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.

Dancing At Home – 6 Struggles that have Made Me Grateful for the Ballet Studio

“All of these challenges, while conquerable, help us to realize what a gift it is to dance in a studio.”

I live in a small apartment. It’s about 740 square feet — just barely enough for two adults, all their stuff, and one cute beagle. I’ve never had negative feelings about living in a small space though. Considering the fact that we will be moving soon and it’s not permanent, I try not to stress about it. But the past six months has had me wishing I had infinite square footage, or at least a spare room at my disposal.

These are my top home studio complaints and struggles. I don’t think that I’m alone when I say that we may have taken some things for granted when we were in the studio…

1.) Finding justtt the right space – My home ballet journey has definitely evolved over the past six (now almost seven?!) months. When this all started, it seemed like such a funny, novelty moment to grab my dance bag, dress for class, and head to the kitchen. I first deemed the kitchen to be the best space for ballet purely because of the floor — our kitchen and bathroom are the only areas with a hard linoleum surface; everywhere else is carpeted. As the months wore on though, I found myself setting up in the living room instead. This began partially due to the fact that I was switching spaces mid-class anyway, in order to allow my legs enough room to extend and rond de jambe by the time I reached fondus. I basically tired of the mid-class move and started sticking it out for the whole class in the living room. This is my new norm, and I can also easily pop on a YouTube barre and follow along from the TV.

2.) “The commute” – Commuting to dance class used to involve me hopping in the car with my dance bag and driving about 15 to 20 minutes into Charlottesville. While dancing from home eliminates the commute, there’s also a whole slew of things I need to do to prep for a class that basically add up to a commute time when all is said and done. When I was taking class from the kitchen, I found myself constantly having to wipe down the counters, move drying dishes, give the floor a quick sweep, move our kitchen floor mat, etc. I am a bit embarrassed to say that one time during a Zoom ballet class I even went so far as to pop some roasted potatoes in the oven, turn off my camera once they were done, remove them from the oven, and then turn my camera back on like nothing had happened (what is life).

The many faces of dancing in the kitchen…Can we also acknowledge that Skylar Brandt shared me to her story?!

3.) Distractions abound – It is a constant struggle to focus when there are other things going on in your apartment. Not to mention easily accessible snacks! Going to a studio there is always a clear mission, a defined moment for myself to dance, exercise, and enjoy the art form. But at home the intention can get so clouded by everything else.

4.) Technical difficulties – If these were listed based on “most challenging to deal with”, this would definitely be rated number one. The list of potential tech problems is long: freezing, audio problems, loss of internet connection, loss of power (I can never remember to keep my computer charged), finding a successful camera angle — you know the drill. Fine tuning your tech set up is an art form in itself. While I feel like I’ve learned a lot about technology in the process, I also still feel very much like a confused 31-year-old.

“Overall, there is a lesson to be learned — a lesson in patience…”

I took a lot of these towards the beginning of quarantine, thinking it would be fun to see how many classes I took in the kitchen…and then the novelty wore off…

5.) Aches and pains – While tech problems are frustrating, the aches and pains of dancing in an unconventional space are hard to deal with as well. To be honest, there have been times when I have had to simply admit defeat. Without a sprung floor or marley for some cushion and support, there have been moments when it is just too painful for my body. While I like my current set up working in the living room, it does also put a lot of extra stress on my hip flexors and calves — as I constantly must try to lift up and out of my heels and my hips, “out of the carpet” essentially. I’ve taken a break from center work for a bit because the carpet poses too big of an obstacle sometimes. While I already am not much of turner, carpet makes the push to turn quite difficult and has made my landings very questionable, to say the least. While the kitchen floor provided nice solid footing for a while, that too became an irritant, inflaming my bunions and the soles of my feet.

“I’m not in the way, am I?”

6.) Dancing with pets – While I love my dog, there has definitely been a learning curve in trying to complete a class with my beagle nearby. We’ve had some good moments and some laughable moments. While I used to just start a class and hope for the best, I now know that I’m going to have the best results if my dog is occupied and/or tired. Oliver is now a pro at staying out of the way of my workouts and ballet classes, but it took us a while to get here. Let’s just say that he’s very aware of Zoom and FaceTime. He’s found his own unique way to participate in some classes — both sitting directly in front of me during Pilates so my teacher can’t see me and standing too close during ballet. He’s not a fan of frappes anymore!

Trying to stay on the positivity train!

