Category Archives: teaching
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.
That’s “little by little” in the Italian of the classical music world.
It often indicates a gradual change in the dynamics of a piece—a gradual crescendo or increase in tempo, perhaps.
Sometimes, when I think about how my life has changed over the past six or so years, it pops into my mind (visually, in that rather curly italic so common to classical scores 😁).
I think that happens for two reasons. First, so much has changed, and so gradually. Second, the ultimate effect on the listener of the direction poco à poco is often that of surprise: the dynamics change so slowly that, at some point, you suddenly awaken to the fact that the whole piece is dramatically different now, but you somehow didn’t notice the change happening.
Today I wrote a short bio for a thing that will remain top-secret for the moment, and in writing it I realized how much easier it has become to describe myself as a dancer, a teacher, and a choreographer.
I was struck with a powerful sense of gratitude, and that sort of delighted “I can’t believe this is really my life” feeling—but not, so much, the impostor syndrome of old.
When I began teaching, it was very much with the sense that I hadn’t really earned the role. I didn’t think I was a good enough dancer, really, to merit a teaching position.
Over the past year, I’ve watched my students grow in technique and confidence, and I haven’t really credited myself with that at all. I’ve sort of regarded it of an automatic process that happens if someone shows you more-or-less correct technique. Yes, now that I’m writing that out, I do suddenly realize how ridiculous it sounds, and that I wouldn’t say that about any of my teachers.
I think I honestly felt that my students were learning in spite of my deficiencies as a teacher.
I’ve begun to realize that, in fact, I have strengths as a teacher. One of them, I suspect, is being aware of the weaknesses in my own technique. It’s strange how glaringly obvious that seems now, when I spent all of last year thinking that the weaknesses in my technique were a reason that I shouldn’t teach.
It occurs to me now (and, yeah, not sure how I overlooked this, either) that even the best dancers have their weak spots, and that if your foundation is fairly solid, what matters as a teacher is knowing what they are so you don’t unwittingly pass them on to your students.
I’m heading into my second year of teaching with a much better sense of how to structure a class across the course of a year, which will help immensely.
I’m heading into my third year—my second “official” year—as a dancer in a ballet company similarly armed with a keener sense of what I need to learn and how to learn it.
I’m heading into both with a sense that this isn’t all some kind of fluke: that I may have taken a circuitous route, but I haven’t slipped in, uninvited, by some forbidden back door and won’t be discovered and unceremoniously ushered back out into the street at any moment. Or, well, probably not.
I wonder, now, if this is how everyone feels when they find their way onto their path. Or, at any rate, how many people feel, in that set of circumstances.
Would I feel differently if I had taken the more usual route through a pre-pro program and auditions or through a university-level ballet pedagogy program?
I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t, but I can’t say for certain that I would.
I can say that I feel more at home doing what I’m doing now than I ever expected to feel. I can say that I can imagine dancing and teaching deep into my future, and the thought doesn’t fill me with the dread and sense of being trapped that I feel when I imagined working at a desk for decades to come.
I can say that while I felt, at the beginning, that I hadn’t really earned my place (regardless of the kind words of my mentors), I failed to realize that even if that were true, I could earn it by staying in it and doing what that place required.
And so, here I am, at the start of a new season, ready to begin.
Erm, so, apparently the FSB school year is over! And I missed the memo! (*sarcasm* OMG, can you believe it?! I, of all people, lost track of the calendar! THAT NEVER HAPPENS! */sarcasm*)
Like, seriously, a part of my lesson planning process for my 3-4 Year Olds class, I choose a class theme for each week, and I post the week’s theme with a related printable coloring page to FSB’s facebook page … and I popped it up there for this week and then an hour later our school admin called me up like, “Guess what! We’re on break!” XD
Anyway, I’m sort of vaguely staggered that I have now made it through an entire academic year of teaching.
