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.

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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]

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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.

 

 

 

“Tradition”

tl;dr The use of the word “tradition” is often a value judgement used to validate or discredit certain styles of dance, and should not be considered a neutral term. 

 

Something that comes up a lot with my creative work, particularly because I’m an Irish dancer, is the concept of tradition. I first learned to dance within a folk dance community and, later, danced and performed in a few different folk and traditional dance groups.

 

I’ve developed my own personal questions about appropriation and respect and am now a lot more careful of how and when I partake in traditional and folk dance forms. But the question of tradition is still there with everything I do.

 

Irish dance is a competitive form of dance, but it is also a folk dance, and it is also a traditional form of dance, and I think it’s a very good example of what I’m talking about because the way the word “tradition” has been used and misused and redefined for Irish dance is blaringly obvious.

 

I’d like to start with a video. This man, Joe O’Donovan, is said to have been the last of the Irish dancing masters. In many ways, he was a keeper of Irish dance history and tradition, both in practice and as a symbol. It’s impossible to reconstruct dance, but this is one version of what Irish dance used to be, at one point in history. To be more exact – this is part of the tradition being referenced when people talk about the tradition of Irish dance, even if they don’t realize that that’s what they’re referencing.

 

Anyone’s who’s done an Irish hornpipe will probably recognize the elements of these steps (tip down, treble hop back, drums, some nice stamps and sweeps and hoppy things), but it doesn’t look anything like the clean, polished en masse unison of Riverdance, or the treble hornpipes done in competitions in ridiculously sparkly dresses and giant wigs, or even the quirky, cabaret-style coming out of Up and Over It (they became popular a few years back for the hand dance? Remember that? Hrm….go look it up if you haven’t).

 

But, we’re still talking about all of these different types of Irish step dance as “traditional”. How is that possible?

 

I know some people, usually the ones who partake in old-style sean-nos dancing, who will argue that there’s nothing traditional about competitive Irish dance today. I’ve even heard people tell me that Riverdance isn’t actually Irish dance (I call bullshit). On the other extreme, there are the people that extol the virtues of Irish step dance as a traditional dance form, as if that gives a highly competitive (vaguely soul-sucking, shhh, I’m not sour that I couldn’t handle the pressure of competition or anything) dance form more value than other forms of competitive dance (like, it’s not So You Think You Can Dance, so it’s more real ™ ?)

 

I’m not really convinced by either extreme.

 

The thing is, tradition is being used here much more as a value judgement than a describer. If something is “traditional”, it’s “good” in a way that anything “contemporary” or “untraditional” isn’t.

 

Which, of course, brings us back to my high school history classes and discussions of nationalism. Irish dance exists as it is today because of nationalism. Because the Gaelic league wanted to establish traditional Irish dance as part of defining Ireland and what it meant to be Irish. They wanted Irish dance to show off how great Irishness was. Anything considered “foreign” was removed (note: part of tradition and folk culture is that mixing happens, especially for a dance form starting in an immigrant community, as the history of codified Irish dance actually started the Irish community in London).*

 

Irish dance was codified, we could even say “purified” and, most importantly, legitimized. While odd quirks of the original dance still exist (the awkward “tip down” in the hornpipe, beautiful ankle twisty things and cross-keys, the ridiculously awkward soft jig, and of course every Irish dancer knows their sevens and their threes), it was slowly altered into a form completely distinct from its origins.

 

My dance school’s library (“the best dance library in the country” or some nonsense like that) has two books on Irish step. Both were written by Irish scholars from this time period. And the interesting thing is that both attempt to apply ballet terminology to Irish step. This is a clear example of legitimation – popular culture being rewritten in terms of high culture. But, of course, “point and point hop back two three” is very different from “tendu, jump, tendu, passé, step to sousous”, no matter how you look at it.

 

The act of legitimizing a folk tradition, particularly in a context of nationalism, reveals a deep discomfort with the original tradition. This is most obviously classist (what is often considered “traditional” is often simply the tradition of the peasant class, which becomes a mythologized entity whose culture the ruling class can exploit for their own image), but it is also important to understand that, quite often, folk and popular culture give voice to women, queer people, and people of color (to varying extents, depending on the tradition and the place). In the collection and purification process, these voices and elements are removed alongside the various dances that were deemed “un-Irish”. Nic Garreiss has some strong insight on these patterns in Irish music specifically concerning sexuality. 

