Category Archives: reflections
I’ve been thinking a lot about this contract that I landed, and about the (overwhelmingly positive) language my new AD used when she called me up to make the offer.
I’ve been thinking about it because I walked into my last contract as a trainee—basically with the knowledge that I was the dancer in the company with the least experience and that I had the most to catch up on in terms of technique and skills.
In some ways, that was great! It meant I felt safe in the knowledge that I had a lot to learn and was gonna struggle sometimes, and overall being able to think about it that way helped me stay a little calmer about things when I did struggle.
However, I’m now doing this thing where I’m walking on in kind of the opposite position—a full company member beginning the season with a pretty big role in a pretty important show.
And it’s made me re-evaluate my feelings about myself as a dancer.
Like, at first, I was like, Holy heck, what if I’m not really as good as SP thinks I am?
And then I thought: No. She’s seen me in ballet class; she’s seen me in company class already . Also, she’s been doing this for THIRTY YEARS. I’m guessing she knows what she’s about.
- Once again, y’all: if you can ever take company class a time or two before you audition somewhere, DO IT! Also, should I ever actually get Antiphon off the ground, I think I’m going to do open company class for exactly this reason
And thinking that, knowing that I’ve been given a pretty intense brief, I’m like, Okay, in going to try to see myself as the dancer she sees.
And although giving myself the grace of being a trainee helped in the beginning of my career, I wonder if it didn’t also hold me back. There were definitely times that I felt like, Oh, I shouldn’t ask for x or y, or try this or that; I’m just a trainee.
Admittedly, some of this came down to the culture of the specific company: it was very traditional, and thus very top-down. In many ways, that was good for me, but it definitely made me more hesitant to speak up.
Anyway, that mindset stuck and even after I started to realize I was seriously growing as a dancer. I think maybe D is right and I under-valued my own ability and value as a dancer, possibly by quite a bit.
So now I’ve got this new role in my life as a dancer to step into. And that’s really cool, and really challenging, and it’s forcing me to regularly say to myself, No. You’ve got this. Stop thinking of yourself as “not really that good” and work on being the dancer SP saw in the audition
So there it is.
I guess this is a normal thing that happens when you make a big step forward in your career? But I never thought about it because honestly I never imagined having a career until I stumbled into my professional dance career.
I never imagined being able to do anything long enough to get promoted, really (even though I’d actually been promoted in two jobs by then; neither were jobs I could imagine doing for a decade or longer).
Anyway, here we are.
Oh, one last thing: our first show is in the first theater where I ever saw ballet. So this is really like coming full circle and coming home, and I am HERE FOR IT.
First, in October, I’ll be trekking out to California to perform the role of Romeo in Leigh Putting Ballet Company’s signature production, Sweet Sorrow: A Zombie Ballet
When Leigh first asked if I’d be willing to come out for this role, I was ecstatic, obviously. I mean, it’s not every day one gets offered a leading role, and I’ll finally get to meet a lot of the dancers I’ve worked with remotely.
It’s a particular honor because this is the 5th anniversary production of this show, after which it’ll be taking a hiatus for a couple of years. No pressure, right? ^-^’
Next, I’m starting a new teaching job soon, just started training at a new cirque studio, and I’ve got an audition next Wednesday for a company that I’m excited about potentially joining. I dropped in on their open company class this week, and the company dancers asked if I was planning on auditioning and told me I should definitely audition, which was awesome.
That’s kind of a huge step from my early days in the company at LexBallet, when I felt like nobody, including me, was sure I should really be there.
(I actually had no idea there were auditions coming up, so I’m doubly glad they mentioned it! Part of my brain is still stuck in the pre-pandemic ballet world norm of auditions taking place in late winter/early spring.)
If you ever have the chance to visit a company and take company class before you decide whether or not to audition, I highly recommend it.
One of the reasons I didn’t audition before relocating was simply that I wanted to get a feel for different companies first. That isn’t always possible—a lot of companies don’t do the “open company class” thing, though some will invite you to take company class if you’re a member of another company and you message ahead about classes in their school—but it seems like the ideal approach whenever possible.
As an autistic dancer, it’s probably even more important. It really helps to know in advance if the vibe is going to work and whether the artistic staff communicate in ways that work for your brain.
I was extra lucky in this case, because I got to take class two days in a row with the founder and AD of the company. It was definitely a little intimidating, because this is a well-reputed company I knew of when I was growing up (I mean, not one that’s a household name like ABT or anything—that’s never been a goal for me). It turns out, though, that the founder of the company seems like a lovely person; very grounded, down-to-earth, and firm-but-kind in a way that works really well when wrangling dancers.
I’m very much looking forward to the audition, which seems like a bit of a bizarre thing to say, but here we are.
It helps that it’s in the same time slot as a class I was planning to take anyway—my brain is just looking at it as a class or a workshop, which is exactly how everyone advises dancers to see auditions in the first place.
It’s impossible, of course, to know if I’ll make the cut—but it’s worth going regardless.
I’m reminded once again of the experience of learning how to track-stand on a geared bike: you begin knowing you don’t know how and failing often, then somewhere along the way you begin to figure it out. Later, at some point you sort of “come to” mid-trackstand and go, “I’m doing it!” (and immediately startle yourself into having to put a foot down).
Later still, you look back and realize it’s been a while since you really thought about it consciously. You might not be a past master at the track-stand, and you might not be breaking any records, but it’s a thing that’s there in your physical repertoire of cycling skills.
More and more often, this is how I feel about my career in dance. I’m still immensely grateful for the circumstances that brought me here, but I feel less and less often like I don’t really belong and like I hope nobody will notice that I’m desperately faking my way through absolutely everything.
I suppose that, like most things, if you fake it long enough while making an effort to actually learn, sooner or later you’re no longer faking it at all.
Anyway, that’s it for now, more or less. In the interest of my general policy of not jinxing things by saying too much, I’m keeping further audition details under wraps for now (probably until I know how the audition turns out).
I keep saying I’ll try to post more often and then being discombobulated by life, but I’ll say it again anyway, now that the relocation process is largely behind us.
Either way, until then, tuck and roll, my friends!
Harness The Imposter
Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment. There might be times that the strategy to follow won’t work—heck, it could even backfire—so don’t feel like it’s something you must try, or like you’re less of a dancer (or a person, or what have you) if you don’t.
Take care of yourself in the moment you’re in. You don’t have to do everything today; heck, you don’t have to do everything at all. It’s amazingly liberating to realize that, to be honest, a lot of things can wait, and that you’re not even the tiniest bit obligated to try ever possible approach to a problem.
Now, that being said, buckle in if you’d like to join me on a wee excursion into the territory of Imposterland.
Okay, so earlier I was working around the house and listening to Broche Ballet’s podcast and thinking about imposter syndrome (as you do).
Somewhere in there, something reminded me of my early days in the company at Lexington Ballet, back in the Before Times, c 2018.
- Seriously, that feels like about a MILLION YEARS AGO 😱
At the time, I was grappling with a terrible case of imposter syndrome (as you do). It was a rough time. I struggled a lot. On the regular, usually when everything else was also going wrong, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and whispered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not good enough. And they’re gonna figure it out.“
And every now and then, like a lifeline from the Universe, another thought would counter, “So what? Who cares? You’re here. Get to work. Prove them wrong. Rise to the occasion. Earn your spot.“
My life, of course, is not a Hollywood blockbuster, so it didn’t immediately fix everything. Not by a long shot. I still had rough days. I still struggled to pick things up in class more often than I care to admit. I still frequently felt like a squid attempting to dance in size 114 clown shoes.
But at the end of the season, I was offered a contract for the following year—and that comes down, in part, to the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that says, “So what? Who cares? (etc)” That stubborn streak, and the desire to make my Imposter Syndrome eat its words, kept me from walking out when things were at their roughest.
