Category Archives: 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.
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.
Author’s Note: I apologize for my lack of proper diacriticals in this post. I’m writing it on my PC, and while I know how to use HTML entities to make them happen, I’m tired and apparently can’t be arsed ^-^’
I.The Secret To Brisee’-Vole’
Back when I was working on the Cavalier variation, I think I mentioned that I hadn’t even really been able to reliably do brisee’-vole’ a year ago. Not that I did it well when I actually performed the variation in question. I most assuredly did not. But I at least knew how to do it, and was able to do it most of the time. Just not, apparently, when it really counts, and will be recorded and slathered all over the innertubes. Le sigh.
Anyway! At this point, I’ve pretty much nailed it down, though of course it still needs polishing, because this is ballet. You never get to stop polishing things. Everything can always be better.
But the process of nailing down brisee’-vole’ reminded me, yet again, of a Truth About Ballet that I rediscover on the regs.
The truth in question, as it relates to brisee’-vole’, goes like this:
The secret to brisee’-vole’ is … there isn’t one. You just do brisee’, both back and front, until you (almost) can’t get it wrong. Then you learn to link them (which is what turns “brisee’-devant, reorganize the feet, brisee’-derriere, reorganize the feet,” into brisee’-vole’). Then you do brisee’-vole’ until you (almost) can’t get it wrong.
II. How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?
As a physical process, learning ballet involves both the accumulation of masses of experience and breakthroughs that sometimes seem to come out of nowhere and sometimes seem to be the direct result of all that massed experience.
- I’m not using the phrase “massed practice” here because it’s used in two different ways that conflict with each-other. As I learned it, it basically means “cramming”–doing a whole lot of practice all at once, which isn’t a very effective strategy for long-term learning. It can also be used to mean frequent repetition of a skill, accumulated over time, which does work reliably (and is typical of how kids learn things–they learn a new thing and they do it a billion times just for fun, because they can). That’s what I’m talking about here.
One of the challenges that a lot of adult students run into is insufficient opportunity for practice. Either it’s hard to find enough classes, or the classes in question aren’t systematic in a way that allows the accumulation of experience in complex steps, or they have access to systemic classes part of the time, but not often enough to overcome relatively-limited studio time.
- Pre-pro students get hours and hours in the studio–as many as 20/week. It can be much more difficult for adult students to build similar practice schedules. Part of my success as a dancer who wandered away and then returned was a question of sheer volume. I had access to high-quality training at high volume because my schedule allowed me to take both morning and evening classes.
That’s a shame, because one of the things that makes ballet so engaging as a career path, for me, is that you never stop learning new things. There are so many steps that, no matter how long you’ve been dancing, there’s a reasonable chance that there’s something out there that you haven’t tried–and it’s certain that there’s something you haven’t perfected (those ever-receding goalposts again).
The difference for professionals is that daily class, studio access, mentoring by fellow dancers, and coaching all provide ample opportunities to learn and improve new steps. (They also provide the all-important input of eyes other than one’s own. Our bodies are notoriously bad at accurately reporting how they’re doing new ballet steps, so it really helps to have someone who can say, “Dude, your right shoulder needs to come with you,” as my men’s class teacher told me today.)
Success breeds success, so while inevitably one’s first attempts at any new step (or any new approach to an “old” step) are likely to be awkward and frustrating (How? HOW DO I KEEP DOING SWITCH LEAPS ON THE WRONG LEG???), you know that things will improve. Eventually, anyway.
- The answer, of course, is that I’m miscounting running steps, as I often do. Once my body gets used to the coordination required for switch leaps, it’ll figure out how to count running steps.
You can bash through those awful early attempts because you know that, sooner or later, you’re going to figure it out.
III. Okay, Yeah, But … So What?
I write this in part because I’m stoked that brisee’-vole’ has begun to really come together for me (OMG! A petit allegro step I don’t hate! ^-^), and that it’s somehow really sparked this sense that my technique can improve by dedicated practice and not just, like, by chance.
I write it also because it’s a thing I think I should keep in mind both as a teacher and as a dancer.
I have friends who have felt stuck on specific steps for years (reverse’ is probably the most frequent culprit). It occurs to me now that they’re probably stuck simply because they haven’t had opportunity to practice those steps until their motor planning systems (and other neurological systems important to learning movement) and bodies can figure them out.
This knowledge can inform the way I develop teaching plans, particularly for adult students who might not have as much opportunity to amass experience (what with having jobs and families at so forth).
It can also inform the way I approach helping friends with steps they find challenging that I don’t (spoiler alert: I might be able to help you with your double tour, but not because my body has decided that it’s just part of my everyday life–in that case, it’s more that I’m good at spotting it when other people do the same wrong things that I do ^-^’).
It also informs something that’s shifted in the way I think about dancers practicing on their own.
In the past year, we’ve all spent a lot of time practicing on our own. And you know what? Pretty much everyone I know has found a way to make it work.
I used to be one of those people who was deeply ambivalent about the idea. It’s pretty easy to wind up ingraining bad habits when you don’t yet have a lot of experience, and some steps can be a bit on the dangerous side (especially in small spaces crammed with furniture -.-). I had been raised with the idea that YOU DON’T PRACTICE ON YOUR OWN, PERIOD.
