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The Key To Partnering

There are so many reasons I’m glad that I auditioned for Gale Force, and right now one of the most significant is the opportunity it’s given me to begin honing my partnering skills.I wouldn’t say I’m great at partnering (yet: I might get there, who knows?), but I’m learning fast. I seem to be good at keeping my partners from hitting the deck when things go south,which is comforting, because honestly I mostly have no idea what I’m doing, still.

Anyway, of all the things I’ve learned about partnering thus far, the most important seems at once staggeringly obvious and perhaps a little surprising (which: remember the time you tripped over that brightly-painted curb that you’d noticed before but forgotten and immediately thought, “Jeez, what’s wrong with me?”).

And that most important thing is, of course, trust.

Last night, we started working on a new piece, and AA, the choreographer for this one, gave all of us leeway to toss in elements we thought might fit, including partnering stuff. At one point I looked at Dot and, perhaps because we’re both equally mad and utterly extra, I said, “Cradle to Bluebird?”

 And she said something along the lines of, “Slay, Queen!” (Because, as I’ve mentioned, we’re both extra AF.)

And so we tried it, annnnnnnd:

In a ballet studio, the author balances his partner on his shoulder in a modified

Boom! (From our rehearsal video, Via Dot’s Insta 💖)

I don’t know if either of us expected this to work on the first try: but we trust each-other, so we both dove in full-steam ahead, and it worked like a charm[1].

  1. Though if you know how this lift is supposed to work, you know she’s a little forward of her balance point in this shot, which was the result of my failure to sufficiently account for her skirt. D’oh! Obviously, we made it work.

I would say, “Obviously, you need good technique as well,” but I’m not sure that’s quite as important as it sounds. You need to understand how your body works and possess a feel for the laws of physics. If you’ve got those two things and trust, you’re most of the way there.

Ballet is great at teaching you to use your body. So are acro and gymnastics. 

As for physics … People are forever observing that ballet dancers begin training early because it takes ages to teach the brain and body to work together to produce beautiful technique, but I think there’s another element as well. 

Only experience can develop a gut sense for the way bodies behave in space. When you’re faced with the daunting task of grabbing your friend and tossing her up into a balance on your shoulder, you don’t have a lot of time to make calculations. You may be strong, but if you try to do it slowly, the laws of physics are likely to come out on top.  

You have to be able to mentally spitball the physical process and the trajectory; to be able not only to visualize what’s going to happen, but to tactilize it, if you will: to imagine with your body how the forces involved will feel. 

That way, when you attempt the actual lift, you’ve got a model already in place.You don’t have to consciously think it through–which is good, because lifting humans is a finicky business, and you need to be able to respond without delay of something begins to go wrong. You don’t have time for conscious thought.

If something starts to feel off, you instinctively call upon a lifetime of being a body that moves through space with power and freedom. The accumulated experience of that lifetime drives the inner mechanism that makes you shift your weight, lift your shoulder, step back just a little on one foot (all of which I’m doing in the photo above, to compensate for having placed Dot too far forward).

You don’t think about it; you just do it.

The unspoken knowledge that your body will figure out how to keep you safe when things go south is the foundation of the kind of trust that dancing requires. If you need proof, show a sedentary person a sauté fouetté or even a pas de chat en tournant and ask them to give it a try: they’ll probably respond, “Are you out of your mind? I’d kill myself!”

In a ballet studio, the author stands on one leg as he lifts and unfolds the other whilst simultaneously reaching the opposite hand towards the ground.

Take this rather-contemporary penché developpé: inborn instinct tells me I’ma fall right on my face if I keep this up, so instead I listen to the secondary “instinct” that derives from being a crazy monkey all my life. 

Partnering required that same trust on a different level: when you grab your friend, swing her into a cradle lift, and roll her up onto your shoulder, she’s trusting you to be able to make the necessary split-second adjustments that will stop her falling, and you’re trusting her to make herself as liftable as possible.

You’re tacitly agreeing that both of you operate from a profound applied understanding of gravity, mass, momentum, trajectory, balance…
You’re tacitly agreeing to apply that knowledge even if things feel a little shaky for a second here or there.

That last bit is crucial.

When we feel we’re in physical danger, our true, inborn instincts tell us to ball up and protect our vital organs.

That’s fine in cradle lift–in fact, the tighter your partner tucks, the easier cradle lift becomes, at least until she’s tucked so tightly that she cuts off circulation to one of your arms. Then you’ve got a whole new problem.