I’ve never thought of imposter Syndrome as an ally in my efforts to build a career as a dancer. I mean, now that I’m reflecting on it, I guess it makes sense to recognize that it’s trying to protect me, but it really often feels like anything but an ally.
But somehow, today, something went ping! and I realized that, indirectly, it has been not only one of my most faithful companions on this journey, but (at times, anyway) a helpful companion.
Imposter syndrome’s timorous whisper has served to feed my tenacity. At critical moments, it has awakened a kind of perverse grit. It has jabbed at the part of me that hates to fail.
I’m not saying this is true for everyone: it’s not even true for me all the time. With two years more-or-less on hiatus under my belt and little to show for it except better port de bras, a somewhat-more-reliable double tour, and a bit more, ahem, insulation than I had when the pandemic began, I’m staring down the barrel of a cross-country move into what is, in terms of dance, terra incognita.
You can bet your bippy that my inner imposter has a lot to say right now, and that the other voice, that stubborn inner voice, doesn’t always reply.
But now I know that I can say to my imposter syndrome, “Yo, thanks for looking out for me, but I’m not quitting. Whether or not I deserved to be where here when I walked through the door, I’m here now, and I’m gonna stick it out and earn my place.”
The funny thing is that sticking it out, in and of itself, really does help. You can do something day in, day out for years without improving at all, but only if your circumstances significantly limit the chance of improvement. Spend enough time doing almost anything with a least a little guidance, and you’re gonna improve.
Back in the fall of 2018, I was as insecure as a teacher of dance and as a choreographer as I was as a dancer.
Flash forward to today, and I’m a reasonably confident teacher: I know I’m not perfect, and that I have a lot to learn, but when I look at my students’ progress, it’s pretty clear that something’s working.
I’m also a reasonably confident choreographer: I set dances that people enjoy watching, and I don’t feel like I haven’t earned the right to do so. When I’m alone in the studio, setting a pas de deux or the corps parts for Act II of Simon Crane, it no longer feels like a pipe dream, or like a vision I shouldn’t look at too directly. Sure, setting an entire gigantic ballet is an enormous goal, and I still have literally no idea how to get there, but I no longer feel like I’m somehow not worthy to try.
I’m not as confident, yet, that I’ve earned my place as a dancer, but I’m getting there poco à poco. Opportunities are appearing that I doubt I could have imagined a few years back.
That’s where sticking it out, even out of nothing but sheer spite, really shines.
It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall. You get scraped up. You kick the curb, the bike, and especially yourself. You get back on. You crash some more. You keep getting back on because like heck some stupid inanimate object is going to beat you. And then at some point you’re sort of tottering along, and you start to pick up some speed, and the air moves over your skin like the breath of G-d moving over the face of the deep, and YOU ARE DOING IT!
- As a cyclist and lover of bikes, I am willing to certify that bikes are only inanimate objects in the loosest sense. Every single bike has a soul, and that soul is the soul of a pony that goes like a dream for a skilled rider with quiet hands, but will dump a N00b in a puddle STAT and then stand there laughing about it: not malicious, exactly, but perhaps a bit cynical, with a keen sense of the Order of Things. Every horse person on earth has met some version of this pony. So has every cyclist.
And then, of course, you crash again. You tend to crash a lot in the beginning, because that’s how beginnings work. Heck, if you’re a baby wood duck, your first experience of flight is being shoved out of the nest to crash in the underbrush, presumably so when is time to learn to fly, you’ll already know what crashing is like, and you won’t let it stop you (or possibly because some distant ancestor long ago decided that eggs were safer in trees, and here we are).
But, anyway, wood duck, cyclist, or dancer, you get up and dust off and get back to it. You’ve started, so you might as well keep on going.
And if you keep going long enough, you might just figure it out. You might discover, after all, that while you were looking elsewhere, you’ve earned your spot.
I used to think every other professional dancer I knew could see all my flaws. Now, I know they can: but most of them also choose—and I’m immensely grateful for this—to see my strengths.
The strength that is a spiteful refusal to give in to my imposter syndrome—or, seen from another angle, the conviction to endure through whatever trial arises—may or may not be invisible. I suspect my AD at LexBallet saw it plainly from time to time.
But, looking back, it’s a strength that I guess I can see.
One last thing: I know that privilege is a part of this. Opportunity is unequally distributed, especially for male ballet dancers, who are still pretty thin on the ground and who thus enjoy a far greater chance of finding a spot. So is the kind of financial security that affords both good training and the ability to absorb the financial challenges that come with being an artist. So is health.
Likewise, I have done exactly none of this on my own. Dancers are unicorns not only in that we’re kind of rare, but in that we—like Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn—need others to see us; to believe in us; to know what we are. We’re a communal concern, whether we like it or not.
The thought of exactly how much artistic potential goes untapped either through lack of opportunity or through lack of recognition and support is, quite frankly, staggering.
- Not recognition in the public, award-receiving sense, but in the private, “I am your teacher and I see that you have a gift and I’m going to tell you about it, along with anyone I know who can help you develop it” sense
Please know that if lack of privilege, of opportunity, of means, of health, of recognition, or of support—or, really, anything else: life is full of obstacles—stands in your way, I am not saying, “Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps!”
Imposter syndrome is a mirage, but there are plenty of real obstacles in the world, and imposter syndrome can make it even harder to overcome them.
If you’re in the woods, if you’re in the country of obstacles, I hope you’ll find your way clear (and I’ll help any way that I’m able, though I have no idea what that might look like).
I hope also that you might be able to harness your inner imposter. Maybe even make friends with them.
I’m not really there yet, but why not?
Thoughts on Adult Intensives
Suddenly, here it is almost May.
This happens to me every year, but it’s definitely worse without the structure of the ballet company schedule(1).
- How am I supposed to keep track of which month it is if the only major landmark is Nutcracker? Jeez.
Which, in turn, means that summer is barreling down on us at a staggering rate of *checks google* 1038ish miles per hour, give or take(2), replete with its array of Summer Intensives.
- circumference of the earth/24 (3)
- Wow, only a few sentences in and I’ve already included 2 notes and a note-on-a-note
I’ve already committed to LouBallet’s Adult Summer Intensive, which seems like a really good way to finish out my … seven??? years of training there—a way to spend some concentrated time with some of my favorite teachers and classmates while also, of course, keeping my ballet skills on point(e). Besides, it’s a great program, and we get to learn cool original choreography (some of which has made it to my video CV/audition reel, because I actually felt good about it after watching it).
It’s also fairly affordable, which is more important than usual, since I don’t yet have paid work lined up for, like, after this summer (fortunately, D does).
I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to do basically anything else this summer that doesn’t at least offer me a full scholarship or the equivalent thereof, but there are several programs I’m flat-out dying to attend (DuCon!!!!! ADF! Pilobolus!) if finances magically allow. Likewise, I’m ever-curious about adult SI offerings, and I like to keep an ear to the wind about what’s available—so, from time to time, I go hunting.
And in the process of hunting, I’ve noticed something.
Adult SI Pricing Can Bring You To (Two?), Ahem, Tiers
Yeah, you’re right. That was terrible. Sorry.
In the growing world of adult summer intensives and workshops, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern: there are basically two pricing tiers.
- Tier One: programs that are actually less expensive per week than a lot of (perhaps even most) youth SIs
- Tier Two: programs that are either as expensive as or actually wildly more expensive per week than even top-notch youth SIs
Tuition for the second tier of adult SIs typically runs more than twice the weekly cost of tuition at the first tier, though the dance offerings are often comparable (or, in some cases, richer at the Tier One programs).
I’m curious about what drives the difference in price, and whether the organizers of the different programs (especially Tier Two programs) realize how deeply pricing might impact the makeup of the student body at any individual program.
