Danseur Ignoble: Music for Dancers, Music for Movies

When my sister and I were very small, our parents bought a copy of the London Symphony Orchestra’s seminal recording of Holst’s The Planets, recorded under the masterful baton of Sir Colin Davis. We immediately established it as our preferred improvisational dance music: so much so that we regarded it as ours, not as theirs.

When it came with us to Mom’s new house after the divorce, the capacious living room allowed us the freedom to improvise wildly theatrical “performances,” most of which took place when Mom was out. We would dance our way through the whole thing, incorporating every shred of ballet training we had (and making up the rest from whole cloth).

There was something in that music that really spoke to us. It was magic: old, wild magic.

Imagine, then, my shock and dismay when I hit up Prime Music for the recording and found the old, wild magic gone!

I found myself questioning my musical memory (which is very, very accurate). Had my child’s brain imagined the expression, the passion? Had the playing always been this, well, bland? Where were the dynamics, the shifts in tempo that lent such expressive elan to the LSO’s work?

And then “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity” came on, and I got it: This wasn’t the same recording. Couldn’t be.

And, in fact, I was right: in my late-evening fumblings, I’d tapped the wrong album — the recording I had been listening to was produced as a movie soundtrack (it appeared right next to the London rendition on my tablet’s screen; evidently, my aim was untrue).

Of course!

It all made sense. Movie soundtracks, by necessity, can’t always be as expressive as the London rendition. They’d upstage the action on screen if they were. Their purpose is to help to move the story along without getting in the way of the words spoken by the actors (and to surge, when called upon, in sorrow or triumph — or in order to facilitate a montage).

I stopped the recording, fired up the London version: yes, there it was, in all its glory, exactly as I remembered it. Dynamics, tempi, and all.

There’s a lot of dance implicit in that music — and that’s missing from the blander soundtrack rendition.

The London recording is music for dancers (well, really, for musicians, but it comes out the same in the final analysis): it can afford to be expressive. Dancers feed on that.

It can afford to pay with tempi, with fermatae, with caesurae (if you’re not a musician, those are all modes of expression related to timing); it can afford to swell through mighty crescendi and ebb through delicate diminuendi. Like orchestral music, dance is more interesting when the timing is dynamic; dancers, meanwhile, enjoy a symbiotic relationship with changes in volume dynamics.

Dance performance depends on counting, of course, and technique — but, in the end, the dancer’s ability to feel and interpret music is what makes or breaks a performance. We can forgive the cavalier for not quite making that lift if we believe him; Odile can miss a few fouettées if she makes us believe.

That belief is founded in expression.

Holst isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (who is?) — but he wrote dignified, playful, magnificent music; the kind that, in the hands of a good orchestra, lays a great foundation for ballet. It’s voluble; it’s expressive.

In the end, that and a good beat are what most of us look for in music for any kind of dancing. Maybe not so much in music for movies — but for a ballet, an East Coast swing, or even just a good old-fashioned booty shake, that’s it.

To borrow a phrase from a movie: Kinda makes ya feel like riverdancin’.

Meds: The New Frontier…? (This One Is Loooong. Also: Explicit Lyrics Warning, Because Apparently I Haz A Feelz)

Yesterday, after an entire adventure that should’ve had its own laugh track, I finally picked up my new (generic) Adderall* prescription. As I said to WeDoBallet, it sometimes seems like they specifically design the ADHD-Rx pickup process to be as difficult as possible for people with ADHD!

*Technically, my prescription is for “mixed amphetamine salts,” which is the generic formulation for Adderall. But, frankly, you guys, I can’t say that with a straight face. I just picture walking into the pharmacy and walking out with a 5-pound sack of Mixed Amphetamine Salts (white, of course, with bold black lettering, and maybe some XXXs) with the instructions: “Sprinkle on salads, soups, and entrees as needed.”

Yeah, my imagination is a weird place to live.

Getting back on meds for ADHD has been a tough decision for me — less because I wanted to prove I Can Do It My Own Self! (seriously, I really kind of hit rock bottom with that once I started dancing again; more on that in a sec) than because I’m an old-fashioned Yankee, and we’re all about Independence and Self-Reliance (and also about frugally recycling our neighbors’ discarded Windsor chairs) and it’s just a knee-jerk habit. It persists long after we realize it’s not rational.

Also a little bit because there’s a risk of ADHD meds (which are stimulants) kicking off manic episodes and because I have a history of anorexia and I wasn’t sure I trusted myself (more on those in a sec, too). And also, also because I’m just plain paranoid about meds. I’ve had bad, bad experiences with side effects, you guys.

WRT mania: I have a really good doctor, Dr. B: I feel like I can talk to her, she “gets” me, etc. She’s been Denis’ doc for years, and I’ve been seeing her since 201…3? I think? Anyway, for a while.

I started seeing Dr. B during my most recent IM’MA GO TO MED SCHOOL AND SAVE DA WORLD! phase, and she knows that I know what I’m about (and also knows when I don’t know what I’m about but think I do), so we have a really good working relationship.

She also knows that I know how to do research and have access to scads of peer-reviewed research resources through school**, so she expects me to come in well-briefed on everything and acts accordingly. She also doesn’t freak out when I, say, stop taking a daily allergy medication and switch to only taking it on the days I need it the most: in short, she trusts me to generally make pretty good decisions, and knows Denis will steer me right if I don’t.

