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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.


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.


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.


  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.

Danseur Ignoble: En Dehors A Gauche…

… And I mean “gauche” in more than one sense.

Okay, class was actually mostly good today.  There were only four of us, so we all got a lot of close-up correction.

For whatever reason, my turns to the left were crazy.  We did the little balancé-pique-etc combo again, and for whatever reason, every time I would get to the pirouette en dehors on the left side, I would do something else entirely.

Edit: For some reason, I didn’t think to mention this, and I feel it’s useful intel.

Promenades are often done en dehors — that is, we pick up the heel just a tad and pivot just a scooch towards our insteps.

For whatever reason (read: because he is getting us really nailed to our legs), Brian likes to make us promenade en dedans — picking up the heel just a tad and pivoting just a scooch away from our insteps.

This requires a bit more finesse (particularly, I find, in retiré — I suspect my tendency to over-sproing is the culprit, there) — one must lift and scooch consistently, lest one roll one’s ankle to the outside, for example. It’s harder to roll one’s ankle the inside for the same reason that there are more sicklers than wingers in any given ballet class.

I have never yet seen these dudes in ballet class (photo of Winger, the band, via Exxolon at Wikimedia commons).

Seriously, I have never yet seen these dudes in ballet class (photo of Winger, the band, via Exxolon at Wikimedia commons).

For what it’s worth, I still think promenade is probably the second-most bizarre movement in the entirety of classical ballet, second only to that truly bizarre thing where you get into the ballet equivalent of a tabletop (working leg at 90 degrees, supporting leg in plie, back flat, arms in arabesque) and sort of scoot backwards across the floor (preferably without falling on your face).

Seriously, it’s not easy to do in the first place, but doing it without looking silly is nearly impossible (it works better in the midst of a choreographed piece, of course, but there’s still a part of me that’s all, “Grrrl, I respect your promenade, because I know those are so much harder than they look … but seriously, all you swans look crazy right now.”)

Brian noticed this and then made me do the promenade-and-turn sequence by myself until I got it right (fortunately, I am not afraid to look the fool in front of my classmates 😀 )

First, I picked up the wrong leg and turned en dehors a droit.   Next, I picked up the wrong leg and turned en dedans a droit.  Then I picked up the correct leg (the left one), but turned en dedans, because apparently I like making things harder than they need to be.

Finally, after doing every conceivable incorrect iteration, I did it right.

Oddly enough, it was much freaking easier to do it the right way than to do it any of the wrong ways.  That’s ballet for you, though.

This (and subsequent events; we all got our share today) made me really appreciate Brian’s gift for knowing his students; it also made me appreciate how important that is.

I, for example, am game but sometimes sloppy: I’m willing to attempt anything, but often enough I get major elements wrong at first.   I work from the big picture down (which is funny, because in the visual arts, I work the opposite way, and have really had to school myself in working out a larger composition first).

As a dancer, I’m really not at all cerebral — I have movies in my head (though not just movies; I also imagine force and movement and three-dimensional space, etc) and I try to make my body do what the “movies” depict.

Once I have the “sketch” of a movement down, I begin working on the finer details, until at last I have a polished movement.

This means that my style, as a dancer, is free and elastic and sometimes spastic, wild, woolly, and weird.  Sometimes it looks like I’m having some kind of seizure mid-jump.

There’s another dancer in class whose approach is the polar opposite — she builds movements piece by piece, trying to perfect each element into a unified whole. 

Once she has her elements in place, she begins to expand her movements so they become more fluid; more balletic.

Her style, as a result, is much more precise and controlled than mine, but tends to the opposite set of challenges — she can be very tight and sometimes overthinks things.

As students, she and I need different inputs in order to progress.  I need to be made to think sometimes; the thinkers in class need to be forced out of their heads.

Brian seems to understand inherently that I’m going to flail around trying to do new things; once my failings begin to approximate the goal state, he starts giving me corrections to dial them in.

Meanwhile, he makes the more-cerebral students stop thinking: he gets them to just do sometimes, when thinking is the problem.  Then, when they’re ready for details again, he brings back the fine-tuning corrections.

I feel like I’m learning by leaps and bounds.   I’ve learned to trust my body again; as it did before my long break from dancing, it reliably does what I ask it to (even if it sometimes does so in a messy, chaotic way).

The long and short of it is that I feel like I’m learning to fly.

I’m going to have to meditate upon these different ways of learning movements.   They’ll come in handy in the future, I’m sure.

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