Given that none of these programs, as far as I know, are restricted to local students only, and that the adult ballet community justly thirsts for quality SIs like hummingbirds thirst for nectar (though it’s fair to say we dancers are less likely to stab each-other in the pursuit of coveted spots around the feeder), “what the market will bear” clearly isn’t the only factor at play. Likewise, all of them have limited spaces, and the number of available spots doesn’t seem to have much to do with pricing models (if it did, we could expect both LouBallet’s and LexBallet’s SIs, which are limited to fairly small numbers, to command much higher prices).
Bringing Tiers To You: A Look At Prices
A brief survey of adult SI pricing reveals a pretty broad range, but it’s worth noting that many of the Tier One programs, though typically open to dancers at all levels, are designed in ways that allow them to serve serious dancers across the spectrum from fairly new beginners to emerging professionals.
Lexington Ballet’s adult SI (scroll to the bottom of the linked page for registration info), at $240 for five four-hour days, continues to be an absolute steal, and I’m not just saying that because LexBallet has been my company and my ballet home for the past few years. The quality of instruction is superb, and I don’t know of an adult SI that’s priced more affordably (unless we start breaking things down per hour, in which case it’s Mutual Dance Theater, hands down). Participants from this SI have found also their way into character roles and even company contracts, thanks to the close participation of LexBallet’s AD, School Director, and other artistic staff.
Mutual Dance Theater’s Modern SI–the one I took a few years ago, before Mam-Luft & Co merged with Mutual–runs $399 at most (late-bird tuition, for disorganized folks like me) for a packed week, with programming 9 AM to 5 PM every day. It’s not ballet-specific, and it’s not one I’d recommend to a true beginner in any dance idiom, but it’s a beast of an intensive (in a good way), and hella affordable. It’s also very much geared towards emerging professionals.
LouBallet, fairly typical of the first tier with its $550 tuition for a 5.5-day program, could almost certainly double its tuition and then some and still fill the spaces. Instead, they’ve chosen to keep the tuition right where it’s been (for which I am deeply grateful). Ashley Thursby-Kern, who runs the program, specifically considers its role in offering an intensive program for college dancers and emerging professionals who may have aged out of youth SIs, while continuing to foster an environment that supports new dancers as well.
Westside Ballet’s program, located in Santa Monica, is a bit shorter per session (3 hours/day over 4 days) but offers three sessions priced at $500 each. The faculty includes Martine Harley, who is the company’s AD, and Sven Toorvald, along with others representing some top-tier companies. The third week focuses on pas de deux and variations, and if I wasn’t teaching an SI that week, I’d find some way to get my behind out there for that.
ArtEmotion‘s offering– the most expensive I’ve included in this category–looks very comparable to LouBallet’s and, at $800, still seems pretty approachable to those of us in the “broke-ass dancer” category. This is one of the oldest ongoing adult intensives, held at Ballet West’s Salt Lake City studio, and has long been on my list of Intensives I’d Attend If They Weren’t The Same Week As Something Else I’m Already Doing.
- This is a fugly link, so if it doesn’t work, try this one: LouBallet MBB Landing Page
- Assume that this category includes both “lay” dancers with limited disposable income and those of us among the professional segment who usually have access to at least some summer programming for free, but who might have been impacted by pandmic-related closures and/or impending moves (hi) and, either way, still need to stay in shape until September.
These programs, and programs like them–my “First Tier” adult SIs–are largely affiliated with established ballet companies or schools. Access to existing studio space and, perhaps, a built-in supply of students and teachers explain at least some of their relatively affordable prices.
They also tend to be light on extracurriculars–those factors that might make things feel a bit more like a vacation, I guess. Not that you need them after, for example, eight straight hours of modern dance buttkickery.
Tier Two, meanwhile, is a bit more of a mixed bag: one of the programs in question features one of my favorite master teachers and looks like an absolute banger of a program for focused advanced dancers; others seem a bit more like relaxing ballet-themed getaways.
I realize that this perception is very much colored by my experience as one of the aforementioned Emerging Professionals, with its attendant feature of being both chronically broke and accustomed to dancing 30+ hours per week. As my friend Tony (who looks like a tall Steven McRae) says, “Hi Ho, the theatrical life.”
So what kind of programs, you might ask, are in Tier Two?
First, of course: SunKing, the granddaddy of adult SIs. At the time of this writing, SunKing doesn’t have a website up, and I’m not clear on whether or not it’s actually happening this year (links to SK’s Facebarge), but it was always out of my price range anyway. It was one of the few that had enough draw to offer a partnering class, which would’ve been awesome to take before I embarked on Ballet Company Lyfe (y’all, learning partnering piecemeal while rehearsing actual ballets isn’t ideal, is what I’m saying), but not quite awesome enough to warrant launching an OnlyFans or something at this point in my career. Still, I’ve always had the impression that the actual instruction overall was quite good.
Given the serious, focused programs and excellent instruction available in Tier One, there’s only one Tier Two program that leaves me feeling butthurt about being, well, semi-broke, and that’s Runqiao Du’s inaugural DuCon–which I’d leap to attend, if I could afford it (but I can’t, unless I figure out how to make a few thosand dollars PRONTO). DuCon falls at the, well, less-inaccessible end of my second tier: tuition runs $1499 for one week or $2799 for both weeks, and the program offers an excellent teaching staff (Mr. Du himself, plus others), a 6-day week, and programming that runs from 9:30 AM ’til 8:00 PM Monday through Friday. Moreover, Du’s youth SI (which also runs for two weeks) is priced exactly the same, so we (would-be) adult participants aren’t left feeling like cash cows.
At the far end of Tier 2 is another brand-new event: International Adult Ballet Festival. Not gonna lie—I was intrigued when I heard about this one on the Broche Ballet podcast: the program offers a workshop, showcase, and a competition (not a selling point for me, but certainly a unique offering). However, at only 4 days long, IABF comes with a staggering $2950 price tag. To be fair, that does include hotel room, breakfast, lunch, and a couple other meals–but broke-ass dancers are pretty good at finding cheap housing and food, and if I’ma drop $3k on tuition, it’s going to be at DuCon or ADF.
Don’t get me wrong, IABF sounds like a really fun event–but it’s pretty clear that I’m not really their target audience (this isn’t a program that believes adult dancers can’t build careers in dance, but I don’t think it’s really intended for those of us who are already doing so). Likewise, the website’s vibe is more Awesome Ballet Vacation than Come Get Your Ass Handed To You For A Week Or Two. There’s value in both those approaches, of course. Likewise, the event does bill itself as a festival, rather than as a Summer Intensive: more, “Come celebrate ballet!” than “Come suffer with us!” And it’s good that such a thing can exist.
But still. $2950 for 4 days. Wow.
Do Different Tiers Reflect Different Audiences?
As an autistic person, I am perhaps more inclined than most to sort of forget that people can be interested in the same things I’m interested in, but experience those interests very differently(6).
- Some people can apparently like things without tending to rebuild their entire lives around those things! Who knew?!
It doesn’t automatically occur to me that someone else might want to take a summer intensive for different reasons than I do, or maybe, for the same reasons, but perhaps prioritized differently.
Life, for me, the drivers (at least, the ones I can think of right now), ordered by priority, might look like this:
- Refine and improve technique for upcoming season and/or auditions
- Dance AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
- Learn new steps and/or new partnering skills
- Learn repertoire
- Maintain at least the bare minimum fitness level that will prevent me dying on Day 1 of new company class, assuming successful auditions
- Ideally, add a useful piece to my audition reel
- Hang out with my peeps, new and existing
Explicitly not in my list are the following:
- Take a break from my regular job (because ballet is my regular job)
- Find out what it’s like to be able to dance full-time (again, bc that’s basically already my life)
This makes it difficult to imagine choosing a 4-day intensive at any price when there are so many available that run 5 or 6 days or longer: my primary goal is to immerse myself in a demanding curriculum for as long as possible.
Likewise, I find it difficult to imagine being a dancer, but also being satisfied living a life in which a four-day ballet immersion would feel that much different from, like, normal life, because my experience of being a dancer has basically been, “Holy heck, drop everything else, this is the thing
i MUST do.”
