The Importance Of…Taking Class

“…slower is faster if you practice every day with patience and correctness, you will get there. It’s like preparing for a jump. You can’t rush. You must summon the appropriate energy with split-second timing and have an understanding of purpose to get up in the air. It requires training, confidence and mental effort. You can’t have a vocabulary without the alphabet. Balanchine used to say, “Do you want to be a poet of gesture or do you want to be a physical entity?”
 -Edward Villella,
Masters of Movement: Portraits of America’s Great Choreographers

Truer words have never been spoken. Ballet is an agonizing game, yet also strangely addictive. No matter how much time and energy you commit, there’s always more that can be done. There’s no sort of holding point or “safe zone”, no short cuts you can take…no medals for technical accomplishments. If you did four pirouettes yesterday, you may struggle to do a clean “two” tomorrow, so tread carefully. Confidence high, but chin down, and “nose to the grindstone”, so to speak. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pre-professional star or Misty Copeland-you’ve got to go to class.

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Tudor rehearsal with Amanda McKerrow. Ballet Theatre of Maryland, 2013 (P.C. – Donna L. Epstein-Cole)

Lately, I’ve felt a bit alone in my undying love and pursuit of a daily ballet class. Not shocking, since we’re about to hit that dead zone season of the dance world, when smaller, regional companies have completed their seasons and ballet schools and academies are wrapping up the semester with recitals and performances. Everyone’s ready for a break. Schools are letting out, and it’s summer time, baby. But although I’ve tried to supplement the need for endorphins with other exercise, and also unintentionally taken long bouts away from the barre (last week, for example, when an abrupt case of late flu prevented me from taking my one class I had planned), my love affair with ballet carries on.

Even if the source of my problems is ballet at times, class is my opportunity for reconciliation and a reminder as to why I still come crawling back each time. With every plié I execute and every allonge of my wrist, I can leave it all at the door and simply stick to what I know. I don’t know what’s next, or even when I’ll take the stage again, but I know what I can find at the barre (pun somewhat intended). In the words of the wise character of Juliette Simone, from the now iconic Center Stage:

“The unwise dancers blame [others]. He didn’t like me…she was unfair…I should have had that part. The smart ones know where to look…when things get rough. It isn’t there. (Walks over the the barre) It’s HERE. No matter what happened in class, performance, last week, five minutes ago…if you come back here…you’ll be home.”
Juliette Simone, Center Stage (2000)

I’m never going to stop needing class. It’s not something I can deny myself…so I surrender.

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HOME at the barre. Class with Amanda McKerrow. Ballet Theatre of Maryland, 2013 (P.C. – Donna L. Epstein-Cole)

Look Back, But Don’t Linger…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love what you do.

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

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

Fuel The Fire

“Fuel the fire that is your passion…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Is In The Little Things Too

“…you have to consider your happiness. It is absolutely necessary to nurture yourself as a human being…”

The smart and snappy clicking of keys on your keyboard. A compliment you receive. A smile you share with a stranger. A warm cup of coffee. A hug that you desperately needed. All of these are small sounds and gestures. They’re simple. But your reaction to these simple things speaks volumes about your personality and your life (and how you been livin’ it!-time to preach…).

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For capturing the little things…

Late December of this past year I made a trip to Barnes & Noble with my family (my annual hunt for a post-Christmas discounted calendar and planner for the new year). I found a cute little black and white, hipster planner and abandoned my hunt for a calendar. Instead, I visited the journal section. I knew what I was looking for, and I was committed to purchasing it – it’s called The Happiness Project: One Sentence Journal, A Five-Year Record by Gretchen Rubin. Now, could I have just pulled out an old notebook and jotted down something that made me happy every day for the next five years? – yes, absolutely. But instead, trend follower that I am, I forked over the money, bought the cute little bright blue book and felt inspired by it. I felt committed to the concept.

“…it can seem like we’re not allowed time to enjoy little things and consider what makes us truly happy…consider if we’re even happy at all.”

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A little love & kindness…

Tonight I found my “happiness journal” in my bag of everything and realized I had a few days of catching up to do. {I’m trying.} I’m certain the point of the journal is not to sit down and backtrack through your week and think of happy thoughts, but even my procrastinator version helps me in its own way. Sometimes if I miss a few days, I’m not able to think of anything at all that distinguishes a day from the rest (which usually means it was a pretty bad day). But quite frequently I find that something jumps out at me as a great memory of the day, or just a simple enjoyable detail that may have even turned the whole thing around.

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& someone to hold your hand…

Just because I have a “happiness journal”, doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed more happiness than the average person…or that I’m so depressed and messed up to begin with that I need it (but aren’t we all really?). What is important, is what the journal requires me to do on a routine basis, and that is SLOW DOWN. Even if I disrupt the routine and miss five days of writing down happy thoughts on paper, when I return to my book I am forced to stop and put things in perspective. ‘Forced’ sounds negative, but I use the term because it reflects how we treat the process of self-exploration in society sometimes. It’s such a “dog eat dog” world out there that it can seem like we’re not allowed time to enjoy little things and consider what makes us truly happy…consider if we’re even happy at all. But you have to consider your happiness. It is absolutely necessary to nurture yourself as a human being, despite the demands and the expectations you place on yourself. When you stop to take a look, you’ll realize that things are not as bad as they seem sometimes. It’s an eye-opener. Enjoy the compliments, the smiles, the hugs. Because life is in the little things too. Find them and appreciate them for what they are.