Overall, there is a lesson to be learned — a lesson in patience, something I don’t always have much of. All of these challenges, while conquerable, help us to realize what a gift it is to dance in a studio. It is such a blessing to have access to dance education in a quality space, with friends and students who are also invested in the arts surrounding us. While this time is difficult, it has also given me moments I will never forget — plenty of laughs, Oliver howling at other pets on Zoom, taking an afternoon to teach my mom a virtual class. While virtual isn’t necessarily best, we can still have those human moments with one another — gathering in a common “space” of sorts, to dance and be “together”.

Know Yourself, Then PUSH Yourself

“How can you push your dancers to give all of themselves, without holding back or giving up, while staying safe physically?”

Dancers are taught to push until there’s nothing left…To exhaust the body and give more than 100% at all times – in class, in rehearsal, in performance. We are ‘spoon fed’ the concept from day one that ballerinas are a special breed (and they are). Achieving success requires us to be calm and collected, focused, impeccably precise, and emotionally unshakable, even in the face of criticism and harm to the physical body.

While I believe those factors to be non-negotiable requirements, I am equally aware of the potential danger behind this message, not only in terms of our physical state, but also mental condition. While there are many who promote and encourage the self-care of professionals, some teachers and mentors do not (I have experienced both sides in my career thus far). Understandably, it’s a fine line to walk, especially for an artistic director or ballet master/mistress. How can you push your dancers to give all of themselves, without holding back or giving up, while staying safe physically?

“There is a time to push for more, but there is a time to conserve too.”

I, too, struggle with this as a dance educator. At times I feel hypocritical, but I have to fully communicate the need to PUSH oneself. If a student does not have that desire, there’s not much I can do on my end to cultivate it. It has to come from within. On the other hand, there is the student that gives 110% at all times, but struggles to understand signs of fatigue and overuse in their body. There is a time to push for more, but there is a time to conserve too. As a teacher, it can be difficult to understand and/or translate individual cues, recognizing the difference between laziness and fatigue. But this is my greatest responsibility.

What is lacking, for many students especially, is self-care – both physical and emotional. It is impossible to expect success without properly caring for the body and the mind, not only in the studio but also outside of the studio. The body requires stretching, massage, icing, the stabilization of weak areas/potential injury spots, additional conditioning, and aerobic exercise, in order to sustain a high level of dance training. The mind, on the other hand, is taxed with millions of different kinesthetic commands, as well as complex patterns and choreographic pieces. It is a dancer’s job to allow mental capacity and the clarity to ensure confidence, artistic expression, and freedom from anxiety and fear.

The vast amount of energy that must be devoted to dance can be overwhelming to a dancer of any caliber. In a world that demands excellence from all angles, the demands of ballet seem impossible to maintain. But those who really want ‘it’ understand and accept the unique commitments required to truly grow as artists. We learn when to push, and when enough is enough. Only when we are truly tuned in, mentally and kinesthetically, can we reach a high level of excellence, and hope to sustain that excellence in the future.

An Allegro Anecdote: The Austin Toe Episode

“We’re idyllic, graceful beings onstage, but…in the light of day we have our more human moments.”

Ballet dancers are a rare breed. Superhuman, flexible, musical, artistic, graceful – all are common adjectives used to describe this specific subset of artistry. However, those of us within the dance field have definitely had our share of non-graceful moments. Let me share one of my personal un-graceful, unlucky moments as a dancer, braving the “elements” of the real world.

~

One particular weekend of adventure…PC: me

Seven years ago (whoa) I attended Ballet Austin’s summer intensive program in Austin, Texas. It was an exciting time for me. I took my first solo plane trip, and as a soon-to-be college graduate, investigating a potential company for the summer was a thrilling opportunity. The BA program was six weeks long. Dancers were given not one, but two opportunities to learn original choreography, by Artistic Director Stephen Mills, and perform for audiences in the studio theatre. It was a difficult program, and definitely a challenge for me. As a more classically inclined, Vaganova trained dancer (from my days spent at Bossov Ballet Theatre) the more neoclassical, quick, and sometimes dry classes were very different from what I knew, yet still very valuable to my training.

As the summer passed and I developed friendships with other dancers within the program, we used our weekends to not only rest, but also to explore the culture of the Austin scene (did I mention I was 21 at the time?..) On a typical weekend adventure, we sought out one of our favorite delicious Mexican restaurants. I attended, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops, prepared to combat the hot, dry weather of Austin. (I was obviously a much younger version of myself, since my feet weren’t killing me hiking around Austin in only flat flip flops..)