**Speaking of which, I am probably going to lose my mind next year during the interlude between undergrad- and grad school! No academic database access! What will I do with myself! HOW WILL I EVER SURVIVE??!!!1!11oneoneone

Likewise, Dr. B hasn’t steered me wrong yet in terms of medication options. So, basically, I trust her to make sound calls when prescribing. She’s starting me off at an Adderall dose that’s on the lower end of the middle of the dosage spectrum. I’m cool with that.

Adderall IR, 10 mg. ...Mostly because I figured apost this long could use some pictures, and I couldn't come up with an excuse to put a picture of Sergei Polunin or David Hallberg here.

Adderall IR, 10 mg.
…Mostly because I figured a post this long could use some pictures, and I couldn’t come up with an excuse to put a picture of Sergei Polunin or David Hallberg here.

Which brings me to the bit about mania: stimulants can tip off manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder.

Look, a header!

Mania

The whole stimulants-kicking-off-manic-episodes thing has certainly happened to me, though normally it happens as a result of a sort of insomnia cascade effect, which goes like this:

  1. I decide to chug a little coffee or Coke Zero to help me focus on something (or just because I’m out for dinner; I’m dumb like that)
  2. The focusing effect wears off too quickly so I chug a little more.
  3. Later I can’t sleep because my brain won’t STFU, but I still have to get up in the morning, so I wind up sleeping for 2 or 4 hours or whatever.
  4. The next day I have to function (seriously, if you think I’m distractible and impulsive on a normal day, you should see me when I’m sleep-deprived! … so I suck down more caffeine.
  5. Then I can’t sleep again.
  6. The next day, EVEN MOAR CAFFEINE!!!

…and then BOOM! I’m in ManicLand, because (for me) lack of sleep is like an express train to Electric City.

So I was worried about that, but it Dr. B prescribed the short-acting version of Adderall, which should help reduce the likelihood of sleep disturbances.

For what it’s worth, this might be an upside of the whole Insurance Disaster related to acquiring my meds.

Here’s how that went down:

First, Dr. B prescribed Concerta, a long-acting methylphenidate formulation.

For whatever reason, my insurance plan only covers short-acting methylphenidate. You have to take it, like, four times a day.

Dr. B and I agreed that four pills per day is probably more than I can remember to take (and definitely more than I want to carry around with me). Likewise, a longer-acting agent is less likely to wear off just when I need it.

I hunted through Humana’s formulary to see what was covered, and it turns out that Adderall is, and that the generic form — while shorter-acting — is only $20/month (the longer-acting form is still under patent, and thus would run me $200/month for the first three months).

Dr. B felt that this would be a reasonable choice, and we swapped out the prescriptions (further hilarity ensued as I learned that my local CVS pharmacy doesn’t keep my prescription in stock, though — thankfully — the one near ballet class does).

At this juncture, I’m thinking that the short-acting version might actually be a better fit for me: I’ll still only have to take it twice per day, and I suspect it will be less likely to lead to insomnia … which, in turn, will reduce the likelihood of going Full Manic Jacket or what have you.

Likewise, while it’s called “instant release,” the effective half-life is much longer than that of caffeine — so I won’t be constantly topping-up over the course of the day (though I will either have to get used to drinking plain water at restaurants that don’t have seltzer/soda water/club soda — I like plain, still water fine, but not so much with food). In short, I will be adding a lot less stimulants to my system and doing so in a way that will be more even-handed and consistent, which should help ward off the danger of the manic spiral.

Obviously, careful symptom-monitoring is still called for, especially since I really can’t take most of the mood stabilizers currently on the market (that’s a post for another time). I’m willing to try one of the newer ones if push comes to shove, but given my history of serious side-effects, I’m really hoping it won’t. Fortunately, Denis is an exceptional spouse — very able to help me monitor my moods, and both willing and able to notify me when I’m heading for a derailment.

So, in short, with good monitoring and some help from Denis, I’m actually pretty optimistic about avoiding Adderall-induced mania.

I am, however, a touch more worried about (oh, look, another header!)…

Anorexia

I don’t talk about my history with anorexia all that often. There are any number of reasons for that: it’s sort of a Forbidden Topic for dancers; it’s an ongoing struggle that I’m not sure will ever end; sometimes it’s just One More Thing***. I mention it in passing from time to time, usually when I’m touching on points about what it’s like to have lived all over the BMI spectrum. But I rarely discuss it depth.

***In fact, like ADHD, eating disorders occur at disproportional rates in people with bipolar disorder. So it isn’t necessarily “just one more thing” so much as it’s “just one more part of the same thing.”

I guess the other thing about anorexia is that it doesn’t stay contained. It touches every single corner of my life, and sometimes that frankly pisses me off.

And, then, there’s the fact that I’ve had good treatment and I largely have the behavioral end of things basically under control (I don’t starve myself anymore, generally speaking, though I do still do some of the other behavioral things that are associated with anorexia. It’s been a long time since my BMI was <18.

None of this means that the thought process is gone. It just means that I have tools to fight it.

Ballet, curiously enough, is one of those tools — and yet, at the same time, it’s a complicating factor.

On one hand, you can starve yourself and dance — but not for very long, and especially not as a male dancer who is expected to command explosive jumps and sooner or later pick up other dancers and haul them around and stuff. You can only perform so long before your body just says, “Fuck you, no.”

