But first: housekeeping! By which I mean, apologies for totally failing to post anything on Saturday. We had an unexpected visit from my MIL, AKA Momma Fluffy, who is awesome, and who I haven’t seen in quite a while, and as a result I totally blanked on it. I’ll try to get it out ASAP to keep the series going.
Tomorrow, we begin the second half of my first season with ActualBalletCompany.
During the first half of the season, I learned a great deal both about being part of a ballet company and about myself … and one of the things I learned is that I’m still horribly, horribly shy and socially-awkward.
Apparently, over the past few years–years in which I’ve settled comfortably into a dance- and circus-based social scene here in Louisville–I slowly forgot how terribly, terribly hard it is for me to connect with people I don’t know, especially when they already know each-other. (Admittedly, my summer intensive experiences should’ve reminded me of this, but since they resolved successfully, they didn’t.)
I also forgot, apparently, how my particular flavor of social awkwardness can make me seem like a bona-fide idiot.
When I’m nervous, my working memory, like, stops working. And when I’m around a bunch of strangers whose opinions of me matter immensely to the shape of the next year or so of my life, I get nervous. Like, really, really nervous.
I should note my nervousness isn’t a question of fearfully wondering, “What will they think of me?”
It’s more a question of experience. I’m really, really bad at the initial stages of getting to know people. When there are other people in the room who find my flavor of social awkwardness charming, that isn’t a big deal … but that’s a fairly rare circumstance, in my experience.
And dance is one of those contexts in which being a cohesive part of the group is immensely, immensely important.
Ironically, the working-memory failures that come with a bad case of nerves make it even more important.
When you dance, the greatest resource available to you isn’t the music, or the big fat book of ballet technique, or even YouTube.
The greatest resource available to you, right then and there, is your fellow dancers.
Because when you’re learning a dance, you’re going to miss something.
This isn’t because you’re stupid, or careless, or distracted (though, yeah, sometimes you’re probably going to be distracted, especially if you’re me). It’s because choreography comes at you hella fast, and you have to, like, blink sometimes.
To complicate things, you also can’t really see yourself in the way that other people can see you. So you might be absolutely sure that you Know The Steps, and you still might be wrong.
When you’re unsure, or better yet, you know you don’t know a step or a phrase, the single best thing you can do is ask another dancer.
If you’re shy, the thing you’re least likely to do is … you guessed it! Ask another dancer.
Obviously, this is a problem.
It’s an even bigger problem when your AD or your choreographer says, “Hey, you! You don’t know this part!” and it’s a part you’re dead certain that you know (because it’s, like, saute-balance-saute-balance-pique turn-pique turn-chaine-chaine-chaine-run away … why, yes, this is an example from my actual life, what makes you ask?).
Because that means that you’ve missed something without realizing that you’ve missed something, and now you have to figure out exactly what that is.
In my parenthetical example above, what I was missing was the arms. It wasn’t that I was doing something inherently wrong with my arms: my port de bras was one of the eleventy-million acceptable versions for the combination of steps in question.
But it was wrong anyway, because it wasn’t the one our AD wanted.
The problem is, he didn’t say, “You’re doing the arms wrong,” he just said, “You don’t know this step.” Which, to be honest, is valid: in the context of this dance, I didn’t know the step.
You guys: THE ARMS ARE PART OF THE STEP.
At this particular moment in the dance, I couldn’t see what anyone else was doing with their arms, so I didn’t realize that I was doing something different. Mr D called me out on it a few times in a row, but it didn’t occur to me to ask the girl standing next to me (who is actually one of the nicest, sweetest, and funniest people in the world, but because I was in Super Shy Boy! mode, I didn’t know that yet) what I was doing wrong.
It wasn’t until I videoed the piece and sat down to watch it that I figured it out … and because I couldn’t quite tell from my tiny phone screen what I was supposed to do, I finally, like, asked someone.
And it took almost no time to fix once I did, except for the fact that I’d done it wrong so many times that it’s burned into my brain the wrong way, and I still have to double-check it before we perform that particular piece now.
If I’d just asked earlier on (“Hey, BossMan says I’m wrong, here, but I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong … any thoughts?”) I could’ve saved myself that struggle.
When you’re shy, it can be extra hard to feel okay asking people questions that expose your weaknesses.
In a dance context, however, everyone’s performance depends on everyone else’s … so it’s deeply unlikely that someone’s going to say, “OMG, if you’re so dumb you can’t figure that out, I’m not gonna tell you.” (If someone does, you might be dancing in a group that’s toxic enough that you should think about finding somewhere else to dance.) Usually, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s this,” and demonstrate, and then you can go, “Okay, so like this?” and if you’re right, they’ll say, “Yup, that’s it!” and if not, they’ll adjust you accordingly, and you’ll all go on with your lives and learning the rest of the dance.
What it took me for-freaking-ever to realize is that one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to learn new choreography is that I am extraordinarily shy about asking when I don’t feel like I’ve got it.
Then, knowing that I’m very much a kinaesthetic (that is, physical) learner, I don’t walk through the choreography and nail it down, because I’m afraid I’ll learn it wrong and then have to un-learn and re-learn it.
Both of these things put me behind the curve. First, by failing to ask, I don’t patch the holes in my knowledge base. Second, by failing to loosely work through the choreography on my own I greatly lengthen the process of learning it.
In turn, both of these realities make me nervous (when you have to have the piece down and you know you’re not getting it as fast as everyone else, nervousness is pretty much the guaranteed outcome), which makes my working memory stop working, which makes learning anything next to impossible.
Which makes me look like a complete idiot (because in those moments I am one, albeit temporarily). Which makes people think I’m a complete idiot. Which makes them not want to work with me. Which is glaringly obvious even to someone like me who is not very good at reading social cues. Which makes me nervous.
Repeat ad nauseam.
The solution, of course, is obvious.
In this case, there’s only one way forward, and that’s just to bite the bullet and talk to the least-scary-looking person in the room.
Occasionally, you’ll get lucky and discover that she also isn’t sure about the step in question, and then together you’ll go and prevail upon her friend or friends until one of two things happens: you might find someone who’s dead certain that they know it, or you might discover that nobody’s really entirely sure and thus you might work something out by consensus.
