Category Archives: work

The Key To Partnering

There are so many reasons I’m glad that I auditioned for Gale Force, and right now one of the most significant is the opportunity it’s given me to begin honing my partnering skills.I wouldn’t say I’m great at partnering (yet: I might get there, who knows?), but I’m learning fast. I seem to be good at keeping my partners from hitting the deck when things go south,which is comforting, because honestly I mostly have no idea what I’m doing, still.

Anyway, of all the things I’ve learned about partnering thus far, the most important seems at once staggeringly obvious and perhaps a little surprising (which: remember the time you tripped over that brightly-painted curb that you’d noticed before but forgotten and immediately thought, “Jeez, what’s wrong with me?”).

And that most important thing is, of course, trust.

Last night, we started working on a new piece, and AA, the choreographer for this one, gave all of us leeway to toss in elements we thought might fit, including partnering stuff. At one point I looked at Dot and, perhaps because we’re both equally mad and utterly extra, I said, “Cradle to Bluebird?”

 And she said something along the lines of, “Slay, Queen!” (Because, as I’ve mentioned, we’re both extra AF.)

And so we tried it, annnnnnnd:

In a ballet studio, the author balances his partner on his shoulder in a modified

Boom! (From our rehearsal video, Via Dot’s Insta 💖)

I don’t know if either of us expected this to work on the first try: but we trust each-other, so we both dove in full-steam ahead, and it worked like a charm[1].

  1. Though if you know how this lift is supposed to work, you know she’s a little forward of her balance point in this shot, which was the result of my failure to sufficiently account for her skirt. D’oh! Obviously, we made it work.

I would say, “Obviously, you need good technique as well,” but I’m not sure that’s quite as important as it sounds. You need to understand how your body works and possess a feel for the laws of physics. If you’ve got those two things and trust, you’re most of the way there.

Ballet is great at teaching you to use your body. So are acro and gymnastics. 

As for physics … People are forever observing that ballet dancers begin training early because it takes ages to teach the brain and body to work together to produce beautiful technique, but I think there’s another element as well. 

Only experience can develop a gut sense for the way bodies behave in space. When you’re faced with the daunting task of grabbing your friend and tossing her up into a balance on your shoulder, you don’t have a lot of time to make calculations. You may be strong, but if you try to do it slowly, the laws of physics are likely to come out on top.  

You have to be able to mentally spitball the physical process and the trajectory; to be able not only to visualize what’s going to happen, but to tactilize it, if you will: to imagine with your body how the forces involved will feel. 

That way, when you attempt the actual lift, you’ve got a model already in place.You don’t have to consciously think it through–which is good, because lifting humans is a finicky business, and you need to be able to respond without delay of something begins to go wrong. You don’t have time for conscious thought.

If something starts to feel off, you instinctively call upon a lifetime of being a body that moves through space with power and freedom. The accumulated experience of that lifetime drives the inner mechanism that makes you shift your weight, lift your shoulder, step back just a little on one foot (all of which I’m doing in the photo above, to compensate for having placed Dot too far forward).

You don’t think about it; you just do it.

The unspoken knowledge that your body will figure out how to keep you safe when things go south is the foundation of the kind of trust that dancing requires. If you need proof, show a sedentary person a sauté fouetté or even a pas de chat en tournant and ask them to give it a try: they’ll probably respond, “Are you out of your mind? I’d kill myself!”

In a ballet studio, the author stands on one leg as he lifts and unfolds the other whilst simultaneously reaching the opposite hand towards the ground.

Take this rather-contemporary penché developpé: inborn instinct tells me I’ma fall right on my face if I keep this up, so instead I listen to the secondary “instinct” that derives from being a crazy monkey all my life. 

Partnering required that same trust on a different level: when you grab your friend, swing her into a cradle lift, and roll her up onto your shoulder, she’s trusting you to be able to make the necessary split-second adjustments that will stop her falling, and you’re trusting her to make herself as liftable as possible.

You’re tacitly agreeing that both of you operate from a profound applied understanding of gravity, mass, momentum, trajectory, balance…
You’re tacitly agreeing to apply that knowledge even if things feel a little shaky for a second here or there.

That last bit is crucial.

When we feel we’re in physical danger, our true, inborn instincts tell us to ball up and protect our vital organs.

That’s fine in cradle lift–in fact, the tighter your partner tucks, the easier cradle lift becomes, at least until she’s tucked so tightly that she cuts off circulation to one of your arms. Then you’ve got a whole new problem.

It’s not, however, true for any other lift in the repertoire, and especially not for Bluebird.

