Trying to find body positivity in injury prevention and safe dance practice

Tl;dr The way anatomy and alignment is taught to dancers often puts too much pressure on us to “fix” ourselves. We need to find a balance where we can dance within a risk we find acceptable and still embrace the particular features of our individual bodies.

 

The other day at the gym, I had to take the treadmill that was in front of the gigantic mirror and, as a result, caught a glimpse of my bowlegs, which has since sent me down a spiral of despair at my terrible body alignment and how that means I’ll never be a good dancer.

 

The thing is, my bowlegs are not that bad. Or, at least, they weren’t when I first learned about what it meant in an anatomical sense. It’s quite common for dancers that do ballet and other forms of dance that require turnout. “Forcing” turnout (ie. what we’re not supposed to do) forces the shinbone out of its correct inward spiral, creates bowlegs, and, of course, causes improper alignment in the legs and rest of the body, because everything is connected.

 

My legs were a bit bowed, but I learned this and became very defensive of my small turnout when teachers tried to get me to force it. It knew it was good for alignment, the end. Except no one is immune to the overarching pressures around them and while I was learning about the proper alignment of the shinbone, I was also learning that I would never be a dancer without more turnout. I ended up forcing my turnout a lot more than I thought I was, even while I complacently thought that I knew about proper alignment and that meant I danced safely and properly.

 

Over the years, my bowlegs have become more pronounced until we come to this particular moment, where I look at my shinbones and want to cry because they’re not Properly Aligned.

 

Here’s the thing – the new movement to create “safe” dancers, including education in anatomy and kinesiology, is about as bad with body image as all other forms of dance education. And, it has the added benefit of informing dancers that, if their body isn’t within the alignment and anatomy taught to them, they are dancing dangerously. And it includes the nice long list of injuries that can be sustained from it. AND, it implicitly suggests that a dancer is at fault if they get injured.

 

No body is ever in perfect alignment. I want to argue that dancers’ bodies are particularly bad because we are training to do things that a non-dancing body may never want to do. And, especially now, every anatomy class a dance student takes is offset by aesthetics that are only possible for certain bodies and require all other bodies to go out of “safe” ranges of movement in order to do it.

 

The point of anatomy and dance science education for dancers isn’t to make us feel ashamed of our bodies or our unhealthy habits, it’s to tell us what we can do better to be better dancers. It’s telling us how to avoid injury.

 

But sometimes, when I look at my bowlegs and shallow turnout and embarrassingly weak core, I am ashamed. I am ashamed because I’ve known about these “defects” in my body and I haven’t been able to fix them, despite my strong education in how they’re dangerous.  It becomes my fault if I get injured. As a result, I am terrified of injury.

 

Still, I do not want to fix my body, because fixing it suggests that there’s something to be ashamed of in the first place.

 

I want to be able to celebrate my body. Despite the bowlegs and improper foot alignment, I have never had an injury that has taken me completely out of dance for an extended length of time. That’s fucking amazing for someone that’s danced for thirteenish years and has done particularly high-impact, damaging dance styles (Irish Step, morris dance, pointe work…). I have to admit it’s luck, I seem to have an injury-resistant body at the moment. Because, at the end of the day, injury is often unavoidable for dancers and, while certain habits may help prevent it, nothing can actually prevent it (and someday my look will run out, whether I like it or not).

 

I’m not saying to completely abandon safe dance practices, because that’s ridiculous. There’s a reason why we warm-up, cooldown, fight for proper alignment, and try to dance within acceptable risk parameters.

 

But we can’t fix or change the bodies we have. My body is a result of good habits, bad habits (terrible habits), and training, but it’s a good body. It’s gotten me this far and it will keep going. Maybe someday I’ll start sorting out my shinbones, but right now, I’m dancing with them. I know the risks, but I would rather keep finding my pathways in movement than stop everything to fix myself before moving onwards.

 

And I hope, in the future, to see anatomy and alignment taught to dancers more as “this is how you work with your specific form of misalignment” instead of “this is proper alignment and deviations are dangerous and must be fixed.”

 

All bodies are good bodies. All dancing bodies are good for dancing. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to improper alignment.

 

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Carrying on the tradition

Tl;dr As I grow older, I am starting to regret my uninvolvement with Irish dance traditions and intend to change because moving the tradition forward is important to me.

