The Year That Exploded

As I write this, there are still 6.75 months left in 2020.

This year has seen first a global pandemic, then a national crisis of conscience, completely bungled by the folks at the helm. One has exacerbated the other, and the failure of leadership at the top level in the United States has set the stage for a conflagration that, frankly, needs to come.

I’ve been quiet about it, here, for two reasons.

First, this is primarily a ballet blog, and while everything in my life touches ballet, I’m still not always sure what constitutes going off-piste.

Second, I try not to write about politics here (mostly because I feel like I don’t know much about politics … but, let’s be frank, neither do a lot of the people who routinely and loudly opine about it).

But I realized, recently, that to consign the current moment– a moment in which police brutality has ended the lives of several people in my own community, and in which the simmering cauldron of systemic racism and repression has come to a boil–to the realm of “politics” is a function of privilege.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t politics.

It’s people trying to survive. It’s people trying to communicate that they–whether literally or metaphorically–can’t breathe. It’s people saying, enough is enough. It’s people saying, I just want to live.

It’s not that, in the past, I didn’t support the movement in question. I did. But I left talking about it outside of my professional life (I have, to be clear, talked and written about racial inequality in ballet–but in a context very specific to ballet, and not very often in this blog).

The thing is, Black and Brown people don’t get to do that. They don’t get to take their skin color off at the door. It is impossible to separate being Black or Brown from your professional life when you are Black or Brown. And even if you don’t talk about it, the context is there.

So I have realized that I need to talk about it, too. That being silent, even if it’s the silence of “I’m not sure what I should say,” is poor ally-ship.

I can’t speak for people of color. But I can say that I believe them when they talk about their struggles with systemic racism.

Someone I know recently replied to reports of fatal police brutality against Black people with, “Yeah, but this white lady was also killed by the police.” That argument misses the point. It’s not that white people are never subject to police brutality, to workplace discrimination, to profiling, or to the other things Black people experience.

Rather, it’s that for Black people, experiencing these things is the norm.

As a apparently-white male, I can go to a shop with one of my girl friends and hold her bag while she steps into the changing room, and the response I get, even from people who haven’t seen my friend hand me her bag, will almost always be, “Aw, isn’t it sweet of him to hold her bag for her.” Occasionally, someone might look at me with suspicion–but overall, no.

If I was Black, it would be more likely that someone who didn’t see my friend hand me her bag would assume I had stolen it. It would be more likely that I’d be shadowed by store associates or security guards. It would be more likely that if I entered a store that sells expensive things–or one that sells dance stuff, because I need to acknowledge that ballet is still perceived as a lily-white pursuit–people would assume I didn’t belong there. They would assume, at best, that I couldn’t afford the items on display; at worst, that my motives were antisocial and that I should be stopped before I could carry out my nefarious plans[1].

  1. “Antisocial” is often used as a synonym for “unsociable,” and because I’m not trying to be a linguistic prescriptivist, I’m not going to decry that usage as wrong. That said, I’m using the word in its more technical sense, here: antisocial as in stealing things mugging people, not antisocial as in curling up with a good book.

If you think that this sounds utterly ridiculous, please know that I have friends who are Black guys around my age who literally experience this every time they leave the house. People assume they’re up to no good simply because they’re shopping while Black, or driving while Black, or walking in the park while Black, or gardening while Black. Please know that their experiences are not the exception: they’re the norm.

This happens to Black women, too: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my Black women friends talk about being pulled over because someone assumed the car was too nice to belong to a Black woman (that someone isn’t always a cop: sometimes it’s someone who calls the cops, who then have to respond to the scene).

So, in short, this isn’t about politics. Politics will almost certainly be involved in the process of change, because that’s kind of what tends to happen … but at its root this is about peoples’ lives.

As a small detour, it seems particularly fitting to me that so much of this is happening during Pride month. It’s easy to forget that Black and Brown people were right out front at Stonewall: Look up Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera if you’d like to know more.

Queer history tends to get whitewashed just like history in general: but the spark that ignited the movement in this country was lit largely by Black and Brown trans women. D has a facebook profile pic that reads, “The First Pride Was A Riot.”

Because it was. And it was for a reason. No movement goes from 0 to Riot without good reasons, but when people have had enough, they’ve had enough.

I’m going to close with one final thought about how this all relates to ballet. Obviously, we should defer to Black and Brown choreographers in this moment. We can help to make space for their creative voices to be heard, instead of rushing to speak on their behalf. We can promote their works (no better time than now, when lots of companies are making works available to stream free of charge).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t also create work and use our artform in the interest of resistance, of renewal, and of rebuilding. If anything, we not only can, but must.

