Category Archives: reflections

You Will Make Mistakes

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.

One of the pieces in rehearsal involves this sheer & very sparkly thing in which I don’t even think I look like me, but I do think I look pretty darn good?

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.

Anyway.

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.

Case in point: my body wants all attitude turns to employ the same arms as renversé. I just can’t with my body sometimes, y’all. Also, the thing where I STILL put my arm too far back in second sometimes 🤬

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.

Here I am DRASTICALLY overcorrecting an échappé 😱 (Whilst simultaneously losing my right-side turnout 🤦)

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.

Simone Biles, EDS, and Caring For Your Instrument

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.

Don’t rain on my parade. No, really. (via Pexels)

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.

Perhaps not the best weather for an outdoor concert, eh?

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.”

Okay, so it turns out that the revolution might be televised after all. (via Pexels)

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.

Okay, yes. This GIF is silliness par excellence, but honestly those sunbeams poppin out his chest are exactly how it felt.

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.

actual footage

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.

way too accurate bc in addition to being unable to use my body I was crabby af

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 meeeeeee

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.

it also me

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.

Something Good

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:

https://fb.watch/5WCH2vkM6_/

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.”

I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot

(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[1] rond de jambe every week for six months.

  1. 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.

So, anyway.

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 😁

How We Improve

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.

A male dancer (the author) in an ivory jacket and white tights in midair facing the left of the frame with the arms extended diagonally both legs extended to the front, left leg slightly higher than and ahead of the right. Embarrassingly, he is staring at his feet and sucking his lips into his mouth.
Exhibit A: Okay, this brisee’-vole’ could have been worse. But the ones I did today were a LOT better.

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[1].

  1. 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.
A male dancer (the author) in a burgundy sleeveless shirt, black tights, and black shoes, halfway through a pirouette with his arms curved and raised so his hands are just above eye level, his right leg raised and bent so the toes are touching the bottom of his left knee. He does not appear to be enjoying himself, although as the author and the dancer I can attest that he was.
Here I am, playing in the studio, enjoying my freedom to just dance. As you an 100% tell by the look on my face. Not.

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[2].

  1. 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).

A male dancer (the author) in the same burgundy sleeveless shirt, black tights, and black ballet shoes. He is standing on his right foot with his right arm extended to the front. His left arm is raised, extended, and blurred. 

His left leg is extended and elevated with the toes above shoulder height. The author was surprised to discover that his toes were actually still that high at that point in the movement, not that you can tell from the picture. 

He looks slightly off balance, because he is.
Oh, look. Something I haven’t perfected. For some reason I kept wanting to turn this grand rond into a renverse’. It isn’t one. Anyway, I would’ve made my life easier by thinking about pulling the right shoulder back and pushing the left (gesture-side) hip forward as I reached the gesture leg back through ecarte’. But I didn’t, and here we are.

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???[3]), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.

  1. 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.

The same dancer again (still your humble author), seem from the back, in the same burgundy sleeveless shirt (which is tied in a knot in back), black tights, and black ballet shoes, executing a pirouette. 

His arms are extended towards the ceiling. His face is slightly turned to the right. His left leg is bent and raised so the thigh is close to level with the hip and the toes are touching the bottom of the right knee.
Ignore the weird port de bras (I was either bringing my arms up from second or opening to second; I don’t remember which), and instead observe how even my back looks calm. If I can learn to be calm in turns, anyone can learn to be calm in turns.

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.

A dancer (still the author, but on a different day) wearing a dark grey tank top, dark grey mid-calf leggings, and tan ballet shoes, performing a renverse'.

His right arm is gracefully bent above his head, his left arm is extended towards the camera. His left leg is lifted to hip level and bent so it forms an arc behind him. His body is slightly canted and forms a continuous arc from his left toes to the top of his head.
For me, renverse’ is a poor example of the effect of practice. It’s one of the steps that someone showed me and I went, “Oh, like this?” and there it was (in fact, for a while, thinking about it and practicing it while doing so made it slightly worse ^-^’). But for a lot of people it’s one of the harder steps.

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.

Try Something Different

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.

Like, seriously. You DO NOT have to look this serious ALL THE TIME. Especially not when you’re dancing in your basement with three different types of flooring materials, a barre that falls apart at least once per class, and a sound-and-video setup that somehow involves both a toaster and a toaster oven.

Today was different. We did jumps and turns I’ve literally never done in my life. Early on, I realized I had a choice:

  1. I could be vaguely annoyed that I came for a classical ballet class and was getting something else entirely.
  2. 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.

