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Emotional Training

“I’m just worried,” said my friend, “because you seem really sad.”

She sat cross-legged, facing me with the same easy intimacy we had always had, even though I hadn’t seen her in a few years.

“I’m just figuring things out,” I said, at a loss for words to express what was happening in my life, but desperately wanting to convey something, anything, that would articulate that I was good, but in the midst of a deeply personal transformation. “Everything’s good. I’m not sad. Not really. I’m just – I guess I’m just processing a lot, I’m sort of straightening it all out.”

“Okay,” she said, “I believe you. I know you’re in the middle of it right now – I can’t wait to see what it’s like when you get to the other side of this.”

“I’m doing a lot of feelings,” I said. “I pretty much always figured there were about four: happy, sad, sleepy, hungry. Those are my go-to.”

“I have a friend who teaches first grade,” she said. “She has a wheel with a lot of emotions on it, and she has the kids point to the feeling they’re having. Maybe you should get one.”

“It’s really not a bad idea,” I said.

*     *     *

oxford-skyline_1010001cFor the first twenty-eight years of my life, I was all about school. (Much like I am all about that bass.) I was a highly dedicated student, I pursued undergraduate and postgraduate education and a career in academia, and I was trained at some of the best universities in the world. My mental training was extremely rigorous. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, but it left me with the ability to walk into pretty much any setting, anywhere in the world, and be cool with whatever was happening. I was good to go, whether I was in a third-grade classroom, a gender studies conference, a snarky dinner party with currently fashionable literati, or a summit on nuclear policy. Not to say that I was equally expert in every single subject, but I knew how to learn, I knew how to research, and I had amazing credentials that would get me through pretty much any door until I could figure out what was happening.

When I became a professional dancer, I yes-you-can-do-pull-ups-for-major-reps-heres-how_aswitched gears completely and pursued physical training with the same zealous single-mindedness. (Some would say “bloodless fanatacism”.) I was strict in my attention to nutrition, to strength and endurance and high-intensity training, to flexibility and stamina, to dance technique both within my own discipline and in other traditional disciplines. I was a disciple of the Kale Method, my own personal approach to transforming my body into what I believed it needed to be. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, and in the process I discovered how much control and agency I had in my own body – a realization that fundamentally changed the way I walked through the world. Naturally it met with a lot of congratulation from the body-conscious world around me, which left me feeling deeply ambivalent. I enjoyed the validation, but suspected that there was something pretty fundamentally screwed up about it.

And now? Well, for the last year and a half, I’ve switched gears again. I’m deep into my emotional training – I’ve found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I’m exploring what it means to be a partner in every sense of the word. That’s no joke, my friends! It’s a training just as demanding as graduate school or trying to get oversplits or run a marathon, except that there’s often very little outward evidence of what you’re doing. Nobody hands you a degree at the end, and you don’t get to go buy cute hot-pink lycra clothes for it (although, obviously, you totally CAN and in retrospect that would have been a pretty solid idea.) Sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s awesome, but let me tell you – the hardest thing? Is that there’s no framework.

It literally took me until last week to realize that this was what I was doing. I wish I’d been able to tell my friend what I was doing when I saw her, but I hadn’t figured it out yet. And she was right – there was a lot of sadness, and a lot of other emotions too, feelings that I’d pretty much just locked down during Training Phases 1 and 2, and that were only now getting recognized and reconciled. I am grateful to be thinking about my life this way, because I no longer feel like I’m losing ground all the time. Like I’m a big slacker who isn’t Actually Doing Anything.

Am I currently up and ready to go on my Latin? Could I drop right into the archives and pick up my historical research where I left off and finally publish that book I’ve been fooling around with for years? No. But given a week or two to get back in the groove, I absolutely could.

Am I as devoted to the Kale Method as I was? Am I hitting the gym six days a week? Am I training to the point of physical exhaustion and seeing huge improvements? No. But given a week or two to get back into the groove, I absolutely could.