 

Céline Tubridy died in late September. I never met her, but she is important to me, as an Irish dancer, as someone who kept an old tradition alive. She learned and held onto steps from the dancing master Dan Fury. As she moved towards alzheimers, she taught the steps to her husband, Michael Tubridy, who still teaches them today. Michael has visited Boston a couple of times, and I have had the honor of learning steps directly from him a total of once. The rest I learned through my teacher, Kieran Jordan.

 

That’s a lot of names, but what it represents is a lineage and it’s one I’m proud of. It’s where I come from. I don’t have a long, nonbinary history to link myself to (I wish I did), I’m really fucking confused about whether I’m Jewish…or Quaker…or Huguenot…or whatever. Modern and contemporary dance traditions are new and short. Irish dance tradition is my anchor in history and I’m honored to dance these steps and to know where they come from.

 

But it’s confusing too. When Céline died, I waffled about whether or not to write anything about what that meant for me and, by the time I decided I wanted to, it was just a little too late to avoid awkwardness. I feel like the paths I have taken away from Irish dance – mixing sean-nos with other percussive dance forms, never quite making the time to attend the main Irish cultural and dance events, the fact that I’m only a quarter Irish, always trying to dance to “untraditional” music and, yes, even my queerness (I’m not saying this feeling is Right) gives me less of a right to claim my heritage as an Irish Dancer, even when I continue to be one in any other dance space I enter.

 

At the same time, I’m watching the people who are the keepers of my tradition die. Beyond the fact that death is always awful on the personal scale, it’s not a terrible death, they’re old, it’s time, and I’m a strong believer in tradition as change. But, I can’t stop the deep curl of regret that I will never get to study with them. And, not in the case of Céline, but certainly in the case of Michael Tubridy and a few others, it is partially my fault. My teacher brings these people in, they teach workshops, they have been available to me, and I have just been too busy or stressed from high school or simply not committed enough to make the long journey. It’s a choice, it’s a completely understandable choice, but I regret it now.

 

Tradition changes, but it changes from somewhere, and I feel like I’m not grounded enough in this tradition to be able to change it. The moment when you realize you speak a language fluently is not the moment when you have a conversation in the language, it’s when you are able to make up a word in that language without the help of your native language that is completely logical within all linguistic parameters and completely understandable to a native speaker of the language. With Irish dance, I can copy the vocabulary, I can steal bits and pieces and use it, but I don’t understand it enough to create it. I’m proficient, not fluent.

 

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, proficiency is wonderful and I love Irish dance, it has influenced my artistic practice from the very beginning and, at the end of the day, is my one, true dance love. That is undeniable. But, now I’ve had my time away, and my time failing to be part of the tradition, I’m realizing how important it is to me that the tradition doesn’t stop at me. I want it to go through me to the next generation. I want to be fluent.

 

Of course my teacher has other students, the tradition wouldn’t be lost if I chose to look the other way and do my weird performance art nonsense. But that’s not what I want. This is my lineage and I want to see it continue. I may have never met Céline Tubridy, but her dancing has shaped the kind of dancer I am, and what she gave me was valuable. I’d be a fool to stop it there and not carry on this tradition so others can learn from her too.

 

In other words, it’s time to get my ass in gear and start committing to connecting with Irish dance traditions beyond just showing up to class when it suits me.

 

Also: you can watch Céline dancing here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lMBQPr8Y9w

 

In search of a new gym (ie. community centers are great!)

Tl;dr In my search for a gym after I moved, I ended up finding a community center and regaining some faith in humanity.

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A few months ago, I wrote about some of my complicated feelings about fitness and working out and how I had managed to find a system that worked for me . I wrote it with the knowledge that I was about to lose access to my school’s gym and that I was also about to change countries. I was scared and worried that I was about to lose everything I had built up so carefully to forces beyond my control.

 

It was one of my first tasks when I moved in with my dad. I arrived at a funny time – most dance classes in Boston were closed for a summer break, so I felt the lack of movement in my life even more keenly. I forced myself back into my home workout a little too quickly (and was rewarded for my poor decisions with a sore body) because I was bored and had to be doing Something.

 

I searched the internet for some place small, calm, and cheap (I did not have a job at the time either) and got more and more stressed out. Gyms are scary for me. Gyms are places where Big Strong Jocks do Big Strong Things and are secretly judging me. I had managed to avoid those fears at my school because there was, at most, seven other people in the room with me and they were dancers. So, even if they were more fit than me, there was at least a commonality among us, we had a similar goal.