It’s not, however, true for any other lift in the repertoire, and especially not for Bluebird.

Excepting cradle[2], every lift in the classical repertoire involves some degree of extension–which means that the partner doing the lifting has to overcome gravity in challenging ways.

  1. One of the entry paths to shoulder-sit is also facilitated by your partner turning into a ball, but only for a moment. Also, purists sometimes argue that shoulder-sit isn’t part of the classical canon. I’m no authority on the subject, but my opinion is that while shoulder-sit is a circus trick, so are many of the showstopping elements in the canon: literally. According to Jennifer Homans’ exhaustive and authoritative history Apollo’s Angels, ballet really did adapt many of its steps from the circus. (#TheMoreYouKnow) At any rate, Serebrennikov covers shoulder-sit in his text on partnering,which is good enough for me.

If you’re attempting to sling your partner into a hip-balance (to borrow a term from the aerial arts) on your shoulder, she needs to trust you enough to unfurl herself into a profoundly vulnerable position in which she becomes, in essence, a see-saw.

If she doesn’t, at best, the beautiful bluebird lift turns into something closer to a dead-bird lift. Dead-bird lift probably has its place in tragic ballets and in modern dance, but it’s also a thousand times harder for you, with your feet on the ground, to support.

At worst, she’ll pivot around your shoulder and faceplant, and if you’re lucky she’ll kick you in the back of the head in the process and knock you out cold so you don’t have to live with the shame of having failed to save her (which is why it’s always the boy’s fault, in classical ballet: your job description involves making sure your partner doesn’t get hurt, since you’re the one with your feet on the ground). At least,not til you wake up.

Just about anyone can sling, say, fifty pounds of board lumber of a reasonable length up on one shoulder with relative ease. On the other hand, slinging fifty pounds of potatoes, loosely packed, is a much greater challenge (not least because you’re likely to take a potato or two to the jaw when you least expect it: potatoes fight dirty). 

Screencast of Taters Gonna Tate GIF.

If you didn’t see this coming, have we even met? I mean, in the virtual sense. (Via the Googs.)

Now multiply that challenge by three, and you begin to see the problem.

Thus, as you’re merrily tossing or slinging or rolling or pushing your partner onto your shoulder, she has to tell her inborn instinct to fold up for safety, “Not now, we’re busy” whilst simultaneously listening very closely to the acquired instincts that help her do the astounding things that make up every ballet dancer’s bread and butter. She also has to listen to whatever your body is doing. 

When she trusts her body, so to speak, and you trust yours, then you can trust each-other so much more easily. When you trust each-other, you try things that frankly seem a bit daft and they work. 

Curiously, all of this happens without a great deal of talking. In fact,when it works, it’s about as close as I’ve come to experiencing actual, literal telepathic communication [3].

  1. Some people might argue that making love must be closer. I doubt any of them have tried dancing a pas de deux, let alone creating one from whole cloth. Sex is great, but if your version involves, say, bluebird lift or overhead press lift, it’s probably much more interesting than mine.

If you don’t trust each-other, at some point in the process, one or both of you will hesitate at a critical moment–and while I’ve yet to drop anyone, the experience that stems from that hesitation is always terrifying.

That moment’s hesitation is a moment in which your partner has no idea what you’re “saying” with your body or what you’ll do next. 

Whether you’re the lifter or the liftee, this is akin to the moment in a relationship when Boo says, “If you can’t figure out why I’m so upset I’m certainly not going to tell you!” …Only with the added risk of catastrophic injury. You’re basically left with no way to predict what your partner will do next: you just have to guess and hope you get it right.

Someone with reasonable experience in partnering can often save a lift even then–but when you’re learning, if you’re the one doing the lifting, your goal instantly becomes simply to not drop your partner; to save them by any means possible. 

Which, if we’re honest, can be scary as heck for both of you: for you, because suddenly all the responsibility is in your hands; for your partner, because suddenly they have no control and can’t predict what’s going to happen.

Hesitation can also render many lifts pretty much impossible: I’m pretty strong, but I doubt that I could slowly dead-lift, say, 140 pounds above my head. 

When I press-lift someone, timing and momentum are crucial. Her jump overcomes enough of the pull of gravity to allow me to lift her past the part of the movement in which I’m weakest—the part where she’s above the level of my shoulders but not yet high enough that I can lock my arms out to sustain her weight above my head (which is totally a circus trick, in my book, but it’s a good one!).

