Tag Archives: getting your head in the game

Why the comfort zone is and isn’t your friend

comfort zoneWe’ve all seen this picture, right? “Life begins outside your comfort zone,” etc. And man, that’s totally true. But I want to present another side of things today – not staying in your comfort zone, but instead…

The intense benefit of making yourself physically comfortable during challenging situations.

So this idea that we need to push ourselves, to step outside our comfort zones and try new scary things, is absolutely correct. And that process is probably going to be, by default, exciting and intense. It might produce some anxiety, or a wash of other emotions. (Feelings soup.)

But it doesn’t have to suck.

We have this messed up idea that “leaving our comfort zones” means that we have to be miserable the whole time it’s happening, as if suffering lends virtue to the learning process. Untrue!

A few years ago, I was working at a dance studio and having a very challenging conversation with my boss. She and I were not on the same page at all, and we were both genuinely trying to make things better, but it wasn’t going very well.

After about forty minutes of frustration, we agreed to take a break and re-convene. I walked into another part of the studio, blowing into my cupped hands and searching for a sweater, because the room we had been using for our meeting was the temperature of a walk-in meat locker. I was freezing!

I ran into my partner, and he said, “How’s it going?”

“Kind of like crap,” I said. “Plus I’m a ice cube. That room sucks.”

“Why don’t you take a space heater with you when you go back in?” he asked. “I bet [your boss] is cold, too. You guys will probably get further if you’re comfy.”

So I dragged a little electric space heater in, set it up, and within about ten minutes, we were able to resolve matters and move forward with energy that was about twenty degrees warmer (in temperature and in spirit).

Thus I learned my first and most important lesson about comfort zones: Push yourself, be better, all the time. But get comfy in your own body.

How often do we run into this when we are learning something new in dance? I know that learning new movement can be hard, can feel weird, can be a little funky. But how different would that learning process be if I breathed deeply and continuously, if I relaxed my neck and shoulders, if I released the tension I was holding, and the fear about looking stupid or doing things wrong?

Answer: um, a bunch, actually. I have been working on it. It’s crazy how much of a difference the comfiness of your actual physical body makes. That sounds stupid and obvious until you realize how often during an average day we disconnect from our bodies and forget to feel good and move harmoniously and easily. Having a tough conversation? Learning something new? Doing something that causes you anxiety? Deliberately choose to relax. Put your body into a position, a configuration, that’s actually physically comfortable. Change your environment, if you can, to make yourself more comfy. Keep breathing (the good big deep breaths, not just “I am continuing human respiration on a technicality” breaths). It’s hard  – ha! so step outside your comfort zone! zing. – but worth it.

Pushing outside of your comfort zone and growing as a human is awesome, but it’s tough sometimes. So don’t make it harder than it has to be – get comfy and see how much further you get!

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Doing all the jobs = bad idea

So, dudes, I haven’t written anything for like a week and a half, because I have been totally swamped at the studio. Our management team was gone for some managerial stuff out of town, which meant that running the studio was my job. In the week that they were gone, we had two major events, a visiting coach/judge, staff checkouts and exams, and student checkouts. It was INSANE.

I have learned that I can actually not do 100% of the jobs at the studio AT THE SAME TIME – in addition to running everything, I was in charge of making sure new students were being properly taken care of, shepherding our guest judge, taking a pretty intense round of professional exams for the next level of certifications, and, of course, teaching my own students and preparing them for their checkouts.

I have a bunch of things I want to talk about, but I’m on the road right now for family business and I have a crazy early flight. So I’ll just say this briefly: I am really excited because even though last week was a MESS, I think I have maybe got a mentor in the industry now. I need to set things up with this person a little more formally (and indicate that I will be more than willing to put my ass on a plane to come out and do coaching) but I think it’s a go. Yay!

Also: I am going to order these beauties from England and try them. I don’t know if they can live up to the super high standard of my beloved Ray Rose Blizzards, but I’m excited to try them. How stunning are they??! Ray Rose Drizzle, I ❤ you.

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Rejection!

I just got turned down again by another prospective partner. This happens a lot. (Like, a lot a lot. Like, literally a total of zero people want to dance with me professionally. That feels pretty much like shit.*) It sucks every time. At least this time the dude was nice about it (to be fair to him; to be fair to me, he blew me off for like two weeks and then was nice about saying no, which is still an uncool way to go).

When life gives you lemons, draw an angry face on one because it will  totally make you laugh.