Graceful ballerina that I am, on the way back I tripped dramatically on an uneven section of sidewalk, stubbing the very top of my big toe bluntly into concrete. The pain was immediate and the force split my skin, blood gushing out onto my flip flop and the sidewalk. Since we were just a few blocks from our dorm, my friends and I thought I could make it back without requiring first aid care. But I couldn’t make it. My sandal was now stained with blood, and it just wouldn’t stop. We made a quick pit stop at a gas station (ew), and I wrapped my toe up like a mummy, with a thick glob of toilet paper. Glamorously blood stained, I made it back.

“I couldn’t believe it. I’d nearly incapacitated one of my precious feet within the course of about three hours.”

I proceeded to panic with my suite mates for a bit about the status of my toe, and we debated whether or not I’d be able to suffer through pointe work and rehearsal the following day. I figured all I could do was care for my toe and hope for improvement as quickly as possible, so I hopped in the shower to rinse off from the day. My toe finally clean, I stepped out of the shower into the small bathroom. Now this next part I promise you I did not make up; it is the honest truth. I pulled my towel from the bar on the wall, and the wobbly hardware loosened, sending the bar down. I wish I could say I had been quick enough to step out of the way, but I had no such luck. The towel bar came down vertically and smashed directly into the pinky toe of my injured foot. The force and the sharpness of the metal, immediately sliced my pinky toe nail into two pieces, and for the second time that day, I started losing a lot of blood. I finally cried with disbelief at it all. I couldn’t believe it. I’d nearly incapacitated one of my precious feet within the course of about three hours.

Suffice to say I got some pretty weird and unbelieving looks when I explained my unfortunate tale at the summer intensive the next day. I remember Michelle Martin, the ballet mistress, looking pretty skeptical as I gave the details, but my gauzed, mummy toes sealed the deal. A visit to the company’s nurse was less than comforting, as she cautioned that I be very careful not to let the wounds become infected.

A BA first arabesque at the Capital building..PC: Mom

After taking one full day off from dancing and a few off from pointe work, I was able to jump back into my classes and rehearsals, bandaged and ready to make the best of things. The pressure of a pointe shoe didn’t bother my toes much, but with only the barrier of a technique shoe and some gauze between my toe and the floor, ‘flat’ was rather painful for a while.

This wasn’t my first unfortunate event by any means, but this episode was one of many times where I learned to grit my teeth and power through. There are definitely occasions as dancers when we need to admit defeat, give ourselves a break, and “sit one out”. However, we are also often asked to spring back into action as quickly as possible. Time is precious, and we must defend our title as superhumans, after all. We’re idyllic, graceful beings onstage, but, obviously, in the light of day we have our more human moments. Today, my little raggedy pinky toe nail (that never really grew again) reminds me of my imperfections, but it also reflects my superhuman ability to carry on.

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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 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.

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

The Joy Of..Teaching: Part Two

“…how I choose to communicate…determines if they will sink or swim…Sometimes the feeling is empowering. Sometimes, it’s downright overwhelming.”

Two full weeks of teaching have been completed. I’ve met new students, greeted familiar faces, and made beginning of the year announcements about dress code and “ballet buns”…but now the real work begins. I’ve seen what everyone can do, gauged the capabilities of my classes, and taken (mental) note of who needs what and why. There’s not much different about this year than any other year. I step into my sixth year of teaching fully ready to progress my young charges and take on any challenges they may present. As I crank out the class plans though, I know that despite the importance of the content, it’s how I choose to communicate that determines if they will sink or swim.

PC - Nina Staeben
PC – Nina Staeben

What I love about teaching (here it is…) is the difference I can make. Sometimes the feeling is empowering. Sometimes, it’s downright overwhelming. I could very well choose to play it safe each class. And not to jump on the defensive, but there are many out there who do not appreciate the work of ballet teachers. “What’s the big deal?” “Life goes on, right?” It’s true that the world does not desperately require teachers of dance. But whether I’m giving freedom to a child who needs to release excess energy, or prepping a professional dancer of tomorrow, I know that what I’m doing is important. And, furthermore, it is by no means easy. I could just be a glorified babysitter for my young students, but I would much rather take pride in the fact that I am able to control a room full of 4-year olds and hear them confidently shout out “plié!” and “relevé!” in reference to movement.

PC - Jen O'Keefe
PC – Jen O’Keefe

Some of my favorite teachers were the ones that demanded pristine technique, but also knew how to make class time an enjoyable experience. I truly believe that having a sense of humor is crucial. We’re all going to make mistakes, we may fall (heck, I do that quite often, sometimes tragically), but at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. This attitude is extra important in a studio full of young dancers. The more that children progress technically, the more information there is for them to digest, essentially. As the pressure to improve and expand their knowledge grows, I like to lighten the mood I guess. Just drilling away at tendus for thirty minutes isn’t necessarily helpful, but having a clear understanding of what we’re looking for and why and seeing a visual contrast between beautiful and just plain silly, helps make a difference the next time the students step into the studio. At younger ages, the contrast between “ballerina behavior” and just plain standin’ around pickin’ your nose cracks kids up. It’s a tool I can’t pass up, and I love a good laugh anyway, so everyone wins.