We just have to figure out how to do it without speaking over the people whose experiences we’re trying to support and amplify.

Remember that the current moment didn’t spring from nowhere. The fires that burn right now were lit by hundreds of years of accumulated wrongs, borne with admirable patience by people whose lives have been harder than they should have been.

Video: It’s Not Just For Insta Anymore

In ballet, as in life, there are things you know that you know, and things you know that you know but maybe kinda don’t really know[1].

  1. …And also things you know that you don’t know, and things that you don’t know that you don’t know, but … ugh, let’s just start with the stuff we supposedly know. I’m too tired for the, like, epistemology of epistemology right now.

Like, you know that what you do at the barre is important. Foundationally important. Literally everything in ballet, your teachers tell you, is founded on the work you do at the barre.

…And yet it can actually be kind of hard, sometimes, to really feel what that means.

If you’ve been dancing for more than, like, five minutes with good instruction, you’ve probably heard the maxim that everything in ballet is essentially an extension of plie and tendu (some add rond de jambe to the mix; others argue that rond de jambe can be included in the “extension of tendu” category … I think both arguments have merit, so That’s Another Post).

If you’ve been dancing for more than five years with good instruction, you’ve probably experienced that idea directly often enough that it has taken on gut-level meaning.

You have learned to feel that your grand battement is just a tendu at maximum amplitude; that a waltz turn is just a bunch of plies and tendus strung together; that even a double tour is basically a plie that stretches with a lot of oomph.

That does not, however, always translate directly to the complex movements you do once you leave the barre. Knowing with your brain is not the same thing as feeling with your body, etc.

And this is where video comes in.

I think I’ve written a couple of times about the thing that makes video such an exceptionally useful tool for me–specifically, my proprioception is weird because of Ehlers-Danlos, so I can’t always actually feel what my body is doing relative to itself. Video is the best tool I’ve found for figuring out the difference between what I feel like I’m doing and what I’m actually doing.

Sometimes, though, it’s also a goldmine for technique.

Case in point, this:

Never mind the caption–I was poking fun at myself because my eyes either looked or were closed in almost every screencap from this class.

I’ve been trying to make my body sort out the relationship between the Bournonville grand jete and … to be honest, basically everything. I mean, like, yes: of course I realize that it’s a prime example of “it’s just tendu and plie, but with a little chutzpah,” but somehow I still feel like my execution always cuts a corner somewhere.

The reason that I feel that my execution of the Bournonville jete cuts a corner is that it does.

Literally.

I’ve been so busy thinking about Bournonville jete being a leap that I’ve been completely overlooking the fact that the leap will take care of itself if you DO THE REST OF THE TECHNIQUE CORRECTLY.

Functionally, this means that instead of brushing and pressing my leading leg and using the combination of that kinetic energy with the potential energy stored in the plie of the second leg, I’m sort of frantically flinging my first leg and throwing my body after it, taking off before the leading leg can do its job (which is to set the height of the leap and then STAY THERE–that’s where control comes in), and generally bungling the entire procedure.

I’m flexible, so I come closer to getting away with it than someone would who can’t just throw a leg wherever, but it’s still not good enough.

(Ballet: it’s always easier when you just do it right, and somehow that never ceases to be completely shocking.)

So, the picture above isn’t technically of a Bournonville jete. It’s technically a picture of … erm. Some kind of enormous cloche? I’d honestly have to go back and watch the video again; my brain is so cooked right now I don’t even remember which exercise it was (it was before grand battement and after degage *shrug*).

BUT.

When I watched this video, I instantly and powerfully understood that this picture is HOW YOU DO a Bournonville jete, or really any grand jete, and make it count[2].

  1. Okay, full disclosure: my upper body shouldn’t start this far back in an actual grand jete, unless I want it the leap to travel straight up I guess? But that’s actually one of the things I need to fix in my grand jete: I often leave my body behind, costing myself both travel and elevation.

What I do remember about this moment was that it was a cloche through from back to front, brushing strongly through first and pressing the leading leg up (as if against a weight: that was JZ’s main correction for me on Thursday–which, by the way, is exactly the main thing I’m focused on improving in my dancing as a whole).

On the first side, I’d relied (as I always do) too much on momentum and not enough engaged strength: I threw the leg (to be fair, jete literally means “throw”) in a way that meant I was no longer in control of it. My leg was on one journey, and my body was on another–their destination was the same, but for all intents and purposes, the leg was taking the early express train and the body was taking a slightly later local. That makes it kinda hard to keep the movements connected, you know?