Sometimes I feel like I’m really getting the hang of it, while other times I feel like I’m still just desperately treading water. Still, there’s nothing like an arbitrary temporal marker to awaken one to the fact that, somehow, one is actually Doing The Thing.
So I’ve now officially been a ballet teacher (OMGWTFBBQ) for a year and a ballet dancer (in a company) for two years.
Watching video of myself from this morning’s Zoom class, I can see that I’ve come a long way as a dancer in the past two years. This morning I was tired and groggy and … stiff might not be the right word, in that my body wasn’t stiff, but my movement quality was stiff AF? Like, I can see that my brain is kind of running in slow motion, ticking off individual steps and kind of grinding gears between them, so The. Phrasing. Is. A. Bit. Staccato.
- Video is a phenomenal self-teaching tool, and I keep meaning to write a post about it ^-^’
…And yet watching myself I can still see that this person here, for all his faults, kind of knows what he’s doing. Mostly.
Two years is as long as I’ve ever held any continuous job (or, well–just over two years, really)–but back then I didn’t see the job that I had as a career path. It was a thing I was doing to make money while I figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life ^-^’
Now I’m getting paid a lot less, but working to build a career, which isn’t a thing I ever envisioned doing until I came back to ballet, and even then it took quite a while before I felt like I had a snowball’s chance. Full disclosure: sometimes I still don’t feel like I’ve got a snowball’s chance. Like, part of me is like, “Okay, dude, keep your head down so The Powers That Be don’t notice that you’re Doing The Thing.”
Imposter syndrome still makes appearances, of course, and every time I refer to myself as a professional dancer, there’s a part of my brain that winces and goes, “SHUT UP YOU IDIOT DON’T JINX IT.” (That part of my brain apparently doesn’t do commas.)
Imposter syndrome notwithstanding, though, I feel like I’ve found a place in the world in which I actually fit.
Ultimately, I do rather think that’s the only way to become a dancer. It’s too hard otherwise. Either there’s something within you that drives you to dance, no matter how wildly impractical it seems, or there’s not (and that’s okay: like, I’m not driven to be a chef or an investigative journalist, but I love the work they do, and I’m so glad they do it).
I’m not saying that if you don’t dance professionally, you’re not a dancer. training, talent, and physical aptitude alone aren’t enough to make that happen–there’s a lot of chance involved; being in the right place at the right time, basically.
Like, I just happened to wander across Mr D’s radar at a time when he needed guys for The Sleeping Beauty, and then the person who was going to be Drosselmeyer had to back out, and since I was going to be there anyway, Mr D figured he’d just put me in all the things. Likewise, I happened to have met Dot at LexBallet’s SI (and again at PlayThink), and she mentioned to me that Gale Force Dance was holding an audition, which ultimately led both to dancing with GFD and teaching at FSB.
Not everyone stumbles upon circumstances like these. But if you can’t imagine living without dancing, if the studio is where you feel most at home, if you do everything in your power to find a way to dance as much as you can (even if that means you don’t get to dance very much), you have the heart and soul of a dancer.
Next year is still up in the air, a bit: we don’t know yet when, or even if, theater venues will reopen, or what that re-opening will look like. We have no way to know what the changes in question will do to ballet company budgets, or to arts funding (public and private) in general. I don’t think we even know what the rehearsal process will be.
For now, though, I’m just happy to have made it through a year of teaching.
I’ve concluded that adapting to a new job–especially one in a new field–is always a bit of a baptism by fire.
Whether or not you’ve completed formal coursework in teaching, it’s impossible to know before you begin what your students will be like, how they’ll respond to your personality, and so forth. You also don’t know how you’ll operate as a teacher.
Likewise, you learn to be in a ballet company by being in ballet company (this is one of the reasons that Youth Ensemble, Studio Company, and Second Company programs are so valuable).
Nobody can ever say for sure what the future will bring, but generally speaking accumulated experience makes it easier to do whatever thing you’re doing.
Anyway, that’s it for now. SI next week, then who knows what will happen.
Keep dancing, friends.
