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Last Year Vs This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFW

  • …you’re trying to figure out where to cram in a side-side-side gig so you can make some extra money this summer so you don’t have to worry as much about expenses during the main season >.<
  • …you realize that you’re performing at a gig you couldn’t currently afford to attend
  • you look at your summer rehearsal and performance schedule and realize that you have officially broken your summer break o.O’
  • …you discover that inflatable bathtubs exist ❤
  • …you realize that, although you don’t think of yourself as an ambitious person, you actually do have some pretty lofty goals that you want to achieve in your lifetime … they’re just not necessarily ones that chime with conventional ideas about “success”

Last week, DS and I put the final touches on our piece for PlayThink’s mainstage show, Gale Force rehearsals began, and I discovered that I do really freaking good turns if I don’t have contacts or glasses on (weird, right?).

My hypothesis about the turns thing is that being unable to see anything clearly prevents the following:

  1. Spotting too high … which I STILL do all too often :/
  2. Hyper-focusing on my spot spot. I didn’t realize I might be doing this until I paused to analyze the feeling of those really, really nice and effortless doubles (and one effortless triple) I tossed out there the other day. I think I get so fixated on the idea of ACTUALLY LOOKING AT AN ACTUAL THING IN THE ACTUAL WORLD that my neck stiffens up in an effort to fix my focus. A stiff neck doesn’t help your turns, guys.

I also finally started listening to Hallberg’s A Body of Work, which I bought on Audible before the season ended and have been putting off because … well, reasons, I guess. I don’t know precisely what those reasons are, though I could probably figure it out if I sat down with my inner being and had a good conversation.

I know part of it was just the sheer dread of having to hear The David Hallberg talking about his amazing successes as a dancer during a time when I was feeling like literally the worst dancer alive.

It turns out, though, that Hallberg is as engaging and humble as an author as he is lyrical and princely as a danseur. So it turns out that in addition to being a fabulous dancer he might ALSO be a fabulous human being. He certainly comes across as thoughtful and very, very human in his writing.

Curiously, many of his struggles are #relatableAF in fact. I found it immensely edifying to hear about his difficulties with his early efforts at partnering, you guys.

Speaking of edifying, I also got an offer for a full scholarship to a summer intensive in Europe, though sadly it coincides with tech and theater week for GFD’s show, so I can’t go. But it was really cool, anyway.

This summer I’m focusing on partnering, tuning up my turns, and NOT DOING DUMB THINGS WITH MY HANDS.

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QV, Dumb Hands Thing The First: do I think I’m going to, like, fly if I flap my hands, or…????

As you may or may not be able to tell from this picture, I’m also working on #BalletFitness … specifically:

  • strength
  • endurance
  • whittling down my thighs so I don’t have to fight with them in 5th position ;D

WRT that last one: I don’t mean spot-reducing; I mean focusing on using the right muscles so my stupid quads will chillax and get out da darned way, while focusing on eating good food so I don’t either gain a lot of weight or constantly feel puny and starved.

I’d like to reiterate, once again, that for me, the size of my thighs is a functional thing. There are people who are much softer and curvier than I am who can dance really well with much bigger thighs because their pelvises are arranged in a way that allows them to access a tight 5th position at their size (which might, for some of them, be harder at a samller size).

Over the past year or two, I’ve realized that I not only have hyuuge quads, but I also have very little clearance because of the way my pelvis and my humeri come together. This means that regardless of my apparently awesome capability for rotation in the hip joint, my 5th position is prone to difficulty because my big, stupid legs are in the big, stupid way.

I mean. They’re not really stupid legs. They’re good legs, Brent. They’re powerful legs. They make it easy for me to jump high and lift people (and yes, in case you’re wondering, you legs and core really do most of that work almost all the time).

But they are big, and they’re set close together, and those factors conspire to place them right in each-other’s way if I’m not vigilant about working in such a way that A) my quads don’t go, “COOL WE GOT THIS BRUH” and inflate to the size of intercontinental ballistic missiles* and B) there’s not much extra “fluff” to get in the way. “Fluff” is probably better than muscles, since it’s squishier, but there’s just no freaking room.

*intercontiental balletic missiles???

So basically I’m in the midst of this crazy transition during which I continue to be sort of flabbergasted by the fact that I am apparently doing this dancer thing now, but also not entirely flabbergasted in the same way I used to be. I don’t know exactly how to describe That Feeling When, so I’ll leave you instead with this lovely picture of ya boiii Mercutius T. Furbelow expressing his sentiments about the arrival of summer weather here in the 502:

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HIM DO A [ [ M E L T T ] ]

And this update on the status of my surgical scars (or relative lack thereof):

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Also, check out doze Classical Ballet Hairs. And Please Ignore My Kitchen, particularly the giant pile of recycling that I was about to take out when I took this, because we all know how staggeringly great I am at planning :/

 

The Valley of Decision

Where to begin? BP went well, as did LouBallet’s Spring Dance Festival. My group’s piece in our show in SDF got a resounding response from the audience and made our director happy, and those are the things that warm the cockles of a dancer’s heart, or at least this dancer’s heart.