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Good Morning, sunshines. Go get ’em.

*My Many Thanks to Gretchen Rubin for her inspiring material. I subscribed to your monthly newsletter tonight, LOVE LOVE LOVE my Happiness Journal, & look forward to reading The Happiness Project and Better Than Before in the near future! 🙂

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.

Sense…And Simplicity

“Changes to lighting, space…to our very selves-strip it down to what it really is…”

Use of all five senses is not a must, but a privilege most of us are accustomed to. Combining all five helps us operate at our most alert and effective state. But what happens when you limit or overwhelm one of those senses? As performing artists, we are accustomed to meeting the challenges that the stage offers us. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy task.

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Class onstage-I didn’t caption that myself 😉 Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Hammer

When daily rehearsals in studio transform into long hours in a dim theater with radiant side lighting, everyone is thrown by the change to their vision. The accommodations our bodies must make to adjust to the huge contrast in lighting (bright on the sides versus an abyss of darkness before you) naturally starts to confuse our balance. And needless to say, that’s a heck of an important thing for a dancer. Balance is something of low priority since it comes so naturally to us, but in the theater it’s like starting from scratch. I start to train my body for the difference the minute I step inside. During class I force myself to look high and into the dark. The natural response is to look down and only within close proximity: a completely fair reflex, but not a good aesthetic for line and presentation purposes. Step two for success with lighting? Stare them down. Probably not good for overall eye health, but confront the light before your big moment onstage. Prepare yourself for the brilliance (or lack thereof) that those bulbs will present.

“…Enough to shake your belief in your preparedness to the core…”

One must also address drastic changes in apparel. The stage is the time for grandeur and drama, but getting into character requires more work than you would think. Stage makeup and full costume is amazing upon completion, but it also includes a great deal of inhuman details. Long, fake eyelashes, a caked on, perfectly contoured face, awkward, complex costumes, hair that must never move, pointe shoe ribbons that must never come untied. These tactile changes may not seem crucial to the product of movement, but tights or no tights, tutu or none-these details can change the complexity of contact.

And if that’s not enough to shake your belief in your preparedness to the core, don’t forget space. While most companies prepare for the exact spacing of the stage, looking at floor marks and studio landmarks in the light of day is much different than frantically searching for “your mark” (a.k.a. a small tape mark downstage or upstage, that you must secretly seek out with your eyes while still smiling and maintaining a relaxed demeanor) in the midst of performance.

Changes to lighting, space, and to our very selves can make the transition onto the stage seem daunting. But take care, dancers. The final touches to performance do not a show make. It’s about the flavor of the piece…the soul that emanates there. So strip it down to what it really is-you, movement, and an audience. Give it everything you have left.

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.

Up Close And Personal

“We cannot hide much at all without stage lights, wings, and, well, distance.”

A great majority of careers involve work done on an individual, private basis—time spent in offices, writing reports, tweaking budgets, making plans. Every job requires some type of busy work—time and energy spent that the public never witnesses—out of sight, out of mind. In the world of the arts, the daily toil and sweat we contribute is rarely witnessed, but the product is available to all, out on the stage.

Non-traditional dance venues do not provide the comforts of the theater. We cannot hide much at all without stage lights, wings, and, well, distance. We’re out on the front lines. This past weekend I completed two successful performances (my first, formal affair in about six months!) in a studio theater setting-Charlottesville Ballet’s biannual UpFront event. It’s an event that I love, but an extraordinary challenge as well.

What I thrive off of is the interaction. I, personally, love to be able to make eye contact with audience members and see their immediate reactions. You are able to look out directly onto the faces of friends and loved ones and be fueled by their energy towards you. Countless times I have been motivated to struggle through a piece and forge on because of a smiling, encouraging face in the crowd, sometimes familiar, sometimes new.

“[You can] make eye contact with audience members and see their immediate reactions…On the other hand, sometimes this intrusive proximity is nerve-racking, at best.”

On the other hand, sometimes this intrusive proximity is nerve-racking, at best. Any mistake made or doubt shown is magnified times ten when the eyes of the spectators are so close at hand. The basic rights of sweating and even breathing seem to pose as awkward, when you’re planted within six feet of a crowd. And this is not to say that as artists (and as humans) we are not allowed these privileges. But the closeness of our dear audience does make us dreadfully conscience of our bodies and our control of them. But in the end, whatever’s gonna happen, is gonna happen; it’s all part of the experience.

Despite the pressures of a literally “in your face” audience, neither we, nor said audience, can deny the energy cultivated by such a performance. Performers and audience members alike are inspired by this type of venue. There is something captivating and honest about such a format. It offers a chance for artists to display their work in pure form. It’s down and dirty, on the front lines, movement-up close and personal.

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.