching schedule (thus far) includes Monday evenings (useful, since my teaching job is more or less halfway between home and Lexington) and Wednesday evenings, and my Wednesday class is late enough to allow me to take an extra class in Lexington on Wednesday evening.
I’m deeply grateful that I won’t be trying to jet out to Frankfort to teach at 5:15, or 5:30, after rehearsal. Yes, it bought me some time to play around in the studio, but it also made it really hard to figure out when I to eat dinner.
Though I’m not sure yet whether this strategy will work, my current plan for Wednesday is to eat a reasonably substantial meal between Rehearsal Block B and Evening Class, then a snack/mini-meal on the way home from teaching. That should prevent me from wanting to murder anyone in the interval.
I might(???) be teaching on Friday evening, though if I’m not I plan to take an extra class then as well. Might as well make the most of my time, and I have plenty to learn as a dancer, soooooooooo………..
I have literally no idea what Theater Week for our first production will look like, nor whether the Nutcracker run will in any way resemble its usual self, so I’m not even going to try to make a draft plan for Theater Week right now.
TBH, half the time, no matter how well I plan, Theater Week turns into “All You Can Eat Pizza Week” anyway (work is irrelevant, as one inevitably just has to tap a sub, or in my case, possibly several).
I think our company schedule is a little different this year (I seem to recall that our morning break is now 15 mins, which probably means we’ll take lunch at 1:30 instead of 1, or something) but not so much so that it’ll drive a train right through this schedule, which is only a rough draft anyway.
If you find yourself thinking, “Yes, fine–you’ve written all these words, and you’ve still told us NOTHING about your planning process,” you’re absolutely correct, and I apologize.
So here’s how the process itself works:
Really first, before I actually begin planning, I look at my various schedules from various places and try to make them make sense in my head and generally develop a headache.
Officially First, I realize I need to make a visual depiction of my typical week, so I begin by making a table on a blank document.
At first, my blank document includes:
- 7 columns: one for each day of the week.
- 4 rows: one for each more-or-less arbitrary division in my day (I don’t like to use an hour-by-hour schema at this stage; I get too hung up on how things don’t line up visually the way I want them to).
Then I realize that I need a header row for days of the week, so I add that, and probably a label column so I can label the different sections of the day, so I add that too and spend a few minutes dithering over what I want to call the different parts of my day.
Once those rows and columns are in place, I start copying data into the individual cells for my company day, then by data for classes other than company class, then data for my teaching job(s).
At some point in this process, I realize I want color blocks to help me visualize my week without reading, so I start adding those. And then once the color blocks start coming together, I realize that a visual breaks for lunch would probably help, so I add a row (columns merged, text aligned center-center) for that. And, hey! It does help!
I briefly decide that I need a separate row for my potential second teaching job, so I add one. Then I change my mind, since adding the row in question will make the whole schedule less meaningful visually, and I remove that row and decide that I’ll just add a note at the top of each work cell (and probably make them different colors if I teach at more than one place).
For now, since I’m not 100% sure I’ll have an extra teaching gig, I’ve filled in the space it would occupy with question marks (???). It could take place on Thursday instead of Friday, but Friday seems more likely, and so the overall shape of the week in this draft is settled.
Then I realize I’m going to need another visual break between the end of the company day and … everything else, even though I technically consider additional classes part of company life. So I add one of those, formatted just like the lunch break, and label it accordingly.
The line for breakfast was kind of an afterthought. I actually thought about leaving it out: I mean, I actually do tend to eat breakfast every day, because when I don’t, I’m typically unfit for human company until I do eat something. But I liked what it brought to the table visually, and in all honesty, it’s useful in helping me imagine how I need to use my time.
Which, for me, is the whole point of doing this.
What this little visual layout really does is help me stop myself overcommitting.
Without it, I tend to imagine all of the time that I’m not actively in the studio either dancing or teaching as “free” and thus available for teaching or whatever, or even just doing side projects. And then, unsurprisingly, I wind up burning myself out.
There will always be seasons (NUTCRACKER) in a dancer’s life in which a little burnout (NUTCRACKER) is more or less inevitable (N U T C R A C K E R!!!!).
That’s why we have breaks in our company calendars. We need that time to literally rest, so our minds and bodies can recover from the strain of long days rehearsing and performing (and living on pizza because we’re artists and thus broke).
Last year, I overcommitted myself, and wound up creating a situation in which I wasn’t eating well enough or resting enough during rehearsal weeks, so by the time performance runs ended, I was not simply cooked, but overcooked. I did finish the year a better and stronger dancer than I began it, but I could’ve made more progress if I’d just taken slightly better care of myself.
Likewise, just as it is with our hearts and minds, we can only take more out of our bodies than we put back for so long. If my goal is to have staying power as a dancer, I need to take care of my instrument. Part of that is feeding it well and giving it enough rest to make up for the crazy demands I place on it.
Nobody pursues a career in dance because it’s easy: if you think it’s going to be easy, you’ll either drop out before you get anywhere near a career, or you’ll realize how wrong you were and embrace the challenge.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to make it harder for ourselves.
And one of the best ways to prevent making it harder for ourselves, of course, is to plan. And while I try not to overuse this phrase, I am sufficiently bad at planning on the whole that I want to say, “If I can do this, you probably can, too.”
PS: my decision to arrange my schedule Sunday-Saturday is a purely pragmatic one. That way, since my company week runs Tuesday-Saturday, my least-scheduled days are grouped together, which I find visually useful. You should organize your week in whatever way works best for you.