And yet, rationally, I am aware that I know people in that exact target market—people who have very demanding careers that they love outside of dance, not to mention family lives that don’t basically also revolve around ballet, but who also passionately love dancing.
Quite a few of them could easily afford a few thousand dollars for a short, almost-all-inclusive ballet intensive. Time is probably in shorter supply for them than it is for me, and the sheer convenience of having almost everything planned out might mean saying, “Hey, I can do this!” instead of “Wow, yeah, I don’t have the time/mental bandwidth/whatever for all this planning.”
Likewise, the fact that I straight up forgot to put “have fun” on my list of priorities says a LOT … though mostly what it’s saying is that, even during the roughest parts of my first year with LexBallet, I still had fun, and I still wanted to be there more than I wanted to be anywhere else in the world.
So it doesn’t occur to me to put “have fun” on the list, because, even if the atmosphere somewhere turns out to be awful, I’m going to enjoy dancing anyway. Especially if I know I’m only there for, at best, a few weeks.
For someone who’s returning to work in another field after their summer program, on the other hand, fun and relaxation might be much higher priorities. There’s something to be said for options existing that fit the needs of people in that situation, too.
Conclusion: I Which I Leave You In Tiers
(Or not, depending on if adult summer intensives are of any interest to you at all.)
Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the Most Important Thing In The World.
But it’s a valuable insight for me (as someone who is fully behind the idea that different people have different wants and needs but who is also sometimes an absolute bonehead at imagining them), and I hope it might be helpful to others considering adult summer programs—especially, maybe, those considering their first adult summer program.
For me, for example, Mam-Luft (now Mutual) was in many ways a great first summer program—but it was also extremely demanding, often emotionally challenging, sometimes lonely, and just plain physically exhausting. I definitely had some major breakthro moments, but I also failed A LOTTTTT in front of 50 people, with no hope of fading into anonymity, since I was the ONLY guy that year. Oh, and I shredded my foot.
If I hadn’t, by then, already been a pretty experienced student, quietly putting in the foundations for a career in dance; if I was of a less stubborn constitution; maybe especially if I’d taken that SI knowing I had to go back to stressful job, I might’ve felt very differently about exactly the same experience. It might even have made me conclude that SIs weren’t for me, which would’ve been a shame.
So maybe the real TL;DR for this post goes like this:
- There are a lot of adult summer programs now! That’s awesome!
- The programs can be roughly divided into two pricing tiers
- The price of a program doesn’t directly reflect the quality of instruction—most of them look pretty solid!
- The less-expensive programs seem more likely to attract a mixed student body of both amateur and professional dancers
- The more expensive programs are more likely to include things like meals and extracurricular events
- Before you choose a program, it’s a good idea to hash out your needs, goals, and priorities (Will you be going straight back to work in a busy emergency room? Consider a shorter or more relaxed program—you’ll still learn a lot, but you won’t return to work exhausted)
- If you choose a shorter or more relaxed program this year and discover that you want to go harder, you’ll have gained valuable insight for next time
- On the other hand, if you choose a challenging program send find it’s a little too much right now, you can either try again next year or try an easier one next year
- If you get to go to DuCon, please tell me whether it’s as awesome as it sounds so i can figure out whether i need $3000 extra next year 😅
A Final Note: American Dance Festival & Pilobolus
Although I could arguably include American Dance Festival’s Summer Dance Institute in either one of my tiers, and would love to attend the full program, I’m setting it off to one side for now. In short, although full-time tuition runs $2,275, it’s comparable in length to a full-scale youth SI, and offers a staggering array of programming geared towards developing professional dancers. Likewise, you can actually Choose-Your-Own-Adventure your way through it by taking individual classes at $750/4-week class.
Likewise, although the cost-per-session of Pilobolus’ excellent program has increased to around $1000, its generous scholarship program makes it relatively accessible, though you can still rack up $3000 in tuition if you go for all three sessions at full cost. It’s also kind of in its own category because, honestly, a lot of ballet people probably wouldn’t be super interested, which is fine.
On Autism And Ballet (Again)
I know I’ve written about this before, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again, but because for some unfathomable reason I’ve spent basically my entire day on Twitter grooving on threads from the neurodivergent, EDS, and disability communities, it occurs to me to write about why the ballet is a good fit for me, specifically as it interfaces with autism.
Everyone on earth has now written a summary of the basic diagnostic criteria for autism, so I’m not going to do that, here. Y’all know how to Google if you need more info -.^
Instead, I’m going to touch on how working as a dancer in a ballet company is a good fit for me as an autistic person, breaking things down as I go by the specific traits in question.
So, here we go.
Narrow Range Of Specialized Interests
Hooooo, boy. With the exception of the equestrian world and certain subsets of academia (I see you, paleobiologists!), I’m not sure there are too many actual career paths that dovetail as neatly here.
Ballet is an all-encompassing special interest. It requires your body, your mind, and basically all of your time. It’s one of the very few career paths in which obsessive focus on the subject is essentially an entry-level requirement—like, the only way to make it through the training is to be motivated enough by ballet itself, which is why dancers everywhere giggle at t-shirts that read, “I CAN’T. I HAVE CLASS.”
Like, we’ve all been there, and (excepting the few who get shoved into it by overbearing parents), we all chose that life.
As autistics, we experience this thing where people get really sick of our special interests. I honestly have only met one person in the ballet world who occasionally gets tired of talking about ballet, and even he doesn’t get tried enough of it to resent it—he’s just delighted when people bring their non-dancing partners to dancer shindigs so he can talk to them about, like, politics or futböl ^-^
It’s not that we dancers never talk about anything else—but in the studio after rehearsal, or at gatherings of dancers, nobody gets mad if you talk about ballet, or if all your jokes are specific to dance.
I suppose part of this is that ballet leaves precious little time for other pursuits—but, also, you only get that far if it basically consumes your whole being.
Rigid Adherence To Routine
I go to class even when I’m on holiday.
This is, of course, partly because I like going to class, and partly because the only way to stay in shape for ballet is, well, ballet.
But I’ve realized it’s also, to a significant extent, because no matter where I go, class is class. Barre is barre. Centre is centre. Allegro is the best thing that ever—erm, sorry, allegro is allegro.
There may be minor variations (Ha! Ballet puns!) in the routine, but overall, when I step into the studio, I can relax a bit more than I normally do, because I understand the process, and I know what will happen.
That Whole “Systematizing” Thing
NGL, I love a good system—and ballet is a system.
It comes with its own entire language and four hundred years of etiquette, which (bonus!) is largely explicit.
Better still, it combines beautifully with a systematic understanding of anatomy and physiology.
Yes, parts of the system are problematic and due for overhaul—but that can happen in any system. A strong system will weather those changes and come out the other side better than it was.
Ballet has been doing that for four hundred years. As long as we allow it to, it will continue.
Being a member of a company also provides a systematic framework for managing time. Class begins at the same time six days a week; rehearsal and performance schedules are posted where you can see them enter day, but you’ve also got your fellow dancers to remind you that, oh yeah, this Friday we have an outreach gig after lunch.
In a well-organized company, you know the temporal framework for the entire season when you arrive on Day One. Specific parts of it may change due to casting or whatever (for example, global pandemics o.O), but the broad strokes are there.
The Social Aspect
My particular autism is probably most observable in the casual social contexts most NT folks seem to really enjoy—the ones where there’s no specific topic or activity, just general chumming around with a bunch of people. I have literally no idea what to do in those circumstances unless someone fires up a conversation that falls in my range of Known Topics ^.^’
And G-d help me if it’s the kind of party where there’s music and lots of different, overlapping conversations but no room to just dance . I can’t with parties like that—my spoken language processing is too limited, and my brain stops bothering, so I typically find the quietest possible place to hole up with a match-3 game on my phone.
