I’m still stunned by how different this year has been compared to last year. When she launched class this morning A said, “Last studio Saturday guys, can you believe it?”
And, of course, it got me thinking.
By this time last year, the season already felt like an interminable battle; a kind of bitter survival slog.
I did my best to stay positive and keep that to myself, but it was hard. I was lonely and anxious and felt like an outsider and like maybe I shouldn’t be trying to do what I was trying to do.
And here we are this year, and it’s basically a full 180° difference.
I’m still pretty sure I’m the worst dancer in this company, but I’m okay with that.
And part of that is that this year I’m the worst dancer in the company, instead of this weird anxious appendage. Instead of being a stressed out and dejected assemblage of people, we’re a unit in a way that I don’t think we were last year at all, and it’s such a cool feeling to be part of that.
Besides, I’m improving.
The thing about being a professional dancer is that you never get to say to the audience, “I’m sorry, I’m usually better than this; I’m having a really bad day.”
Your worst day still has to be good enough.
So when your AD casts a show, she’s thinking about that, and trying to put you in a role that’ll play to your strengths even on your worst bad day.
And when you’re taking class every day, you’re working on making your worst bad day better and better and better.My worst bad days probably aren’t really 100% “ready for prime time,” but they’re getting better. Part of it is just improving technique, of course—but some of it’s also leaning how to laugh it off when I do something utterly bone-headed, and to make my mistakes look good (or, at any rate, less bad).
And that’s all down to confidence. As a dancer, you live and die by the belief that you have the right to be standing where you are, whether in the studio or on the stage.
Or, well … Okay, sometimes you really have to fake it (laughing at yourself helps).
When I’m having a rough time remembering combinations or whatever, I try to remember what L’Ancien says to me whenever he sees me retreating into myself:
“Remember: you are a prince.”
It’s worth noting that he doesn’t say, “Act like a prince” or “imagine you’re a prince” or even “be a prince.”
He always says are.You are a prince.
Which is to say, it’s there, inside you. You evoke something that already is.
I think we’ve all seen random people—some lady on the bus with four kids and her hair up in a messy Mom-bun; some old gent sitting on a park bench; whoever—who just look regal. Princely. Royal.
I think that’s there in all of us.You reach inside and set your feet on the ground at the heart of a quiet, graceful strength, and you square your shoulders and lengthen the back of your neck and you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and there it is:
Remember. You are a prince.
And then you still add an extra tour jeté and almost leave out that pesky balancé dessous and maybe there’s a moment when you suspect that you might just flat out fall out of your turn.
But you do it with your head high and when you’re done you roll your eyes and laugh at yourself.
So that’s it. That’s where I am.
Next week we’re in the theater for Nut, and then we’re off for three weeks, and then it’s on to the rest of Midsummer Night’s Dream and the rest of the season.
Be kind to each-other, and if there’s a weird oddball loner in your company or class, maybe try to reach out and see if you can draw them into the loop, because they might just be too afraid to try to do it themselves.
Oh, and here’s a shot of my back, just because 😁
…And belated third-quarterly #goals review 😛
I’ve lost track of which week we’re on, since it turns out that break weeks aren’t counted in the company calendar and I apparently can’t be bothered to check ours while I’m writing this.
This week was all over the place. I felt pretty good on Monday and Tuesday, left my brain at home and just couldn’t even on Wednesday, wasn’t at the ballet on Thursday (I had a previous engagement for Cirque), and had a pretty darned good Friday, even though I was in Goldfish Mode* throughout most of class in the morning.
*Yes, I am aware that goldfish actually have decent memories. Work with me, here, people.
Technique-wise, this wasn’t always the best week ever. I realized during break week that since I’ve managed to stick myself with the Shawty barre, I need to learn to work with it and not just be like “OF COURSE I LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT THIS BARRE IS WAY TOO SHORT FOR ME.” Which in turn made me realize that I’ve been using the Shawty Barre as an internal excuse for things like leaving too much of my weight in my heels (note to self: WTF?), not being tall on both sides of my body, only halfway pointing my feet, doing this bizarre thing where I let my weight drift towards my free leg which doesn’t help anyone, etc, etc, etc.
So this week was, like, Remedial Ballet 083 while I concentrated on undoing all the stuff I did to my body while I was being an idiot. Which meant sucking it up and dialing down the turnout, etc.
