To Dance a Lifetime

High level dancers know that to dance a lifetime at that level is not possible. Past our twenties often proves difficult. So how do some dancers survive to dance high level in their thirties and forties without showing their physical age? It isn’t easy. It takes self-tuning to be able to maintain high physicality with a body that is aging.

First off, we have to realize we are no longer teenagers. We are not made of rubber. We no longer bounce back quickly. It takes discipline to remember that even though our body may still look like that of a teen, it’s healing capacity has diminished. As such, paying attention to our thresholds of movement has to be done. When our bodies say they are fatigued, we can push a little more, but while respecting our own boundaries.

In this respect, we get a lot smarter in our training. We no longer try to dance marathons for the fun of it. We get strategic. What training and inputs will give us the most milage for the fuel we have to burn? We look at the twenty-somethings burning and hurting themselves in their assumed invincibility and think, if they only knew what the ramifications will be in 10-20 years. We know better know and work to preserve and nurture what we have so we can still grow in our skill without injury.

This discipline is what creates mastery. We get specific about what we want. We look at what adjunctive trainings will increase the body intelligence for our specific goals. We seek out master coaches, therapists, and trainers that get us and what we are looking for. We understand in our 30’s and 40’s that we actually do know something about what we need and we are allowed to ask for it. This is a skill that takes time to develop. The discernment of who we solicit for help comes with the wisdom of age.

For those reading this in your 20s, if you know some high level dancers in their 30s and 40s, ask them how they are still going so hard at that age. Remember that you will be lucky to be dancing hard at that age and it will take some design to make it so that you can continue to grow your skills to that age. You eventually will no longer be made of rubber either and that body you have is the only one you get. Do everything you can to preserve it while still pushing the envelope!

Junk and Adjuncts

Variety is the spice of life, right? How do you choose the variety so that your dancing keeps moving upward (adjuncts) rather than sideways or down (junk)? In the social and amateur realm this is a difficult question and depends on the issues you are trying to resolve with your cross-training. There are usually two poles of the body – the over-disciplined and the under-disciplined.

The over-disciplined students tend to be perfectionists. Perfectionism in dance may manifest as extreme control over the movement and may be observed as stiffness or hollowness of the movement. In their strife for perfection, they forget that they need to express their character, find their voice, their flavour, and their mark on the genre. These types of dancers usually seek out ballet which can add to stiffness and perfectionism. Learning ballet as an adult is not easy. It is a difficult genre and one that doesn’t translate well to dances that move through the torso (latin). Ballet requires discipline of the body for the limbs to move seemingly independent of the torso – exactly the opposite of what we do in latin dances. You can imagine if someone is already too stiff and too perfectionist in their dancing, ballet is not going to resolve this and in fact often makes it worse because there is so much information to try to perfect. My recommendation is usually modern, hiphop, or contemporary because these allow more flow and experimentation – less perfectionism  – while still incorporating high levels of technique. Perfectionism is where I mulled for a long time.

Then you have the under-disciplined students. These students usually need increased input that will create greater neurological and muscular control, These are not people who lack discipline in their mind by any means. Often these people are greatly frustrated as they understand what needs to be done, but have a body that is not as obedient as desired. If they are part of the latin realm of dances, I often direct them to more disciplined and classical genres. The discipline of latin ballroom (dancesport training) can be amazing.  It requires great mental, neurological, and muscular coordination while maintaining expressivity. This training is very specific in its execution, requires overall body coordination, while maintaining coordination of the torso with limbs to produce the esthetic and function of this training. It is a difficult genre to master and mastery may not be what is needed to correct the disobedient body. The mind-body connection of this dance is why it is recommended. I also recommend contemporary and modern for this pole of students. These two allow for creativity, exploration, and discipline to be intertwined which is often needed for this category of student as well so they can grow in coordination without being discouraged.

There are of course many genres of dance that can be explored and other kinds of movement as well. I attribute much of my coordination to gymnastics and circus arts. They contributed to my coordination, high strength to weight ratio, and the build of my body. Seeking out classes that are deemed functional or conditioning are great because they build strength with dynamics to maintain muscle length and increase neural coordination, and increase overall tone of the body.

How Much Do You Want It?

I get solicited on how to make it as an amateur or a professional in the dance world. The answer is always the same. You gotta want it badly. Talent is never going to be enough. Talent will definitely be helpful. Without natural coordination & inclination toward dance, you will not advance far. However, believing that you are never good enough or finished learning are the larger determinants.