On the other hand, as a dancer, you spend a lot of time looking at yourself in mirrors, and a lot of time looking at other dancers. Even if you don’t already have serious body-image problems, you’re going to wind up thinking about your body, comparing it other bodies, and so forth. If you do have serious body-image problems, chances are good that sometimes that’s going to exacerbate them.

I’m walking a fine line, right now, between performance and obsession. In short, my leg muscles are pretty hypertrophic, so extra fat on my legs can interfere; likewise, while my legs are very capable of adapting to the load required of them, weighing less makes their job easier — it’s easier to launch 160 pounds than it was to launch 174, which means higher, cleaner jumps****.

****Let me point out that muscle adaptation would’ve led to higher, cleaner jumps regardless. You don’t have to be skinny or even slender to dance well and beautifully; I see proof of that every day. For me, a lot of this is fine-tuning, and a lot of it is not strictly necessary. This probably also deserves a post of its own someday.

The thoughts that could lead to excessive restriction are still there. Fortunately, dancing is hungry work; so is cycling. I’ve pretty much managed to stay on top of maintaining a balance, but there’s a part of me that wants to obsess, that wants to restrict.

There’s a voice in my brain that argues against the rational, sane one that tells me to eat enough to sustain my strength and so forth; that voice still tells me I’m weak and undisciplined when I don’t do all the behavioral stuff I used to do when I was surviving on 600 calories a day (which was my target for several months when I was 19) and you could count every rib and vertebra in my body.

Seriously, looking like this does not help you dance better. Source: This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.  Licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.

Seriously, looking like this does not help you dance better.
Source: This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.

Here’s the thing: stimulants are appetite-killers, and I’m a tad concerned that it’s going to be too easy to take advantage of that. Like, “Oh, I’m not hungry, I don’t really have to eat.”

Denis doesn’t think I’ll fall prey to that: he trusts me to be rational about it and remain cognizant of the fact that ballet requires fuel.

I hope he’s right.

I think the problem is subtler than that, because I know myself pretty well. In the past, my pursuits always required fuel: but I would do this thing where I would figure up what the daily caloric requirements were, then shave it back a little, then (when, inevitably, my body didn’t immediately implode) I’d shave it back a little more, and so forth. It was an insidious process.

I realize that by saying all this I’m kind of building a framework for letting myself off the hook if this does go down: but I’m also making an effort to be frank about this and sort of keep it in front of my own face.

Like, I’m saying, “I know this is a Thing. I know I need to pay attention to it.”

And, honestly, I’ve figured out at this point that between dancing, school, my household responsibilities, and work, I really, really do need help. My coping mechanisms are awesome, but they only let me handle a very limited amount of responsibility at a time — and that’s kind of how I got here.

(Look, one more header!)

About Hitting The Bottom

I’m gonna go ahead and admit it: I’ve trotted out my ADHD high horse once or twice in the past (though not in a long time).

I struggled unsuccessfully through most of my primary and secondary education, then I figured out how to be a good student in the last two years of high school. (I’ve written a bit about this before.)

Somehow, I thought that meant I had ADHD licked: like, I had it all figured out.

Never mind that once I left home, unless I was living alone in an environment I could completely control, my house was always in chaos. Never mind that I had terrible trouble making appointments and dealing with the vagaries of Grown-Up Life. Never mind that I couldn’t handle having more than three or four bills. Never mind that planning things like shopping and budgets was, like, completely beyond me, or that I would completely lose all the important stuff I needed to keep track of (wallet, keys, phone) if I didn’t set it down in Exactly. The. Same. Place. every time I came home.

I was able to remain in denial pretty well because I did fine when I lived alone and lived very simply — but that’s the thing. When I lived alone, I could choose to live as simply as I wanted — so I had almost no furniture, minimal clothing, minimal dishes, and so forth. I had only one income stream.

I even kept the bills to a minimum — I had one credit card for things that might require such a thing, and other than that it was just rent (which, happily, included water), gas/electric, a pre-paid phone, and cable internet (but not cable TV). My ideal apartment would’ve included all utilities in the rent, just to make things even simpler. I used cash for most purchases, so I was able to track my finances in my head: I just kept a running total, subtracting as needed, and checked my balance online once a day to make sure I was on track.

Grocery shopping for myself was easy: I know what I like, and I don’t mind eating the same thing day after day. $50 was more than enough to feed me very well for a week, and (unless I felt like going on a shopping adventure) I could do my marketing on the way home from work.

Once a week, I’d treat myself to a dinner out, and going home was always nice because my apartment was always impeccable. When you live alone, you don’t watch TV, and you don’t have a lot of furniture to navigate around, it’s actually pretty fun to sweep and mop and so forth. I didn’t have any carpet or a lawn to worry about. I did have a nice, deep bath tub and my own water heater so I could read in the bath all I wanted.

All of that made it possible for me to manage. It was actually a really nice way to live, and it’s totally how I’d choose to live now if the choice was mine alone — but living with other people, even one other much-adored person, really complicates things unless that person is willing to live the same way.

Predictably, as someone who needs to live an incredibly minimalist lifestyle in order to maintain, well, order, I married a self-professed slob with mild hoarding tendencies and complicated finances (as a self-employed healthcare professional, he has a zillion income streams; you guys, that turns budgeting into a straight-up nightmare). Said self-professed slob had also already been living in the same house for twenty years, so he’d had time to accrue lots of stuff.