Excepting cradle[2], every lift in the classical repertoire involves some degree of extension–which means that the partner doing the lifting has to overcome gravity in challenging ways.

  1. One of the entry paths to shoulder-sit is also facilitated by your partner turning into a ball, but only for a moment. Also, purists sometimes argue that shoulder-sit isn’t part of the classical canon. I’m no authority on the subject, but my opinion is that while shoulder-sit is a circus trick, so are many of the showstopping elements in the canon: literally. According to Jennifer Homans’ exhaustive and authoritative history Apollo’s Angels, ballet really did adapt many of its steps from the circus. (#TheMoreYouKnow) At any rate, Serebrennikov covers shoulder-sit in his text on partnering,which is good enough for me.

If you’re attempting to sling your partner into a hip-balance (to borrow a term from the aerial arts) on your shoulder, she needs to trust you enough to unfurl herself into a profoundly vulnerable position in which she becomes, in essence, a see-saw.

If she doesn’t, at best, the beautiful bluebird lift turns into something closer to a dead-bird lift. Dead-bird lift probably has its place in tragic ballets and in modern dance, but it’s also a thousand times harder for you, with your feet on the ground, to support.

At worst, she’ll pivot around your shoulder and faceplant, and if you’re lucky she’ll kick you in the back of the head in the process and knock you out cold so you don’t have to live with the shame of having failed to save her (which is why it’s always the boy’s fault, in classical ballet: your job description involves making sure your partner doesn’t get hurt, since you’re the one with your feet on the ground). At least,not til you wake up.

Just about anyone can sling, say, fifty pounds of board lumber of a reasonable length up on one shoulder with relative ease. On the other hand, slinging fifty pounds of potatoes, loosely packed, is a much greater challenge (not least because you’re likely to take a potato or two to the jaw when you least expect it: potatoes fight dirty). 

Screencast of Taters Gonna Tate GIF.

If you didn’t see this coming, have we even met? I mean, in the virtual sense. (Via the Googs.)

Now multiply that challenge by three, and you begin to see the problem.

Thus, as you’re merrily tossing or slinging or rolling or pushing your partner onto your shoulder, she has to tell her inborn instinct to fold up for safety, “Not now, we’re busy” whilst simultaneously listening very closely to the acquired instincts that help her do the astounding things that make up every ballet dancer’s bread and butter. She also has to listen to whatever your body is doing. 

When she trusts her body, so to speak, and you trust yours, then you can trust each-other so much more easily. When you trust each-other, you try things that frankly seem a bit daft and they work. 

Curiously, all of this happens without a great deal of talking. In fact,when it works, it’s about as close as I’ve come to experiencing actual, literal telepathic communication [3].

  1. Some people might argue that making love must be closer. I doubt any of them have tried dancing a pas de deux, let alone creating one from whole cloth. Sex is great, but if your version involves, say, bluebird lift or overhead press lift, it’s probably much more interesting than mine.

If you don’t trust each-other, at some point in the process, one or both of you will hesitate at a critical moment–and while I’ve yet to drop anyone, the experience that stems from that hesitation is always terrifying.

That moment’s hesitation is a moment in which your partner has no idea what you’re “saying” with your body or what you’ll do next. 

Whether you’re the lifter or the liftee, this is akin to the moment in a relationship when Boo says, “If you can’t figure out why I’m so upset I’m certainly not going to tell you!” …Only with the added risk of catastrophic injury. You’re basically left with no way to predict what your partner will do next: you just have to guess and hope you get it right.

Someone with reasonable experience in partnering can often save a lift even then–but when you’re learning, if you’re the one doing the lifting, your goal instantly becomes simply to not drop your partner; to save them by any means possible. 

Which, if we’re honest, can be scary as heck for both of you: for you, because suddenly all the responsibility is in your hands; for your partner, because suddenly they have no control and can’t predict what’s going to happen.

Hesitation can also render many lifts pretty much impossible: I’m pretty strong, but I doubt that I could slowly dead-lift, say, 140 pounds above my head. 

When I press-lift someone, timing and momentum are crucial. Her jump overcomes enough of the pull of gravity to allow me to lift her past the part of the movement in which I’m weakest—the part where she’s above the level of my shoulders but not yet high enough that I can lock my arms out to sustain her weight above my head (which is totally a circus trick, in my book, but it’s a good one!).

For whatever reason, Dot and I seem to have developed a trust that prevents hesitations and allows us to overcome the inevitable glitches when we try new things together.

