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.
Trust is a strange thing. Trust is easier when things are measurable, tangible, and describable. What happens when what you seek is none of these? What if it is a feeling? What if what you seek is a journey with no destination?
I have been seen sometimes as someone who changes direction often. My problem with this thought is it is true and it is a sign of insight rather than flakiness. I think this is my strongest attribute because I am okay with abandoning a pathway if there is an obvious better choice. It’s not that I am sitting around admiring the greener grass across the fence line. Rather, should more information come across my path that advises my instincts to change direction, I try not to be too proud to abandon what I for sure thought was the best way.
How does this apply to dance? If you grew up being part of a certain dance genre and group, you may only know a limited amount about dance. Since that is what you know, you will assume it is truth, and because you love it, you believe that this is the best thing for you. However, once you start being exposed to different ideas within that genre or even concepts in other genres, you may be informed that what you thought was the best for you is no longer. You may discover what you studied for so many years no longer serves you, even if you are outstanding at it. You may discover that a new technique broadens your body’s access to movement and freedom. You may discover that someone you worshipped and studied under, no longer serves you either because someone else inspires you more, pushes you harder, or just fits better with the new information you have accessed.
There is nothing wrong with taking a little sabbatical from what you already know and start exploring what you don’t. The best thing I find is going to something intimidating e.g. a workshop with people who know so much more than you who maybe able to process the received information into their body faster than you. Taking a genre you know nothing about and maybe don’t even see anything admirable in it. Any training we are able to get our hands on will inform our future dancing. It informs our body of a new methodology, creates movement from a different place than we are used to, and explores concepts from a strange perspective not previously considered.
I find when I start trusting what I know, I usually get knocked on my butt by something that blows my foundation out from beneath me. Because I am aware that this changes me faster than anything else, I seek these opportunities to break what I think I know. It is scary each time I do this – that never seems to go away. However, that fear is so invigorating because it makes me want to chase my dreams so much faster. I know that there is no pot of gold or ultimate destination in my career. I have to enjoy the chase along the way, admire the rainbow of possibilities, and be present so that I can look back and know that it was worth it.
How do you receive criticism? Do you think to yourself, I’m perfect and they don’t know what they are talking about? Do you think, you do not know enough to possibly teach me? I see this attitude in students who know little. I see this in students who know a lot. The thing is, none of us have had an identical education. Even if we had attended all the same classes, workshops, and lectures as another, the education would still not be identical. Why? There is no way that we relate to the information in an identical way, thus we don’t internalize and use the information in the exact same way.
I love being criticized. Yes, sometimes it hurts my feelings, makes me question my abilities, and makes me wonder if I will ever feel good enough. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel this way from time to time. However, even when these defensive sentiments come up, I know it is coming from my insecurity, not my knowledge base. My knowledge base informs me that I have so much to learn. That I will never really feel like I have made it because there is far too much information to consume before I will be able to feel that way. This is okay. This is how I will get myself better. This is how I will improve my physical, mental, and emotional self.
When I ask for an outside eye to see my work, I am not asking for my ego to be stroked. I am asking to be pulled apart. I am asking to learn how to do my stuff better. I am asking if my approach may not be the best. I am asking to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I have seen others when asking for an outside opinion stop the dialogue about their piece when they receive a compliment. That is what they were looking for rather than criticism. How is that a help?
Anytime I have an opportunity to teach, I have an opportunity to learn as well. I learn because my students are having a different experience receiving the information I share. They all have different questions on how to approach the information. They have questions that come up related to things they learned previous that they are leaping off of to connect to the information they are receiving. They ask me questions that make me able to approach my own delivery of information differently the next time I teach. I get surprised by their questions all the time because sometimes I feel like I know what I know inside and out and then a curve ball question is thrown at me that makes me go through all that I know and realize that I know so little. It’s exhilarating to experience these new insights and makes me have an adrenaline rush. It makes me crave more information.
How do you approach your teachers? Do you go to a teacher who just strokes your ego? Do you go to a teacher who is so passionate about your success that they want to pull you apart and put you back together so that you are your best self? Some of us dance to feel good – to be seen and lauded. If you are looking to be the best you can be, the adoration can’t be enough. Seeking information and betterment is what drives the best. Talk to the top dancers in your community – you will see that this is what they seek and they never feel like they have made it. When you think you have made it, it’s time to retire.