It’s better than the time a dude said, sure, let’s set up a tryout and then texted me the morning of said tryout, saying, sorry, but I just now bothered to look for a picture of you on the internets and now that I’ve found one, well, don’t bother driving over… 

Getting rejected is part of the business. You get turned down all the time. Students tell you no, prospective employers tell you no, people booking jobs tell you no. But also sometimes they say yes. I am really hoping that eventually someone in the partnering department will say yes.

At least I am getting better about putting my shit out there. I used to be a seventh grade girl about it, swanning around being hurt that nobody was asking me. Now I straight up proposition people. They still tell me no, but at least now I’m not wasting as much of my time.

Uggggggggghhh, it still feels like crap to be turned down, though.

It’s amazing how this job finds all the things I am super insecure about and then just slams me over the head with them again and again.

I guess it’s cheaper than therapy?

* It might be less than zero, because at least a few people have expressed a desire to NEVER dance with me, even in the case of, e.g., aliens attack the earth and transport me and said person to their alien spacecraft and then blow up the Earth and all its denizens, leaving us as literally the only two ballroom dancers in the universe. Even in that situation: um, yeah, I’m going to just see what my options are? Soooo, no.

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Ballroom, Body Image, and Lousy Bargains

[Disclaimer: this is my personal experience and not any kind of representative sample. Also, all the stuff I’m talking about here has been my experience as a professional; my experience as a student was very different, so please don’t anybody think I’m talking about your experience, your situation. I’m really not.]

•     •     •

Two years ago: I was having coffee with a friend, my competition fake nails (bright orange) wrapped around the white mug which I thought looked cool. 

“If it makes me too crazy, I’ll stop,” I said. “I can keep it straight in my head.”

“I don’t know if you’ll be able to,” she said. “Is it worth it?”

“I think so,” I said. “It’s hard. But I think I can keep it from getting to me, too much.”

•     •     •

A year ago: a conversation with a coach.

“Take it from me,” he said. “Unless you look the right way, they just don’t take you seriously.”

“I know,” I said.

“The judges won’t even look at your dancing,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”

•     •     •

Two weeks ago: a conversation with a student.

“You look amazing,” she said. “Like, you always looked great, but now…”

“Well, thanks,” I said, “I’ve been training pretty hard and I’m happy with where my dancing is.”

“No,” she said, “I mean, sure, your dancing is awesome, but I mean… YOU look great. Like, you’ve lost a lot of weight and, I don’t know, you look like a real ballroom dancer now.”

*     *     *

When I started dancing again three years ago, I was pretty seriously out of shape, for lots of reasons. Still, I had worked hard in my own brain to be okay with who I was and how I looked.

It would take me a long time, but I finally managed to mostly stop that horrible thing where when you feel bad about yourself, you say the worst things you can think of in your brain… why? I don’t know, I think it’s sort of like emotional cutting. It’s really nasty. Anyway, my go-to most horrible thing was always, you’re fat, you’re ugly. Simple, distilled, and unvarnished.

And it worked, until one day I (thanks in no small part to feminism and body acceptance activists’ writing) I said to myself, dude, seriously – you are fat. Relax. It’s fine. It’s just what it is. And you’re not ugly. And even if you were, why is that like the worst thing in the world? Who is it hurting? 

And after that, I would still, when I felt horrible, fall into the thought pattern of: you are so disgusting…but then I would think, eh, maybe? But whatever. Not that big a deal.

Changing that thought process and actually appreciating my body for what it could do instead of hating it for being a constant disappointment was no easy task.

Which is why when I started dancing more seriously and getting into better shape, it felt almost like a betrayal.

I hated that I was getting non-stop positive reinforcement from people – you look so great! Yay for you! Oh my gosh, you look amazing!

Which basically just meant, in my brain: you know all that damaging shit you thought about yourself before? Yeah, you were right. And everybody else thought it too.

The problem is, on the floor, your body is your instrument. That’s what you perform with, that’s the site where your art is produced. So you have to be okay with it being the object of other peoples’ regard, with their critical gaze – that’s part of the JOB. But it also sucks because, you know, it’s you. Added to which, the emotional intensity and honesty that dancing requires means that if you ARE separated from your body, if you are not truly engaged with your movement, it doesn’t work. So you have to fully inhabit your body and accept that it will be constantly critiqued. It’s difficult not to take that personally.

I know – I absolutely know – that in many ways, ballroom dancing is a shallow fucking industry. That’s okay. Take it or leave it, right?