And then, the next time you run it, either your AD will go, “Oh, hey, that looks better,” or s/he’ll say, “No! You’re all wrong.” (S/he might also add, “Oh my G-d, how many times do we have to go over this?!” but try not to take it personally: even the sweetest ADs get nervous, too.)
More likely, the person in question will say something like, “No big deal, it’s this,” and will show you (or tell you) what’s supposed to happen.
The thing I have noticed is that other people do this way more proactively than I do. They don’t waste a lot of time trying to muddle through and figure it out by trying to dance and watch at the same time (by which I don’t mean the usual kind of “watching” that you do to make sure your spacing is okay and that you’re in sync with the people in your group: I mean the high-cognitive load kind of watching that you do when you’re trying to learn brand new choreography).
Most people, if they’re really unclear on something, just ask someone.
So I guess one of my goals for the next half of the season is to stop being afraid to ask people when I’m unclear, even if I feel like I should have learned the choreography in question five months ago.
This won’t fix the thing that makes me amazingly adept at saying the wrong thing at the worst possible moment, or the fact that my sense of humor is (to say the least) odd and that people who don’t know me very, very well often don’t seem to understand that I’m joking.
But it will help me learn dances faster, and that’ll be a big step in the right direction.
With, I hope, the correct port de bras.
- You guys, for future reference: if you’re talking to me in person and what I’m saying sounds completely ludicrous, assume I’m joking. Likewise, I’ll continue to work on my delivery, in hope of someday being able to use irony, sarcasm, and guerilla-theatre-of-the-absurd without convincing everyone around me that I am, in fact, actually stupid.
Just busy and thinking about where to go next with this blorg of mine. By which I mean not the annoying questions like, “How do monetize?” or whatevs but just, like … how best to write on the regular about where this amazing little journey is taking me.
We closed CL’s show “Gravity’s Variety” yesterday, and I think it represented a significant step forward artistically both for my Cirque company and our AD. I loved working on that show, but I’m also glad I’ll have a few two-day weekends (Sunday-Monday weekends, because Saturday is Full Cast Nutcracker Mayhem) before the madness that is Nutcracker: the performance run.
I’m still in the up and down of learning to be a company dancer. Some days I’m like, “I’m coming along” be others I’m like, “What do I even think I’m doing?” I think that’s probably normal, though, especially when you’ve made your entrée into company life by the “wing and a prayer” method.
I have a ways to go before I feel like my worst ballet days are stage-worthyish, which really has to be your standard when you are part of a company people pay good money to see. Fortunately, the roles I’m doing in the shows that cost money are light on the fancy technique as yet.
The Friday before last, Mr D said to me, “You have so much talent. You just need to hone it.” That was a powerful thing. It helps to be reminded, from time to time, that I’m not just experiencing delusions of grandeur, here.
Anyway, I’m here and I’m dancing and sometimes I’m even okay at it. Hope you’re out there killing it, whatever it is you do.
I took my first company class on Tuesday and dove into my first ballet company rehearsal on Wednesday. Our AD (who I quite like) has been putting me to work learning basically everything and dancing in two of the pieces for our season-opener.
Our company now comprises four boys and more than four girls … I keep meaning to count them but I keep forgetting ^-^’ All of them have more experience than I do, but that’s okay. I’m working my booty off catching up, and the challenge is good for me.
Surprisingly, I find it comfortable to be the least experienced dancer in this context. I’m used to being at the top of the class and having to set an example. It’s nice to be able to relax, acknowledge my weaknesses, and just learn like crazy. I don’t have to try to be the best dancer in the room: I already know I’m not the best dancer in the room. I just have to try everything and work like crazy. Those are things I know how to do.
The “trying everything” bit has led to some surprises. I have done at least one double tour on purpose this week. I realized part of my problem is that I wasn’t really snapping my legs in tiiiiiiight. I think I wrote about this once before: to make a double tour work, you really have to turn yourself into a pencil, and do it FAST.
There have, of course, been plenty of non-surprises. When I get tired, I still get swaybacked, and I still let my ribs splay. I’m working on it. When I don’t get in my own way, I’ve got a lot of jump. I have nice feet. I have a habit of throwing my head back in my turns. When I’m unsure, I pull back into myself; I can get very internal. Sometimes I run myself over in grand allegro.
The cool part is that I feel like I now have the opportunity to work on all of those things. I’ve had great classes for the past few years, don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t be doing this right now if I hadn’t. What I haven’t had is class at this level every single day, five days a week, or the opportunity to take what I’ve been working on in class and immediately apply it in rehearsal.
Unsurprisingly, I like the work. Although I don’t really know anyone very well yet, there’s a kind of peace in being a dancer among dancers. We’re all movers, artists, and obsessed people with intense work ethics. If it’s close to lunch and the AD says, “Let’s run it again!” you might hear a little grumbling, but then everyone runs the piece like it’s the first thing we’ve done today.
I like the structure. I like knowing that I fit somewhere in the company. I don’t in the least mind that, for the moment, my particular spot is “The New Boy.” Being the New Boy means I can only get better (or fail to make an effort and bomb completely, but that’s not my style).
It means the world to me that our AD has taken me on as kind of a protegé. I am grateful for the body that I have, which is well-made for ballet, and especially for my feet, which are apparently all that and a bag of chips (they’re the thing that basically every ballet teacher I’ve ever had has mentioned most specifically). At this point it’s up to me to make the most of what I’ve been given, and to live up to the faith Mr. D has placed in me.
And to learn the slave variation from Le Corsaire and nail down an overhead press lift o.O’
For what it’s worth, that’s a terrible title for this post. I’m currently struggling to figure out how to do exactly that, because my schedule will be shifting rather dramatically in about three weeks, Because Reasons (which I’ll discuss further in about four weeks, or something like that: to know, to will, to dare, to restrain oneself to “vaguebooking” for the time being :P).
There are people who will tell you that in their years of training and performing, they never once took a rest day. Because I am
a giant chicken bad at dealing with conflict attempting to learn to be a receptive listener, I always restrain myself from immediately asking, “Okay, so how long did it take you to seriously injure yourself or come down with a stress-induced illness?”
But I’ll admit that I think it.
The human body didn’t evolve to work as relentlessly as dancers work. To train in dance is to tax your body to a degree that’s probably best described as “really rather ludicrous.” To do so without adequate rest is, as far as I’m concerned, not a very good idea. I’m not an expert in much of anything, but I’m pretty sure that my opinion is consistent with those of experts in fields like exercise physiology, the neuroscience of learning, and so forth.
