Teaching Swing Dancing started on accident. While in grad school, our department head wanted to expand general education course offerings and overheard me say something about swing dancing. She called me over Christmas break after my first semester to ask if I would teach swing that Spring - beginning in just a couple weeks. I frantically threw a syllabus together that I've continued to build upon ten years later. Teaching swing has served me well when I've been new to a city wanting to connect, expand my teaching portfolio, and open other revenue streams. Plus, its really fun!
This is me and my first class with Nashville Community Education in Summer 2019.
"You'll never make any money as a dancer."
"You better marry well."
"Even if you're really good, it's hard to make a living."
"Do you have any actual skills?"
These are all things that my colleagues and I have heard over and over again. They've been said to us by family, friends, colleagues, and strangers out of fear, concern, ignorance, privilege, and not knowing how to create a career that doesn't neatly fall into a known future.
These ideas have been perpetuated from inside and outside the industry, and I have certainly fallen in line with this mindset at times. I'm not going to pretend I haven't had financial struggles and obstacles working in a creative field with ambiguous growth charts.
It's why I felt I had to live life in both lanes - wanting to create and wanting to produce lifestyle results people expected. It was really stressful. And then, somewhere along the way, I decided I was done undervaluing my industry, career, and place in this world. That's what birthed eMCeeMovement - a desire to create a meaningful, sustainable life and career in the performing arts. For a clearer picture of economic impact, check out this resource that lets you look at your local arts economy and national commerce.
Here's the first step: stop saying yes to unpaid or under-paying gigs. It's not just for you, it's for the industry. When dancers and educators constantly provide resources for free or under-value, it establishes an expectation that the arts freely exist in space for 24-hour consumption, any time, any place.
Next: start negotiating. If this is new to you, start with something small where the stakes are low. Practice positive, clear language to reframe the request. When someone asks you to do something (teach a class, choreograph a piece, make a costume), you can say, "When I provide a service such as this, my rates are in this range (specify). What did you have in mind - or are you looking for someone to volunteer/donate services?"
Sometimes people need to understand the difference in contracting someone for a service and asking for a donation. If you decide (which I am very pro-volunteerism, just not at the expense of being able to pay your bills and live your life) to provide a complimentary service, ask for a tax-deductible receipt or in-kind donation acknowledgement. Establishing value is key and not everyone will like it at first. But, that will make it clear to you with whom you will or won't have successful professional relationships. If people can't respect your time or expertise, then that is not a relationship you want to continue building.
Also, if you find yourself with a full-time job offer from an arts organization (which is exciting), look at what the compensation, benefits, and expectations include. I've had some great professional opportunities that came with barely survivable pay at the complete expense of my personal life. I've had some professional opportunities that came with great compensation and benefits, but I was literally "on" six days a week. If it ruins your life and you go broke doing it, is it worth it? A healthy organization should know what you're worth and should be able to have a viable reason for why they're offering a certain package to you. If the person making you an offer freaks out when you have questions or negotiation points, they are not someone you can count on to have your back once you're in the organization.
Grow your skills in a specific, defined area. What is a unique area in which you continually develop skills? For me, it began working with summer dance programs. I kept finding myself working in areas with parents and pre-professional dancers. So, I kept focusing in that area to build a clear platform. What makes you special, and what do you find joy in doing? Invest in that and nurture its growth.
Own your finances. Seek out help for managing a budget with fluctuating pay cycles. Be proactive and aggressive. Treat your budget like you do your body - invest in it day in and day out.
Performing in the tightwire act (left) and my first solo part in the Nutcracker as one of the dolls in the party scene.
Excited and terrified. It's a regular combination of emotions when performing. You're so excited to have made it that far and then you actually have to do it. No do-overs, rehearsals, or pauses. You just do it.
I remember feeling totally duped. I was fifteen or sixteen and I had been working so hard. Taking class at multiple studios, working out on my own, reading everything I could get my hands on about becoming a dancer. I had finally gone en pointe; it had been a rough start but I was making progress. I was ready for my second Nutcracker and set my sights on a demi-soloist part in the Mirlitons (aka Flutes). I knew there would be some competition but I also knew that instructors and choreographers liked working with me because I would do the work. I showed up early, I stayed late, I helped other dancers learn parts, practice the counts, etc. Audition day came; a few of us, including myself, were specifically told not to bother wearing our pointe shoes. We took that as a sign that the audition was a formality but then noticed a few other dancers wearing their pointe shoes. We asked multiple times about what shoes to wear and were told not to worry about it.
