It’s Been A Minute
This season has been wild. My company had a bumpy road to the opening of Penelope’s Odyssey, with a couple of setbacks due to injuries and other life circumstances that led to last-minute casting changes, which is a huge thing in a very, very character-driven piece with a cast of 8.
We finally gave the first fully-staged performances on a wee tour to beautiful, snowy Vermont early this February (2023), and now that we’ve got the bumps ironed out, we’re looking forward to further performances.
I’ve been taking class with Ballet Hartford, and if you’re in the area and you’re a professional or strong non-professional dancer, I highly recommend checking out their open company class, which runs M/W/F during their season.
Though I’m very much enjoying my work with SPDC, I’ve really missed ballet company life immensely, and returning to a regular, rigorous class over the past couple of weeks has really helped.
At the moment, I plan to audition for local ballet companies, though I’d like to continue working with SPDC on a per-project basis even if I do get hired on by a ballet company. I guess we’ll see how things shake out.
For now, I’m just finding my way back into my body, shaking the rust off my technique, and rebuilding strength. We did a grand allegro today that was a blast, and though I quickly discovered that I don’t actually have a double cabriole devant right now (erm … lol), I am quickly regaining speed and power. Even my petit allegro is coming back together ^-^
Things have been a little rocky at home — not in an interpersonal drama kind of way, but just, like, Alzheimer’s is a difficult thing. I’m very glad that we’re here, both because we have a chance to spend time with my Stepdad while he’s still able to really enjoy our company and because I can’t imagine Mom having to cope on her own.
We have great in-home support three days each week, but even still, having us here means that Mom can go do her own thing sometimes, and know that someone who knows and loves R is here to be with him. D’s experience in working with patients with various dementias comes in handy, as does my experience in finding useful things on the internet ^-^’
I have had some periods of kind of … emotional not-quite-collapse? … when the complexities of my schedule and the lack of alone time have really knocked me flat, so I’m working on being more proactive about taking the down-time I need to make sure that doesn’t happen as often.
Right now, the circumstances of my life are such that I can’t always take time like that, though, and I’m trying to figure out other strategies as well.
Oh, and I’m migrating over to Mastodon from the Bird Site for a number of reasons. More on that later, though — for now, I need to jete ^-^
I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot
(Full Disclosure: I still haven’t seen Hamilton. I know. I suck.)
… Because I can’t, because it’s already in my arm.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations has been interesting. Connecticut, where my parents live, has it ticking over like clockwork. Indiana (the state next door) is doing … something? Idk. It seems more chaotic than what we’re doing.
And here, in Kentucky, we seem to be figuring it out bit by bit.
A decision was made recently to open up vaccinations for teachers & volunteers who work with K-12 students, which is how I wound up getting called up for a shot. At least, I assume that’s why they sent me an email saying, “Ayyyyyyyyy! Come get your shot!”
I mean, not in those exact words.
The actual process of setting up an appointment was pretty simple—really, the hardest part was figuring out where in my wallet I’d stashed my insurance card.
As for the process of actually getting the vaccine, it was smooth & efficient. They’re using Broadbent Arena, part of our Fairgrounds & Expo Center. You drive in and drive right through (pausing at appropriate points) and never even get out of your car (there are other options for people who don’t drive or who don’t have have access to cars, also).
Because it was A New Situation, my brain was a little spooked about it, but the protocols were extremely clear (except for the unexpected sign near the entrance to the fairgrounds that read COVID TESTING USE GATE 1 ONLY and didn’t mention vaccinations at all—but since my email told me which gate to use, I kept breathing and proceeded as planned).
This is really helpful for neurodiverse people. If we know what the procedure is, it’s much less difficult to go do the thing. I appreciated that—and the fact that, in the course of two days, I got like five emails about my appointment so I would be able to find the confirmation code no matter what). Normally, that might seem a bit excessive, but in this case it was helpful and comforting.
I got the Pfizer vaccine, which is the same one D got. It’s a good week for it—we don’t have men’s technique class on Saturday, if I wind up feeling meh and staying home I’ll just miss normal class.