As much as I love L’Ancien’s class, and as important as it is to my training, I took this morning off. I took this morning off because Friday has historically been my day off, but obviously couldn’t be this week, and I can’t take tomorrow off (tech rehearsal), and days off are actually pretty important.
As much as I hated missing L’Ancien’s instruction (and all the stories that he tells along the way), it was worth it to me to give my brain and body a day to recoup their resources. Besides, L’Ancien is teaching on Wednesdays now, so I’m not missing all of his classes for the week.
The weird part is that there was a time in my life that I couldn’t imagine living with a schedule in which my minimum two days off per week weren’t back-to-back, let alone living with only one day off per week. But I love what I’m doing now, so now I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum: if I don’t dance for a couple of days in a row, things feel weird.
Still, the one day off is critical. When I get to the end of my six days—especially if they’ve been six long and demanding days—it feels good to loaf in bed and read for a while, and then have time to work around the house and do some further loafing in the bath. My legs inevitably appreciate the break, especially when there’s been a lot of jumping and not so much adagio.
It’s tempting, when you’re trying to make progress in an art form that speaks to your soul, to charge ahead on full steam. It’s also a recipe for over-training, which leads to physical and mental burnout, and undercuts the progress one hopes to make.
As dancers, we are driven people. Beyond a certain level, dance demands a kind of religious devotion; a vocation. It demands discipline (read: motivation + drive), and it demands disciplines.
For people working under religious vocations, the disciplines are things like prayer (or meditation), fasting, waking up before dawn, silent contemplation, and so forth. Different paths offer different disciplines, but the goal is the same: the Disciplines might not necessarily be what anyone particularly wants to do all the time, but they’re essential tools in the life of a contemplative or any other religious person.
For dancers, the Disciplines are things like class (as some of my friends and I call it, “The Liturgy of the Barre”), Pilates, stretching, suffering on the rack … I mean, the foam roller, actually bothering to eat like fueling your body matters (it does), and rest.
Like religious disciplines, all these things can be beautiful and rewarding in their own right, but that doesn’t mean we’re always in the mood. We do them whether or not we feel like it, because that’s the only way to move forward.
It may seem strange to think of rest as a discipline. Yet, in a culture (the modern Western world) that seems almost suicidally devoted to the philosophy of Get Up And Go, and in a subculture (dancer culture) in which hard work is the sole port of entry, it has to be.
To undertake a discipline is usually to add in something you don’t want to do or give up something you do want to do, because it will help you achieve something you want even more.
- This is why motivation is critical: I don’t believe in discipline in the way a certain subset of life-coachy types does. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: discipline is just motivation in action. You have to be more motivated to do the “disciplined” thing than to do whatever else you might do … even though the “disciplined” thing might not seem as rewarding in the immediate moment. If you’re not, you’re simply not going to do it. So “discipline” isn’t some magic gift; it’s a question of figuring out A] what really motivates you and B] how to harness that motivation to achieve your goals. Likewise, motivation isn’t quite as simple as we like to think it is: we’re often really bad at identifying the things that actually motivate us, and much better at identifying the things we think should motivate us. We come up with the wrong answer to the question, “How do I get myself to do this?” and then wonder why we fail.
Rest then, for dancers, is very much a Discipline. We don’t want to take a day off when we could be taking a class that we love. We don’t want to go to bed at 10 PM because we have to get up at 6 to drive across the state for a 9 AM class (egads: I loved David Reuille’s class SO MUCH, but I am also SO GLAD that I don’t have to be in Lexington by 8:45 any time soon). We don’t want to skip going out with our friends.
But we do (the last of the three is often the easiest for me, possibly because almost all my friends are dancers and I know I’m going to see them in class anyway). We do it because it’s good for us as dancers. It helps us achieve our goals.
We do it also, perhaps, because we know that there will be weeks when we don’t get a rest day.
I’m not sure that it’s at all possible to bank rest (there’s some argument in favor of recouping lost sleep, but I don’t think rest is quite the same), but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
This is one of the worst-organized posts I’ve written in a long time, but what I’m trying to say is this: there will be people in your life as a dancer who will sneer at you when you tell them that rest is important to you.
Ignore them. They’re wrong.
Even Nureyev, whose capacity for work remains legendary, valued rest above almost all else. He was aware that if you were going to spend ten hours in the studio transforming yourself in to a genius of the artform, you also needed to sleep for roughly ten hours.
Rest isn’t laziness (not that laziness is inherently bad, either: “laziness” is another word for “maximal efficiency,” there’s much to be learned from the self-professed laziness of bike racers, who do everything to maximize their efficiency both on the bike and off).
Rest is a Discipline.
Rest is saying, “No,” so that later you’re able to say “Yes.”
If there’s one thing I think most of us can do as dancers to improve our ability to learn and grow and perform, it’s learning to see rest as sacred.
To see rest as sacred is to vigilantly guard the time we set aside for it, to refuse to be dissuaded from resting, and (when necessary) to preach the gospel of rest as an aid to work.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some serious resting to do, and the bathtub is calling my name.
On Saturday, a bunch of us from only weeds will rise in winter descended upon Churchill Downs’ opening night Fund for the Arts gala to perform excerpts from the show in pop-up form.
It went well (though I was a complete disaster on Sunday because I got dehydrated :P). We were a tad awkward at first, but as the night went on we got things nailed down and started tacking on a long-form improv after the set choreography. That just got better and better: the last round was awesome, even if almost no one was left to see it!
Anyway, I’m feeling more and more confident about weeds, even if I was a complete PITA to our choreographer-director on Sunday (sorry, AMS!).
- I was having an exceptionally difficult time with receptive language processing, but didn’t realize it ’til after rehearsal was over, so I was constantly screwing things up and being mad at AMS about it. Ugh.
In other news, I’ve started working on choreography for my PlayThink piece, and I think it’s going to be quite cool indeed. A friend of mine might be joining me, which would be even cooler. There are parts of it I can’t do very effectively in my house (too many obstacles!!!), but the performance takes place at an outdoor venue that doesn’t have a fancy floor, so now that it’s warm I can practice it in my back yard.
