Better dance

 tl;dr Instead of looking at “good dance” and “bad dance”, which I do not believe exist, I prefer to consider “lazy dance” and “cruel dance” which is limiting us from making “better dance”

October 2016

One of the biggest word-tangles I get into is this concept of “good” dancing, which, of course, then suggests there is such a thing as “bad” dancing.

So, to make this clear forever and ever and ever: I do not believe there is such a thing as “good” dance and “bad” dance, and that is why I often put them in quotation marks.

Yes, I believe there is such a thing as strong technique and weak technique. I believe there is such a thing as dangerous dancing (ie. if the knees aren’t in line with the toes, that person is going to get injured). But that doesn’t mean someone’s a bad dancer. It just means they might get injured, or that the way they use their body is less stylized than is considered the norm in dance.

And yes, there is definitely some dancing I prefer. I have my personal aesthetics, but just because I enjoy a certain dancing doesn’t mean it’s “good”, it just happens to be what I like.

To be honest, I believe that all dance is “good” dance because it is dance and dance is good.

That said, I do believe in lazy dance and cruel dance.

Lazy dance I use particularly to discuss choreography. Lazy means it is obvious the choreographer or creator didn’t put thought or depth into what they’re doing. My favorite example of this is when I went to see Pilobolus and, in one of the pieces, they duct taped a plastic bag around a woman’s head. Yes, it definitely got an emotional reaction from me, and it definitely showed off the skills of that particular dancer (she got herself out, no worries), but it was surface level – created more to get a rise out of the audience than to cultivate meaning within the dance itself. It was a cheap trick (and a dangerous one) and it was lazy.

This example is also cruel dance. And this, I may admit, may count as “bad” dance in the moral sense (not the artistic sense). Dance that causes harm to the dancers or to others or advocates harm in any way is cruel dance. In this case, it was putting a dancer in a needlessly risky situation. In another case, it could be a director or choreographer forcing dancers to commit to too many rehearsals. It could be using loud noises and flashing lights to shock an audience without an appropriate warning (when I attended Fuerzabruta the first time, the warning sign was too vague and the gunshots in the opening scene had me running for the door because loud, sudden, unexpected noises are very uncomfortable for me). It could be forcing an audience member that would rather sit in their seat on stage in the name of audience participation. Or it could simply be expressing harmful ideals (for instance, I started watching Mats Ek’s Giselle the other day and had to shut it off in disgust because it was obsessed with Giselle’s fertility to an alarming extent and when these golden eggs were paraded out, my brain just went “nope” and moved on to something else. Women are more than clingy baby-making machines, I’m sure there may be more to that piece, if I had continued watching or seen it live, but that’s what my viewing got me).

Quite often, these two things do work in conjunction, like with putting a plastic bag over a person’s head, or the use of a sudden, loud gunshot to wake up the audience instead of putting in the effort to really engage the audience without terrifying them (I mean, the rest of the show is brilliant…it’s ridiculous for the opening to have been so disconnecting when the rest of it was so engaging), or representing fertility with giant, golden eggs, instead of maybe exploring the many other identities a character like Giselle may possess when taken out of her glamorous romantic ballet role (that said, I did really appreciate how the Eks ballet actually made her look sickly…the original Giselle always made that plot point a little suspect).

Note that every time I mention lazy or cruel dance, I use the word “instead” to explain it. That’s because lazy and cruel dance is holding us back. We fall into the established, easy patterns that perpetuate social norms and the general exploitation and harm that happens in the dance world (because, face it, existing messages in dance are extremely harmful, no matter how much it has “gotten better”, dancers are still overworked and forced past their limits by themselves and each other with encouragement from teachers, choreographers, and directors). Thinking about dance as lazy or cruel is a way to open up creative possibilities.

Here is a lazy thought. What could it be instead? Where could it go next? What does it become? How do we move into something more thoughtful? Suddenly, the thought isn’t that lazy anymore.