- If there’s room to dance, on the other hand, I’m in my element. It didn’t even really matter what kind of music is playing.
There’s some very interesting research happening about much of autistic social difficulty results directly to autistic neurodivergce itself and how much results from the social opportunity costs of being different, particularly during childhood, bu it’s generally agreed that autistics on the whole typically struggle with social stuff.
Ballet might seem like a weird way to address that, since the typical class offers little or no time for what we think of as socializing. But what it lacks in time to chat, it makes up for in spades under the heading of “shared/corporate/communal experience”—which works well for me as someone who grooves on the whole “parallel play” modality, and which in itself provides fodder for chats outside of class and rehearsal (or during breaks).
- In the sense of “people doing things together as a single entity”—ie, a body, or corpus
You don’t have to know how to have a casual conversation to be part of a group of dancers—but being part of a group of dancers can help you get better at having a casual conversation. At least, it did that for me. I’m not going to say I ever totally stopped being The Weird Kid at LexBallet, but people got to know and like me well enough to see past the discomfort that causes.
Addendum: Oh, and because I totally failed to mention it: there’s nothing as social as partnering. (Well, maybe one other thing ^-^’)
You Never Have To Sit Still
Okay, except sometimes, like if you’re a corps girl in parts of Swan Lake or the Master of Ceremonies during certain parts of The Sleeping Beauty. But, even then, it’s a very active way of being still, and will inevitably be relieved by movement.
I often tell people the story of sitting (“sitting,” lol) in a meeting at the last non-ballet job I had and experiencing this intense revelation: like, literally everyone else in the room was physically able to sit still.
I was the only one doing a jig under the table, furiously taking notes to stay engaged, drawing when there was a lull, and constantly shifting in my chair.
That was the moment when I realized with absolute clarity that I did not belong there. Not in a value-judging way—just in a, “Wow, this is not my environment” way. I realized I wasn’t about to “grow into” sitting down at a desk—not then, and probably not ever.
I need to move in order to function. I mean, yes, that’s true for everyone, don’t get me wrong—basically it’s what makes us not plants. Even sessile species like sea anemones go through phases where the they float around irresponsibly before finding grown-up jobs and settling down.
What I mean is that, for whatever reason, my brain/body compels me to move more than most people are compelled to move.
I think better when I’m moving. I feel better when I’m moving. Moving helps me organize my senses and my thoughts.
Honestly, my brain is kind of like one of those sharks that starts to die if it stops swimming, only replace “die” with “dance a stationary jig while quietly losing the plot, but not actually processing information in any meaningful way.”
I don’t necessarily panic—I just get more and more restless, and the excess spills over in the form of more meltdowns and less sleep. Well, and also just having to get up and take a walk, to anywhere, even if it’s just the despised printer, enemy of humankind, or the file cabinet or whatevs.
Also, I just have a metric shedload of extra energy to burn off, and nothing does that like ballet-company life . Teaching gets partway there, but drains my social meter harder than it does my hyperactivity, so it doesn’t lead to the kind of productive exhaustion that makes me actually feel my best and reliably sleep well.
- working with horses also comes very close, but it’s hard to work at a barn and in a ballet company at the same time; being a picker in a gigantic warehouse also burns off tons of energy, but isn’t as helpful in other ways
This is never a problem in ballet, because in ballet, moving is literally your job.
So, Like, In Summary
Anyway, this is long enough.
I’ve written it in part because I’m sure there are people out there who are like, “Wait, I thought all autistics did computers or trains or math,” or even, “How can an autistic person possibly work in ballet?”
I hope this goes a little way towards helping things make sense for people in those camps, but it also helps me understand better what I need from my work environment and why company life, even during my “unpaid trainee/bottom of the pile” days, meant so much to me and worked so well for me.
I’ve been thinking hard about how to make things work going forward, because normally, in dance, you kind of audition everywhere and you go where the job is, but things are happening in my life (nothing ominous, just … responsibilities and stuff) that mean I’ll be moving to a specific place whether or not I get a company spot there.
That has been pretty scary, because I haven’t been sure how to continue building my life as a dancer if that happens. Like, literally, as a not-tall guy who still has some rough spots in his training, that’s a very real possibility. There might not be a company that has a spot for me right now.
But knowing why company life works for me will help me begin to see my way to building a working life that does work, even if that happens.
Rough Day, But Not As Rough
CW: Mention of Suicidal Thoughts
Today was … yeah.
It wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had. Not by a long, long, loooooooong measure.
But it was the kind of day that starts with a reminder of the fact that the ballet company I worked my butt off to be worthy of is still on hiatus, and that since I’m moving, it’s very unlikely I’ll be dancing with them much, if at all, ever again, and that as such the part of my career that meant the most to me is still stalled (pending auditions, etc). This is, for me, a big deal.
I’m also tried and probably haven’t eaten enough bc my schedule is weird and nothing sounds like food, so I’m sure some of this is just down to the fact that I turn into a giant toddler when I’m hungry or tired, let alone both.
So, anyway, right now, my brain is simultaneously like YOU ARE AWFUL, LIFE IS AWFUL, EVERYTHING IS AWFUL and also like OMFG STOP BEING SUCH A GIANT DRAMATIC EMO TODDLER (while yet another part is like Can’t we just stop being so judgmental of our own emotions, here? Sheesh).
But, also, another part of my brain is like, “Dude, you know what? I remember that we’ve felt like this before, and it was terrible and sucked and felt like it would go on forever, but then eventually we stopped feeling like this. So, I’ma let you finish, but you know, it’s very possible that eventually this will stop, too.”
It reminds me of a thing I realized about my suicidal episodes, which come on very fast, usually when I find myself feeling trapped: I can tell myself to wait a day (or an hour, or thirty seconds), and if nothing has changed, I can kill myself then. I tell myself that over and over, until finally I stop having to tell myself that. Sometimes it takes weeks. Sometimes it takes less than a day.
But so far I’m still alive, partly because I really mean it in those moments. Like, I tell myself that option is there, and bizarrely, that helps me feel a tiny bit less trapped. That probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but it often works for me (in combination with having people in my life who can help me, of course).
Anyway, I think this is the first time my brain has chimed in with NOOOOOO EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE AND IT WILL BE HORRIBLE FOREVER and another part of my brain has said, “Hey, you know, that could be true, but experience tells me it probably isn’t, so instead of getting caught in this idea–though you can go on feeling that way, over there, it’s okay–I’m going to hang out and wait and see,” and I’ve been able to sit with that paradox without it losing sight of that second thing, really.
- I mean, notwithstanding the fact that in some ways life is unrelentingly horrible to a lot of people. Like, for an incredibly large number of people, that is pretty objectively true, though so many of those people are incredible at enduring things nobody should have to endure. But that’s a different sense of the thing.
I am still struggling with being knocked out of the thing that was so central in my life, and not having somehow gotten my crap together enough to audition last year so I wouldn’t be in this position now (though I’d still be moving, so I’d still be facing the terrifying gamut of auditions). The structure of company life brought a lot of sanity with it, for me; it helped shape my time in ways I’m not good at doing for myself (I don’t mean that as a value judgment: it’s just not a thing my brain does well, and that’s fine). It helped me grow both as a dancer and as a person in ways that I’m not doing, or perhaps not doing as much, under current circumstances (I’m sure I’m learning other things, but the thing you have doesn’t replace the thing you lost; that’s just how grief is).
It’s been hard to talk about this because, quite frankly, the response one often gets is, “Why are you complaining! You have no idea how lucky you are to have had the time that you did in that company.”
Which is both dismissive (grief is not lessened by knowing that one has lost something rare and special; not at all) and, frankly, incorrect. I would hazard that I know better than anyone alive the staggering constellation of circumstances that coincided to give me my time at LexBallet: I know keenly and viscerally just how incredibly lucky I am.