Suddenly, there were tchotchkes, nicknacks, and bills (oh, my!). Turns out I hate tchotchkes, and I really hate having to move them to clean around them. But it would take me a while to figure that out.

In my naievete, I offered to take over managing the finances, because Denis hated doing it. I also naively assumed that because I’d been great at managing my apartment by myself, I’d be great at managing the housekeeping around here.

Um, oops?

It turns out that clutter fills me with nerve-shattering despair. It also turns out that I find it distracting as hell. It turns out that people with ADHD have trouble tidying up after self-professed slobs. It turns out that I have trouble putting stuff away when I have to move other stuff to do so, partly because WTF, but also partly because that involves more working-memory resources than I normally have for that kind of thing.

In short, it turns out that I’m, like, horrible at everything I signed up for.

And then I added school.

There was chaos. The bills got paid on time, the finances got reconciled (eventually), and the house stayed … well, sanitary, more or less, and would get de-cluttered a couple times each semester.

And then I added ballet.

And then I stepped up the ballet schedule.

And then everything went to hell in a hack (though I was much, much happier than I’d been for a while, because, hello, ballet!).

Then I realized I wasn’t managing anymore. Not even close.

I’ve been making noises for a while about needing meds for ADHD before — there’ve been a number of times that I felt like I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth.

Last semester, I managed to totally screw up the paying-the-bills, tracking-the-finances, keeping-the-house-livable part of my job.

I also accrued the first non-A grade I’ve taken in my post-secondary education: a B- in precalc. I could have done much better, but I had a hard time focusing, getting the homework started when I should have, getting in enough practice, and keeping my head together on exams. It was like grade school all over again (I didn’t wind up with a D because at least I have coping mechanisms now).

I did, at least, succeed in pulling down an A+ in senior seminar, which is kind of a big deal — and at the time I sort of took that as evidence that maybe, somehow, I could still arrange my waterfowls in a linear array under my own power.

You guys, I tried hard. I really did. Sometimes you try all you can, and you still find out that you just can’t. Sometimes the best coping mechanism in the world, applied with discipline and diligence, only gets you so far.

Enter the meds.

Medication isn’t going to make my ADHD magically go away. Nor will it solve all my problems by itself. I still need my coping mechanisms. Medication isn’t magic.

It is, however, a tool. It’s like having a little electric assist for your bike if you have some kind of condition that means your legs can’t build strength very well: you want to be able to ride with your friends, so your electric-assist bike lets that happen. It doesn’t ride the bike for you. You still have to pedal; you still have to steer; you still have to think about what you’re doing. It just lets you keep up with your friends.

I am hoping the meds will help me handle all the stuff I’ve got on my plate right now.

Having taken my first dose this morning, I do feel like my mind feels more settled; more able to focus on the task at hand. I don’t feel like all of the WARNING! klaxons are constantly going off because of the clutter around me (which will really help when I get to work de-cluttering). I feel more able to, you know, keep a thought in my head (working memory is a huge, huge problem for me).

Edit: I’m also much, much more able to sit still. I learned last Friday that the uncomfortable, dysphoric feeling I get when I have to sit down for more than ten minutes a time is, in fact, a symptom of ADHD. I knew I was way out there on the hyperactivity scale, don’t get me wrong, but I always assumed everyone experienced that sensation.

Task-switching is easier (also a huge, huge problem for me): Denis came home to take care of a fashion emergency; a tech from the utility company came over to re-light all our pilot lights after doing some work that required them to shut off the gas to the neighborhood; I got up to do some laundry — I was able to do all of these things without enormous difficulties in returning to the main task I’m doing right now (which is writing this post).

These might seem like minor things, but the time I lose switching tasks adds up enormously over the course of any given day (especially since I sometimes lose the narrative thread entirely while doing so).

So, basically, my “mixed amphetamine salts” aren’t going to magically make everything okay for me. The house is still in chaos; the finances are still a mess. (Amazingly, when I took my first dose this morning, Disney Spirits did not appear and fix all that for me! THE MOVIES LIE, YOU GUYS.)

The difference is, I feel like the meds might actually help me both get caught up — which is literally impossible for me, otherwise: that was the first lesson I learned about how to be a student with ADHD — never get behind. EVER. They should also help me keep on top of things once I’m caught up, even though there’s a lot going on in my life right now, and even though there’s going to be even more going on in the near future (ballet! work! grad school!).

Speaking of which: this post is now officially long enough.

In future posts, I intend to write about:

  • Treatment decisions (why we’re treating ADHD as the primary disorder, rather than bipolar, even though bipolar is arguably the more dangerous of the two)
  • Mechanisms of action
  • Anorexia (because I suppose eventually I do need to get around to that)
  • How my ADHD meds impact ballet

…and similar related stuff.

I’ll also keep you posted on how the meds are working — in other words, not mechanism of action (literally how the meds work), but what kind of differences they’re making in my life, both the good and the bad (because it’s unrealistic to expect a medication to be perfect).

That’s it for now.

