Category Archives: Dance

A Painful Love: James Joyce and Ballet

Last night, while struggling through another few pages of Ulysses (I am still in the double-digits of page numbers, by the way) I started wondering, “Why do I like James Joyce so much? This is hard and, at the moment, slightly boring.” Thinking about this Very Important problem was probably more of a clever excuse to take a break from the page and rest my horribly incompetent brain, but it also makes for good blogging material.

I routinely name Joyce as one of my favorite authors. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners in high school and became inexplicably intrigued by his idiosyncrasies and narrative style. I don’t love Portrait and Dubliners the same way I love Harry Potter or Emma. I don’t read Joyce for the story. If anyone reads any Joyce for the story, I highly pity them. I read Joyce for all the many layers beneath the story–for the allusions and the word play and the social/religious/political commentary. Books like Harry Potter and Emma are at once accessible in their prose and vehicles for hidden meanings, allegory and/or social commentary. They contain plot twists and elements of mystery–narrative drives that make you want to keep reading. Joyce doesn’t bother. In fact, he often seems to strive for the opposite. It’s the little things that matter.

After a few minutes of mulling this over it occurred to me that I often ask myself the same question about ballet: “Why do I love it so much? It’s so hard and often painful.” My friend Mia often says that the only reason to dance ballet is because it’s hard. I think she’s right. I also think that’s the only reason to read Joyce: it’s hard and you can do it over and over again and never get it right. I mean, scholars still haven’t really reached a consensus on what Finnegan’s Wake is even ABOUT. (Okay, I’m exaggerating but not by much.) Just like no ballerina in the world is perfect. (I can think of a few that come close, but I tell myself that they’re hiding their gross imperfections to make myself feel better.) I think that’s why I’ve taken to ballet more than any other kind of dance. Like, I love theater dance but it’s so much about the spectacle–the “plot twist” and the performance. Theater dance takes immense skill and technique and years of hard work, of course but not the same way that ballet does. Ballet, like Joyce, is all about those “in-between” steps, the technique, the foundation beneath the performance.

Maybe it’s masochistic but there’s something so satisfying about working so hard at all of the subtle, almost unrecognizable nuances. I’ll never be a Joyce scholar or a prima ballerina (ha) but just as Joyce helped me realize how much I loved English as a senior in high school, ballet helped me recognize how much I loved dancing and performing as a ten year old. As I grow as a dancer, reader and writer both continue to teach me about all the little pieces of perfection.

Advertisements

Writing About Dance: My Story, Part 2

“So the day after I turned 18, I got on a Trailways Bus and headed for the Big, Bad Apple . . .”

(Okay, actually I was 17 and actually it was an airplane . Actually, I’d never use a phrase like “big, bad apple” unless I was telling you a story about over-sized, rotten produce. I just couldn’t resist. )

Anyway, the adjustment to city life was harder than I expected but also easier, in a way. I became very involved in the Harry Potter fandom in New York and made tons of new friends from all over the country when I started working for a short-lived fandom website in my spare time. My social adjustment at college was much more difficult. I found it really hard to relate to and connect with any of my classmates. Although there were many nice, lovely people at my college I didn’t “click” with anyone. Because I’m a nerdy, anti-social, introverted former-homeschooler I kind of suck at going out and making friends, unless those friends happen to live miles away and really like Harry Potter. I became even more self-conscious when I realized how much of an outsider I was at dance classes and auditions. I’d always felt at home in a dance studio, but the scene in New York was so totally different. I attended classes and auditions but felt invisible, like I was barely seen. Thanks to my eating disorder, my metabolism was slower than ever and I gained that dreaded college weight. My weight gain made me even more self-conscious and I started drifting out of class, going to auditions less and less. I felt guilty and depressed. Even though I’d discovered friends and other interests, nothing felt right if I wasn’t dancing all the time.

In the spring, a choreographer asked me to dance in a few small showcases. I was ecstatic to be able to perform again, even in small shows. As I started taking class more and more, my body rebelled against me and I twisted my ankle before the last set of shows. I’d had ankle problems before, but never to this extent. I hobbled around for almost a month, took some floor barre and pilates classes, but wasn’t able to dance until very late in the school year. I gained more depressing weight and while I wasn’t over weight, I was about ten pounds above my ideal dancing weight and felt ugly and useless. My injury made me realize that life without dance was miserable and empty and I made plans to take a semester off from college and go back to full-time training. My parents opposed this plan, saying I could only take time off school if I got a job in the industry. I’m glad they squelched my existential-crisis driven impulses.

That summer I became determined to overcome my injury and eventually made it back to ballet and jazz classes in my hometown. A lot happened that summer–I met and became engaged to my now-husband for one–and by the end of it I had lost about 7 lbs. and felt ready to dance full-time again.    My sophomore year, I overwhelmed myself taking too many credits and working too many jobs. It became impossible to get to the dance studio very often which frustrated me, but I desperately needed money. I did a few more showcases that year and started getting more and more confident at auditions. Summer saw another relapse in my training. With wedding planning and working full time at a temp job, I made it to class once or twice a week if I was lucky.

