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Harness The Imposter

Today I’m going to begin with a caveat: imposter syndrome varies from person to person and moment to moment. There might be times that the strategy to follow won’t work—heck, it could even backfire—so don’t feel like it’s something you must try, or like you’re less of a dancer (or a person, or what have you) if you don’t.

Take care of yourself in the moment you’re in. You don’t have to do everything today; heck, you don’t have to do everything at all. It’s amazingly liberating to realize that, to be honest, a lot of things can wait, and that you’re not even the tiniest bit obligated to try ever possible approach to a problem.

Now, that being said, buckle in if you’d like to join me on a wee excursion into the territory of Imposterland.

A statue of a perplexed but adorable little dragon sits in lush green grass. They appear to also be suffering from imposter syndrome, possibly.
Imposterland: Here Be Dragons … Kind of. (pic via WP’s image library)

Okay, so earlier I was working around the house and listening to Broche Ballet’s podcast and thinking about imposter syndrome (as you do).

Somewhere in there, something reminded me of my early days in the company at Lexington Ballet, back in the Before Times, c 2018[1].

  1. Seriously, that feels like about a MILLION YEARS AGO 😱

At the time, I was grappling with a terrible case of imposter syndrome (as you do). It was a rough time. I struggled a lot. On the regular, usually when everything else was also going wrong, imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and whispered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You’re not good enough. And they’re gonna figure it out.

And every now and then, like a lifeline from the Universe, another thought would counter, “So what? Who cares? You’re here. Get to work. Prove them wrong. Rise to the occasion. Earn your spot.

My life, of course, is not a Hollywood blockbuster, so it didn’t immediately fix everything. Not by a long shot. I still had rough days. I still struggled to pick things up in class more often than I care to admit. I still frequently felt like a squid attempting to dance in size 114 clown shoes.

But at the end of the season, I was offered a contract for the following year—and that comes down, in part, to the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness that says, “So what? Who cares? (etc)” That stubborn streak, and the desire to make my Imposter Syndrome eat its words, kept me from walking out when things were at their roughest.

I’ve never thought of imposter Syndrome as an ally in my efforts to build a career as a dancer. I mean, now that I’m reflecting on it, I guess it makes sense to recognize that it’s trying to protect me, but it really often feels like anything but an ally.

But somehow, today, something went ping! and I realized that, indirectly, it has been not only one of my most faithful companions on this journey, but (at times, anyway) a helpful companion.

Imposter syndrome’s timorous whisper has served to feed my tenacity. At critical moments, it has awakened a kind of perverse grit. It has jabbed at the part of me that hates to fail.

I’m not saying this is true for everyone: it’s not even true for me all the time. With two years more-or-less on hiatus under my belt and little to show for it except better port de bras, a somewhat-more-reliable double tour, and a bit more, ahem, insulation than I had when the pandemic began, I’m staring down the barrel of a cross-country move into what is, in terms of dance, terra incognita.

You can bet your bippy that my inner imposter has a lot to say right now, and that the other voice, that stubborn inner voice, doesn’t always reply.

But now I know that I can say to my imposter syndrome, “Yo, thanks for looking out for me, but I’m not quitting. Whether or not I deserved to be where here when I walked through the door, I’m here now, and I’m gonna stick it out and earn my place.”

The funny thing is that sticking it out, in and of itself, really does help. You can do something day in, day out for years without improving at all, but only if your circumstances significantly limit the chance of improvement. Spend enough time doing almost anything with a least a little guidance, and you’re gonna improve.

Back in the fall of 2018, I was as insecure as a teacher of dance and as a choreographer as I was as a dancer.

Flash forward to today, and I’m a reasonably confident teacher: I know I’m not perfect, and that I have a lot to learn, but when I look at my students’ progress, it’s pretty clear that something’s working.

I’m also a reasonably confident choreographer: I set dances that people enjoy watching, and I don’t feel like I haven’t earned the right to do so. When I’m alone in the studio, setting a pas de deux or the corps parts for Act II of Simon Crane, it no longer feels like a pipe dream, or like a vision I shouldn’t look at too directly. Sure, setting an entire gigantic ballet is an enormous goal, and I still have literally no idea how to get there, but I no longer feel like I’m somehow not worthy to try.