Because my wildly overreactive respiratory system places me at pretty high risk of being seriously ill if I did catch COVID-19, knowing that my first vaccination is behind me and the second is scheduled is a major relief. Obviously I’m not going to go turn cartwheels in Walmart without a mask, but with things like summer intensives and workshops on the way, it’s good to have that pinned down.
In ballet news, I’ve been taking a good, extremely detail-oriented Zoom class with Devi Piper on Wednesdays. The opportunity to really pick my technique apart and refine key elements is immensely valuable.
Today she gave us a killer plié that I’ll be using on the regs when I’m warming up to work on choreography or whatever.
A lot of really cool stuff has been happening in my life as a dancer of late—stuff that makes me feel awed at the way people reach out to guide developing dancers as we progress and grateful beyond measure for it.
In a week, I’ll be seven years into my resurrected ballet life. When I launched myself on this journey, I definitely carried a sliver of hope that maybe I’d find a way to make a life of of it, but it was so precious and fragile a hope that I rarely dared even to think about it.
Every single day, I’m staggered by this sense of immense privilege (not in the political sense, though there’s that, too—as a male ballet dancer, that’s a huge thing). To have somehow built a life in which I’m valued as a dancer and as a teacher and, increasingly, as a choreographer is something that, in all honesty, I couldn’t have imagined seven years ago.
The hope I had was that I might find a place to fit as a corps boy for a while. I was perfectly fine with the idea of just being a semi-anonymous body of it meant I got to really dance.
I seem to have found, instead, a place where I fit as someone who actually gets to do complex, visible roles. I’m probably never going to find myself in one of the big, world-famous companies, or even one of the ones that are more broadly known on a national scale, but that’s fine. I don’t care about things like that. I still just want to dance (and to make dances, and to teach dancers).
The biggest change, though, isn’t feeling that others value me as a dancer, as a teacher, and as a choreographer. It that I’m beginning to feel worthy of that esteem. That I’m beginning to value myself as a dancer, a teacher, and a choreographer—and, really, as an artist.
I owe a good part of that to the people who’ve gone out of their way to coach me; to suggest that I come take class; to draw me out of my own sense of inadequacy. To show me my strengths.
I also owe some of it to my students, who show up and focus and work hard even when I give them the world’s hardest rond de jambe every week for six months.
- I mean—it’s not the hardest, hardest. In terms of technique, it’s really pretty basic—but the musicality is tricky and central to the exercise, and requires them to listen to the music and dance instead of just being like, “Yawn, barre work is boring.” Which is kind of the point.
I owe yet another part of it to the friends who jump right in whenever I say, “Erm, ah, ssssssoooo, ahhhh, would you like to work on a choreography project I’ve been thinking about?” Or, at any rate, try to jump right in, given how challenging it can be there schedule things even when there’s not a global pandemic 😅
But some small part of it I owe to myself. I came to the ballet studio and found the place where I simply know how to work. And then I started doing the work, and I started looking for opportunities and taking calculated risks. And when the chance came to dance full-time, I took that leap, even though it was honestly pretty scary.
And even though I wasn’t sure I was someone who would ever be good at sticking with anything that didn’t have a finite term, i stuck with it—though honestly that’s really a bit like saying like saying, “The water decided to continue flowing downhill.” It’s honestly the path of least resistance. Quitting would be harder than continuing.
I don’t know where life will take me (I mean: really, nobody does). But I’m no longer afraid that I’ll never find anything that feels like a suitable path.
The periods of mindfulness, of being present in the present, afforded by the work I do—most specifically, taking class and creating choreography—have also been healing in ways I never expected.
I literally never imagined that my brain would ever be as, well, relatively stable as it is now, for one thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying ballet is The Cure, or even The Treatment, for unstable moods for everyone who experiences them. But, for me, it’s a huge piece of the puzzle.
Likewise, dancing has forced me to engage with both my present and my past more deeply than I ever imagined being able to do. My first Pilobolus SI stands as a watershed: something about that experience broke the seal I’d placed over deep, deep wells of feeling—both beautiful and painful.
There are still plenty of things in my past I’ve never directly dewalt with by the conventional means of talking about them—but somehow, when I dance, sometimes I dance about them without realizing that it’s happening.
