Watchful Eyes

“…there is something about a formal presentation of one’s skills, that definitely ups the ante.”

What exactly is it about an audience that shakes our nerves to the core? Is it the desire to attain perfection? Or maybe the worry that we might fail? Or is it that very simple and innate human fear of judgement? We all have different reasons, both stated and deeply personal, but I can assure you that if observing eyes send you into a panic, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

As a ballet teacher, I am currently in the midst of “Parent Observation Week” – the three dreaded words for any teacher that equate to an annual or bi-annual event held during the academic year. This busy week presents an opportunity for students to share their class experience with family and friends, and showcase the development of their dance technique, as well as their favorite steps and combinations. For teachers, it is a time to become better acquainted with parents and to highlight a class’ progress, as well as the individual advancements of students.

However, despite the obvious positive points of parent observation, it can be an anxious time for students and teachers. For young students especially, it is an introduction into the pressures of performance and the anxiety that can come along with it. For more advanced, mature students, it is necessary time to prove oneself and gain practice for future auditions and opportunities. For teachers, too, it can be a nerve-racking experience, ensuring that a class’ abilities are adequately showcased. The best teaching strategies and tools must all be used, different learning types attended to, attention paid to corrections and discipline, and, of course, a little humor to keep it light and get some laughs, can’t hurt.

When it comes right down to it though, all parties involved just have to act natural. But there is something about a formal presentation of one’s skills, that definitely ups the ante. It can affect a person in any career or stage of life. Our basic human instincts come into play-our desire to impress and succeed, and our fear of rejection and judgement.

It’s a wonderful thing to be motivated to give 110% percent and go above and beyond one’s normal expectations, but it’s also okay to experience nerves and anxiety in such a situation. Sometimes in tense, high pressure moments, we create and experience our best work. Under the watchful eyes of others, we may discover something about ourselves that we did not know before.

I've totally used this pic before, but what a great reminder...
I’ve totally used this pic before, but what a great reminder…

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The Room Where I Began

We all have specific places that we hold near and dear to our hearts…places that trigger a flood of memories and flashes of the momentous occasions of our lives.

Over my Christmas break I had the pleasure of returning to my home studio for a ballet class. I was eager to take class from the wonderful woman who laid the foundation that is my ballet technique. From age nine to eighteen, she taught me the steps that fortify ballet, as well as the heart and soul that beat and radiate from within the art form.

At my return (after about eight years!), I was well received. I shared my dance world experiences with students who were just beginning their journeys into ballet as I was venturing off to college. Everything felt perfectly the same at the studio, like I was just attending another weeknight ballet class after hours spent at school. Yet, the way I approached my class was so different…confident. The girl staring back at me in the mirror was someone I had dreamed I could possibly be, and I had become her. That reflection is now graceful and wise, and completely changed as a person.

In that room, I sprouted my roots as an artist. I learned, I was challenged, and I smiled and laughed. I built lasting friendships, learned the importance of community, and probably cried once or twice. Most importantly, it was there that I danced for the sake of dancing. In that room, my mother chose to continue pursuing her passion for dance. It is the room where she brought me at the age of three and a half, to introduce me to something that would become my life.…

Have you ever realized that if a singular event in your life did not occur you would not be the same person that you are today? There is a powerful understanding and appreciation that can be gained from this realization. I am grateful for that space in which I learned, and for the people that guided me within that space. I am proud of how far I have come, and I have not forgotten where I began.

My Word Is Change

“I hope it helps me grow…I hope it’s another step toward wonderful.”

How can I justify the continuation of a dance blog as my dance career tapers to a close? I struggle with this question every Tuesday as I try to decide whether or not to post a blog. Can I justify putting out new material? Yes. Have I been avoiding my own website? Yes..kind of (as insane as that sounds). Are my observations regarding dance of less value because my life is changing? No-not at all. But the more distanced I become from my professional performance career, the harder it is to construct thoughts on the matter. However, as the controller of this space for thought, the content does not matter. I am first and foremost a dancer, but I am also human. So here I am again – keys clicking beneath my fingers, remembering the thrill of finding words that describe just a fraction of the thoughts that flash through my head on a daily basis.

