My Weakness and My Strength

“How can an industry that promotes such beautiful art also make us feel so badly about ourselves sometimes?”

Dance is my weakness and my strength.

Sometimes I wish I had fallen in love with a different occupation – something that truly pays the bills and/or something that doesn’t require giving so much of yourself (/ALL of yourself). Unfortunately, there were many moments in my life when dance made me feel bad about myself. I spent a lot of my company career trying to satisfy someone else, to fit in, to not disappoint, to match, and to blend in. I thought all I had to do was “hunker down”, neglect my own needs, and put in my time. But even then I did not always receive the reciprocated respect I was hoping for.

I write today in response to Kathryn Morgan’s brave and necessary reflection on her experience with Miami City Ballet. It was instantly clear that the content of her video resonated with many of us from the ballet world. Ms. Morgan boldly spoke about the toxic body shaming the dance world still perpetuates. Some companies unfortunately still promote the concept that you must be a certain size or fit a certain mold to be valued. Her words and her honesty made me want to get involved in the conversation.

I admit that I did not realize how deeply embedded ballet was in my brain until I started seeing a therapist for my mental health (Happy belated #worldmentalhealthday). All these years I naively thought that I had done a good job of compartmentalizing, keeping ballet in the studio and living the rest of my life according to me. But that was not the case. The situations that always bothered me the most, that would eat at me longer than necessary, were interactions I had with others in which I felt that I was not meeting their expectations. The thing that would drive me to anxiety wasn’t, “Is this what I want? Is this what I need?” But rather, “What will they think of me now? I’m letting that person down. I feel so bad.” The chronic need to please, a toxic personality trait that stems from my experience with ballet, had seeped into my regular life. What I am now trying to relearn essentially is how to care for myself and meet my own needs first. This is something I am still working on today and something I will always have to work at.

“I want my students to know that ART DOESN’T FIT INSIDE A MOLD.”

I do not regret my relationship with ballet. There are many moments that hurt me and are still etched inside my brain, but those moments made me stronger and wiser. Ballet dancers are strong, confident, perseverant, daring, and efficient. But the attack and the bravery that you may see onstage does not always directly translate behind the scenes. You may be surprised to find that offstage and in the real world, many dancers exhibit completely alternate qualities when it comes to addressing personal and social situations.

As artists we must strive to eliminate stories like Ms. Morgan’s, stories in which beautiful, hardworking artists are belittled and shamed. Mental stress, depression, eating disorders, and anxiety are all real experiences that all humans are susceptible to, especially dancers. We must eliminate the stigma associated with mental health and stop expecting every shred of a dancer’s mind and body to be strong. I want my students to know that ART DOESN’T FIT INSIDE A MOLD. It’s about movement, artistry, individuality, and diligence. An audience wants to watch someone who is real, who breathes and feels and has flaws. And we don’t choose dance because it’s easy. We want to feel everything, the highs and the lows – the fear, the pain, the love, and the joy.

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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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.

Back To Basics

“…strength and energy, experience, and understanding. To an extent, a more mature dancer has all these tools, but I definitely took for granted the continuous maintenance…required for ballet.”

A dancer’s ballet technique can undergo constant evolution. The criteria that produce an excellent dancer are by no means black and white after all. Mastery of a step or concept does not guarantee your “ownership” of that progress for life. Although all art forms and physical activities require practice and diligence, ballet requires a special brand of patience and supervision.

I’ve spent the past week standing alongside my students. Taking class and working on the basics-things I’ve done millions of times before, but things that still benefit me.  Although age and experience grant us a sense of muscle memory for many movements and also choreography, there is still room for error and regression (not to be depressing).

I remember that as a young student I assumed, to some degree, that as an older, more mature dancer, the pathway was “only up” from there-easier coordination, a broad dance vocabulary, muscle memory, infinite strength and energy, experience, and understanding. To an extent, a more mature dancer has all these tools, but I definitely took for granted the continuous maintenance (in truth, A GREATER AMOUNT of maintenance) required for ballet. Whether I am taking class on a daily basis or returning after a short hiatus, I find myself not only making adjustments and correcting errors, but also discovering new areas for improvement. In layman’s terms, never a dull moment. I hate to play the strict teacher card (but actually, I love it), but if you’re bored in (any level) class or not feeling challenged, you must not be working very hard.