Parts were posted; I was in the corps as per usual. I remember feeling deep in my gut that something was off. The four girls cast in the quartet were only taking ballet to aid in their gymnastics and cheer skills. They weren't that musical or that great en pointe. I wasn't spectacular either, but I knew I wasn't going to slop through on demi-pointe like they ended up doing come performance time. I also felt really frustrated that all my hard work had gone nowhere. My mom suggested I could either give up or fight for it. So, I asked the instructor for some feedback on what I needed to do to improve for next time. As I pressed for more information, she said, "oh, well and you weren't wearing your pointe shoes. You had to be en pointe to be considered for that part." Hhmm...when I brought up that several of us were specifically told not to wear our pointe shoes, she began hemming and hawing. As a sixteen year old, I was staring down an adult, the studio owner, who had been caught lying to her students. The other girls in the debacle quit the whole production, which in hindsight, was probably wise. We also figured out by then that one of the girl's (arguably the worst) cast, well, her parents were donating a lot of money to the studio.
The next day, I was given the part of one of the dolls in the party scene. I wanted to be excited, it was a bigger part than I had even been seeking. But, I knew it was a "hush" part. Instead of hush money, it was a part. I also had to beg for rehearsals, was frequently left on my own to rehearse, and was made to feel like a fraud. I hadn't demanded that part. I simply made it clear that I knew what was going on. I wasn't even arguing about who was better.
This is not a bitter rant. This story is one in a million of how decisions get made.
Later, when trying out for The Flying High Circus at FSU, I got cast for a lot of the reasons that had been overlooked during my Nutcracker days. I also received thoughtful, strategic feedback from one of the coaches there when I'd been set on flying trapeze (which at my height of 5'9" and lack of tumbling skills was not optimal). He gently directed me towards my strengths and where he thought I would be most successful, given that I was in grad school and didn't have the time (like a couple years) needed to train for trapeze.
I remember looking at other dancers I'd grown up with dancing. One was extremely talented, and her parents funneled thousands of dollars every month into her dance training. She didn't exactly waltz right into her first company either, even though it seemed like all the variables were in her favor. Megan Fairchild, of New York City Ballet, is quick to say that her promotion to principal dancer had more to do with Joaquin de Luz needing a petite partner than with her capacity (check out her episode on Margaret Mullins' podcast).
Promotions and parts come for a lot of reasons. It's not just about the role or how many resources you have. So, when aiming for a role or position, you'll want to look at all the pieces of it. How else does this role fit into the production or company? What is this role positioning you for next? How does this role fit into your objectives? Barry Blumenfeld, a recent podcast guest, stressed the importance of making commitments that align with your values. You'll want to be in an organization with clear values and a clear process for how they follow them. If you know the value system in place, and can see the structure within which it operates, promotions will be less of a guessing game and a direct, successful next step for you.
Somewhere in FiDi with FSU peers completing the FSU in NYC semester. I had just taken a full-time job at The Joyce and was still learning my way around. I was so happy to be able to reconnect with and/or meet more Noles. My experience in NYC made me value my FSU experience much more differently. Relationships are always being made whether you are present or not.
As a young college graduate, I thought of networking as an awkward social process to build yourself a professional safety net. Which is kind of true, in a way. Networking without relational authenticity presents as a "what can you do for me?" transaction. But, as an artist and educator, that mindset shifted for me to "how can we support each other in shared endeavors?"
You don't always realize what your network looks like until you need to activate it. Initially, I relied on my Virginia Tech network even while a grad student at Florida State. Which makes sense, because I had years-long history with my Hokies and only three on-campus semesters in Tallahassee. But, when I got a job offer at The Joyce Theater with a week's notice while I was living in Miami, I pressed play on every network possible.
Any major move makes you appreciate anyone you know with shared experiences, but something about landing at La Guardia airport with a suitcase of warm-weather clothes as snow is falling makes you evaluate your resources. Nearly everything in my experience in New York connected back to my time at Florida State.
It's really humbling to have people invest in you, even when all you did was copy their notes for a semester. With all the support I received, I felt empowered and less alone. I realized that maintaining open doors with everyone I meet along the way multiplies possibilities. It was a joyful day for me when I was able to host someone interviewing for a job, take coffee with an FSU student about to graduate wanting advice, or hire dancers newly-arrived to the city for educational workshops at The Joyce. Networking, like the body in motion, constantly shifts, making new pathways influenced by connection with others.
That's me tossing water balloons at Boston University's Shelton Hall during Boston Ballet's 2010 SDP. Residence Life prepared me for event planning and program management in future roles at The Joyce Theater and Penn State's Center for the Performing Arts. If you can safely evacuate 300+ people at 2am during a fire alarm, you can do just about anything.
Every job you take gives you experience with different kinds of management. There's a flow and hierarchy with responsibility - you never have just one boss. They have a boss who has a boss who has a board holding them accountable. Or, if you're in an unstable organization, you'll discover a zero-accountability factor. Becoming a good manager takes time (ugh), exposure, and practice. As dancers, we're great with the practice but not always with the time portion.