The author at a white pvc ballet barre performing a penche, a tilted balance, with the right leg at 1:00 and the left leg standing at 6:00.
Penche’ is an adagio movement. L’Ancien likes to remind us that “adagio” literally translates to “at ease” or “no stress.” Usually right before assigning a really stressful adagio.

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.

The author in an attitude balance on the ball of the right foot with the left leg, slightly bent, raised to hip level and both arms up.
Yup. That’s what it’s all about. Balance and a good attitude. :V
…I’ll show myself out.

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.

On Anger

I don’t think I’m someone that most people would describe as an angry person, mainly because I work my butt off to contain myself when I’m angry about things that don’t really call for anger.

But, in fact, I think of myself as an angry person.

I’m angry a lot.

Part of me feels entirely justified: like, there’s a lot of injustice and stuff in the world, and also a lot of people just being jerks.

While it might not always be effective, anger about “injustice and stuff” seems, well, justified. What matters in that realm is what you do with that anger. Just like you can harness the power of anger to make yourself actually do double tours, you can harness the power of anger to help power you in the ongoing struggle for justice.

And getting angry (or at least annoyed) when people are jerks is kind of human nature. You have to learn how to manage it, of course, but I’m pretty sure even the Dalai Lama occasionally feels at least a little irritated by the actions of his almost-eight billion siblings in this life. Even the Buddha and Jesus got angry now and again, and the Hebrew scriptures of full of good people (and not-so-good people) who get angry at each-other and even at G-d [2].

  1. I mean, one of the ways to translate the name “Israel” is “wrestles with G-d,” and Judaism allows, and sometimes even encourages, us to have it out with the Being Upstairs.

So this isn’t a screed against anger.

Anger Happens.

Anger has its place, and usually when we try to Just Not Be Angry, what we actually wind up doing is Being Angry Anyway But Bottling It. And when we say “we,” I mean “I.”

I’m hoping your upbringing and experiences have taught you healthier habits–but, if I’m honest, looking at the way most of us act behind the wheel of a car, I’m probably not alone, here.

Strangely, when you bottle something that can be produced in almost limitless supply, you tend to wind up with a lot of it. Ask anyone who’s ever been to Burning Man[3] or had to spend a day or two without a toilet while plumbing repairs happened . Pee Jars proliferate in the dark like some kind of invasive life-form.

  1. It can be hella cold in the desert at night, and if you don’t want to don fifty-seven layers to sprint to the nearest Portos, a Pee Jar is your very best friend.

Likewise, just as it’s a bad idea to repurpose an empty one-gallon cranberry juice jug[4] as a Pee Jar, it’s a bad idea to construct within one’s being a vast reservoir for the storage of anger. Because it’s large, you can procrastinate for much longer before doing the necessary work to empty it. Because you can procrastinate for much longer before emptying it, it’s very likely that when you do, you’ll find that the contents have been magically concentrated into a vile stew of immense potency.

  1. What do you mean, “That reference seems oddly specific,” eh, buddy?

So I am, on the inside, part being attempting to learn to live with lovingkindness and part gigantic bottle of acidic stank.

But that, in fact, also isn’t what I’m reaching for (or, well … except when it’s time to empty the jar, I guess: now, where did I put my chem-lab respirator…).

Instead, what I’m reaching for is something I know I’ve written about before, but which bears revisiting. And it’s this:

When I think I’m angry, I’m usually just afraid.

Fear Is Under-Rated

You’ve probably heard my argument about how laziness is, in fact, an extremely valuable asset in terms of the long-term survival of a species (perhaps ours most of all, since it gives birth to at least as much innovation and creativity as does its dour-faced sister, Necessity, and the ability to invent–that is, to adapt–is our stock-in-trade).

Well, here’s another one: fear is also an extremely valuable asset.

In fact, I would argue that it’s a much more important one than laziness. Sure, it seems reasonable to assume that our moderately-lazy ancestors likely got a bit of a Darwinian boost by conserving their calories and putting them to use when it really mattered … but our moderately-fearful ancestors probably had a huge boost.

Like, honestly? As much as we tend to worship this ideal of fearlessness, really fearless people are excellent at getting themselves killed early in life.

And, of course, dying early in life somewhat limits one’s chances at contributing generously to the overall gene pool.

So not only does a healthy dose of fear help us stay alive, but when we treat fear with respect, we’re respecting a great gift that our ancestors gave us.

So, like, fear can be a great, great thing. Obviously, you can have too much of it–when it prevents you from living your life, that’s roughly as problematic as the all-too-common end result of having too little fear and dying in some stupid way because your nervous system didn’t bother to say, “HEY! This is stupid, and not how we should die. Could we maybe rethink this plan?”