Instead, what I’m actually doing is being mindful of my emotional responses to people, to situations, to stimuli. I’m striving to be as open as I can to new experiences and different ways of living, with way less judgement and way more appreciation. I’m finally accepting some deep pain and loss that I’ve avoided for a long time because, hello, it’s incredibly painful. But I no longer feel at the mercy of my feelings, as if my emotions were weather that I had no option but to endure until it passed. I’m facing a lot of fears and actually talking about what I feel instead of locking it down so that I can get back to business. Because right now? This IS my business.

So watch out! Because I’m still working towards being able to pound out a bunch of unassisted pull ups, to (finally) learn some Greek, to being able to run a 5K without wanting to die a horrible death, to re-engaging with the world of academic thought that I left for awhile. I know that the successes and accomplishments I gained in my mental and physical training are still there, waiting for me to roll back into the library or the gym, and that soon I’ll be able to integrate all of them together and make choices about which particular part of myself to improve on any given day, but for now, there’s some emotional work that is way overdue.

[Ed. Note: Two dudes next to me in the coffee shop are chatting their heads off about bench presses. I feel you, bros. Talk about being on topic!]

 

 

Transparency

And that's just true.

And that’s just true.

So a month or two ago, Shawn and I were talking through our students, and making sure we were each up to date on everyone’s progress and situation. I started to talk about one of my students, who hadn’t been taking any lessons lately. I felt badly about this, and after about three minutes, Shawn stopped me.

“You’re talking about this student, but you’re so focused on your own story that you’re losing his,” he said.

“Wait, what?” I replied.

“Do you think he feels bad about his dance experience?” Shawn asked me. “Absolutely not! He’s made amazing progress, and he’s accomplished some huge goals. You’re only talking about how you feel like you’ve failed as a teacher with him. If this student were here in front of you, do you think he would feel good about how you’re talking?”

“Oh, crap,” I said. “You’re right.”

I had focused so much on what I thought should have happened, and why it didn’t, that I was losing sight of why this person was dancing, and what HIS joy was. Not cool!

Transparency is one of our core values – but what does that really mean? And why is it so important?

For us, transparency means that not only should we strive for total clarity and integrity in all normal business operations, but also – and more importantly – in speech, actions, and thoughts.

One of our choices as teachers – and it is a choice! – is to be very mindful of how we think of our students and their stories. We try our best to always keep their stories front and center, and to honor them. Anything we say about a student’s dancing, his or her journey, personality, or life ought to be something that they would hear and feel good about. Or at the very least agree with and feel respected, empowered, and valued. (Most likely it’s something we’ve already talked about one on one anyway!

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.

— the Dalai Lama

Have you ever been to one of those nail salons where the staff talk about customers in a different language in front of them? You know what I mean. And you know when you’re getting talked about – or when the lady three chairs down, who honestly is being a huge pain in the ass – is getting a royal chewing-out in another language. Even if you totally agree, it’s not a great feeling.

We make it a priority as teachers to never let that be something that happens – anyplace. Even in our own brains. It’s one of the reasons we started The Connected Dancer: because we feel so strongly that there should never be a “back room” conversation about a student, under any circumstances. The dance industry is full of amazing teachers, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s also sometimes pervaded by a culture that creates two separate worlds: a world of teachers-and-students, where things are phrased or framed or delivered in a very particular way for a particular reason, and a world-without-students, where professionals can vent their frustrations and emotions and say what they really think. That disparity isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s outright appalling.

It’s easy to think of people in our lives as problems to be solved – especially when we are responsible for helping or educating them in some way! I remember when I would take on students at Oxford, it was very common for their supervisors to call me up and say something like, yes, this is Owen, he’s working on history –  he’s got quite challenged by essay writing this past term and he’s just sort of a 2:1 student, really [that’s England-speak for a B student].

Ooooof. That would not make Owen feel awesome. It didn’t make me feel awesome, as his soon-to-be teacher, that’s for sure. It made me sad and a bit angry that this kid was being described by all the things he couldn’t do.