Aaaaaaaaand, we’re back!
This year’s PlayThink proved, without a doubt, to be the best yet for me—the best by leaps and bounds, in fact (pun not originally intended, but retained for effect ;D).
Part of that was simply the result of the stuff I’ve been working on as a human being for the past year: accepting my social difficulties and learning to socialize within my own limits; growing more confident in my basic worth as a human being; listening with presence and patience; and feeling more confident in my body.
Part of it was the result of very conscious choices that I made before and during the event. I’mma talk about those a little now, k? Cool. Here we go:
Good Choices That Worked Out Well
Decide Not To Feel Obligated To Take A Million Classes … Or Any At All.
This may be the smartest thing I’ve done for myself in years. In the past, I selected at least one class each day that I just couldn’t miss, and the more I missed, the more frustrated and cranky I got.
This year, I decided to take a different tack: to take a page from the Burning Man playbook and regard the experience as The Thing, and the classes as optional sprinkles.
In the end, the only class I went to was my own (because obvs). That’s fine: I opted, instead, to spend a lot of time relaxing, hanging out with friends new and old, and dancing my tuchas off in the evenings.
It turns out that that’s a great way to do PlayThink, too. I gained just as much from simply sharing time with my fellow beings as I would from taking classes, without the stress of staying on top of the schedule or forcing myself to be out among the masses when I needed to be alone for a while.
Accept The Whims Of The Universe.
PlayThink is usually the only place where I can realistically expect D to join me in a dance performance.
This year, his rotator cuff surgery meant I wasn’t sure until a few weeks before the event that he’d even be able to participate … but I wanted him in my piece, regardless.
Of course, this year I’m also juggling the busiest schedule I’ve ever seen, and was sick for two of the 3-or-so weeks that I had to rehearse with him.
In short, I got almost no rehearsal time in with D. I wound up teaching him the basics of weight-sharing in a 20-minute window a few hours before we were scheduled to hit the stage, then trusting that the Demiurge of Improvisation would visit us and bless the final 40 seconds or so of our piece.
On top of all this, I forgot my push broom and had to borrow one, which was a fantastic broom, but had a very different balance point than mine and thus handled rather differently.
The end result was that a bunch of the stuff I had intended to include got left out, and some spontaneous bits magically appeared. Oh, and I threw D right into his personal nightmare of being asked to perform dance improv with an audience.
The funny thing is that everyone loved the piece anyway.
For PlayThink, I like to make pieces that tell simple, funny stories, and the story still came through.
I also like to take familiar materials (in this case, rather literally) and do unexpected things with them. PlayThinkers are a uniquely receptive crowd for that kind of thing!
The best part, though, was that D revealed an unexpected facility for character acting. Apparently, he was completely terrified while he was on stage … but he projected such an air of confidence and radiant joy that even I had no idea he was feeling anything else.
When your dance partner who’s also your life partner can’t tell that you’re actually terrified and not having the time of your life, you’re officially Doin’ It Rite.
Do Scary Things, Knowing That Everything Might Go Completely Wrong.
I fully intended to test-drive my workshop before PlayThink.
You know how these things go, of course. The road to hell, &c.
Anyway, I was actually quite nervous about teaching, and quite convinced that I had No Srs Bizness Doin So.
Turns out, though, that the good folks who participated* didn’t feel that way at all. My workshop went well and was well-received, and I think the participants actually felt like they learned some stuff, which is great.
I decided up front that everything might go wrong, and that I was going to have to be okay with that, but it was, in fact not terribly likely that everything would go wrong**.
I also decided that I would frame the workshop as one in which we were there to learn together, instead of one in which I was Thuh Authoritah and my students wouldn’t Respekt Mah Authoritah unless I demonstrated complete mastery of the subject matter.
The best moment for me, by the way, happened much later. The next evening on the dance floor, I saw a couple of the students from my workshop using some of the stuff I taught. They were experimenting together with weight sharing, and they laughing, and clearly having a good time. That was a cool and unexpected outgrowth!