I think this stems in part from the fact that we’re both very game experimenters, natural-born crazy monkeys, if you will. But it also stems from familiarity: during our experiments, sometimes things do go sideways, and when that happens, I always manage to catch her, and she always manages not to kick me in the face. Then, I wouldn’t mind if she did: my willingness to risk a kick in the face is crucial to my ability to keep her from hitting the ground when we find ourselves at a sticky wicket.

Anyway, there you have it: the most important thing I’ve learned about partnering. 

If you don’t have perfect technique, trust will get you through. 

If you don’t have trust, though, nothing will.

Dreams, Amirite?

This morning I had a dream that involved a conversation about guns and an attempt to do some grocery shopping at a Trader Joe’s-type store where spaghetti was $11 for a 3-pound package. I remember trying to figure out if that was an expensive-but-acceptable price, or a just-plain-expensive price. 

In the dream I was scrawny, maybe 19, still in my underage club kid phase, but I was also somehow me, now, as one sometimes is in dreams.

I have no idea what, if anything, that dream was trying to tell me (mostly, I suspect it was a dream about feeling unprepared), but I’ll tell dream-me this: $11 is way too much for 3 pounds of store-brand spaghetti.

~

This week I’m prepping for PlayThink in the morning and rehearsing for a show in the afternoon. Monday we began creating things; today we run through the show; tomorrow we do tech; Sunday we have a dress rehearsal in the morning and the show in the evening. It’s a gala for a new botanical garden. 

Tiny stage, so I’m glad we get to rehearse onstage before the show. 

When I get back from PlayThink, June will be halfway over.

TFW

  • …you’re trying to figure out where to cram in a side-side-side gig so you can make some extra money this summer so you don’t have to worry as much about expenses during the main season >.<
  • …you realize that you’re performing at a gig you couldn’t currently afford to attend
  • you look at your summer rehearsal and performance schedule and realize that you have officially broken your summer break o.O’
  • …you discover that inflatable bathtubs exist ❤
  • …you realize that, although you don’t think of yourself as an ambitious person, you actually do have some pretty lofty goals that you want to achieve in your lifetime … they’re just not necessarily ones that chime with conventional ideas about “success”

Last week, DS and I put the final touches on our piece for PlayThink’s mainstage show, Gale Force rehearsals began, and I discovered that I do really freaking good turns if I don’t have contacts or glasses on (weird, right?).

My hypothesis about the turns thing is that being unable to see anything clearly prevents the following:

  1. Spotting too high … which I STILL do all too often :/
  2. Hyper-focusing on my spot spot. I didn’t realize I might be doing this until I paused to analyze the feeling of those really, really nice and effortless doubles (and one effortless triple) I tossed out there the other day. I think I get so fixated on the idea of ACTUALLY LOOKING AT AN ACTUAL THING IN THE ACTUAL WORLD that my neck stiffens up in an effort to fix my focus. A stiff neck doesn’t help your turns, guys.

I also finally started listening to Hallberg’s A Body of Work, which I bought on Audible before the season ended and have been putting off because … well, reasons, I guess. I don’t know precisely what those reasons are, though I could probably figure it out if I sat down with my inner being and had a good conversation.

I know part of it was just the sheer dread of having to hear The David Hallberg talking about his amazing successes as a dancer during a time when I was feeling like literally the worst dancer alive.

It turns out, though, that Hallberg is as engaging and humble as an author as he is lyrical and princely as a danseur. So it turns out that in addition to being a fabulous dancer he might ALSO be a fabulous human being. He certainly comes across as thoughtful and very, very human in his writing.

Curiously, many of his struggles are #relatableAF in fact. I found it immensely edifying to hear about his difficulties with his early efforts at partnering, you guys.

Speaking of edifying, I also got an offer for a full scholarship to a summer intensive in Europe, though sadly it coincides with tech and theater week for GFD’s show, so I can’t go. But it was really cool, anyway.

This summer I’m focusing on partnering, tuning up my turns, and NOT DOING DUMB THINGS WITH MY HANDS.

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QV, Dumb Hands Thing The First: do I think I’m going to, like, fly if I flap my hands, or…????

As you may or may not be able to tell from this picture, I’m also working on #BalletFitness … specifically:

  • strength
  • endurance
  • whittling down my thighs so I don’t have to fight with them in 5th position ;D

WRT that last one: I don’t mean spot-reducing; I mean focusing on using the right muscles so my stupid quads will chillax and get out da darned way, while focusing on eating good food so I don’t either gain a lot of weight or constantly feel puny and starved.

I’d like to reiterate, once again, that for me, the size of my thighs is a functional thing. There are people who are much softer and curvier than I am who can dance really well with much bigger thighs because their pelvises are arranged in a way that allows them to access a tight 5th position at their size (which might, for some of them, be harder at a samller size).