Earlier this month, Inlet Dance Theatre Founder and Artistic Director Bill Wade visited the Be En Pointe podcast (give a listen). He shared about his work as a choreographer and utilizing Human Centered Design Thinking which could be seen as a corporate version of the creative process. In reflecting on significant teachers in his life, he stated, "the best teachers are voracious learners themselves." When looking at potential projects or next steps, Wade and his team constantly assess their sphere of influence - which, when investigated, is like unfolding a road map for the journey. And for those of us seeking a mentor, Bill suggests that, "mentorship is best when protégé driven."
When you're looking at your next step, take time to understand the person leading the project or company. Make sure you understand for and with whom you'll most closely be working and managed. Sometimes the figurehead of a project (choreographer, artistic director) is not the person on the ground running day to day operations.
When I started working in Residence Life for summer dance programs, I just wanted a summer job in a cool place. I didn't know that one summer at Boston Ballet would turn into a full-time job post graduate school. Honestly, living with 20 teenagers wasn't my first choice of jobs. It was, however, my only choice. And, I learned a lot about managing people from my supervisor. Sometimes you choose a job for the job, the location, the money, and sometimes for the person. Working for a quality person - someone invested in personal and purpose-driven growth can propel you farther than a job in a big corner office with an expense account.
Wade also stressed that one needs to have a clear idea of what one wants to accomplish. A great manager helps you reach your goals; they can't set goals for you. Wade also emphasized the merit of "evaluated experience as probably the best teacher." Look back to move forward.
The joys of home movies! This took me way back to my middle school years. This showing got put together quickly and costumes so cobbled together, that I think the only things I owned that I was wearing were my pants. Everything else came from another dancer or good 'ol lost and found. Looking back is a great opportunity to reflect - we can still learn from things that happened years ago, or at least better understand who we were at that moment.
"I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the works of Your hands." Psalm 143:5
I've written about feedback previously; but I'm learning that building a healthy relationship with feedback takes deliberate, repeated effort. For me, as a young dancer, I needed the emotional maturity to be confident in my personal value and identity separate from criticism, feedback, or evaluation. That's true for many young dancers. Encouraging your child to maintain their sense of self and worth consistently will build emotional resilience so that they can hear feedback without doubting themselves.
Depending on what kind of environment in which you or your dancer trains, the ability for self-feedback can be crucial. Also, as we mature and become independent artists, we'll need to learn how to become our own editors at times. On Mother's Day, we watched some old home movies, which included several of my dance recitals. Reflecting on those clips twenty-some years later, I remembered how I felt doing those performances (which were filled with self-doubt, lack of confidence, and anxiety) and then asked myself, "I wonder what my teacher was hoping I would get out of this."
A particular piece (which you can check out on Instagram & Facebook) took place after I'd only been dancing with this studio for a few months. I'd been way behind in my training, but I also stood five feet six inches tall at age eleven which made casting me challenging. I didn't look like the other dancers my age. So, I danced in a piece with much senior dancers. I was excited and terrified; I also missed my buddies from class. I was twelve or thirteen and dancing with twenty year olds with extensive experience. Plus, our instructor danced with us for part of the piece. Carol Crawford Smith was a beautiful, commanding artist. In my mind, she was larger than life, but watching this excerpt, she is shorter than I am. Also, Carol's dancing career was cut short by MS, so it was incredibly special to have video of her dancing.
Looking back, I can see where she created a space for me to dance and tried to help me see what was possible. She put me in a demanding situation but that gave me a performance opportunity. I think she wanted me to experience different ways of moving, work with more mature dancers, learn how to collaborate, and contribute to making work.
That's a question I continually ask myself now when I feel like I don't understand the project or task given. Creative invitations are a gift. Rather than running in fear from feeling inadequate, I deliberately turn to face the challenge and run towards it. That's how, when I started my STOTT PILATES training feeling behind my peers in the course, I managed to get certified in three months with the highest exam grade. My coworkers were really surprised - I think they thought they'd sail through and I'd barely make it to the finish line (also, I don't recommend comparison, it was really just a surprise to myself that by focusing on what I needed to do, rather than what everyone else was doing, I put myself in a better position to achieve my goals). Rather than dwelling in fear, I asked myself and my instructors what kind of time/effort I needed to give to my preparation. It was hard work. But I started looking for the wins, and using the losses as learning moments to reassess, recalibrate.
When you or your dancer feels uncertain, take time to establish value and joy in who they are and what they're doing. Sometimes, it isn't that the feedback was so rough, it's that we haven't made effort to affirm the inner artist. Just like dance technique, feedback takes practice - receiving, giving, and applying. Time in the studio can be more than just tendus and plies, it is time to understand more fully.