And while I thought I was following that rule, I really wasn’t. I used ballet-based movement patterns constantly on–ice skates and rollerskates; when making up choreography with my sister (we like to improv to the Andre’ Previn/LSO recording of Holst’s The Planets, because obviously we were totally normal kids in every day); on the playground; in the gymnastics studio; when fidgeting in line; when doing any number of other things.
I’m sure that I strengthened some bad habits along the way, but I also strengthened good habits. I figured out how to balance my body (which can be unwieldy, thanks to an unusual combination of naturally muscular physique and extreme flexibility).
And you know what? Nobody died. Nobody even got hurt (like many dancers, I mostly seem to injure myself doing anything other than dancing). In fac,t I seem to have not only survived, but gone on to a career as a professional dancer and as a ballet teacher.
So, in short, maybe there’s something to be said for solo practice. And I know we’ve all been doing turns in our kitchens since forever, anyway, so we might as well practice other stuff, too.
And you know what? It’s probably not even the end of the world if you decide to try some steps that might be a bit out of your reach, or even a lot out of your reach.
Kids do it all the time, and it turns out okay. Sure, in some cases, adults might be a bit more breakable, but as long as you’re cognizant of your own physical limits, why not?
We learn ballet like we learn anything else: successive approximations of the goal state. It turns out that sometimes the best way to learn to do a step well is just to start doing it badly. As beginners, we know messing up is part of the deal. It’s too easy to lose sight of that idea.
Anyway. Here’s where I stand, at this point, on the question of solo practice, even for “beginner-beginners:”
Go ahead and do the thing. If you’re just starting to learn a thing and you’re doing it badly, great! You have to start somewhere.
As long as you know that you’re doing it badly (okay–and can video yourself or get another dancer to watch you from time to time or whatever so you can begin to see why you’re doing it badly) you’re already on your way to doing it well.
I don’t usually write about aerials technique because the potential for disaster is way too high, but today I’m making an exception to address one minor but useful point.
I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who more or less specializes in bar apparatus, but it can be translated to vertical apparatus (fabric, rope, pole, etc) with a little thought. It’s useful no matter what kind of junk you’ve got in your drawers, but particularly helpful for people with dangly bits.
At the studio where I train, there’s a segment of the human anatomy we like to call the “No-Fly Zone.” It’s the zone you really, really don’t want to land on, or roll over, or otherwise crush, spindle, or mangle. I think you get the picture.
Anyway! That said, a lot of moves all but invite you to do exactly that—vine climb, almost anything you do in horse, arabesque on the bar, etc.
If you’re like most aerialists, you’ll Land in your No-Fly Zone maybe once or twice, and then your body will figure out ways to avoid it.
That said, the ways our bodies work out aren’t always as efficient as they could be—hence this post.
So here we go!
Here’s a sequence of stills from a video I took on class this morning. The sequence is simply a transfer on the bar from a hooked knee on one side to a hooked knee on the other side.
In the photo above, I’ve just straddled up to the bar and hooked a knee. Because I began with my grip a bit low. This lyra hangs fairly high, and I was tired so I didn’t take a higher grip that would require a bigger pull-up. As a result, I’m bringing my hands up higher on the apparatus to give myself room later on.
Depending on what you’re doing, that step may or may not be necessary, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Here, I’m beginning the process of rolling myself over the bar by pressing my top leg as I straighten it. At the same time, I’m using my arms to give myself a bit of lift.
It probably looks like I’m about to land right on my No-Fly Zone—but I’m not.
Above (although I apparently grabbed the screenshot from the other side … oh well), you can see what prevents me from crashing in the No-Fly Zone: squeezing the extended legs together as if I’m doing an assemblé.
This allows me to control how high the bar can travel on my legs. At this point, my arms aren’t really taking much weight at all—they’re just helping to steer.
Here, you can see how much control I have over where the bar goes. I’m squeezing my thighs together and using a moving very much like a soutenu to push it around relative to my body.
One quick note: this is easier to do on lyra than trapeze—on trap, you also have to manage rope tension relative to your movement. Same goes for rope, hammock, fabric, and sling: you can transfer this basic idea, but the mechanics are a bit trickier.
In this last shot, I’m transferring the bottom bar into the pocket of the opposite hip as I bring my head under the top bar. My No-Fly Zone is safely out of the way.
In short, what allows me to avoid a crash is pressing through a fully-engaged leg, then squeezing both legs (again, fully-engaged) as I pass over the bar.
For someone like me—someone whose pelvis is put together so there’s never going to be a thigh gap, but also a ballet dancer for whom this movement is inherently familiar—this is pretty easy to do.
- Seriously, even at my most underweight, 84 pounds at 5’4” when I was 13, there was no gap. My pelvis isn’t built that way.
For bow-legged aerialists (like D) and those with wider-set hip joints, it’s imperative to really cross the legs from the top of the thighs and squeeeeeeze.
This is one of many places where ballet training can be so useful for aerialists. The degree of overcross and engagement is almost identical to sus-sous, or to a strong assemblé.