Dancing at the crossroads was originally a community activity between villages, particularly for young people to meet each other. Now, committed Irish step dancers spend hundreds of dollars on solo dresses in order to compete. Both are part of the same tradition, but there’s a huge difference in interests that shows how lower classes have been removed from the picture in favour of literal shiny, sparkly things.

 

At the same time, legitimation also reveals this desperate need to preserve. After cleaning up and legitimizing tradition by redefining it in the terms of those with power, a “tradition” must be kept in a shiny glass box and never altered in order to remain “traditional”.

 

Except the folklore and traditions coming out of any nationalism-fuelled act of preservation are never going to be the source tradition. Tradition is about change. Folklore is about mutation. I love and study fairy tales because they were, and still are, a way for the “folk” to comment on their daily lives. Daily lives change. Especially in places where huge waves of nationalism are altering politics, literature, science, etc., daily lives and the world the “folk” live in is always changing and moving. The minute we try to freeze it, we’re going to lose it. It is no longer tradition. It is something else.

 

When we use “tradition” as a value judgement, as a way to say “well, it’s good, because it’s traditional”, we’re missing the point. We’ve not only removed the “tradition” from its context and forced it to become something else, we’re keeping it from following it’s natural change. We lose tradition more by trying to preserve it than by allowing it to change. So, competitive Irish dance? Definitely not a tradition I am part of. And it is definitely not the only Irish dance tradition in existence. And it cannot be disconnected from a history of nationalism and purification. But it’s still traditional.


*For those that are interested in this history, I highly recommend The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some thoughts about fitness

tl;dr As my course has become more and more about turning me into the kind of dancer I’m not, I have found refuge in working out and focusing on my own fitness, something that has been a source of shame in the past. 

 

For anyone that’s wondering, my course isn’t going too well. There’s been transphobia and lack of basic respect at every turn. It’s hard. I’m not actually enjoying dance at the moment. This is only an acceptable situation because I know it’s going to end very soon.

 

But there is one thing that is going really well for me right: working out.

 

I was weak and very unfit when I started dancing and I knew it, and so I was embarassed to do anything that showed it in front of anyone else. I wouldn’t do any strengthening exercises to warm up for class, I wouldn’t stretch after class, I wouldn’t do anything that would draw attention to how unfit I was. I knew I had to be strong to be a dancer, and I knew I wasn’t, and so my insecurities took control and, instead of pushing myself to get stronger, I ran away from The Big Scary Thing in fear of being judged and told I couldn’t do the thing I loved.

 

This is not my fault. This is the fault of a system that had so many set expectations for me that I knew I couldn’t meet. It became easier for me to quit before I started.

 

And I’ve tried to commit to different exercise regiments over the course of my life. Some worked. Some didn’t. None ever lasted long enough to actually have any significant impact. I stopped doing most of them because I would fall into shame of not being good enough and despair of ever seeing real progress.

 

But, this year, I really committed to working out because my school has a tiny little “gym” that’s free for students.

 

I first tried one of the classes there and felt the same judgement and insecurity I had gotten before, so instead, I started going to free practice sessions. I still feel judged, but it is manageable, as everyone is focused on doing different things, as opposed to doing the same thing as me (except so much “better”).  Sometimes I’m even lucky enough to be the only person in there.

 

I know I’m not as strong as most of the other people there, and I know I’m probably not doing the exercises “right”, but I also know that I’m getting stronger. And it’s actually really satisfying to look at my notes and see the numbers slowly increase over time.

 

While I’m on a course where I constantly have to be whatever my teacher wants me to be, working out has become the place where I can become what I want to be. I have complete control. I’m not as strong as I’d like, but I know I’m going to get there, because it’s what I want, and I’m watching myself plugging steadily onwards.

 

It’s a strange life reversal: working out, not dance, has become the place where I don’t have to be ashamed.

 

I think, at the end of the day, it’s important to recognize that not every system works for everybody. And that our emotions will impact how we are able to exercise. For me, instead of pushing myself through my shame and insecurity, I had to find a way to work out that impacted it in the least way possible. It was hard at first. But every time I do it, I gain a little more self-confidence. And maybe, by the time I lose access to my school’s equipment, I’ll have enough confidence to find another gym to keep working out at. I hope so, because I’m really enjoying this.