Graduating with my M.A. in American Dance Studies from Florida State in 2010. If I look concerned, I think it's because it was 8 million degrees and my hair is so thick it was a struggle to get my cap on my head. For me, this is proof that the impossible can happen. FSU was my reach school, I didn't get into my safety option. So, you can imagine my delight when I got into my dream option. Grad school was a big challenge for me; I underperformed as an undergraduate and was still reeling from some traumatic experiences when I arrived in Tallahassee. There are definitely things I would do differently at that time in my life but that program positioned me for great opportunities. The right program for you is the one that pushes you higher, farther than you thought possible.
For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.
Your education program may have drastically changed in the last month due to COVID19. If you as a parent feel overwhelmed or your dancer seems out of sorts, it is because the equilibrium dramatically shifted and hasn't found balance yet. It's like going from nailing your choreography in rehearsal to falling all over yourself once in dress rehearsal trying to manage costumes, props, a smaller than predicted stage, lights, and nerves. I constantly tell dancers, if you can do fouettes you can do anything. But you probably didn't flawlessly achieve perfect form on your first attempt at multiple turns.
Academics are important and sometimes seem like an obstacle for dancers. Being in the studio and feeling like you're learning something new everyday can make a history textbook not seem that relevant. As a proponent for the arts in education model of learning, aesthetic inquiry is a dynamic way of understanding the world around us, whether it is math, literature, or movement. Those things aren't separate or disparate. They can inform and amplify each other.
What is the best academic program for your dancer? The one that encourages him or her to constantly learn, to boldly investigate, and find synergy inside and outside the studio. Educational options have changed significantly since my peers and I were juggling remote learning programs and our parents were negotiating with the local Board of Education for early dismissals for dancers in lieu of P.E. and art classes. Your dancer may find the structure of being at school with non-dancing peers very grounding. Or, they may feel overwhelmed by trying to occupy two very different worlds.
For me, as I began home education options, I was able to spread my course load out over a full year, instead of nine months. This allowed me to continually be engaged academically but at a pace that allowed me to be successful. I also participated in a co-op that allowed parents to work together, trading classes within a small network of families so we could study a foreign language with someone of that expertise, or get tutoring for an AP exam. You have possibilities available to you; and they may just be the foundation for you creating the strongest pathway for your dancer. If something isn't working for you; think like a dancer. What are other ways to approach this? What is my relationship to this in time and space? Who else is involved? How we can support each other?
Dancers can often feel pressure about college or going professional right away. There isn't a clear cut answer about that, because every dancer is different and opportunities come along at different times. What is crucial is that your dancer be in a position to keep learning, developing skills that will give them professional options, and be able to maintain their physical conditioning. For some, that means deferring college enrollment for a year. For some, that means dually enrolling as a high school student with a community college so that when it is time to move into a degree program some of the work is already done. For some, that means going straight to college and developing a network ready to place them upon graduation. Accessing vocational skills or fitness certifications can be a flexible, steady additional revenue stream. For some, that means staying enrolled in some way in college courses. If your dancer joined a company right out of high school, it might take them six years to finish a bachelor's degree remotely. But, they'll have it available to them whenever they're ready to change directions.
The ability to learn is an incredible gift; as a parent, how can you guide your dancer into fulfilling a call to lifelong learning?
For a few years, my professional life required that I write hundreds of words a day. Then, for a few years, not as much. I realized I needed to keep my personal practice of writing strong so it would always be ready when needed; and, I really enjoy doing it, once I dedicate space in my life to do so. I recently covered Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville as part of my effort to maintain my writing practice.
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. ~ Hebrews 12:11
Life as a young dancer gives a lot of structure; hair goes up in a bun by 2:30, classes run from 3:30-7:30, maybe some rehearsal time, eat dinner, do homework, go to bed. As dancers grow and mature, that daily routine will shift, especially if freelancing or working with multiple companies simultaneously. How can dancers (and their parents) begin practicing the discipline of self-care and life management?
Our lives constantly shift and evolve; so, what might have been a really effective warm up six months ago might not be what the body currently needs. I began doing twenty minutes of Pilates on my own every morning for a year in high school and it gave me what I needed to feel centered, build strength/control, and start the day energized. Now that I'm no longer actively/regularly dancing, I'm having to make more of an effort to maintain cardio health. When I have thirty minutes, I walk the hills in my neighborhood.
I use a faith-based meditation app when I wake up in the morning to help set the tone for the day. It's just five minutes - but those five minutes add up for me. While I was juggling college courses and a full dance schedule, it was important to me to make time to hang out with non-dance friends. Developing consistency and the self-awareness to be tuned into what your mind/body needs, and, create the system to achieve it will be crucial to success as a dancer.