I read an article recently suggesting the selection of a word or short phrase to motivate our actions as we begin a new year. I am keeping it simple – my word is change. The past few months I think I have been running from change, avoiding it at all costs. And boy, am I good at avoiding things. So what better challenge for myself than to confront it head on in the new year?

Rather than avoiding and/or questioning life’s twists and turns, I wish to be better at accepting and embracing change. Sometimes I feel that the ups and downs are beyond my control, but I must come to terms with the fact that I can be in direct control of change. I can make it as wonderful or as miserable as I want, so why not guide it toward the wonderful?

So let’s raise a glass to the disappearance of 2016. I hate to jump on the bandwagon of those constantly condemning this past year, but it truly was a rough experience. While it was dotted with joys for me personally, there was heartache in the mix too – the death of a grandmother, the disappointment of injury, the moving on of close, dear friends,  and the growing pains of my first year without a dancer contract – it’s genuinely been a battle. But it’s over, so onto the next. And what does 2017 hold for us? I have no idea. But I hope it’s new, I hope it helps me grow, and I hope it’s another step toward wonderful.

The Joy Of..Teaching: The Brutal Honesty Of Children

“I have to appreciate the other 50% of ‘the moments’…I love to discover the love and the joy of dance…within someone else.”

I think I need to keep a more detailed notebook or journal of my memories and interactions with students and children. Some sort of a log guaranteed to provide for a “Kids Say The Darndest Things” excerpt. As a ballet teacher and a part time nanny/babysitter/childcare employee, I spend A LOT of time with kids. You’ve got to wonder if an excessive amount of time exposed to baby talk, mac and cheese, coloring, and children’s songs can somehow cancel out adulthood. However, when I’m not coloring with crayons or coming up with my best discreetly manipulative plan to convince a child to listen, I can’t help but realize how blessed I am to be guided by small humans from time to time.

Teaching young people is simple, yet highly complex. When I think about my job, I have very mixed feelings as to its difficulty-it’s a joy of course, but also not something that everyone is capable of. You have to be ready for a challenge. Just the sheer number of students you may encounter, depending on the situation, can be terrifying. They’re not all rainbows and sunshine. You’ll meet them all – the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

“…How blessed I am to be guided by small humans from time to time.”

"Plié Pumpkins" that my 6-8 year olds made in October. Instructions-draw a picture of yourself or a dancer in a costume..my student chose to draw me <3
“Plié Pumpkins” that my 6-8 year olds made in October. Instructions-draw a picture of yourself or a dancer in a costume..my student chose to draw me  ❤ (speech balloon-“I am Miss Liz and I like ballet”)

What I love the most, are the moments..the comments..the pressing and nonstop questions. I have heard it all – reasons for not being able to dance; excuses, excuses, and more excuses; detailed bathroom explanations; comments on my hair, clothing, makeup; detailed observations of whether or not I have a wedding ring; questions about stretching; and questions about pointe shoes. They also share their opinions on class material (critical eye brow raise) and give confirmations when something is indeed too difficult. I’ve been sweetly invited over to kids’ houses, and have heard musical observations and frighteningly accurate identifications of pop songs even in piano form…I really need to start writing it all down. Because it’s HILARIOUS. Pure, unadulterated life remarks. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Even when I hear too much information, or something completely unrelated to dance, I have to appreciate the other 50% of “the moments” – the appreciation, the wonder, the purity of excitement, and the effort. I love to discover the love and the joy of dance-the very same passion I have for this art form. Discovering it within someone else and watching them harness their passion and energy in order to progress, is absolutely wonderful. So if you’re a teacher (specifically a dance teacher, but the struggle applies to all teachers!) the next time no one wants to do an adagio or the baby ballerinas won’t listen to a word you say, remember that you are their hero. Even if just one continues to pursue dance, know that you have given them joy. In return they will give you the most brutally honest, refreshing view of life.