*Did I mention that I was also afraid nobody would come to my weird little workshop? No? Well, I was.
**This is an approach that’s sometimes used in treating anxiety disorders and specific phobias. You learn to have this little conversation with yourself: “What am I afraid will happen if I [don’t go back and check the stove again/leave the house/talk to a stranger at this well-attended festival full of thoughtful people/etc]? I could [burn the house down/die/be abducted by a ring of human traffickers]. Could that really happen? Yes. Of course it could. Will it happen? Probably not. How likely is it to happen? Not very.”
As you can probably tell, this approach has been really helpful for me. By naming the thing you’re afraid of and acknowledging that is, in fact, actually possible, then examining the statistical probability of the thing, you remove some of its power without dehumanizing yourself (or whoever it is that’s struggling with anxiety). Obviously, it’s part of a larger process, but for me it’s a really important part.
Ultimately, PlayThink is about sharing and learning … and even though I didn’t spend a lot of time in the formal learning space this year, I feel like I learned more than I’ve learned at any other PlayThink.
If I had to crystallize the lessons I learned into soundbytes, they’d go something like this:
- Honor your incarnation by respecting your own limits the same way you’d respect someone else’s. It’s okay. Really.
- Of course it could all go terribly awry: gently embrace that possibility, then get out there and Do It Anyway.
- Whenever possible, approach teaching as an opportunity to learn and explore together.
- Sometimes it’s okay to admit that you’re afraid.
That last one is pretty groundbreaking for me. The circumstances of my childhood and adolescence taught me that to reveal vulnerability was to have that vulnerability exploited: to show fear was to be given reason to be even more afraid; to show weakness was to be hurt.
I think there’s still a lot of the world that operates on those principles, so I’m not going to say that it’s always safe to say, “This scares the #$%! out of me.” Sometimes it’s really, really not.
But it’s good to know that sometimes, it really, really is.
Somehow, I had become convinced that the LexBallet intensive was in June (even though it has always been in July) and that PlayThink was in July (even though it has always been in June—my sister’s birthday coincides with it every year), and EVEN, even though I made widgets for this very blorg that list the dates.
Needless to say, knowing that The Time Is Almost Upon Us has me, as they say, a little shook.
Mostly because, for the first time, I’m teaching a workshop, and I haven’t even given said workshop a test drive like I meant to (because Golden Retriever Time, y’all).
Anyway. I think it’ll be okay, but my Imposter Syndrome is off the charts with regard to teaching. I’m like, HOW CAN I TEACH, I DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW ANYTHING??!11
I’m sure everything will go just fine and nobody will die. And if anybody does die it will probably because Kentucky is ridiculously hot and humid in June and not because I’m a horrible, incompetent danseur and should never be allowed to teach anything, ever. But I hope nobody dies even then because that would really probably put me off teaching for a while (because I’m horribly superstitious deep in the cockles of my heart).
Regardless, I have a Plan (and not just a Goal) for the workshop and a 2-hour window in which to accomplish that plan, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to be okay. I’ll just, as Señor Beastmode likes to say, Stick To The Plan. Unless the Plan proves completely useless, in which case I’ll throw it out the window.
In case you’re wondering, the exercises I’m planning to use will be sequenced as follows:
- The Little Dance
- Invisible Catch
- City Streets (Solo Version)
- City Streets (Eye Contact Version)
- City Streets (Touch Version)
- Flocking (North, South, East, West)
- Mirroring (into Touchless Partnering)
- Leaning In
- Leaning Out
- Weight-Share Shape-Building
- Lean Tag
- Basic Dynamic Weight-Sharing
- 5-Minute Dances
- 5 minutes to draft a dance
- Brief showing (music: random)
- 20 minutes to revise
- Final Showing (music: random or dancers’ choice)
A lot of this is stuff I’ve learned from Pilobolus—stuff that I feel very comfortable doing, but possibly not like I have the earned authority to teach it. …Which is hilarious, because I’ve taught all of this at various points, with the exception of 5-Minute Dances, which is something you more facilitate than teach.