In either case, the movement that you’ll use to pass over the bar without crash-landing is still very much like a soutenu turn. You’re squeezing the thighs as you rotate your hips.
In ballet, this turns your body; on lyra, it turns the hoop (on trap and other apparatus, the action varies, but the principle is the same).
Even if you’ve never taken a ballet class, if you’ve ever tried to hold something (a box, a bag, a curious dog that wants to run off and check out the neighbors’ dog) between your thighs while turning around to grab your phone, you’ve probably done this exact sequence on the ground.
You probably don’t want to squeeze your dog as hard as you’d squeeze the lyra, but the principle is the same.
One more note: take it as read that, sooner or later, you’re probably going to crash in your No-Fly Zone. Don’t take it as a sign of failure—it’s just how we learn. For many aerialists, it’s something that happens as we begin to feel more confident and to take risks.
And you’ll probably only do it once, maybe twice. Consider it a rite of passage in your #CircusLife. Trust me, we’ve all done that walk of shame.
First, apologies for falling off the radar for a minute. The past couple of weeks have been, in a word, bizzzaayyyyyyyyy
Anyway! I’m back, at least for the moment.
Normally, at this point, my company would be a week or so into rehearsals for New Works, which is our usual first show of the year. Instead, we haven’t even started yet, because it’s #2020 and everything is CRAY.
Instead of a normal season, this year we’re doing Video Nutcracker Extravaganza! (that’s not its actual title) and … that’s it. Unless a miracle occurs.
So it’s September, we’re not even officially back in the studio until thw 28th, and I’m rehearsing Drosselmeyer all by myself. C’est “la vie 2020”, mes amis!
As ever, I’m recording video so I can fix myself. In that light, here’s an example of glaring hypocrisy in the form of me, dancing:
Okay, so: if you know that I’m mid-fouetté, here, this probably looks mostly fine at first glance. That standing leg could be a touch more turned out (okay, okay—it could be turned out at all), but the shoulders are down, engaged, and essentially square to the hips, and the lines are pretty nice.
Oh, and my feet are nice, because of course they are. They’re the only reliable part of my body. I mean, seriously, dat demi-pointe, doe. Dat arch 😍
Not too shabby, you might think.
Alas, friends! Were it but so!
Sadly, as almost-lovely as this moment is, in the very next second, I decouple my rib cage from my pelvis and failli without turning my hips all the way. Given that the next thing I have to do is run-run-tour de Basque directly across the stage, it makes for an awkward transition.
You know what the main cause of this subtle-but-powerful trainwreck is?
If you’re having trouble with arabesque, piqué arabesque, and fouetté arabesque, ask yourself, “Am I watching myself in the mirror?”
If the answer is yes:
We all want to see our arabesques, etc. We want to know:
- How high is my leg?
- What exactly are my arms doing?
- How are my lines?
Those are all good questions.
Staring into the mirror won’t answer them.
When we watch ourselves closely in the mirror, we create faults that might not otherwise occur.
We find ourselves arabesque-ing on an open hip, with unsquare everything.
We fouetté the upper body only 3/4s of the way and the hips only 1/2 way, and failli onto a parallel leg.
This is because the eyes lead the body.
If you’re ever skiing or riding a bike and find yourself inexorably drawn into the gravitational field of an obstacle, with which you then collide, congratulations! You’ve successfully demonstrated the very same phenomenon!
(Sidebar: Ugh. Sometimes it’s blisteringly obvious that I’m a child of the Participation Trophy Era and grew up with computers shouting things like, “Congratulations! You have successfully closed this file!”)
Likewise, if you find yourself riding a beautiful 20 meter circle on a dressage horse, it’s the same thing.
In the first case, you’re looking directly at the obstacle in an effort to avoid it, and because your body follows your eyes and your skis or bike follow your body, you crash into the thing you’re trying to miss.
In the second, you’re looking where you want your horse to go, and this subtly shifts your shoulders and hips in a way that tells the horse what to do. This is why good dressage riders and their well-trained horses appear to communicate through telepathy.
In the studio, the same principle applies. If you stare at yourself in the mirror, you’ll usually leave your hips and shoulders more open than they should be.
In a proper arabesque, the hips and shoulders are SQUARE and LEVEL.
- For arabesques above 90 degrees, it may be necessary to open the gesture hip slightly. This is why we first work on low arabesques: you must know the biomechanical rules in order to know exactly how much you can break them.
If they’re not, your body has to work much, much harder to maintain balance, placement, and turnout.
But, wait! There’s more! 😭
There’s another problem here.
If you look very closely at the photo of my fouetté, you’ll notice that I’m not in a crossed position. I’m in the infamous “secabesque,” with my gesture leg at like 4:00 instead of crossed to 6:00
This is because I failed to establish the position before making it move.
Just as it’s incredibly difficult to manage a clean, controlled turn from a preparation which your back leg is wide of the centerline, it’s nearly impossible to fouetté correctly if your preparation is wrong (and impossible to correct from there if you also stare into the mirror).