How different would it be if someone had said, hey, this is Owen, he’s working on history – he’s a really hard worker and he’s in the orchestra; he’s been working a lot on his writing and he’s really improved but I think you can really help him take the next step. Yay! That’s exciting! I am so pumped to work on writing with you, dude. And I already think you’re a cool guy who works hard and plays music. You’re all right by me.

The stories we tell ourselves about people in our brains define how we think about them.

If we are habitually describing people in terms of what their problems are, how they get under our skin, or why things aren’t going the way we want, it skews our world view and the way we interact.

For myself, I know that I am not always the most patient person. Sometimes I get frustrated, or distracted, or irritated. But being aware of the stories I tell myself about people, and how I think about their progress and our interactions has really helped me build my enthusiasm, my patience, and my respect. I am so honored that we get to teach the students we do.

Teaching dance is an amazing job, to be sure, but it’s also a big responsibility. People entrust you with their stories, their dreams, their fears, and their bodies. There’s the potential to do great good, but also the potential to damage not just someone’s body but their emotions and their psyche. As teachers, we feel that it’s our responsibility to help our students be the best dancers they can be, and by extension, to be the best possible humans. The authenticity and emotional honesty that truly good dancing demands just can’t be faked. It’s real, and it’s raw, and it’s visceral. That’s why learning to dance is so much more than just moving your feet around – it’s a full-body and full-person experience!

And just like a greenhouse helps plants flourish and stretch toward the sun, as it shines through clear panes of glass, so too does learning and growing happen best in an environment of authenticity, integrity, and transparency.

 

*This post previously appeared on our website at www.TheConnectedDancer.com. Check it out!

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Blogologues!

So there’s a crew in NYC called Lively Productions that does these live theatre productions of the internets called Blogologues.

It’s a super fun idea, and they curate shows based on themes – the latest theme was Health & Fitness, and guess whose post on kale goddamn smoothies was included? Mine! The answer is, mine, the one I wrote, here on this dumb blog!

Performed by the lovely and talented Allison Goldberg, “Will It Blend?” made it off the screen and onto the stage! How exciting is that? Thank you to Jen and Allison for thinking that some random shit I wrote about kale was worth saying in front of actual live humans, and thank you to the live humans who (apparently) laughed! I am told there is video forthcoming, which will obviously be tossed right up here for all of us to look at, but in the meantime: pictures! (Click on the first picture below to see the gallery)

Antsy.

My evil genius plan is totally working. I have a partner, I’ve done a successful warm-up comp before my season of legit comps starts in a few weeks, I have multiple fabulous ass dresses, I’m on track with my nutrition and strength training and spray tanning, and I’m generally teaching and training well. At least my coaches tell me that my dancing makes their eyes hurt less frequently. But they still say it.

Harder than it looks.

Harder than it looks.

Sidenote to all the students out there: do you get tired of your teachers telling you to stand up straight? Well, guess what. I have spent many more thousands of dollars than you on dance lessons and coaching and I still had two hours of “how to stand up straight” this week. It’s amazing that anybody manages to walk upright at all.

Ballroom dancing – pushing evolution forward, one posture-perfect step at a time.

Anyway, everything is going according to plan. So what’s my problem? I’m twitchy because it isn’t happening fast enough, I guess. I’m not PERFECT ALREADY, and, because I’m jumping into a bigger pond, I’m measuring myself against a lot of folks who are way, way better than me and ranked way, way ahead of me. So I fall short, and that makes me irritated, and I am motivated to get better, and I do, but not fast enough.

Plus my life is in flux; I don’t know what things are going to look like for me personally or professionally even six months from now, much less a year. And that’s cool on one hand because it means I have a lot of choices and a lot of flexibility and it makes me CRAZY because it is very difficult for me to be zen and roll with the universe.

All of which means that I am so, so grateful for the competition floor – it is simple and clear and easy. I know exactly what I have to do and there is a winner and a loser.

And on that one day, for those five dances, I know exactly what is going on.