My biggest success contributor has been my internal locus of control. I have never believed that anything but myself was at fault for any stumbling blocks in my career . This has also made me a little too harsh with myself, but it is a huge contributor to my success. I have never left anything to luck. Anyone who knows me, knows I work myself hard in business, dance, and previously in dentistry. I leave nothing to chance. If I want something I find a way to ask for it, get connected to it, and push myself until I get it. I am independent and believe my success is up to me.

You also need to put the time in on the floor. I rehearse my work on my own, minimum 10 hours per week (that’s aside from time I spend with partners which works out to minimum 10 hours per week). Whether it is mental rehearsal, physical rehearsal, or physical preparation, I put in the time. The body needs to make things automatic. The work needs to be an engram when the music comes on. It has to know without thinking what has to be done to that piece of music. what order everything comes in, what nuances need to built in. When it reaches that point, that is when things get to the next level. That is when time slows down on stage or the competition floor and you can become what you cannot become during practice time.

You also need to have any amazing team of dance professionals and healing therapists helping to mentor and coach you. I spend roughly eleven hours per week with these people. I spend four hours per week with my one coach who knows how to push me to be better everyday. He tireless cracks the whip even when I don’t want him to which is what makes him so good at his job. I take minimum two hours a week of high level group classes where the teachers understand my career and guide me with a heavy hand. I spend two hours a week with my physiotherapist who applies neurokinetic therapy theory to my treatments to keep me healing and growing towards optimal function. I see a craniosacral therapist twice weekly for treatments to keep energy lines open in my body, to control pain, to connect to my body at a deeper level, and to promote healing. I also have a massage therapist who works three hours per month on my body. I also have restorative exercise therapist who trains me on day-to-day alignment for healing to combat the strain I put my body through with professional dance. I am currently seeking a sports nutritionist to boost my nutritional support of my immense activity as well.

Aside from training hard and having outside help, you have to be studying all the time. This includes recording, dissecting, and putting my own dancing back together. For the classes that I teach, I spend hours weekly studying the latest trends and best information that I can be presenting to my classes. I study the kinesiology, energetics, and anatomy of how people move. I pull apart videos of my heroes to see how they move and how they could move better. There is always a ceiling of complexity that can be pushed through to get to the next level. This is what I am always seeking when I am studying for my own improvement, my improvement as an instructor and coach, and for the improvement of the overall dance community in my care. I am never done. The day I think I am done is the day I need to retire.

Losing to Gain

Sometimes you lose something great to gain something greater. In the moment of loss, it seems that it will never be replaceable. That nothing will be right with the world again. It can be so painful that everything physically hurts and feels like we will never be whole again. Time always has a way of healing and showing the truth of the matter.

This was the situation for me just over a year ago. A beautiful dance partnership ended almost overnight. It was devastating and I was broken over it. Nearly simultaneously, a boyfriend spread a false rumour that effectively severed most ties I had built in the community. I was standing on the edge of my career alone.

The situations propelled me forward into the unknown. I was always good on my own – personally and professionally. However, these betrayals took be aback. It was a lesson in self-reliance. Only I can only control what I do, how I act, how I move forward. People silly enough to believe the absurdity of the rumour, well that was not on me. I could not let myself let this setback stop me. Looking back, I was being held back by these partnerships that I had been attached.

In going out on my own, I was forced to fully mature in my dancing, teaching, performing, and choreography. It was a move that was brave and terrifying. What if I was only half a dancer? What if stepping out solo exposed my weaknesses? What if I only was good with a partner? All this doubt crept into my mind and was intermittently paralyzing. I chose to persevere. I could no longer be half a dancer. I could not hang my hat on someone else’s talent or ambition. I needed to incubate myself and develop my skills and put my mark on this world.

In all this, there have been great people who stepped up to support me and there have been some who tried to plant doubt. Someone I had grown close to and trusted was especially devastating due to his own unhappiness with his dancing and life. He told me I was an ugly performer, that I was not good enough to do this, that I was going in the wrong direction and wasting my talent and time. We had severed ties about a month before the performance, however, the days before I stepped out on stage as a soloist at the most important event of my year, his unkind seeds sprouted. They grew around me and nearly stopped me from stepping on stage. I was fearful I would fail on stage, that he was right and the community would know it. It took a lot out of me to step onto that stage alone. It also took kind words of my ex, my colleagues, and students to smarten me up and to realize these were the words he believed about himself and was solely a reflection on him.