Here’s another example:
Technically, the Apollo jump is a variant of sauté-fouetté. While I can’t argue that this one doesn’t look impressive, I should’ve begun from a preparation facing de côte so at the peak of the jump (the moment captured here) my hips would be facing the de côte in the opposite direction, rather than en face. (In the Apollo jump, as opposed to a standard sauté-fouetté, you open the shoulders towards the audience and arch your body towards the gesture leg).
I should note that, in the case of the Drosselmeyer rehearsal pic, the fault is partly the result of not having actually decided whether an arabesque half-turn or a fouetté was a better idea here.
I have considerable leeway to modify this section of the rôle, where I’m Magicking All The Things prior to the Midnight scare scene, and I hadn’t yet clearly thought through the best way to accomplish this floaty change of direction.
The result is kind of a weird hybrid; a fouettabesque, if you will, that hasn’t decided who to be in life. I’ll have to try doing both—but not at the same time—and see which works better.
The photo proves the rule, btw, that a still shot can be beautiful even if everything that follows is it a complete mess. This is why we should try not to let Instagram get us down. With the exception of the occasional hilariously awkward trapeze video, I mostly post only things that look good, and even then, those pics don’t tell the whole story.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video tells the truth (or, well, more of the truth: video, too, can be deceptive!).
This is why I highly recommend, if at all possible, taking advantage of the powerful tool that is your smartphone’s video camera.
Record video so you won’t be as tempted to try to watch yourself in the mirror. It’s also super helpful for understanding the difference between what your body feels like it’s doing and what it’s actually doing, which can be rather startling. It won’t replace that guidance of a good teacher, but it will help you dial in your technique.
And it’ll also grant you the gift of absolutely hilarious moments like this one:
Join us next time when, I guess, we discuss how to walk off the stage without looking like either a blithering idiot (my default) or a smoldering idiot (see photo above)!
Upfront disclaimer/disclosure thing: I am definitely not a nutritionist, as you’ll probably realize if you read the rest of this post, which is mostly about stupid food-related mistakes I made last season. This post is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, nor should it be taken as advice, unless the advice is: If you have questions about feeding yourself as a dancer, maybe go ask someone who really knows their stuff.
I’ve written about food before. Probably a lot. I like food, though I struggle with food sometimes. I also generally quite like eating.
- Except, apparently, when I don’t. I’ve recently experienced a baffling lack of interest in food itself: I’ve been in this place in which I would be perfectly content to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or really whatever requires the least thought or effort, day in and day out.
On the whole, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good grasp of basic nutritional science (hard to get through a Bachelor’s of Science degree that includes Anatomy & Physiology without understanding at least a bit).
I’m sufficiently equipped that I mostly manage to steer clear of trends based on junk science or poor data and to regard with equanimity the ones that might, in terms of their originators’ ideas about science, be based on shaky logic, but which still work well for people in practice because they’re motivating in whatever way and manage to get the various nutrients in.
What I haven’t had, as I discovered over the 2019-2020 ballet season, was the slightest shade of an idea as to how to actually feed myself for performance while dancing 30 hours per week, teaching about six hours per week, and driving an extra 80-90 minutes per day 2-3 days per week between those two gigs.
This was especially difficult on days when I left my teaching job at 8:30 PM and didn’t arrive home until after 9, chronically underfed (though I usually didn’t realize that) and with little time to eat, shower, prepare food for the next day, and wind down before I had to be asleep.
To a great extent, this was my own darned fault.
I extrapolated as follows:
- P1: I have a fairly sound working knowledge of basic nutritional science.
- P2: An awful lot of the nutritional advice I know how to find runs contrary to basic nutritional science.
- P3: I am broke and can’t afford to go see a nutritionist.
- Therefore, I should just stick with what I’m doing.
Or, well, something like that.
Yes, y’all, I am an idiot. Sometimes, anyway. Even often.
I think I also wasn’t sure who to ask: like, let’s be frank. Dancers are mostly paid what is known, in the technical language of economics, as “bupkis.” Or possibly “peanuts.” (In fact, since I have volunteered at events where one of the perks was free access to peanut-based trail mix, I can literally say that I’ve worked for peanuts. Hmmmm.)
Regardless, dancers be broke, and qualified nutritionists who have adequate knowledge of the nutritional requirements of full-time ballet dancers be … not cheap. (Nor should they be. They train for years to master their specialty, just like we do.)
So you had better believe that when I learned that LouBallet’s MindBodyBalance program was hosting a Zoom-based nutrition workshop with an actual qualified person who actually understood things about how to feed dancers, I jumped right on that enroll button.
Anyway, today, Becky Lindberg Schroeder of Lindberg Elite Nutrition (she’s also on Insta!) gave us a really solid talk, with time for discussion, about how to feed ourselves for performance as dancers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I realized I’d been going about things … well, not all wrong, but wrong enough.
The two most important things I’ve been doing were basically:
- Not eating enough
- Not eating often enough.
Somehow, I felt like I shouldn’t be eating during the 5-minute break between class and the beginning of rehearsal. I would usually surreptitiously scarf an apple, but I felt like I shouldn’t.