Over the past year or two, I’ve realized that I not only have hyuuge quads, but I also have very little clearance because of the way my pelvis and my humeri come together. This means that regardless of my apparently awesome capability for rotation in the hip joint, my 5th position is prone to difficulty because my big, stupid legs are in the big, stupid way.

I mean. They’re not really stupid legs. They’re good legs, Brent. They’re powerful legs. They make it easy for me to jump high and lift people (and yes, in case you’re wondering, you legs and core really do most of that work almost all the time).

But they are big, and they’re set close together, and those factors conspire to place them right in each-other’s way if I’m not vigilant about working in such a way that A) my quads don’t go, “COOL WE GOT THIS BRUH” and inflate to the size of intercontinental ballistic missiles* and B) there’s not much extra “fluff” to get in the way. “Fluff” is probably better than muscles, since it’s squishier, but there’s just no freaking room.

*intercontiental balletic missiles???

So basically I’m in the midst of this crazy transition during which I continue to be sort of flabbergasted by the fact that I am apparently doing this dancer thing now, but also not entirely flabbergasted in the same way I used to be. I don’t know exactly how to describe That Feeling When, so I’ll leave you instead with this lovely picture of ya boiii Mercutius T. Furbelow expressing his sentiments about the arrival of summer weather here in the 502:

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HIM DO A [ [ M E L T T ] ]

And this update on the status of my surgical scars (or relative lack thereof):

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Also, check out doze Classical Ballet Hairs. And Please Ignore My Kitchen, particularly the giant pile of recycling that I was about to take out when I took this, because we all know how staggeringly great I am at planning :/

 

Onward and Upward

Thing the First: I’ve submitted my contract for next season with Actual Ballet Company. It’s going to be interesting, as it looks like the roster is changing quite a bit. I’m not sure how many boys we’ve got for next season.

Thing the Second: last week I had a very nasty surprise cold. It completely knocked me flat for several days, but I seem to be better now. Yay?

Thing the Third: I’ve begun work on my piece for PlayThink and my solo piece for GFD. My friend DS kindly agreed to be my partner for the PlayThink show, since I apparently traumatized Denis by making him improvise last year and he doesn’t want to do it this year 😀

I’m actually quite happy to be working with DS, because she’s a fabulous dancer and, more importantly, loves performing as much as I do.

She also is totally fearless about partnering and she taught me a new lift yesterday:

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It’s possible that my arm (the one you can see) is supposed to go over her leg, though.

Just in case you’re wondering, I don’t always partner in a mask. There’s a reason I’m wearing the mask, but IT’S A SECRET so you’re just going to have to cope. Time reveals all, or at least mostly all.

I don’t actually know what this lift is called. It’s kind of an over-the-shoulder-whirly lift, but I’m sure that’s not its actual name.

It worked the first time we tried it, after which DS said to me, “You’re really strong!” That was a lovely surprise, as I’ve been sadly neglecting core and upper body work for a while (though I’m back to working on it now). I think part of it is that I’ve just had really excellent teachers when it comes to lifting things, especially people. The whole “lift with your legs” thing comes in really handy, especially when your legs are used to launching 160 pounds of strapping lad[1] into the air about a million times a day.

I’m also becoming, well, less bad at partnering promenades in passé, though I still think I look stupid[2] doing them. OTOH, I have almost a month to improve them.

I had some thoughts on technique that I wanted to drop in here, but they’ve apparently evaporated out of my brain, so I’m going to call it a day.

Notes

  1. I am trying to accept the fact that “strapping” is pretty much the adjective that best describes my build at this point.
  2. One might argue that as long as my partner doesn’t look stupid, I’m more or less getting the job done.

The Valley of Decision

Where to begin? BP went well, as did LouBallet’s Spring Dance Festival. My group’s piece in our show in SDF got a resounding response from the audience and made our director happy, and those are the things that warm the cockles of a dancer’s heart, or at least this dancer’s heart.

BP was my first show with a Big Giant Head, and while the Big Giant Head itself was awesome (our costumer is AMAZING), dancing with it on was a learning experience, even though I did very little actual dancing. I had exactly one lift, which didn’t go well in our first full-dress rehearsal (it was impossible to make the established lift work with the costumes in question), so we changed it to a simple cradle lift that both looked fine and worked. Except in the closing show I somehow managed to bonk my Big Giant Head against my partner’s Big Giant Head, which caused my Big Giant Head to go slightly askew, which led to me almost running both of us into a leg curtain on the exit.