Ironically, I feel least qualified to teach in the dance idiom I practice the most (ballet) and most qualified to teach in the one I practice the least (modern partnering improv).
I would say that I’m not sure what that says about my faith in my practice, only I am: what it says is that ballet is a highly-technical, rigorously codified idiom, and teaching it incorrectly can really screw someone up. When I talk about the technical aspects of ballet, people routinely tell me I should teach—but I think it’ll take a few more years of learning, performing, and choreography…ing before I feel qualified to teach ballet.
I also need to start rehearsing “…Lover Boy” in earnest, because I haven’t really given that enough time.
Lastly, I need to NOT TAKE ON ANY MORE PROJECTS RIGHT NOW. I’m booked to the gills all summer, which came as something of a surprise even though in retrospect it seems fairly obvious that that’s what happens when you take two contracts and then load freelance gigs on top of them 😛
Not to say I won’t take a ballet job if someone hands it to me, because, you know, ballet.
Today in modern class we did a neat little combination that involved a kind of hunchy, quasi-parallel barrel turn. My first thought (after, “I probably really shouldn’t do that,” which I promptly ignored) was “I haven’t done a barrel turn in a while—I wonder if I still have it.”
- That is to say, one of the stylized Modern-flavored ones, launching and landing in parallel, but moving by necessity through turnout, since you sort of have to rotate your knees out to do a barrel turn in the first place.
So I tried and discovered that I did still have it, and that it was comparatively easy to do.
In fact, I managed to do it in such a way that landing in either direction it didn’t make my foot hurt: lightly, softly, with just a little loft.
It’s weird to think that the barrel turn was one of last year’s Ballet Goals, and that it probably seemed like something really quite difficult, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been one of last year’s explicit goals. In essence, there are always a million things to learn where ballet is concerned, and if you make all of them explicit goals, your head will explode, so you have to come up with some way to decide which goals will be explicit (and hope, of course, that the rest will just happen along the way, I guess). My lists of explicit goals are apparently driven by Persnickety Details and Grand Allegro Pyrotechnics, with a universal criterion of “oh, that sounds hard.”
So, anyway, the barrel turn is still there, in the same way that I discovered my tour jeté and assemblé battu and entrechat quatre still waiting in a dusty corner of my somatosensory memory like so many disused bicycles when I started dancing again.
I couldn’t begin to tell you in words how to execute the barrel turn, by the way. I have absolutely no conscious notion of how I do it. I know that there’s a plié at either end and in the middle both your knees are sailing through space, but if we’re honest that could be a description of almost any jump in which both legs are bent.
If I worked through it about seventeen times right now, capturing mental “video” of the things I do and see and feel in the midst of a barrel turn, I could learn to describe it … maybe. But right now I can’t (because my foot is still healing).
Anyway, I just know that the barrel turn is still there, because as long as I don’t try to think about how to do a barrel turn, I can do one. It’s a bit of a centipede’s dilemma.
I was going to put a picture of an innocuous-looking centipede here,
but then it occurred to me that no matter which one I chose,
it would probably creep someone out. So I didn’t.
Anyway, I think a lot of learning to dance—and, indeed, to do almost anything physical—is like that. You don’t have to accumulate the ability to explain how you do what you do any more than a toddler has to be able to explain how she runs in order to make off with your keys so she can drop them in the toilet. How do you use chopsticks? How about a fork? A zipper? Try describing how you skip.
It’s not impossible to describe any of these things, of course—if we think about them carefully, we can describe them, though any student in a Physiotherapy or Kineseology program will tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds.
It’s not impossible to describe them, it’s just hard—and it’s hard because, in general, we don’t learn these things by thinking about them verbally, but by mucking about in our bodies until we get them down.