I’m hoping to have settled a group of dancers for shadowlands or whatever I’m calling it soon, because SUDDENLY IT IS ABOUT TO BE MAY WTF.
I am so not good at recruiting people, and really really not good at recruiting people when I have no idea where I’m going to take them to rehearse. Blargh.
On the other hand, L and I have come up with some really solid choreography for the CL/UofL collabo show, so that’s going quite well.
We also just launched rehearsals for the SPA show, which is going to be amazing.
Obviously, my schedule is completely wack right now, and I’m trying to learn how to eat and sleep in the midst of it. What works best food-wise, of course, is simply to cook a couple of huge batches of whatever when I happen to have time. Sleep-wise, on the other hand … eek, who knows?
So that’s it for the moment. Class notes later probably?
I get this question a lot.
That and, “How long did it take you to get your center split?”
The answers are, in short, “Very little, in any formal sense,” and, “About two seconds.”
There’s an assumption among dance students that work is the great equalizer.
That assumption is largely correct—and yet it doesn’t mean that individual variations in innate ability do not occur, or that enough work will overcome all of them.
Most human beings will never achieve a center oversplit. This isn’t because they won’t work hard enough, but because they have normal human pelvises that don’t allow it.
Many human beings will never achieve a even a full center split, in fact.
The center split may be the least malleable feat of flexibility. Unlike the front splits, which simply extend the natural range of motion of the average human hip joint complex, it is enormously dependent on genetics. Even early training exerts only a small degree of influence, as far as I can tell. A full center split requires both soft-tissue flexibility and unusual hip sockets. One is amenable to training; the other might possibly be very slightly amenable to rigorous training at an age at which most children’s parents are much more concerned with basic skills than with the potential eventuality of flat center splits.
I don’t think the group of human beings who have center oversplits is very large. Even though I move in ballet and cirque circles, I can count the examples I know personally on one hand with fingers to spare. And that’s counting myself.
In short, the same characteristics of the hip socket that give us the required range of motion also make us unusually prone to hip dislocations (upright bipedalism a harsh mistress).
Back in the day, a dislocated hip was almost certainly a good way to get eaten by the nearest predator (or otherwise eliminate yourself from the gene pool), thus greatly reducing the likelihood of passing on the genes that allow for extreme hip flexibility. In short, center oversplits are maladaptive in an evolutionary context, and thus exceedingly rare even though we’ve largely decoupled ourselves from natural selection pressures (though it would be interesting to see where we stand in another hundred thousand years or so).
So often in Western culture, we equate talent—that is, raw, innate ability —with virtue.
This tendency may be at its most visible in the movement arts: professional training selects for people who both possess innate ability and who work hard, but it’s the innate ability that the average person-on-the-street cites: “Wow, she’s so talented!”
The phenomenon of TV talent shows hasn’t helped. So often, the word talent is right there in the title: America’s Got Talent. It’s too easy to conflate the rocket-to-stardom modality with the myth of talent.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, successful …Got Talent competitors work their butts off (or, in the case of dancers, on) to make the most of whatever measure of innate ability they have—but we see only the five minutes or so that they command the stage in each episode, unknowns to the public at large. They appear to emerge fully-formed, replete with the armor of their art, from the foreheads of the judges.
It’s too easy to ignore the work and sigh, “If only I was that talented!”
But it’s also too easy to fall into the opposite camp, which discounts innate ability entirely.
There’s a familiar impasse that one encounters if one sticks around long enough as an adult ballet student to reach a fairly advanced standard of training.
Newer students admire your talent and/or your work ethic—and then they ask you how they can learn to do the thing you’re doing with such ease (or, at any rate, apparent ease).
Most often, you can truthfully answer, “Work your tuchas off, take class with these three instructors, make three classes per week your bare minimum, and you’ll get there sooner than you think.” You can even gently guide the ones who want the results associated with setting ballet on the front burner without having actually done so. Sometimes this means helping them discover for themselves that they love dancing, but are really just there to have fun, and aren’t actually going to prioritize it enough to make the kind of progress they want (at least, not in the timeframe they’re imagining). Sometimes it means helping them give themselves permission to front-burner ballet.
- This last bit is pretty specific to adult students, who mostly seem to expect everything to take longer than it actually will. Kids can be very much the opposite.
Yet, sometimes, you’re forced to formulate on the fly an answer that gently conveys the idea that no matter how hard they work, their feet aren’t going to look like yours, because your feet are the result of a serendipitous confluence of genetic traits polished by work, or that they’re probably never going to nail a flat center split because their hips aren’t arranged in a way that allows for it. To say, in short: “I don’t have these feet because I’m a professional dancer. I’m a professional dancer because I have these feet … or, well, partly, anyway.”
The challenge, then, is figuring out how to explain the complicated ratio of talent to hard work—that, for the most part, hard work matters much more. It’s mostly at the highest levels (particularly in companies with very specific ideas about how dancers’ bodies look) that both hard work and talent matter almost equally: to dance for ABT or the Royal Ballet or the Kirov, one needs both in almost superhuman doses. Talent alone is certainly not enough, but hard work alone won’t do it, either.
And, then, even at the highest levels, dancers acknowledge that talent is distributed capriciously. Nobody gets it all, in part because some of the genetic gifts associated with success as a dancer (qv, those incredibly mobile feet and ankles everyone wants) actually make technique harder. Every dancer with beautiful feet can point to some other part of her body and say, “Yeah, but…”
As kids, we’re often given the impression that talent is everything. American culture is flush with fictional stories of raw, undeveloped talent that is miraculously discovered and immediately transported to the upper echelons of artistic success. That model sells, and fits in the with fairytale mode of instant transformation that colors so much of the media we market to children.
The downside is that, too often, this means talented people feel like they don’t have to work that hard. Vexingly, there are even some points at which this is true: I don’t really work on flexibility, for example.
- I work on its opposite: strength. A couple weeks without calf raises, and the mobility of my ankles makes one-foot relevé balances beastly hard.
Worse, it can create the impression that a lack of exceptional talent means one shouldn’t bother. This is also fundamentally untrue. The world is full of professional dancers who began with average measures of everything but the motivation to work (not to mention their sublimely-talented peers whose motivation led them to leave ballet). They may not be dancing at the Kirov, but they’re certainly dancing in your local company.