JZ said to me, “Less momentum; more strength–like lifting a weight with the working leg.” I applied the correction on the second side, and this was the result.

Even though I’ve done an exercise specific to grand jete that uses this motor pattern–done it in a few different schools, in fact (my childhood studio, LouBallet, the Joffrey, LexBallet, pretty sure Naples Ballet)–I’ve somehow never connected the exercise that I was doing in JZ’s class on Thursday with grand jete.

And yet, there it is. If I sprang off that deeply-loaded right leg, I would … well, okay, in this case, I’d crash directly into the wire storage rack that’s like two centimeters from my left foot o.O’

BUT, if I did that in, say, a proper ballet studio … okay, and if I kept my back a bit more lifted … the result would be a lovely grand jete. The position I’m in doesn’t really need to change (except for the fact that my upper body needs to be a little closer to my free leg); I would just need to kind of … let go of the ground. Just add a little spring[3]. And then sustain the leading leg by pressing it up, as if under a weight[4].

  1. In case you’re not familiar with the distinction, the Bournonville grand jete is done with the back leg in attitude. Obviously, for the … other version, I’d need a little more spring, to get that back leg all the way straight.
  2. I love that analogy, because it summarises everything I love about the way Roberto Bolle moves: his movements are always at once contained and free; controlled and fluid. There’s always a sense almost that he moves against the resistance of a thicker atmosphere than the one most of us inhabit. The idea of pressing into a weight helps me think about how to achieve that feeling without becoming tense and unfree.

Somehow, the video that yielded this picture has helped me understand what I am and am not doing correctly when I do grand jete. (And, in fact, that I’m doing almost everything in grand jete incorrectly much of the time, although sometimes I get it right by accident and something beautiful happens.)

It might’ve taken me another five years to figure that out otherwise, because it’s incredibly difficult to see yourself doing a grand jete or any other large, complex movement (trying to watch yourself in the mirror screws up the body mechanics). I certainly get corrections on my technique all the time (that’s just life as a dancer), but video makes it easier to sort out what all those corrections aim to impart.

In short: if you haven’t tried shooting video of yourself in class, I highly recommend it.

Obviously, in a normal class, you should ask permission first and make sure your classmates are okay with it (my experience has been that they’re usually either like, “Sure as long as I never have to look at myself in it XD” or “OOH YES CAN I HAVE A COPY PLS????”).

Likewise, video alone won’t replace the guidance of a good teacher.

But for me, video has become a critical tool for analysing my own movement and figuring out how to improve it.

At least, once I got over the natural desire to bury my head in the sand and never watch myself dancing again ^-^’

Suddenly Summer o.O

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.

Though I’m also still leaving my left thumb dangling -.-

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[1], 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.

  1. 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.”

Or in this case, doing a kind of … worried arabesque. (With a semi-dangling thumb. Still.)

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.

A Tale Of Two Balances

Or, well … two pictures of one balance. Same thing.

Ballet, as I’ve mentioned before, is an art of ever-receding goalposts. You might also say that they’re ever-shrinking goalposts: smaller, and thus harder to spot, and thus harder to hit–but just as important.

This entire post will be devoted to what might seem, to someone who doesn’t dance, like a distinction of no importance–a goalpost minuscule to the point of vanishing. A mere quibble.

But, hang about! I’m about to explain why the differences between the two pictures at the top of this post, which seem nearly invisible until you spot them, but which cannot be unseen once you do, are incredibly important.

But first, let’s zoom in a little.

Can you spot the subtle differences between these two images?

If you noticed that, in the right-hand image, I look like I have a potbelly, you’ve caught at least one! And since I didn’t go and stuff myself with pancakes between these two pictures–in fact, I didn’t go anywhere at all; they’re literally seconds apart during the same actual balance–I’m afraid I can’t blame breakfast.

So what, then, is the cause of this apparent potbelly?

It’s this:

Two images of the same dancer during a balance placed side-by-side with lines indicating the angle of his pelvic tilt.
Pelvic placement: the most important thing in the entire world (if you’re trying to dance ballet, anyway)

On the left, the top of my pelvis is essentially parallel to the floor. My tailbone is reaching down without tucking under, and my ribs and hips are connected by the line of my core … or, well almost. If you look really closely, you can actually see that I’m not quite entirely pulled up between ribs and pelvis, which is part of why everything has gone pear-shaped on the right.

On the right, my tailbone is sticking out towards the wall behind me, and the top of my pelvis is pointing forward and down.