The important and respected people in my life stepped up to support me to put myself out there – alone. To be judged as a whole dancer. To be judged as I smeared my soul on the stage. I am thankful for those who propped me up and nudged me to do what they knew I could do. It has strengthened, energized, and motivated me to push even more. I am thankful for my loss for I have gained so much more.

Finding My Way

My journey in the dance community has been tumultuous. I entered with rose-coloured glasses that leaders were in it for the greater good of our art. Some are and a portion are in it for ego, control, and financial gain treating those under their tutelage as mere numbers and trying to be the biggest bully in the playground. This was a sad realization and I lost my innocence about the community.

When I entered, my goal was and continues to be to make a difference. I bring a large box of tools in a complex way that is unique to the rest. We all have a unique toolbox because we aren’t cloned when it comes to our historical training. My history comes from being deeply studied in multiples genres. I have never been a one-trick pony since I was a kid as it was not fulfilling. I still cannot just pick one genre that I love most. I need to study movement from many perspectives to gain clarity of what I want and need and how I want to approach movement no matter the genre.

This studying has given me tools I never would have if I studied extensively in only one genre. It’s allowed for holistic research and examination that goes beyond dance itself. It goes to understanding the long term ramifications of certain movements, of where our physical power comes from no matter the movement, and how to bend movement to a more interesting way.

What I bring to the community has been viewed as a threat by some leaders, which is something I still shake my head at in lack of understanding. I did not come in with the same package of information at all. I did not come in with mal-intent toward any other schools. I came in for the betterment of the community so that students could see dance from a different perspective. I want my students to understand concepts from other genres that strengthen their preferred genre. This cross genre training allows for new inputs to the brain and nervous system allowing more complex patterns to be achieved and developed in the body.

Being taken aside and scolded for growing my brand and school was not something for which I was prepared. I was dumbfounded. It made me question whether I wanted to be part of the community because it seems I would have larger, more deeply serrated knives to pull out of my back if I continued forward with my vision. For a month, I contemplated folding as the toxicity of these bullies did not seem like the effort to develop my programs would have enough fulfillment to be worth dealing with these people. It took soul searching to understand why I was doing this.

When I dug deep, I realized why I wanted to be here. It was about transference of information to those who were open to hearing it. A necessary transference due to a neurological illness that could take me down at any time. I want to make sure my students and succeeding teachers receive my information while I can still demonstrate and give it. It is important to me to pass on the information as quickly and clearly as possible so that it does not get lost with the the illness. I had to pick myself up, verify that I was going to be okay and that the other’s ignorance was not going to take me down.

Gang Mentality

For a team compilation, everything starts with the audition. We gather in a room, test out everyone to see where their level lies – or so it seems. There is so much more at play. I am monitoring the whole list at once – personality & ego, talent, and interpersonal relations. I am looking for those who will play well with others balanced with talent. If someone is seemingly off in one of the factors, it can be a deal breaker to allowing them on the team.

Personality and ego are one of the hardest things to judge. If an auditionee is someone that I have never met before, I can have one pulled over on me during that short audition. Luckily, many who audition are familiar so I can make a decision based on history. I want to know how corrections are taken, whether a person takes responsibility for their errors, whether they are good with learning new information in front of other people. These three things can be vetted quickly in an audition and are one of the greatest deciding factors.

Obviously talent is a deciding factor. Sometimes people come in with oodles of talent and they know it. They are well trained in what they have previously done. Then you throw something unexpected at them and they look like they are ready to run out the door. This isn’t always a nail in the coffin. Sometimes challenging someone’s confidence can be a great factor if they can come around to the idea by the end of the audition. Feedback after the audition is always a good place to look to see if they did recover. Sometimes there is raw talent in a group that has not been honed. Watching them learn and improve in a short audition can tell a lot about where they can end up.

Interpersonal relations is my most important determining factor. Why? If someone isn’t going to be a team player, they don’t belong on my team. There is a difference between the soloist and the group performer. Being able to put yourself out there as a soloist or in a single partnership is a great talent. It takes guts and courage to do this. Being part of a team is equally courageous – sometimes more courageous. As a team member, we have to hand over our control to the group. We have to dance within the parameters of the choreography, be synchronized with our team mates, and blend within the group. There is not a place to try to be the star. Everyone has to share that status.