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An Allegro Anecdote: “I Can’t Turn Left.”

“It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me by any means, but, man, it makes for a good story.”

“I can’t turn left.” Many automatically think of the classic Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander when they hear this phrase. I, however, have actually said this when referring to myself.

In the winter of 2009, I was diagnosed in the West Hartford, Conn. ER with vertigo. Two days previous, the morning after Valentine’s Day, I rouse with a sensation of dizziness like nothing I had ever experienced. Each time I tried to focus my eyes, my gaze was repeatedly pulled downward. I was perpetually on the down slope of a roller coaster. I rested the entire day, tried unsuccessfully to nourish myself (everything came immediately back up), and of course called my Primary Care Physician for life-my Mom. I explained the circumstances, but my mother warily kept implying that I might’ve had “one too many” the night before. (True, we were in singles V-Day celebration mode-cosmopolitan style-the night before) But as my symptoms persisted, I knew it was not at all related.

I went to bed praying/assuming that this weird experience would have exhausted itself by the A.M.—WRONG…conditions remained the same the next day. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t go to dance classes, I couldn’t even watch TV in bed comfortably. The severity and persistence of my symptoms quickly got my Mom’s attention. She left work early and drove the hour and a half down to my college to accompany me to the ER. Finally, (after a long and fearful wait in the height of flu season) I was seen and diagnosed with a bout of vertigo. I wasn’t given much explanation, and was quickly sent home with an anti-nausea med prescription and motion sickness relief patches. I was told the symptoms would gradually fade on their own…

As a student whose college major involves movement about 90% of the time, I had to get back into the groove. But I struggled to get back into dance class. I could only do half of class, and the extreme motion I constantly felt required me to cling to the barre for dear life. The nausea med helped, but the motion sickness patches put me over the edge-the side effects hit me hard. The eye on the same side of my head as the patch (you only put one behind the ear on one side of the body) became severely dilated and my vision blurred. Now I was a vertigo inflicted college student, with blurred vision and one psycho dilated eye. Great.

So I went to see a specialist. I was given a series of tests, involving sound and the condition of my ears. The diagnosis-I had been coming down with a virus prior to the onset of vertigo. In response, the nerve controlling my balance within my left inner ear had swelled as a defense mechanism. Enough to the point that I had lost control of my balance and developed vertigo. As my inner ear readjusted, the vertigo would lessen, but it would take an undetermined amount of time. (Supposedly) I would never experience vertigo again.

“I survived two episodes of losing my greatest gifts-my balance and my control of movement.”

As a dancer, the vertigo proved to be quite a handicap for the 3-4 months it took to fizzle out. Because my left ear was the one primarily involved, I had a reoccurring struggle with any movement led by the left side of my body. Pirouettes to the left were a terrible thing for a long time. I struggled in modern class too. Already the ultimate “bunhead”, now in addition, anything too off-center or involving inversion was practically impossible. I was constantly uncoordinated, and was concerned about my progress. It was a stressful time. But it all turned out okay…for about five years…

In the spring of 2014, vertigo again came knocking at my door. This time, I took to the stage. As an apprentice with Ballet Theatre of Maryland, I had a performance that evening. Nothing like timing right? I didn’t have too much responsibility in the show that weekend, but I also didn’t have a solid understudy. I felt pretty uncomfortable attempting to dance under stage lighting and strobe lights, but I didn’t have a choice. I did a low key warm-up that night, enough to get by, and friends and co-workers were on high alert backstage, in case I needed to make an impromptu getaway off the stage (potentially to a trash can). I went out there and modified like whoa. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me by any means, but, man, it makes for a good story.