For whatever reason, Dot and I seem to have developed a trust that prevents hesitations and allows us to overcome the inevitable glitches when we try new things together.

I think this stems in part from the fact that we’re both very game experimenters, natural-born crazy monkeys, if you will. But it also stems from familiarity: during our experiments, sometimes things do go sideways, and when that happens, I always manage to catch her, and she always manages not to kick me in the face. Then, I wouldn’t mind if she did: my willingness to risk a kick in the face is crucial to my ability to keep her from hitting the ground when we find ourselves at a sticky wicket.

Anyway, there you have it: the most important thing I’ve learned about partnering. 

If you don’t have perfect technique, trust will get you through. 

If you don’t have trust, though, nothing will.

Trust

The piece I’m performing on the sling begins with a pike pullover to a needle (effectively, a handstand on the fabric), which in turn all depends on being able to crochet my wrists–that is, to swim them under, then over, the fabric, taking my grip on the outside–so I can work against tension.

In order for this to work, the bottom of the sling needs to fall anywhere from mid-chest height (too low for other parts of the piece) to just above where my wrists are when my arms are extended straight up if I’m standing flat-footed (I can make up the difference with shoulder mobility).

Last night, somehow, my sling was set too high: I had to stand on my very highest demi-pointe and hyperextend my shoulders to reach it at all, and even then I had to mount by gripping the bottom of the sling with my un-crocheted hands.

This in turn meant that I couldn’t do the pike pullover, but instead had to tuck as hard as I could and pray that I had enough strength to make it, since I couldn’t borrow momentum by springing through my feet or brushing or a leg and kicking up. If I could have crocheted my wrists, it still would have worked–but since I could only reach the very, very bottom of the sling, my hands were too close together for proper biomechanical leverage. My shoulders were hyperextended and closed, making it impossible to engage them back and down until I was already approaching vertical.

It meant that that the needle–which depends on core strength and physics and should be a straight vertical with the hands shoulder-width apart and the legs sealed against one-another, not touching the fabric at all–became more of a fork, ankles on the fabric, since my hands were squashed together in the very bottom of the sling and I’d had to engage my core in a different pattern coming up from the tuck than I would from the pike.

It meant that the move that follows the needle–a graceful fold back into a pike that lands my hips in the bottom of the sling–was awkward. My hands were in the way, and I had to shimmy them out to the sides, which left my body off its axis, which made the next transition awkward as well.

The most difficult part, though, was the moment at the very start, when I realized that my sling was too high and then briefly wondered if it was even locked off correctly. I had to make a judgment call: take a dangerous mount on a potentially-unstable apparatus over a hard stage, or hold up a show that people paid to see over what was probably nothing?

I chose to mount.

That decision came down entirely to a question of trust.

Did I trust the riggers? Yes, even though my sling was too high–scheduling conflicts meant we’d done only one tech run, and the window in which the sling height is acceptable for this piece is very, very small. I trade off halfway through with a girl whose part of the act involves a drop that is too dangerous to do if the sling falls lower than a certain point. She’s my height but longer in the torso. The difference between too low for her drop, just right for both of us, and too high for my mount is the difference in locking off the sling ahead of, right on, or behind a tape mark. Better to lock it off too high for my mount: yes, it makes my part of the piece less elegant by a significant margin, but it doesn’t endanger anyone.

Did I trust the rig? Not entirely. No aerialist can do their job if they don’t trust the equipment–but no aerialist worth their salt believes there’s a 0% chance of mechanical failure. For better or worse, I hadn’t had enough time on this rig to trust it as much as I trust mine or the rigging points at our rehearsal space or at Suspend.

But I trusted it enough, combined with one more factor: myself.

I would be, upon mounting the sling, about seven feet up, suspended head first over a hard, wooden floor. Did I trust myself–my brain and body, the reflexes that I began honing as a baby gymnast at 3 years old–to literally save my own neck if everything went tits up?

Yes, it turns out: I ran a mental calculation and accepted the sliver of risk. If something was wrong with the rigging, I had good evidence–a lifetime of experience–in favor of being able to successfully tuck and roll. It’s as automatic as pointing my feet.

A tuck-and-roll wouldn’t prevent all possible injuries–in fact, I knew that I was accepting the risk of bone breaks–but at the height in question it would keep me from breaking my neck or my back.