But, on the balance, fear is a helpful gift.

So, then, what (you might by now, quite reasonably, be wondering) exactly is the problem here?

The Problem With Fear (and with Anger)

The problem, for me, is threefold.

First, by nature, I’m a bit of a bad ancestor. As much as I’d like something more impressive, if I had to choose a heraldic motto for myself, it would probably be best to use, “Quod citius ad me, ut per me stultior.”[5]

  1. My Latin is very much limited to the sphere of sacred-music latin, so that’s Google Translate Latin for, “The faster I go, the dumber I get.” If something is incorrectly declined, blame Google. Caveat emptor, etc.

I am the kind of person who has, thus far, avoided major injury by a combination of genes that make me naturally suited for fast-moving, dangerous feats and no small measure of sheer dumb luck. It doesn’t matter how good a skier you are when some other jackwagon careens into you at the speed of sound, after all, and skill and good reflexes can only account for so much, and I’m pretty sure the Divine Intelligence of the Universe isn’t really in the business of pulling morons like myself out of fires that we have ourselves first constructed and lit. At least, not most of the time.

Second, my childhood taught me to be afraid of the wrong things. So, in addition to being what you might call your typical high-adventure-tolerance hyperactive/impulsive ADHDer, I was conditioned to disregard any misgivings my brain might actually bother to produce with regard to most kinds of physical danger, but also conditioned to be completely freaked the feck out by emotional vulnerability. I didn’t even have the example of an early childhood in which fear was met with compassion and comfort–neither of my parents had the wherewithal for that, back then.

So–and this brings us to our third point–I learned to transfigure fear.

And, of course, the easiest thing to turn fear into is … you guessed it.

Anger.

At The Bottom Of Anger, There’s Usually Fear

While finally catching up on housework, I’ve been binge-watching Call The Midwife. It’s one of the rare non-documentary series that I can really enjoy: the characters act like actual people, instead of drama-flogging wackos in the worst kind of middle-school fanfic.

Anyway, I’m on series 2, and yesterday saw an episode in which fiercely-independent twins Meg and Maeve lock horns with our friends from Nonnatus House. At one point, one of the Nonnatans says something like, “At the bottom of anger, there’s usually fear,” or something equally wise.

And that, in turn, might have primed me to recognize that fear was at the root of an episode of anger I experienced while driving to class tonight.

I make no bones about the fact that I deeply dislike the way people drive where I currently live. What looks like normal driving to people here looks, to me, like reckless (though sadly not wreckless) disregard for safe following distance, and indeed for the laws of physics. Where I grew up, we have this thing called winter, and even though we’re pretty decent at clearing roads, learning to walk, and then bike, and then drive on snow and ice imparts a healthy repect for leaving some frickin’ space, ya turkey.

So there I was, driving to class, getting angrier and angrier because, well, people were driving like they always do (except when it rains, in which case they drive at the same speeds and, well, lack-of-distances, but as if they’ve never been behind the wheel before in their lives and have indeed just now awakened unexpectedly at the helm of this incomprehensible four-wheeled Death Buggy).

But OF COURSE I was angry, right? THEY were behaving stupidly and recklessly and risking their lives and each-others’ and mine for NO GOOD REASON, and MY ANGER WAS COMPLETELY ABOUT THAT because that kind of behavior is STUPID and SELFISH and UNJUST and–

And then I pulled into the studio’s parking lot.

And then I spent 90 minutes dancing in my own little box, with my mask on, and not thinking about it because if you can think about anything else in ballet class, you either need a day off or a better class (and this was a very good class) or, possibly, you’re on week 3 of Nutcracker and your brain is just DONE.

And when, at least, I found myself back in my Ballet Wagon, I was swamped by a sudden resurgence of Automotive Anger[6].

  1. I’m defining this separately from Road Rage, since Road Rage is usually used to describe behaviors directed at other road-users, and my Automotive Anger often takes the form of unexpressed interior seething.

Sometimes at moments like that, I automatically talk to myself out loud, because my mental translation software does better with abstract stuff (like feelings) if I either write it out or speak aloud. This is one of the sticking points of being a non-verbal thinker: language was practically invented for abstract stuff that’s hard to parse through sensory imagination and the experiential states we call emotions.