The best exception I can think of to the rule that physical learning tends to be, you know, physical is horsemanship: but I think, really, that’s because as a riding student, you’re learning how to give instructions to the horse as to how he should use his body as an instrument as much as, if not more than, you’re learning to use your own body as an instrument.
As such, a riding instructor teaching a student (especially in dressage) will often offer a correction that might seem ludicrously specific to a non-rider: “…More weight in your left sitz bone, and apply your left ankle at the girth and the right one a little behind the girth,” or what have you.
- This isn’t, by the way, a complete set of instructions for any specific thing. It could mean a lot of things in a lot of contexts: maybe you’re asking for a lateral bend; maybe you’re light in the left sitz bone and it’s confusing your horse; maybe your riding instructor needs glasses or to lay off the sauce. The last horse I rode regularly would, if you did this basic set of things at the halt while collecting him between seat and hand, give you a nice turn on the forehand, which was really handy for opening and immediately closing gates. On the other hand, at the walk in the ring, he would toss his head like a teenage girl at a parent-teacher conference unless you collected the frack out of him all. the. time. Retired field hunters, amirite?
This isn’t to say that dance can’t be analyzed using the literate part of the mind. It can; the works of Vaganova and Tarasov demonstrate that it can (though trying to read a description of a step that’s well above your “pay grade” can be a real headache).
As a student, D really benefits from a very thorough verbal description of what he’s supposed to do with his body when it comes to dance or aerials. I find that difficult to grok. Then, he’s such a verbal thinker and I’m such a non-verbal thinker (with good translation software that sometimes crashes) that we actually find it really hard to imagine each-other’s modes of thought.
- This would be less difficult for me if it weren’t for the fact that D is pretty capable of mentally manipulating objects in space, even though he can’t picture them in his head. I’m great at that, too, but that’s because I can picture them, and rotate them, and toss them around, and shuffle them, and assign various qualities of mass and so forth by feel in my head. 3D sensurround is my native mode. He, meanwhile, apparently keeps some kind of giant spreadsheet of more-or-less verbal data in his head—a kind of tabular reference, if you will. Basically, in short: the human brain, WTF.
Anyway, I can’t help but think that this is part of the difficulty of teaching dance—especially to beginners, and perhaps especially ballet.
Beyond a certain level, as a teacher, you’re probably mostly dealing either with students who are strongly kinetic-spatial-visual thinkers and/or students who have developed really good compensatory mechanisms for not having strong mental visuo-spatialization ability. Beginners, on the other hand, are likely to be a mixed bag of all kinds of thinkers, and so you have to figure out how things are done and, even more dauntingly, how to convey that information to your students.
Later, as your students accumulate their own competencies, you’ll be able to say things like, “Then you just do this [insert visual demonstration]” or “Yes, but don’t rond the leg” and they’ll get it.
In the beginning, though, it seems like there’s a lot more explaining, and that it has to be done incrementally.
This Sunday, M, one of my friends from Trapeze, finally found her way into our dance class. AM very soundly and rightly gave her only one or two corrections to work on, and later checked me when I wanted to funnel too much information her way. I constrained myself and ultimately only asked her to reduce the rotation of her ankles a little bit in turnout so her knees would track over her toes.
Anyway, being prevented from drowning a new student in information was a good thing: I’m still very much learning how to teach.
I suspect that, for me, learning to teach will be harder than just plain learning. One involves the simple accumulation of competence; the other involves the intelligible description of the elements of competence.
One last anecdote from Sunday’s class: AM give the class an exercise with a sauté fouetté in the mix. Interestingly, only M did it right the first time.
The other two did something else entirely. I was sitting on the sidelines, watching and offering what guidance I could, and noticed that our other two students were doing something that wasn’t sauté fouetté, but was somehow familiar.
The third time I saw it, I realized what it was: they were executing rather nice révoltades, presumably because nobody had bothered to tell them that they—as dancers with very little ballet background, and definitely no men’s technique—couldn’t possibly know how to do nice révoltades.