When you and/or your dancer think about the short and long-term goals ahead, what are the steps they'll take along the way? What are the things they'll need to be able to do or understand to be successful at each of those junctures?
Whether it is finances, training, technique level, availability, or maturity, find the daily practice that will get you there. You'll be amazed when you look back and add up all the "10 minutes" of discipline. So, when you feel overwhelmed or like you don't have any time, find five minutes and start there. Those five minutes might become the best part of your day.
I love when someone gives me flowers in a mason jar because I use jars for EVERYTHING. It's a two for one, and every time I use it, I think of the gift I received - these are Valentine flowers. How can you make the decisions that benefit you or your dancer long after the event or program?
Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.
~ Galatians 6:9
Spring always brings hope for new beginnings. Those beginnings, however, aren't just luck or circumstance. They're the result of decisions. Similar to the concept of sowing and reaping; we don't always know exactly when we'll reap what we've poured our lives into doing. But, what we reap is a direct result of what we planted. So, when we're thinking about careers in dance, each decision is important. First, when you have options in front of you and your dancer, take a moment to be grateful rather than worried about the possibilities. Having choices is a blessing, just like being able to use our bodies to move and express ourselves is a gift.
It's audition season for summer dance programs, which is exciting for young dancers. They'll see how much they've grown from last year, be around other dancers with different training, find inspiration from new teachers, and see where the movement leads. I always encourage dancers to audition for multiple programs. The more practice one has auditioning, the less daunting it becomes. If you're planning on a career in dance, you'll be auditioning over and over again for many years. Embrace it.
Go over each audition with your dancer and perhaps their primary teacher so you can understand what might be the "reach" program, the back-up option, and the strong potential.
Go over your finances. Look at program fees, location, and duration. Sometimes a short program isn't much cheaper than a longer program because of travel costs. Or, a two-week program with some additional private sessions at home might be the best use of your resources.
Go over your dancer's goals. Is dance their primary focus right now? Or, are they more broadly interested in performing and creative experiences? Maybe a musical theatre or vocal-based summer program that includes movement would be a better fit for their interests.
Go over your dancer's maturity and discipline. Just because they easily handled a two week program last year doesn't mean a six week program this year is the appropriate progression. Summer dance programs are a significant investment in resources, time away from family and friends, and travel. Is that what your dancer needs right now?
Maybe, a summer job at home and time to take a few summer classes would be best for their personal growth. I've seen technically flawless dancers with zero personal maturity at summer programs and it can be a disaster. Dance can't outpace other areas of life. Your dancer needs to be developing character, identity, sense of self, intelligence, and independence. Dance can be a great avenue to instill that for some students, but other students may need time away from the studio to explore that.
After each audition, take time to reflect and debrief. Maybe your dancer will want to do that with you or with their friends. Taking time to evaluate emotions and lessons learned will allow unmet expectations to be resolved and unexpected developments to be cultivated for your dancer's gain. How your dancer is able manage decision-making will build creativity, resilience, and responsibility, so that they can propel their passions rather than ponder the past.
Taking time to reflect is invaluable. Over Christmas, I enjoyed time away with friends but also took solo time for me to have time to think and be inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6
As you or your dancer begins their journey in dance, recognizing the pathways created by dance education is crucial for shaping opportunity, choices, and growth. Here’s the thing about a living art form, like dance: the path constantly shifts and expands, which is both exciting (the possibilities seem endless) and daunting (the possibilities seem endless). If you can get out in front, you can steer the train, rather than feeling like you’re chasing after it or trying not to get run over by it. Maybe that analogy is strong, but you get it, right?
When opportunities come our way, it can be really exciting. That’s part of the magic of being in the dance field; the things we get to do can be beyond our wildest imagination. However, you need to ask questions, and keep asking questions until you have a solid grasp on what your options are, what your commitment will be, and what you’ll get out of the opportunity. For instance, I’ve been offered various roles with different dance organizations. Some of them were amazing and some of them, once I asked a few questions, were not as they appeared.
As I completed graduate studies at Florida State University, I was offered an adjunct position at a small, liberal arts college in South Carolina. I was so excited to maybe have a job and then I started crunching numbers and asking questions. First off, the faculty member offering me the job seemed very unhappy and rather non-plussed about the whole thing. An adjunct role often assumes you have income from other sources, but in a small town there would be limited opportunities to do other things.
After revisiting my priorities and goals, I decided to take a Residence Life position in an academic/residential program for year round students at Boston Ballet. The pay was low, but my room and board were covered. Plus, I didn’t have to manage finding a place to live and I knew the position would put me in a strong networking position - which it did. I was able to do some side work in production and as a writer for the company.