Although the ballet world is full of talented late-starters like Copeland and Hallberg, none of them owe their success to talent alone or even primarily. They are, to a person, incredible workers first and foremost. BW came to ballet very late—but his success owes in no small part to the fact that he does sixteen turns after every class, trains in ankle weights, attends to every detail fastidiously, and simply works like the world depends on it.
And yet: he’s tall-but-not-too-tall, physically beautiful, and gifted with hip mobility equal to mine.
His work is devoted to improving what is already a very fine instrument. His work will probably take him farther than mine does—in part because he actually does work harder than I do, but also because he’s taller than I am (but not too tall). Perhaps it shouldn’t matter, and perhaps at some future time it won’t—but right now it’s a matter of course that ultimately a principal dancer is by default a prince, and we imagine that the prince should be tall and regal. Someone of my middling height and middling talent (as compared to the range of professional dancers, rather than to the population at large) might be Seigfried at Backyard Ballet Theater, but never at PNB or ABT, even if I hadn’t taken a long break from dancing.
I should say that I’m not bitter at all about this. I would never in a million years complain about being asked to dance Seigfried or Albrecht or Cavalier (though, like, couldn’t he have a name, y’all?), not least because I love partnering and the princes get almost all the most tender, most beautiful pas de deux.
But give me, any day, the fireworks of the Russian dance, the simmering sensuality of Arabian, the aerial grace of Bluebird, or the wild abandon of Le Corsaire’s famous slave. Give me the corps part I danced last year in Orpheus: a mad, sensuous, pyrotechnic demon of the shadowy depths. Give me the ridiculous athleticism of the peasant pas in Giselle (two very, very long passages of balls-to-the-wall balletic redlining jammed into a lively pas de deux).
It is to these peripheral roles that I’m best suited both by temperament and by physical aptitude. I don’t begrudge the lack of lofty height that will mean I only ever dance Prince What’s-His-Name at summer programs and if all of the taller guys at Podunk Ballet simultaneously come down with flu.
Ultimately, part of becoming a dancer is accepting your limitations.
BG will be the first to tell you he has biscuits of the highest order: but then he’ll show you his carriage, his élan, and his ballon.
BW explained to me the downside of our shared extreme hip mobility: we work twice as hard doing turns in second, for example, because we have to use our muscles to hold ourselves together where other dancers can rely on their bones to do much of the the work. My flexibility, in fact, means I’m prone to dancing like a slinky.
In the grand scheme of things, whether or not you have a center split means less than whether or not you know how to work with what you’ve got.
I don’t stretch very much because the last thing I need, as a dancer, is looser joints. I have a center oversplit because I’m a mutant with an unstable pelvis.
I’m not a dancer because of either of those things. I’m a dancer because the only thing I really want to do is dance, and because I’m lucky enough to be in a position that allows me to apprentice myself as I’m doing now in professional jobs that pay only intermittently. I’m a dancer, in short, because I dance.
This isn’t to say that I my body is not an advantage. It is. I do no one any service by saying otherwise.
But in the end, it’s top-dressing.
If I’m auditioning and my only competition is a physically-similar dancer with the same degree of training and the same work ethic but a body that’s not quite as purpose-built for ballet, there’s a fair chance I’ll come out on top. Give that other dancer a year or two more training or a work ethic comparable to BW’s, though, and my edge vanishes.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying this:
Don’t worry too much about your center split. You might never have one.
If you want to dance, that’s almost never the deciding factor.
Worry instead about your training and your work ethic. If you’re feeling unmotivated, figure out why and how you can hack your motivational system to work around it (concrete goals work for me; an upcoming show works better than anything).
Ask yourself, in the words of the British rowing team, “Does it make the boat go faster?” If it doesn’t, find a way to put it aside. Come back to it later, maybe: but know that later on it might not seem so important.
Know your weaknesses, and work on them within reason: but not at the expense of knowing and honing your strengths.
Ballet is too hard to spend time and energy making it harder.
But, first: Good Pesach, y’all!
…Assuming that it is in fact still Saturday. Honestly, being off sick has really screwed up my internal calendar. (I dare not even contemplate what it’s probably doing to my internal- and external rotators .__.,)
Dear Northern Hemisphere,
I’ve officially switched to my springtime header, so if winter decides to repeat its coda* yet again, sorry about that.
You may lodge any complaints with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration**, which is clearly losing its battle with the capricious demiurges of weather, who in turn don’t want any snot-nosed dance blogger*** telling them what to do.
Your Humble Danseur
*Prolly the Nutcracker Prince, amirite? Because obvs. Winter. Always showboating. SMH
**These are the folks who run the US weather machines, yesno?
***Who hopes to be slightly less snot-nosed soon, through the miracle of modern medicine?
Yesterday I checked in with my GP, who is awesome on numerous levels (not every doctor closes out an appointment with, “When’s your next show?! You have to tell me so I can get tickets!”). She confirmed my sinus infection and sent me off with a ton of prescriptions—specifically, levofloxacin and pseudoephedrine, plus the usual generic Adderall—which I proceeded to fill at the usual CVS.
I’m sure my local band of intrepid pharmacists think I’m basically a crank addict or running a meth lab or whatevs. (Crank is speed, right? Yesno? Why, of course there’s an answer for that question on the internet.) I can see why they might think that, given my prescriptions and the fact that this end of town is sort of known for that sort of thing.
Really, though, I just want to be able to breathe through my nose and adult.
At the same time, even.
And, sadly, while psuedoephedrine marginally improves my adulting abilities, it doesn’t do so effectively enough that I could, say, skip the Adderall for now. Adderall, meanwhile, does exactly nothing for my congestion, as best I can tell.
So, there you have it.
Normally, the combination of psuedoephedrine and Adderall doesn’t actually make me feel like anything other than a person who can both breathe and efficiently accomplish important goal-directed behaviors pertaining to daily life. Apparently, however:
(psuedoephedrine + Adderall + coffee) * feververtigo resulting from inner-ear wonkiness
= high AF
>_____> o_____O’ <_____<
At least, to be honest, I assume that’s what being high AF feels like. My illicit substance-use history comprises, in short, the occasional glass of wine and a few beers (and never more than two in one day) prior to age 21. At one time, it was because I was that annoying judgmental straightedge kid; at other times, it was a function of fear of addiction; now it’s just basically force of habit. Which just goes to show that anything can become a habit.