Only later do I find that somehow, in the midst of wrestling with choreography, some old and festering wound has been cracked open and washed clean so healing can begin. It doesn’t mean the healing is complete, but it means that healing I long thought impossible has begun.
Anyway. Speaking of long, this is getting really long, and it’s the middle of the night, and Merkah would greatly appreciate it if I’d go to sleep. So I guess I’ll close here.
I don’t know how to end this except to add:
If you’re reading this, I’m also grateful to you.
Often, part of growing into a thing is talking about it. For some reason, I find that easier to do here than in a private journal (largely because I’m terrible at actually keeping up with a private journal, since it doesn’t occur to me to put things into words unless I’m talking/writing to someone else).
So you, too, have been essential in this journey.
So: thank you. And I’ll try to include some pictures in the next post 😁
Try Something Different
I’ve been taking a Saturday class that’s usually taught by one of two very effective teachers. It’s one of the classes for advanced students at a school that offers a pre-professional ballet track and a competitive dance track, and includes students from both tracks.
Today, our regular teacher was out sick, and the teacher who would usually cover her had a different class to run, so one of the senior students ran class for us.
The end result was quite unlike the traditional 30/30/30 ballet class I’m used to–we warmed up, then did a couple of across-the-floor exercises, and then we did jumps and turns that were largely definitely not classical, but were, in fact, a lot of fun.
Having fumbled my way into a professional career, typically I approach this Saturday class with a commitment to setting a good example both in terms of classical technique and in terms of classroom deportment. Like, in short, Serious Ballet Is Serious.
Today was different. We did jumps and turns I’ve literally never done in my life. Early on, I realized I had a choice:
- I could be vaguely annoyed that I came for a classical ballet class and was getting something else entirely.
- I could go with the flow and enjoy the class I got.
Being vaguely annoyed wasn’t going to help, so I chose option 2 … and I’m glad I did. It gave me a chance to set aside the mantle of “professional dancer” and just be a student trying new stuff and seeing how it worked.
And you know what? It was really good to be just a student (okay–a student with a killer grand battement) trying new stuff.
Because the steps we were doing often weren’t from the vocabulary of classical ballet, I didn’t waste time thinking about how to do them within the classical framework in order to try to jump-start correct execution. Instead, I just did them … including jazz turns, which are not my greatest strength, since my body typically balks at the idea of turning in parallel.
Sometimes I did the new steps well. Sometimes I did them laughably badly. Often my actual execution fell somewhere in the middle. But the whole time, I was having a blast.
In short, it was really nice to be doing something I didn’t have to be good at.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s also nice to be good at things … but the pursuit of being good at things–that is, at gaining skill–can be stressful.
As an artist, there’s a real (and necessary) pressure to pursue perfection in your medium, even knowing that perfection is literally impossible to achieve. You work to honor your medium–your artform–and to develop your skill to its maximum potential.
Sometimes, that pursuit is like a meditation–our ego gets out of the way and we just do the work, correcting what needs correcting without getting hung up in judgment and attachment to outcomes.
But a lot of the time, because we’re all human, we frown and berate ourselves as we still do that turn in second wrong and as we still pull back instead of up on the pirouette en dehors and as our footwork is still too slow in the petit allegro. And then we think our legs were great in the grand allegro, but we don’t even want to think about what our hands were doing the whole time.
When we’re doing steps from a different dance idiom, it’s a lot easier to let go of all that stuff. We know we don’t know how to do it! We don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like! We can be forgiven if something doesn’t work the first time, or if our hands are doing that weird duckface thing, or if we land on the wrong leg because our bodies are convinced that this step really, really is just a weird saut de basque.
And when we’re not worried about all that stuff, suddenly it’s a lot easier to have fun.
So it can be really fun, sometimes, to step outside your primary medium. When you know that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier just to let go and do (hey, there’s that Beginner’s Mind thing again … hmmm).
When you try something new and different, sometimes you find you can let your hair down (metaphorically, anyway … in terms of pure practicality, when you’re dancing, it’s probably still a good idea to keep it pulled up out of your eyes so you don’t crash into the piano).