Finding your path in dance involves asking a lot of questions and listening to what you hear from others and yourself. Sometimes great opportunities come along and I’ve learned to hit pause to ask myself if it is a great opportunity for me, my goals, etc. or simply a great opportunity that might not be a great fit for me. Asking questions can be intimidating but you’ll learn the answers you didn’t realize you needed. Or, people will surprise you and say, “you know you’d be really great at this…”
I have a few basic questions I ask myself before I consider a new project or position to make sure I’m staying true to my values. Then, I start discovering what else the role will offer me in terms of developing new skills, getting to do things I enjoy, or positioning me for growth. As you build experience, it is always helpful to look back and see what the common threads are in things you’ve done and the things you’ve enjoyed doing. For me, I can look back and see that certain roles gave me a really strong mentor. Even if I didn’t stay in a position for long, I grew significantly as a person. So, that’s one of the questions I ask myself: will working for this person challenge me to continue growing in my character and skills? Is this someone I respect? Do I desire to learn the things that shape their work? Whenever I’ve wavered on those answers, it has not gone well for me. With whom I work is just as important to me as what I do.
Last year, I was offered an opportunity to coordinate a summer program for a small, but strong company in the Southeast. They gushed over me in the interview and fell all over themselves applauding my extensive experience with summer programs. Then, they made me a shockingly low offer - I would have to live with ten roommates to afford an apartment on that salary. I countered and the person offering me the job, my potential boss, started whining about how she knew it was terrible but she couldn’t do anything about it and wouldn’t I just take the offer? I refused to budge without some kind of response on their part. They responded by rescinding the offer completely which was humiliating at the time, but also a relief because my limited encounter with this individual discredited her ability to be professional and manage conflict.
All that to say that sometimes we get a lot of control in building our path and sometimes outside factors determine directions for us. But when you know what you’re looking for professionally, personally, and creatively, choices and experiences will simply help shape how you move forward rather than be an impassable hurdle.
I’ve created pathway defining tools for dancers and parents so you can constantly assess how your past, present, and future experiences are shaping your path in dance. Remember, the path shifts, the speed and ease with which you travel the path also changes. Some things will come easily, some will feel like you’ve run a marathon. But, based on your values, goals, and abilities you can shape the path into something meaningful for you.
December 2019, #2
I attended a Nutcracker performance - my first in a couple years. For many young dancers, Nutcracker is their first full-scale production which exposes them to all the moving parts and people involved in the tradition of ballet. For small studios and established companies, Nutcracker brings the "all hands on deck" energy. My brothers ended up on stage in Nutcracker productions simply because they were standing around the studio waiting for me to be done rehearsing. The community atmosphere and large cast brings so many people from inside and outside the dance world together.
As a young dancer, it gave me exposure and awareness that there is more to producing dance than just rehearsing in the studio. There are so many people involved in making dance possible whether or not they wear ballet slippers themselves. Nutcracker, or other traditional holiday performances, are perfect introductions for young artists to see their potential future. Engineering, architecture, design, physical therapy, teaching, directing, acting, choreographing, performing, marketing, public relations, fundraising, and business management all come together to create the magic on stage.
The opportunity to dance is a gift because young artists get to move, grow, and be inspired for the future. As the Christmas tree grows in Clara's dream, I'm always reminded about the beauty of our dreams. Our imagination lets us see the ordinary, regular part of life in extraordinary ways. Drosselmeyer's gift to Clara was the gift of learning to dream and boldly explore. Her dream wasn't perfect or painless, but it was beautiful and changed her world. As parents and educators, we know that being Drosselmeyer isn't all fun and games. The magic doesn't happen by accident, it is a gift we choose to give and receive.
A Festival of Spring
April 13, 2003
December 2019, #1
Encouraging your dancers to pursue passions within establishes courage and confidence. At a young age, I began corralling siblings and friends into small performances I would design, choreograph, and produce. Our stages included basements, garages, front porches, and yards. I loved putting an event together. The possibilities felt endless and with my youthful imagination I saw grandiose endeavors rather than the hodgepodge of people and dress-up clothes.
I taught dance sporadically in middle and high school. As I encountered challenges in my own training, I worked on my own to decipher mechanics of exercises which peaked my interest in teaching further. As a freshman in college, I officially opened my own little company, Blue Ridge Ballet. I rented space from another studio in town and inherited dancers from a studio that closed. I had no idea what I was doing but I had purpose and passion. I bought 100 Lessons in Classical Ballet and started creating my syllabus.
With less than 10 students, I wasn't sure what to do when parents asked about performances. I was still training at another studio and balancing academics. Based on calendar availability, a date was set for a spring performance. I had exactly 6 weeks to pull it off. It came together because my community of dancers, parents, and friends rallied. Parents sold ads and tickets, my mom became my bookkeeper, a local dancewear store cut me a deal on costumes, other parents created sets, former dance teachers helped me advertise, my siblings helped with production, friends of theirs chipped in audio and video assistance, and a couple friends agreed to help choreograph and perform as "guest artists" to round out the program. By the time it was said and done, I didn't even know everyone on my very small payroll. But I trusted those committed to helping me and they did the things they said they would do.