Dancers have thick skin (I mean, literally, too…those calluses!). I survived two episodes of losing my greatest gifts-my balance and my control of movement. In my current state, I now have the time and flexibility to truly take care of myself-mentally and physically. Would I have still had vertigo twice if I hadn’t been in the midst of two strenuous, performing arts programs? Probably! But I would have been able to better take care of myself afterwards, and therein lies the difference. It’s okay to push, but treating yourself like a human is okay too. As a dancer, these struggles seemed insurmountable. But they are also distinguishing challenges that have brought me to this point. There’s satisfaction in knowing I’ve survived it all.

Joy – PASS IT ON.

“If I can’t partake, I at least am grateful to be able to help…Thank you to my students for…help[ing] me feel the joy.”

My second Nutcracker season as “just a teacher” (I use that term very loosely because organizing and rehearsing Nutcracker magic is not an easy feat!) is well underway. I speak frankly when I tell you that it is a hard time for me. As a classical dancer and a die-hard fan of the Christmas season, the Nutcracker has always brought me such joy. Combining the bright and joyous sounds of Tchaikovsky, with familiar classical ballet, and excited audiences..it’s right up my alley. Despite the exhaustion that this time of year brings, I always have found it to be exhilarating. It’s a time to feel alive and strong and like a true professional (and knowing that each run of snow you burn just that many more cals).

Standing on the sidelines honestly tears at my soul sometimes, but helping my students to fully commit to and honor their roles within the Nutcracker is a pretty good substitute. I love to hear young Nut participants explain their role and the challenges of rehearsal when conversing with their peers, always brimming with pride and plenty of details. The cheerful “Thank you’s” I have heard after being commended on a job well done are pure and enthusiastic. The earnestness with which they approach their roles makes me such a proud dance mama. If I can’t partake, I at least am grateful to be able to help my ‘pride and joys’ put on a great show.

And isn’t the passing of joy (dance related or not), what the holidays are all about? Regardless of the impending holiday season, this is a time of change, a time in which civility and love matters more than ever.

I hope there are more dances to come. But for now, thank you to my students for working so hard for me. Your laughter and smiles are contagious and help me feel the joy. #thankful #blessed

Happy Thanksgiving from The J.O.D. Blog  ❤

thanksgiving-jod

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Hope And Strength

“I am concerned…but I am hopeful…and I am strong.”

…We’re all thinking about it. Election 2016…So I will do my best to lightly touch on the topics of the past week. I am just here to say what is on my mind and potentially on the minds of others.

{I am concerned.} As a liberal, a woman, an artist, and a supporter and friend of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientations, I worry what is next for the diversity of America. When and why did the idea arise that we need to selectively “take back” this country? America is alive and well! We all want America to be great, but why “again”? When did the greatness halt? Why is our consensual faith in America waning? There will always be laws and policies that require adjustment and adaptation, but it is impractical to expect all Americans to conform to a narrow minded set of ideals. That is not why we live in this country. Our differences are what make us so beautifully unique.

{…But I am hopeful}…my hope is scant (one week out), but without hope we will not get through this difficult time. I strongly believe that this change we are experiencing will push us to be proactive and to speak up for our beliefs and rights. Volunteer. Discuss. Be informed. Peacefully protest. The future of our democracy stands before us. The progress that has been made on behalf of many in this country, stands on the precipice of destruction. If we fade into the background post-election, we cannot hope to protect our liberties.

{And I am strong.} Hope must walk hand and hand with strength. While a hopeful outlook is crucial, it is an empty wish without strength and momentum. This will not be an easy time, but we must spark the change we wish to see and be ready to respond. We are the people. We are the popular vote. We are unique, capable, hopeful, and fierce.

Be ready. Harness your hope, find your strength.

What’s In The Word Can’t?…

“When you’re feeling particularly defeated, remember that you got this.”