Today’s to-do list (I guess I’ll strike these off as I complete them; I’ve also added a few that I forgot before):

  • Entomology homework.
  • Clean catbox.
  • Take out trash.
  • Fold ballet laundry.
  • Wash and fold other ballet laundry.
  • Invite Eric and Larry to Commencement.
  • Create a resource to use for SI tomorrow.
  • Reconcile the November bank statement (yeah, I told you it was bad).
  • Start sorting the dining room.
  • Make dinner.
  • Work on choreography.
  • Watch that one Sergei Polunin video 6,000 more times. Oh wait, did I say that out loud?

…Not necessarily in that order.

Danseur Ignoble: Weaksauce

We failed to eat dinner tonight (long story involving the complications of filling ADHD prescription), and my blood sugar tanked somewhere in the middle of barre.  I held it together almost to the end of class, but my chaînes weren’t great.

I should know myself well enough by now to prevent this from happening: energy bar in the dance bag; juice if a real crisis occurs.  Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Figured out I’ve been cheating during barre stretch: not doing anything wrong, just not working the rotation and flexibility as hard as I can.  So I worked on that.

I am definitely not a Squid anymore.   The arms are Doing Their Thing.

Now, if the brain will just follow suit…

Danseur Ignoble: Dialing Down The Intensity

I spend a lot of time thinking about turns, because I think they’re probably the thing that I’m kind of struggling with right now — like, that transition from having a solid, reliable single to having solid, reliable doubles and beyond.

I’ve been trying to quantify what it was that I found so unique about Baryshnikov’s turns when I watched The Turning Pointe the other night,and I just realized that it’s this: he dances with immense intensity, but before every turn, it’s like he dials it back, just for a second, and finds a still point from which to turn.  His preparation is vividly obvious, but he uses it and makes it beautiful — if he was a boxer, he’d get knocked out every time, but he’s win on style points alone (you know, if there were points in boxing for artistic expression!).

I tend to do everything with the intensity dialed up to 11 all the time.   This week, I’m going to work on cribbing Baryshnikov’s still place; on dialing it back and doing it beautifully.

Danseur Ignoble: The Challenges of Choreographing for Non-Dancers

Right now, as a dancer, I’m just sort of an intermediate student; a returner — but I’m pretty good at it, and I have an amazing relationship with my body: I can ask it to do things with a fair degree of confidence that it’ll do them, or at least approximate them. In short, I trust it in a way that a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to come to trust theirs. Gymnastics and ballet have been part of my life for so long that all that stuff is really deep in my bones.

Which is a long way of saying that I really don’t have a very clear sense of what it’s like to be a pure, raw beginning dancer with no conceptual framework for dance — and I really, really can’t conceive of what it might be like to be a very verbal thinker — someone whose brain is better at thinking in words than at thinking in movement — and trying to learn to dance.

…Which is why I am so, so very glad that my dear and lovely husband has gamely jumped feet-first into my choreography project, becoming at once a sounding board, a test pilot, and an idea generator.

The most useful insight he’s offered me so far?

It’s this: most people dance with their feet.

People who aren’t dancers tend to think of learning dances in terms of learning steps — not lines, not pictures, not even in terms of sequences of movement: just in steps. Right foot and left arm forward, left foot and right arm back; left foot and right arm forward, right foot and left arm back (I’m pretty sure I just described what some of us call “The White Boy” and Denis calls “The Rock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robot”).

At the very most basic level, it’s even possible that those steps can only involve the feet/legs or the arms — that trying to move both at once might be too much.

Here’s what I’m discovering: you can model the “pictures” that occur between movements with the whole body, but it’s a good idea to transmit the transitions between those pictures with care.

Here, we do some port-de-bras, described clearly and demonstrated. Here, we keep the arms where they finished the port-de-bras component and we take three steps forward. The next “picture” is a little bit of fondu, but I’ll have to find some other way to describe it, lest people worry that they don’t have any of those little long-handled forks. Then we rise (releve optional) with arms coming to fifth: gonna have to ask Denis how to describe that, for the verbal thinkers in the room.

Watching new students in class, I’ve realized that focusing intensely on technique isn’t going to work for this project: instead, I’m going to try to focus on feeling. Adults get really hung up in the idea of doing it “right,” and they get in their own way a lot at first. I’m hoping to avoid that roadblock in this context.

My goal here, obviously, isn’t to create professional dancers — it’s to invite people to dance, and to help them see what their bodies can do when they’re given some space to swing them around and play.

Technique, if you’re a dancer, is important. It’s immensely important. A solid foundation in good technique is the basis of long-term progress as a dancer.

However, technique takes time. If you’re totally new, and you’re hoping to learn a couple of dances in the span of a week so you can show them off a little at the end, you can approximate: there’s a difference, after all, between good approximation and bad technique.

Little kids in our pre-ballet classes learn rhythm, balance, and freedom of movement and so forth; there’s no reason adults can’t do that. We can focus on feeling the music and letting it move us. That’s going to be a lot harder with the Philip Glass part of the program (which, for those who aren’t musical/spatial thinkers, will involve counting like crazy: fortunately, the structure of the music makes that fairly easy) than the anthemic pop part, but that’s where demonstration and modeling come in.

This has all made me think really hard about how to put things together, and that’s been a pretty interesting experience. It’s an exercise in the meta-cognition of movement: I’m thinking about how I think about movement. That’s hard for me to do, because movement is, for me, both a natural language and one in which I’ve been formally schooled since I was but a wee bairn, so to speak. This process forces me to slow down and figure out how to explain what I’m thinking; how to translate movement to words in a basic and effective way.