Honestly, I think I just noticed that few of my fellow dancers shoved a snack into their faces during that interval. Outside the studio, I’m fairly resistant to peer pressure, but life inside the ballet studio is different, especially as an apprentice who doesn’t feel super confident about his place in the company.
Now that I’m writing that “out loud,” of course, it seems kind of dumb.
You can’t stuff yourself with a huge breakfast before class if you want to get through class without, at best, being miserable or, at worst, puking … but if you eat a lighter breakfast at 8:30, by the time class is over at 11:30, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that you’re going need to top up your fuel tank.
If you try to hold out until lunch break at 1, you’re likely to be hangry before you get there. (Regarding which: yes. On days that I’ve failed to eat any kind of snack at all, I’ve usually been deeply hangry before lunch break rolled around.)
Becky’s suggestion that we eat every 3-4 hours made that all make sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that I’m now wondering how I failed to grasp it before. Then again, that’s why she’s a high-performance nutritionist, and I’m not.
Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think I really understood the effects of chronically low blood sugar on both performance and body composition.
Becky showed us a diagram illustrating the point that the range in which the human body works best falls between 80 and 100. My fasting blood sugar is rarely higher than 70 (I forget what the units in question are right now, sorry). I’m impressed if it’s 72; the one time in my life it was as high as (GASP!) 74, I wondered if I’d randomly awakened and eaten something in the middle of the night and forgotten about it.
Anyway, <70 is low. The typical response that garners during a medical exam is basically, “Cool, no need to worry about diabetes!”
But it turns out that when your blood sugar level is low, your body really does burn muscle and hold onto fat. I kind of knew that: we’ve all heard of “starvation mode.” What I didn’t know was that your body doesn’t wait around for a couple of weeks before heading down that road.
So, in short, I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by avoiding carbs in the morning.
This certainly explains why I’ve felt better on the rare morning that I impulsively threw a donut into the mix because I happened to stop for gas, or had to use ACTUAL SUGAR in my coffee because I ran out of stevia, or whatever.
If you’re starting with basically an empty tank, putting anything in it is going to help. It’s not like you’re body’s going to ignore fuel simply because it’s not Eleventy Octane Super Premium Ultra Plus, Now With Scrubbing Bubbles.
Your body, at that point, just wants ANYTHING. And if you don’t give it something, it’s going to assume that it should hold on to its emergency stores and tap the muscles instead.
That might also explain why basically surrendering to chronic disorganization, purchasing an immersion blender, and just making huge smoothies with some protein stuff (usually pasteurized eggs) and a handful of trail mix (peanuts and almonds … protein and fat in one happy little package) for breakfast and packing more of said trail mix to eat with lunch correlated with an unexpected drop in my body fat percentage.
Obviously, without a controlled experiment, causality is danged hard to determine–but in retrospect, it seems like maybe one way of accidentally starving myself was worse than the other. The one that gave me some carbs, protein, and fat, while still not ideal, was probably less bad.
I also made the mistake of thinking that my other frequent snack choice–inexpensive protein bars, because broke–was somehow … not good enough. Again, that seems silly now. The protein bars in question may be fairly processed (though they’re still mostly made of things that are recognizeable as food, albeit in small chunks), but they do the job of being quick and easy to eat when “quick and easy” are probably the most important criteria. You might have the best apple in the world, but if that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t finish it in 5 minutes, it’s not going to do the job.
Anyway, the most important takeaway for me was that I need to eat more, and to eat more often, than I did last season. Well, that, and to not eschew nutrition in bar form, because that’s often going to be my best bet.
My breakfasts, snacks, and lunches were uniformly underpowered last year (I’m not going to say “too small”), while my dinners were … spotty. I didn’t have time for a full meal between rehearsal and teaching, so by the time my classes let out, I was both incredibly hangry and in no position to drive for 40-50 minutes without eating.
Since I would, inevitably, have also run through the woefully-inadequate supply of food I had packed for the day, I typically resorted to drive-through dining, but usually (in an effort to reduce the artery-clogging effects of fast food) I’d get the smallest meal I could find.
Then I’d be mad at myself when I was starving at 10 PM, or wonder why I was so hungry at 1 AM that I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep without eating something.
You guys. In retrospect, I’m really trying to figure out … like … how I didn’t figure it out -.-
Part of the problem was my tool set. Basically, I was whacking away with a hammer, mentally screaming, “Why is it so hard to saw through this log???!!!!” I kept focusing on how to eat better at dinner time, when I would’ve done better to just eat a little more and a little better across the whole day.
Anyway, one of Becky’s smart, actionable suggestions was to literally write out your daily schedule (not too obsessively: sometimes lunch break is at 12:53; sometimes we get really into rehearsal and at 1:30 Mr D looks up and goes “OMG, sorry, you guys! I haven’t given you a lunch break!”) and figure out how to feed yourself around it.
Which … oh, my G-d. That’s brilliant.
Becky’s presentation also introduced Team USA’s Athlete Plates–three useful visual guides to adjusting nutrition for the demands of your day. They’re less about telling you specifically what to eat than suggesting how to proportion your meals to keep yourself well-fueled. This is exactly the kind of information delivery I’ve been yearning for: visual, so you can use it at a glance, but with lots of deeper information readily available.
