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.

Confessions Of A Work In Progress

“Confidence should not only be the result of compliments from others, but also the effect of a constant stream of compliments you give/allow yourself.”

It has been an unfortunately long time since I’ve attended to my blog. I admit that my neglect of this “space” is partially due to busyness, both work-related and social, but it is also due to fear of what’s next. I have done my best to give a significant push of energy to the start of 2017, however, as I consider possible change, fear, uncertainty, and self-abuse creep up on me. Although I have enjoyed my time teaching, working as a freelancer, and having an independent schedule, I suppose there will always be a part of me that misses the full time life of a company member. I earnestly admit that I AM A WORK IN PROGRESS. After all, life is no fun at all if you have nothing to truly live for or improve upon. Here are five aspects of my life I am currently trying to address…

1.) TIME – There’s never enough of it. Time constraints and the quick passage of time can cause me to absolutely panic, personally. I either don’t understand time correctly, or I just prefer to live on the edge constantly. Every day I promise myself I will leave the house at a specific time, yet every day I chronically leave ten minutes late. I’m not lounging around, or sleeping in, I simply want to cram in as much as possible before leaving for the day, and my over-ambition sets me up for failure. As a dancer, I have been trained to embrace every second, yet my pursuit leads to my demise.

Spare time, on the other hand, I find utterly intriguing and promising, yet I have a ridiculously hard time utilizing it. My high hopes of accomplishment can lead me to disappointment. I idolize the completion of the tasks that I avoid. This is when my procrastination and my fear take over-something I am always willing to work to overcome.

2.) FRIENDSHIPS – I have been lucky to have strong bonding friendships within the dance community all my life. As I continue to attend class at three different companies/schools, I still feel camaraderie whenever I step into a familiar studio. However, being a “free agent”, in and out on my own unique schedule, can make close interaction a bit more difficult. Many of my close friends have gone their separate ways, to other companies or onto other adventures, and I truly miss the energy of bonding and working together in the studio. But there are always opportunities for new friends, and what a joy it is to realize how many wonderful people I have already encountered in my lifetime.

3.) CONFIDENCEConfidence should not only be the result of compliments from others, but also the effect of a constant stream of compliments you give/allow yourself. Plain and simple (yet so hard to practice).

4.) HELP – When I teach, I always stress the fact that I accept and encourage questions. I think artists especially tend to stifle their questions, in order to appear sharp and quick. However, any teacher or choreographer will be the first to admit to you that questions are valuable and can actually shine a light on a dancer’s efficiency and complexity of thought in relation to movement, body, and music. Questions are good for you; don’t cast them aside!

It’s also 100% acceptable to have questions about yourself and your emotions (something I’m just discovering). It’s okay to ask for help from an impartial party. Talking to someone other than a friend, a significant other, or a family member gives us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and fuel ourselves with self-knowledge for the fulfillment of future decisions.

5.) HAPPINESS & LOVE – Last but not least, I am forever learning how to find happiness in the little things, sometimes things that are not necessarily dance-related. It may sound like a dumb problem to have, but my life has been programmed to draw great amounts of joy from dancing. I realize more and more with each passing day, that I have so many other things to be joyful about. I love every day, even the simple motions (like cooking or having a cup of coffee); I love my growing strength (one year, six months strong, missing an ankle ligament); I love my boyfriend (the smiles, laughs, and love are endless); I love my family and friends; I love writing; I love working with kids; and I love teaching others about the joy of dance.

I am a work in progress, working to progress.

I'm not much of a jewelry fan, but anyone that knows me, knows I wear these four constantly. Two are brand new-they all have such a special message to me, I rarely ever take them off.
I’m not much of a jewelry fan, but anyone that knows me, knows I wear these four bracelets constantly. Two are brand new (yay birthday!)-they all have such a special message to me, I rarely ever take them off. ❤

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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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Hope And Strength

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

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

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

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

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

Be ready. Harness your hope, find your strength.

What’s In The Word Can’t?…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To (Ballerina) School

“I love this time of year. I thrive off the thrill of day one.”

September looms before us as students, young and old, head back to school. The nights are a bit more crisp, school sales are underway, and Halloween decorations have somehow crept onto store shelves. Bear with me, because this all makes me rather nostalgic. A truth has hit me (and I accept it willingly, but need to talk it out of course): this is the first year of my life since I was five years old that I will not be “going back to school”, so to speak. Obviously, for 17 of those years, I was truly attending an academic institution of some kind. However, the past five years of my life I have started each late August with a “first day of school” as well. “Ballerina school” – five years of company life.

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Just another day at school – happy ballerina – April 2015

I know I’m not the only one that treats the first day back for the company season as the fantastic fresh start that it is. Just as a student preps with a backpack full of fresh notebooks, their coolest outfit, and the yummiest lunch, a dancer preps their shoes, their best leo, and the lunch and snack that will fuel their long day back. It’s clean slate time. Although not all mistakes may have been forgotten, the purity of summer allows even dancers a chance to unwind and be real people. The possibilities are endless now, there are new faces and old friends, spirits are high, and the road that is the next year of your life is laid out before you.

I love this time of year. I thrive off the thrill of day one. Freshness (I’m convinced I have a low grade case of OCD), new beginnings, organization, and plans, plans, plans. But this year is not like the rest. There will be no first day of school for me (for those of you who haven’t heard). It is not ideal, and, honestly, it makes me sad. But it’s what’s happening. A year ago today I took a fall (Balanchine loved dancers who fell, by the way). It was obviously a stumbling point, and it has caused me to stumble again and again, but I won’t let it be an end point.

“What if nothing else besides dancing makes me happy?”

I don’t know when I’ll have another opportunity to be on-stage…another opportunity to pour out joy and emotion and leave it there for the taking…but I know that the skepticism I have about the road ahead is okay and it’s natural. Sometimes this is where the true magic lies–in the unexpected.

I admit I am questioning things. Because I like to know what I’m doing…I like a good plan. Not knowing what I’m meant to do next is killing me. What if nothing else besides dancing makes me happy? (teaching dance makes me happy, but in an entirely different way-that’s a convo for another time…soon) What if there isn’t a replacement, a supplement for it? I’m afraid that I won’t be content with anything else…But I’m trying to figure it all out because that’s what I do. That’s me.

So to all my good friends who have started school – regular schooling or “ballerina school” – good luck. Put your best foot forward and plunge into the new.

To ballet company life – this isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later.

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“the true magic lies-in the unexpected.” PC – Wendy Grande

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.

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…