My Weakness and My Strength

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

Dance is my weakness and my strength.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watchful Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Permission Granted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

typorama

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…

 

 

Another Day, Another Plié

“…Someone somewhere…aspires to move like you…‘Another day, another plié’ you might think, but to the average person you are sensational.”

Dancers: how many times a day do you plié? A plié is simple in our eyes – a movement that’s used as an assist for practically every complex balletic movement. I’m not going to toss out a number, but per ballet class we each do an astronomical amount of these simple knee bends. Writing this, I even Googled “how many pliés does a dancer do in a ballet class?” The results were inconclusive, and I instead was offered topics such as “The purpose of Grande Pliés” or “How to Ballet Dance (with Pictures)” (my personal favorite). That’s proof enough right there that even the basics of ballet are fascinating to non-dancers. The physical strain we place on our bodies on a daily basis is far from acceptable anatomically. But does that serve as a deterrent to the art form? Not at all.

I decided to tackle this topic, in part, due to my frequent interactions with my adult students. I have always found it to be a pleasure working with adult groups-primarily because I know that absolutely everyone in the class is there of their own accord. Time and time again I find myself working with young students, whose own personal passions for dance do not match that of their parent or guardian. But when I step in the studio with adults, I know everyone wants to be there. I do my best to give a class that is comfortable for all levels, yet one that sparks thought and offers a challenge; I “read the room”-I’m not going to give a powerhouse class to a room of tired, mature adults; and I offer options-releve or flat, port de bras or stillness, stretch of your choice, etc. The opinion of this group is probably the one I value most. Because they are there to learn…to better themselves…to enjoy dancing. If I can provide them with anything and everything they are looking for, and they then come back and set aside time in their busy lives for ballet class with me, then I have done my job.

“The physical strain we place on our bodies on a daily basis is far from acceptable anatomically.”

Some of the students I work with regularly are advanced-women or men who have spent a considerable amount of time dancing, either recreationally or professionally. On the other hand, some are fresh to the world of dance. Does this make my job even harder? Yes. But I have great respect for these individuals. The simple movements that professional dancers complexly string together on a daily basis are the building blocks of my beginner adult curriculum. While I spend my mornings “plié-ing” away, I spend some of my evenings breaking down the basics for those who desire a recreational ballet class. The contrast in approach is vast, but the content of beautiful movement remains the same. While we as professionals dare to analyze and perfect our movements, in a recreational capacity, the goal is much simpler (and also, perhaps, more appreciated). It all comes with the territory. The more we advance, the more we take for granted and lose perspective.

So the next time you are going about your day, performing your routine, remember that someone somewhere admires you and aspires to move like you. Yes, perfection of tricks, alignment, and flexibility are all important at the professional level, but don’t forget to give yourself some credit. Ballet is not natural. It’s brutal and unforgiving. But you are a professional, and you have broken barriers with your capabilities. ‘Another day, another plié’ you might think, but to the average person you are sensational.

A Common Thread

“Dance is that common thread that bonds us together like no other passion can.”

Most people don’t like strangers. They’re out of our comfort zone and can present demands to build new relationships and share some sort of bond. If you’re a dancer though, not only should you have a high tolerance for strangers, but you should be ready to interact with them on a physical and emotional level at any given time. People we do not know do present a challenge, but they also present an opportunity to learn new things.

I spent the morning after my Fourth of July at the esteemed “Pillow” of the Berkshires (Jacob’s Pillow, that is). Part of my quick “long” weekend spent at home, I planned to take a master class offering with BODYTRAFFIC – giving me an opportunity to visit the Pillow, take class, and check out this intriguing company. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it would be modern (socks being the foot apparel of choice), but attendance and content-I had no idea.

“Anywhere else, you bump into someone and you’re a clumsy idiot,  but as a dancer you’re simply opening an avenue for an interaction of energy and movement.”

Attendance – whoa. The Marley space covering the Doris Duke stage quickly was blanketed with dancers of all sizes, styles, and walks of life. We began with an improv based warmup, moving in a pedestrian-like fashion throughout the studio and advancing to an exploration of levels and tempos of movement. We were consistently asked to be aware of one another. This prevented crowding, which was absolutely necessary, but we were also asked to make eye contact, to observe one another. The faster we moved the harder that became, but as dancers and movers the teacher asked that we absorb one another’s energy rather than considering any sort of physical interaction to be a mistake or an intrusive bump. Anywhere else, you bump into someone and you’re a clumsy idiot,  but as a dancer you’re simply opening an avenue for an interaction of energy and movement.

After warmup, we progressed to repertoire. Two phrases of “meaty”, detailed choreography were doled out, and we were given the opportunity to practice them in groups. Even the smaller, divided groups seemed like massive crowds. Each practice run provided the option to either embark independently in the front or blend into the middle or back of the mass. As we “attacked” each piece of choreography, despite the pressure to impress, a camaraderie began to grow. I found myself admiring the work of people I had never met before, applauding their bold approach or commending someone on a correction well-applied. You never know what you may learn from the stranger next to you.

Experiences begun with strangers have been some of the most valuable of my life.  Ballet Austin Summer Intensive 2010
Experiences begun with strangers have been some of the most valuable of my life.
Ballet Austin Summer Intensive 2010

What I admired the most about my Pillow experience, however, were the things I saw happening once class was over. Under the guidance of a PR rep, our large class of strangers huddled together, arms around one another for a photo. Sweating profusely and breathing heavily after finishing class, no one argued or shied away. We had bonded. As the group dispersed, the teacher hugged individuals who offered further thanks, commending everyone on a job well-done. Small groups formed as dancers shared information and complimented one another, finding some sort of connection from their dance world (the small, small dance world).

Not every class is like this. It is, after all, a competitive, cutthroat field. But these are the moments that make me smile. Great joy and purity of feeling can emanate from movement and sharing that with someone else, even if they are foreign to you. A class among strangers is daunting, yes, but more likely than not it will provide a fresh experience. You will feel pride in your own work and awe in that of others. Dance is that common thread that bonds us together like no other passion can. If you are a dancer, you will never be alone.

HAPPY BELATED 4TH EVERYONE!!
HAPPY BELATED FOURTH EVERYONE!!