- You can find PDF guides to the Athlete Plates, along with lots of other great information about nutrition for athletes, on Team USA’s Nutrition page.
In short, I came away from this workshop with a much better sense of how I, a broke-ass dancer with ADHD and time-management challenges, can make a plan to keep myself well-fueled that actually fits into my life.
So that’ll be Part 2 of this post … because right now it’s dinner time, and I’m hungry.
But first: housekeeping! By which I mean, apologies for totally failing to post anything on Saturday. We had an unexpected visit from my MIL, AKA Momma Fluffy, who is awesome, and who I haven’t seen in quite a while, and as a result I totally blanked on it. I’ll try to get it out ASAP to keep the series going.
Tomorrow, we begin the second half of my first season with ActualBalletCompany.
During the first half of the season, I learned a great deal both about being part of a ballet company and about myself … and one of the things I learned is that I’m still horribly, horribly shy and socially-awkward.
Apparently, over the past few years–years in which I’ve settled comfortably into a dance- and circus-based social scene here in Louisville–I slowly forgot how terribly, terribly hard it is for me to connect with people I don’t know, especially when they already know each-other. (Admittedly, my summer intensive experiences should’ve reminded me of this, but since they resolved successfully, they didn’t.)
I also forgot, apparently, how my particular flavor of social awkwardness can make me seem like a bona-fide idiot.
When I’m nervous, my working memory, like, stops working. And when I’m around a bunch of strangers whose opinions of me matter immensely to the shape of the next year or so of my life, I get nervous. Like, really, really nervous.
I should note my nervousness isn’t a question of fearfully wondering, “What will they think of me?”
It’s more a question of experience. I’m really, really bad at the initial stages of getting to know people. When there are other people in the room who find my flavor of social awkwardness charming, that isn’t a big deal … but that’s a fairly rare circumstance, in my experience.
And dance is one of those contexts in which being a cohesive part of the group is immensely, immensely important.
Ironically, the working-memory failures that come with a bad case of nerves make it even more important.
When you dance, the greatest resource available to you isn’t the music, or the big fat book of ballet technique, or even YouTube.
The greatest resource available to you, right then and there, is your fellow dancers.
Because when you’re learning a dance, you’re going to miss something.
This isn’t because you’re stupid, or careless, or distracted (though, yeah, sometimes you’re probably going to be distracted, especially if you’re me). It’s because choreography comes at you hella fast, and you have to, like, blink sometimes.
To complicate things, you also can’t really see yourself in the way that other people can see you. So you might be absolutely sure that you Know The Steps, and you still might be wrong.
When you’re unsure, or better yet, you know you don’t know a step or a phrase, the single best thing you can do is ask another dancer.
If you’re shy, the thing you’re least likely to do is … you guessed it! Ask another dancer.
Obviously, this is a problem.
It’s an even bigger problem when your AD or your choreographer says, “Hey, you! You don’t know this part!” and it’s a part you’re dead certain that you know (because it’s, like, saute-balance-saute-balance-pique turn-pique turn-chaine-chaine-chaine-run away … why, yes, this is an example from my actual life, what makes you ask?).
Because that means that you’ve missed something without realizing that you’ve missed something, and now you have to figure out exactly what that is.
In my parenthetical example above, what I was missing was the arms. It wasn’t that I was doing something inherently wrong with my arms: my port de bras was one of the eleventy-million acceptable versions for the combination of steps in question.
But it was wrong anyway, because it wasn’t the one our AD wanted.
The problem is, he didn’t say, “You’re doing the arms wrong,” he just said, “You don’t know this step.” Which, to be honest, is valid: in the context of this dance, I didn’t know the step.
You guys: THE ARMS ARE PART OF THE STEP.
At this particular moment in the dance, I couldn’t see what anyone else was doing with their arms, so I didn’t realize that I was doing something different. Mr D called me out on it a few times in a row, but it didn’t occur to me to ask the girl standing next to me (who is actually one of the nicest, sweetest, and funniest people in the world, but because I was in Super Shy Boy! mode, I didn’t know that yet) what I was doing wrong.
It wasn’t until I videoed the piece and sat down to watch it that I figured it out … and because I couldn’t quite tell from my tiny phone screen what I was supposed to do, I finally, like, asked someone.
And it took almost no time to fix once I did, except for the fact that I’d done it wrong so many times that it’s burned into my brain the wrong way, and I still have to double-check it before we perform that particular piece now.
If I’d just asked earlier on (“Hey, BossMan says I’m wrong, here, but I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong … any thoughts?”) I could’ve saved myself that struggle.
When you’re shy, it can be extra hard to feel okay asking people questions that expose your weaknesses.
In a dance context, however, everyone’s performance depends on everyone else’s … so it’s deeply unlikely that someone’s going to say, “OMG, if you’re so dumb you can’t figure that out, I’m not gonna tell you.” (If someone does, you might be dancing in a group that’s toxic enough that you should think about finding somewhere else to dance.) Usually, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s this,” and demonstrate, and then you can go, “Okay, so like this?” and if you’re right, they’ll say, “Yup, that’s it!” and if not, they’ll adjust you accordingly, and you’ll all go on with your lives and learning the rest of the dance.