In a way, this all hearkens back to a conversation with JustScott in the comments on my class-notes post from yesterday: how we (at least, before we study ballet) tend to think of ballet as something you do with your legs and feet, when in fact arms and heads are really important.

Learning to really use port de bras and epaulement and so forth has actually made it much easier to feel the music, and in turn to use all the music and finish my movements (which, by the way, is a huge pet peeve of mine: it drives me crazy to see someone dancing full-out with solid technique but basically truncating every single movement). My dancing looks way better for it, but the really cool part is that it feels way better.

Anyway, I should really stop here, because I’m currently avoiding my household responsibilities and the dryer is buzzing at me. I have more thoughts about this forthcoming. We spent last night working through some choreographic problems and some teaching-dance problems, and I think we’ll probably do more of that tonight.

So that’s it for now. Happy March, everyone … Spring is just around the corner.

I hope.

Danseur Ignoble: Saturday Essentials Class With New, Improved Arms!

I love ballet for any number of reasons, not least the magical thing that happens when all the wiring you’ve been installing suddenly fires to life and, holy cow, you get it (thanks, neuroplasticity!).

Today was one of those days: in Essentials, everything was easy, and my arms were fluid and graceful and coordinated. 

Margie asked me to demonstrate the sauté (arabesque) – chassee combo going across the floor, and I was able to do it on both legs.  I kept it low and easy, though, and I’m sure Denis would appreciate that.

We had a new student who said she hasn’t danced in about 20 years, but she must have had excellent training.   Her arms were lovely and she followed all the barre and center combinations like a champ.  I hope she’ll come back!

No specific corrections today (except a note about making sure to get back to sauté-ing instead of Sissone-ing when my leg is done healing; I am still favoring that leg a bit, so often I do little Sissones instead of proper sautés) and a reminder (rather than a correction) to get my heels down between jumps.

I See By My Outfit

…Or, Rambling Discursions On The Theme of Identity

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity.

Note that I didn’t say “lately” — there’s no “lately” about it. I’ve been thinking about it for years, for most of my life.

Some of this is a function of having been The Kid Who Doesn’t Fit Anywhere for my entire childhood and adolescence. Some of it is the result of juggling mental-illness diagnoses (like many people with bipolar, I’ve had a metric shedload of those, some more accurate than others) — does this fit me? How about this? Does this describe me accurately?

Some of it is a function of being intersex (which is a medical thing, but which nonetheless informs my experience of the world). Some of it is a function of being queer, especially where “being queer” intersects with “being intersex.” Some of it is a function of being a seeker by nature, someone who isn’t content with what he sees on the surface.

A lot of this used to seem, you know, Critically Important to me, with capital letters: like, if I could just pin it down, just figure out Who I Am, then I could … I don’t know what. Start? It was like I had to figure out which species I was so I could figure out in which ecosystem I could to live, or something.

I’ve lived enough now that I’ve been to see the folly in making sweeping declarations about Who and What I Am.

First, I know that there aren’t many things that I am consistently from minute to minute (the physical reality of my body aside; I think my body influences and is a vehicle for my identity, but I’m not sure it’s particularly part of my identity).

Next, I know that even the Big Things, the things that seem somehow fundamental, are subject to change.

A little more than a year ago, for example, I really wasn’t dealing with bipolar as part of my identity; I wasn’t working in that sphere. Now I am: I have realized that it’s useful to keep bipolar in my peripheral vision that way. Keeps it from sneaking up on me. Explains a lot. Not that long ago, though, it wasn’t a reality I even acknowledged.

So right now I’m sort of fumbling forward.

I’ve always been the kid that tests out an identity by trying on the clothes; I never thought of myself as A Cyclist until I put on some bike kit for the first time. Until then, I was just a guy who rode bikes.

Things work differently on the Looking Like A Dancer front.

First, how Looking Like A Dancer works is vague: I’ve become someone who gets that question rather a lot in non-dance contexts, “Are you a dancer?” — and I think I look like a dancer, even when I’m not wearing dance clothes, but I don’t know how to quantify that: what does look like a dancer even mean? Is it something about the way I move (okay, the habitually-resting-in-fourth-or-fifth-position thing is kind of a dead giveaway)? Is it the way I carry myself? Is it something else entirely, maybe something about my hair? (Maybe it’s my neck.)

But I know I didn’t really look like a dancer just over a year ago, and now I do — and I also think I look more like myself, for whatever that means.

About which — maybe what it means is that for the first time I’m kind of living from the inside out.

The space and the social role I occupy as a dancer, especially as a male ballet dancer, feels like the right ecosystem. Like I’m no longer trying to live in fresh water when I should be living in salt water, or in the mountains when I should be by the sea, or whatever. It’s a good fit.

I think that, for a long time, I was trying to live from the outside in: I would decide that since I clearly wasn’t that, I must be this, and I would proceed to attempt rebuilding myself in the prescribed image. But I guess I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, because I felt like what I was trying to do was identify what I was, and live accordingly.

There’s a certain futility to that approach: I could tell myself all day long that I was a kestrel, and move into kestrel habitat, and learn to do the things that kestrels do — but if I was an osprey on t inside, I was still going to be an osprey.