I’m not as confident, yet, that I’ve earned my place as a dancer, but I’m getting there poco à poco. Opportunities are appearing that I doubt I could have imagined a few years back.

That’s where sticking it out, even out of nothing but sheer spite, really shines.

It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike: you fall. You get scraped up. You kick the curb, the bike, and especially yourself. You get back on. You crash some more. You keep getting back on because like heck some stupid inanimate object[2] is going to beat you. And then at some point you’re sort of tottering along, and you start to pick up some speed, and the air moves over your skin like the breath of G-d moving over the face of the deep, and YOU ARE DOING IT!

  1. As a cyclist and lover of bikes, I am willing to certify that bikes are only inanimate objects in the loosest sense. Every single bike has a soul, and that soul is the soul of a pony that goes like a dream for a skilled rider with quiet hands, but will dump a N00b in a puddle STAT and then stand there laughing about it: not malicious, exactly, but perhaps a bit cynical, with a keen sense of the Order of Things. Every horse person on earth has met some version of this pony. So has every cyclist.

And then, of course, you crash again. You tend to crash a lot in the beginning, because that’s how beginnings work. Heck, if you’re a baby wood duck, your first experience of flight is being shoved out of the nest to crash in the underbrush, presumably so when is time to learn to fly, you’ll already know what crashing is like, and you won’t let it stop you (or possibly because some distant ancestor long ago decided that eggs were safer in trees, and here we are).

But, anyway, wood duck, cyclist, or dancer, you get up and dust off and get back to it. You’ve started, so you might as well keep on going.

And if you keep going long enough, you might just figure it out. You might discover, after all, that while you were looking elsewhere, you’ve earned your spot.

I used to think every other professional dancer I knew could see all my flaws. Now, I know they can: but most of them also choose—and I’m immensely grateful for this—to see my strengths.

The strength that is a spiteful refusal to give in to my imposter syndrome—or, seen from another angle, the conviction to endure through whatever trial arises—may or may not be invisible. I suspect my AD at LexBallet saw it plainly from time to time.

But, looking back, it’s a strength that I guess I can see.

One last thing: I know that privilege is a part of this. Opportunity is unequally distributed, especially for male ballet dancers, who are still pretty thin on the ground and who thus enjoy a far greater chance of finding a spot. So is the kind of financial security that affords both good training and the ability to absorb the financial challenges that come with being an artist. So is health.

Likewise, I have done exactly none of this on my own. Dancers are unicorns not only in that we’re kind of rare, but in that we—like Peter Beagle’s Last Unicorn—need others to see us; to believe in us; to know what we are. We’re a communal concern, whether we like it or not.

The thought of exactly how much artistic potential goes untapped either through lack of opportunity or through lack of recognition[3] and support is, quite frankly, staggering.

  1. Not recognition in the public, award-receiving sense, but in the private, “I am your teacher and I see that you have a gift and I’m going to tell you about it, along with anyone I know who can help you develop it” sense

Please know that if lack of privilege, of opportunity, of means, of health, of recognition, or of support—or, really, anything else: life is full of obstacles—stands in your way, I am not saying, “Just pick yourself up by your bootstraps!”

Imposter syndrome is a mirage, but there are plenty of real obstacles in the world, and imposter syndrome can make it even harder to overcome them.

If you’re in the woods, if you’re in the country of obstacles, I hope you’ll find your way clear (and I’ll help any way that I’m able, though I have no idea what that might look like).

I hope also that you might be able to harness your inner imposter. Maybe even make friends with them.

I’m not really there yet, but why not?

Last Year Vs This Year

Last year, at this time, I was feeling really terribly unsure of myself, intimidated, and so afraid of screwing up (and of succeeding, but that’s another story) that I was practically paralyzed all the time.

This year, I’m still unsure of myself sometimes, but not in the same awful way. I’ve reached a point at which I’m eager to get up and learn variations and pas de deux that I’m not cast in, even if I’m just marking and flailing my way through.

