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.

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.

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.

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.

Sitting Down, Standing Tall

“There’s something about sitting out…that makes me feel…like I’ve done something wrong. I hate to miss out.”

I hate sitting. Sitting out of ballet to observe cultivates the same feelings I experience driving a long distance alone—I’m focused and observing my surroundings, but my brain wanders to a million different places. There’s too much time to think – it’s a blessing and a curse.

Sadly, after a few successful months back to fully dancing and back on pointe, the reason I found myself sitting for part of class, yet again, is another ankle sprain. Not as bad as the ligament tear that started this snowballing of unfortunate events, but not necessarily a minor setback either. As the days pass and separate me from the dreaded, PTSD-filled moment I experienced last Wednesday (fell off my pointe shoe with a crack and, needless to say, it traumatized me quite a bit), things are already improving. But I am again limited by my body.

There’s something about sitting out of such a big portion of ballet class that makes me feel like I’m being punished. Like I’ve done something wrong. I know this is not the case, but it always pushes to the forefront of my mind. I know I am making a safe decision for my body, but I hate to miss out.

“The absolute worst part of sitting is the regret…I’m aware of the delicate balance…I know how fast it can disappear.”

On a pedagogical note, observing class is interesting to say the least. As a teacher and with an eye for clean technique, there is so much to notice and evaluate when watching the execution of others. I find myself wanting to apply certain corrections to myself, and thinking of what I would do technically to approach certain combinations, which steps I would indulge in artistically.

The absolute worst part of sitting is the regret. And that isn’t a feeling I experienced the few other times I’ve sat down in a class before. It’s new. Because ever since the mental flash I had back in September, and the weeks that passed until I could participate fully again, I’m aware of the delicate balance. The balance between operating fully and gracefully one minute, and then having something go wrong and damaging your body the next. I know how fast it can disappear – how you can feel on top of the world one moment, thinking only of what you can do better or how to display yourself artistically. The next day you’re back to square one-maxed out on ibuprofen, taped, braced, legwarmer-ed, trying to do at least a decent barre as best as you can.

I’ve been in this spot before, and I’ve preached about this already. Be grateful for everything you have. Every moment is a blessing. So if you’re sitting, stand up… (metaphorically, that is). Do the work, and fight the pain and the fear in order to make it better. It’ll make you even stronger, and you’ll know yourself better than you ever did before.

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Don’t forget…

 

 

To All The Little Ballerinas…

“…To every little girl who has ever put on a beautiful tutu, was lost in the music, and felt like a princess…”

If you ever want an emotional pick me up, I’ll tell you what you have to do. Put on a tutu, a tiara, and some ballet slippers, sit amongst an admiring group of three to five year olds and teach them how to dance. Let them share their thoughts with you, ask questions, hold your hand-they will love you purely and admirably. They will compliment you, try to impress you, and will call you “Ballerina”, as if it were your first name. Every time I teach the youngest of the young dancers (and especially in a birthday party setting like today), I am transported back to a time when I was young, and had the inkling of an idea that I wanted to be a ballerina. And look at me now…regardless of the many ups and downs, I’m here. I AM a ballerina.

“Dancing is for you and no one else. It is a gift that no one can ever take away and a gift that you control and harness the power of.”

So to every little girl who has ever put on a beautiful tutu, was lost in the music, and felt like a princess, some thoughts:

1. HAVE FUN: Never stop enjoying yourself. If dance is what makes you happy, remember that and hold that truth close to your heart. Never let anyone tell you you’re too girly or that you are not strong or not an athlete. Ballerinas are the ultimate champions of strength, beauty, and poise, and if someone disagrees, let them try on some pointe shoes and report back…

2. BE BOLD: March to the beat of your own drum (quite literally). Don’t worry about feeling silly or looking different, or not reaching a milestone at the same time as a peer. Focus on yourself. Everyone is different and beautiful in their own way. The world is not looking for identical, personality-devoid ballerinas, they are waiting for you, regardless of your flaws. No one is perfect, and you deserve the same chance as any other fresh, young dancer.

3. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF: Dancing is for you and no one else. It is a gift that no one can ever take away and a gift that you control and harness the power of. But always be wary. The minute you lose the joy and inspiration that got you to this moment, take a step back. Remember who you are and why you love to dance. You will face a million and one roadblocks trying to excel, but the stories and experiences along the way will last a lifetime. Your talent will set you apart from the crowd. Your passion will fuel your journey. You can overcome anything that gets in your way.

4. REMEMBER-YOU ARE LOVED: You are amazing. Ballet is an impossible feat, a form of dance that imposes great demands on the body. But do not stress. You are never alone. Fellow dancers, friends, family, and community will be there every step of the way. Take pride in who you are and what you do. You are loved…and so, don’t forget to love yourself.

It’s Not Rocket Science, It’s Just Ballet

“I do not discount the way artistry makes us feel…it’s a powerful, all-encompassing sensation. Every emotion flowing through our veins can be used as driving fuel, but negativity…will grind you to a halt.”

If you’re an artist (writer, musician, singer, actor, dancer, or all of the “above”…), I want you to take a step back for a moment. If you’re anything like me, you care. A lot. Maybe too much sometimes. It’s to be expected. Your career is not just a vague interest or a job to pay the bills, it’s your way of life. Without dance, you are not yourself. But the minute you doubt yourself and your talents and submit your mind to fear, negative questions, jealousy or all three, you’re no longer embracing the art form.

Ballet is about perfection. It’s about attaining lines and accomplishing feats that seem impossible for human beings. Can we all do everything that the art of ballet requires? No. Everyone has areas for improvement of course (unless you’re Sylvie Guillem…Wendy Whelan…Sara Mearns…Marianela Núñez). When you allow your trouble spots to glaringly affect your mind and your approach though, you’ve lost the battle. Because from there you descend a spiral staircase of feelings and baggage. Fear, doubt, anxiety, sadness, memories of failure. The joy is gone from everything. And when you lose confidence, it’s obvious…whether you’re doing morning tendus from fifth or a pas de deux. No one wants to watch a ballerina who has no joy in their eyes…no depth or glimmer of humanity.

What I’m saying is breathe. Believe in yourself. And don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously. The other night in the midst of late night pointe combinations with my students I reminded them, “it’s just ballet.” We had a good laugh, but it’s true. The studio is your safe haven. Class is the time and the place to be yourself, to make mistakes, and to try everything…a million times and more. I do not discount the way artistry makes us feel. Because it’s a powerful, all-encompassing sensation. Every emotion flowing through our veins can be used as driving fuel, but negativity, and, most importantly, self-negativity, will grind you to a halt. You only have yourself, so be kind. You’re not perfect, but you’re unique…you’re you. You have been given a gift and this time, right now. So just dance; it’s only ballet.