But some days, the lack of critical awareness is harder than others. And it’s even tougher when you’re a smart cookie who doesn’t look like a ballroom dancer is supposed to look.

I am not a tiny Russian woman, with legs up to my eyebrows and perfect ballet feet. I never will be. At my highest potential, when I am eventually in the best shape I possibly can be, I will be super strong and powerful, but still short and pretty compact. That’s just how I’m built.

Right now, I’m still Ballroom Fat (TM) – basically like Hollywood Fat. Defined as: actually totally fine and in good shape and in a normal, uncrazy world, not really meriting comment; but in your weird twisted world, so gross.

And you know what sucks about that the most? I see these other girls on the floor, thin and pretty and tan, and I am objectively better than they are. Like, my turns are faster, my footwork is cleaner, my connection is better, my dancing is just of a higher standard. But it does. Not. Matter.

Until I look the right way, I am not going to have an easy time finding a serious partner, and I am not going to be marked well by the judges. It sucks out loud, and I hate it. Because I actually like how I look and my whole situation, but I know that I am in the minority on that one. There is a certain standard, an appearance, A Look – and it’s just the ante you have to throw on the table, your cost of admission. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to agree with it, but it’s how the system works.

So now, unlike before, the shit I say to myself is true.

Why doesn’t that dude want to dance with you? Because you’re fat.

Why did you not make the finals? Because you look the wrong way.

I know that it’s shallow and stupid and that’s okay, I guess, because mostly I don’t feel bad about myself, I just feel tired. It is exhausting to know that you are looked at and judged and that you fall short all the time, and even worse to realize that when someone actually takes the time to see you and your dancing, they recognize the quality. Always the tone of surprise – hey, you’re pretty good!

Fuck you.

But really? What I dislike the most is the crazy bargains it makes me deal with, the chock full of nuts ideas it makes me entertain.

*     *     *

A week ago: drinks with another dancer.

“I need the judges to look at me and not say, oh, that fat girl is a pretty decent dancer,” I said.

“Totally,” she replied. “You want them to look at you and say, oh, that girl is a good dancer.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“But you’re doing it, right?” she asked. “I mean, you’re in better shape and you’re eating better, and, like, you must feel better…”

“I am, and I do,” I said. “But how fucked up is it that I don’t really care about any of that? Like, if you said to me: you can dance for the next twenty years and stay pretty much how you are right now, or you can dance for five years, blow your knees completely, but look thin and amazing for that period? I would take the five.”

“And I hate that I think that,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said, thinking for a long moment. “But I’d take the five too.”

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(Semi) Live! Behind the scenes competition blogging, part two

I’m back home again – I really tried to update LIIIIVE, but I’ll tell you the honest-to-God truth:

(1) I was working my tail off.

(2) When I wasn’t working I was out carousing with other dancers.

(3) When I wasn’t carousing or working I was passed out dead asleep so that I could continue to do (1) and (2).

Y’all, it was super fun. The other issue is that until yesterday, I had my competition nails on, and I don’t know about you, but I find it absolutely impossible to type with those stupid bastards. It hurts, and it’s awkward, and I am usually a super fast typist so it irritates the hell out of me.

But! I did keep notes! So for anybody who loves ballroom competitions, who’s considering competing, who just generally finds the whole thing fascinating because it is a tan and sparkly circus sideshow, I present, in no particular order, DO’s and DON’Ts of ballroom competition, followed by some stuff I learned at this comp that was new to me. (I’ve been doing this crap for a while, but this was my first time on the judges’ side, so it was pretty instructive.

*     *     *

DO dance as many heats as you possibly can. Look, competing (as a student) is expensive, no lie. I get that. All the professionals get that. But if you’re going to do it, I swear to God, you will have infinitely more fun if you dance 80 heats as compared to 15. You’re already there, you’re already looking fabulous, you might as well just do it! There is nothing, NOTHING worse than sitting and watching other people dance and thinking, shit, I should be out on that floor.

DO enjoy yourself! If you’re going to be out on the floor, please be having fun! If you look terrified or bored, it is just a bummer. Just enjoy the hell out of it; the judges will forgive a lot if you smile and take genuine pleasure in your dancing.

DON’T overdo it on the dress. Be sensitive to what flatters your particular body type and your dancing. I know that I always say, it’s ballroom, more is more…but ladies. Seriously. Sometimes, no, it is not. If your dress has feathers and ruffles and stones and netting and gloves and a goddamn cocker spaniel, it’s probably too much. You want people to watch your dancing, not whisper about the dress.