At any moment in a normal person’s life, this sort of thing isn’t necessarily a huge problem. It can predispose you to back pain, but other than that, it’s probably not going to interfere all that much.

At any moment in a dancer’s working life, however, it’s a huge hecking deal, because it opens the door for two huge problems:

  1. Instability: your balances, turns, and just about everything else will be both more difficult than they have to be and, ultimately, worse than they have to be.
  2. Turnout: with my pelvis angled forward, I’m actually blocking my own turnout o_O’

This second point is more important than it might sound. Turnout in ballet isn’t just decorative: rather, it’s functional. Ballet technique is built on the ability to hold turnout, and if your pelvis is doing wacky things that interfere with your turnout, those things become harder to do.

Let’s take another look at that picture, with a few more marks to illuminate things:

Same pic; different caption.

Let’s start from the bottom.

On the left, you can see that I’m both well over the ball of my foot (which is showing off the entire reason I have a job in ballet at all–that arch and instep, right there). If you look closely, you can also see quite a bit of the underside of my shoe, indicating that my turnout is working.

On the right, I’ve fallen backwards, so I’m having to work really hard to stay on a lower demi-pointe. My hips are no longer stacked over the ball of my foot, so I’m forced to hold myself together by muscular effort, instead of allowing bones and gravity to do their job.

Just as importantly, the underside of my shoe is barely visible. My standing-leg turnout is pretty much nil right there.

Moving up to knee height, on the left, my free leg is cranked out close to flat. I’m not at my maximum turnout (or at my maximum retire height … BW would yell at me if he was here ^-^’), but the turnout I’m using here is both respectable and sustainable (in the sense that it’s a degree of turnout that I can readily maintain throughout an exercise or a dance).

On the right, my knee has crept forward. This is the most subtle difference, but it’s there all the same. The angle of my pelvis is making it difficult for me to hold my turnout–blocking it not with bones, but with physics. The angles make it harder for my muscles to keep me positioned on my standing leg without rotating the legs inward.

From mid-hip through just below my arm, on the left, everything is basically one unbroken rectangle (except for a little bit of rounding at the front–a harbinger of things to come, I’m afraid). I’m actually carrying my upper body a little too far back, though not drastically so … or it wouldn’t have been drastic if I’d actually succeeded in keeping my core engaged.

On the right, I’m decidedly swaybacked, but since the shirt I’m wearing makes that hard to see, it winds up looking like I’ve got a potbelly. There’s enough arch in my back to make it very difficult for me to recover without first coming down from the balance.

Lastly, on the left, my eyeline is level. On the right, I’m doing what horse people call “stargazing.” (Interestingly, swaybacked horses do this just like swaybacked people do. It’s almost like all the bones are attached to each-other by muscles, tendons, and ligaments! ^-^’)

I can’t express how incredibly important a level eyeline is.

Heads are heavy, and if you lift your gaze too high, it tends to send your head and everything attached to it backwards. The result tends to be that the pelvis rotates forward and down in an effort to counterbalance the head.

That might not be a recipe for disaster when you’re sitting in an office chair (though, again, it does tend to lead to back pain down the road), but when you’re trying to pirouette, it most certainly is. If I tried an en dedans with the balance on the right as a starting point, I’d fold up like a cheap umbrella.

Anyway, I hope you find this comparison as illuminating as I have. Now I need to dash off and teach a few Zoom classes, so if you’ll excuse me…

Unexpecto Coronum

Bit by itty-bitty bit, I seem to be resuming my life as a dancer.

Not, of course, in the sense of going out and dancing with other people in the studio. Rather, in the sense of finally taking class via Zoom (with a fantastic teacher, Johnny Zhong) on a regular basis … or, at least, I’ve hauled my butt to class twice this week.

Continuing to take class no longer seems like something that’s going to be a struggle against the tides of depression and exhaustion that have beseiged me for however many weeks.

Not that they’re, like, gone … but on Monday this week I hauled myself out of my Personal Doldrums and made myself take an actual class with an actual teacher who could actually see what I’m doing and correct things and (amazingly) tell me when I did something well. And then today I took his class again. And now taking class twice next week seems like given.

(Given the enormous lapse between my last real class and the first one this week, I wasn’t expecting to do anything well.)

Anyway, it took me a long time to get to this point.

I don’t really understand why, but I’m not sure the “why” is really important. I could spend the rest of my life unpicking every single variable that led me to hole up inside myself for, like, two months.

I’ve thought about it, and I’ll think about it again: but now I’m just relieved and grateful.

Grateful for the class.

Grateful for the fact that my body is apparently rather good at putting itself back together.