And avoiding cruelty forces creativity – how does a choreographer work differently if they can only have dancers for a limited number of rehearsals? What other ways can we get a reaction from an audience without putting a dancer at risk? How do we make spotting and other safety precautions part of the dance? Why are we assuming the audience will accept this social norm propping up this dance? How do we defend or challenge it? How do we make our art more accessible to more people?

See, there may be no such thing as “good” or “bad” dance, but there is definitely better dance. Because dance is a constant process of becoming and changing and moving forward, becoming better.

 

I did it

tl;dr I got into a dance program, yay me!

11 May 2016

So. I did it. I got into a program at a very well-known dance conservatory. I’m going to spend next year doing nothing but dance (and, you know, those annoying practical things that are required when being an adult living on my own, ugh).

To be honest, it’s a pretty tiny deal. It’s definitely one of those side programs that takes pretty much anyone who applies (because money). It had no audition and I’m very good at presenting myself on paper. Technically, all that getting in says about me is that I can communicate how much I love dance.

Except, for me, it’s a huge, fucking deal. I’ve spent my life thinking of myself as a Bad Dancer. Or at least, not as good as the Real Dancers. And now I’m about to go to Real Dancer School.

This is a huge fuck you to everyone that made me think I wasn’t a dancer – the teacher that told me I would make a lovely dance critic because I thought too much to actually dance, the students that felt the need to speak to me in condescending tones as if I was such a bad dancer that they needed to teach me instead of the teacher, the director that made it very clear that I was not welcome to do anything other than what she told me to, or the Irish dance choreographers that treated me like a beginner dancer and then had the audacity to tell me my dancing had improved under their (incredibly rude) tutelage.

This is for all the people that told me that, in order to succeed in dance, I had to live and breathe dance and do nothing else. You know what? You were wrong. I might not have it all figured out now, but I can dance and study Finnish and research folklore and read French literature. An undergraduate degree in modern languages doesn’t bar me from a professional dance career, it simply takes me there on a slightly different route.

This is for every moment someone has looked at me and thought that I wasn’t right to be a dancer – all the people that told me to turn out by feet and suck in my stomach, all the side-on glances I got walking into studios, the feeling that I would never really belong, that I didn’t deserve to belong.

This is for my own self-doubt.

Because fuck anything that made me doubt myself for a second. I can do this. I did do this. I have the acceptance letter to prove it.

But this is also a thank you to everyone who believed in me when I didn’t – my Irish step teacher who’s taught me since I was eleven and has celebrated every single one of my successes with me, the ballet teacher that still remembers my name even though I see her at most once a year, the choreographer that told me to never be ashamed after seeing my work and the older dancer that then gave me a hug, and the ballet teacher that told me she looked forward to seeing my work at the Joyce someday. This is for the older dancer that sat and chatted with me when I was at the most toxic dance program ever and so close to absolutely hating dance. And the fellow student that broke me out of an entire cycle of self-deprecation simply by telling me she liked my turns on a day when I was frustrated with myself.

There are so many people who have believed in me over the years. And it’s easy to think of the people that I want to stick my finger up at. And those people have power, they are the reasons for my insecurities, my fears, my doubt, my self-hatred. But, for every awful message I’ve received, I’ve got at least two people believing in me. And I’ve held those people close to my heart as I keep pushing onward, my protection against the negativity.

And right now, I want to go screaming to all of those wonderful people. YOU WERE RIGHT! I DID IT! YOU DID IT! WE DID IT!

It might be a tiny mountain. But I have conquered that mountain.

And there are more mountains to come. But, like this first one, I don’t have to do it alone.

I did it.

Dancing with anxiety

tl;dr Anxiety makes attending dance class particularly difficult in ways that have nothing to do with actual dancing. So, it’s time to make some changes and start talking about how we can better support dancers with anxiety instead of leaving them at a disadvantage. 

September 2016

So I just came out of a “levelling class” (ie. audition) during which I was so anxious that my legs were shaking for the entire adagio and I could not get them under control.

I’m saying anxious not nervous, because this is specifically linked to my anxiety, not general audition nerves (although I’m completely certain that those definitely had a part in this too). To be explicitly clear, I had a panic attack in the middle of this class and it is not the first time I have danced through one of these in class.