So, there you have it. The human body is a mysterious thing, and apparently a révoltade is just a sauté fouetté executed, um, more or less inside-out.
Not that I could possibly begin to explain what I mean by that.
Still working on the Great Data Restoration of 2017.
I wish I knew what our desktop PC had done with its backup files, because Jiminy Cricket, this is ridonculous.
From now on, I’m going to upload backups of our backups to The Great Cloud In The Æthers so this will NEVER HAPPEN EVER AGAIN.
Anyway, I’m still working on this. I expect to finish it by … I’m not sure. Tomorrow morning at the latest. It would be tonight, but rehearsal. THE SHOW MUST GO ON, amiright?
In the process of doing this relentless desk-bound and detail-oriented job, I have discovered that I will do almost anything to avoid sitting at a desk and futzing about with financial datas, including cleaning the house. “Oop, can’t enter the datas right now, our friend who’s in massage therapy school is coming over to work on us!” (Speaking of which: OMG. You guys. Evidently I have needed a legit massage for like 17 years or something.)
Anyway, one of my Avoidance Strategies this morning was to come up with a set of cards for an improv game that I’m going to try with our Dance Team, which is divided into Kids Who Grok Improve and Kids Who Are Like, “Wait, What Steps Am I Supposed To Improv?”
There are three sets of cards, as such:
- stand (yes: in dance, standing is a movement)
The idea is to give the kids something a little more concrete around which to improvise movements.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose an Animal card (these are orange in my set). Think about how that animal is shaped and how it moves. Think about how it might feel to be that animal. Are you heavy or light? Are you relaxed or focused? Do you live on the land or in the water, and can you fly? If you live in the water, do you live in lakes, rivers, or oceans? If you live on land, do you live on the plains, the mountains, or the forest? Is it hot there? Cold? It’s okay to start out moving in ways that look like the animal in question, but ultimately you should try to move your body in ways that feel like the animal in question. Explore this for at least one minute; at most, five minutes.
- Choose a Movement card (these are green in my set). If you draw “Elephant” and “Glide,” think about how a glide would look and feel if an elephant were doing it. Try to capture that movement with your body. Is there more than one way an Elephant can Glide? How would a Falcon Skip if it were by itself? What about five Falcons together? Explore this for at least one minute; at most, five minutes.
- Choose a Feeling card (these are blue in my set). We tend to associate certain movements with certain feelings, but we can mix them up. What would an Elephant Angrily Gliding look and feel like? What would a Snail Joyfully Standing look and feel like? Is there a difference between one Cheetah Thoughtfully Walking and three Cheetahs Thoughtfully Walking? Explore this for five minutes, to give yourself time to connect all the parts.
I plan to couple this with the classic North, South, East, West flocking exercise. I’ll run them through the flocking exercise first, though, so they get a sense of how flocking works before adding weird stuff.
Next time, I might add in “vegetable” and “mineral” categories. How might sad seaweed skip? How might a confused granite cliff-face crawl?
And now, back to our regularly scheduled strugglecast day.
Today was a long day: class at 10:30 (with a smidgen of rehearsal afterwards); teaching at 1 PM; suspended meditation at 2; callback at 3:30 (ended a little past 6:30).
Class was … erm. Like, barre was great? And the rest of it was … yeaaah. Erm. I had issues. On the other hand, I did manage one not-very-good triple, and except for the points at which I actually screwed up, things looked okay.
All three members of my Ballet Girl Posse were in class, and two of them stayed after, so we ran through our choreography … and I actually learned all their names. YAY! So at least I’ve accomplished something today. BG was still around, so he ran us through our bit a couple of times, and we decided that we like fourth arabesque better for my bit of the first partnering piece (a series of supported fouettés).
I begged off the last ten minutes of the modern dance portion of the apprentice-teaching class because my legs were a bit angry at me and I was going to need them for the audition. I used the time to foam-roll the crap out of them.