What it took me for-freaking-ever to realize is that one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to learn new choreography is that I am extraordinarily shy about asking when I don’t feel like I’ve got it.
Then, knowing that I’m very much a kinaesthetic (that is, physical) learner, I don’t walk through the choreography and nail it down, because I’m afraid I’ll learn it wrong and then have to un-learn and re-learn it.
Both of these things put me behind the curve. First, by failing to ask, I don’t patch the holes in my knowledge base. Second, by failing to loosely work through the choreography on my own I greatly lengthen the process of learning it.
In turn, both of these realities make me nervous (when you have to have the piece down and you know you’re not getting it as fast as everyone else, nervousness is pretty much the guaranteed outcome), which makes my working memory stop working, which makes learning anything next to impossible.
Which makes me look like a complete idiot (because in those moments I am one, albeit temporarily). Which makes people think I’m a complete idiot. Which makes them not want to work with me. Which is glaringly obvious even to someone like me who is not very good at reading social cues. Which makes me nervous.
Repeat ad nauseam.
The solution, of course, is obvious.
In this case, there’s only one way forward, and that’s just to bite the bullet and talk to the least-scary-looking person in the room.
Occasionally, you’ll get lucky and discover that she also isn’t sure about the step in question, and then together you’ll go and prevail upon her friend or friends until one of two things happens: you might find someone who’s dead certain that they know it, or you might discover that nobody’s really entirely sure and thus you might work something out by consensus.
And then, the next time you run it, either your AD will go, “Oh, hey, that looks better,” or s/he’ll say, “No! You’re all wrong.” (S/he might also add, “Oh my G-d, how many times do we have to go over this?!” but try not to take it personally: even the sweetest ADs get nervous, too.)
More likely, the person in question will say something like, “No big deal, it’s this,” and will show you (or tell you) what’s supposed to happen.
The thing I have noticed is that other people do this way more proactively than I do. They don’t waste a lot of time trying to muddle through and figure it out by trying to dance and watch at the same time (by which I don’t mean the usual kind of “watching” that you do to make sure your spacing is okay and that you’re in sync with the people in your group: I mean the high-cognitive load kind of watching that you do when you’re trying to learn brand new choreography).
Most people, if they’re really unclear on something, just ask someone.
So I guess one of my goals for the next half of the season is to stop being afraid to ask people when I’m unclear, even if I feel like I should have learned the choreography in question five months ago.
This won’t fix the thing that makes me amazingly adept at saying the wrong thing at the worst possible moment, or the fact that my sense of humor is (to say the least) odd and that people who don’t know me very, very well often don’t seem to understand that I’m joking.
But it will help me learn dances faster, and that’ll be a big step in the right direction.
With, I hope, the correct port de bras.
- You guys, for future reference: if you’re talking to me in person and what I’m saying sounds completely ludicrous, assume I’m joking. Likewise, I’ll continue to work on my delivery, in hope of someday being able to use irony, sarcasm, and guerilla-theatre-of-the-absurd without convincing everyone around me that I am, in fact, actually stupid.
Tonight literally half the class (including me!) promenaded the wrong way in the adage at the same time. Like, the entire stage-left half. And once we’d started, we realized our error, and looked around at each-other in horror, but couldn’t actually stop or reverse.
I’m pretty sure this is a sign of the impending apocalypse. It might even have been some kind of (shameful) world record.
Also, T momentarily forgot how to glissade, and I kept turning a pas de bourré at barre into something more like a pas de burrito or something (to be fair, it was counter-intuitive in a number of spots—like an en dehors turn when you’re expecting an en dedans) and adding extra steps at centre.
Other than an outbreak of mass hysteria in the form of a complete inability to retain combinations accurately (everyone screwed up constantly), though, class wasn’t bad. I did two completely random entrechsts six more or less as a joke while marking the petit allegro (also fit one in once running the combo, which I ran like six times because evidently I’m insane). And when I wasn’t completely doing the wrong thing, I occasionally managed to look like I was dancing.
Threw back a beer with the Beastie Clan after. I think we all earned it!
Such is life. Next class will be better. Sometimes, you just have to be wrong together and laugh about it.
I tend to try maintain an aura of ebullient optimism.
I’m aware that I lead a relatively charmed life, in which I’m permitted by circumstance to pursue a fairly impractical set of goals, and to mention that I still struggle seems a bit like spitting right into the face of good fortune.
But I do still struggle, and I’m beginning to understand something, which is this: living a life in which I’m not forced to do work that grinds my soul to powder, in which the work I do is work that I enjoy, doesn’t alter the fact that my mental health is a little fragile and that history and genetics have conspired to place me on a narrow bridge that spans a yawning chasm.
Rather, the life I’m living acts as a kind of safety harness, so that when–not if–I go plummeting off my bridge, I can eventually climb back up, or at any rate be hauled back up by people who love me.
I am capable of periods of immense creative productivity, but they’re interspersed with periods in which merely surviving is still all I can do. Those periods of mere survival are made easier to bear by the knowledge that I won’t have to return, as soon as I’m barely able, to work that will inevitably accelerate the arrival of the next plunge off the bridge.