BP was my first show with a Big Giant Head, and while the Big Giant Head itself was awesome (our costumer is AMAZING), dancing with it on was a learning experience, even though I did very little actual dancing. I had exactly one lift, which didn’t go well in our first full-dress rehearsal (it was impossible to make the established lift work with the costumes in question), so we changed it to a simple cradle lift that both looked fine and worked. Except in the closing show I somehow managed to bonk my Big Giant Head against my partner’s Big Giant Head, which caused my Big Giant Head to go slightly askew, which led to me almost running both of us into a leg curtain on the exit.

Fortunately at the last minute the curtain hove into sight in what was left of my peripheral vision, and I was able to take evasive action. No dancers were injured in the making of this ballet, or at least not by me[1].

  1. I did dance on a somewhat dislocated hip for three weeks, and I’m still paying for that.

So goes the glory of the stage, eh?

Anyway, on the last day of our season I was presented with a contract for 2019-2020. Since I’d just auditioned for another company with surprising success, this left me with a quandary: dance with New Company next year, which will let me stay at home and work on getting the house together, etc, or bite the bullet and rent a room in Lexington, knowing I’ll need to add a second job into the mix in order to cover my expenses?

I’d be lying if I said I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I’m doing the right thing, but I’ve pretty much decided to go ahead and re-up with Actual Ballet Company The First for next year, even though it’s potentially going to make my life more difficult. I think the structure of the full-time schedule is what I need right now, and while I love the fact that New Company has thrown me straight into the deep end[2], they rehearse part-time.

  1. Regarding which, I’m doing the Cinderella Pas De Deux[3] in their summer show, which is both delightful and terrifying because like, OMG Pas De Deux, but also NO PRESSURE o.O’
  2. Regarding which, summer ballet goal: “Improve Partnering Skills” looks like it’s getting checked off the list via the Baptism By Fire method

On the other hand, I really like the people and the company culture at New Company, and part of me feels like I might be making entirely the wrong decision. I’m not actually even sure who to consult about it, though I plan to buttonhole my various ballet peeps after class tomorrow (I’ve been out of commission for about 5 days thanks to a really nasty sinus/chest bug).

Technically I have until the 11th to hand in my contract.

I honestly didn’t expect to actually have, like, a choice at this point (or, for that matter, ever) in the thing I still have trouble calling “my career,” so to have a choice between two options that both have more bright spots than dark is sort of incomprehensible.

Either way, I’m embarking on a side-gig that should help keep me afloat throughout the season without also causing me to stop and catch fire, as it were.

Coming back to my old stomping grounds at LouBallet School after basically being away for the entire season, I’ve been able to see where I’m a stronger dancer than I was last September (and, of course, where I definitely still need work). I’ve been greatly enjoying class with L’Ancien, particularly the moments that I’ve actually managed to earn some shocking words of praise (don’t worry, though, to preserve my reputation I’ve made sure to be a complete screw-up whenever possible, and to do stupid things with my hands at all applicable times).

It’s weird, because one rarely has the chance to step away from the group of dancers with which one has done most of one’s meaningful training for a significant period of time, then return.

Anyway, needless to say, I’ve got my goals in order for the summer, and I’ll definitely be dancing somewhere in the fall.

I’ll also be dancing with New Company for the summer, which I suspect will be a delight. More on that soon. I don’t think I’ll be doing summer intensives, but I might do some masterclasses at LouBallet and LexBallet.

Summer Is Coming

I am, astoundingly, almost at the end of my first year as a company apprentice.

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OMG HOW IS IT 26 MARCH ALREADY?!!!

OMG, you guys. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN.

Our season officially ends the day after Beatrix Potter closes—which is to say, the 14th of April.

This, of course, means that it’s time to firm up the Summer Plans.

At the moment, two events are on the books: PlayThink on 12-16 June and Burning Man at the end of August.

At PlayThink I’ll be teaching a workshop (same basic format as last year’s) and performing. I plan to rope my poor long-suffering husband into my performance piece, because I’m just thoughtful like that ^-^ (Don’t worry, he’ll will have lots of props to play with, so he’ll be fine.)

PlayThink is in a new location this year, which is cool because we’ll have new playspaces to explore and stuff, though also a little bittersweet, as things are. I have grown to love HomeGrown Hideaways, and especially Nathan and Jessa, who own and run HGH, and it’ll be both exciting and weird to be PlayThinking in a different place.

superman

It wouldn’t be the same without him. I mean, like, literally. Without him, I’d just be lying on the ground.

