I have spent most of my life fighting. Fighting to make it through bullying. Fighting to make it through school. Fighting to get scholarships to pay for said school. Fighting to make my way in the arts world. Fighting to survive being beaten in a relationship. Fighting to have a business that did things differently. Fighting those who wanted to take me down because I was getting ahead of them for my lack of fear to stand out in the crowd. Fighting to be the best that I could be. I have to admit, it was exhausting.
Just when it seemed like the fighting was staring to pay off and that I would get a reprieve from it, it started again. The last couple years have been the greatest fight of my life. A struggle to get to the other side of losing nearly everything. A struggle to deal with severe pain and still try to be a pleasant and motivated person. A struggle to find myself when everything I defined myself by was lost. A struggle to find the motivation to carry on when all I want to do is lay down and have the world stand still for a while. Carrying on this struggle while feeling alone is a difficult thing as it gets to the point where I wondered what the point of all this struggle could be and whether it was worth even trying anymore? When it takes so much effort and it feels like half a step forward results in ten steps back, it gets discouraging.
A lot of questions as to why this struggle was bestowed on my shoulders came about. Is it so that I can be a better person? Is it so that I can learn some grand lesson? Is it so that I can be humbled? Is it so that I can be someone who is a model of strength? Is it so that I can learn to not fight? Is it to increase my depth as a human? Is it to make me more human and realize the grave imperfections in my soul?
All these questions have tumbled through my brain many times and they still tumble. What I have learned through all this fighting though is to find gratitude. To be thankful that I am still alive at the end of all this. To be grateful that I didn’t just give up and throw in the towel because it was easier than dusting myself off after getting walloped to the ground and strangled literally and metaphorically. To be thankful that I have the fortitude to survive things that should have ended me.
I try to be thankful for the opportunities that have come out of all this. The insight into who I am which used to be equated with what I do. Now these things are their own separate definitions in my life. The insight that what doesn’t kill me truly makes me stronger and can leave some pretty awesome metaphorical and physical scars as souvenirs to remind me that I am able to survive. The insight that things could be worse as this journey – though tremendously difficult at times – could also not be happening and I could be cold in the ground instead. That would be worse than the challenges I get to face.
I choose the wording “get to” as I am trying to look at all this as opportunities for growth – sometimes not growth that I wanted to experience, but growth none the less. There are always going to be struggles. Whether they be in professional, personal, or spiritual life, they will exist. They give rise to better things even though they can feel devastating in the moment: a better ability to deal with loss, a stronger belief in self, a stronger sense of worthiness, greater conviction to succeed. I choose to feel grateful for this life I get to live.
Training the body into new movement is a process. Whether it is a new choreography, new technique, or a new genre. You may get the surface of something new the first few times you try it, but it won’t be truly in your body.
Movements that start to happen without thinking are engrams. Rather than give a definition, I will give you an example. If you have been driving the same car for a while, you start to control parts of the car without thought. You an insert the key without looking, adjust the radio effortlessly, grab and change the gear shift without taxing your brain. Think about when you step into someone else’s vehicle. Often, your engrams kick in related to your regular car and you try to do all the things you normally do without thought and you suddenly feel a sense of disorientation. You hit the key on the dash, you reach for the radio knob and miss, you reach for the gear shift and overreach. This is because your normal patterning of movement no longer works in the different car. When you get a new car, it takes time to develop new engrams for the spatial awareness of where everything is in the car.
The same development of movement patterns applies to dance. This development is often more complex because the movement in dance is often more complex and delicate than that of driving a new car. If you are an adult and have danced for a while, thinking to the first time you took a highly technical class be it ballet, ballroom, contemporary or the genre you have always enjoyed, you felt self-conscious at the first class if you aren’t still feeling self-conscious years into your studies. This is because the movement isn’t second nature. It is not engrained in you.
If you are studying technique behind a dance genre you are familiar with, it will be challenging to disturb the engrams you have for the genre when you are trying to bring new technique into that familiar movement. This is why you may have the technique by the end of a class, but when you revisit that movement in a familiar environment that you used to dance a different way, the technique can go away.
Application of technique takes time. It takes repetition to get it it to stick especially if it is a modification of a movement you already know. When I get an opportunity to work with a new teacher that I can study from, I am always looking to get back to basics. If I am studying a new genre, I am looking for the same thing. I want to deeply understand the fundamental technique behind the genre rather than basic patterns of it. Why? I want to develop those technical engrams from the beginning so that I don’t have to go back and relearn something and try to break the engrams of bad habits I have developed. It’s like not taping or not taping well before painting. If you do it right from the beginning, there is so much less of a mess to clean up and it saves a lot of frustration and time. I suggest you research who you are learning from if you are looking to learn good habits from the beginning so you aren’t left with a mess a few years down the line from which you have to untrain.
When dance is your professional craft, taking good care of your body is important. It is your money-maker so to speak. If it breaks, you can lose everything. Even the simplest defect in a movement by yourself or with a partner can cause an injury, especially if the body is tired from over-training.
One thing I have noticed among some amateur dancers is they forget how essential the professional dancer’s body is to making a living. There are times by the end of the weekend we don’t want to dance. We want to talk about and do something other than dance. We want to do something that our non-dancer friends get to do. We want to be normal rather than athletes in our downtime. This means going for dinner, watching a movie, having coffee, enjoying a glass of wine with the girls, etc.
When you are a professional in realms where social dancing is a large part of the culture of the dance, it can be hard to say no at the end of the week to going to a club to social dance. It can make us appear as stand-offish, non-participatory, or just a downer. I have been often to social gatherings with social dancers at the end of the week where the grand finale of the night is heading to the club to dance for 4-5 hours. When you have been in rehearsal 35 hours already during the week, logging another 4-5 hours doesn’t sound that appealing. Add to that nursing an injury and the sacrifice of that downtime for the body becomes harder to make. It also makes the risk of further injury so much higher as the mindfulness of our body is not always there with everyone that we engage with in a social dance.
With the intricate movements we put ourselves through daily, we are dancing with others who rely on their body to support themselves. This helps to reduce injury and irritation of the body because everyone is careful in how they interact with each other’s bodies. That is not to say we aren’t extraordinarily physical in our rehearsals. We are. We are just very mindful that all of our bodies have to make it to the next set of rehearsals and performances for survival financially.
Teaching one-on-one with people who do this for fun adds a dangerous factor. We are asked to put our physical bodies at risk because of dancing with those that are not as careful as our colleagues. I am surprised when I see my colleagues, especially the men, putting their career on the line to satisfy a student’s dream of doing fancy tricks. Having that dream is fine. It is commendable. However, when you see professionals execute tricks that you are wanting to emulate, you do have to be aware that these are people who put a lot of hours into studying movement and training their bodies to be responsive to the commands of their brain. Learning the tricks did not happen overnight and there was strength built while acquiring the knowledge to execute the trick.
Putting your instructor into a situation of executing a difficult trick when your body may not be adequately trained for it’s execution can be a difficult situation for the instructor. We have this battle in our brains between wanting to make you happy as a student and maintaining our own body. Your happiness often wins over knowing what we should be doing to protect our body in order to keep you as a student. I have seen gross injuries happen because of sacrificing and have colleagues who have sustained injuries from these situations from which they have never completely physically recovered. What I ask is that you are mindful that your instructor. Yes, we are there to satisfy your expectations. We are there to satisfy all their student’s expectations. Thus, we need you to help take care of our bodies while helping you fulfill your dance dreams.