Looking back on what my teenage self accomplished - feeling proud, thankful, and reflective.
While coaching a client through a challenging situation, I realized that the difficulties I encountered as a dancer and arts educator are what allow me to light the way for others. I've moved three times in the last three years, and each time I've culled through my belongings. The sorting and sifting process can be emotional. I remember good times with friends, hard times in my creative work, and then I re-remember things I'd nearly forgotten.
I pulled out a box of pointe shoes that I'm planning to frame in a shadow box. I want the scuffed shanks, sweat-soiled boxes, scraggly ribbons, frayed elastics, and blackened edges to be seen. I didn't keep every pair of pointe shoes I've owned, but the ones that marked a significant chapter in my training.
My first pair were Capezio Nicolinis (which I don't believe are even made any more). I have narrow feet with tapered toes. The vamp managed to fit a bony spot on the outside of my foot. I wore them in my first Nutcracker as a Snowflake. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is my favorite part of the Nutcracker score.
I lived in a small town in Virginia; the nearest small dancewear store was an hour away. Sometimes the inventory was unpredictable but the owner always managed to fit my narrow, weakly arched feet into something.
Bloch's Alpha with the three quarter shank were exciting and supportive. I also had some Sonatas and Suprimas.
I kept trying on Freeds but didn't have the technical strength to manage them which is ironic since I ended up working for Freed of London in New York.
Chacott's Veronese shoes changed my life. They supported my long narrow feet without my having to work to death to get up en pointe. I didn't have to stuff them with much and they hugged nicely. They were quiet and quick to break in. I managed to get 4-6 weeks out of each pair which was crucial since they were expensive.
I loved the nearly white satin sheen of my Grishkos. The zero width was perfect for me but they were really too hard for my feet.
When I couldn't get Chacott Veronese, the Capezio Glisse worked really well and was more durable. The Glisse and Veronese let me actually dance, whereas a lot of other shoes were too hard, too wide for me to accomplish much.
I used to see my old shoes as a sign of defeat and unfulfilled dreams. But I recently looked over the scuffs and marks with different eyes. I saw a young girl working so hard for her dream, choosing discipline over fun with friends, risk over what came easy, and resiliency over rejection. In the neatly sewn ribbons of my first few pairs, courtesy of my mom, I saw a parent helping her daughter with what she knew she could do in lieu of the things she didn't know about dance.
Even if you weren't a dancer, your dancer needs you. Every dance parent has something they can personally contribute to their child's dance training - that isn't just writing checks for costumes, classes, and pointe shoes. What your child gets out of their dance training will set them up for success anywhere they go. If you can dance en pointe and have a good time, you can do just about anything.
A lot of the exercises we did included fascia release and stability building movement on a mini-stability ball. We've all been given skills in life and it is a true joy when your profession is also the pathway to healing.
August 2019, #2
My Virginia road trip was a great vacation as I shared previously; however, I also encountered the significance of my Pilates practice in a radical new way. I taught a couple private sessions at a studio under new management, hoping to continue to develop its Pilates offerings. One of the studio's instructors requested a private with me after she took my group class. I was a little nervous, because instructors teaching instructors can be difficult sometimes. We're both used to being in charge and have distinct perspectives, so, you know, sometimes it can feel like a power struggle.
I asked where she wanted to focus the session. She told me she needed help activating inner thigh and pelvic floor because she had been abused for thirteen years. Outwardly, she looked incredibly strong and fit but inwardly, she lacked internal awareness due to the body's way of protecting itself from trauma.
Deeply humbled and terrified that she trusted me to help her, I quickly realized that it wasn't so much what I knew but how I communicated that would be crucial. As an instructor, I'm used to managing the atmosphere or temperature of the room, but never in this way. Since the #metoo movement (and even before), I've had friends confide in me that they were raped, assaulted, and/or abused. But they never asked for my help to heal and regain connection with their body.
She wanted to review a couple exercises she found challenging from the previous day's class. We had to find our way together; I use a lot of tactile cues in my practice. I asked if that was okay and she said yes. She deeply desired connection but because of her trauma, her body limited that possibility for her. We moved slowly and deliberately. I could feel the importance of this assignment.
For forty-five minutes, we moved. There was laughter and tears. Relief and vulnerability. Fear and bravery. Uncertainty and intention. I fought to maintain my own emotions and inner narrative; because she needed someone to fight for her, to show her the way out. To walk beside her, to be there when she faltered, to cheer her on towards victory. Her journey did not end with one session, but continued to build hope for her as she courageously regains the fullness of her body.
