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Ballet Lessons: On Sacrifice

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.

Great! Only 10,000,000 more repetitions and you’ll almost have it!

~

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.

Welcome to Dancerlife. By continuing, you agree to commit every waking moment for pretty much the rest of forever.

~

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 thought this was a choreography still, but actually it could totally be a depiction of dancers trying to have a social life (via the amazing NYC Dance Project, via…erm…Instagram?).

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).

SI: not, “Are you going?” but “Where are you going?”

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[1].

  1. 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.”

I can’t play this lute! I have rehearsal!

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.

This doesn’t need a caption, does it?

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.

Or, well … close enough.

Day “Off”

The Time of the Allergies(1) is upon us again, and D had a coughing fit at 6 AM that woke me up.

  1. Or, if you’re me, the time of EVEN MOAR ALLERGIES, because all times are the Time of Allergies.

Since then, I’ve actually managed to put dishes away, wash last night’s remaining dishes, put those away, make waffles (because either someone in the neighborhood was making them or I was totally hallucinating the scent of waffles, and I just couldn’t stand it anymore), eat a waffle, feed D a waffle, clean up after the waffles, and run a couple of loads of laundry.

I also failed at making tea, however: boiled the water, then forgot to actually make the tea for two hours, so had to start over. Anyway, I have tea now.

facetea

I’ve got this, guys.

Fortunately, D picked up some allergy meds for me, so I’m breathing through my nose pretty decently at the moment. #smallvictories

Anyway, ballet-wise, I feel pretty on top of my choreography, including the Partner All The Girls! bits (actually, those are the easy bits; I really basically just stand there, look pretty, and put my hands where they need to be). However, we still have the last 23 seconds to learn, so I’m going to rehearsal tomorrow instead of going to see Wendy Whelan’s “Some of a Thousand Words.”

Funny thing is that it really wasn’t a question (because apparently my #priorities are properly aligned, or something). If we’d finished the dance last night, I might have gone to the performance instead, but I really actually want to go to rehearsal.

Fortunately, D isn’t offended that I’m opting out on my birthday present, and in fact agrees with me that going to rehearsal is the right choice. He is going to give our tickets to someone who wants to go and doesn’t have tix, which is a nice thing as well. So instead of seeing Whelan’s show for my birthday, I get the pleasure of giving someone else the chance and still getting to go to rehearsal 😀

In other news, I still have no idea what I’m wearing in the show, besides white socks and white shoes. I keep forgetting to ask, and people keep asking me, and I keep having to say, “Um, actually, I have no idea.

BG described the tights I’ll be wearing as “awesome,” so of course I’m picturing something like this:

matador

Ganked from the Googs because I’m lazy right now. (Also, I’m guessing matadors don’t wear dance belts. Huh. Honestly, that looks hella uncomfortable.)

…But I suspect that reality will be somewhat less ornate, since all the girls are wearing pastel leos and white romantic tutus, and not so much with the bling.

In other news, today is perfect soup weather, but I forgot to buy soup, so #firstworldproblems etc. I could make soup, though, if I get desperate.

 

Addendum:

Here’s what I wore last night, anyway:

White-Socks-Blue-Tights

Lo-res video is low 😦

I was use-testing the socks, which are new. BG and I agreed that we kind of liked the blue tights (which are brighter in real life) with the socks, but also that they would clash with the rest of the performance.

The shirt, OTOH, is just the same shirt I wear every damn day.

Wednesday Class: How I Make Decisions 

We have a new lyra teacher on Tuesday evenings, and she’s lovely and gives a great class — but I’ve decided that I’m going to bow out of that class, because Ballet.

Basically, there’s too much in that class that trains the muscles I’m  trying to de-train a bit (hello, quads; greetings, hip abductors), and the result is that Wednesday morning is a struggle to counteract those effects, which means it’s a less-effective class than it should be (qv: today my left split was laaaaame and my turnout was, by my standard, only meh). 

Wednesday is legitimately the hardest class in my week, much of the time, and I want to be fully able to take advantage of it.

Once upon a time, I used to ride my bike a lot more. I cut back on that for similar reasons — I am constitutionally unable to refrain from stomping up hills, destroying my turnout all the way, so I simply ride less.

Dancing has made it easier to decide what to do and what not to do. It feels akin to religious conviction: when conviction is very strong, the decision to live by the tenets of one’s faith is not as difficult as it might otherwise be. 

So this is weird, in that now and then I realize I’m sacrificing things on the altar of ballet — but also not weird, in that deciding what to do and what not to do has never been simpler.

A flowchart representing my decision making process superimposed on a photo of Anne and myself demonstrating a low supported Arabesque.

Basically, this flowchart governs my entire life (photo by Amy Merrick).


I kind of wish I’d figured this out as a kid. So much of my life has been needlessly complicated. 

On the other hand, I had some amazing experiences, and it’s really awesome to have all these other interests in my pocket in case I ever mysteriously tire of dancing.

Class this morning was also complicated by the fact that mold-and-ragweed season has descended upon us, bringing with it asthma and pleural pain. I had to take my inhaler before class this morning, so things were harder than they should have been. I’m still having issues, so I’m taking the night off.

Basically, taking the inhaler before class is rather like taking a nice hit of cocaïne before running wind sprints, only cocaïne is better at turning off the Governor in your brain that makes you slow down before your heart explodes. Basically, you tell your body, “Okay, fondu now, and DO IT RIGHT,”  and the governor sticks its fingers in your body’s ears and says, “Don’t listen to him; he’s a putz,” and your body is is like AAAAUGHHH DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO and half-arses its way  through everything.