When you move in your vein of inspiration and life calling, you can stride forward into the unknown. Luke 12:27-31 encourages us to trust in God's provision for us by seeking first the kingdom of heaven. Just because you're operating in your passion and purpose doesn't mean it will be completely smooth sailing. It just means you'll keep moving forward.
I had to convince a roomful of parents to trust me - an eighteen year old with zero experience. There were personality conflicts, misunderstandings, ill-fitting costumes, cranky gatekeepers, technology mishaps, you name it. We never managed to get through a complete run-through for the show. I was at the store at midnight buying makeup. I was falling asleep in my calculus class.
It wasn't a perfect performance, it wasn't of the highest technical standards, but it was professional. It brought people together and inspired community connections. My dancers were affirmed and inspired. Parents were happily shocked. The feeling of "we did it" kept washing over us.
Due to my own lifestyle needs at the time, I ended up disbanding my ensemble 6 months later. But I keep going back to that time in my life when I need to be inspired, connect to what is important to me, and be encouraged for the next thing. Of the dancers that performed with me, one now owns her own dance studio, another works with Houston Ballet, one is an architect, one is a psychologist, and my friend who performed with us now dances at Miami City Ballet. You never know what will come from where you invest yourself, but when you're seeking something higher you'll find yourself moving into something greater than you thought possible.
November 2019, #2
Here's the thing about potential: it's up to you more than anyone else. As a young dancer, I thought it was about who had the most talent or did the best fouette turns. Yes, technique is hugely important to a dancer's experience but there is so much more to consider.
I firmly believe that every person, every dancer is creative, unique, and special. Your role as a parent is to help them uncover their identity and use it to impact the world around them. Dance (and the arts) are an amazing source of connection and influence. You or dancer's path will be as unique as they are willing to dream.
I created a 10 step Q & A for dancers as they explore what dance means to them. Basically, I'm providing the answers to questions we constantly are asking such as, "How do I improve?", "How do I get help?", "How do I teach dance?", "Where should I take class?", "Am I choreographer?", and more.
As you and your dancer move through these prompts, you'll be surprised by the depth of their creativity and the range of their passion. You just might get inspired, too. Knowledge is power. If you don't know yourself, you won't know what you can do.
As a graduate student (far left) at Florida State, where I learned to mix business with pleasure. Dance training is serious and intense, so it is important to make sure you're having fun along the way.
November 2019, #1
Spring semester my freshman year, I rehearsed three different performances with three different studios. All three performances involved a lot of jumping. By May, the metatarsals in my left foot ached constantly. In June, I stepped forward to catch a frisbee and stumbled. I felt a pop in my foot. As a dancer, I didn't realize the deeply-seated terror of injuring my feet. I knew something was wrong but also knew that at the end of the month I was supposed to be going to Boston Conservatory for six weeks. We had some rushed visits with doctors, which confirmed a stress fracture. I was determined to go to Boston.
I was put in a walking cast and told me to wear it every minute I wasn't in class or sleeping. Needless to say, it was a rough summer. Despite dancing 3-5 hours daily, I could feel muscles atrophying. It was jarring to my foot/ankle/leg to go from immobility to impact. On my slender frame, the boot was really heavy and disrupted the rhythm of my gait.
When I returned home, it was almost time to start Nutcracker rehearsals. Everything was off in my body, so my teacher suggested I sit out most of Nutcracker, just dancing in the party scene. I also only did barre work for what seemed like forever. Even though I'd spent six weeks training with a renowned institution, I felt weak and unstable. My body was screaming for help.
Ironically, BoCo (now part of Berklee) also introduced me to STOTT PILATES, which as a young dancer, I did not see much value for doing. The concept of listening to your body and creating a balanced operating system felt unnecessary. I was busy trying to be a star. Looking back, I can see that the instructor wanted to establish an understanding of the Five Basic Principles so we could take care of our bodies outside of Pilates class.
Guess what? My story is one of thousands of young dancers with a seemingly simple ache or pain that significantly disrupted dance training. And, I was fortunate that I had an instructor hit the brakes for me before things really spiraled. So, how do we take inventory of the body?