Trying to pick the best mix of these things is tricky. Any director can attest to this. Sometimes we pick wrong as well if we become enamoured with an auditionee that seems to have it all while later finding out that they are not a great fit with the team atmosphere. Give your director credit for putting themselves out there to try to bring people together in a team atmosphere. It is a complicated maneuver.

 

Point of Diminishing Returns

You are keen and hungry for knowledge of every kind. You want to take this class and that class and become a perfectionist of all genres . . . all at once. As a teacher, I see this often. I have students who want to know everything . . NOW! Is this a realistic perspective? There are two polar approaches I witness. One is all in for one genre with no cross training at all. The other is in too many genres with no specialization at all.

It is not to say that you can’t become amazing at many dances. Of course you can. Knowledge can be acquired at great depth in many dances and one person can be amazing at different genres. This doesn’t happen overnight though. Masters of many have trained extensively for a time in a single genre while maintaining their other knowledge. When you have genres that require specific training e.g. a dance where the torso doesn’t twist versus one that requires frequent twisting, it can be hard to train extensively at both simultaneously because the body needs to understand and develop the engrams to that one movement well so that when the music for that genres comes on, the body kicks into that genre of movement inherently. That doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes it never does start to naturally happen for some people.

So what is the best approach to training? Balance is key. If you want to excel at one dance, and enjoy variety, this is a great approach. Try to pick things that are complimentary to the genre you are training or a non-dance training to complement e.g. gyrotonics, restorative exercise, fitness, yoga or conditioning classes. Choose something that will make you strong without confusing the movement you are trying to program into your brain and body.

All too often we want to gorge on our genre and are left feeling exhausted or defeated by it shortly down the road. Too much of a good thing can be too much. It is always good to have balance in life between social, physical, emotional, financial, and psychological well-being. Investing too much in one aspect of any one of these can tip the scales to being unwell which is not what we ever intend. If you are bent on one major genre right now, take a look at what you can cross-train in to keep yourself motivated, having fun, and enjoying your dance life.

Choose Your Associates Well

Judgement is a part of human nature. It is inherent in keeping ourselves safe – if we were in nature we would constantly be judging environment and other animals to protect our longevity. We have driven that judgement into some dysfunctional methods. We are judged on our hair, how nice we smell, how well our skin looks, how we are dressed, how our body looks esthetically. This is part of our societal culture and within dance culture it can be exponentially greater. Aside from the physical, there is often associative judgement of who is in your circle.

Sometimes life still feels like high school. There are the cool kids, the geeks, the nerds, the misfits, and those that either don’t care or are blissfully unaware that they are required to fit into a group.  There are leaders seemingly promoting this high school mentality within their following. Why? My guess is they are trying to have the popularity they had or maybe lacked in that era of life. Maybe this is the nature of small communities? But does it have to be so?

I think there are actions by leaders that breed and reinforce this divisive mentality. Leaders pressuring for exclusive studying with themselves is a contributory factor because if students feel they MUST be exclusive with their leader, they have to choose carefully who they are going to commit their time. My question is what right does a leader have to demand exclusivity? The leaders are not paying you – you are paying them. It would be the same as a store you buy from demanding exclusivity of your shopping. I think you would tell them to take a flying leap.

It hurts the community having this pressured exclusivity. I see students feeling squirrelly when they are even thinking of stepping outside of some of these leaders classes as they are afraid – actually afraid – of the repercussions. Should there be repercussions for a student trying to gain holistic education? If you are required to limit your learning through exclusivity, you are limiting your knowledge growth rate. Hearing information from various directions on the same topic, your brain will connect the dots quicker than if you are only getting a linear input. If you are studying various genres simultaneously, the various inputs will increase your coordination faster.

When students realize that they are in the drivers seat, it will create a stronger community. Eliminating having to choose the coolest leader to associate with will also create strength. After all, this is supposed to be a community not a group of cults. With less judgement of association and more cross-support of leaders, everyone wins – especially the students! Stand up for yourself and protect your right as a customer to protect your best interest in learning from every leader that aligns with your learning pathway. Be strong, brave, and allow yourself to spread your wings and grow.