I never quite figured out one of the jumps today (I have no idea what it’s called–I should’ve asked). My body kept trying to do the saut de basque from Ali’s variation in Le Corsaire instead of … whatever the jump was actually supposed to be. I kept landing facing the wrong way and with the wrong leg in front.
And you know what? That was okay.
Nobody died! I had fun, and I found a degree of release and freedom that I haven’t felt in a while.
And because of that sense of release and freedom, there were other things I did better than I usually do them–things that you would encounter in a strictly-classical class.
There were also things I did as, erm, less-than-perfectly as I usually do, but in which I was able to figure out some of the factors that are hampering my technique. I was relaxed enough to just kind of feel my own body, without feeling the pressure to analyze my technique and try to do things well that I don’t actually know how to do well.
So this is something that, both as a dancer and as a teacher, I really need to take with me.
It’s important to hone technique and work hard. As a dancer, as an artist, that’s part of how you make progress. Sound technique gives you the tools for musicality; for expression.
But, as much as I tend to lose sight of the fact, it’s also important to relax and have fun … and sometimes, when you relax and have fun, you might even learn things that you wouldn’t otherwise learn.
Ultimately, I guess it’s a question of balance.
It’s easy to get so focused on honing your Srs Ballet Skillz that you don’t get a chance to just enjoy dancing (especially when you’re stuck dancing in your tiny basement most of the time for going on a year). But, ultimately, we dance because we love dancing.
For amateur dancers, love is the only motivation that makes sense. There are much easier and more efficient ways to get exercise, and a lot of them are much less expensive, too. There are artforms in which it’s much, much easier to find opportunities to grow and perform as an amateur artist.
Ultimately, it’s pretty much the same for professionals: you have to love dancing. Working in dance is just too freaking hard if you don’t love it more than anything else; if it’s not, in a sense, the only thing you can do.
Either way, you dance because, deep within you, something is called to dance. You dance because you need to dance; because dancing is in your blood and your bones. Because dancing is your blood and your bones.
You dance because your soul sings in movement.
Today’s class reminded me that sometimes, it’s good to just let your soul sing. And also that sometimes, while your soul is just singing to sing, you learn anyway.
Remedial Partnering: Strategies
I have no qualms about stating up front that my partnering skills are, well, roughly at the level that would, if this was a university class, require one of those 094-level classes (I can see it now: “Partnering 099: It’s Always The Boy’s Fault”).
I’m good enough at this point that I wouldn’t have to take “Partnering 088: Whatever You Do, Don’t Drop Her!” … but I’m definitely still rough around the edges.
Anyway, in the interest of offering some help to my fellow Remedial Partner…ers, here are some strategies that do and don’t work:
- stand too close
- stand too far away
- get nervous and slowly collapse closer and closer, drawing your partner into your collapse like the heavier star in a binary system, leading to a cataclysmic supernova
- panic about every single turn, every single time
- panic about any turn, ever, for that matter
- trust me panicking really doesn’t help
- go walkabout mid-promenade because your eyes are pointing the wrong way (I know this is groundbreaking info but amazingly a promenade should be a circle, not a square)
- fail to communicate … partnering is basically sustained communication, ideally with fewer words but, you know, better to speak than to do something dumb
- panic about penchés
- panic about steps you were doing fine yesterday
- fall into weight-sharing mode … weight-sharing is great, but it doesn’t work for a lot of ballet things
- panic about … anything, really
- REMAIN CALM
- feel out a good distance for various steps
- learn how to be there on time
- let your partner do her end of things
- talk through your dances together
- mark through your dances together
- walk through your dances together
- run all the things until you can’t get it wrong
- but make sure to stop before you both get super tired
- REMAIN CALM srsly it’s better to be Prince Valium than Prince Panic
- be willing to swap a step out for something simpler if you’re on a deadline and you’re having a rough time—it’ll build confidence, and eventually you’ll get the harder step, but that way you’ll know you’ve got something you can take to the stage
- COMMUNICATE! today we both kept going, “Okay that felt weird” from time to time, and discovered that what felt weird to one felt weird to the other (we’re also getting better at sorting out the why)
- ask for help … we’ve been super lucky to have not one, but two very experienced coaches step in to help because they want to see us succeed. Asking for help is scary, but it’s such a good idea.