Last fall I started taking classes at a smaller, more ballet and modern-oriented studio. The atmosphere is just completely different there–more supportive, more focused, less competitive. I’ve found teachers that push me and encourage me and I feel like I’ve been reborn as a dancer. Every time I try and imagine myself doing something else with my life, it always seems like someone else’s life. Sure, I want to write but my identity isn’t intertwined with writing the same way it is with dance. Writing is a field in which I’d like to succeed, but dance if a field in which I have to succeed. The other day after a theater dance class, I had the sudden feeling that the old high school me was back. Not the insecure, anorexic girl, but the girl who knew without a doubt that she could and would succeed. I think getting a glimpse at the life I could have if I weren’t a dancer was enough to make me realize that this is all I want. I guess I had a sort of “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment only with fewer angels and Jimmy Stewarts.

Now that Graham is filling out college applications and starting to think about that phase of life, I have another dilemma. I will move with him wherever he goes to school, but I have to wonder what will happen to my dance career. Sure I’ll audition for companies and theme parks and shows and whatever else I can get, but what if I get a job offer far away from where we live? What if the town where he goes to school doesn’t have a dance studio or company or any sort of performance job at all? This is the moment. If I’m going to do this I have to do it now, jump in head first right after graduation. Even worse, what if I keep auditioning and no one gives me a job and I just fail and all those years were for nothing?

I know God will place us wherever he wants us, but it’s still nerve-wrecking. I’m putting all my eggs in this basket and I’m paranoid a big, ugly giant is going to smash the basket with his big toe. Terrible metaphor, but f’realz. Freaking out.

Writing About Dance: My Story, Part 1

Recently, a friend mentioned that I might want to pursue dance journalism somewhere down the line. Maybe that should have been my plan all along–I mean, my two greatest passions are dancing and writing–but it honestly never occurred to me that the two could, like, go together. I’m now working on a piece for an art newsletter about an up-and-coming choreographer and it’s strange. Dance means using my body, using motion to tell a story. Writing means using my own voice to tell a story through words and symbols. Writing about dance feels so foreign and wrong like trying to describe a sunset to someone with no eyes.  With some practice, however, I think I could really love it.

It occurred to me when working on the choreographer story, that I’ve never really blogged much about my dance endeavors. I’ve had to make some Big Decisions about dance recently so it seems like now’s the time to fill you in on how and why dance is such a huge part of my identity:

I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a dancer. My earliest memories involve twirling around the living room in my sister’s old pink costume tutu to a worn-out tape of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” I begged to take dance classes and finally started taking pre-ballet and tap classes at a local studio. After my first recital I was hooked. I got sucked into the whole thing–the costumes, make-up, lights, the sense of accomplishment. It was a five-year old’s version of a legal addictive stimulant. Soon I started taking more and more classes and joined the studio’s competition dance team when I was about 8. “Competitions” are mostly just money-making machines that involve too much body glitter, lots of stage moms and dumb plastic trophies but it gave me the chance to perform almost every weekend and wear pretty clothes, so I was game. After a few years, I started growing tired of competitions and quickly became obsessed with ballet. I read practically every ballet book in existence, painted my walls with ballet slippers and dreamed of dancing in a “real” company. At 11, I hung up my tap shoes and began focusing on ballet exclusively.

I started training at the school of the only professional ballet company nearby and attended my first summer intensives away from home. When I realized my technique was lacking thanks to my years of less-than-perfect training, I worked three times as hard to catch up. I was obsessed. Since I was homeschooled, I could take five or six technique classes a day and a few private lessons every week with no worries about falling behind in school  I improved and excelled immensely but my perfectionist attitude only lead to increased frustration as teachers demanded more and more. I also encountered numerous physiological challenges as I entered my teens. . Thanks to genetics, I don’t have a “ballerina body.” I became increasingly frustrated with my body’s natural limits. The summer before I started high school something snapped–physically and mentally. I’d just been made a trainee with the company but I could not finish a class without bursting into tears. I’d lock myself in the studio bathroom and tell myself I’d never be good enough–as message echoed by some teachers and classmates, at least in my imagination. My back was also a mess thanks to the years I spent contorting my back into weird positions to “make it more flexible” and “lengthen” the muscles. Several vertebrae were tweaked entirely out of place and required expensive physical therapy.

My sister Rachel was in her final year in a high school fine arts program where she studied musical theater. I decided to leave the ballet company and major in dance at the same school.  That same fall a regional theater company based in Austin needed ballet dancers for one of its shows and after a few weeks of performances with them, I was hooked on new kind of dancing. I set my sights on musical theater. I refashioned myself as a dancer, taking voice lessons, jazz, tap, modern, anything I could to make myself more well-rounded. A teacher even had me in a hip-hop class for a while to “loosen me up.” That was a mistake. But dancing became fun again. I danced in musicals, I worked with choreographers from around the world and after a summer workshop in New York vowed that I would do this professionally or die trying. I almost did. Again, my perfectionist tendencies collided with several years of negative self-image and fear of being fat. I crash dieted on and off all through high school at no one’s suggestion but my own. Since this blog ins’t about my eating disorder I won’t go into too much detail, but by my junior year my disordered tendencies had spiraled into full-blown anorexia, depression and over-exercising. Thankfully, my teachers, friends and parents recognized my illness and intervened before I needed hospitalization, but at that point I wasn’t sure I’d ever mentally or physically recover. With some perseverance, I overcame my eating disorder before graduation even more determined than ever to succeed even without the “perfect body.” I was lucky that my first-ever job at sixteen involved performing at a theme park. And by “performing”  I mean smiling and posing a lot while wearing weird unitards, but still. You do what you can, y’know?