 

The thought of going into a completely new strange place with completely new strange people that would know nothing about me, but still have the ability to judge, petrified me. I kept writing “try Gym X” or “go to Y pilates class” on my schedule and then…not going.

 

And then, I was flipping through the brochure my dad got from our town’s community center and read that they had a “cardio fitness room”. It turns out that these two rooms in the basement of my local community center, one full of cardio machines, the other mainly full of weights, were completely free to use for town residents, and was a ten minute walk away from my house.

 

It wasn’t all the equipment I was used to (I also struggled to convert my treadmill use from kilometers to miles), but the main people that shared the space with me were much older than me and usually there to get out of the house, do exercise because it made them feel good, and maybe even socialize a bit, no one in the extreme weight-lifting region. It was relaxed, non-judgemental, and I could go off and do my own thing with no worry.

 

 

I had to adapt, but in doing so, I learned that my priority was not as much what exercises I was doing exactly, it was that I felt safe doing them.

 

More importantly, I realized that, even as we’re bemoaning how capitalism destroys everything, we still have beautiful little pockets of community-centered activity. I mean, I came home to discover my local library now lent out sewing kits as well as books. And this community center, paid for by tax dollars, exists to serve my town – it gives us a gym, ping-pong tables, classes specifically for to get old folks out of their houses, classes specifically for children and families, a job center to help residents get the work they need…I’m slowly getting to know the people and communities built around this gym, from the parents who come to run on a cardio machine every morning after they’ve sent their kids to school to the folks who come to deplete the weight room for their morning class and like to stop and chat while I stretch. We get to enjoy this wonderful service together.

 

In a time when we talk about individualism, about “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” and the American Dream, and the terribleness of capitalism, I am so glad that community centers still exist. We haven’t lost everything.

 

Libraries always do this for me, but it was nice to find a gym too.

 

We are still a community. There is no reason to lose hope in our world yet.

Memories of trying to be a cellist

Tl;dr I started to remember my old cello teacher recently and revisited the guilt I felt when I stopped playing cello. However, I also discovered this year that I haven’t really left my music training and that it is still feeding my art. There is more than one way to reach a goal.

[CW: mentions of cancer and death]

symphony hall
Teenage me and my cello, Lilly

Since I’ve been in a period of transition, I’ve been going through a lot of the old stuff that’s collected in my room over the years and trying to make the entire room slightly more clean. And, out of these old things, I found a whole bunch of my old cello music. And I found some of it was labelled with my old cello teacher’s name. It had been her music, and either through my own purposeful forgetfulness or because she had actually given it me, I still had it.

 

This was one of the best teachers I had ever had. She took me on as a student after my first cello teacher left the area to pursue a new life, which eight-year old me did not understand at all, was incredibly patient with me when all I wanted was my first teacher back, and really was the person to grow my learning skills and my cello skills and my kindness skills.  That is to say, she played an integral role in my life at a time when I was lonely and miserable and needed people to see me, care about me, and believe in me.

 

I had known she had cancer, but I hadn’t ever quite wrapped my head around what that meant until I got home from summer camp and my parents sat me down on the couch and told me she had died. I was still in middle school then.

 

And that was the beginning of the end for me. I went on to another teacher, one that had been a friend of hers and understood where I was coming from. And he taught me well, but I was never able to trust him or felt as supported. I moved onto another teacher, and it became clear that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I couldn’t get myself to practice more than fifteen minutes a day, I resented a lot of what I was doing, lessons became painful exercises in repeating things I should know, and so I finally asked my teacher, “is there a point for me to come to these lessons any more?” and we both agreed that there really wasn’t.

 

Even when I did not enjoy cello, it took me a long time to put it down and admit that it wasn’t for me because I felt like I was letting this first teacher down. She had believed that I was capable of so many things, and I was constantly failing her at every bend – I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t committing, I wasn’t enjoying myself…I wasn’t the musician she had thought I could be. I felt like a complete and utter failure, which made the whole thing that much less enjoyable, and yet I still felt tied to keep going, to keep trying to be that musician.

 

When I did finally stop lessons and then stop cello altogether, I felt so relieved and I hated myself so much for it. It was the ultimate failure.