Fortunately at the last minute the curtain hove into sight in what was left of my peripheral vision, and I was able to take evasive action. No dancers were injured in the making of this ballet, or at least not by me[1].

  1. I did dance on a somewhat dislocated hip for three weeks, and I’m still paying for that.

So goes the glory of the stage, eh?

Anyway, on the last day of our season I was presented with a contract for 2019-2020. Since I’d just auditioned for another company with surprising success, this left me with a quandary: dance with New Company next year, which will let me stay at home and work on getting the house together, etc, or bite the bullet and rent a room in Lexington, knowing I’ll need to add a second job into the mix in order to cover my expenses?

I’d be lying if I said I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I’m doing the right thing, but I’ve pretty much decided to go ahead and re-up with Actual Ballet Company The First for next year, even though it’s potentially going to make my life more difficult. I think the structure of the full-time schedule is what I need right now, and while I love the fact that New Company has thrown me straight into the deep end[2], they rehearse part-time.

  1. Regarding which, I’m doing the Cinderella Pas De Deux[3] in their summer show, which is both delightful and terrifying because like, OMG Pas De Deux, but also NO PRESSURE o.O’
  2. Regarding which, summer ballet goal: “Improve Partnering Skills” looks like it’s getting checked off the list via the Baptism By Fire method

On the other hand, I really like the people and the company culture at New Company, and part of me feels like I might be making entirely the wrong decision. I’m not actually even sure who to consult about it, though I plan to buttonhole my various ballet peeps after class tomorrow (I’ve been out of commission for about 5 days thanks to a really nasty sinus/chest bug).

Technically I have until the 11th to hand in my contract.

I honestly didn’t expect to actually have, like, a choice at this point (or, for that matter, ever) in the thing I still have trouble calling “my career,” so to have a choice between two options that both have more bright spots than dark is sort of incomprehensible.

Either way, I’m embarking on a side-gig that should help keep me afloat throughout the season without also causing me to stop and catch fire, as it were.

Coming back to my old stomping grounds at LouBallet School after basically being away for the entire season, I’ve been able to see where I’m a stronger dancer than I was last September (and, of course, where I definitely still need work). I’ve been greatly enjoying class with L’Ancien, particularly the moments that I’ve actually managed to earn some shocking words of praise (don’t worry, though, to preserve my reputation I’ve made sure to be a complete screw-up whenever possible, and to do stupid things with my hands at all applicable times).

It’s weird, because one rarely has the chance to step away from the group of dancers with which one has done most of one’s meaningful training for a significant period of time, then return.

Anyway, needless to say, I’ve got my goals in order for the summer, and I’ll definitely be dancing somewhere in the fall.

I’ll also be dancing with New Company for the summer, which I suspect will be a delight. More on that soon. I don’t think I’ll be doing summer intensives, but I might do some masterclasses at LouBallet and LexBallet.

Summer Is Coming

I am, astoundingly, almost at the end of my first year as a company apprentice.

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OMG HOW IS IT 26 MARCH ALREADY?!!!

OMG, you guys. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN.

Our season officially ends the day after Beatrix Potter closes—which is to say, the 14th of April.

This, of course, means that it’s time to firm up the Summer Plans.

At the moment, two events are on the books: PlayThink on 12-16 June and Burning Man at the end of August.

At PlayThink I’ll be teaching a workshop (same basic format as last year’s) and performing. I plan to rope my poor long-suffering husband into my performance piece, because I’m just thoughtful like that ^-^ (Don’t worry, he’ll will have lots of props to play with, so he’ll be fine.)

PlayThink is in a new location this year, which is cool because we’ll have new playspaces to explore and stuff, though also a little bittersweet, as things are. I have grown to love HomeGrown Hideaways, and especially Nathan and Jessa, who own and run HGH, and it’ll be both exciting and weird to be PlayThinking in a different place.

superman

It wouldn’t be the same without him. I mean, like, literally. Without him, I’d just be lying on the ground.

This Saturday, the 30th, I’m auditioning for a July gig that should be pretty cool if I make the cut.

Beyond that, I need to figure out how to spend my summer making money, so I can cover my expenses for next year.

Ferrying myself back and forth to Lexington has been, shall we say, not inexpensive, so if I’m going to continue next year I need to figure out how to both bank some cash this summer and keep a steady income stream throughout the season to offset the cost of either commuting or renting a room in town.