This Saturday, the 30th, I’m auditioning for a July gig that should be pretty cool if I make the cut.

Beyond that, I need to figure out how to spend my summer making money, so I can cover my expenses for next year.

Ferrying myself back and forth to Lexington has been, shall we say, not inexpensive, so if I’m going to continue next year I need to figure out how to both bank some cash this summer and keep a steady income stream throughout the season to offset the cost of either commuting or renting a room in town.

Most of us have secondary jobs, but my commute has made it difficult to do more than the occasional brief contract gig this year. When I ride-share with D, I lose a whopping 6 hours per day after accounting for warm-up time, 2 hours’ commute each way, and the inevitable 30 – 60 minutes wait time between when I reach Bardstown and when D gets done at work. When I drive by myself, I’m still losing 3ish hours that I could spend making a little cash on the side.

I’m not complaining, of course: the opportunity to dance full-time has been a g-dsend, and I’m immensely grateful. I just could’ve, like, planned a little better. So I’m trying to be more proactive this time and, like, plan. And we all know how good I am at planning -.-‘

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Actual Footage of Me, Planning

Assuming that Circumstances Don’t Intervene, it will probably make more sense for me to rent a room in town and take a secondary job to cover my expenses. I’ve said that before, but haven’t given myself enough time to make it happen (you guys, that’s a lot of squirrels to juggle), so I’m trying to get well ahead of the curve this time.

However, there is at least some chance that Circumstances Will Intervene, in the form of Other Life Events that might throw a spanner in the works.

I’m not quite ready to write about the Other Life Events yet. It’s not that they’re bad (don’t worry, D and I are fine, and nobody’s dying), it’s just that everything in that specific part of the Life Events Department is so vague right now that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Like, in short, it relates to us potentially moving within the next couple of years, and I’m simultaneously excited about that and Very Not Thrilled at the idea of leaving behind the community of dance and circus friends and colleagues who have helped me kind of, like, find my way and finally start trying to grow up and stuff, and it’s a lot to think about and work on and involves Level 80 Adulting things like getting the house in shape and selling it and stuff.

Honestly, though, that’s more like Fall/Winter/Next Couple Of Years Plans, so it also kind of falls beyond the purview of this, my Tentative Summer Plans post.

So, to bring this back around to the point, I’m not currently planning on traveling for summer intensives this year—though, who knows, that could all change depending on how flexible the Making Money bit is and how well it goes. *shrug*

No matter what happens, I will definitely be dancing this summer, and in particular I’ll be focusing on making my turns really hecking solid and reliable, not leaning back all the danged time, and (ideally) improving my ballet partnering skills.

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It’s a Petit right in my Allegro, you guys.

Oh, and Petit Allegro, because everybody knows how much Petit Allegro loves me and how much I love it back >.<

But, like, that’s basically the same thing as just saying, “And I will work on sucking less at ballet,” because I suspect that I will spend the rest of my natural life doing battle with Petit Allegro, and it will probably still win. Petit Allegro is a worthy adversary, and all that. TBH, thus far, it has outlived every dancer who has ever lived, come to think of it, so my chances of defeating it are slim to none, eh?

 

Anyway. In summerary, here’s my plans for this summer thus far:

  1. PlayThink
  2. July Thing Maybe?
  3. Make Dat Money
  4. Burning Man
  5. Suck Less At Ballet

Further details to follow, of course, because besides “Dance Every Day” my other motto is apparently “Too Many Words.”

Ballet Lessons: On Being A Shy Dancer

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.

When you dance, the greatest resource available to you is your fellow dancers.

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.

Why?

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.

Christina demonstrating how I feel when I know I should ask someone about the choreography.

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.

A bright orange goldfish gazes out of its tank while other fish swim behind it.
“What were we supposed to do? Guess I’d better ask Goldie.”

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[1].

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.


Notes

  1. 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.

Still Not Dead Yet

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.

Reflections On The First Week

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.

herd of buffalo raging

Basically me coming in too hot in the grand allegro. (Photo by tyrese myrie on Pexels.com)

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’

The Discipline of Rest

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.

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What could possibly go wrong???

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[1].

  1. 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.

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I’ll admit, this might not look like a Discipline.

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.

shows and stuff and things

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!

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We also demonstrated that modern dancers don’t have to be so hecking serious allataimz.

Anyway, I’m feeling more and more confident about weeds, even if I was a complete PITA[1] to our choreographer-director on Sunday (sorry, AMS!).

  1. 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?

How Much Do You Stretch?

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[1].” 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.

  1. 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[2].

  1. 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.

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