- believe that you can do it … like horses, ballerinas can sense fear 😅
- and, of course, REMAIN CALM
That’s it for today. I have still neglected to take any photos, so I’m sticking in a screenshot for the featured image 😅
Learn By Pas-De-Deuxing
Every once in a while, you have an idea and you think, “Well, this might be a terrible idea, but it might be a great idea,” so you give it a go.
When I asked my (ballet) partner if she’d like to do FSB’s Nutcracker with me, there was a certain degree of that feeling. Like: I at least had some partnering skills … but doing the Grand Pas was going to be a sink-or-swim crash course in lots of partnering skills, including ones I’ve struggled with in the past.
Anyway, we’re now a couple weeks into really working on things, and while I don’t want to jinx us by speaking too soon, I’m rather pleased with how well it’s going.
Bit by bit, I’m learning to do the things. Just as importantly, I’m learning how to troubleshoot my own partnering problems.
We had a rough day on Wednesday. The floor was terrifyingly slick, we were both nervous as a result, and things that had worked in the past suddenly weren’t working. Our excellent pas de deux coach was there, but it was only her second session with us, so she wasn’t sure what was up either.
Somehow, somewhere in the midst of the struggle, one of the steps worked, and I realized that the difference was that I simply wasn’t standing as close to my partner as I has been all day. It was near the end of our rehearsal, so I applied that thought to the bit we were working on, then tucked it away.
Yesterday, we didn’t rehearse because my partner had some stuff she needed to do. I washed the floors so we’d feel safer, then walked trhough the dance by myself to cement some chances we’d made to the choreography, then dragged myself home via 2 hours of ridiculous rush hour rerouting (this, of course, is why I try to avoid traveling at rush hour). I reminded myself to stand a bit farther from my partner.
Today, faced with a very compressed rehearsal schedule and a studio that refused to warm up (the thermostat was working, but the furnace wouldn’t turn on o.O), I applied my idea from the outset … and it worked!
In fact, there were things that only kinda worked before that suddenly worked pretty darned well [1, 3] simply because I stood a little further off.
- Even with both of us stumping around in warm-up boots.
- You haven’t lived until you’ve successfully done an arabesque promenade with your partner en pointe with warm-up boots over her pointe shoes.
- See: “Ballet: it’s easier when you do it right.”
Obviously, “just stand further away” has its limits–but I think it’s probably a useful idea for a lot of people learning partnering.
Our instinct tends to be to get closer. It makes an instinctive kind of sense: if dropping your partner or knocking her over is bad, you want to be close enough to prevent it, or to rescue her if it does happen. This is probably especially true if you’re a T-Rex and your partner is relatively close to your own height: like, I’m pretty sure part of my tendency to stand too close boils down to instinctively understanding that my arms are short, yo.
But, as it turns out, sometimes that doesn’t work.
Anyway, we both left today’s rehearsal feeling more confident about the adagio movement of the Grand Pas (there’s some partnering in the coda, but it’s nowhere near as long or complicated).
And I left feeling more confident in both my current partnering abilities and about my potential for being a good partner.
This whole process has also reminded me, yet again, that when I’m calm, I’m actually pretty good at learning choreography. And that I’m capable of learning in general.
I’m lucky to have, as a partner, a ballerina who is kind, thoughtful, game, technically sound, and a fine teacher (and also a redhead … as someone who’s effectively a dark ginger myself, I’m quite partial to gingers!).
And we’re lucky to have the support of not one, but two good coaches, both experienced dancers with decades of performing between them.
I was very heartened the other day when E, who’s Coach #1, said she feels confident that we can do this, and do it well. Honestly, that reduced my ambient imposter syndrome level by quite a bit.
- And while this appellation has a specific technical definition, I feel comfortable using it here. Not only is she dancing a principal role and being a leader and stuff, she’s a highly accomplished dancer in her own right.
It’s a pretty cool thing to feel like you’re actually making real progress in the calling around which you’ve shaped your life. Which, in fact, I very much do.