The main difference is that I feel like I’m part of the group now. I’m still shy and weird, and I always will be, but there’s nobody here who is hostile towards new and inexperienced people, and in turn I’ve let down my guard and been a little more sociable.

I can’t begin to express how enormous a difference this is making in my dancing.

It’s hard to move well when your nervous system is constantly on high alert and your muscles are coiled and tight. In particular, I can’t turn to save my life when I’m tense … And bad turns quickly lead to a downward spiral (sometimes literally!).

It’s also extremely hard to learn anything at all when you’re forever in fight-or-flight mode: the only thing your brain is primed to learn in those moments is whether or not your approach to escaping from the perceived threat is effective. It definitely doesn’t want to retain the combination or any corrections you’ve received.

I’m sure I seemed rigid and unteachable last year. I wonder how I seem this year—whether Mr D is giving me more corrections and guidance because I seem more teachable, or because I’m improving, or both. Probably both. (To be honest, I don’t actually think about it a lot; I’m just grateful.)

I continue to learn to feel my body in new ways, and to pick things up more easily, and to use my body more effectively and remember how it feels when it works.

I hope things continue in this vein. Last year, though I rarely spoke of it, I questioned whether I should be doing what I’m doing and sometimes despaired of ever living into the potential that’s written into my body.

This year, I’m starting to feel like I might get there.

The first year is always hard. I think mine was harder than it needed to be due to a handful of factors—but those things are behind me now.

Last year I was just surviving, just trying to hang on by the skin of my teeth.

This year I feel like I’m finally starting to grow.

So much of that is just not being afraid to make mistakes (and to try things).

Bit by bit, I feel like I’m starting to find my way again.

Dancing is hard. You have to pursue excellence—your own best excellence—constantly, while still holding space for mistakes and bad days so you don’t get caught in a self-hate spiral.

I think that goes for every serious student of dance, whether or not you ever find your way into a professional career.

Week Whatever Wrap-Up

…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.

Anyway!

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.

A goldfish in profile gazing out of its aquarium with another goldfish below it with its tail pointing towards the viewer.

“Oh, G-d, what was the combination? Was there even a combination? Where even am I? WHO EVEN AM I?!” (Public domain, via Wikimedia.)

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.

I forget whence I ganked this hilarity, but it’s pretty much what I suspect the average non-dancer thinks of when they think of contemporary dance.

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.

Way back at the end of last year, I set a bunch of goals, as you do.

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:

Headshot of me, face turned slightly to the left, eyes straight on.

What is it about this shot that makes me think I look like the secret love-child of Nureyev and Mr Bean???

Video Killed The … Oh, Wait

Okay, so I couldn’t really think of a good title for this post. Video hasn’t killed anything in my life recently except my own misconceptions about the progress I’m making.

In the past year, I’ve really been trying to “bust my butt,” ballet-wise: taking class more often, taking actual physical notes, working like crazy on port de bras in the mirror at home, applying things learned in modern or aerials to my ballet training … even looking at my limitations and challenges through different eyes*.

*Maybe through cheetah eyes? Maybe not. Anyway … it’s like:

Okay, so I’ve got huge knees. So what? Nureyev had huge knees.

Okay, so when I’m in demi-pointe, only three toes (and the attendant portion of the ball of my foot) are actually on the ground … so what? I personally know at least two guys who are not only professional dancers, but key members of their respective companies, whose feet are shaped like mine.

Besides, I can physically lift my body off the floor with those three toes. Those are my jumping toes, y’all.

The thing is, where ballet is concerned, the goal-posts move constantly, and sometimes they move really fast. In other words, it’s easy to lose sight of the progress you’re making (especially when you routinely take class with seriously amazing company dancers — which, IMO, you should if you can; it will make you a better dancer).

This is, it turns out, where video can be an ally.

I shot my first bits of ballet video back in December of last year. Even watching them then, I felt like I had so, so very far to go.