Grateful especially to my friend SF (if you’re reading this, hi!), who lovingly badgered me into taking JZ’s class, and thereby has probably saved my life, or at least my career … chapeau, girlfriend.

So although I’m still … not okay, I guess, though less not okay than I was a few weeks ago, when I felt like the dark waters of my own internal whatever might finally close over my head and bear me down into their depths … I’m getting there.

I’m not saying, “I’m getting better,” because then I’ll be pissed at myself if I don’t live up to that phrase.

Everything’s back and forth, here and there, ebb and flow. I’m going to have difficult days: we’re all going to have difficult days, always, but especially now in the midst of this novel uncertainty.

But, still, I feel right now like I’ve at least managed to grab a passing bit of flotsam and I’m not fighting so hard to keep my head above water.

Some of that has come with the realization that, although the precipitous and early end of our season torpedoed the twice-weekly unofficial partnering class I was doing with a friend of mine in the company (and everything else), I have an opportunity to really work on becoming a stronger dancer right now.

Working in a less-than-ideal setting* forces me to really focus on the deepest and most essential aspects of technique–holding the core; feeling the turnout; keeping the body together. (Conveniently, JZ’s approach to teaching focuses closely on all of those things.)

*a basement with 7 foot/2.13m ceilings and very freaking hard floors
covered with foam puzzle mats** that make turning a major
challenge ^-^’
**I just put in some new portable dance flooring today. Still hard, so I’ll
be confining jumps to the puzzle mats, but better than it was.

I will be a stronger dancer next season because of the time I’m spending alone(ish) in my basement now.

That doesn’t to any extent reduce the tragedy that has arisen from some breathtakingly poor policy decisions that have led to far, far more death and suffering than was necessary in this crisis (in many countries, but especially in mine).

It doesn’t change the fact that we no longer have a clear sense of what to expect from the future (not that we ever do, but under normal circumstances, we can at least use the standard operating procedures of daily life to infer a kind of baseline normality).

It just means that maybe I, individually, am at the end of one chapter in this unexpected story and at the beginning of another (notwithstanding the utterly imaginary nature of such divisions in the first place ^-^).

I’m planning to post a list of good live video classes, and I’m working on a choreographic project specific to the current quarantine that I’m hoping to post in the next week or so.

For now, stay safe, and keep dancing ❤

Oh, and here’s a pic from last summer, just because:

Still one of my favorite jumps ^-^

April

The day falls dour and dreary.
Rain,
effacing winter’s palimpsest,
prevails upon the weary,
well depriving us of any rest.

The chill air, still and eerie,
looms;
the startled trees lift up their arms;
while lonesome, high, and leery,
one far falcon keens the world’s alarms.

The circling clouds enfold us,
and the whispering rain descends:
but no hour can ever hold us,
and every winter ends.

–25 April, 2020

The Long Haul

Some thoughts on adapting to the present situation and on teaching … but first, a little housekeeping.

You might notice that my Insta widget has vanished from the sidebar. Last month, Insta decided to make some changes to how it works with WordPress, and users were asked to reconnect the Insta widget. I’ve been trying, and it hasn’t worked yet. It gets halfway through the process and hangs every single time.

Once I figure it out, the widget will be back.

Anyway, onward.

This week would’ve been Theater Week. I liked the role I had in Snow White, and I was looking forward to performing it. Instead, I’m at home, thinking too much and not dancing enough.

This is, I think, probably harder for H, who had the title role for the first time with our company, and L, who graduates from the school this year (and has evolved into quite a fine dancer in the time that I’ve known her), and for whom this would’ve been a grand finale closing this first chapter in her life as a dancer.

But it’s still hard in its own way. I was beginning to find my feet, so to speak, in this ballet. Even though I know it’s for the best, and that what we’re doing right now is critically important, there’s a definite … I don’t even know what the exact word for this feeling is. I had the wind in my sails; the boat was gliding over the waters. Then the wind stopped. Or maybe the boat shot over the edge of an unexpected waterfall.

I try to give myself grace for feeling whatever. As D always says, “If feelings were rational, we wouldn’t call them feelings.” But it’s an active process: actively stopping the voice that says, “Stop feeling x way,” and instead allowing myself what I would allow any other person: the room to feel what I feel.

As a company, we’re doing small video projects, for which I’m grateful. There’s some semblance of continuity; some small reason to force myself to spend at least some time focused on dancing.

That’s helping me cope with the other unexpected outcome, here. Normally, I can’t stop dancing. Right now, I can barely start. My mind shies away from the thought of ballet.