Now I’m sort of taking the opposite approach: I’m doing things to see if they fit, and unceremoniously kicking them to the curb if they don’t. I don’t have to belong everywhere, or do everything, after all: nobody does. Besides, if we all live like kestrels, it’s going to get mighty crowded in Kestreltown.

For a long time I longed to dance the way an osprey longs to catch fish. Eventually, I did, and it was like coming home: I remembered what I’d been missing for so very long.

Fundamentally, I guess you could call this phenomenon “identity as descriptor,” as opposed to “identity as prescriptor,” which is kind of what I was doing before.

When we describe an osprey, we are talking about what it is and what it does, not what it must be and do. Ospreys gonna osp, even if we tell them they should kest. Osprey don’t care.

Bus parking?  Please.  It's osprey parking now, buddy. "Osprey on a peg". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bus parking? Please. It’s osprey parking now, buddy. Ospreys gonna osp.
Osprey on a peg“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, I’ve developed a habit of doing things because they feel like expressions of who I am, though I guess I mostly don’t think about it that explicitly. Instead, I think, “I want to try this.” Sometimes, though, I do explicitly ask myself, “Does this feel like part of me?” Sometimes I’m surprised by what doesn’t; sometimes, by what does.

Curiously, this seems to be working really well. My burning desire to pin down a sense of identity has abated: I’m just here, kind of being. It’s not really necessary to make statements to myself about Who And What I Am now that I’m living a life that fits better. Sometimes it’s useful to make those statements to other people, but I kind of think that other people mostly figure it out.

They can see by my outfit that I’m a dancer. Or, you know, a kinda femme queer boy (one that could still kick your teeth in if you push the wrong buttons, though I’m wrestling with that whole “nonviolence” thing).

Once upon a time, I would have thought that embracing the “femme queer boy” side of my personality would have meant eschewing the part that thrives on speed and danger. That’s prescriptive identification, though (or, really, proscriptive, just to make things even more confusion — “danger” is not my middle name, “confusion” is). I know now that it doesn’t work that way. Thank G-d it doesn’t work that way: I don’t have to be X and not Y; I can be X and Y.

The light reveals the shadow; the shadow reveals the light.

There’s probably a lot more to say about all this. Consider this a beginning.

And, while you’re at it, go read Peter S. Beagle’s excellent book, I See By My Outfit, which you can find used all over the internet. I am almost certain that you won’t regret it.

A Paltry Attempt To Explain

My heart’s broken open.
I change and I do not change:
The waves move, the molecules move;
The sea’s still the sea
And there is no sea.

I have seen all these things before:
But I see them now for the first time.
The sand and the wind build the shore,
But there is no shore.

The wing and the cry are the gull,
But there is no gull.
The stamp and the breath are the ox,
But there is no ox.

Breathing in, I am here in the world;
Breathing out, I am here in the world:
Breathing in, I am here,
Breathing out, the world.

Breathing in, I am not.

Breathing out.

Danseur Ignoble: If You Can Describe It, You Can (Eventually) Do It

Or, The Enabling Nature of Formal Ballet Vocabulary

For those who find foreign languages challenging (full disclosure: I don’t), entering into the world of ballet can be daunting.

Suddenly, you’re learning not only a new way of moving, but also a foreign language — one that sometimes conflicts with itself (Are my arms in third or fifth?  …I don’t know, are we doing Vaganova, Paris Opera, or Cecceti today?)

I felt like this point needed an illustration, with apologies to photographer Fanny Schertzer, whose awesome photos from Prix de Lausanne can be found here:
Zecheng Liang – Le Corsaire – Prix de Lausanne 2010” by Fanny SchertzerOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
and here:
Mingyi Liang – Giselle, Prince Albrecht – Prix de Lausanne 2010-3” by Fanny SchertzerOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

You have to memorize all these words (some of which already have more than one meaning in your normal, everyday language), and then you have to remember them and perform the corresponding actions in the right sequence when your teacher shoots a string of pidgin French at you at the end of class.  And then you have to remember them again next class (which, in the beginning, often means “next week”) and probably learn some new ones.

On the other hand, with the exception of minor quibbles over whether one’s arms are in third or fifth (aided by the fact that every teacher and dance master in the history of ever pretty much automatically demonstrates which one they mean as they’re describing the combination — seriously, even if the rest of them is standing still, bras  gonna port) and whether to say “B+” or “attitude a terre,” the upside of this whole conundrum is that in ballet, we understand each-other.  (Well … Mostly.)

When someone says soubresaut, as long as  you’ve learned soubresaut, you can do it.

When someone says pirouette en dehors a la seconde, once again, if you know what pirouette en dehors mean and you know what a la seconde means, you can figure out what’s intended — and, if you know you can execute both movements, you can probably even figure out how to do it.  Maybe not well, at first, but learning is almost always a process of successive approximations of goal behavior (hooray for Applied Behavioral Analysis!).  Chances are you looked kinda funny the first time you rode a bike, too.  Dancers learn by doing.

Likewise, once you develop enough vocabulary, you can ask other dancers what the names of things are: “You know that thing that looks kind of like tour jete, only you’re kind of rotating around one leg that’s in attitude? What the heck is that called?”  Of course, half the time, the name of the thing you’re looking for turns out to actually be “name of thing you already know” plus “a la seconde” or “in attitude” or “from fourth,” possibly with a modifier like “en dedans” or “en dehors” or “grande” or “petite.”