The constant battle for the “it was perfect” (Black Swan) moment is what keeps a lot of us going isn’t it? For all the perfectionist, OCD types out there (like myself), ballet is an art form that constantly offers a challenge – things to fix, new approaches to investigate, new characters and emotions to explore. A world of perpetual art, whether you’re refining your technique or simply going back to the basics.

That Oldie Feel

“How can ‘something so well practiced…start to slip out of reach after a few days away’?” 

How can I still be (fairly) young (not telling), yet feel so ancient, in terms of ballet? A mere couple days off from the ballet barre can lead to a challenge like no other. Turn out, epaulement, articulation of the most finite body parts-toes, fingers, length in the back of the neck-the list of intrinsic details is lengthy. It is phenomenal, and similarly terrifying, that something so well practiced since birth can start to slip out of reach after a few days away.

Now I’ve already previously emphasized the importance of taking class. But when you’re caught within the grasp of paying bills and indulging in all the delights of summertime, time in the studio can become an irregular occurrence. I cannot even begin to explain the guilt trip that weighs on me as my time away from the studio increases. And there’s the fear that mounts with the knowledge that my next class will be a difficult one…I’m definitely in “summer-mode”, but I have entered the studio at least weekly thank goodness. There’s nothing like the fresh and casual feel of summer class—new faces mixed with old friends, and a shared appreciation of the importance of taking class that can only be felt amongst a small and random mixed age class, lined up at the barre in the early evening of a summer night.

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Sky a la “summer-mode” (PC – Me)

“There’s one key thing you should do when you start feeling ‘ancient, in terms of ballet…’ “

My saving grace when I am “off-season [and] off kilter”, is and always will be some good ol’ fashioned stretching. Again, although I preach this, sometimes it is a task that slips away from me. I must give a shout out to my amazing mother, who makes a point of completing her ballet stretches (your traditional butterfly, front to back splits, middle/straddle splits, frog) at the beginning and end of each day. The value that comes from this is priceless.

Although I know of this great value, it can be so hard to embrace the habit of consistent daily stretching, especially at this time of year. I do reverently recognize that as I grow older in age as a dancer, the process of stretching will not only help to preserve me physically, but also help me to maintain myself as a ballet dancer. It’s really very simple when you think about it. It’s just like getting enough sleep, taking vitamins, drinking eight glasses of water a day, and following a healthy diet-it’s for you. You can do it, or you can break the routine, but I guarantee you’re going to feel amazing if you just take care of yourself.

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Stretch…stretch….and stretch some more (PCs – Elizabeth Grande, Stephanie Hammer, & Victor Smith, respectively)

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The Petit World Of Dance

“…this great community I belong to..it never ceases to amaze me.”

The dance world is one of the most tightly knit communities around. Faces are always familiar…and also filled with curiosity…“who’s been to what intensive?” “Isn’t that {so and so} from {such and such} company?” “There’s that fierce turner I’ve seen at my past three auditions.” If you’re ever hoping to run away and start your dance career anew-good luck. You’ll probably see at least two familiar faces the first time you try to “branch out”. We can’t escape each other. This community of artists is small and exclusive…high extension and exquisite feet ONLY (jk we all know those aren’t the only things necessary to become a great performing artist…but they certainly can’t hurt). But I digress, because I wish to discuss this great community I belong to..because it never ceases to amaze me.

“I’ve talked before about strangers in the dance world, but now I speak of friends…”

Last week I was thrilled to set aside the chaos of my current life (nanny-ing, fitness center childcare, moving into my new apartment with my amazing bf) to hit the studio for ballet class on a (rare) free Wednesday afternoon. I was aware that a friend of mine from out of town would be attending, but I left the studio with not only one previous acquaintance but two new ones as well. After class, stories were swapped of shared connections, crazy artistic directors, and recent performances.

It’s comforting, in a way, to venture out into both new and familiar environments and always find  a common thread. I’ve talked before about strangers in the dance world, but now I speak of friends (and new friends!). Friendly connections are everywhere, waiting to be explored. While competition fuels our fire, the encouraging faces of others can also guide us to our best moments. A passion to succeed and live up to our reputation pushes us to embrace our class time and take pride in our work. So the next time you take class, smile, because there’s a 90% chance you know that person and they know you, and we’re all just here to dance aren’t we?

The many, many dance families I've become a part of... <3
The many, many dance families I’ve become a part of… ❤

Searching For Words

“…words come when they are needed. And when there aren’t sufficient words, that’s okay too.”