But I also know that luck was only part of it, and that an ocean of hard work and no small measure of sacrifice was also involved.
Grief is real; grief is hard; and still I work not to cling to grief, but to say, “Hello, grief,” and let it be there, while also knowing that other things will come, though I have no idea what they will be, and they might not be the things I imagine that I want.
So here I am, sitting with these things that I feel, and sitting with the uncertainty of things, and part of me is in turmoil about it (though probably more in turmoil about needing to go to bed and/or eat) and part of me is at peace with that turmoil. Which feels kind of neat, in its own way.
And now I’m going to go feed my inner giant emo toddler and go to bed.
PS: the thing that made everything boil over this morning was having a bad day in class in a way that felt like a step backwards: I kept not trusting myself to have the exercises, and instead of just saying, “Ah, feck it,” and going for it, kept watching everyone else in the mirror to make sure I was right, which then actually prevented things from sticking in any meaningful sense, which led to a kind of crisis of nerves in which I couldn’t pick things up because I was busy being afraid that I couldn’t pick things up, to such an extent that L’Ancien called me out on it (which I deserved).
That reminded me how much confidence I’d gained during my time with LexBallet, and which (in that moment) I feared I’d lost, which gave my brain (which was already in a weird place, probably for purely biochemical reasons for once) a thing to hang up about, which colored the rest of the day, which might otherwise have been only a normal day in which some things sucked and other things rocked and most things were just meh.
Besides being okay with sitting with the place where my head is now, part of the answer is to be willing to say, on mornings that I’m as foggy as I was this morning, “OKay, I’m going to hang back and give myself more time to pick things up.”
Sometimes forcing myself to go in the first group every time is a good strategy. Sometimes it’s not, and it’s silly to cling to that strategy when it’s not working.
PPS: At the end of class, when I finally got out of my own way and decided to just trust that I knew the combination, I got some very nice remarks from L’Ancien. That should tell me a lot. I’m sure it will when that part of my brain is ready to listen.
Nachmo with Catsup
Make that catch-up.
I know, I know. Terrible pun. I’m genuinely sorry, and yet I know I’ll just do it again. Such is the nature of puns.
Okay, so I’ve basically been incognito for two months. November and December are, erm, a little busy in the ballet world and we had a bunch of house projects that became urgently important (and thus got done, but also ate up my unscheduled time).
Then I caught COVID (spoiler alert: thank G-d for vaccines & boosters) and, even after recovering, wasn’t sure what to say about it.
So! Let’s get that one out of the way first.
I can only assume, based on the timeline, that I probably caught COVID while on our miniature tour. Given the timing, the fact that we performed without masks only to later find out the audience was also unmasked, and the fact that almost nobody in the town where we performed seemed to wear masks anywhere at all (and that my masks are all the protect-other-people kind that do little to protect the wearer), it’s deeply probable.
- “We” being a group of vaccinated dancers (with the exception of a few who were too young) and very careful about masking. As far as I know, the decision to have us dance unmasked came down to our artistic staff being given the impression that the audience would be masked, because they’ve been extremely careful throughout the pandemic.
That said, it’s hard to say with certainty, because even though I still basically wear a mask whenever I’m around people who aren’t in my pandemic pod, I don’t usually wear an N95 or KN95 mask. Initially, that was because supplies of those were limited for quite a while and people working in healthcare really need them; more recently, it’s been partly because I already own about a million ordinary masks, because I’m mostly around other people who wear masks, and because N95s are an absolute beast to dance in.
As a result, I could’ve picked up the virus literally anywhere, since enormous numbers of Kentuckians, particularly outside of Louisville and Lexington, simply won’t wear masks.
Anyway, because I teach students in the K-12 bracket (who, until recently, weren’t eligible for vaccination) and because as someone with asthma and a history of serious respiratory illness I’m at higher risk of severe complications of COVID-19, I got both initial vaccine doses pretty early and received my booster the day I left for the beginning of our Nutcracker run.
It’s impossible, of course, to say how things would’ve played out if I wasn’t vaccinated, but given my risk profile and medical history (I’ve had pneumonia five hecking times, y’all–my lungs don’t play), it’s pretty likely that the outcome would’ve been poor.
Instead, I had:
- a fever for two day or so
- the worst sinus headache I’ve ever had (which is saying something, because fren, I’ve had some wicked sinus headaches in my time)
- sore throat (though not as bad as the worst strep I’ve ever had, which, to be fair, I totally allowed to get out of control)
- scabs inside my nose (next to the headache, this was the most miserable thing–blowing my nose was horribly painful for a bit)
- more than the usual post-nasal drip which occasionally made me cough
- two days with no appetite
- a near-complete loss of the ability to taste or smell anything but salt (that happened first, oddly enough, and persisted the longest except for some lingering fatigue, which I’d expect after any significant illness)
Oh, and I basically slept for a solid week, which was great, since it meant I basically only experienced the rest of the symptoms in brief snatches, including that truly egregious headache.
I spent a few extra days in bed with pretty intense fatigue, and then one day I experienced the familiar sensation of being bored as heck and unable to lie down for even thirty more seconds and knew I was going to be fine.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention any lower-respiratory symptoms at all. In fact, as miserable as it was (at least when I was awake, anyway), and as much as it made me miss the rest of our Nutcracker run, my case of COVID-19 would be classified as mild-to-moderate. I emphasize that because, frankly, I think a lot of people don’t understand that basically, no matter how miserable you feel, if it doesn’t send you to the hospital, your COVID-19 isn’t severe.
Not to say that it’s not serious–especially given the potential for Long COVID and its unknowns, and the fact that a couple weeks out of work can decimate a family’s finances–but it can be much, much worse, and that’s a really important point when we’re talking about vaccine efficacy with regard to an illness that can easily kill young, healthy people and that is killing people at staggering rates.
I did take a ton of meds, all of them over-the-counter except for benzonatate, which is a prescription medication that kills the urge to cough. That was important for me since post-nasal drop and/or throat irritation can kick off coughing jags that in turn kick off an inflammation cascade that leads, at minimum, to severe asthma attacks, but which has in numerous instances created a fast track-to-pneumonia situation for me (did I mention that my lungs don’t play?).
I wasn’t willing to take that risk when a simple telehealth appointment could prevent it.
At this point, I’m mostly back to normal: I can make it through a pretty decent ballet class (even with a mask), though I still get tired more easily than usual.
Compared to the average sedentary person, I’m back to being hella fit, though I’m definitely not back to typical mid-season professional dancer fitness.
My best metric is sleep: at typical mid-season fitness level, even after six to eight hours of class and rehearsal, plus whatever happens in the evening, it takes me a couple of hours to fall asleep when I go to bed. Right now, one class and some housework makes me tired enough that it’s a struggle to read for half an hour (which, a bit foolishly, I keep doing because I’m afraid I won’t be able to fall asleep ^-^’).
My second-best metric is fatigue. The form of EDS I have does this weird fatigue thing: I can work my way up to professional-dancer stamina incrementally, but if I seriously overdo it, I get hit with a wave of literally debilitating fatigue and have to spend a day or two in bed. Right now, the threshold for that response is way lower than usual.
But, still, overall? I feel like I dodged a bullet thanks to medical science and Dolly Parton.
- Simply by chance, I wound up getting the Moderna booster even though my first two doses were Pfizer–I think that was a good thing, too, since anecdotal accounts suggest that particular combination is a little more effective in preventing serious COVID-19 illness.
So, in short, I’m not mad that I got vaxxed and still got sick.
Rather, I’m glad the vaccine did its job and curtailed the severity and, probably, the duration of the illness.
While I really didn’t mind not being able to smell the catbox even while cleaning it, I’m happy to report that I’ve mostly regained my senses. I lost an somewhat alarming amount of weight as a result of just not being interested in food.
- Which isn’t to say I’ve become sensible–let’s not be hasty, here!