Most of us have secondary jobs, but my commute has made it difficult to do more than the occasional brief contract gig this year. When I ride-share with D, I lose a whopping 6 hours per day after accounting for warm-up time, 2 hours’ commute each way, and the inevitable 30 – 60 minutes wait time between when I reach Bardstown and when D gets done at work. When I drive by myself, I’m still losing 3ish hours that I could spend making a little cash on the side.

I’m not complaining, of course: the opportunity to dance full-time has been a g-dsend, and I’m immensely grateful. I just could’ve, like, planned a little better. So I’m trying to be more proactive this time and, like, plan. And we all know how good I am at planning -.-‘

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Actual Footage of Me, Planning

Assuming that Circumstances Don’t Intervene, it will probably make more sense for me to rent a room in town and take a secondary job to cover my expenses. I’ve said that before, but haven’t given myself enough time to make it happen (you guys, that’s a lot of squirrels to juggle), so I’m trying to get well ahead of the curve this time.

However, there is at least some chance that Circumstances Will Intervene, in the form of Other Life Events that might throw a spanner in the works.

I’m not quite ready to write about the Other Life Events yet. It’s not that they’re bad (don’t worry, D and I are fine, and nobody’s dying), it’s just that everything in that specific part of the Life Events Department is so vague right now that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Like, in short, it relates to us potentially moving within the next couple of years, and I’m simultaneously excited about that and Very Not Thrilled at the idea of leaving behind the community of dance and circus friends and colleagues who have helped me kind of, like, find my way and finally start trying to grow up and stuff, and it’s a lot to think about and work on and involves Level 80 Adulting things like getting the house in shape and selling it and stuff.

Honestly, though, that’s more like Fall/Winter/Next Couple Of Years Plans, so it also kind of falls beyond the purview of this, my Tentative Summer Plans post.

So, to bring this back around to the point, I’m not currently planning on traveling for summer intensives this year—though, who knows, that could all change depending on how flexible the Making Money bit is and how well it goes. *shrug*

No matter what happens, I will definitely be dancing this summer, and in particular I’ll be focusing on making my turns really hecking solid and reliable, not leaning back all the danged time, and (ideally) improving my ballet partnering skills.

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It’s a Petit right in my Allegro, you guys.

Oh, and Petit Allegro, because everybody knows how much Petit Allegro loves me and how much I love it back >.<

But, like, that’s basically the same thing as just saying, “And I will work on sucking less at ballet,” because I suspect that I will spend the rest of my natural life doing battle with Petit Allegro, and it will probably still win. Petit Allegro is a worthy adversary, and all that. TBH, thus far, it has outlived every dancer who has ever lived, come to think of it, so my chances of defeating it are slim to none, eh?

 

Anyway. In summerary, here’s my plans for this summer thus far:

  1. PlayThink
  2. July Thing Maybe?
  3. Make Dat Money
  4. Burning Man
  5. Suck Less At Ballet

Further details to follow, of course, because besides “Dance Every Day” my other motto is apparently “Too Many Words.”

A Lesson Distilled From Illness

I have been wrestling a sinus infection, one of those opportunistic tagalongs that grabs hold on the wake of a brief-but-fierce virus. Thus far I’ve been trying to wait it out: but while the initial fever has abated, the lingering congestion, drainage, pharyngitis, and fatigue have pretty much convinced me that resistance is futile and a trip to the Immediate Care place is probably in order.

Throughout all of this, I’ve been prying myself out of bed to get to class and rehearsal. It’s just what you do. If I was still running a fever, I’d stay home to avoid infecting the rest of the company: in a company this small, two or three dancers out sick is practically a massacre. 

I’m not feverish, though, so I gather my gumption and go.

It occurred to me this morning (a blessed reprieve, since the company isn’t called until 2 PM) that I wouldn’t do this for a desk job.

In fact, I couldn’t. Being still and concentrating is an enormous challenge when I’m at my best. Right now, it’s impossible.

At the ballet, I can mostly keep my head together when I’m moving, and when I’m not needed it doesn’t matter as much if my brain clicks itself off for a while. I can be a zombie on the sidelines, passively absorbing as much as I’m able to, until I’m needed on the floor again.

I don’t think I would’ve figured this out if I were working a desk job. I’d just have known that other people work through non-contagious illnesses that turn me into a zombie. I couldn’t have figured it out, because I wouldn’t have had the necessary data.

Think of me as a kind if intellectual shark: if my thought process is to live, I have to keep moving. At the best of times, micro-movements and occasional breaks to get up and walk around can do it. If I’m sick or sleep deprived, though, I have to really move to pass enough water over my metaphorical gills.