I love competing for lots of reasons – I love the process of hair and makeup and tanning and nails, not because I give half a shit about any of it, but because it is a ritual that feels like putting on beautiful ballroom armor. (One of my new dresses really makes me feel like a fancy version of Xena, if she were into lavender and gold instead of black leather.) I love standing around in chintzy hotel ballrooms and hallways and watching the sparkly aliens roll around in tracksuits and bedazzled swimsuits. I love the community even though everybody is usually the worst, and I love all the barely suppressed emotions and how goddamn PERSONALLY everyone takes everything, all the time. It’s like an emotional nuclear reactor. I love putting on my game face and air kissing a bunch of other aliens also in game faces and tranny makeup and going, oh, you look so great!! 

I am antsy because I want to be on the floor all the time. Competition…it’s like heroin because it’s expensive as hell, makes you look crazy, and ruins you for any other high.

It’s chickpeas? Shut up.

(presented in no particular order)

*     *     *

So the potential partner definitely blew me off. That’s par for the course. At least this time I actually danced with the dude before the blow off! Although, of course, this being ballroom, I just haven’t gotten a call back for two weeks. That qualifies as a Not Happening in my book.

I really wish DudeBro McLeaderson would’ve had the cojones to just call me and say, listen, you’re great, it’s not gonna work, thanks so much have a nice liiiiiife…

But no. Instead I am going to have to track his lazy ass down and make him actually say it so that there is closure and it’s not weird the next time I see him which will inevitably happen given that the ballroom community has like twelve people in it, half of whom are mad at/screwing/screwing OVER/have been screwed over by the other half.

It’s fine if you don’t want to dance with me. That’s super valid. But don’t be a tool. Just fucking man up and call me.

But then, if you could do that you could probably show up to a rehearsal on time (or at all) which is also not a strength. So that’s a whole thing. Whatever.

*     *     *

I made these weird cookies. I don’t know, I kind of like them. But they’re legit weird. So they were a thing I found on the internet (she said with trepidation) and it seemed like a SUPER GOOD IDEA at the time and I just happened to have 100% of the necessary foo-foo gluten free fancy schmancy ass ingredients in my kitchen. And to the credit of the nice lady who put up all the pretty pictures, they seem like a fantastic idea. THIS IS WHY I WAS SUCKED IN.

Do mine look like this? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, no.

Right? But, so, yeah. These “cookies” (or whatever, baked good kind of deal) are chickpeas, natural peanut butter, agave syrup, vanilla, and baking powder. You toss all that in a food processor and blend the shit out of it.

So, it turns out I am not really 100% sure how to use my food processor? I bought it once and used it immediately (probably with the benefit of the goddamn instructions, which are now LONG GONE) and so I had to use a lot of trial and error. Mostly error. Because this dough shit is basically cement – at one point there was literally smoke coming out of the motor. This, I thought, was probably not a good sign.

But eventually I figured it out using my ape-brain and opposable thumbs and managed to blend together all the shit into a dough-like substance which was sticky as hell. And in the recipe the internet lady put in chocolate chips but it turned out that all I had were milk chocolate chips which I HATE so I had to find the only dark chocolate in my house which was half a bag of dark chocolate Hershey’s kisses. Right?

So I unwrap some of those bastards and throw them in, thinking (like a dumbass) that if I hit pulse they will get chopped up into chocolate chip type things. Uh, no. That is not how food processors work (see above). Turns out it just blended the shit out of the couple of kisses I did science with and turned the whole chickpea cement kind of chocolatey.

(ALLITERATION! Not just for foods with gluten.)

At which point I said, Fuck this, this whole experiment has ceased to be entertaining plus now I am realizing that I have to clean my goddamn food processor and remembering why I sometimes just give up and buy plastic silverware instead of, you know, doing dishes…. so I slapped those bitches onto a pan and threw a Hershey’s kiss on top of each one, reckoning that even if the cookie things were a total loss, at least I would get a warm Hershey’s kiss out of the operation.

Chocolate chickpea peanut butter goddamn pain in my ass cement cookie things…

And IN THE END, they were actually pretty fucking tasty. For a cement chickpea cookie thing. Don’t get crazy, it’s not foie gras or anything. But still. Fuck food processors and fuck me for occasionally thinking that I can actually do things that I have NO BUSINESS DOING.