At some point in this conversation, I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to get back on the highway but taking surface streets takes longer and I just want to get home.” And then I asked myself, “Why don’t you want to take the highway?” and I answered, “It’s too stressful,” and I asked, “Why is it stressful?” and before I could say “Because people are jackwagons and I can’t effing stand it” some dusty long-forgotten neuron tucked away in a disused corner of my brain fired all of its guns at once and, rather than exploding into space, shot me the unadulterated message:

BECAUSE I’M AFRAID

Which … honestly?

It took me by surprise, and made me uncomfortable.

But then another part of my brain, the one that’s usually a smart-aleck about any kind of fear, was basically like, “No, that actually makes sense. Like, the way people drive is dangerous and beyond our control.”

Regarding which: wow. Apparently even my inner stupid jackwagon can learn.

A bit of fear about the way people is a good thing. At least, it is if you use it right: if you say, “Hi, Fear! Thanks for looking out for me! Let’s practice some mindful defensive driving so we can stay fairly far from other drivers as much as possible and be prepared just in case they do anything dumb.”

I took the highway home.

People still disregarded the laws of physics, but I expected that and knew I couldn’t change it. Somehow, that made a world of difference. I didn’t have to unconsciously transmute my nervous system’s life-sustaining concern over the dangers implicit in lots of common driving habits into anger in order to feel less vulnerable, or whatever my misguided unconscious habits are trying to do. I just had to drive my own car as responsibly as possible.

It didn’t mean that there wasn’t some stress involved, just that the stress was much easier to cope with without white-hot anger getting in the way.

Okay, But … So … Now What?

When I got home, it somehow occurred to me that maybe it’s time to start examining some of my other anger.

Like, I feel like most of the time I’m just one spark away from a conflagration[7].

  1. Add to this the neurologically-mediated autistic meltdowns that happen much less often but do, in fact, still happen these days, and I sound like a walking disaster. I’m kind of surprised I’m not worse off than I am.

If I lived in a different set of circumstances and had a different set of experiences, I suspect the outcome of that reality could easily be rather more unpleasant. If I hadn’t had a big sister to kick my butt and teach me that blowing up at people tends to result in getting one’s ass handed to one, as it were, they could be a lot more unpleasant.

But even as it stands, I walk around in a high-arousal state a lot, and I feel angry a lot, and I can be short-tempered in ways that almost always seem justified in the moment because my brain is great at deciding that it has good reason to be angry about … whatever. Right now, I’m really glad I was explicitly taught to assume all service-industry workers are doing their best under immensely trying circumstances (which is generally true) and that the customer is NOT always right, or I would almost certainly be such a huge ass all the time o_O

But, um. anyway. It occurred to me that maybe it’s possible to work on this after all. That maybe I’ll be able to work on mitigating some of the damage left by serious traumas and by, well, life. Maybe I’ll always be a bit more keyed-up and hypervigilant than I might’ve been if some really bad things hadn’t happened to me, but I can cope with that.

The past several years have, for me, been immensely healing. I’ve learned to trust in ways I never imagined; I’ve begun to re-examine the fabric of memory (endless thanks to Pilobolus SI, which really kickstarted that process); I’ve found, in the rubble of a life firebombed by circumstance, the tender shoot of a forgotten love that has become a passion, a career, and a home.

Still, I never imagined I would someday entertain the thought that I might also, just maybe, find a way to ratchet down the generalized wariness that leads, too often, to feeling like I’m living a kind of embattled life.

I don’t expect any of this to come quickly. Hell, I don’t expect it to come at all. If all that ever comes out of this moment of clarity is, well, this moment, that’s still an immeasurable good.

But I think if I can do this once, I can probably do it more than once.

Probably.

It’s worth a shot.


PS: It’s NACHMO time again! I can’t believe it!

Learn By Pas-De-Deuxing

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.

  1. Even with both of us stumping around in warm-up boots[2].
  2. 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.
  3. 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[4] 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.

  1. 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[5].

  1. Which will be Sunday evening of this week. I can’t wait!

Putting the “Grand” in Grand Pas

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:

The Nutcracker – Sugar Plum pas de deux: Adagio (Nuñez, Muntagirov, 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[1].

  1. 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[2].

  1. 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[3]. 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[4].

  1. 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.
  2. 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[5].

  1. 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[6] 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).

  1. 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.

Last Minute Changes

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 [1]”: the lyrics might be different, but the music is the same.

  1. 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[2] window constructed from blue painter’s tape and a clear vinyl shower-curtain liner.

Not cool, guys 😑 Also, was it necessary to explode my car’s trash bag everywhere? Note to self: get pix of temporary window.

I’m debating whether to order a tiny grocery delivery or actually slither into the driver’s seat[3] 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 🤷‍♂️

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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