I kept reminding her that she was in control of her body. I gave her directions to guide her movement; but she had the final decision over what she wanted or didn't want to do. For dancers, this is also important. Even when there isn't a history of abuse, those of us using our bodies for our art and work must be reminded that we are free. Losing control of one's body is slavery and (abuse not-withstanding) we choose what we ask of our bodies. Whether it's counteracting unsafe working conditions, inappropriate behavior, or simply feeling comfortable in our own skin, we need to choose environments that will affirm the body, not abuse it (or us). The mind/body connection is powerful and honoring that is life changing.
How you are able to receive and interpret feedback can be a turning point for personal growth. Also, it's such a privilege when you find people who are able to give direct, applicable perspectives. Feedback is tricky but worth getting.
August 2019, #1
Since I moved to Nashville about a year ago, I took my first vacation. As I managed a life and career transition, I've certainly had some days with little on the calendar (not to mention a few holidays) but not without my brain going a million miles an hour trying to reinvent my life. As a freelancer, it is scary to say no or take deliberate time off. The fear of not having work when you need it can be debilitating. I've been saying yes as much as I can to some great opportunities but also feeling the mental drag.
My vacation took me all through Virginia - my home state - seeing good friends and family. Feeling the stress of not working for a week, I booked a couple guest teaching slots. Okay, not vacation 100% but being in a new space, meeting new people was refreshing.
I taught some classes that were much like what I do at my home studio on the same equipment and a few that had me totally out of my element. However, I was deeply relieved to receive strong, positive feedback. As a dancer and instructor, I'm used to regularly receiving feedback for growth. In fact, not receiving feedback is usually a red flag for me that something is not working whether it's management, peer relationships, or my skill capacity.
Mulling over the kind, affirmative words I heard, I thought, "Wow, I had to earn this. I had to listen to my instructors and bosses, adjust, adapt, and practice, practice, practice. I had to keep showing up even when I wanted to cry and felt like a big fat failure. I learned to ask more questions when I didn't understand, do a lot of studying on my own, and try, try, try."
Positive feedback had value in a very different way for me than it had previously when my Enneagram 3 was desperately begging everyone to tell me I was important. This feedback was valuable because I could see my investment, understand my journey, and enjoy the moment rather than feeling the adrenaline surge of striving for my next hurdle.
As dancers, feedback can feel negative - partly, because we hear so much of it. Choosing to see the feedback as a catalyst for progress and skill development empowers us. Staying motivated can be challenging which is why we need to understand negative feedback in a positive lens - as an opportunity to grow.
Rotating discs can be a come-to-Jesus experience for stabilizing muscles.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it,25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
1 Corinthians 21:26
July 2019, #2
Diving deeper into my STOTT PILATES practice, I've been intrigued by the concept of stability. Previously, I viewed it as a passive experience with a mix of grin-and-bear-it (a favorite phrase of my former dance teacher). We use rotating discs in our practice, which is like standing on a lazy susan. At first, it feels fun because range of motion seems limitless. Then, once your stabilizing muscles realize they're now the star of the show instead of the power/mover muscles, you start to feel the heat. Stability is a highly active sensation; muscles support joints in tenuous positions. Can your limbs move without a collapse somewhere else in the body? The discs reveal all. And, they help you connect more quickly and fully with those smaller, deep support muscles.
Stability in dance training is also crucial - physically, mentally, and emotionally. Your dancer is like the power/mover muscles; all eyes are on him/her. Parents and teachers are those deep support muscles adding balance, controlling force, directing energy, or adjusting for the unexpected. The body works as a team with muscles, bones, and ligaments; parents and teachers are significant members of a dancer's team. Every piece is important; every member feels the weight of anticipation, the joy of success, and the strain of tension.
When you and your dancer(s) find yourself in an unstable position, notice where the strain shows up and follow the path to its origin. Often we look at tension as the cause, when it is really the mind or body waving a white flag, asking for help. Auditions not going as expected? Technique progression comes to a halt? Joy of dance peters away? The same injury keeps coming back?
Building a stable team that can emotionally, mentally, and physically handle the ups and downs of dance training will transform the experience for everyone involved. Each member has the opportunity to communicate needs and desires which empowers the team to identify how to move forward. If the team falters, it is easy to lose sight of the goal. When you clear the clutter of instability away, the goal is always present, leading the way.
Once I opened myself up to other art forms, I found a way to enjoy my dance experience in a new way and encounter other art forms, like commedia dell'arte. My movement experience allowed me to join a two week program in Italy as a college senior. What I learned there transformed my stagecraft from dancing to public speaking. Everything we learn is valuable even if it serves a purpose different than what we initially intended.