- I want to write about how this intersected with the part of my brain that still lives in Anorexia World, but I think that might need its own post. Suffice it to say that a significant part of me was far from alarmed about the weight loss, and has been struggling with regaining any of it, and I’ve realized I need to do some work, there.
That was a fairly bizarre experience, to be honest. Because I actually did completely lose my appetite for a couple of days, I discovered that, for me anyway, there’s a major difference between being unable to eat and just … not being interested in eating, but being at least somewhat able to eat if I could find something that wasn’t too salty (as much as I like salt, when it’s literally the only thing you can taste, a lot of things are suddenly too salty).
Like, normally, I try to eat with a kind of relaxed mindfulness–actually giving attention to the experience of eating, but also to participating in conversations and being aware of what’s going on around me in general. I had no idea how important the ability to taste was to me, in that process.
When I couldn’t taste my food, actually eating enough was really hard.
First, my interest in food pretty much evaporated, and since I’m bad at recognizing hunger signals until they get really intense, I kept forgetting to eat.
Second, actually finishing even a fairly small meal required pretty intense concentration, because if I got distracted, I just wouldn’t come back to my food. I wouldn’t have predicted that.
Also, there’s a specific kind of cognitive dissonance involved in possessing a powerful sense memory of the taste of spiced chai, but being utterly unable to taste it in real life o.O’
I’ve since gained back what I assume is most of the weight I lost, though I haven’t been weighing myself because I’m apparently constitutionally unable to remember to put new batteries in our scale
At any rate, I no longer have to crank my belt way down to keep my trousers on.
So that’s my experience with COVID thus far (could’ve been worse, but still: 0/10, do not recommend).
In other news, it’s National Choreography Month again, and I’m actually managing to keep up to some extent, so here’s my response to Prompt 2, Master Work, in which one re-creates an iconic dance pic:
I’ll have more Nachmo stuff coming.
Til then, keep dancing.
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.
So, erm, it’s rather a lot.
I am bad at the kind of adulting that involves juggling four separate, unrelated rehearsal schedules and anything else, never mind that plus everything else. And yet, here we are.
This week I found myself in a frazzle because my brain momentarily decided to latch on to the idea that I might not manage to teach all of my students all of the absolutely correct technique they might need and ten years from now one of them might be in an audition somewhere going, “Oh, snap, I’ve been doing that wrong my entire life.“
And then I realized, like—yeah. That will probably happen. And, to be honest, it’s okay.
I wish it was possible to guarantee that 100% of what I teach would both be absolutely sound and absorbed perfectly. But isn’t, and it never has been.
My own technique has its rough spots (I mean, I don’t call myself “danseur ignoble” for nothin’). My own teachers have probably passed along some quirks, and I certainly came up with plenty of them all by myself.
That’s fine. I don’t resent any of my teachers for the shortcomings I have now; instead, I appreciate how hard they tried to teach me correct, classical technique. I owe my career largely to my teachers’ sound methods, partly to the good graces of directors who have the ability to look beyond my quirks, partly to my ridiculously good feet (still, lol), partly to my own work ethic, and a little bit to raw talent.
People rock up to auditions with all kinds of flaws, because nobody’s perfect. Even if that wasn’t the case, different directors like different versions of things (like: I paused today to ask Mr D whether he wanted our waltz turns to brush through twice or to brush to the front and petit développé/pas de cheval to the back, because both versions are valid and I’ve been doing a lot of the second one lately).
Even students graduating from the best, longest-established schools aren’t perfect. That’s one of the things I love about ballet: no matter how good we are, we can always continue to strive for perfection. The fact that it’s unattainable is immaterial. The practice is the thing.
Likewise, there is no such thing as a perfect teacher. I will make mistakes. I will explain things with crazy analogies that may or may not take root. I will miss some things and overcorrect others.
In the end, I won’t be perfect, either as a dancer or as a teacher, but I suspect that my students will forgive me.
The important part is to teach, to the best of my ability, technique that is as strong and consistent as I can make it, and to continue learning both as a dancer and a teacher so that over time I can teach more effectively.
If I do that, I’ve done my part towards ensuring that most of the technique my students bring to the table will be strong and consistent, provided that the students also do their part, that the winds are favorable, and that, as they say, “the creek don’t riz.”
Because, y’all, I may be a somewhat teacher of regular ballet, but I’m wholly unqualified as an instructor of water ballet.
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.
Apparently, however, there’s been something of a fracas over the decision that gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles made to bow out at the Olympics this year (2021, if you’re visiting from the future ^.-).
Many people, it seems, found it very difficult to understand why she might do such a thing, and hurled all manner of invective at her. Biles handled the situation with the same power, grace, and aplomb she displays on the mats.
What her detractors didn’t (and don’t) understand is that Biles’ decision was one that would, for any gymnast, require an immense—even an immeasurable—strength of character. A thousand times more so on the world stage that the Olympics represent.
Because gymnasts, on the whole, grow up in a world that teaches them that there’s no such word as “can’t,” and that winners never quit.
From the first moment budding gymnasts step onto the mat, they’re subjected to a long-standing culture of incredible physical and mental toughness and self-sacrifice. You don’t become even an entry-level competitive gymnast without learning to “tough it out” and “walk it off,” never mind the kind of powerhouse competitor that Biles has become.
To some extent, this is necessary. Gymnastics, like ballet, is hard. It’s tiring and sometimes uncomfortable and demands that an aspiring athlete must learn to reach for deeper reserves of strength than many or even most people living typical, comfortable lives in the developed world can imagine. (Edit: come to think of it, people who’ve given birth prolly get it 🤔)
However, for much of its history, gymnastics training has demanded this in excess, and the result has been injury (and its long-term consequences), careers cut short, and all too often the inability of both gymnasts and coaches to see the body’s breaking point coming until it’s too late. (If this sounds like the ballet world, by the way, it should. Dancers face the same pressures from a similarly young typical age at entry.)
Those of us who have trained seriously in gymnastics understand this. We know what it is to bounce up off the floor after what observers might regards as a terrifying fall and jump right back in without stopping to make sure we’re okay. We know what it is to feel uncertain about whether an injury can withstand the pressure of training or competition and step onto the mats anyway.
We know how very, very effing hard it is, after a lifetime of being told, “Get up; shake it off; you’ve got this,” to say, “You know what? No. I’m staying down and I don’t have this right now, thanks.”
Simone Biles knows her body. She knows her mind. And the fortitude it took to stand before the entire world and say, in essence,”No, I’m not okay to do this right now and I’m not going to take the risk” … That’s a fortitude that a lot of people, to be honest, can’t even imagine.
In short, Biles simply refused to break out her Stradivarius in a hurricane. The fact that the hurricane was an invisible one is irrelevant.
To say, “Biles refused to break out her Stradivarius in 90% humidity” might be more accurate, but it might also be harder for people to understand. So we’ll stick with the hurricane analogy.
Gymnasts, hockey players, dancers, bike racers, aerialists, and many other athletes understand implicitly how very tough Biles had to be to do that.
We also understand that her decision was, whether she thought of it this way or not in the moment, a stand for all the young athletes growing up in athletic cultures in which it’s considered anathema to say, “No.”
In my own life, I’ve injured myself by pushing through things I shouldn’t have, extended the time to full rehabilitation by pushing too hard too soon, and on some occasions avoided serious injury solely by a combination of pure dumb luck with excellent reflexes and an unusually elastic body.
I could’ve avoided most of these things simply by learning, earlier in my life, that there really is a point at which you can and should say, “No.”
My generation grew up with coaches who, as young gymnasts themselves, were inspired by Nadia Comaneci’s endurance under harrowing conditions and Mary Lou Retton’s maxim, “Follow your dreams.”
Those stories bear so much merit—but I can’t explain how much it meant to me, and what a wave of … relief? release? liberation? … broke through me when I heard (through DisabilityTwitter!) about Biles’ decision. I mean I literally, physically felt it—like something exploding deep in my chest, but in the best possible way.