It has been an interesting experience being invited in to teach technique to some companies. The interesting part is the fear of disinterest in technique. Every new session seems to breed this fear and I find it fascinating that this is a concern. Technique is like a slow burn that changes and develops through the class. It is not going to be exhilarating like a fireworks explosion, but the way that the burn shapes over the hour is mesmerizing.
I haven’t had anyone complain that they are bored in class. I have witnessed many think they know more than they do. More recently, the classes I have been welcomed into have given into the discomfort, set their egos aside, and gone with the teachings of the class. This has been refreshing for me and a release of anxiety for the directors of the class that their students are most definitely not bored out of their minds. Rather, I see them more intensely engaged than in other more exhilarating classes.
It is wonderful to see the bodies and minds trying to absorb the information being demonstrated. The watching of my body’s use of the information, watching their own body not quite get the information, then return to gaze at my body to cue themselves about what they are being asked to do. I see little chatter in these types of classes which is usually a sign of external focus. The beauty of technical classes is the ability to switch that focus internally. Trying to get your body to morph and grow into a better more coordinated mass of flesh.
Often, the concepts introduced are foreign to the participants which seems to help them engage more. Walking their brains and bodies into left field then connecting the information back to home base where they are comfortable is usually a lightbulb moment on their faces which is lovely to see. When the lightbulbs don’t come on, there is usually questions that come out from the group for clarification. Questions of insight that I never see when the exhilarating classes are taught. Insight from an internal place of knowing that they are not getting the sensation that has been described to them. Insight that they don’t feel natural or look natural like as demonstrated and they want to know how they can make themselves look more like that. Those internal searchings make me elated because it is so obvious they are connecting with their body in a way they haven’t been guided or able to before.
When a mind is able to make that deep of a connection with the body, change happens quickly because the mirror becomes less of a reference point and the internal dialogue between the body and mind are able to take over. From there, the questioning of how dumb do I look is often lost as well and the room gets quiet and meditative. That quiet often translates into the dancing and these people are more interesting to watch as the show comes from a deep internal place rather than an external look at me showing.
Finding a partner that I can dance with is one of the beautiful parts of my world. Finding a good match is not an easy task, but, when it happens, it changes my life. There is a sense of belonging. There is a sense of excitement. There is a high that happens so intensely, little else in my life can compare.
Being able to be synchronized and dance with another body gives a sense of connection. Being able to create with another body is another task all together. There are many things that can prevent this from coming to fruition. Difference in physical capacity can seem like a barrier, but it often can be overcome. Depending on the nature of the work, emotional capacity can be a bigger barrier. Not being able to set aside the ego is another.
If two dancers are brought together with different knowledge – this happens often with those who have trained in different fields – the physical capacity can be an issue. This is especially true if you have two dancers who have different singular backgrounds – say partner dancing vs. contemporary dancing. Ballroom dancers are used to creating movement from the upper torso connected to another’s torso and arms. Trying to create a lead by moving a person with any other type of lead can be uncomfortable for a partner who has not done this. Same goes for a contemporary dancer who is used to freedom in movement with or without a partner. Transitioning from that into a type of dance where you remain upright and are lead with stricter rules can be a culture shock. There will be moments of great discomfort for each of these dancers. The difference in the way they express themselves physically can make for interesting work to witness.
How a person moves and deals with psychological discomfort can predict the outcome of the partnership. If the discomfort comes out as hostility which it often does, that is a deal breaker. This hostility can manifest as anger toward the partner, name calling, putting the other partner down to make up for the bruised ego, or simply frustration and shutting down. Learning a new dance form in front of another dancer, especially one you respect, can be tremendously stressful even for the most accomplished dancer.
Putting the ego aside is essential when learning. There is going to be discomfort, especially if working with someone who is an expert in what you know nothing about. This is compounded further when you are an expert yourself in a dance form and then feel awkward in your usually kinesthetically superior body. The ego destroys many potentially synergistic partnerships. I have had it destroy my own in the past when I was younger and more stubborn. Age has granted me patience with my partners and myself and I can better identify when my ego is being destructive in a rehearsal setting.