Asking my partner to join me in this endeavour was a risk–but it was a good one, I think. I was hoping we’d both come out of it more confident and with a performance we could add to our CVs, and that I’d come out of it a more useful and employable dancer. Thus far, it’s looking like that’s the way things are moving.
Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to the next time we get a chance to dance without our warm-up boots.
- Which will be Sunday evening of this week. I can’t wait!
On Technique: How Not To Turn From Fourth
Okay, so my turns are often, erm, not horrible these days (probably because my AD is relentless in his quest to make us do six billion turns per class) … And yet I’m still entirely capable of making a complete hash of them from time to time.
In the interest of full disclosure, clarity, and the greater good, then, here’s a spectacular example caught on video in the wild today and translated into handy screenshots. (I am NOT posting the video. I don’t want to scar you guys for life.)
We’re not even going to talk about my arms. They’d just doing it for the attention, and we cannot reward their egregious behavior by acknowledging it. I haven’t been this disappointed since … Well, tbh, 2016, but … you know.
Okay, I will say one thing about my arms. See that first photo? Balanchine prep up top; Cecchetti downstairs. No wonder this turn failed. It was the balletic equivalent of a mullet … replete with hamberder hands.
I’m going to cry.
This turn was not assisted by the fact that there’s a divot in the subfloor under my standing foot, but honestly that excuses nothing. Without said divot, it still would’ve been a fugly turn. You could take it to a salon and give it hours and hours of mud wraps and so forth, and it wouldn’t do any good. Lipstick on a pig*.
*I mean … some members of the porcine family are quite handsome. But lipstick? They don’t really, like, have lips.
Here’s a less bad example, just so I can feel better about life
The gesture leg is attached. The supporting leg is … well, sort-of turned out. My core, like, exists. The balance is fairly straight up and down. And in the video it’s evident that I spotted this turn like a boss.
That last one was of the “effortless double” species. The MOST important factor, for me, is simply keeping my coreengaged. This prevents Slinky Back (would that it could prevent Nickleback), which in turn basically prevents EVERYTHING ELSE THAT IS WRONG WITH THE FIRST TURN.
So engage those core muscles, kids!
…And remember: only YOU can prevent
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:
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.
- 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!”
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, 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.
- 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).
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 .
- 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.
Obligatory Gratitude Post 2018
Obligatory Gratitude Post, 2018 😀
It’s Thanksgiving (Almost)!
That time of year when Americans come together to do battle with the groaning board, avoid discussing politics, and … oh yeah … give thanks.
I mean, it’s right there in the name!
And even though today was a Bad Ballet Day, I have a lot to be grateful for this year.
I’m not going to enumerate all the things. That would take forevvvverrrr. Instead, I’m going to focus on the weirdest thing I’m grateful for. So here it is:
I’m grateful for being totally out of my depth.
Struggle Is How We Grow
When we’re out of our depth, we struggle.
In the moment, that sometimes feels awful. In fact, it frequently feels awful. Especially when you’ve taken a huge leap from being a big fish in a small pond to being the smallest (and most incompetent) fish in a big pond.
And yet, in this context, struggle means opportunity. When you’re at the bottom of the climb, there’s nowhere to go but up. The challenge is figuring out how to do that.
It’s too facile to say that struggle means growth. Sometimes, struggle means that either someone or something is impeding your progress (you might even be impeding it yourself).
But I think it’s pretty fair to say that growth means struggle. Not all of the time, but at least some of the time.
We grow stronger physically by making a zillion infinitesimal tears in our muscles. We grow stronger emotionally by making a zillion infinitesimal tears in our hearts.
We improve our skills not by working on the things we’ve already mastered (though that’s important, too), but by cracking away at the things we haven’t mastered yet.
Struggle and Arise
Our roughest spots are where we can improve the most (and, sometimes, the fastest). It just so happens that working on them is often frustrating AF.
So the next time I’m in the studio feeling frustrated and like I should just pack it in and consider a career in, like, anything other than dance, I will try to remind myself that I’m frustrated because I’m struggling, and I’m struggling because I’m growing and learning.
And I’ll try to be grateful for the struggle, because it means I’ve been granted an amazing opportunity.