Whenever I became eminently frustrated growing up (/to this very day), my Mom would challenge me with a simple question – “What’s in the word can’t?!” Whether I answered or not, or simply stared back with a tearful or annoyed face, she would cheerfully answer her rhetorical question with a confident response of – “CAN!” As the eldest child, forging the path into the big, bad world of firsts (first dance audition, first summer intensive, first trip away from home, COLLEGE), sometimes I genuinely did not believe her. New experiences had a looming, impossible quality, like hurdles hundreds of feet high were building up in front of me. But what real value is there in the word can’t? It’s really just an informal way of stating that you are unable to do something or complete a task. But how many genuinely impossible challenges really exist? Unless we have a specific hindrance of some kind, there really is nothing we cannot do or try. But the power of our minds to convince us otherwise can be hard to deny at times.

As a teacher and role model for a large number of ballet students, I now find that I am a major proponent of this question (more like my Mother every day….“that’s a good thing, Mom”). I warn you though, if you plan on using it, you may be met by a few groans or joking eye rolls, especially from a younger crowd. Although I am prepared to shoot down complaints when I am met with resistance, I have to say I can relate. Don’t you remember that feeling as a child or teenager? That fear that nothing will ever fall into place? The belief that there are certain things that must be insurmountable? All part of growing up, but as an older, wiser generation (wink, wink), it is now our job to share our experiences and to encourage and challenge children to succeed and overcome.

“…what real value is there in the word can’t?…how many genuinely impossible challenges really exist?…there really is nothing we cannot do or try.”

I couldn’t tell you precisely what changed my mentality, or when I “grew up” officially, or stopped worrying about failure. But somewhere along the way..it happened. Now, I should rephrase, because I am still extremely “chicken” when it comes to failure (I’m as perfecting as perfectionists come), but if I were to compare myself now to “young, adolescent, Liz Grande”, you’d be looking at two very different girls. The experiences where I have failed, where I have fallen and gotten back up, those are the experiences that make me all the more willing to be brave and just go for it.

Take this little anthem of advice with you this week. When you’re feeling particularly defeated, whether it be by your own self or by the hand of someone else, remember that you got this. Sit yourself down, metaphorically speaking, and remind yourself – “what’s in the word can’t?…” And even though you may disgruntledly decline from offering an answer at first, think of at least one instance in your life where you truly triumphed, even when you thought there was no hope. Even the most daunting of obstacles can be surpassed. Do not let the instinct of defeat overtake your mind. Because no is not an answer…you CAN and you will.

typorama
My lovely, little African violet flowering again after two years! CAN!

Permission Granted.

“…grant yourself the permission to be who you are at this very minute.”

I have an innate ability to “beat myself up.” Self-criticism is a pastime that many of us engage in, however, I feel that my brain takes this task very seriously. Some may call it drive, some may call it self-discipline, but it can easily be overdone, bordering on the line of self-abuse. In light of the previously “celebrated” occasion of World Mental Health Day (there truly is a day for everything now, isn’t there?), I’m taking the liberty of dedicating a post to granting myself permission. Permission to explore, permission to take care of myself, and permission to not be certain of my path.

I am fortunate that for the past 27 years of my life I have known what I wanted. My journey has felt fairly straightforward and has not sent me reeling with discontent or uncertainty that often. The chain of events that propelled me into my current state was something I always knew could happen, but that potential was easy to ignore.

“I feel off-kilter because of the oddity of all this, [but]…things could be worse.

As I embark on my first full season sans professional dancer contract, I don’t think I’ve lost too much physical momentum. However, mentally, it all feels like a whole new playing field..which it is. But while I feel off-kilter because of the oddity of all this, I also must humbly admit that things could be worse.

For starters, the injury that literally knocked me down a little over a year ago has healed up pretty well (I’ve had my share of scares-ankle rolls for life-and the ache may never go away, but I feel infinitely stronger than this time last year). And while I am not currently performing, I am still able to rely on my art form (and my B.F.A.!) financially, as I now focus heavily on my teaching.