A routine is difficult. Establishing and protecting the integrity of our habits and rituals is part of what defines our personalities. In the wake of current events (#prayforOrlando, #LoveisLove), any semblance of routine I find to be welcome. While we all grieve differently, it serves as a typical defense mechanism to bury ourselves in work, routine, laughter, and distraction. Some find this inappropriate, but there is no wrong way to heal.

A little over a year ago I took on a new weekly routine. I vowed to myself that on a weekly basis, every Tuesday evening I would prepare a blog post related to the world of dance and my exploration as a professional dancer and dance teacher, to be posted bright and early Wednesday A.M.. When considering the frequency, a daily post felt like too much of a commitment, whereas the bi-weekly option seemed like a cop-out. So I went with a weekly commitment.

I’ve skipped a week here and there (this being my 47th post) for various reasons-sickness, vacation/family time, lack of the appropriate words to describe my feelings…Although my routine is flexible and something that I personally control, I’ve done my best to develop this habit in a religious fashion. Two Sundays ago, I sat in the pew of the church I grew up in years ago, sandwiched between my mother and my childhood dance teacher. As our priest began the weekly homily, it occurred to me that his reflections on the word of God are a weekly responsibility-one that the entire congregation depends on. While the readings we study and the topics he chooses to explore vary each week, as the liturgical year passes, the moral lessons and insight generally remain the same. Now, I don’t mean to compare myself  to a pastor who delivers the word of God each week. Rather, I address the challenge of our rituals, even those we hold dear to our hearts.

With such a broad spectrum of possibilities, it can be difficult to corral one’s thoughts into a strong hypothesis each week. But nine times out of ten, we try to make it happen for ourselves. Because whether your ritual is a religion or a passion or a way of life, it is something you love and care deeply about. It can be difficult to cultivate new thoughts & ideas, but words come when they are needed. And when there aren’t sufficient words, that’s okay too.

I struggle…with this blog sometimes, and with a million other things, trivial and consequential. But I know I am not alone. I know that everything happens for a reason (happens for a reason blog link), and I cherish this time in my life because it is mine to mold as I wish. Thank you to all of you, who support me on my journey by visiting me here each week. You are the fuel that energizes me, and know that I am here for you too.

Look Back, But Don’t Linger…

“…remember that you cannot change anything. It is all there to stay. The good and the bad, the proud and the embarrassing…you cannot make any alterations.”

Looking back and reflecting on our past is a helpful tool for self-improvement, but potentially a route to regret as well. So how can we reflect in the most positive way possible without abusing ourselves mentally and emotionally? Every moment counts, especially for dancers. Every day that passes presents a class you could’ve taken, a stretch you could’ve held, a variation you could have perfected. Life is so fleeting, and when you start to consider it, the pressure to utilize every minute of every day can begin to heighten expectations furiously.

It is only human to question the decisions that got you here. However, self examination can be dangerous. So proceed with caution. When reflecting on the past, no matter how far back you stray, remember that you cannot change anything. It is all there to stay. The good and the bad, the proud and the embarrassing…whether you’re dwelling on a “Hallmark moment” you had or the worst thing that ever happened to you, you cannot make any alterations. It is helpful to draw from those situations, to learn about yourself, and to use your current knowledge to control the future. BUT don’t dare berate yourself with “what if?” Move on. Make new moments. If you’re stuck in the old, there will be no new.

Short and sweet, but in the spirit of this blog, that’s okay. I have taken a look back at my blog and my dancing recently, and where I stood a year ago, or years before, and I have nothing but pride. Pride for the decisions I made and the steps I took to get here. Sure some things could’ve turned out differently, but what is life, without lessons and bumps along the way? I have no complaints. The path that lies ahead is unknown and a little scary. But that’s okay. I have dealt with my past and am ready for the future. Who knows?-what’s ahead could be even better than what’s passed…

The One-Year Anniversary of The J.O.D. Blog – ‘Don’t Put Me In A Box’

One year. Blogging. Teaching. Injury. Love. Lessons. Struggle. Recovery. CHANGE. Where I’m at this year, feels like completely different territory than where I was last year. I’m sure I am stronger {in some way…both physically and mentally}, but I also feel that I have succumbed to negative feelings many a time – doubt, fear, uncertainty, jealousy. If anything, one of the most important lessons I have learned in the past 365 days, is that joy should be taken in dance. It is a true gift. A privilege. Along the way I have found it difficult to brush aside my emotions, my unnecessary concern with what others think of me, and my natural instinct to protect my body from further harm. But while dragging all these feelings around, I have forgotten to practice what I preach. Joy. Self-respect. Gratitude. Yes, I have been damaged, but that doesn’t have to define me.