Driving is the most stressful part of my day right now: too much bodily stillness as the body and its protective shell—a missile that weighs a literal ton—hurtle down the road at around seventy miles per hour. Keeping my brain out of screen-saver mode is far harder than usual even with Adderall.

But I’m getting through it. After the intense mental burden of the drive, I manage all right at the ballet.I

And this is new information, and valuable: it’s not that I’m somehow weaker than my fellow desk-jockeys were when I worked at a desk. It’s that I need different inputs.

So that’s that. And now I need to go gird my loins and enter the fray. The dance, after all, isn’t going to rehearse itself.

Danseur Immobile

First, a billion apologies. I set up a schedule and responded to it exactly how I typically respond to anything that’s more than I can handle: I missed a post, then balked at making the next one because I figured it would have to be really good, then just kept balking because I didn’t want to get myself back into something that was obviously kind of beyond me right now.

So, yeah.

There you go.

I write best when I can be alone, and right now I have almost no alone time and I seem to spend 100% of the alone time I have doing laundry and dishes and otherwise trying to catch up on housework, which directly conflicts with writing since it involves using my hands. I’m not someone who can dictate into a voice recorder: my brain doesn’t work like that. If it did, I would probably be much better at actually talking to people, but maybe not as good at writing, so who knows.

Part of what makes it so difficult to write with other people around is that they don’t seem to understand that writing for me, requires a kind of uninterrupted focus that is literally impossible when someone[1] insists on asking questions like, “What are you working on?”

Even if I don’t answer (which would be rude and would only invite even more questions), it takes my brain a long time[2] to merge back into the stream. Likewise, the knowledge that I’m almost certain to be interrupted in this way makes it hard to establish concentration in the first place.

Today, we got out of rehearsal early, which is great for writing purposes. I also don’t have a rehearsal for The Other Thing I’m Doing (LBS’ Spring Collection), so I might even get some extra alone time tonight while D is at Trapeze and Acro (despite my fondness for combining them, these are two separate classes ^-^) … though I might go with him and do Acro instead. We’ll see.

Anyway. Add to the list of things I’ve leaned about myself this year: I might never feel 100% certain of myself during the rehearsal process, but once the curtain goes up it’s like I don’t know what uncertain means (except for the bit where I’m always vaguely paranoid that I’ll space out and miss my entrance).

Add also: I can enjoy the heck out of being a performer in an interactive game … but I’ll need a solid three days to recover afterwards. I could get through a multi-day run of that kind of thing, I’m sure, but the longer the run, the longer the break I’d need at the end. This past weekend was exactly that: Friday night, my Cirque company played the international spy collective in a spy game. Saturday, Sunday, and (to a lesser extent) Monday, I played, “Maybe if I squeeze my eyes shut hard enough the rest of humanity will disappear.”

I had a sore throat and a vicious headache on Saturday, so I used that as an excuse to spend most of the day in bed, aided and abetted by the fact that Actual Ballet Company wasn’t called for rehearsal and that I’d been exposed to Strep. Honestly, sometimes it feels amazing to do nothing for an entire day.

I came into this week feeling brighter and better rested than I have since … I’m really not sure when. My body hasn’t been running at 100% (as reflected in my worse-than-usual Petit Allegro), so I think I’m probably fighting off a cold or something, but dancing has felt pretty good. Except for Petit Allegro, and my inexplicable inability to do a balloté during a combination when it was just fine a moment before.

Or … well, not entirely inexplicable. I suspect that the balloté failure happened because we were running into it, and I have literally never done balloté from a run before in my life.

To make balloté work, you have to really brush the leading leg out as if you were going to do grand jeté, then snap it in through passé so it meets up with the back leg just as the back leg is at maximum height.

I kept running myself over, much as I used to do when running into Bournonville jetés. The result was more of a mutant pas de chat than a balloté, which was doubly annoying because balloté is a jump that I can usually do quite well.

Anyway, a mutant pas de chat is what happens when you try to balloté without brushing the leading leg straight out and jumping before you snap it back in. Or maybe more like a pas de araigneé morte[3].

There was also something that was supposed to be assemblé en tournant but became some kind of rotating pas de chat[4], so maybe I was just having a Pas De Chats Only kind of day. Except my actual petit allegro pas de chats were … erm. Not Good.

So that’s ballet for you. You never stop making mistakes, you just make fancier mistakes. You never stop having bad days, so you have to remind yourself that the bad day you’re having today would’ve been a fantastic day two or three years ago and a decent day last year.