- I did get very tipsy at my Mom’s New Year’s Eve party when I was 17, which involved exactly one flute of champagne. I then went upstairs and proceeded to watch Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, because OMFG I was so embarrassingly Serious and Earnest in high school, and senior year was peak Serious & Earnest territory.
- Not that all straightedge kids are annoying and judgmental. Some are awesome and humble and all that. I just wasn’t one of them. Ugh. Can you tell I’ve been watching The Mortified Guide…?
Anyway, I’m just not sure how else to describe the weird state of consciousness in which one is both somehow very, very like awake but also … floaty. Spacey.
Not, like, Kevin Spacey. More like this kind of spacey:
Admittedly, I probably could’ve skipped the coffee … but I decided, as one does, that since I was officially not contagious I should peel myself out of bed and go to rehearsal, and that involved driving, which involved staying awake.
Which was a problem, because awake was the one thing my body absolutely, positively did not want to be. (Actually, there are a whole host of other things it didn’t want to be, but they’re all basically subsets of awake.)
Honestly, the single most alarming thing about this particular sinus infection has been the absolutely crushing fatigue.
Like, driving home from my doc’s office, I was constantly fighting the urge to just close my eyes and go to sleep. Not, mind you, just thinking, “Gosh, I’m really sleepy, *yawn*” but actively having to tell myself:
DO NOT CLOSE YOUR EFFING EYES, MORON. NO. NO. OPEN THEM BACK UP. IT IS NOT OKAY TO BLINK FOR 5 SECONDS AT A TIME.WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!
This, remember, is me: the Boy Who Stayed Awake. I do the driving on all our road trips because I can stay awake more or less indefinitely as long as I’m sitting upright (read: I can only sleep sitting up with assistance from modern pharmacology, and have been like that my entire life).
The same person for whom achieving a night’s rest typically involves less “going to sleep“ than “lying there in hope that sleep will eventually trip over me on its way to meet someone in the Pacific Time Zone.”
Like, literally, I only realized last year that people can actually, you know, actually go to sleep.
ON PURPOSE!!! (You guys! I’m serious! What even is that?!)
So having to fight to stay awake … WHILE DRIVING, no less … is something of a novelty.
One that I addressed by drinking WAY THE HECK TOO MUCH COFFEE.
Anyway, basically I floated my way through rehearsal in a state that resembled somehow experiencing that hypnagogic sense of falling through space whilst remaining upright and alert (well … more or less).
Fortunately, the part of the show that we worked last night mostly takes place sitting at a group of tables, and I was able to mark it without actually having to fall on the floor (technically called for at various points, but not necessary when marking). Which is good, because had I made it to the floor it’s highly unlikely that I would then have made it back off the floor.
Then I ate a bunch of chicken-flavored crackers, recopied my choreography notes (you guys, I have never done a piece that involves this much writing: this thing is complicated), and went back to bed. Exciting, right?
Amazingly, I’m pretty sure I actually learned the choreography I needed to learn. See all those letters in circles at the bottom of the right-hand column? Those are 4-count phrases. There are six of them, continuously mixed and re-mixed throughout the piece, comme Rosas Danst Rosas (speaking of which: if you haven’t seen Rosas yet, you can watch the whole thing there … and then, if you’re feeling inspired, you can create your own take on it as part of a worldwide project).
The longer I spend in the rarified climes of the dance world, the more I realize that I am the kind of dancer who learns modern choreography best by, in short, brute force.
Show me a phrase once, and I’ll feck it right up. If I’m lucky, I’ll have shot a good mental video so I run over it again and again in my head and have learned it by the time I’m halfway home.
Show me a phrase, then walk me through it three times, and I’ll start to give it back to you accurately. Let me run it around six times, and I’ll start adding musicality and nuance.
- I pick up ballet choreography much, much faster: usually I need one demonstration, and I’m good. That doesn’t mean I’ll do it correctly after seeing it once, but it does mean I know what I’m supposed to be doing and can hypothetically fix my own errors.
This means, in short, that I struggle at modern auditions, but I quickly become an asset in rehearsal.
The downside is that it makes me very hesitant to rehearse modern choreography on my own, because I’m afraid I’ll misunderstand part of the demo and train myself into a step that isn’t there, or that goes somewhere else, or whatever. I develop pretty strong motor patterns, and fixing them can be a challenge.
I also managed to come up with my own special shorthand notation for the set phrases that are remixed and sequenced throughout the piece:
That felt like rather a stroke of genius, to be honest.
I’m not primarily a verbal learner, but in ballet contexts I use the names of steps (or, well, sometimes the nicknames I’ve privately given them) synchronized to the rhythm of the music (or the counts) as a backup system for when I’m missing a piece of my visual and kinaesthetic maps. This little cheat-sheet of four-counts represents a surprisingly successful attempt to create that same kind of backup system in a modern-dance context.
The sort of tablature of notes further up evolved over the course of the first day of rehearsals, though I’ve refined it a bit since the first iteration. It acts as a framework; kind of a score, if you will, to keep track of what happens when.
At the beginning, for my group, so much of this piece is counting like crazy, then throwing in some small-but-important gesture. Even “PAUSE” has a specific meaning entirely disparate from “HOLD.”
Totally failed to write about my own show, as you do. 😆
It went well—not perfect, but well enough that the audience thought it was. I got a nice word from our director, BG: “Your musicality was perfect.” As a dancer, that’s not a word you hear often.
Also quite a few nice words from folks in the audience—friends and perfect strangers both. E’s husband told me: “You stole the show—I mean that as a compliment!” That was a lovely thing to hear, but I think the best thing was K’s friends, who described my dancing to her as “powerful,” among other lovely words I wish I remembered right now.
K, meanwhile—my friend-turned-ballet partner who made me take myself seriously as a dancer some while back by telling me that I reminded her of Nureyev— described my attitude turn as beautiful, floating, and apparently effortless, with the free leg raised to 90 degrees.
I was glad to hear that, because in both the tech run and the full dress run I didn’t account for how remarkably grippy this particular batch of Marley was and wound up with 3/4s of an attitude turn and the world’s tiniest promenade 😅 During the actual show, it felt great, but that’s not always the most accurate barometer!
In the end, I think everyone was pretty happy with things.