And with that, I give you “Don’t Put Me In A Box”…

Happy One Year Anniversary to my baby, “The J.O.D. Blog”. May you all bring joy to your dancing and remember that “You Are Enough.

Bunhead. Tall. Not a jumper. Cute. Corps. Injured. – All labels that pop up in the dance world. Sometimes they have to do with our looks, sometimes they have to do with our personalities, sometimes they actually relate to our performance capabilities (go figure, this is the only legitimate reason any sort of label should exist). Now this might not seem like an issue if you’re just being described as who you truly are, but sometimes those labels begin to adhere too strongly. It’s called type-casting, and once it starts it never ends. Someone who knows their qualities and strengths and has a job which is well-suited and specific to them, has no problem. Dancers and artists, however, are constantly battling for jobs and parts. It’s all very competitive in nature. So we have to be diverse.

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Love what you do.

We can’t be good at everything. Trying to be perfect is exhausting and impossible as artists. It will never happen. You can be flawlessly “on your leg” one day, and then the next you feel like you’re brand new to pointe. Despite the technical facts, I wish that we were all given the chance to shine, personal labels aside. A glimmer of potential can go a long way. Yes, this is a business that can’t waste even an ounce of time-you either have it or you don’t. But don’t waste your own time caught up in the labels you’ve been stuck with or the labels of others. The princess and the villain of the ballet don’t always have to be the same individuals. They’re both probably dying to sink their teeth into the opposite role that the other possesses. It all gets monotonous! It’s simple and comfortable to address an individual as an artist and think you have them all figured out. But in doing so, you are limiting your perception of others.

The desire to branch outside of our comfort zone will not always be nourished…and that’s okay. But as an audience member, a teacher, a director, or even as yourself, try to stop the labeling. The superlatives you are bestowing…—it might be time to give them up. It could be disastrous or it could be wonderful, but if you never stir the pot you’ll never know. Personally, I want to rip my label off, and I want out of my box. I am not defined by anyone but myself, but I understand now that I must resist the temptation to self-label as well……I am ready to shed any labels that I bear, whether others have bestowed them or I have bestowed them upon myself. So don’t put me in a box. Because I refuse to stay inside.

Fuel The Fire

“Fuel the fire that is your passion…”

INSPIRATION. Where does it come from?…your peers?…role models?…a new project or role?…self-determination? No matter what the source, you have to add some fuel to your fire now and then. Although I admire dedication, ballet requires some extra sparks sometimes. Ballets change season to season, and hopefully roles too, but participating in class and perfecting your technique can become an uninspired, monotonous experience.

Unlike most professions, the career of a dancer requires the same rituals each and every day. Class is a must. Plies, tendus, fondus, pirouettes, (and oh so many more) they all gotta be thrown into the daily mix. However, unlike the normal grind of the non-arts world, once you have mastered a step there is no guarantee of execution from that point forward. The key to mastery is diligence and perseverance to strive to maintain.

“Progress seems elusive at times [but] do not doubt.”

It’s frustrating to step away for the day, and return the next to find that the exquisite satisfaction you experienced, while perfecting something yesterday, has disintegrated into thin air. Progress seems elusive at times. One day a small adjustment fixes the big picture, the next everything seems to be out of place technically.

Do not doubt. If you did it once (whatever that may be), you can do it again. It’s impossible to simply “get lucky” when you’re executing ballet steps. It takes hard work, a sense of self, and a willingness to try, try, try, and try again.

Even with these necessary tools in hand, an artist needs a helping hand. Something to work toward or something to give purpose to your passion. Without inspiration, we start to fizzle. We doubt, we resent, we don’t truly enjoy what we’re doing-an utter shame because we’re literally living the dream. We may not have it all, but we’ve sure got a lot. So look around you – find a peer to compete with or aspire to be more like…watch all the ballet glories of YouTube…research your current ballet…learn a variation you’ve never done before…set goals and DON’T GIVE UP. Fuel the fire that is your passion…And if the kindling’s not there, go and find it for yourself.