I know that sounds a bit dramatic – when most people think of panic attacks, they think of hyperventilation, or at least something BIG, DRAMATIC and noticeable. I have never hyperventilated and, to be honest, my panic attacks are very silent and easily hidden. For some reason (I’m pretty sure it’s dance, to be honest), I can be in the deep dark depths of ABSOLUTE AND UTTER PANIC, and appear completely under control. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have physical symptoms.

Just to give you an idea of what I’m dancing through, here is a nice list of symptoms courtesy of the NHS. For anyone that doesn’t experience panic attacks/has no real context for what I’m talking about, I suggest choosing any three symptoms from that list and imagine trying to dance in class with them. Then, for this specific circumstance, add it to general audition nerves (because auditions are awful).

I can do it. In the years and years and years of attending dance class and having panic attacks, there has been a total of one instance in which I have had to actually stop dancing.

But that doesn’t make it easy.

We have a culture in the dance world of “going to class”. In the way dance is structured, attending class is a necessity for dancers. Of course, instruction or just outside guidance is always useful for optimal growth (though a committed person can make amazing growth without guidance), but I believe the bigger issue is space. When I studied cello, I had one-on-one lessons, not a class, but I only needed a tiny room to practice in and a slightly bigger one for lessons. Class is a replacement for practice time and the most efficient way to provide instruction, because very few people have enough space to really practice dance in their homes and studios are too expensive to make private lessons cost-effective.

But attending class is a huge challenge for anyone with anxiety. Before class even starts, I need to make sure I get there 15 minutes early, if I show up earlier, I feel overeager, if I show up later, I’m late (my private teacher drilled the 15 minute thing into me) and showing up to class late is Bad. Not only does it mean I’m not properly warmed up, but it means more people look at me than if I’m there before them. It also means I can’t choose my place in the room.

Which comes to point two – I have next to no spatial awareness and I am constantly terrified of accidentally wacking someone else. I need to space myself in a place where I’m near as few people as possible and stay as far away from those people as possible. I can hardly ever dance full out in a dance class simply because I am so anxious about hitting other people.

And then there’s food. Another huge anxiety for me is not eating enough for class. So, before I go to class, I have to be sure I’ve eaten a good meal, even if it’s a very weird time of day. And, even if I’m fully fed, if I haven’t eaten some kind of snack bar before class, the chance of panic attack increases quite a lot. I never struggle in class because I haven’t eaten enough, but I am consistently struggling because I am worried that  haven’t eaten enough.

And that’s just a few examples.

Note that none of the things I’m anxious about is dance. It’s very easy to forget that dance actually encompasses a large amount of skills and activities that have nothing to do with the actual moving part of it (I’m writing a list because it’s important to me that we recognize dance is interdisciplinary).

But that also makes it feel kind of silly that the things that make dance hard for me are not the actual dancing.

And it makes me wonder about the other anxious dancers. I skip class a lot, because going out is sometimes too hard. Who else is following this pattern? Who else is being held back, not because they can’t dance but because their anxiety is keeping them from going to class? Why the hell is there no support to get us dancing?

I mean – why not have anxiety-friendly dance classes? With smaller class sizes, maybe self sign-in to avoid the timing discomfort, the options to take breaks to eat, stretch, have a panic attack without having to dance through it.

I mean, my anxiety isn’t just making it hard, it means I am not progressing as quickly as my non-anxious peers because I literally cannot dance as often. So why can’t we start trying to make practice space more available and accessible (cheaper? available to non-professionals?, I point towards the Dance Complex in Boston as a model that has worked well for me) so people who can’t get to class can still have space to dance?

I know a lot of my opinions on dance boil down to “dance is great! But we really need rebuild the structures that support it from the beginning all over again”. And, of course, that’s not going to happen immediately. But I do think we do need to start thinking about how dance supports and fails people with anxiety (and other mental illnesses) and we need to start thinking about how to integrate those people, us, into mainstream dance, instead of keeping us out in specialist “dance for mental health! Wheee!” classes (because those exist. But I’ve never gone to them. Because I am professional-track and want classes that will help me build the technique I need to dance professionally). While, it’s great to get everyone dancing, as long as mental health support isn’t integrated into all dance classes, there will always be the image of the Real Dancer and the Person that Dances For Fun.