I made my decision and put it aside and went forward. I struggled to make things as smooth as they should be, but no one got hurt. My dismount, at least, worked beautifully: I drop into a single-knee hang, reach for the ground, and execute a back walkover out of the sling. I was able to just manage it by letting the leg in the sling slide into a heel-hang at the last possible second.

In the end, no one got hurt. Things were scary for a second, then difficult. I got through by making an active, informed decision to trust and then continuing to breathe and move forward.

It’s funny how apt a metaphor this becomes for relationships and for life.

We choose actively to trust: how deeply and how far depends on our experiences.

We choose actively to trust: but we do so knowing that it means accepting a sliver of risk.

We choose actively to trust–or not to trust–ourselves.

In the end, I’m glad I chose as I did. Every time we choose to be brave, we make ourselves stronger.

It’s true that my work in the sling came off less gracefully than it might have done–but it came off, nonetheless. That, as they say, is showbiz. You screw up, or things screw up, and you play it off like everything’s going to plan.

When your sling is set too high, you use your best demi-point and you pray.

You keep your face on. Roll forward.

You push through the hips.

Pilobolus: Initial Thoughts (on Day 3)

Just a couple of wee thoughts. We’re working so much and dancing so much and talking so much and just living together so much that I’ve been spending my alone time just reading and breathing.

Anyway, this intensive has been amazing for so many reasons, not least because it has put me in touch with feelings I haven’t really addressed in a long time.

First, it has forced me to very directly face my difficulty approaching people. Every day this week, we’ve spent the morning doing exercises with one partner or set of partners, then repeating or iterating them with another, then another.

I hadn’t realized how much it still freaks me out to choose partners. Yesterday I got seriously rattled by it—but I actually mentioned it to the person who chose me, and they helped me through that moment. It was amazing.

I realize I’ve been feeling like, “This person or that person probably doesn’t want to work with me,” which isn’t fair either to them or to myself. That’s their call. I shouldn’t try to make it for them.

Second, I’ve realized that one of the things I love so much in dance, and especially in this kind of dance, is the giving and receiving of touch in an atmosphere of deep trust.

To do the work we’re doing here, you need to touch your partners and you need to trust them. Somehow, the process we’re working with creates an atmosphere of immense trust. We are all safe here in each-other’s arms (or feet, or whatever).

I came to this understanding by a circuitous back route. There’s one guy here who I kept desperately wanting to work with—to dance with. I wanted to feel his arms around me and his body against mine, but in a way that wasn’t about sex [1].

  1. Or, well, mostly wasn’t.

I kept trying to figure out why (leaving out the fact that he’s beautiful in a very unique way) and finally I realized that it’s the way he partners: he’s solid and steady, and when he holds anyone—anyone—in his arms, you can feel the power and the tenderness of that connection from across the room.

I’ve worked with him a couple of times now. In one piece, I caught him and sank to the ground holding him in my arms (in that particular dance, he had just died). 

It was an incredibly powerful moment. I’m not sure how to explain it, except to say that in that moment he trusted me with his body, and that trust felt like a sacred thing.

But also it just felt so damned good: just a human body touching my human body, which is so strangely important, without any need to be afraid or guarded or aggressive. 

Rather the opposite: the dance involved me catching his wrist as he took a slow backwards fall, pulling him into my arms and collapsing to the ground with him. I couldn’t be afraid or guarded or aggressive; I had to be fast and strong, but soft. I had to get both of us to the floor without anybody getting hurt.

I don’t know how to explain how that feels, but it’s pretty incomparable.

Today there was a dance in which a girl trusted me to catch her mid-flight, redirect her momentum, and throw her halfway across the room; in which I trusted her to pull me straight to the ground out of an arabesque as I pulled her to her feet. That felt incredible. There aren’t many places where you get to feel that kind of thing.

Anyway, that’s it for now. The creative process here never ceases to amaze me. Groups of dancers who had, for the most part, never met a few days back are, each afternoon, creating dances I’d happily pay to see, working in groups as small as two and as large as six, with only minimum input from our teachers.

That, too, is an amazing thing.

Bravery != Fearlessness

Not terribly infrequently, someone in my life will take note of some or another new physical adventure I’m trying and say something like, “Wow, you’re brave!”

Truth is, I’m really not particularly brave, when it comes to physical feats of derring-do. I’m just wired for adventure. Temperamentally, I’m pretty fearless (which is both good and bad, all things considered) in that particular way.

If you do things that look scary to other people because you’re not afraid to do them, that’s not the same thing as being brave. Intrepid, I’ll give you, but bravery is a different kind of thing.