On the upside, Mrs D gave us this useful and memorable correction about using our cores: “You know those six-packs** you all have because you work so hard? DON’T LET THOSE CANS FALL OUT OF THE FRIDGE.”
**The visibility of mine varies … but, holy heck, am I ever growing some abs.
For whatever reason, that particular visual is really helpful for me. It also made me realize that when I notice that I’m getting swaybacked, I tend to try to use my actual back to fix the problem instead of re-engaging my core, which is how you really fix that problem.
I guess that none of those things are really negative, now that I’m thinking about them. Working like this every single day, twenty-plus hours per week, gives me a lot of time to think about everything.
Also, I finally nailed my first double cabrioles through the sheer force of peer pressure … or, really, the effect of a sentiment very like, “If they can do it, I can do it; don’t want to let the side down.”
So that’s a couple of goals knocked off the Great List Of Technical Goals.
We’re well into Nutcracker now, and next Saturday is New Works & Other Voices (which, due to some marketing SNAFUs, has garnered such nicknames as “New Works & Other Stories” and “Works and Other Works”). We’re going to be sharing the stage with a pair of artists who will be painting a giant mural as we dance. Depending on the materials that the muralists will be using, it’ll either be really cool or, “Dude, waaaaaaaaay far out bra.” Good thing that the works and other works are pretty contemporary.
In related news, I’m now on the company page on the website under “Trainees,” which is AWESOME, though I don’t have a headshot yet because I wasn’t there on headshot day. I will content myself for now with being the official Man of Mystery (regarding which, I am as mysterious as a shoebox, y’all). I have a cute li’l bio and everything.
…Which brings me, albeit indirectly, to the quarterly-ish goals review bit.
I’m rather surprised to say that I’m making quite good progress on them. I’ve finally nailed down that pesky double tour, and the progress of my turns has been solid–not in terms of the number of revolutions I can achieve, but in terms of the overall quality of the turns themselves.
I’ve gone to enough auditions this year that auditioning is starting to feel fairly routine, and I’ve had more work at times than I’ve known what to do with. I didn’t actually audition at LexBallet, but I’ve wound up dancing there anyway, which in turn is affording me the opportunity to work on artistry, coordination, and all that stuff consistently.
I set the first two-thirds of “Tenebrae” and had an opportunity to show it at an actual, real dance concert; I choreographed and performed “Loverboy;” and I’ve made vague advances towards working on “Bolero,” which is no longer part of Simon Crane, but simply a dance about riding the South Shore Line into Chicago.
The one glaring oversight is the commitment I made to BW to work on balances. I paused that effort a while back when I was getting over that case of strep that made my ears weird, and it’s time to really get back on it.
Back at the beginning of this year, I hoped I would be where I am now, but I don’t think I really believed that I would.
Now it’s up to me to keep working and to actually begin using my brain as a dancer. I still have a lot to learn, and because I’m a bit older than your average company trainee, I need to learn it fast and well.
Also, because I faffed around forever with headshots on Thursday, here, have this one:
Every time I’m forced to take a break of more than a couple of weeks from class, the re-entry period is an exercise in grinding self-doubt.
First, taking a break almost inevitably involves gaining a couple of pounds–generally a sum that the average person would barely notice, but which is all too visible when you return to the studio and are constantly surrounded once again by people with less than 10% body fat.
I may be all about body positivity, but I’m not very good at applying it to myself. I’m also entirely aware that I have somehow stumbled into working in a field in which the folks who decide who gets hired and who doesn’t tend to lean strongly towards lean bodies. Toss in the fact that, given my build, a little more size in the thighs interferes with my fifth position, and you’ve got a recipe for Dancer Meltdown in 3 … 2 … 1…
Worse, it always takes a few weeks to re-awaken and rebuild the muscles responsible for correct execution of classical technique–and even as people who don’t dance continue to harp on about my “natural” grace, I wind up feeling like a half-grown stirk in a dressage ring until things start working together again.
This week has been all about finding my core, not dancing like a swaybacked wildebeest, and remembering how the hell to do turns.
- Though, bizarrely, whilst I was not dancing, my chaînés improved dramatically–regarding which, WTactualF?
Predictably, the resultant emotional fallout has been a constant stream of thoughts like WHY DID I THINK I WAS GOOD ENOUGH TO AUDITION FOR THINGS?! and I’LL NEVER BE READY!