July 2019, #1
It's half-time for summer programs. Students have settled into their routines, made some friends, and are able to assess next steps in the fall. Certainly, a plan is mostly in place upon their return from wherever they're spending six weeks dancing. BUT, things come up. Maybe your dancer intended to audition for the year-round program and didn't get accepted, or maybe, they auditioned on a whim and did get accepted. Maybe, your college age dancer decided she'd rather be getting her BFA instead of a dance minor alongside a more traditional academic program. Maybe, your student is questioning whether they want to continue training at this level. Summer programs can be a real wild card.
Your dancer needs you to call a team meeting; you know who should be involved in helping making decisions. Spouses, older siblings in the same field, trusted dance teachers, grandparents, a sports psychologist, etc. are all quality candidates but don't all have to be included. Maybe, your dancer is feeling a-okay about their training plans. However, this is still a good time to check-in with them. Pressure-free conversations often reveal interesting details you can't always get when you're making a last minute decision.
Reevaluate your dancer's five year goals and whether what they're currently doing supports that. Asking questions like, "What else are you learning about the dance field?", "What are you enjoying most about training at X company?", "What kind of feedback are you getting?", "What do you really want to do that you haven't gotten a chance to try?", "What is your biggest challenge/goal right now?", will help you understand where your dancer's focus is and where there might be potential blind spots.
For example, I was told for years that I would not make it as a ballerina. I started too late, had terrible feet, etc. I just kept going anyway; until a summer at Boston Conservatory where a faculty member clued me into the fact that in the recommendation letter my teacher wrote for me she stressed that I needed exposure to other movement forms because I had potential I wasn't using and ballet was keeping me from seeing that. I was livid when I discovered that but looking back I'm really grateful for getting exposed to other forms of dance. That was a life changing summer for me and helped me connect more broadly within the creative community. Feedback is feedback, you can take it or leave it, and some people aren't that great about giving it. But, every set of feedback I've received had some valuable truth in it. I just had to be willing to listen, ask questions, evaluate, and make decisions.
Boston Ballet SDP 2007 on a field trip to Jacob's Pillow. I'm on the left enjoying getting to know my fellow RAs. Working as a team is challenging because you're getting to know each other as you go and have to trust each other, have each other's back, and be each other's support system. You'll get to know each other doing fun things (like field trips to cool places) and not-so-fun things (like dealing with underage drinking).
What's it like being residential staff for a pre-professional dance program? Summer dance programs (SDP's) are a really special, unique environment. The next generation of great dancers is in front of you, trying their hardest to make their dreams come to life. You're there trying to make sure they have a fun and safe experience.
Pre-professional dancers are not normal - but when that's the whole group, it feels normal to see kids sewing pointe shoes at breakfast, sitting in their splits in hallways or doorways, and operating with more responsibilities than most college students.
There are a lot of hormones and a lot of emotions. Students experiences high highs and low lows from not getting placed in a higher level to receiving a scholarship for the year round program.
The talent level is all over the place. Some kids were born with perfect feet and turnout but don't really care that much about ballet; they just happen to be good at it. Some kids busted their butts to make the lowest level.
While these students are spending their summer getting up at 6:30am before dancing from 9am to 3pm everyday, managing their nutrition and conditioning, they're also teenagers. They're trying to assert or understand who they are and who they want to be. They've been thrust into a pool of dancers in their same position but from varied backgrounds and cultures.
The paradox is always there. Students can do 32 fouettés flawlessly but don't know how to set their alarm. Students can dance for six hours straight but can't seem to remember their room key. Students can handle rejection and competition graciously but fight with their roommate over cleaning the bathroom.
As an RA, you witness all of this and sometimes you realize students weren't prepared for how to handle relationships, hormones, or finances. You'll try to help them without stepping on their parents' toes. You'll want to make everything better and be a shoulder to lean on to even the most sullen kid, but all they'll want from you is the wifi password. Or, they'll burst into tears while making root beer floats and you'll have to help them figure out whatever is going on.
You'll have some kids who are more mature than you are and some kids you just hope make it through the summer in one piece. Parents will get your cell phone number even if you don't give it to them and call you at 7am asking you to remind their kid to pack a snack. Sometimes you'll have to call a parent to let them know their child is in the hospital. You'll have international students managing culture shock and homesickness. You'll moderate roommate fights with dance parties. You'll be surprised when you see the student who loses everything all the time - keys, wallet, phone, etc. - sailing across the stage like a pro.
It's always the same; you never know what it will be. But, one day, you'll be sitting in the audience of companies like American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, or New York City Ballet watching your former students live their dreams. And you'll feel grateful you were part of that magnificent (or messy) journey.