I assumed that was just a question of feeling overwhelmed—first by the circumstances themselves, then by the irritatingly fraught process of buying a car, then by the projects I’m suddenly supposed to be doing around the house (to be fair, they are pretty overwhelming … but it’s not like I don’t have time available). I figured I’d get over it once my mental GPS found an alternative route forward.

This week, though, I’ve realized that it’s not going to be that easy. My mind shies away from the very thought of ballet because I am, in fact, more deeply stunned by the loss of the end of this season than I’ve realized.

Most of my life was spent learning to seal each fresh trauma in its own vault and walk away, numb to the persistent ache of hurt or loss.

This is what happened when I stopped dancing as a kid, and why it was so hard to let myself return: had I never met D, in fact, it’s entirely possible I’d still be ignoring the thing that means the most to me. But D happens to love circus and dance, and every time we watched a cirque show or a dance performance together, the truth trapped inside that vault struck out at the door.

It’s a powerful truth. Sometimes even when you’re actively patching the cracks in the door, a powerful truth breaks free.

But, anyway. This thing where I toss the body (which, obviously, is never dead, trauma being what it is) in a vault and seal it has become a reflex. I do it automatically, now: though I hadn’t realized that until almost this very moment.

So this thing where my mind automatically turns itself away from ballet … it’s a function of a coping mechanism.

I suppose, also, that the trauma in question isn’t just this swift and unexpected change: it’s the weird stress of living with an invisible threat and, honestly, more or less forgetting about it most of the time, because it’s sealed in its Trauma Vault, where it.mostly stays until I have time to sit with it.

The ongoing trauma of this situation, sealed in its vault, acts like a faint buzz in the back of the consciousness—a kind of mental tinnitus. Every now and then, it breaks out and blasts up to the level of a klaxon and my conscious mind suddenly feels, “WE CAN DIE FROM THIS!” for 11 seconds.

Then the unconscious mind steps back into its role as Curator of Trauma Vaults and slams the vault shut again. 

(I do, in fact, take time to actively process this current, ongoing trauma. The last thing I need is for that hinge to get rusty, or for that lock to jam  … that’s when Trauma Vaults really become problematic).

The end of the ballet season, and this ballet itself, are also tied up in that mess.

So the question, then, is how to develop a strategy to bring ballet itself out of that vault so it can function on its own. Partly, I need to do this because I’m not ready to retire from my career in dance. Partly, I need to do this because dancing is, for me, a powerful healing tool.

I’m working on some ideas. 

My friend SF has suggested that we do a class together once a week as peers in addition to the two classes I’m teaching her, and I think that’s a good place to start.

I should probably also haul myself to the Frankfort studio a couple of times each week. There’s no space in my house that’ll allow me to move with the full vigor of my emotions, and I really, really need that if I’m going to stay sane.

I’ve been working on the trapeze as well—it’s not ballet, but it taps the same wellspring, so to speak. A lot of the time I’m just flinging myself around, exploring movement and feeling things out. I’m definitely going to keep doing that as much as I can.

Last, I’ve started a project with four dancers (myself included) that specifically relates to the situation at hand … But I’m filing further details under To Know, To Will, To Dare, To Keep Silent for now, because it’s just a little embryo of a project at the moment.

So much of my history of pain, my lake of bones, feels so close to the surface so much of the time right now. The skeletons that live beneath the ice are restless. Writing this, I realize that I shouldn’t be surprised by that. The Trauma Vaults may be more civilized, but they’re built into the same deep cave where, if one journeys deep enough, one finds the Lake of Bones.

On a purely physiological level, they’re effectively the same thing.

The limbic system, neural circuitry, biochemistry, and physiological responses that are constantly stressed and intermittently freaking out about the Coronavirus are the same ones that lived with the constant stress of a tense early childhood and the intermittent intense stress of fights between my parents and between my sister and myself.

They’re the same one that lived with the constant stress of stalking and the intermittent extreme stress of emotional manipulation and abuse, profound physical violence, and repeated rape.

Of course the current situation drags those skeletons closer to the light. To the body that is the substrate for the mind, the situation is not so different. The circuits are open and the brain is hunting through them for strategies that will help us all survive.

So in the midst of all this, it’s back to trauma work, I guess, because that seems like a better idea than trying to shove the skeletons back into their lake and lean on the doors to all the Trauma Vaults at the same time.

So, anyway, this is me right now. I hope you’re giving yourself grace in the current circumstance. If you’re struggling, I see you. And if your Curator of Trauma Vaults is working overtime and you wonder if any of this will ever actually be something you can feel, I see you, too.