I’m learning how to be a dancer at a new level. Mr D chose to roll the dice on me, and I’m immensely grateful for that, and for all the guidance of my many teachers and friends who helped me reach this point.
technical notes: devil turns again
I mean chaînés, of course. Everyone loves chaînés sooooooooo much, amirite?! They are The Actual Best!
- At least I assume that’s why everyone goes, “uuugghhhhhh, whyyyyyyy” when it’s time for chaînés. Because that’s the sound of joy … right?
I’ve spent the past year or two trying to make peace with chaînés. It has, in fact, largely worked. Two things—learning that dudes usually don’t piqué into chaînés and that it’s fine to do your chaînés in fifth—led to some dramatic improvements.
However, somewhere along the line, I started losing all my momentum going into any run of chaînés.
Not cranking the turnout-brakes (read: that thing you do to halt your momentum if you have to finish a soutenu turn in sous-sus) helped, as in it prevented me from actually grinding to a halt after one turn, but it didn’t solve the problem entirely.
Today, though, Killer B fixed the remaining bit of the problem: she said, “You can piqué or chassée into your chaînés, whichever works better for you … but right now you’re tombé-ing in, and it’s killing your momentum.”
So I tried the chassée–chaîné approach, and HOLY CRAP GUYS IT WORKED. Made my chaînés about twice as fast, in fact. (Which is good, because sometimes they were embarrassingly slow.)
AHHHHHH!!!! You guys, how did I go so wrong?!
Like, I remember BW giving me a lesson on chaînés as pertains to Men’s Technique, and that he taught me to not piqué into them … but at some point I decided explicitly that tombé was the One True Way.
(Evidently it is a correct approach, but not one that works particularly well for me: I tend to tombé into a deep demi-plié way over my front leg as if preparing for a sauté arabesque or something. Ultimately, that means that my momentum can go straight up or back the way it came, but not really forward except through pas de bourrée … I guess it would be useful if I needed to change directions straight into a series of chaînés, though.)
The waltz combination today was:
chaîné-chaîné-petit developpé to pas de bourrée
turn en dehors
turn en dehors (land 5th, right foot front, or coupé through)
petit developpé to pas de bourrée
rotation (fouetté à terre)
turn en dedans
I’m trying to figure out if I’m leaving out some waltz turns somewhere, or if they were in something else and I’m conflating my memories.
- very possible; this morning was a horrible slog through the swamps of badness: the struggle was all the way real.
- I even hosed up a simple sissone combination at the end of class, though at least I made it to the end of class without actually dissolving into a gibbering zombie. I almost checked out after the warm-up jumps, but I didn’t, because some part of my acknowledges that I work in dance now, which means there will be days that I have to get out there onstage even though I just can’t even.
Regardless, the chassée–chaîné approach is a freaking lifesaver.
I was going to drop a YouTube video that shows this in here, but my exhaustive* one-minute long search hasn’t found one, so it’ll have to wait.
*yeah, okay, totally not exhaustive
Anyway, there’s today’s gem from class.
Guys: if an approach via tombé is sending your chaînés to an early grave (get it? tomb … é … early grave … harhar), try chassée instead.
This Mammoth Moment
Class was decent today.
My allergies were, as they have been, off the chain—but that’s par for the course, and no small part of the reason that I bother working on my cardio. The more fit my cardiovascular system is, the less it hates me when I can barely inhale because my nose and the back of my throat are full of goop but I dance anyway.
It wasn’t flat-out the best class I’ve had recently (that was Sunday, I think), but I still feel like every single day I make progress, which is something. Even last Thursday, when my allergies were so bad I thought my head would explode and I had to beg off of grand allegro (to my great and undying humiliation), I made progress.
After class, I reviewed Siegfried’s variation. I had meant to just mark it, but instead after the first phrase I found myself running it: contretemps-tombé-pas de bourrée-glissade-saut de chat, repeat. I was watching my port de bras and my turnout in the mirror and heading back to “stage left” suddenly I noticed that I was, as the song goes, “Way up in the middle of the air,” without actually trying, in this surprisingly nice saut de chat.
- The song in question being “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” a folk song which I’d never heard until I met my last roommate, who used to sing it: Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up, way up, Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air.