I shot my most recent bit of ballet video today, while working on a new piece for Suspend (it’s about half ballet, half ballet-on-the-lyra, heh). I still, of course, feel like I have so, so very far to go: I will feel like that for the rest of my life, because that’s ballet for you.

But I also feel like I have come so, so much further than I would have thought possible in the intervening time.

It’s really, really hard to fathom how much I’ve changed as a dancer in the time that elapsed between those two recordings.

There are still times that I do weird things with my arms. I still have a bad habit of telegraphing the moments when I don’t quite remember what I’m supposed to do next (note to self : STOP THAT, ALREADY).

I still have challenges translating between the Movie-In-My-Head that I create when I’m making dances and the actual dance, because when I’m dancing I lose track of the movie in my head (so then I just wind up reverting to tons of rond de jambes or pique turns or whatevs; lately, attitude turns and renversé are in heavy rotation as well).

But the way I carry myself is surprisingly different. Surprisingly better. My arms kind of know what they’re about. My body isn’t basically a gelatin mold (I’m not talking about fat distribution, BTW — I’m talking about core engagement). My legs seem to more or less understand what’s going on. Everything is more or less on the same page more or less all the way through.

I can almost watch the video I shot today without cringing. I only have to cringe a little**, though I suspect that a year from now I won’t actually even be able to watch it, because when I watch it, some inner part of me will be all like, OMG! HOW COULD YOU HAVE THOUGHT THAT WAS GOOD, YOU TWIT!

**Like: it opens with this developpé, which is in and of itself awkward, because EVERY FREAKING TIME I make adagio dances they open with the same stupid developpé avant en effacé, except when they go croisé instead. Indeed, I am so thorough in this regard that the first partnered adagio I made opens with BOTH AT THE SAME TIME, mirroring one-another >.<

But, anyway, the developpé starts off nicely, and then just above 90 degrees my working leg is like, “Newp, too tired. Hahahahahaha.”

trollface

Leg be like: “Okay, so we start with trollface en effacé…”

So. Annoying.

Anyway.

Here’s my point: I think, too often, we don’t feel the progress we’re making in the ballet studio. We notice it when we suddenly develop a skill we didn’t have before (OMG DOUBLE ATTITUDE TURNS!), but the rest of the time we just don’t see it at all.

Ballet makes you weirdly myopic.

You forget how bad your single turns were six months ago. You forget that you didn’t actually have a reliable attitude turn.

You forget that renversé was hard once; that contretemps were just WTF (and definitely not something you could just toss into a variation, like, because); that your brisée was, exactly as its name implies, broken (pro tip: brisée is actually easier if you do it with the prescribed arms … though I could not even remotely begin to explain why). That your beats were, um, beat. That your developpé remained undeveloped. That your extensions were just, like, tensions, really.

You forget that, not all that terribly long ago in the grand scheme of things, you had some kind of crazy mental block about glissade-assemblé and spectacularly wild arms.

Video can help you with that — even if you can’t stand to watch your old videos again. If your brain is anything like mine, the endless blooper reel that is last year’s videos has been seared upon your brain FOREVAR, so you won’t have to watch them again. Video can remind you how far you’ve come***.

***And also that you’re STILL DROPPING YOUR FREAKING ARMS INSTEAD OF COMING THROUGH A PROPER FIRST, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, OMG, I CANNOT WATCH THIS ANYMORE, I’m feeling a little verklempt, talk amongst yourselves, I’ll give you a topic: FREAKING PORT DE BRAS, FOR G-D’S SAKE.

Anyway, at the end of the day, this all amounts to one thing: MOAR MOTIVATION (which, to be fair, isn’t a thing I really lack, where dancing is concerned).

Not to say that I’m not going to enjoy my week with two rest days (because it’s now been two solid weeks since I’ve taken a rest day, even though I was like I AM NOT DANCING ON MONDAY. OKAY, SO THEN NOT ON THURSDAY. FRIDAY? NO, MUST DANCE FRIDAY; EF IS TEACHING …Crap. It’s Sunday already, isn’t it?).

But I’m looking forward to further pursuing those elusive goalposts.

They’re not going to catch themselves, after all.

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