And who’s to say someone with anxiety can’t be a Real Dancer? (and who’s the say dancing for fun isn’t real?)

Review: Fullout

Tl;dr: Fullout is a great webseries that challenges preconceptions concerning queer women and injury in dance and is definitely worth a watch.

August 2016

Today I want to write a bit of a review. I don’t really know how to write a review, and I don’t think this is exactly it, but I am giving a recommendation for a thing to watch with some extra thoughts about it.

If you have some free time on your hands and a decently fast internet connection (because vimeo is always a little slower than youtube), I highly recommend Fullout. It’s a webseries, five episodes, available on Open TV. And the cast includes both Nana Visitor and Kaitlyn Alexander. So…with that alone, it sounds worth watching, no?

Fullout is the story of a lesbian dancer trying to make a comeback after an injury has kept her out of dance for a long while. First off, this alone is ridiculously important. There’s this weird assumption that the only people who dance are gay men and straight women. I actually remember one time at dance camp, listening to people discuss how surprised they were that one of the boys there was straight when I knew there were at least two gay or bi closeted girls at the same camp who never even got that kind of consideration.

Queer women in dance are invisible. They are assumed not to exist. This means the struggles these dancers face go completely unrecognized and unsupported. It means organizations can claim to be inclusive by simply making use of this myth that queer women in dance don’t exist and thus, wouldn’t be part of that organization anyways.  Dance organizations love to pat themselves on the back and go “yes, job well done, we have loads of diversity and no discrimination here” as soon as they meet their quota in dealing with visible discrimination (yes, all organizations do this to some extent, but I find this attitude particularly prevalent in dance). Or they use the number of gay men in dance as proof that they are diverse and inclusive.

By making the invisible visible, Fullout is showing that yes, queer women dancers exist and face discrimination

If there is any piece of media featuring a queer woman that dances, it’s worth watching, because it is making the invisible visible.

And, above everything else, it is filling the role model vacuum. I remember, at that same dance camp, one of the huge points of gossip among my friends was which counselors were gay. This wasn’t just teenagers gossiping. This was a group of young, queer, mostly female dancers looking at the people that represented what they could become in a few years’ time and panicking because they didn’t see anyone like them.

Fullout is a message to younger dancers that yes, people like them exist. And yeah, there will be challenges, it will be hard, but there is definitely just as much of a chance for them to become dancers as anyone else.

The other value in Fullout (which, to be honest, was a breath of fresh air compared to the messages I experience every day in dance class) was how it discussed injury. Dance teachers, directors, even other dancers, we have the habit of encouraging injured people to “push through” their injuries, to just take pain medication and keep dancing because the show must go on. Fullout is one of very few times where I have seen this attitude addressed as creepy and unhealthy. Even the title of the show, Fullout (referencing the belief in dance that one must always either be dancing “full out” or “marking”, as if there is no in-between place) connects to the damaging idea that dancers must continue to dance at their best, even when faced with injury. The main character’s choice not to continue to form to these expectations is really important. We, as dancers, cannot accept narratives that promote self-harm cleverly relabelled as “commitment”.

Fullout doesn’t. Fullout tells the story of what it is to not be able to fulfill the expectations set out by the Dance World. I’m definitely not completely convinced by the whole story of Fullout and the protagonist’s final choice is somewhat disheartening for us queer dancers that want to see ourselves thrive on stage. But I do believe the use of having more than one queer dancing character (shocker, I know) and the value of what it does show is worth it. It challenges the myth that queer women are not dancers and it forces us to reevaluate how we, as dancers, treat injury. And, for that, I highly highly recommend taking the time to watch it.