Happiness Factor

Have you witnessed a happy show that haunted you for days? The happy shows are not often the memorable. There is an element of darkness that gets people’s attention. Something twinges when you witness dark work.

Darkness appeals to a cool factor in our brain. Maybe because we don’t like to verbally discuss it? Maybe it is taboo to present anything but our happy selves? Maybe we have an expectation to be good all the time? Delving into the dark side makes it seem we are doing something riské just from bearing witness?

When delving into the dark side, it is difficult to dip a toe or wade in. A plunge is the better approach to avoid a seemingly feeble attempt. A feeble attempt that you were afraid to expose the dark angel in you that you sense but silence. We have a dark angel on our shoulder whispering and tempting us. Most ignore the dark angel and go toward the light. The light is the societal pick. We want everything happy and orderly, but we know the dark is there. Seeing the dark in art has a gut wrench that can be almost naughty for the creator and the audience alike.

So why are some afraid to visit the dark side? There is potential judgement that can be devastating. That judgement can turn the work toward the light. However, there are many dark things difficult to discuss, so art allows exploration in ways words cannot describe. There was a piece I presented with a partner a couple years back about my abusive engagement. The verbal story of the engagement would give you nightmares. It truly could have been turned into a psychological horror film.

We chose to present the piece as I felt it was important to shed light on the subject. The piece made audience members cry. After witnessing it and still today, people come to discuss the piece with me not consciously understanding why it made them cry, but they mention they could not hold back the tears. That is the ability of art to reach and communicate difficult things. It is not about vindication of a subject or person nor about trying to prove a point. It is truly about communication in ways that words cannot always do justice.

There was some judgement from people once they learned what the story was telling. They felt that such a personal revelation in a public setting was something I should not have done. They were okay with being emotionally moved when it was an artistic communication, but once words were assigned to what they had witnessed and understood, then there was judgement. That is the beauty of art. You can be moved in ways words cannot move because there is a communication on a different level – a level that can have profound effect on the witness.

The Tightrope Walk

Have you ever walked a tightrope? It’s a classic circus apparatus requiring extreme balance. Many factors are involved in the balance – amount of slack, material deformation, personal weight, inner ear health, ability to be present. Any modification in these factors can be devastating to the walk and cause a fall.

Living a life outside the norm is a tightrope walk. It takes courage. In the artistic profession, there are so many things to balance that can make normalcy nearly unachievable. Maybe we are selected for this profession due gravitation toward abnormal? There is a factor of risk – financial, physical, mental, emotional. These risks can easily sway and throw the balance.

The financial balance is seemingly obvious, but it is a more complex component in this tightrope walk than observed at first glance. There is the balance between accessibility to and the pureness of art. Accessibility can be viewed as soul-sucking servitude in exchange for financial stability. Being purely artistic and poorly understood is a serious financial risk. It can make you famous or lost in the mix. If an artist can reach into an observer’s soul and touch something unspeakable, it can result in fame. Achieving this is difficult requiring brilliant design, often subconscious.

The physical balance is also seemingly obvious with physical artists. We are always trying to outdo our own work to keep things fresh for those we entertain and to challenge ourselves. In pushing to outdo, we can stretch our physical capacity and cause a break. Pushing toward greater achievement is a temptation from which it is hard to turn. It is a drug so tempting. Finding that limit of where physical boundaries are pushed but the body is better rather than broken. It is a drug that takes many artists out of their performance career permanently and can change life in an instant.

Mental balance is one less discussed. The mental toughness to survive in artistic profession is hard. To be a working artist, it takes a special perseverance. There is perseverance against the nay-sayers swearing you will never make it. They can place such a seed of doubt from which an artist may not recover. There is perseverance against making a name amongst other talents. There is perseverance to innovate to stand apart from those talents. There is perseverance of spirit against our own self-doubt, against how hard things get. Many artists drop out of their profession because the mental game becomes unbearable and they wave their white flag in surrender.

Place these balancing points amongst attempt to lead a life with a normal person and it can be unachievable. Mix in abnormal scheduling, physical exhaustion, mental stress with someone who lives in normalcy and the combination can be deadly causing a unrecoverable tumble from the tightrope. Unless you have engaged in the life of an artist, it can be hard to understand. Even if you are engaged in their life, it can be something difficult to comprehend. As such, a trek on the artistic tightrope can be a lonely place.