DO own your floor. That part of the floor you’re dancing on? It’s YOURS. It belongs to YOU. You are the Lord High Commander of that part of the floor – own it! Take up space! Do not allow other people to impinge on your sovereign territory! I was watching some friends of mine compete in the pro divisions, and I’m telling you, there were seventeen or eighteen couples out on the floor. I was looking for these friends and couldn’t find them – why? They weren’t owning their floor.

DO show up to the on-deck area. Don’t be an ass about this. If you are a pro and you are dancing with six different ladies, I get it. You can’t line up on deck every time. But if that’s you, it’s YOUR responsibility to be on your shit and not miss a heat. Do not make the deck captain come look for you. Do not make the MC announce your number over the loudspeaker. Embarrassing!

DO be pleasant and courteous to everyone. You know why? Well, number one, it’s decent fucking manners, and what, were you raised in a barn? But if you need a more politic reason – you never know who is behind you, or who is paying attention. People remember. Keep your mouth shut. Be pleasant. If you need to talk shit, roll out of the ballroom and wait until you are in a secure third-party location.

DO get over yourself. At the end of the day, it’s still a damn ballroom dance competition. It’s pretty ridiculous. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Oh, I almost forgot – this is probably my number one rule:

DO cut the waistband out of your fishnets. Ladies, you look beautiful. You have these amazing dresses, you spent a ton of money on them, your hair and makeup looks great! Please please please please please do not wear fishnets with the waistband cutting you in half like a sausage. I don’t care what kind of shape you are or aren’t in, it’s still visible. And it looks bad. Fishnets are made of elastic. Your dress has a built in bodysuit. Get some scissors, cut the waistband off your fishnets, and they will still stay up and do their job and you will have a smooth line.

*     *     *

And here is some stuff I learned, in no particular order:

• Being able to haul ass gracefully and still smile at the judges is worth something. Way to not fall down and still BOOK it across the ballroom! One judge said to me, “Girl, you were RUNNING. I was watching you more than I was watching the pros compete. It was more interesting.”

• The best hair spray (maybe ever?) is got2b glued freezing spray. Seriously, I did my hair Friday afternoon and then worked my tail off Friday evening and then went out and fell into bed around 4 and then I got up and showered around 8 am (I kept it from getting too wet) and MY HAIR STILL LOOKED PERFECT. Awesome.

• All judges mark differently. Some are done scoring thirty seconds in, some wait until the music stops to write down their order, and some do a rough draft order and then revise it as they watch the heat. The moral of the story is, if anybody tells you stupid things like, oh, all judges do x, they are wrong. Wrong!

Smashbox makes this really amazing concealer. If you are, I don’t know, let’s just pick a random example, going out drinking and dancing till five in the morning and kissing a bunch of random boys and girls and then rolling back to your hotel room and trying to look ballroom polished and fabulous for a seven am call, THIS IS YOUR CONCEALER.

• Always overdress. (That’s one of my rules for living, actually, but I saw it in action this week.) There was a lovely girl, brand new trainee instructor, who showed up to the last evening’s formal banquet and show in what was basically a sun dress. Nobody cared, really, because whatever, but she was uncomfortable. Always bring an extra evening gown, or something that is black tie appropriate. You never know. It’s ballroom, baby. You can’t overdo it. (Except for the feathers + spaniel dress situation, but that’s been covered.)

• The judges notice and remember bad behavior on the part of professionals. As a student, the event is for YOU. The pros are there to make sure you dance well and have fun, not to be tools. Not only do the judges notice and remember, they tell each other about it and laugh and laugh and laugh and then they do not call you back when you are on the floor with your professional partner. (See above, don’t be an ass.)

• Students are amazing. Seriously, it is so awesome to see them improving and learning and dancing their hearts out on the floor. It is ABSOLUTELY what makes this the best job in the world. If you are a student – thank you!!!!! You are the best.

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Show up, shut up, and play.

My parents were both musicians, and I was a working musician as well by the time I was in high school. They both taught me a lot about how to work in the arts, but one of my father’s sayings has stuck with me more than anything else. For any gig you book, he used, to say, there were only three things you needed to do:

  1. Show up.
  2. Shut up.
  3. Play.

The conductor wasn’t interested in your opinion or why you were late or what you would do in the second movement. He wanted you to be in your fucking chair on time, to not give him any static, and to come in on the goddamn downbeat when he cued you.