If two people from different dance worlds can learn to take the best of each other’s worlds and share knowledge without judgement, it can make for beautiful work. It can also make for a beautiful learning experience. We can’t all know everything. We also can’t grow in our dancing if we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to be exposed to experiences outside of our comfort zone.
Creating original choreography is thrilling. Discovering a song that just makes my brain keep going until I stop seeing the dance that goes with it. Reading a poem and visualizing bodies expressing it on the stage. An idea that comes out of nowhere that can only be expressed physically. The process can take many forms and be inspired in many ways.
Building original choreography can be a challenge – even if there are many minds at work helping create it. It is being within the body rather than outside. It has been a while since I have been choreographed and I admit that I am enjoying it. In years past, I didn’t believe in myself. I did not believe I could create original works that others would like to see. That doubt still creeps in, but the response to performances have been such that I am believing I have a creative voice in this community and something to contribute. Something that can touch people at a level that they may not be able to express which I have seen throughout the summer. It is amazing to be able to move people.
That being said, there is something amazing about being someone’s instrument – being choreographed. Knowing what it is like being the choreographer – being responsible, exposed, and vulnerable – then giving that over to another person is an exercise in trust. I am handing my reputation, body, and control over to another person. I am giving them carte blanche to do with me as they please. It can go both ways. I can end up being part of something that has the influence of my own work. I can end up being part of something that is fluff.
The process of being choreographed is like being on So You Think You Can Dance – some pieces are epic, some pieces are flops. Regardless of the success in either direction, there is something to be learned from every piece. Even as far back as my childhood, I can recall lessons I learned from that period. If you are being choreographed rather than choreographing, be present. Be aware of your choreographer’s process. Become the instrument they want. Let yourself morph from what you are comfortable being, into something so different that you didn’t know you had in you. Every work is an opportunity to grow and learn if you can let yourself go. Surrender.
I have definite opinions about technique and how it applies to dances. My friends know this as I can argue adamantly about how some dances and dancers refuse basic technique. I find it wondrous when I see people who have been dancing at a professional level for a long time in certain dances, that they are still not using basic dance techniques that benefit us all across all genres.
Believe me, my technique is not perfect. I have to work on it everyday and I guess that is why I am still in this industry. There is always something to work towards. There is never going to be a perfect performance. Nothing in my dance life will ever be good enough not to continue working on it. There will never be enough rehearsals before a show. There will never be enough time to get to the point where I actually think I am great. That is what keeps me hungry and motivated in the dance world to continue pushing myself to be better.
I still study under others weekly or more often because it gives me the opportunity for growth. My eyes are critical about what they see in the mirror. My brain has a lot of calculating to do while trying to watch – activation of the right muscle groups, the balance between relaxation and strength, remembering technique that I am supposed to apply. These, among many other, things are going through my brain which is an overload at times. That and trying to be self-critical can be a bit much. This is why coaches are so important.
I am lucky that I came from a competitive background as a kid. I was always being evaluated (almost to a flaw). Criticism was always welcomed in my world. Okay, almost always – I still have feelings and an ego that can be bruised. There was always someone trying to improve my technique in gymnastics, arts, and other sports. An outside eye was just what I was used to.
External criticism was so commonplace that it took self-discipline to be able to criticize myself as that had always been someone else’s job. This criticism was needed to slow myself down. To delve deeper into movements and try to explore their limits. Trying to keep my balance while also trying to move through balance challenging techniques takes gut and drive. This is part of where the self-criticism comes into place. To be able to improve during times where I don’t have an outside eye, I have to find my edge of ability. Once that is found, I have to try to push through it. It may not be beautiful to the eye, but it will be physically progressive which is helpful in growing on my own.
In having external eyes, I do take people from different genres to participate. I want people who think the same as me, sometimes. Other times, I want someone who is my polar opposite in thought. Why? Because I want someone who is going to broaden my understanding of movement. Someone who is going to break my current technique and infuse their own into those pieces. This is the way that I know how to grow.
When it is time to start working on a new piece, there is time set aside to work on its design. I have to think about many things including what I am going to get out of it. I have to know that this piece is going to change me even if it is just a small change. That change can be due to many things. It could be that it pushes my physical boundaries of technique and physicality. It could be that is pushes my emotional boundaries and helps me explore disturbing situations from my past. It could be that it pushes my intellectual boundaries and helps me explore a concept that I have not yet wrapped my head around.