That's me on the right at a Professional Development workshop for teachers at The Joyce Theater. I mainly worked on the administrative end of the program, but my supervisor always encouraged me to jump into the workshops when possible. I always came away refreshed and inspired because my mind had been challenged to think differently. Opportunities to be inspired come in all forms, and when they're handed to me like this one, I always say "yes".
Summer is significant for young dancers. For some, it can be challenging to know that their peers will be hanging out at the pool while they'll be traveling to a new city for a rigorous training experience. Or, for some dancers, it is just the opposite. They may be unable to attend summer dance programs, which can be a difficult adjustment to go from dancing a lot to not at all for a few months.
As a parent, your dancer really needs you to help them see the opportunity in whatever their summer plans will be. I had a former student experiencing financial limitations but really wanting to continue training. She was incredibly talented, too. Her mom and I sat down to discuss possibilities. What I really appreciated about this parent was her willingness to explore options without allowing frustration over finances to limit the conversation. She also resisted making rushed decisions. We spent time discussing what her goals and her daughter's goals were. I laid out lots of possibilities on the spectrum for her daughter to maximize her summer.
One goal was to give her daughter a break. She took the month of June off from dance which was really helpful as she was in the middle of a substantial growth spurt - growing is exhausting, by the way! Her mom wanted her daughter to be able to clear her head, connect with friends outside the studio, and know for herself what she really wanted to do.
They also identified exposure as a key goal; exposure to more teachers, more kinds of dance, and more understanding of where dance training could lead. I had suggested a two week August intensive that would be great for getting back in shape for the fall with the option to do one or both weeks. The August program was near a campground - this family really enjoyed the outdoors - so they made a vacation out of it AND saved a lot of money on hotels/eating out. They camped for the week and drove their daughter to/from the studio each day.
I had been telling them how amazingly talented their daughter was but since we were a small studio in a small town, they didn't have any other examples to look towards. After the week-long intensive, they had a better idea of what talent looked like and that continuing in a career in dance was totally possible for their daughter. The mom got to meet other moms of very talented dancers and get some support/suggestions on how to guide her daughter's training. The dancer got really inspired seeing older, stronger dancers than herself and that a little hard work would really go a long way for her.
Hitting pause to consider your goals and resources is incredibly valuable. When we resist adjusting our direction or process, frustration can start to lead the way. Staying true to your needs, your dancer's needs, and working towards goals together gives you momentum - which is where you find new inspiration.
This year, I hung a Ben's Bell in remembrance of the Hokie Nation in my new "hometown" of Franklin, TN. It was important to me to find a joyful way to honor those we lost.
April 2019, #2
I regularly hear from parents on how to deal with diva attitudes from other parents, other dancers, and even teachers/directors. The dance world is competitive, intense, and demanding which is why it is so crucial that each generation be taught kindness.
My connection to kindness education comes from a few places - the girls welcoming me to sit with them when I was the new kid at the studio, the teacher gently taking me aside to explain how to better tie my pointe shoe ribbons, and, most significantly the Ben's Bell I received while a senior at Virginia Tech in 2007.
On Monday morning of April 16 that year, 32 students and faculty lost their lives due to gun violence and mental illness. My peers and I encountered a deep evil on that day; by the end of the week we were on the receiving end of extreme kindness. One form of that kind compassion came from Ben's Bells; which "teaches individuals and communities about the positive impacts of intentional kindness and inspires people to practice kindness as a way of life."
Bells were placed on our campus in the following days of mourning and healing. Somehow, out of a campus of 30,000, I was a recipient of one. I held the bell in my hand and felt seen, comforted; the smallest tremble of hope fluttered in my belly, with the thought that maybe, one day, I would be okay again.
Kindness tells others that they matter, that what they care about matters. When you reach out to someone else with an act of kindness or a kind word, you help them find hope again. Like dance technique, kindness must be practiced every day, over and over again, to get it right and to take flight.
2007; somewhere in Italy. I had just graduated from Virginia Tech and joined members of the Theatre Arts department on a 10 day trip studying commedia dell'arte - improvisational comedy based on stock characters with a few basic plots. This experience stayed with me and informed a performance in NYC (off Broadway, baby!) where I was on stage for the duration of the evening, without any lines and with minimal movement. Posture became my communication which I learned from commedia. Everything we learn becomes a tool.
April 2019, #1
I met with an artist - a choreographer and former dancer - running her own company in a city not known for its dance culture. She's had remarkable success; grants, commissions, and unique collaborations. Her local peers simultaneously worship and are baffled by her accomplishments. Success, in this case, means regular work with a visible trajectory of growth, reproducing opportunities, and a network of committed partners.