I had “show up, shut up, and play” drilled into my head from an early, early age, so I’m always surprised to see how frequently these things are an issue. So many folks – often smart, generally with it people – can’t get to work on time, have lots of reasons why they can’t do their job, and invariably have MANY opinions about how it’s always somebody else’s fault.

Who the fuck cares. Not your students, whose lesson you were late to. Not your boss, who has to re-arrange shit around your late ass. Not your co-workers, who have to cover your shit. And certainly not everybody else who managed to get THEIR shit together and do their jobs.

You better believe I have a hard time with (2) – shut up. I show right the hell up and I will play the bejesus out of whatever you give me, but I love to talk. One of my biggest challenges has been trying to turn my smack talking into getting it done – to not just bitch and complain about how I would like things to be done… and wouldn’t it be nice if… and that bitch doesn’t do her job… and instead do MY thing, own MY shit. And you know what? It works.

Show up. Shut up. Play.

If you can’t do those things, make it so you can or find something else to do with your time. It’s not YMCA t-ball, kids. Everybody doesn’t get to play and everybody sure as hell doesn’t win. I may not be the best dancer in the world (I’m not, duh) but I will work harder than anybody else to get my fucking job done the best way I know how.

Show up. Shut up. Play.

Speaking of which, I fucking love this:

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I believe in you.

It’s awesome to be self-confident. It’s totally great to believe in yourself and have that can-do bootstrapping attitude. It’s a fine line, of course, between believing in yourself and being a self-aggrandizing entitled asshat convinced of his or her own unique special snowflake qualities that are a singular gift to the world at large. But as long as you keep it under control, a healthy level of self-regard is essential.

Especially as a dancer, right? Because you have to BELIEVE when you get out on the floor that you are going to be fantastic, that you are going to win, that you are worth looking at. Because if you don’t believe it, let me tell you, friend, nobody else will either.

But sometimes, even with all of that, what you really, really, really need is for someone else to believe it, too.

And for them to say it.

It is absolutely impossible to overstate the importance of saying and hearing these four words:

“I believe in you.”

Last night I went out dancing with some co-workers – it was the after work, who-gives-a-shit kind of dancing. We fooled around, switched out partners, flirted, got a little buzzed, and generally remembered why dancing is so goddamn much fun. Later that night I was chatting with one of the gentlemen, a long-time veteran of the dance business. He’s seen a lot of people come and go, and knows what the hell he’s talking about.

I had not had a great week. There were the general levels of ambient drama that always pervade a studio, extra personal drama with another dancer leading up to a competition we were preparing for, and I wasn’t teaching a lot of lessons, so I was making even less than my usual high-rolling tens of dollars.

And I was expressing that to this guy, and he took my hands and looked at me and said, “You are going to be fine. You are.”

And I nodded and said, yeah, yeah, no, I know, sure, I will be.

And he cut me off, and said, “I’ve seen you dance, I’ve danced with you, I’ve seen you teach. And you have something that not a lot of people have – you are special, you really are. And I believe in you.”

And it made me cry. It made me cry because I was a little bit drunk, but truly because I was so touched that someone actually gave a shit, that someone bothered to watch me and think about me and didn’t just write me off immediately; that this man, who knew whereof the fuck he spoke, believed in me.

It made a difference. You have to believe in yourself, sure. But sometimes you need an assist.

*                           *                           *

Last week, one of my students had his first session with a serious coach. His session with her was a true learning experience – she gave him things that he’ll be working on for the next six months (honestly, for the rest of his life as a dancer!) – but it was a change of pace for him. It was a jump up the ladder in terms of expectations and difficulty. Not just one rung, but three or four. Afterwards, we were sitting together, going over his notes from the session, and it was clear that he was a little overwhelmed.

“That was a lot, huh?” I said.

“Yeah.” He nodded, looking down at his notes.

“Here’s the thing,” I said. “She could have told you that everything was great, that you looked perfect, that you were amazing. But she didn’t. You know why? Because she wants you to be a better dancer. And so do I. She takes you seriously, and she knows that you can do all these things. I know it too.”

“I guess…” he said.

“Listen,” I said, “I need you to hear this. You did such a good job today. You were pushed further than you’ve gone before, and you really came through. I know this will make you better.”

“Okay,” he said, not convinced.

“I believe in you,” I said. “I really do. I believe you are a good dancer and I believe you will get better and be a great dancer. That will happen. I need you to believe that, too.”

He straightened his shoulders and looked at me, and I could tell that he believed it a little more, too.

You gotta say it out loud, or it doesn’t count.

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