Bravery is being afraid to do something and doing it anyway.

So while I may be bold about physical challenges, I’m a complete coward about emotional ones.

Well, maybe not a complete coward, but not what you’d call “brave” by any normal definition of the word.

Or, well, I haven’t been.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to try it.

It’s weird how apparently-unrelated life experiences can suddenly coalesce into the beginnings of new adventures: graduation, ballet, PlayThink, goodness only knows what else. It’s hard to identify the streams of influence that lead to now.

But, anyway, those and a lot of things have made me think that it’s really time to try being brave in a way that I haven’t before.

I want to learn how to be brave emotionally — I may never be fearless, where my heart is concerned, in the way I am where my body is concerned, but I can learn to be brave. We can all learn how to be brave.

A caveat: I write a fair bit about myself, about some struggles that a lot of people would consider deeply personal, here.

That might look brave, too, but it isn’t, because it isn’t hard for me.

The truth is that here, in the blogosphere, in my very own blog, I hold the reins. I’ve got my finger on the button. I can shut the whole freaking thing down if things get hairy.

There are other bloggers to whom I feel a kind of tentative connection (in a “Wow, I really admire your blog/your comments/your thoughts, and you seem like a thoughtful person who actually cares about stuff” kind of way) — but I can always suck all my tentacles back into my shell and jet off into the abyss* if I feel threatened.

*I’m sure there’s some deep, abiding significance to the fact that I always use ocean-dwelling invertebrates in these analogies.

In short, I’m completely in control of what I share here, of how much other people sort of bleed over into my being.

Out there, in the big scary world of actually making connections and building friendships, things are completely different.

I don’t trust people — and while it’s true that my wariness about my fellow humans evolved for some very real reasons, it’s a tool which has, in its current form, outlived its usefulness.

I don’t make new friends in part because, for me, friendship is a deep connection, and the process of making that connection involves leaving doors open that, frankly, it scares the crap out of me to leave open. It means leaving my heart out there on the counter where anyone can just pick it up and stick it in the Vitamix**.

**I don’t actually own a Vitamix.

It means coping with the fact that maybe sometimes I will think someone is really interesting and hope they will be my friend, and they won’t.

It will mean that some of those interesting people will want to be my friends, but will also turn out to be human beings with complicated, messy lives (because we pretty much all have complicated, messy lives), and that I will love them anyway, and hurt when they hurt, and struggle when they struggle, and maybe I will sometimes even be overwhelmed by their struggles, just like they, G-d forbid, might sometimes be overwhelmed by mine.

It means negotiating all of the glorious, abstract mess that is the human heart.

The same goes for just being with people in the moment. I keep thinking back to some of the moments at PlayThink this year, those moments that overpowered my preconceptions about interacting with strangers and became, in and of themselves, transformative. In the past, I haven’t been very open to those moments. I want to change that.

I know that being open to those moments in a more conscious way involves risk. That’s fine (or, at least, I’m trying to convince myself that it is: work with me, here).

Living involves risk.

By way of a favorite analogy: every time you get get out of bed, you’re taking a risk. You could trip over your duvet and break your neck. However, if you just stay in bed, you’ll almost certainly die much sooner than you otherwise would — the medical complications of just lying in bed will kill you. Worse, you’ll miss so much of the amazing spectacle of life while you’re ensconced in your bed, staring at the same four walls.

Also, eventually, you’ll have to pee.

So it’s worth getting out of bed, even though you could trip over your duvet and die.

The weird part is that you have to have a reason to want to get out of bed. Telling yourself you should get out of bed to avoid the risk of dying from inactivity doesn’t really work. You have to want to experience the amazing spectacle of life (or at least, you have to not want to pee in your bed).

Until very recently, I have bemoaned the minuscule scale of my social circle, but apparently that alone hasn’t been enough to overcome inertia.

What has overcome that inertia, instead, is experience: the experience of being unexpectedly swept out of my frame and discovering that, hey, this connecting-with-people thing is pretty great, actually!

So I’m going to try to do more of it. I’m going to try to do less of the thing where I decide that interacting with a group of strangers sounds, frankly, terrifying (an emotion that my brain recasts as “stupid,” it sounds stupid, this activity is ridiculous, etc.).

I am going to get out there and try new things, emotionally speaking.

Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. Who knows?

Regardless, I think I’ll be better off for having tried.

And maybe I’ll finally be able to say, “Yeah, you know what? Actually, I am pretty brave.”

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