  1. Like my lovely husband … to whom, it occurs to me now, I should explain all this, since he has this weird (but kinda sweet) policy of mostly not reading my blog because he wants it to be my thing.
  2. I can’t actually be more specific than that. Sometimes it’s 15 minutes; sometimes it’s hours. It Just Depends.
  3. Step of the dead spider. You’re welcome.
  4. I understand what happened there, at any rate. My thinking brain got ahead of my body, and I was thinking about the plié that was supposed to land the darned thing, and apparently attempted to plié in mid-air … because THAT makes sense! ^-^’

Ballet Lessons: On Being A Shy Dancer

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.

When you dance, the greatest resource available to you is your fellow dancers.

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.

Why?

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.

Christina demonstrating how I feel when I know I should ask someone about the choreography.

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.

A bright orange goldfish gazes out of its tank while other fish swim behind it.
“What were we supposed to do? Guess I’d better ask Goldie.”

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[1].

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.


Notes

  1. 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.

When You Get There, Part 2

But first, Hi! And I survived Nutcracker, and it was great, and Happy New Year, and Jeez. Now, on to the next thing.

We all focus a lot on where we’re trying to go, and that’s a good thing. It’s good to allow for the possibility–even the probability–that you might wind up somewhere else entirely, but it’s pretty helpful to have a destination in mind when you set out. Also, like, a basic plan; a loose map that allows for the likelihood of dragons, uncontacted peoples, and so forth. Even if your plan is to explore uncharted waters, after all, you still have to get there somehow.

So that’s an important thing, and a good thing, and helpful up to a point. Specifically, the point at which you reach your destination, and need to move on to Phase 2 of whatever the Grand Plan is … and, curiously, there are precious few resources that explore what happens after you forge a path through whatever obstacles to reach The Far Shore.

And that, I think, represents an enormous growth area for idiots like me who write blogs about setting completely ridiculous goals and pursuing them.

As such, I present the first of my observations: when you get there, you will still be you.

If you’re socially awkward, you will still be socially awkward. If you’re shy and bad at integrating into established social groups, you’ll still be shy and bad at integrating into established social groups. If you’re a slow learner, you’ll still be a slow learner. If you’re prone to bouts of depression … well, you see where I’m going with this.

When you get there, you will still be you.

In other words, your weaknesses, your struggles, and your blind spots disembark with you on that Far Shore.

So, of course, do your strengths, your victories, and your stunning insights–but I think we all assume that anyway. Besides, our strengths are less likely to create problems for us once we Get There. We tend to visualize success, and it’s a good strategy. But, just as the classic fairy-tale ending, “…And they lived happily ever after” omits the likelihood that Cinderella, though kind and brave and all that, has no idea how to comport herself at court, visualizing the success of reaching a certain end-point (say, working for a ballet company) omits the reality of living with ourselves once we’re there.

I’ve been quiet for the past several weeks because I’ve been trying to figure how to square this circle. I remain a sensitive, shy, touchy introvert with enormous, gaping holes in his training. I still have difficulty processing spoken language. I am physically flexible, but mentally not-so-flexible. I am good at adapting to physical challenges on the fly, but not great at coming up with workarounds for more abstract problems because, ultimately, I’m not really good at thinking*.

*Boy, is that a topic for another post.

So I guess that’s my introduction to Danseur Ignoble, Phase 2: going forward, I’ll continue to explore the process of learning to be a dancer, but I’ll also examine my weaknesses as they intersect with my life as a ballet dancer. I hope that in the process, I’ll be able to reflect on my challenges and possibly brainstorm some strategies for coping with them.

As such, here’s the plan–the tentative plan, because hey, this is me we’re talking about–going forward:

On Mondays, I’ll post about a challenge I’m facing in my work that stems from my own personality: how it impacts my work, both for the worse and for the better, and how I’m dealing with it. From time to time, I’ll also check in with other dancers and creative people about similar challenges they’ve faced in their own careers (Are you reading this? Would you like to be one of my interviewees? Let me know in the comments!).

On Saturdays, unless we have a show, I’ll write about technique. If we have a show, who knows? I’ll try to make it on Sunday, but I’m more likely to sit around letting my brain leak out my ears.

The Monday posts will probably be grouped under the Ballet Lessons heading; the Saturday posts will be grouped under Technical Notes.

I will, of course, totally fail at this from time to time, but I figure having some kind of goal is better than having no kind of goal.

I’m not at all certain that any of this will help me address my challenges in helpful ways, but I figure it probably can’t hurt. And, of course, the insight that I’m still me, and that my major life challenges won’t magically evaporate just because I have somehow fumbled my way into a ballet company.

Still, reflecting does usually help, and writing helps me reflect. So here we go: off onto a new adventure. Ish.

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