Parents, check in with your dancers regularly and gently. Unfortunately, dancers often have been encouraged to hide injuries to avoid losing parts or status in a company. If you notice that they're constantly grimacing when getting into the car from one side, check in. Ask their teachers or other movement therapists for posture assessments. Schedule semi-regular movement support appointments whether it is acupuncture, massage, muscle activation, Pilates, etc. Movement professionals outside the dance studio will notice things dancers may not be sensitive towards and your dancer may be more receptive to hearing that from them. When an imbalance is effectively addressed early, it will rarely progress beyond that. I had some knee pain/instability during my early teens. A knee brace didn't help; an orthopedist gave me insoles for my shoes and noted that as we grow, sometimes it is an uneven process. Within six months, the knee pain/brace were gone and my growth spurt over. A good medical/movement professional will help you understand how to set your body up for success going forward, instead of just addressing the pain of today.
Dance instructors, can you provide space for your dancers to do self-assessments? Once a month, at the end of class, have them write down where they are having any pain or instability, what is most challenging for them in class, and what feels the strongest/weakest in their body. If your dancers are providing similar answers, you'll know that you can help address that with class pedagogue. This also builds awareness in your dancers so they'll start to recognize repetitive movement patterns or dominant muscle groups. Also, you can bring in a movement specialist periodically to challenge dancers to move differently. One of my studio directors would bring in guest teachers once a month - sometimes in ballet, sometimes in somatic practices - to help get us out of our own groove. Having outside eyes observing your dancers is really valuable for identifying what is form or function.
Dance administrators, are you establishing value for body care? At Florida State, our dance department had weekly forums which brought everyone together. One week, when we were in the middle of finals and rehearsals, the director cancelled forum with the directive to do something for ourselves with that time - that wasn't work. Sleep, stretch, meditate, eat a healthy meal, go to PT, etc. She would do that periodically each semester to reinforce that practice in us. With the busyness of dance production, we have to remember that dancers are not equipment in a factory producing stuff. Dancers are living, breathing human beings constantly in evolution with their bodies. We have to take care of our medium - the body.
Enjoying the change of seasons at Cheekwood Gardens in Nashville. Sometimes a change in weather is the reminder needed to make adjustments elsewhere in life.
October 2019, #2
As artists, we swing back and forth with the pendulum of change. Creating work means exploring, discovering, and investigating. How many times have you heard a choreographer describe the vast changes made from beginning to end with a piece? Sometimes it is a small change of level in a movement phrase, other times it is deciding on costume color - which Suzanne Farrell talked about how changing from white to black leotards totally disrupted a performance and its perception in her autobiography - or drastic cast changes.
Technique class provides stability to the artistic process. As I matured, I found beginning exercises like plies and tendus relaxing instead of boring. To this day, I love plies at the barre. It is calming, steadying, and centering. Some of us also got really attached to our place at the barre. I had a teacher routinely make us change places to keep us from getting territorial.
For some of us, our response to "when in doubt..." is "change it up." For others, it is "stick with what works." As dancers and educators, we've learned how to establish consistency within constantly moving parts. Dance breeds the capacity to rub your head and pat your belly; or, how to keep a soft, flowing upper body in port de bras with sharp, precise footwork below.
I'm constantly reminding myself that not everyone likes change. In fact, some people actively resist change. So, when working with students, parents, or teachers, have you thought about the transition for a big change? For example, Parents, how are you preparing students to work with a new teacher or go to a new studio? Students, how do you prepare for taking on a new role or auditioning for a new program? Teachers, how do you keep parents in the know and on board with the merry-go-round of studio life? Change comes all the time - the fall leaves will tell you that - and we all can have a turn in the driver's seat.
Students practiced effective warm-ups for rehearsal and performance with Omar Olivas in a Dance Conditioning class.
I spent the weekend at the Tennessee Dance Festival. Three hundred young dancers from across the state gathered at Nashville Ballet's studios to take master classes with instructors from universities, companies, and studios in improvisation, technique, auditioning basics, Afro-Haitian, and jazz. It was a joy to be surrounded by hundreds of dancers going for it. Students learned from each other, their teachers, and those around them.
A great aspect of the weekend included informal performances showcasing student choreography. Presenting one's own work is a vulnerable experience. Some young artists performed in their own work and others did not. Both options challenged each choreographer. Students were eligible for a small award based upon adjudicator response. I saw one student choreographer crying tears of joy and relief, saying over and over, "It went really well." She wasn't even focused on winning an award (although she did). She put her energy towards doing the task at hand - performing her own work with her peers in front of an audience that included choreographers, directors, and educators - well. For her, the victory came from overcoming nerves and managing an intense weekend of dancing.
This student, and others, took the opportunity to practice where they felt vulnerable, unsure, or less experienced. Practicing technique isn't everything in becoming a dancer. Learning how to manage people (artists), work with one's peers, communicate one's aesthetic, and balance one's own physical/emotional needs takes practice, too. When you're looking at next steps with your dancer(s), are you considering the whole picture?
Things to practice:
-direct, independent communication
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.