She identifies her work by her goals, not her status. She defines her company as international, even though her company has yet to tour. She's used that identity to build partnerships across the globe as she builds a strong domestic profile. Her peers define themselves by their current projects but she operates according to a long-term, big-picture process.
For pre-professional dancers, this a crucial mindset to develop. While rehearsing the same corps de ballet parts over and over again, they have to see it as an opportunity, not a holding pattern. When they can see roles, summer programs, teaching apprenticeships, etc. as launch pads to whatever their goals in dance are, it changes everything.
Parents are also influential in this capacity; you've lived through the anticipation and pressure of life-changing decisions. You know that sometimes big opportunities come unannounced; to unlock them your dancer must be able to interpret possibility.
That's me in the black leo and skirt. I ended up changing studios a couple times during high school so having my own Pilates routine to do every morning helped keep me on track while I adjusted to different studio environments.
March 2019, #2
When your student chooses a pre-professional dance training track, you'll see their self-management and discipline (superpowers) increase. To be a professional dancer requires managing one's time and energy deliberately so maximum energy is available when dancing.
Someone asked me in a job interview what I missed about dancing full-time, and my answer surprised me. I missed the all-consuming focus; previously, everything I did supported my having energy to dance, building strength for rehearsal endurance, increasing mental capacity to learn choreography more quickly, or practicing relaxation techniques to release tension from joints and muscles. I made choices with crystalline clarity.
This is what introduced me to Pilates as a high school student. My dance teacher said I needed to build core strength. I bought Mari Winsor's workout series; every morning before school I did 20-45 minutes of Pilates on my own. I became stronger (and calmer with the focus on breath).
The things your dancer chooses to incorporate into their life now to improve their performance will stay with them long past their time in the studio. It may even become the next step in their career!
Collaborating with K-12 teachers (2013-14ish) at The Joyce Theater for a movement workshop exploring DanceBrazil's movement pedagogue, a blend of Afro-Brazilian aesthetics, capoeira, and contemporary dance. That's me on the left!
March 2019, #1
I really stress the importance of relationships with young artists (or any client). Parents and teachers stressed this to me continually while I rolled my eyes, sighing, "I get it." Except, I totally didn't get it as a teenager and twenty-something.
Living and working within the creative universe is one big network of relationships that affect the trajectory and quality of experience. Managing relationships has little to do with being introverted or extroverted; they require reciprocity over personality.
In my Pilates practice, I'm constantly assessing the interaction of muscles and joints to build a harmonious dynamic - either for myself or a client. In my coaching practice, I'm guiding clients in aligning their abilities and goals. Both are an investment of time, energy, and resources.
Navigating entrepreneur-hood runs on a currency of relationships. But, relationships established only for one's own gain don't go very far. That's what makes them simultaneously scary and wonderful. You don't know where they're going but they're definitely not going anywhere without you.
Nervously teaching Radford University dancers as part of my required practice hours for my first STOTT PILATES certification last year. I didn't know how I was going to finish all my training but just kept going. Now, I'm about halfway through and looking forward to being fully certified (Level 1) by Fall 2019.
The hard part about making choices is that we never have all the information we want to know if we're 100% making the right choice; or, sometimes our priorities shift and what was the best choice a year ago is not such a great choice now. So, it's partly who we are, rather than completely the choices we make, that determines what comes out of those decisions. I heard this definition: integrity is keeping (or the ability to keep) the promises we make to ourselves. I can look back on things in my life where I might do it differently now, but I don't have regrets about it, because I was making a decision based on integrity - things I can still support about living life, ten years removed from the situation. There are other situations, where it is clear I was operating from the need to protect myself, prove my value, or get what I wanted regardless of everyone else involved.
In Pilates, we talk about integrity of the joints and muscles. Can an exercise be completed using the muscles and moving the joints in the intended movement pattern? Anyone can do a bicep curl motion, but it's another thing to do a bicep curl with stability in the shoulder girdle and the humerus moving in the right direction. Basically, a lot time working out is a worthless effort unless the muscles are being strengthened against gravity in the way they are meant to move.
For young dancers at summer dance programs, I tell them that "who you are today affects tomorrow; it will either haunt or help whom you’re trying to become." That's how it is with everything in our life; how do we make today a gift for tomorrow?
Last year, a friend gave me this journal anthology. Pictured above is the entry from the day I showed up at that studio feeling out of shape, unqualified, and unsure. Those feelings still come and go, to be honest. But I'm loving what I get to do and excited for things to come.