Like the moment when you see someone you love crash their bike hard, and you think, Oh f**K, they’re a goner, but then they get up and look around and kind of dust themselves off, and your heart just goes BOOM because, frankly, you’re so relieved. Or like the first moment in your life you realize that you really, really trust someone.
As an artist-athlete and teacher of artist-athletes, somehow it was Simone Biles that really crystallized for me the idea that, yes—you can say, “I’m not taking my Stradivarius out in the rain.”
I’ve been saying those words for a long time now, but a part of me had a hard time believing them when it came to my own instrument. I could believe them for my students, but not for myself, and that meant I wasn’t always living those words, whether for my students or for myself.
Simone Biles made that idea real for me.
Going forward, of course, negotiating that reality in the world of ballet, where sometimes you’re the only guy and without you the pas de deux isn’t gonna happen, will be another thing entirely. But it always is. Action can’t be divorced from context like that, yo.
Chances are that I’m still going to have to explain, once in a while, why I chose to break out my instrument in the midst of a downpour. I pray that in those moments I’ll be granted the wisdom and grace to do so with clarity, but human beings are imperfect and maybe I won’t, and that’s part of life, too.
You might be wondering what this has to do with Ehlers-Danlos.
Well, two things.
First, from what I understand, Simone Biles also has hypermobile-type EDS and her decision was at least partly based on an episode of “the Twisties,” aka proprioceptive dysfunction.
Proprioceptive dysfunction is a feature of EDS—one that can be really hard for people without EDS to understand, especially where elite athletes and dancers are concerned. It’s understandably hard for them to imagine how you can be someone who’s at the top of the world (or at least, pretty darned good) in a sport or artform that depends on exceptional spatial and body awareness and also be someone whose proprioceptive faculties just … go on strike sometimes.
And yet, that’s how it is. Sometimes the right matrix of stressors makes things go extra haywire, and the systems that allow us to fly through the air with the greatest of ease just plotz. And, trust me, neither you nor we need us flying through the air when that happens.
Second, my excessive sweatiness is very probably also related to EDS—it’s part of the suite of dysautonomic features that come with the package, so to speak—as are my orthostatic hypotension/POTS, episodes of (literally) staggering fatigue, sometimes-weird relationship to hunger and thirst signals, and possibly my tendency to dump salt in my sweat.
So, on Saturday, these conspired to create a situation in which I rocked up to the gym for a doubles coaching session on the apparatus we’ve nicknamed “the rodeo lyra” (bc that mofo will throw you like a bronc if you don’t pay attention) already feeling spacey and fatigued and missed the first mount with the apparatus hung so low I could’ve just forward-folded onto it, lmao (in point of fact, the mount we’re using is harder on a lower apparatus, but not so much harder that I, who literally never miss a mount, would have just completely failed at it if things weren’t decidedly pear-shaped from the word go).
It’s pretty hilarious in retrospect, of course, but at the time scared the hell out of D, who’s my partner in this piece. He’s well aware that I never miss mounts, and because the mount in question results in us facing away from each-other upside-down, he couldn’t see me. His own nervous system decided that the only possible explanation for the fact that my weight wasn’t balancing his was that I had either fallen and broken my neck or was strangling in the span-sets above the hoop o_O””’
I decided (with a little help from ABM, our kind and intrepid coach) to reschedule and go home to take care of whatever the heck was going on with my body (in case you’re wondering, it was what they call “chronic hyponatremia”—the kind you get when your electrolyte levels drop below a certain point over the course of a few days).
Anyway, while I was apologizing to everyone and trying to be okay with that decision, ABM said to me, “You know what we’re calling that now? We’re saying, ‘You Simoned it.'”
As in, you made the right call—you saw that storm coming and put your instrument away.
And I hecking love that.
PS: I got a bunch of rest, sucked down a bunch of noodles with salty broth (and spinach and chicken), and felt like myself again on Sunday. I opted out of morning modern and ballet classes bc I wasn’t sure my electrolyte levels were up to that kind of sweating yet, but was able to get through a slowish-paced lyra class and a rehearsal session on the rodeo lyra.
That’s why you Simone it: because sometimes the best way to get up and kill it tomorrow is to lie the hecking heck down and drink salty, salty broth today.
PPS: I’m working on addressing the dietary imbalances that led to this situation, so hopefully it won’t happen again any time soon. Basically, the past two weeks were unreasonably hot, and there were several days that I forgot to add electrolyte powder to my water but still sweated buckets of salty, salty sweat.
Saturday morning, I had an outdoor performance gig, and although the heat wasn’t as intense as it’s been, I still sweated like a firehose, as I do, and apparently that was the last straw, bc I was a glassy-eyed zombie by 1 PM when our coaching session was scheduled.
One of the joys of hyponatremia will be familiar to endurance athletes who’ve faced the dreaded “Bonk:” your body just … refuses. In the case of the classic Bonk, it’s typically attributed to the depletion of glycogen stores without sufficient carbohydrate replacement, but depletion of electrolytes yields the same basic result (as opposed to extreme over-hydration, which can lead to rapid swelling of the brain, coma, and death before you quite grasp what’s going on o_o).
It’s like someone cranks the power to your muscles way, way down. That’s how I missed my mount. My brain sent the signals to execute the movement, and my body just kind of didn’t.
It tried, bless its heart, because my body is (as I’m learning to understand) a miraculous beast like one of those fantastic, sweet, patient draught horses who will try with everything in themselves to do whatever you ask of them and will almost always succeed. My friend and teacher Killer B recently summed this up by enthusiastically replying, “… Which can do everything!” when I said, “It’s so good to take class with someone who understands my body.”
But in this case, while the conscious motor controls were sending out the plan for “pullover mount to straddle balance,” the unconscious ones were trying to take care of the body by down-regulating the wattage so I wouldn’t waste any more electrolytes doing athletic stuff and possibly die, and/or there just wasn’t enough sodium left for electrical signaling to be that efficient.
Either way, the immediate result was muscles that wouldn’t fire with enough power to bring me over the bar from a standing position. Instead, I got a powerful lesson in really listening to my body.
This isn’t hyperbole, btw. There is no muscling through that specific experience. You can try all you like, but you’re really no longer the one in primary control of the ship. Until you experience that sensation (and I suspect that in our sodium-enriched and largely sedentary culture, most never will), it’s very difficult—maybe even impossible—to imagine.
Fwiw, as an experience, I don’t recommend it. Like, 2/10, and it only gets the 2 bc hecking heck, does it ever teach you some things. But they’re things you can learn without taking all the way to that extreme, and it’s No Fun At All, as the delightfully hedonistuc elves used to say as they died in whatever magical-realm civ-building game of yore that was.
GIF credits: all via Tenor via WP.
If you are a dancer, or you have a partner or friend or loved one who is, you already know: we dancers are incredibly critical of our work.
So to watch a video in which I’m dancing and think, before I’ve thought anything else, “That was good!” is a big deal.
Anyway, today I finished a week-long summer intensive session in which I (GASP!) actually talked to people I don’t know and, like, made some friends ❤ This was a really lovely group of dancers, and I would happily dance with any of them again any time.
We learned and performed (via livestream and for a small audience outside the big window of our studio) a brand-new piece choreographed by Ashley Thursby-Kern and Theresa Bautista, and when I watched it, I found myself thinking, “That was good!”
Not just their choreography, or the performance of my fellow dancers–but for once I was able to look at myself and think that.
It wasn’t perfect, of course, but ballet never is. And I think that we did rather a fine job learning and polishing it in the span of five days.
Anyway, for the moment, you can catch it here, with an introduction by Ashley, who is a thoroughly lovely human being:
I’m trying hard not to list the shortcomings I do see in my own performance here. It’s enough to know what I could have done better and will do better next time. It’s enough to look at myself dancing and say, for once, “That was good.”