Fullout is watchable right here: http://www.weareopen.tv/open-tv-originals/fullout

 

Dancing together

May 2016

tl;dr getting compliments from fellow students in dance class can have a really huge positive impact, so I would like to commit to sharing my appreciation for my fellow dancers more

So, a thing happened recently that I want to talk about, mainly because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy, but also because I’m setting a goal for myself.

Thing: We worked a lot on turns in my pointe class and I kind of hit a wall. I could go up, turn, come down, but my weight was all wrong and I kept wobbling and I was frustrated, so I wasn’t giving myself space to figure out what was wrong. Basically, I was working myself into this huge nonsense of believing I couldn’t do the thing, that I was terrible at the thing. And then a really wonderful person came up to me after class and told me she loved my turns.

This was a really huge moment for me because I was so angry at myself at the time. But here’s the thing – simply hearing from another person that what I was perceiving wasn’t what they were perceiving was enough to completely turn my thoughts around. I went back to class the next week and was emotionally ready to start conquering turns again. It took me a couple of weeks to figure out what was wrong and correct. But I would never have gotten there without that person.

This isn’t about my achievements or the fact that other people like my dancing. This is about the fact that positive feedback is a necessary part of the learning process, and sometimes that can’t come from the teacher. Not because the teacher isn’t doing it (sometimes that is the case, but my personal preference is to avoid those teachers), but because they have multiple students at a time, each with different needs. Not even the best teacher can provide all the things to all the students at exactly the right time.

Also, for me-type students, I start doubting teachers after a while. I’m a distrusting cynic. If I get too much positive feedback from a teacher, my inner thoughts decide that they’re only doing that for the sake of positive feedback and I’m actually doing the thing terribly. I’m aware I’m probably wrong, but brains are hard to control.

The point is – we need to value each other. And we need to explicitly voice our compliments. This is something I’m trying to work on.

Because I’m shy and terrified of people, I don’t compliment as much as I should. I want to fix that. I want to tell every amazing dancer I’m in class with about how beautiful they dance. How amazing their double pirouette was. How beautifully strong their legs are. Or their turn out. How springy their jumps are. I want people to know exactly how much I admire them and am inspired by them.

Because we’re dancing together and I’m learning as much from them as from the teacher.

Mainstream dance is treated like a competition. We’re supposed to be vying for the teacher’s attention, constantly trying to one-up each other. Do better than others.

Fuck that.

It’s a really ineffective mindset. I remember watching an Irish dance school perform and whenever one person was dancing, everyone else was glaring at them. It was not fun to watch. In order to dance, or perform, we have to do it together, team effort (woo!). That’s not going to happen if we’re too busy competing.

But if we take the time to build each other up – give compliments, positive feedback, encouragement. If we believe in each other and learn from each other, we will all become better dancers together. Dance is, above all else, a social activity.

So. This is my goal. To appreciate others. To tell them when I appreciate them. To create dance spaces where positivity and success defined by the individual (and not assumptions about what good dance is) are the norm.

Those are the spaces I needed when I was younger and still need. And those people that did that for me, they are amazing. The least I can do is to try to do it for them back and for others.

 

Videoing dance class

tl;dr videoing people without their consent is rude. There needs to be clear consent, trust, and understanding of what the purpose of the video is.

October 2015

I once took a dance class where the teacher started videoing us without our consent. He would then review the videos and use it to give us corrections – basically force us to look at ourselves.

First of all, it is important to remember that we never perceive ourselves properly (I never watch videos of myself dancing except when it is absolutely necessary, simply because I look and go “ugh, that’s awful, I should quit and do something I’m good at”, it’s very disheartening and not worth my time).

Second, this teacher did not do it nicely (he also found random excuses to grab my butt, he was a creep). He would show the video to someone (normally female-presenting) and demand they tell him what they were doing wrong. If they couldn’t immediately guess what answer he wanted, he’d shout things like “what the hell!” and “I just told you this was wrong!” Basically, it was a really unhelpful learning experience and I got myself out of it as soon as possible.