Because D carries the vast majority of the weight of the financial responsibility of keeping us afloat, I’m able to get up and walk along my bridge for long periods, when in the past I rarely made it beyond the clinging-and-crawling-along-the-edges phase before I slipped again.
I don’t make much money doing what I do, but I usually have enough energy left over to keep our house comfortable to live in and to cook good food.
The piece I’m performing on the sling begins with a pike pullover to a needle (effectively, a handstand on the fabric), which in turn all depends on being able to crochet my wrists–that is, to swim them under, then over, the fabric, taking my grip on the outside–so I can work against tension.
In order for this to work, the bottom of the sling needs to fall anywhere from mid-chest height (too low for other parts of the piece) to just above where my wrists are when my arms are extended straight up if I’m standing flat-footed (I can make up the difference with shoulder mobility).
Last night, somehow, my sling was set too high: I had to stand on my very highest demi-pointe and hyperextend my shoulders to reach it at all, and even then I had to mount by gripping the bottom of the sling with my un-crocheted hands.
This in turn meant that I couldn’t do the pike pullover, but instead had to tuck as hard as I could and pray that I had enough strength to make it, since I couldn’t borrow momentum by springing through my feet or brushing or a leg and kicking up. If I could have crocheted my wrists, it still would have worked–but since I could only reach the very, very bottom of the sling, my hands were too close together for proper biomechanical leverage. My shoulders were hyperextended and closed, making it impossible to engage them back and down until I was already approaching vertical.
It meant that that the needle–which depends on core strength and physics and should be a straight vertical with the hands shoulder-width apart and the legs sealed against one-another, not touching the fabric at all–became more of a fork, ankles on the fabric, since my hands were squashed together in the very bottom of the sling and I’d had to engage my core in a different pattern coming up from the tuck than I would from the pike.
It meant that the move that follows the needle–a graceful fold back into a pike that lands my hips in the bottom of the sling–was awkward. My hands were in the way, and I had to shimmy them out to the sides, which left my body off its axis, which made the next transition awkward as well.
The most difficult part, though, was the moment at the very start, when I realized that my sling was too high and then briefly wondered if it was even locked off correctly. I had to make a judgment call: take a dangerous mount on a potentially-unstable apparatus over a hard stage, or hold up a show that people paid to see over what was probably nothing?
I chose to mount.
That decision came down entirely to a question of trust.
Did I trust the riggers? Yes, even though my sling was too high–scheduling conflicts meant we’d done only one tech run, and the window in which the sling height is acceptable for this piece is very, very small. I trade off halfway through with a girl whose part of the act involves a drop that is too dangerous to do if the sling falls lower than a certain point. She’s my height but longer in the torso. The difference between too low for her drop, just right for both of us, and too high for my mount is the difference in locking off the sling ahead of, right on, or behind a tape mark. Better to lock it off too high for my mount: yes, it makes my part of the piece less elegant by a significant margin, but it doesn’t endanger anyone.
Did I trust the rig? Not entirely. No aerialist can do their job if they don’t trust the equipment–but no aerialist worth their salt believes there’s a 0% chance of mechanical failure. For better or worse, I hadn’t had enough time on this rig to trust it as much as I trust mine or the rigging points at our rehearsal space or at Suspend.
But I trusted it enough, combined with one more factor: myself.
I would be, upon mounting the sling, about seven feet up, suspended head first over a hard, wooden floor. Did I trust myself–my brain and body, the reflexes that I began honing as a baby gymnast at 3 years old–to literally save my own neck if everything went tits up?
Yes, it turns out: I ran a mental calculation and accepted the sliver of risk. If something was wrong with the rigging, I had good evidence–a lifetime of experience–in favor of being able to successfully tuck and roll. It’s as automatic as pointing my feet.
A tuck-and-roll wouldn’t prevent all possible injuries–in fact, I knew that I was accepting the risk of bone breaks–but at the height in question it would keep me from breaking my neck or my back.
I made my decision and put it aside and went forward. I struggled to make things as smooth as they should be, but no one got hurt. My dismount, at least, worked beautifully: I drop into a single-knee hang, reach for the ground, and execute a back walkover out of the sling. I was able to just manage it by letting the leg in the sling slide into a heel-hang at the last possible second.
In the end, no one got hurt. Things were scary for a second, then difficult. I got through by making an active, informed decision to trust and then continuing to breathe and move forward.
It’s funny how apt a metaphor this becomes for relationships and for life.
We choose actively to trust: how deeply and how far depends on our experiences.
We choose actively to trust: but we do so knowing that it means accepting a sliver of risk.
We choose actively to trust–or not to trust–ourselves.
In the end, I’m glad I chose as I did. Every time we choose to be brave, we make ourselves stronger.
It’s true that my work in the sling came off less gracefully than it might have done–but it came off, nonetheless. That, as they say, is showbiz. You screw up, or things screw up, and you play it off like everything’s going to plan.
When your sling is set too high, you use your best demi-point and you pray.
You keep your face on. Roll forward.
You push through the hips.