So that’s where I am right now. Off to my last week of sandbagging in Saturday beginner class, which I hope will leave me feeling like I can actually dance, and then Jack O’Lantern Spectacular,in which I’ll attempt not to dance like a swaybacked wildebeest before a captive audience of so freaking many.
When I was fourteen, I read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story for the first time. His potent image of all later loves as an elaboration on the theme of the first love; a “crab canon,” stuck with me—not so much because I agreed with it (I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything about it), but because the language was so powerfully evocative.
Anyway, I still don’t know if I agree with White’s narrator about the nature of first love (honestly, it’s been a while since I last read A Boy’s Own Story; I’m due for a re-read). I can, however, say that it’s a pretty good description of ballet.
BW and I talked about this last night (while I walked in circles with my hands on my head, attempting to catch my breath, after the second round of the second petit allegro). As dancers, everything we do do is essentially an elaboration on one of a handful of basic themes.
I look at my ballet notes from a year ago, and sometimes they literally say exactly the same thing I wrote down the day before yesterday. The literal content doesn’t necessarily change much, but the meaning changes immensely.
Something you’ve been working on for a year can feel like a revelation when your brain suddenly fires up a proliferation of shiny, new synapses in just the right pattern. So you write it down—lift and rotate from under the hip—only to realize later that you had already written it down a million classes ago.
But back then, it didn’t bear the same freight. You hadn’t yet learned to feel the individual muscles of your deep rotators. You didn’t yet know how to isolate and activate your adductors to the same extent you can now. Rond de jambe en l’air meant, simultaneously, exactly what it means now and something completely different.
Which is to say that the goal never changes. The goal, always, is the perfect execution of technique; mastery coupled with musicality, with expression.
The image in your head remains the same, but your sense of how to achieve it evolves.
What was conscious a year ago is automatic now, 15o or so classes (and countless repetitions) down the line. What is conscious today, presumably, will be automatic a year (200 classes or more, because you take class more often now) from now.
I find myself returning to the idea that the bodies of dancers are supremely educated bodies: just as years of (good) academic schooling hones our abilities to analyze and reason and helps us learn to activate the fibers of our minds in powerful and subtle ways, years in the studio help us find muscles most people never notice and use them to create beauty.
Dancer’s bodies (and minds) become fluent in movement the way the minds of mathematicians are fluent in math. Just like mathematicians, we achieve our fluency through repetition; through exercises that awaken capacities latent within us until, suddenly, we achieve new understanding.
So we continue: nearly three years (and G-d alone knows how many tendus and pliés and ronds des jambes) into this adventure in rediscovery, I continue to discover anew the things that I thought I already understood.
This might be the most powerful ballet lesson of all: we never achieve perfection. The goalposts will always recede.
No matter how much we have learned, there’s still learning to be done. Ballet forces us to be honest and keeps us humble (well, sort of). When I’m 80, and I’ve done more tendus than there are particles of dust in the desert of the Great Basin, I still won’t know everything. I still won’t be perfect.
That’s a powerful thought for someone who is, by nature, a bit of an overconfident know-it-all and a relentless perfectionist.
Lastly: right now, this body of mine is still gaining ground. Ballet tells me that. I am stronger and fitter and faster and more flexible than I was a year ago.
Someday that will change. Ballet forces us to acknowledge that reality, too, and either to evolve with it or run from it.
I’m a jumper. For me, the ability to simply get off the ground is a G-d-given gift (though also the reason it’s bleeding hard to find trousers that fit). Age can be hard on jumpers: a day will come for every one of us in which we begin to feel our power slipping away.
I hope that day is still far off for me—but also that when it comes I’ll accept the lesson that comes with it: that there are subtler arts that age invites us to master; that the power and brilliance of youth are not the only or even the greatest power and brilliance.
These, too, are variations on a theme: one has little choice in the matter of aging (in short: we can age or we can die), but one can choose how to execute the movement that is age.
I hope that when I’m older, instead of being consumed by mourning for the loss of this power, this particular gift of flight, I’ll be able to be glad that I had it once and content to explore other, subtler gifts.
Either way, my ballet notes will probably still read, “Lift and rotate from under the hip*.”
*Or, if I’m really honest, “Litt und ritoti frim uder tte hip”