During meditation, I fell asleep. Given that I am the world’s worst napper (seriously, I can normally only nap when I’ve been awake for at least 48 hours straight), that’s saying something. Evidently, I was pretty tired.
The callback turned out to be the highlight of the day. It was more like a dance-and-theater workshop than an audition—we did some partnering stuff, then learned a dance and performed it in groups, then played theater games and ran some sides. Honestly, it was a hell of a lot of fun with a great group of people (both judges and fellow auditionees), and if every audition was that much fun, I’d audition for everything.
It turns out that I know the guy who’s directing the production. I met him at a party (which happened to be at his house) and felt instantly very, very comfortable with him, which speaks very highly of him. Also: proof that my world is incredibly tiny, heh.
We’ll hear back in a week or so about roles and such. Fortunately, I have too much going on to have much time to chew my nails about it, though I don’t have class with BW on Thursday this week.
Regardless, BW gave me homework—jumping rope to improve my cardio as well as the usual Turns Homework and … erm. I’m supposed to be doing something else, too, I think? Fehhhhcccckkkk. I can’t remember. It’s in my notes somewhere.
Anyway. I will miss BW’s class this week, but I suspect my body will welcome the extra rest. The fitness is returning, but my body hates me so much right now.
Yesterday, we worked on piqué turns with our Sunday class.
Teaching piqué turns, it turns out (sorry again), is a finicky business.
There are a lot of little details that are actually fairly important—open the whole body, and not just the supporting leg, from éffacé to croisée; don’t fling the baby; bring the hips along with the shoulders; keep the hips level; find the right amount of attack (with adult beginners, I’ve noticed that too little attack is more common than too much); keep the turnouts engaged; etc.
I found myself wondering whether we were overwhelming our students with information, and whether my input wasn’t just sort of making things harder. I sometimes forget, in the moment, that human beings learn ballet in tiny increments that build up over the course of many years.
As we progress as dancers, we get used to absorbing corrections on the fly. We add their content to—or subtract it from—layers of existing information. We build and modify habits over years and years. Now and then, a “eureka!” moment leads to a swift and significant change, but mostly we learn by a thousand cuts; a million steps compounded one atop the other.
We forget what it’s like to be completely new; to be learning not only an entirely new movement vocabulary, but an entirely new language vocabulary.
This is part of what makes teaching ballet hard.
After a while, it all begins to make sense—sure, turnout (for example) began as pure artifice, but ballet technique evolved around it and depends upon it. A good tour lent/promenade depends on the turnouts remaining engaged—as do piqués and chaînes and all those other turns.
You can do turns in parallel, but they’re different. They look different and rely on different body mechanics. They can be nice, but they’re not ballet.
Ballet begins with engaging the turnout—so we harp on about it endlessly.
In the beginning, though, it probably feels arbitrary and baffling (not to mention a bit unnatural).
You don’t really “get” it until you learn to feel your deep rotators well enough to understand, for example, that you fell out of that otherwise-nice tour lent because your turnouts unspooled themselves and destabilized the hip of your supporting leg and everything attached to it.
That can take years.
Our AD Emeritus once called me out on failing to really engage my supporting leg before driving on through Adagio or turns. That moment is a bit of a watershed for me, because it made me really think about how I was using my deep rotators. Prior to that, I accepted turnout as a part of ballet without really thinking about it—which meant that I also wasn’t feeling about it.
I’ve noticed that understanding why helps people remember things. The challenge is to impart the reasoning without drowning students in a frothing sea of information.
It occurs to me that perhaps figuring out how to impart that sense of feeling might help—to set some time aside during each class to consciously work on getting to know the body mechanics of ballet by feel.
Of course, this is ruddy hard to measure: asking students to report back on sensations deep within their hip sockets is inherently subjective and prone to the same kinds of reporting errors that researchers encounter. Perhaps it would be best to ask them to explore their turnout, then describe how it feels at the point at which it’s most correct and solid?
I’m going to have to remember to talk this over with ABM. She’s a gifted teacher, and I think her insights could be helpful.