When it comes to physical boundaries, this is often the easiest boundary to push. It is one that I already know exists. Going after than boundary is easy because I can identify it and find someone who can help me break it. This is one of my favorite boundaries and not just because of its ease of identification. I love to push myself and be pushed beyond what I thought I was capable. I like questioning my technique and finding a new way to do something that I hadn’t thought I would be able to accomplish. This only helps me grow in the physical part of my dancing.
When it comes to emotional boundaries, this makes for pieces that define my life and career. Being able to lay my heart open on the stage for people to understand, judge, and discuss is vulnerable. More vulnerable than me talking about it. Expressing it physically exposes more than words can express because it touches the audiences at such a level that is hugely unconscious. There is a visceral response just as I had when I was going through it in my past. Sometimes in discussions after a performance, I feel like a little kid with a secret because I know what my show was about and I do not want to give away the true story. I prefer that my audience had an experience that they cannot quite explain. This is how I like to experience art as an audience member.
When it comes to intellectual boundaries, this is the hardest for me to define. I am not a know-it-all type. I know I have a large capacity for understanding. Defining what I do not understand takes inner work. Sometimes starting with what I don’t like about it is easiest as my dislike might be a defense against a lack of understanding. Once that is identified, the research starts. The research explores expression of that disliked part. It involves reading. It involves discussing with my partner or partners about their insight into it. Bringing a cluster of artistic minds together on a topic and having all of us explore it can make for interesting and varied work.
The journey through a new piece of work enriches my life like nothing else. At the beginning, I am very excited. When I hit roadblocks, I feel discouraged and have to dig deep to find a way to carry on. Those are the pieces that make me the most proud because they are a complicated journey. They usually evoke the greatest change in my thinking, my physical body, and my intelligence. I am always sad when difficult projects are completed because they touch me so deeply and it feels like I am breaking up with them when done. The lovely thing about pieces is that I can revisit them, so they are never really gone. Revisiting often brings new insight as well, so it is something I practice on this journey.
My exposure to dance followed years of training as a gymnast. Gymnastics was about discipline. It was about pushing harder, faster, farther. It was about pushing through boundaries be they pain, flexibility, fractured bones, strained tendons and ligaments. I was built by gymnastics to be a warrior. Someone who could shut down the signals in my brain and body that told me to stop and listen carefully. As a young, rubbery, not easily destructible person, this wasn’t a good thing, but it was survivable.
In the long run, this approach to training is dangerous and sets up the body for disaster in later years. It trains the mind to think that pain is normal. It makes pain seem less alarming than it should be. It makes it so that responding to and respecting the pain seems abnormal. It breaks the body down in a way that comes back later in life if not chronically from a young age. My ability to tolerate pain is disturbing. I can carry on in extreme pain without anyone being the wiser, except those that know me well. I remember so many of us having extreme injuries and still training. My body is used to that into adulthood as well. I have to reason with myself that pain isn’t normal in order to get myself in to be checked out by any medical practitioner. The fear that accompanies that type of visit has me talking myself out of actually making it to a clinic in a timely manner. If I wait long enough, everything will be better, I always assure myself.
As we get older, being able to have a paradigm shift from that type of intense training into one that is kinder may make us feel like we are getting soft or losing our edge. It really isn’t. It is more about us getting smarter and more intuitive. Wisdom comes with age and gaining the insight that injuring ourselves regularly is not a wise choice, is part of the aging process. I am starting to realize that I am lucky to be able to train the same or harder than those a decade my junior. I want to be able to continue to do so for the next decade and the one after that. To achieve that, I have to train smarter. I have to use my body in a way that gets results with minimal injury. This is easier said than done.
Coming from a gymnastics background where you push until you literally break is a different style of training compared to how I approach now. I need to make sure I am not being forceful in my movements. I need to watch that I am using proper and efficient technique. I need to be mindful of areas that are more prone to injuries. My achilles tendon is literally my achilles heel. We all have our thing. Be careful in your training in your current youth – I wasn’t and I wish I was because it would make a difference for me now.