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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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.

The Joy Of..Teaching: Part Two

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

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

PC - Nina Staeben
PC – Nina Staeben

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

PC - Jen O'Keefe
PC – Jen O’Keefe

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

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

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

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

Birthday love <3
Birthday love ❤

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

The Joy Of..Teaching: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namaste Turned Out

“…quiet the mind, peel away correction after correction, shun all self doubt, and embrace the desires of the soul.”

Namaste and welcome, to this week’s J.O.D. Feeling fueled and positive after some afternoon yoga today, I started thinking about the vast benefits of yoga for dancers. As the summer winds down and we find ourselves preparing for new classes (academic and/or dance), new schedules, and the rigors of our Monday thru Friday lives (or Monday thru..always, as some of us may experience), yoga is an excellent way to prepare for a return to the ballet barre. While aspects of this practice can be quite foreign to classically trained dancers, there are many benefits to the practice, even if only attending on a weekly basis. As movers we are reminded of the need to breathe, thoughtfully stretch, work alternative muscles, and search within ourselves for both mental and physical needs.

the outdoors + yoga = beauty & inner peace <3
the outdoors + yoga = beauty & inner peace  ❤

The main benefit of yoga for dancers is the consistent emphasis on breath and breath support. Lack of breath support in accompaniment with movement is a common problem for dancers of all levels. Without breath support (and more specifically-correct breath support), dancers can become fatigued and lose stamina quickly. It is common, during class time especially, for dancers to exhale aggressively after completion of a combination-a sign that the breath is becoming pent up within the body while dancing. Yoga, on the other hand, promotes constant movement of the breath-both in moments of stillness and motion. Although it takes a great deal of practice, really focusing on the breath can make the process of utilizing it much more enjoyable. Not only does yoga help to promote breath support, but it also introduces different techniques of breathing (i.e. – use of the diaphragm for strength and stamina of breath).

Yoga is also a great alternative and/or addition to traditional ballet stretches. Whether you’re practicing in the Vinyasa technique (more rigorous; flowing and connecting from posture to posture) or Yin (long-held postures, focusing on stretching the fascia and reaching an appropriate “edge”), the poses of traditional yoga practice are excellent formats for allowing dancers to stretch both the lower body and the less commonly used (for ballet technique) muscles of the upper body. Poses like “plank”, “forward fold”, “warrior three”, “standing split”, “frog”, and “supine butterfly” are all excellent for strength and stretch and physically come easily to the “dancer crowd”. However, the prominent, sometimes glaring, difference between ballet and yoga that presents itself, is the lack of turnout. I still find myself wanting to outwardly rotate my hips and most definitely my feet, for certain poses within the yoga technique. However, sticking to the traditional parallel is definitely more successful. Although we desire to stick to what we know physically, the challenge of keeping the hips and feet parallel strengthens different muscles of the body, ones that aren’t commonly used on a day-to-day basis as a dancer.

Peace, peace, peace.
“Peace, peace, peace.”

Now some may say that they attend yoga for one reason – good ol’ savasana – a chance to literally lay back, corpse pose style, and let the worries of the day melt away. This deeply meditative moment within the practice is truly important for artists. It is an opportunity to quiet the mind, peel away correction after correction, shun all self doubt, and embrace the desires of the soul. Even if savasana is the only thing that gets you to yoga class, keep it up, because it’s certainly a good reason to be there.

Kripalu yoga @ Tanglewood this past weekend - always a delight
Kripalu yoga @ Tanglewood this past weekend – always just what I NEED. PC – My Mom  ❤

Yoga is a fantastic pairing or temporary alternative (for injury purposes) to dance. Before ruling out the practice as something too anti-ballet, give it a chance. There is nothing else like it. Although there is a strong meditative, spiritual, and individual component, yoga, like ballet, is also a disciplined practice. Take the opportunity and lie back…breathe, rotate those legs inward a little bit more than you’re used to, and focus on you.

Just Like The Pros

“…the world of ballet [is much more] than just going to class and performing. It is a culture and a lifestyle.”

They say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Charles Caleb Colton) As we each create our own personal journey as dancers, it is only natural that habits and inspirations are gathered along the way. I can remember the extreme distraction, fear/utter respect, and curiosity I felt whenever I was around a professional dancer. I wanted to dance, walk, talk, dress, and altogether BE like them. Now, despite any qualms I may ever have about myself as a professional, I can “feel” the eyes that evaluate my movements as well.

There is much more to the world of ballet than just going to class and performing. It is a culture and a lifestyle. The fashion, hairstyles, cross training, eating habits, and even character traits of dancers are greatly affected by their profession.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” –Charles Caleb Colton

When I consider some of the important elements that construct my life as a dancer, it is safe to say that many of those details I “stole” from others or adapted as my own. Hairstyles (I’ve watched Sara Mearns’ instructional French twist video on YouTube, and I have perfected a braided hairstyle that I developed from Sarah Lamb), leotards (you better pair those two Yumi colors you like together first before someone else does, or you’re just going to look like a copycat), warmup apparel choices (everyone got on the dance overalls “train” at some point or has cut up a pair of tights to make a shrug; also, trash bag clothing is everything)…Ballet is really quite the fashion world. Even if you’re not on the cover of Pointe Magazine, someone may very well be eyeing your leo and thinking that if they had that very one they’d be a beautiful dancer too.

The world of dance can feel like a foreign place as you take your first steps into the professional world. Thankfully, there will always be opportunities to learn from one another and from the pros we admire above us. As we grow as artists, we gather information and assistance as needed from others – recommendations or personal touches that keep us in touch with our dance culture and that help us further our career or passion for ballet. After all, dance is a hard enough endeavor – the least we can do for one another is share some tricks of the trade.

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.