Peace be with you, friends.

Finding North

Right now, I think it’s fairly safe to say that we’re all a bit lost in the woods; a little at sea.

Like, all of us. The whole planet.

We didn’t really know this thing was coming, and now it’s here.

You can prepare all you like for the possibility of some global … I guess disaster is the word; it’s not the word I want, but it’s the only one that to mind. It’s a slow-moving disaster, I guess.

Anyway, you can prepare all you like, but the reality of living in it—the experience of living in it—can’t be anticipated. You can have all the stuff you need to survive and enough to help your neighbors survive, but even that can’t mitigate the shock of the sudden and utter shift, the change when the thing finally comes.

We are, whether we realize it or not, creatures of habit. When we suddenly find ourselves obliged to upend the entire normal course of our days, we kind of derail a bit.

So that’s where I am: derailing a bit, but trying to learn how to drive my train without its track. Trying to figure out which way is up. Trying to orient towards the sun and get my feet under me.

You would think that as someone whose career is inherently cyclical, with long periods of down-time, I would be more okay with this than I am. 

I certainly thought that. I was like, “Yeah, it sucks that our season is over early, and that we never got to do our closing show, but it’s only a month early, really, and we’re okay financially.”

But, really, I thrive on order and ritual, and apparently the ritual for changing gears into summer mode is the last show.

Likewise, “summer mode” usually means I still go to class. It’s easy for me to forget that the thing that keeps my brain on the level is the daily litany of movement. It’s a startling surprise to remember how easily and how quickly things begin to become unbalanced.

The first week of this, D and I were in the middle of finally replacing the Camry—originally with the Electric Jellybean, but since that didn’t work out (the battery wasn’t up to D’s commute), eventually with VW Jetta TDI. That made planning my days difficult for me, so I didn’t dive feet-first into the array of ballet classes available by streaming.

Between the mental stress of the Emerging New Normal and the lack of sufficient physical exercise, my sleep quality and quantity took a nosedive.

Because the rhythm of my day was just plain gone, I kept forgetting to take my Adderall. That meant my brain was … Less able to adjust, shall we say.

Over the past several days, I slowly realized that I was starting to slip, and that it was time to do something about it. I started taking a sleeping pill early each evening in hope of getting some solid sleep.

Last night, it finally worked. I slept until 9:30 today and woke up feeling … if not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at least, like, eyed and tailed. You know. Basically equipped to more or less function.

I remembered to make myself a cup of coffee: it’s become part of my morning ritual, and one that I enjoy. It helps my brain know that there’s a day happening and we’re going to go do the things. I remembered to take my Adderall.

I’m late getting started, but once I finish this coffee and this post I’m going to go take class … albeit, in my living room, and probably in socks. When I’m done with that, I’ll do my assignment for the company, because I’d like to still have a job when the current storm blows itself out.

I’m not going to sermonize or tell anyone how to handle this crisis. We’re all grieving, and grief is a deeply individual process.

Nor am I going to confidently assert that I’ve got this handled, now: I’ve only got this present moment handled, and if things start to derail again, I’m going to try to give myself in una poca de gracia, as the song[1] says.

  1. The song, of course, is La Bamba, which arguably has nothing to do with any of this … Except doesn’t the line, “To dance the Bamba, it’s necessary to have a little grace,” rather beautifully describe how to cope with a sea-change like this one[2]?
  2. Dancing, after all, is just falling and catching yourself, over and over, until it looks beautiful.

 I’m going to remember the tools I’ve learned to use over the past few years. I’m going to:

  • do two things
  • grant myself grace
  • take my Adderall
  • breathe
  • and last, but not least, take class.

Going forward, I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes. That’s okay. We humans are makers of mistakes, but also makers of magic and music and beauty and art.

We’ll get through this, and we’ll find north again.

And until then, we’ll stay home and remember to wash our hands.

Oh, and since I wouldn’t be me without a little irreverent humor, here:

This Cognitive Dissonance

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll know that I don’t write about current events that much. I figure there are enough people out there who are better at that than I am, and thus I mostly stick to writing about ballet.

But today I’ma write about Coronavirus … again.

I’m in a weird place with this thing. On the one hand, I’m healthy AF, young, and on the surface I look a lot like someone who could easily be walking around like, “Eh, I don’t need to worry about this that much.”

 On the other hand, my respiratory system—which at the moment, knock wood, is only mildly annoyed about the horror that is tree pollen—is a gigantic baby that freaks out completely at the least possible provocation.

Like, I’ve had pneumonia five times. 

FIVE. Times.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had bronchitis.