*     *     *

I really want this dress from Espen Salberg. Which is stupid, I have no dollars and no business buying a super cute dress but it is calling to me! It is saying BUY ME YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO MAYBE YOU WILL LOOK LIKE THIS COOL CHICA IN THE PICTURE IF YOU DOOOOO….

Espen Salberg Leopard Cowl Dress

Psssht, dress, you crazy. I don’t even have bangs!

*     *     *

Maybe I should get BANGS. I need a haircut, for reals.

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For the dads.

I want to write about two outstanding fathers – my own father, and the father of one of my students. First, the latter.

This week I got to coach a kids’ ballroom team – if you’ve seen Mad Hot Ballroom, this is exactly that. They had a 10-week program  that culminated in a semi-final for their area of the school district, which they won, but then there was a several week hiatus between the semi and the actual city-wide final. And since the funding for the program only ran for 10 weeks, it fell entirely on the shoulders of their classroom teacher to get them ready. He is a truly wonderful guy, and also happens to be the dad of one of my little students. He came to me and asked if I could help out, and I was like, WHERE DO I SIGN UP. I would have done it for free.

(Side note: Although, now, I think maybe I did? Because I was under the impression there was going to be some money but it kind of never materialized and I’m not going to hustle a fifth-grade public school teacher for a check. But I did have to get up crazy early and drive about an hour each way to go do this. Again, also fine. Totally worth it. But it was a good lesson in what my father calls ‘clarify this shit in advance or just fucking volunteer’. See where I get my vocabulary?)

Anyway, it was ridiculous fun and the kids were fantastic; they were excellent little dancers for only having had ten weeks of instruction and they were so committed. They also asked GREAT questions – one kid was all, hey, I noticed that you kind of widened your arms out when you went into promenade, should we do that? And another kid was like, hey, how high up should my hand be when I do this thing?

And the best moment was this: we were in a circle at the very end and I was telling them about competitions.

“Listen, you guys, competitions are crazy,” I said. “You’re being compared to whoever is there that day. You could dance your very best, and if the greatest dancers in the world show up, you lose. You could dance really badly, and if everybody else that day is terrible, you win. You’re being compared to whoever showed up that day, that’s all. What is important is coming off the floor and knowing you danced the best you could and that you did everything you could for your partner. That’s all.”

One boy, who is tall for his age, quiet and pretty reserved, but has just the sweetest smile, kind of shuffled his feet and raised his hand.

“What is it, buddy?” I said.

“I just feel like I get kind of nervous? Sometimes? And I get this kind of feeling in my stomach, and, I don’t know, it’s just kind of weird?”

“I know it!” I said. “Do any of the rest of you get nervous?”

All the kids nodded their heads and laughed a little bit and looked at their partners.

“Me too,” I said. “But you know what? That’s okay! It’s actually kind of a good thing. It means you really care about what you’re doing. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be nervous at all!”

So we practiced taking a deep breath and stretching and having a super silly five second dance party and we all agreed that that was probably the best thing to do.

Anyway, so this teacher – he gets up super early to come work with these kids before school to help them get ready for their competition, and he teaches a full day in public school, and he STILL, every Wednesday afternoon, drives across town to bring his own son to his lessons with me, and he sits and watches every time, and every time, he makes sure that his son writes down notes at the end and stays on track. He is just so patient and supportive and lovely. Ballroom, by the way, was entirely his son’s idea – he had seen his dad’s classroom ballroom program and begged and pleaded until he was allowed to take dance lessons.

My student is a hilarious and awesome kid – he flails around a lot and is not overly coordinated because, hello, he’s 9. But he tries really hard and has made massive improvement since he started. One time we were working on cha cha and I was making him say the steps out loud so that he would connect his brain to what his feet were doing.

“Side together side, forward, back, side together side, back forward. Side together side, forward back, side together side—”

And he suddenly stopped and looked at me with a stricken face.

“Wait,” he said.