Anyway, that saut de chat startled the heck out of me and I landed like a mammoth, but it’s really good to feel like I’ve regained the best of my “Terpsichorean powers,” so to speak.
- Why, yes, of course I’m referencing T.S. Elliot. Also, the musical Cats.
On the other hand, I don’t recommend landing like a mammoth even on good floors. I went back to marking, though with a little more vigor than your usual mark.
I also realized that I tend to fail to bring my second leg to the party when I do assemblés in the context of petit allegro.
I mean, it’s not that it doesn’t get there. It’s that I fail to really actively transport it. Like the first leg gets on the train, but the second one has to walk to the party.
I had somehow failed to notice that … no doubt in part because when I do grand allegro assemblés—especially porté—I really snap that puppy right the heck up there. But, in case you were wondering, petit allegro is not, in fact, “grand allegro, only smaller,” no matter what its name might imply. It requires its own approach (they do it like nobody’s business in Copenhagen).
But, anyway, I haven’t been really pushing the second foot through the plié and snapping it up there, and Killer B schooled me over it this morning.
So Killer B’s advice is to think of glissade-assemblé as a compound word; a hyphenated phrase like tombé-pas de bourée, (or, if you’re a guy, tombé-chaîné-chaîné-chaîné-chaîné-chaîné). You have to really push the trailing leg through the bottom of the plié that’s sort of the hyphen so the momentum doesn’t get lost.
- When you lose the momentum, you wind up with two separate words, one of them mumbled: “Glissade. Assemblah.”
So I tried it, and wouldn’t you know, it worked like a charm.
So that’s today’s bit of technical advice. Since glissade-assemblé is a petit-allegro stock phrase, think of it with a hyphen and pushpushpush the second leg through the plié in the middle, so when it leaves the ground again all the momentum is there.
And use your plié. And use your plié. And use your plié.
Which, coincidentally, will also stop you landing your saut de chat like a mammoth, which you will appreciate when you’re seventy and haven’t yet had to put in new knees, or so I’ve heard.
On Monday I found myself reading some old posts in the bath (because reading in the bath is what I would do basically 90% of the time that I’m not dancing, if I had my way … well, that and swimming in the ocean).
It was surprising to look back on where I was only three and a half years ago: to realize that, really, I had no idea I’d be doing what I’m doing now—or maybe just a glimmer of the idea; something that felt like the vaguest of pipe dreams, I suppose.
It was weird to read the words, “If I ever get a chance to perform,” or however I phrased it. At the time, it seemed like gift one distantly hopes to receive: perhaps if I’m really good, someone will give me–no, not a pony, but maybe a hobby horse?
Now the chance to perform is something I pursue and lay hold of with both hands and create for myself. It’s something I am beginning not to feel weird about getting paid to do, like, “Maybe if I keep my head down they won’t notice that they’re paying me money for this.”
And yet I realize, still, that in a way the chance to live the life that I’m living right now is a gift—a gift, I suppose, I’ve worked hard to be worthy of, and will continue to work hard to be worthy of, but still one that depends upon the goodwill of so many people other than myself.
Friday, early, we leave for the Playa again.
This year, a group is staging The Rite of Spring. I’ve never seen it live, so I’m looking forward to that. Perhaps I can find other dancers and do class with them.
As for me and my camp, we’re doing Open Barre, with Mimosas, twice. Contact improv, twice. And all the other things that my camp does, but that’s what I’m in charge of. My gift to the Playa, along with whatever I wind up feeding people, as so often I do.
My feelings are mixed about going this year. I’m working, so that’s a challenge—learning the choreography at a distance will be interesting—and I’m afraid of coming back with a respiratory infection again. I’ll have to be careful this year.
But there are always things to be learned, and what was it I was saying about learning not to constantly try to control the outcomes?
So there it is. This is the outcome right now. I’m strung between two loyalties, but perhaps it’s okay. If things work out as I hope they will in the coming months, I most likely won’t be able to go to the Burn in 2018.
Because, as D told me so many times, there is something in the world for which I will sacrifice all other things—even Burning Man, as much as I love it.
When all this is over, the desert will be there still (unless we blow up the world before then, in which case it’s all a moot point anyway).