Ordinary ‘flu knocks me flat for 2 weeks, minimum (this is why I get flu shots, y’all … well, that and herd immunity).

And every novel respiratory illness that comes down the pike carries with it the potential for serious career setbacks or worse.

And yet.

I’m not a chronically ill person who *feels* sick most of the time. I’m a chronically ill person person who feels great most of the time, with occasional bouts of shattering illmess, some of which are terrifying.

So right now I’m walking around in the world (or, well, in my house, mostly) with part of my brain not even really thinking about this whole COVID-19 sitch, and another part occasionally going, “F**k, what if someone brings it to D’s work?”

 D, btw, works in healthcare. He’s a physio, but currently works in a nursing and rehab facility, so there’s a real chance that such a thing could happen.

This doesn’t mean that I’m constantly panicking, or indeed panicking at all. Panicking won’t help. But it does mean that I’m using a lot of energy talking to my brain, trying to remind it that we have plans and stuff for things like this. That sometimes bad things happen no matter how well you plan, and that we need to stay rooted in the here and now because panicking now won’t help if something does happen.

And though it’s mostly working, my head is still in a weird place sometimes.

Anyway, life is uncertain, and the only constant is change. I’m not the best at actually practicing Zen, but I do find that even if the tools are a little rusty because you keep forgetting to actually use them, they’re still there in the garden shed when you need them, and rusty tools are better than none.

So, anyway, that helps with the cognitive dissonance a bit, as does giving myself room to feel uncomfortable.

Such is the weirdness of this mental place that it’s very hard to write about.

Also, I’m super tired, so I’m going to close here for now.

Oh: we also bought an electric jellybean—I mean, a Nissan Leaf 😊 It’s actually quite lovely and the interior is very roomy (you could fit about 5 dancers in it and still have room for a large dog behind the rear seat). I quite like it. This one’s a 2013, so the range is pretty decent. D plans to use it as his main commuter, since he works close enough to be well in range and can charge it at work. It’s a cute little car and comfortable to ride in.

A red Nissan Leaf sits on the tarmac in front of a few other cars.

It’s bigger on the inside.

It’s Complicated

So, given the fact that you’re on the internets, chances are that you’ve heard about this whole COVID-19 thing.

Resource hoarding aside (I’m looking you, single dude who lives alone and who just bought 17 cases of toilet paper), the United States actually sense to be doing a sensible, public-spirited thing and closing a lot of things down for a bit in an attempt to reduce transmission of the virus.

And I’m all for that, but at the same time it’s kind of weird and surreal.

The company’s off for the next couple of weeks, and we have no idea what’s going to happen with our last show of the season right now (Cancelled? Postponed? Performed via livestream, in HAZMAT suits?).

We did class this morning and didn’t rehearse. Starting tomorrow, we’re technically on hiatus, though we’re trying to find out if we’ll have access to the studio so we can do class together.

I genuinely had never imagined this particular outcome. It’s a weird place to be. Not bad: just weird.

I guess we’ll figure it out, going forward, a bit at a time.

Meanwhile, my teaching job is moving to an online format that’s going to be … Interesting. I’m not at all certain how I’m going to make that work, given that my house is not danceable and my data plan is utter crap. But I’ll figure something out, anyway … If we have wifi at the studio, maybe they’ll let us look in and use it for streaming.

So that’s where we are in mid-March, 2020. Things are up in the air.

My class notes today were, in short:

  • Turns in 2nd: really snap that second shoulder around
  • “Always finish grand allegro with a double tour, if you can” (Not sure how practicable that is, but I like the audacity of it 😁)
  • Don’t create extra work for yourself

That last one pertains to a couple of things I’m working on: first, unnecessary accessory movements that require additional adjustments to balance, placement, etc; second, keeping things engaged in the right ways so the body moves as efficiently as possible.

Not rocket surgery, but worth contemplating from time to time.

Lastly, (I think) I’m done setting the choreography for “January Thaw,” so I’m planning to start polishing it next week, and I’ve started work on a new piece that I’m developing through choreographic improvisation as well.

The new piece is longer (almost 6 minutes) and a bit more complex in terms of both mechanics and artistry, and I plan to take advantage of the extra time in my schedule to really crack away at it.

Also, the new piece has gigantic sauts de Basque (with a very contemporary port de bras). Because of course it does.

I don’t have a title for it yet, but the music is Chopin again. I’ve got some rather decent video from last night, so I’ll post that sometime soon.

And remember: always pull your tights up AS HIGH AS POSSIBLE before stepping into your balance board.
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