 

I had set goals for myself when she had been my teacher. Ridiculous, overreaching goals. But, on the trajectory I was going, they would all be eventually reachable with work. One I did succeed in – to play the Brahms sonata in E minor. It was never a brilliant performance, but it’s a piece I worked hard on and could play all the way through. Another goal, to play through all of the Bach cello suites, was one I kept aiming at, even promising myself, at one point, that I’d stop cello once I had completed that particular goal. Very few student cellists actually do more than the first few suites though, and I was on the third one when I stopped. The final goal, I never even started – the first Shostakovich cello concerto. I stopped listening to any of those pieces when I left cello because it made me feel so guilty.

 

This year, in the midst of working on my choreography assessment, I had a moment of pause and realized that the first movement of the Shostakovich might work for my concept. I didn’t completely commit at the beginning, I downloaded the music and kept “experimenting” with it (while not “experimenting” with anything else). It wasn’t until I first shared a rough draft of the piece and realized that most of my classmates didn’t know the Shostakovich that I realized how attached I was and committed to using it.

 

My school was half-dance, half-music, so I walked all the way over to the music half, entered their library, and got myself the score for the piece (the piano redaction as it was easier to read while considering movement).

 

It wasn’t until I held that score in my hands that I was able to start forgiving myself.

 

See, this is the one goal I have successfully reached. I have now presented a piece that engaged with the structural framework of the Shostakovich and required a strong understanding of the music. I may not have played it. I’m definitely not capable of playing it. But I still worked with it. I still used it. I still performed it, in a sense.

 

My music education isn’t something I’ve left in the past.

 

And, now I’ve done some teaching myself, it’s a little easier to see – I would have failed my teacher a lot more if I had stuck with doing something I hated. She wanted what was best for me, not an amazing cellist. I’d like to think she’d be thrilled to see how I was able to use skills I have because of her teaching (because reading music was definitely a necessity for structuring the piece) to create something that was, in my own opinion, pretty damn amazing.

 

I guess what I’m saying is that things come around in strange ways. I may not play cello any more, but it still influences my choices and my abilities. And when you have a good teacher, they’re going to make an impact on you beyond whatever they’re teaching you.

 

And that’s the best kind of teacher.

 

So, I’m still holding onto any sheet music that has her name on it. Maybe someday I’ll have the right project to use it for.

 

*At one point in time, there was an education fund set up in my teacher’s honor that I would have loved to link you to here. Since I cannot currently find the details, in the absence of handy-dandy link, I would like to urge anyone reading this who has some money to spare to consider donating to their local youth music program. What one teacher did for me is what many music teachers are continuing to do for many many children, and while we can’t bring people back from the dead, we can certainly continue to spread the values and beliefs and kindness they brought us while they were alive.

 

**You can see a dress rehearsal of the piece, “How Dare You.” here

The aroace in dance

tl;dr There are strong links between sexuality and dance, which makes it very difficult for the sex-repulsed aroace dancer, but I’ll figure out the complexities of it somehow. 

So, I am going to hold on the usual trans-person-has-opinions post and change it up slightly. Today, the most prominent hat I’m going to wear is the aroace hat (I mean, I wear all the hats all the time…)

 

One thing I struggle with a lot (and have written so many incomplete blog posts about, it’s hilarious) is the obsession with seeing dance as sexual.

 

And this is hard, because there’s also the other extreme, especially in ballet, where dance gets pulled and interpreted so far away from the sexuality in its history to a fake sense of “purity”. I can’t say that dance isn’t sexual. It is. Not just in the way sex work and ballet were historically linked; so much of social dancing is about sex and partnering, or, to talk about humans as if they were birds, showing off to a future mate in a ocially acceptable manner. Not all, certainly, but quite a lot. Enough.

 

And then sex was taken out (ie. “purified”, as I have discussed in terms of Irish dance) or codified into the dance form in such a way that the movements became separated from the actual act of sex.

 

Even with this obsession of seeing sex in everything, it’s probably quite easy to argue that current modern and contemporary dance has less sex in it than most other forms of dance.

 

So what’s the aroace to do? Especially the sex-repulsed one? How do you remove the sex from dance without taking away the dance?

 

I really haven’t figured that one out. My current solution is to neatly sidestep anything related to sex because that’s just not my kind of dance. But I can’t help but worry if all I’m doing is leaving the problem for another day.