This doesn’t always work as well as it might: it took me, like, three separate searches to figure out what the “thing that looks kind of like tour jete, only you’re kind of rotating around one leg that’s in attitude” is called (ungracefully) a “barrel turn.”  But almost everything else in ballet can be picked apart based on its technical name (and it’s possible that the so-called “barrel turn” — which, I’d like to point out, is neither a barrel, nor a turn, but is a jump that has a turn in it — has a technical name I just haven’t discovered).

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the context of choreography (in part because my project for this summer will involve explaining choreography to people who may or may not have a firm grasp of ballet vocab: yes, I plan to impart the names of things, but that doesn’t mean people will remember them). 

Like, ballet choreography is maybe a bit easier to transmit than modern dance choreography, given that we have a standardized vocabulary from which we work.  Admittedly, that vocabulary can’t transmit style.  Watch some video from NYCB, some from the Bolshoi, some from the UK’s Royal Ballet, and some from the Dutch school, and you’ll see that there can be enormous stylistic differences, some of which — a la NYCB — trace back ot a specific choreographer.  However, the basic elements of a dance can be transmitted intact, down to the beat (or even half-beat; the “and” bears great importance in dance).

Curiously, while I have some modern dance background, I’m not really sure how this works in that context.  Like, my modern dance teacher was awesome, and because of that we always knew what she was talking about: but “Down, down, UP, down!” means one thing when you’re doing that frog-jumpy thing and a totally different thing when you’re doing what’s essentially a series of plies with a saute in the mix.

Different seminal choreographers have developed different vocabularies.  They tend to be descriptive, but description doesn’t necessarily convey intention as well as we’d like.  “Slash” (perhaps a term no modern dance choreographer employs?) could mean a lot of different things.

To be fair, ballet has been around for hundreds of years at this point, and it developed a tradition of formal codification pretty early (being as it was founded upon strictly-regulated court dance).  It seems possible, even probable, that as modern dance (which is, what, a little more than a hundred years old?) evolves, it too will develop a cross-school choreographic language (rather like the way music has evolved a language of its own; all musicians speak at least a little Italian and/or German). 

It’s at least equally likely, though, that it won’t — the coherence that exists in ballet reflects its foundations.  It has evolved divergently (hence “Are my arms in third or fifth?”) rather than convergently.

Anyway, this is one of the things I like about ballet: sometimes I don’t know the name of a movement, but I can look at it and figure out what its component parts are, and then figure out how to string them together (likewise, I can often infer the name of a movement in the same way; nobody had to tell me what pirouettes a la seconde were called).  Sometimes I know the  name of a movement but not what it looks like, but if the name reveals the component parts, I can figure it out.

In short, if I can describe it, I can eventually do it (even though I’m actually a kinaesthetic learner, and therefore more often move from doing to describing than vice-versa; I figured out saut de chat — one of the less-descriptive things — long before I knew what it was called; likewise foutte [again, not the “black swan” variety”]).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help me with the barrel turn.  I can turn, but I can’t barrel.  Or, well, I can barrel, but more in the context that means “speed wildly,” like “barreling down the hill.”  So I’ll just have to learn that technique the old-fashioned way, through demonstration, attempt, falling on my ass, and repetition — in other words, successive approximations of the goal behavior.

But not just yet.

Quickie: Easy Mood Tracking

I have a really hard time with mood tracking.

First, I forget to do it. I’ve tried a few mood-tracking apps, but in order to remember to track, I’d need an app that would get all in-my-face about it. “Did you track your mood yet? How about now? Now? Okay, push this button RIGHT NOW and track your freaking mood, boy-o.” Likewise, I’d need a simple mood app: something that doesn’t ask for a lot of data, but just a basic rating on a single scale. Otherwise, I get overwhelmed when I’m depressed and can’t focus long enough to make the data make sense when I’m manic.

It’s possible there’s an app out there that works like that and I just haven’t discovered it yet. (Anyone found one? I’m all ears!)

For now, though, I’ve settled on an easy, fairly old-school approach: colored stickers.

I ordered a set of little dot stickers in 7 colors: in this case, blazing hot pink, then ROYGBV, instead of ROYGBIV proper. I like this set of colors: to blazing hot pink (even though I’m quite fond of it!) makes a perfectly fine indicator of the kind of dangerous mania I really don’t want to contemplate right now. The stickers are also transparent, so our appointments won’t be obscured when I stick them on.

I went with colors instead of faces or numbers because I don’t have to think about it at all. I just stick the one on that feels right.

The stickers will go on our wall calendar. It’s right in my face every day on the wall beside the bathroom door, so I think I should be able to remember to use it at least enough of the time to make it worth while.

Because my manias have more flavors than my depressions (which basically just seem to come in Bad and Worse), I’ll be using green as my midpoint marker; the “I’m in a pretty decent spot” marker. That leaves four flavors of mania and two flavors of depression. If I’m in between moods, I’ll just use two stickers on one day.

Today is a green day. First one I’ve had in quite a while. Reminds me of how utterly, absolutely important dancing is to managing my mood.

Anyway, here’s a link to the stickers I bought, in case you think this approach sounds useful for you:

I think you should also be able to find them locally, in office supply stores and what have you.

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