Fast forward to high school graduation. I only applied to a handful of schools–one conservatory program where I’d study modern and ballet, one liberal arts college where I would study theater dance, one liberal arts college where I’d study modern and ballet, and one joint program between a university and well-known dance company/school in NYC. (Not using the names just ’cause.) Some programs rejected me, some accepted me.  Because I had certain requirements and desires as far as cost and location I had two options. I could train with the dance company and school in NYC without earning a college degree or I could go to a private, liberal arts college in the city and dance independently. My parents insisted that I earn a degree and because the training program wasn’t quite right for me, I complied. I never  in a million years thought I would major in anything other than dance, but there I was– 17 years old in Manhattan, dance bag on one arm, backpack on the other. I was determined to conquer both worlds. I’d get a liberal arts degree while taking advantage of the New York City dance scene, auditioning at every opportunity, taking time . I knew  it wouldn’t  be easy but I wasn’t prepared for the challenges I’d face as a young dancer on my own.

Continued soon. This is way longer and more boring than expected.

Flourescently-Lit Achievement

Several months ago, I compiled a list of Things I’m Supposed to Like by Don’t. This week, I realized that my list should also include a sub-category: Things I’m Supposed to Want but Just Make Me Depressed.

Over the course of my overly ambitious and eager childhood, I programed the multitude of cells and slimy mass that today’s leading scientific experts often refer to as my “Brain” to constantly achieve. I’m not even really sure what my brain considers “acheivement” but I know that it’s not happy until it is satisfied with my acheive-ifying abilities. The dozens of years spent sweating in a dance studio, bent over a desk (or my kitchen table) taking notes or writing stories also programmed my brain to measure acheivement in several very distinct ways:

1. Achievement in dance. In order to be happy, I have to be performing, training, taking class and making progress in my chosen art. When other things get in the way of this, I tend to get grumpy, depressed and anxious. School is often the culprit, which brings me to . . .

2. Achievement in academics. After spending most of my formative years in homeschool, I was so eager to experience the adventure of the Texas public school system that I completed all of my ninth grade summer assignments by February of previous year. At my International/arts/semi-college preperatory school “summer assignments” consisted of everything from complex research papers about cultural diversity (Geography), to creative writing projects (English), to watching the original Star Wars trilogy* (Biology). I eventually learned how wonderful procrastination can be, but nevertheless my Type-A, Hermione Grangerish self sought All-As all the time. Aside from a disastrous year of Algebra II and my ambivalent attitude toward Chemistry, I acheived my goal and tied with 10 other people for the Top of the Class.

Since graduating high school I’ve grown and changed a lot as a person. I’ve renewed my relationship with Christ, grown to greatly value the place and role of the family and society and spent some time in the “Real World.” The result is that the things I’m supposed to care about as a 21st Century, college educated, ambitious and relatively intelligent woman, just don’t matter to me. I’ve spent some time temping for a major publishing corporation over the summer and while I thoroughly enjoy the people and like working there in two and three week spurts, the whole situation just drains me.

I have no interest in florescent lights and unlimited supply of bad coffee. Staring at a computer screen all day while completing tasks in which I’m not emotionally or intellectually invested is a prison sentence for me. There are perks, sure. A good salary, a pretty sweet bathroom and occasionally free business lunch. I’m missing the gene that is supposed to make me want a high-powered career like this. Every time I go to work, I think about how much I wish I were spending 8 hours a day in rehearsal rather than on the thirtieth floor of an cubicle-ridden building. I wish I could find satisfaction in it because people who work there do important things that need to be done, they have routine days and regular paychecks and health insurance. They contribute to society. I envy the people who work there and find fulfillment.

It’s great for temporary work, but after every assignment, I’m reminded why I dance, why I write, why I’d rather stay at home with my future kids and teach them than sit around long tables using corporate catch-phrases like “touch base” and “error out.” It’s a good thing to realize, but also pretty distressing. My future-husband is going to make a wonderful professor and nothing makes me happier than seeing him fulfiled and happy, but since I’m pretty set on not being the high-earning-power-woman, I feel like I’ve put a lot of pressure on him to be the breadwinner of the family. I don’t want him to have to sacrifice any of his dreams because of my selfishness. But that’s a blog-thought for another day. The point is that there are only two ways I can see myself ever making money:

1. Dancing

2. Writing

Of course, I’m pretty doubtful that many people will pay me to do these two things for extended periods of time, but I’ll never forgive myself for not trying with all of my weirdly overachieving braincells.

*My teacher was a big fan. This was also my least favorite Summer Assignment.