There’s an immense peace that comes over me when I’m on stage. It’s like being immersed entirely in the stream of the present. Time is at once infinite and fleeting. Choreography appears like a divine gift. I don’t have to think about it: it’s just there.
There was a weird moment right at the beginning when I realized, with surprise, not only could I actually see part of the audience quite clearly, but was sharing a moment of eye contact with a woman out in the seats. That was really, really cool—also a crystal-clear visual memory that I’ll carry forever.
- In many theaters, the lighting renders the audience effectively invisible. You might catch the glare off an eyeglass lens, but that’s about it.
There’s something special about realizing that, hey, there are actual people out there, and they’re connected with what you’re doing, and it means something to them. For some performers, that’s kind of a nightmare, but I loved it—especially for this piece, which was full of emotion and human connections (both literal and metaphorical).
Anyway, we followed our terpsichorean triumph with one heck of a party, then hauled our heineys outta bed for class (my calf was iffy, so I opted not to jump—Memorial is a beautiful house, but the floor is pretty hard, and we did a bunch of jumps in our warm-up class before the show). Followed that with an hour of contact improv and 3 hour rehearsal: #dancerlife never stops 😛
This morning I opted to stay home and rest the legs a little, even though I’m adding Monday AM to the rotation. Back to class as usual tonight.
Possibly the best news: BG asked us at our party how we’d feel about performing more often. He has plans in the works. Obviously, I’m so there.
In the meanwhile, though, the next blip on my radar is another gala thing, this time with an excerpt from the Culture of Poverty, on April 30th.
Four years ago, when I stepped back into the studio, I never would have imagined living this life.
Honestly, if you’d described it to me, with all its chaos and exceedingly complicated scheduling, I would have, like, fainted (though it was wouldn’t have changed much, if anything).
In the end, though, this is what happens when we stumble into a driving passion: it, like, you know, drives.
And now, back to our regularly-scheduled laundry day.
So here’s how we’re doing on the work front so far this year:
- Culture of Poverty: I got B Cast, which is great. Last year, I don’t think I would’ve made the cut. I think I might’ve mentioned this already. We start rehearsals Sunday, basically as soon as I get back from BDSI’s SI audition.
- Collabo show: my piece got a green light, and I’ve got a partner to work with, so that’s rolling forward. We start reheasals on Thursday.
- Suspend company: I’ve got a company spot, and we’re on to callbacks for specific casting next.
- PlayThink: this year, I’m both performing and teaching. I’m pretty excited about that, y’all! …Speaking of which:
- And, of course, I’ll continue with CirqueLouis.
It’ll be interesting to see how rehearsal schedules shake out for all of this stuff.
This weekend, I’ll be jetting over to Lexington for the Ballet Detroit Summer Intensive audition. I have no idea, honestly, if I’ll make the cut, but I can say that last year I wouldn’t have been brave enough to go. A friend of mine from LexBallet SI is also going, so that’s pretty exciting!
I’m trying to go into it with the mindset that, regardless of the outcome, I can learn a lot from the audition process, and in many ways it’ll be a lot like taking a masterclass (only presumably with a number pinned to your shirt :P).
The weird part is that it’s hard to imagine that my first successful audition was last year, and that before then I felt pretty unsure about auditioning for things in general.
One of the general goals I set down for this year was to reduce my impostor syndrome about working in dance. I think that part of that is going out and auditioning for things—taking risks; seeing how things work out—and another part is choosing atleast some of my auditions strategically, based on my own strengths as a dancer and what kinds of dancers are needed in different markets.
Though I am making money as a dancer now, I’ve come to regard what I’m doing this year as a kind of apprenticeship. Not to say that my command of technique is finished—nobody’s ever done learning technique—but I’m learning the elements of artistry; how to approach roles; how to take direction and use it effectively (I try to be biddable, so to speak, but I don’t know if I always apply direction as well as I could).
I’m lucky to have good mentors in the midst of all this stuff. Señor BeastMode, in particular, has given me a lot to think about for our Showcase piece this year. I think last year he was kind of feeling us out; figuring out how much technique he could throw at us, given the compressed rehearsal schedule.
This year, he’s giving me very specific directions about approaching the role I’m playing in this piece—what kind of movement quality he’s looking for, how to use my eyes, etc. I’m learning how to ask questions to clarify points I don’t quite get in ways that get the answer I’m actually looking for (all too often, I’ll ask, “What was the thing at the end of that phrase?” in a way that sounds like, “What was the beginning of that phrase?”).
This is all stuff I can carry into the other jobs I’ll be doing this year—and into every job I land going forward. To some extent, these are also the points that determine what kinds of jobs you land as a dancer. Being able to ask a clarifying question intelligently at an audition isn’t a bad thing and, of course, reputation matters in a community as small as the dance community.
I’ll also, obviously, be spending this year learning to juggle the insane schedule that seems to be pretty much the hallmark of #dancerlife always and everywhere 😛 It may sound trivial (it may not: you guys know me pretty well by now :D), but part of me is like, “Holy crap, I’m going to have to figure out how to cook and eat food in here somewhere.”
So, basically, I’m doing the stuff you do as a company trainee, only I’m working for 2 different companies as a non-trainee ^-^
Anyway, I’m pretty excited about the coming year, busy though it’s likely to be.
Yesterday, D and I met up with some of my ballet girls at a showing of the Norwegian documentary Ballet Boys, which follows three teenage dancers at a critical period in their training—the point at which they’re deciding whether to continue training and possibly to pursue careers as dancers.
One of the three is absolutely all-in. The other two aren’t as certain. One of them mentions the reality that one faces as a dancer in training: that there’s no time for a typical adolescent social life. He walks away, briefly, from dance—but he literally can’t stop dancing, and ultimately he returns.
I was reminded of a conversation I had not long ago with my friend RH: I said something about how working in dance involves a lot of sacrifice, but it’s willing sacrifice, joyfully given. He said something to the effect that he didn’t see how sacrifice came into it.
For a second, I honestly felt kind of angry. I almost responded with anger.
Then I realized that my anger was the knee-jerk response that dancers evolve as a defense against the fact that people who don’t dance haven’t the faintest hint of a clue about how hard it is; how much it demands. They often seem to legitimately believe that we spend all our time riding unicorns and eating cotton candy and swimming in the fountains of money we get paid for it, when in fact our lives are more akin to monastic vocations—we work grindingly hard, often for peanuts, because we’re called to the Work.