I still make the time to step into the studio four to five times a week. But I now have the time to really focus on myself. While I don’t love having extra time, the luxury can be amazing. Time for self, time for consideration, time to enjoy things and appreciate, rather than resent…

As I remind myself, I also remind you – grant yourself the permission to be who you are at this very minute. Continue to push forward without aggressively picking yourself apart. Resist the temptation to turn a transition time into a crisis. Because it’ll be okay. Remember that everything really does happen for some (crazy) reason, and, hopefully, whatever hardship you are experiencing will become just another tile along your board of life. It’s okay to struggle, and it’s okay to have questions. Slow down if you need to, but don’t stop.

typorama

An Allegro Anecdote: The Duct Tape Fiasco

“Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day…Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.”

Plaids. Penguins. Stars. Stripes. Florals. All cute patterns, right? In this case, though, I am actually referring to some of the many kinds of duct tape I’ve used throughout my dance career. Now if you’re not a dancer, you’re probably thinking, “what does this chick need duct tape for?” I started using duct tape about four years ago, as a super resilient alternative for toe tape.

Repetitive work, literally on the toes, can create a bit of a disaster for the skin and nails of a ballerina’s feet. It’s customary for dancers of all levels to apply a “toe pad” of choice and/or protective tape and/or bandaids to individual toes while dancing en pointe. Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day despite blood, sweat..and tears, I guess. Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.

The longer I’ve used duct tape, the more interesting the designs have become! Florescent pink used to be my most exciting option, but now they have everything from paisley florals to macaroni and cheese (always discussed amongst my friends as a great option, but then again, I feel awkward putting images of pasta with melted cheese all over my foul smelling feet…).

I remember once mentioning to my Dad that I had duct tape on my toes. Protective Italian father that he is, he panicked. “Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!” (Good question, but it seemed irrelevant at the time) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. But father certainly knew best.

One of my favorite pics of myself ever....note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
One of my favorite pics of myself ever….note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC – Keith Alan Sprouse

Now this particular disaster actually happened to me twice. However, the play-by-play of the second experience was particularly hilarious…Flashback to over a year ago, a typical day in the life of a professional dancer – dancing, immediately followed by a few hours of teaching. With just a little time in between these two blocks of time, I had left on all the duct tape I’d applied to my toes earlier. After teaching, I took a moment in my dressing room to change out of dance clothes and remove all the tape from my feet. In my haste to leave and feeling “maxed” out from my day, I overzealously tugged the piece off that surrounded my big toe (which one, I honestly can’t remember). Blood started pouring out of the pad of my big toe as I stared at it, confused and in disbelief. The tape had stubbornly clung to one of my calluses and pulled a large chunk of skin with it-the flesh I had lost still bound to the tape. I did my best to audibly mask my anger, shock, and pain (an academy class going on just outside the room), as I tried to figure out what to do. I hobbled over to a box of tissues and stuck a huge chunk to my toe. I assumed I’d just need to do this once or twice, but that wound kept on gushing, one wad of kleenex after the other.

” ‘Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!’ (Good question…) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. “

Enough time passed that I realized I had to leave that room for assistance and supplies. But there was the issue of having to hobble across a studio full of young students with a bleeding toe, so I literally phoned for help from the other room. I shamefully called my friend at the front desk of the dance studio to fetch me some first aid supplies. With her she brought not only band-aids, gauze, and ointment, but also our company podiatrist and my two co-directors. Initially shocked to find me curled up on the floor tending to a gushing wound, we all eventually also found some humor in the unusual situation.

I spent the rest of the following week reminded of my mistake each morning, as I re-wrapped my wounded toe. It required Neosporin, a band-aid, and a good amount of self-adhering gauze in order to protect the “hole” I’d created. All this to somewhat lessen the pain of stepping on or pointing the toe. Of course, I had an in-studio performance the following Friday in which I was supposed to dance barefoot. I was thankfully able to ween myself off of a great deal of the gauze by that point, and managed to perform the piece with only a small amount for protection.

The duct tape fiasco was a grave error and something that would only happen to me, but I had learned my lesson for the time being. However, I must admit, I still tape my toes with duct tape to this day…but I take my sweet time and attention when removing it.

Don't try this at home. PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
Don’t try this at home. PC – Keith Alan Sprouse