“I know that what I’m doing is important. And…by no means [is it] easy…I…take pride in the fact that I am able to control a room full of 4-year olds and hear them confidently shout out ‘plié!’ and ‘relevé!’ in reference to movement.”

Gifts from teacher-I take so much pride in making these-my most witty of gifts, shown here..
Gifts from teacher – I take so much pride in making these – my most witty of gifts, shown here..

Despite all the laughs though, I always want to set a standard of excellence for my students. With hands on corrections and visual demos, the goal is to help students understand the adjustments we are looking for, both visually and physically (or verbally-it depends on what kind of learner you are!). My Achilles heel of teaching, however, is talking too much and not wanting to let certain things go. The need to press on and cover certain ground always exists, but why put off until tomorrow what you can do today? There’s no time like the present-might as well fix that port de bras or take a deeper look into those pirouettes.

Birthday love <3
Birthday love ❤

Expectations and goals are fine and dandy, but what’s most important is actually dancing. Do I want to create the sharpest, quickest, and cleanest dancers? Yes!! (Please!) But I also just want them to enjoy themselves! They’re most likely there for a particular reason, and for a large percentage, it’s because they just love to move. They relate to dance and movement. It is a language that their bodies understand, and their time in the studio is precious to them. I can only hope that the advice I give, the jokes I make, and the encouragement I offer, are things they will remember and appreciate as they continue down their own life paths.

The Joy Of..Teaching: Part One

“Learning how to best teach others helped me understand how to further “teach myself” and refine my technique.”

When I started out as a B.F.A. undergrad at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford, I idolized my future life as a professional dancer. I knew that following the path of a B.F.A. was the best choice for me, to ensure further training, while also completing general studies and a college degree. However, I also assumed that after college, my life would prominently feature performance. What I didn’t realize was the passion I would find for teaching along the way.

Upon entering Hartt’s conservatory-style dance program, I was required to take a pedagogy course for my first year of studies. Working on technique in this in depth manner, not only gave me limitless teaching tools for future students but also for myself. Clarifying terminology, body positions, and arabesques from different schools of thought (for the crowd unfamiliar with ballet-there are some differences that exist in different schools of teaching; the three primary ballet syllabi being..the Vaganova method or Russian training, the Cecchetti method or Italian training, and the RAD method or British training), simultaneously helped me fill in any gaps in my training along the way. Learning how to best teach others helped me understand how to further “teach myself” and refine my technique. My college requisite quickly began to evolve into a future possibility and interest.

“…throughout my entire dance career, my teaching has kept me afloat. It is how I support myself. [without it] I simply wouldn’t have made it out alive.”

Setting foot on the pathway towards a dance career requires a “plan B”. Even the utmost profound confidence in one’s future as a professional dancer should be accompanied by a backup plan in case of personal injury. With knowledge of this fact as well as future financial realities, I realized a professional education in ballet pedagogy would be a valuable asset. So, after completing a full-year as a B.F.A. in Performance, I changed my game plan. A year older, a bit wiser, and cognizant of the possibilities at my fingertips (practically like receiving a double major in dance, all for the reasonable price of one degree!…cough, cough-college loans forever), I adjusted my plan and became a Ballet Pedagogy major instead.

Despite the internships, the observation hours, the consistent and ever-present Richard Glasstone articles, I wouldn’t change my decision for anything. (I think I may have read and discussed every single Glasstone article for my teacher Hilda Morales…“Some Thoughts On”…port de bras, epaulement, allegro…you name it, he thought about it…much to the disdain of myself and my small class of fellow pedagogy majors) I wish I had decided upon my path from day one, but at least I figured it out eventually.

As I write this post this week, I realize what a different time this is for me. I didn’t think I would ever encounter a time when I was only teaching (silly Liz)…or at least I have not yet ever felt ready for such a thing. But over the past year, and really throughout my entire dance career, my teaching has kept me afloat. It is how I support myself. If I had ever desperately tried to exist solely on my meager dancer wages these past five years, I simply wouldn’t have made it out alive. Teaching is my “B”. It is a way for me to be directly involved and to preach what I know. Although it is not me, personally, dancing, it’s pretty darn close.