 

Then again, does it have to be a conflict? Sex (and romance) is not one of my interests in dance. That doesn’t mean others can’t work with it. All it means is that I don’t.

 

Can I really do that? Or am I just following in the footsteps of the nationalists and legitimizers?

 

I have to believe that there are new options, ones I can make – dance that is inherently unrelated to sex. I have to believe that there are new fields to explore outside the sexual and romantic options available.

 

It’s even less charted territory than trans dance.

 

What does nonsexual dance look like?

 

What does asexual dance look like?

 

What does aromantic dance look like?

 

I have no idea. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

 

Dance is fun

 tl;dr Dance is fun. There’s no point in dancing if it isn’t.

October 2016

I had a conversation with a friend once, which went along the lines of:

Me: Sometimes I need the reminder that the point of dance is that it’s fun

Friend: Really? Isn’t the point of dance hard work?

And, of course, it made me think (like most things do).

First of all – why the hell can’t hard work be fun? Yes. Dance is a lot of hard work. Even going out dancing once a month as a social activity requires a certain amount of commitment and energy that doesn’t come in many other domains. It requires brain work, cooperative work, physical work, time management skills (sometimes I think we overlook this, but, trust me, anyone who has ever danced probably understands exactly how quickly dance can eat into a schedule), and a whole lot of energy. It’s hard.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Sometimes, doing something hard makes it more fun. It’s like how once I started playing threes!, 2048 was kind of boring and definitely not as stimulating. I mean, I’m terrible at threes!, but that’s the point – I had to work at it while 2048 is just easy coasting.

But I get the sense of an obsession with hard work without the fun from a lot dancers. There’s this idea that dancers must always be working at their maximum and overcoming impossible challenges and never relaxing. And there’s this idea that, if a dancer is having fun, they aren’t working hard enough.

I mean…seriously?

Having fun doesn’t devalue work. On the contrary, it makes the work more valuable because it’s so much easier to do something when you enjoy it.

And I can’t help but question dancers that aren’t enjoying themselves: what’s the point of doing something that’s so much work if you don’t enjoy it?

I mean, we’re talking a career in which most professionals barely get paid and have to have a second job (and third and fourth and fifth job, I’m not kidding). If dancers aren’t getting money for their work, why are we still doing it? Working harder? Hell, if hard work was the only reason I was dancing, I’d quit and try to go into banking or something.

There is no point to dance if it is not fun and enjoyable. And, while there are always times in which a specific class or situation isn’t fun, because that is how life is, I believe that if the HARD WORK starts outweighing the fun, it’s time for a re-evaluation of why I am dancing.

Good thing I’m still having a lot of fun at the moment.

 

I did this

tl;dr despite teachers that insult me in their congratulations or take credit for my hard work, I am celebrating my successes as mine

It’s amazing how often teachers want to take credit for their student’s success.

 

It’s amazing how many of the compliments I’ve received from teachers in the past year have been couched either in insult or a self-congratulatory, “I did this for you”.

 

I’ve actually had teachers say “I was surprised you managed to accomplish anything”, as if their lack of faith in me, after having known me for a month, was to be expected and not a horrifying insult.

 

Here’s the thing I wish I could tell to every single one of my teachers this year: I was amazing before I came to this program. I was a good artist, a thoughtful person, and used to working rigorously. I entered this program believing that you would treat me like I was competent and, instead, you treated me like I was completely clueless. I appeared clueless to you because you weren’t looking for anything else. My success on this program came from the moment I chose to ignore you and to work on my own practice.

 

I did this.

 

In fact, my blind trust in my teachers’ experience and knowledge made me a worse artist for a long period of time. So many of my teachers told me I “found my voice” during their program, as if it was their careful guidance that helped me there.

 

Anyone who’s seen my work from before I entered the program would know that I actually already had a pretty strong artistic voice. I entered the program because I wanted to develop and stregnthen it. Instead, I lost it. In what I thought was an attempt to learn, I took my teachers’ advice too much to heart and I lost my artistic integrity.

 

I did that.

 

I regret it.

 

But what that experience did, beyond all else, was strengthen my conviction in what I do.

 

I know how to work. I know my voice. I know what to say and how to say it. I love the rigorous process of exploration and creation.

 

I had all of that before I started.

 

Now I know I have all of that.

 

Teachers don’t get to insult me for that. And they definitely don’t get to take credit for my hard work.

 

I was the one who succeeded.