And then I realized that, okay, from his perspective, the commitment and sacrifice required probably aren’t visible, let alone obvious.
RH doesn’t dance, but he knows that I love dancing. He knows that dancing makes me unbelievably happy.
He works in technology, and he loves tech—but he doesn’t love his work in the all-consuming way that I love dancing. The work that he does in the tech sector isn’t the work he’d choose to do if money was no object, and it doesn’t always really work for him. Dancing is absolutely the work I would choose to do if money was no object, and it works for me in a way that nothing else ever has.
Perhaps a bit ironically, I’m working in dance in part because, at the moment, money is an object: to dance at the level I want to, I need to make dance pay for itself. But it’s still what I’d be doing if we suddenly received a windfall that would set us up for life.
That doesn’t, however, mean there’s no sacrifice involved.
Every now and then, someone will say to me, “I wish I could do what you’re doing.”
I try to listen and respond with kindness; with an openness to the nuances of meaning that underpin what they’re saying. I try to factor in things like financial challenges and family commitments (kids change everything).
But what I want to say, most of the time, is this: You could.
Part of what people are saying, when they say that, is this: I wish I was talented enough.
Sometimes, the people saying it are more talented than I am. They may not have as much training, but in terms of raw aptitude, they have the goods. They just need the training to use their aptitude.
I have pretty strong aptitude for dance, don’t get me wrong—but talent isn’t really the deciding factor.
Sometimes they mean, “I wish I’d danced as a kid.” There’s an assumption that it’s essential to start before your bones stop growing—especially in ballet.
Early training does exert some influence—but it’s not the deciding factor, either. My bones are constructed in a way that allows for 180-degree turnout; my feet were definitely shaped by my early training. But there are much, much better dancers than I—professionals at major companies with a lifetime of training and still have less turnout and mediocre feet; but also late-starters without great turnout or awesome feet who have gone on to forge careers out of nothing.
Early training isn’t the deciding factor, either.
The deciding factor, at the end of the day, is sacrifice.
So what, then, do I sacrifice to work in dance?
First and foremost, time.
To work in dance, you have to dance. Dancing eats up oceans of time.
It’s not like training to race bikes as a serious amateur. That you can do around a life that allows some time for other pursuits. You work to develop fitness and riding skills and racing know-how—but a lot it you can do (and ultimately do do) alone, in the interstitial hours around the job that pays for the bike and the racing license and the entry fees.
Dancing requires technique, fitness, and artistry. All of these things, in turn, require a time-commitment that will eat your life. You can potentially fit your training in around another job (and make no mistake, your training is a job), but in so doing you must acknowledge the fact that you will literally have time for nothing else.
I don’t race bikes anymore. I barely ride anymore. I don’t play video games that can’t be squeezed into a few minutes here or there. I’m never up to date on TV shows. I rarely manage to swing a night out, and when I do, it’s almost always with other dancers from the class or rehearsal that ends right before said night out.
I schedule my “life” around dancing. Even my occasional bouts of paid non-dance work are subject to the demands of class and rehearsal schedules. I give up weeks of the summer, when sane people are enjoying cookouts or canoeing, to sweat my ass off with other dancers in the interest of professional development (but also because I love dancing more than anything else).
I rarely manage to snag an evening alone with my husband. Fortunately, he’s okay with that. We make the most of whatever time we can grab.
If he wasn’t okay with that? To be honest, I’d still choose dance.
My time belongs to dance, and it will for the foreseeable future.
As a function of time, I’m also sacrificing money. I could land a job tomorrow that would pay thirty times or more the amount I made as a dancer last year. It might even allow me time to dance as a hobby. It would, in one fell swoop, make us very secure, financially-speaking.
It would also mean giving up the career, such as it is, that I’m building now.
Dance is a demanding muse.
I have back-burnered every other interest except circus arts, and circus arts make the cut only insofar as they allow me to function within them as a dancer and don’t interfere with actually dancing.
I still write, but I do my writing in shreds of time snatched at the ends and beginnings of my days. I often fall asleep while writing in bed.
I know it’ll take me longer to finish the projects I’m working on, but I don’t care.
These are a handful of the things that I’ve cast into the fire in the name of dance.
I don’t mind. They’re joyfully given. I would do all of it again in a heartbeat. If you forced me to live my life over, I’d even do it sooner.
But a sacrifice is a sacrifice, willing or not. That’s the one and only thing that separates me from my friends who would like to do what I’m doing.
- Except the ones who have kids. Denis is a consenting adult who can walk away if he gets sick of playing second fiddle to a career that pays poverty wages. When you have kids, you’re responsible for them in ways that force you to make different decisions. It can be impossible to do what I’m doing and keep the kids fed and housed. In short, kids change everything.
Sometimes, the same people who say they wish they could do what I’m doing are the ones who skip class to just chill, or who opt not to take rep class because it would conflict with game night, or what have you.
I restrain myself from saying, “You could do what I’m doing if you chose dance over everything else.”
Most of the time, I don’t say it.
I recognize that I wouldn’t have understood, back before I started dancing again and realized, finally, that dancing was the only thing I had ever really wanted to do. Either you step into the studio one day and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you would and will shove everything else off the table to keep dancing, or you don’t.
Both ways of being are valid, good, and necessary—but only one usually leads to working in dance.
As humans, we are great at wanting to want things.
I want to want to paint more often.
I just actually want to dance.
As dancers, we face the generally unconsidered, usually unspoken, and often unconscious assumption that a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice if you do it to achieve something that gives you joy; that helps you to be a whole.
And yet we recognize the sacrifices of medical students, many of whom pursue their calling for exactly same reason that dancers pursue dance.
As dancers, our calling places tremendous strictures on our time and finances; on our relationships and our personal lives. Just because we’re making art, rather than medicine, that doesn’t make our sacrifice less worthwhile.
Doctors, when they’re skilful and lucky, save lives by cracking open chests to work on hearts.
Dancers, when we’re skilful and lucky, save lives by cracking open hearts.
Sometimes, those lives are our own. Sometimes, they’re other lives.
Regardless, at the end of the day day, the life of a dancer—like any other dedicated life—is one of sacrifice.
Because of that, however, it is also one of transcendence.