“What’s wrong?” I said, genuinely concerned.

“I have an itch,” he said solemnly, and scratched his nose. “Okay. Now we can go. Side together side….”

So here’s to you, awesome fifth-grade teacher dad of my awesome student. Thank you for having a wonderful son and thank you for giving all the students in your class the chance to fall crazy in love with dance and thank you for being such a patient and loving guy who somehow manages to stay awake through every lesson. Sir, I am happy that it is summer for you now. You deserve it.

Sometimes getting up early has its benefits.

image

Eggs? Check. ISTD Latin books? Check. Coffee and free wifi? Check. Happy Wednesday!

On the dangers of having a good eye.

Ugh, dudes, I am trying to write about a thing that happened without talking smack, and it’s REALLY HARD.

So screw it, no context for you, sorry, let’s get straight to the take-home point.

The hardest part about dance – about any art? maybe! – is that your eye gets good faster than your body does. Which means, you develop an ability to see, critique, and understand what is and is not good dancing sooner (much, much, much sooner) than you can produce it yourself. Which SUCKS because then you look at your own dancing and recognize its shortcomings.

Ira Glass, in talking about creative work, exactly summed it up for me when he said:

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work…

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

He’s so right. And it is just really hard to not be overly critical of your own work, but instead to accept and applaud and prize the improvements that make the thing you did this time better than what you did last time.

I am terrible at this.

In the aftermath of some recent events about which you HAVE NO CONTEXT (but it really doesn’t make any difference at all), I’d offer the following essential points:

Take home point number one: There is only so much you can do at any one time. Your dancing is not perfect, it’s not gonna be perfect. Duh. Some issues (like if you’re, e.g., falling over or something) are more egregiously problematic than others (like if you’re also, e.g., not pointing the toe properly or something) but all of us have shit in our dancing we need to fix. It is extremely unhelpful to focus on all of that at one time. It results in the feeling that everything is terrible and nothing is worthwhile and you might as well not bother. This is SO UNPRODUCTIVE.

Take home point number two: Whether you are teaching or watching someone else or just looking at your own dancing, you MUST say something positive. You just have to. I don’t care if what just went down on the floor was a steamy pile of dance garbage, find something that is true and positive and say it. Then you can go into your laundry list of what could be better. But if you never acknowledge the things you’re doing well, you will just feel like crap and that will translate into your movement. Again, SO UNPRODUCTIVE.

Take home point number three: Plan ahead. You cannot fix things that are in muscle memory two days before a competition. You just can’t. When you get out on the floor, you will do it the way you remember it and your body is sooooooooo dumb. Also, do not allow an opportunity for someone to point out all the perceived deficiencies in your technique two days before. That’s the time to fix icing on the cake stuff – look up, smile, be pretty! Not central technical stuff. It just won’t happen and you’ll have that in your head distracting you from selling it, which is what you need to be doing. (SO UNPRODUCTIVE!)

Take home point number four: People respond to emotion, not technique. Yay for you that your leg action is perfect. That is awesome for you! But I promise that nobody cares. I truly believe that you can’t lie about who you are when you dance – movement is one of the most painfully honest things we do. If you can put something real into your dancing, then your technique, your dress, the fact that you may well feel like shit about your body lots of days out of the week…NONE of that matters. Because what people respond to is the genuine emotion. The dancing is just a vessel for that, an imperfect container. It will always be imperfect. But there’s a reason that I almost always cry at some point when I watch my wedding couples learning to dance – it’s not because they are talented amazing dancers setting the world on fire with their technique. Mostly they are pretty terrible dancers, because they’ve had like three lessons. But that does not matter to the audience, and it doesn’t matter to me. I watch a ton of dancing, and I am moved EVERY GODDAMN TIME, because that’s what real emotion does. That’s why we dance, yo.

P.S. Watch Ira’s whole thing – it’s really awesome. And he talks about his own work from the past the way I talk about my dancing sometimes – he’s all, “what the hell IS this? It is terrible!” and he’s right, it is terrible, but it won’t always be terrible. Which is something, right?