Today, I took a dance class, where one of the other students, someone who has not actually been in class until this week (it’s been an ongoing course for about five weeks, it’s a small group of people, so we’ve had the chance to get very comfortable with each other, this person showed up to one of the classes a few weeks ago and then took two of the classes today), took out their ipad and started filming without asking permission anyone in the room and then posted it in the class’ facebook group.

Now, I know she’s not using it to degrade other people in the class like that teacher and I know she’s not trying to make money off of my terrible class dancing, but this still raises the same issues that come up now that we have the power to video dance classes – who can take the videos? What can the videos be used for? How can the videos be shared? Who gets to see the videos?

The advent of phones and ipads and the like is, honestly, the best thing ever for dance. We can video ourselves. “Hey, I think I might forget that really cool step I just learned”, “No worries, I’ll just video you doing it!” And, if there’s a set technical exercise I need to review, I can almost always find it on youtube. And, while some forms of dance are easily notated, some aren’t. Unless we all learn notation (and even then), video is necessary to preserve and remember movement.

Except, quite often, videoing class includes videoing other people and that can cause huge problems, particularly concerning consent.

And yes, these classes where the student took the video do include a waiver. I signed a piece of paper saying I could be videoed and photographed in class for the organizer’s publicity. That’s a really important detail. I did not sign a paper saying anyone in the room could come in and video me. When one of the organizers comes in and starts snapping photos, I know them. We have an agreement.

And we’ve videoed in these classes before. A group concensus of “yes, we really need to remember this combination/exercise, please video it and put it in the facebook group” or, one of the teachers often videos us so she can be sure they touch us the same combination the next week (nothing is more frustrating than the counts to a combination changing every single week). It was even fine one day in ballet when someone was sick and decided to snap some photos and checked in with the other students before continuing.

So what’s different in this situation?

This student isn’t someone I know well. We have no agreement about when, how, and why she takes videos and what she does with them. The obvious answer is that she puts them on the facebook group so that we have a reference for the combination and hopefully don’t forget it. But she never told me that. What if she put it up with the assumption that we’d all use it to improve our own, individual techniques? What if she really keeps them to giggle to herself about how terrible everyone looks in class? What if she watches it to go “oh, look at all that terrible dancing, I’m a much better dancer than all of these people”? What if she shows it to people I don’t know? What if she puts it in a public place on the internet?

She’s a nice person, I highly doubt she has some nefarious or cruel purpose behind her videoing, but the fact remains that I don’t know. And we haven’t come to any agreement about what she’s doing with this video she suddenly has of me.

I did not have an agreement with that first terrible teacher either. He started videoing without warning. He was even holding the phone so low down that i didn’t even realize what he was doing until he started using it to bully people.

I did not need to see these new videos on my facebook feed. I did not then need to see all the other students thank that student for taking the videos so that I then felt like I couldn’t contact her and ask her to try to cut me out of the videos or give me more of a warning next time. Not only did someone capture my image without my consent, I was then forced to watch it (something else I don’t consent to), and then forced into silence through the pressure to conform.

That isn’t ok. Yes, videoing is an amazing tool for dance. But, like any tool, it needs to be used wisely. Someone who chooses to video needs consent from everyone in the video, they need to be clear on how they plan to use the video and they need to create a space in which it is possible to remove or challenge the video.

In other words, we need to be more respectful when videoing other people. Both in making the choice to video and then in sharing and commenting on the video afterwards. Because when students take and post videos without consent of the other students, they are telling assholes like that teacher that we, the entire dance student population, do not mind being videoed, and that opens the door wide open to the bullying that I experienced and witnessed in that class and explains the extreme discomfort I experienced upon finding one of my classmates videoing me without my consent.

[For people, like me, who like scripts:

a great script before videoing would be something like: “Hey do you mind if I video this/could we take a video? I’d like this because it [will help me remember the combination/any other reason]. I can send it to you by [email/post it on a private facebook group/something else] so you can have it too, and will keep it private, so only the people in the video can see it.”

After posting or sharing, maybe add something such as: “Here’s the video! If you’re not comfortable with this, please tell me and I’ll [take it down/cut you out/do whatever works best for you].”]