I finally started to assemble my proverbial waterfowls in a linear array during the adage at centre (because by then the initial kick-in-pants offered by the inhaler was wearing off). 

Ironically, perhaps, I did better in petit allegro than in just about anything else, though I had to think entirely too hard about the entrechat trois for some reason at first (possibly because we generally do cinq?).  It was still rather an uphill struggle, though. 
Tomorrow night, I plan to do BW’s class, after which will be heading out for Marco Island early Friday morning. I’m ambivalent about the trip — I know I’ll  enjoy it, but I’m not in love with the idea of taking off again just as I’m getting back into the swing of things. 

On the other hand, this trip should be a lot more relaxing, and when I come back my life is is like SwanLakePilibolusShowPilobolusClassWendyWhelanTalkMovingCollectiveNutcrackerWinterShowcase, and that’s just the part that isn’t ballet and modern classes.

I’ve also involved myself in the parents’ and adult students’ group at the ballet school, which is pretty exciting. BB and I have sort of become the de facto adult program delegates, which is no big surprise, since we’re basically always at the school anyway.

Anyway, I think that when I come back from Florida, I’m going to switch to Flexibility & Mobility on Tuesday nights. 

In other news, I cheated on my favorite shoes by wearing my white stretch canvas ones, and I’m forced to admit that I quite like them. Too soon for a full review, though. 

On Ballet (sort of)! – The Importance of Counting

All jokes about dancers not being able to count higher than eight aside, there are some very good reasons to count things.

Like, for example, alcoholic beverages.

Historically, I have been one of those people who have a couple of drinks perhaps six times a year (mostly on trips to visit family and friends, who — I am convinced — enjoy plying our naive systems with alcohol and watching us get tipsy). Various influences (read: somehow, we have suddenly developed a non-bike related, non-ballet related Social Life o.O) have conspired to knock out three of those drinking occasions in the past three weekends.

Friday night we went out for dinner with Kelly. It was the best kind of dinner: grazing at table for something like three hours without overeating, then enjoying coffee and affogati by a really cool fire pit.

Not content to stop there, we dropped in on ironically-named Bardstown Road hot spot “Big Bar,” which is really a lovely little venue, after which we went dancing at NoWhere, another Bardstown Road venue with lasers, DJs, and enough room on their dance floor for me to actually dance! …Which is to say that I danced for like 2.5 hours while Kelly and Denis intermittently danced and chatted. We packed it back home at 12:30 and were in bed by roughly 1 AM.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal. However, I made a serious mistake: I completely failed to count how many alcoholic beverages I had enjoyed. I’m still not really sure. That’s not a good thing. If you can’t account for all of it, you have definitely had way too much.

Needless to say, I remain quite a lightweight. I don’t think I went Full FratBoy on this excursion, but I do know I more than found my limit. I wasn’t exactly incoherent, but I was hammered and I knew it.

I wasn’t “drinking to get drunk,” either — just kept trying different things because they tasted good, and quickly lost track of how many good-tasting things I’d tried. So, evidently, it is quite easy to vastly overdo it without trying. It was very much like the, “Petit fours? Don’t mind if I do!” sort of thing that can happen at catered events where endless plates of new and different little hors d’ouevres and desserts circulate.

The end result was a jammed left knee, one heck of an abdominal workout (derived from about two hours of early-morning hurling), a wickedly sore throat that persists to some extent today (cinnamon infused whiskey is lovely going down and hellish coming back up), and no ballet class on Saturday. I think I probably would’ve forced myself to get up and go if it weren’t for the knee thing, but the knee was definitely a problem. I am guessing I jammed it on the dance floor and failed utterly to notice until I woke up at 5 AM.

So, in all, a distinctly self-punishing experience … and I think maybe I’ve reached a point in my life at which I’m smart enough to learn from my mistakes. At least, this mistake.

The lesson? I can handle two to three drinks in the course of a night out, depending on how long the night out in question is. That’s all. No more. More than that, and I begin making poor decisions, like, “Sure, coffee with creme de cacao sounds delicious!” and “I can have one more shot of that cinnamon stuff, that was delicious!”

In case you’re wondering, “delicious” is not a good reason to miss ballet class.

Ballet class is more important than Trying All The Drinks, even if they’re tasty. Also, it’s hard to enjoy dancing at a club* as much as I normally do when you’re as hammered as I was on Friday ._.

Also, there was some of this.

Also, there was some of this.

It is nice having a kind of straight razor in your life that helps you make decisions.

“Will this interfere with the ballet? Yes? Then I’m not doing it. End of sentence.”

Denis kept telling me this would happen: “Some day you’ll find that one thing that you feel passionate enough about to put everything else down.” I don’t think I quite believed him, but ballet is the only thing that has ever made me willing to change the way I ride my bike and, yes, even give up Strava (at least for now, until I learn how to ride in a way that doesn’t directly conflict with my ballet goals). I am an Endomondo boy for the foreseeable future.

Easter seems as good a day as any for clarity of thought, revelations, and renewals — so I will consider this a lesson and a renewal. The occasional night of wild culinary excess is no big deal because I am skilled in the art of enjoying small portions and tend not to overeat to the point of imminent explosion, but there will be no further nights of wild alcoholic excess. Two or three drinks is my maximum, end of sentence … and I probably ought to stay away from the ones that combine alcohol and coffee, because alcohol + caffeine = 32 flavors of Asher Being Stupid.

So that’s it. Class notes will resume on Monday.

Notes
*I realize this is the opposite of how many people feel. For me, alcohol-induced clumsiness interferes with freedom of movement, and the high you get from dancing itself is much better without alcohol.

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