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Superbowl & Ballet: Common Ground

I’m not sure if you watched the Superbowl the other week. It was kind of a big deal. I didn’t watch it because I’m not much of a football fan.

However, it was *on* in my house, and I tuned in once the score tied at the game’s end. (That had never happened before in the game’s history.)

So they went into “Sudden Death Overtime” which meant the first team to score would win the game.

The first thing they did after the announcement of overtime was what made me think of you all.

They did a coin toss.  

(You’ll see why that matters in a second…)

The Patriots called heads and won the coin toss, so they got the ball.

Once they got the ball, they showed up and played the game they’ve played thousands of times. They scored first. So they won the Superbowl, after having been seriously behind in points for the first three-quarters of the game.

What if the coin had been tails?

What if the Falcons had won control of the ball?

Would they have scored first?

The answer is almost certainly yes. The Falcons had been killing it all game long. They were dominating the Patriots. Chances are, had lucked smiled on them in the coin toss, they would have won the game.

One coin toss. One outcome. And that was that.

I was reminded of all of the times that luck played a part in my own career, and that of many of the dancers in my life. A principal dancer’s partner retired so I got promoted; I was the right height to wear the costume for an injured dancer; I was the only one in an eye-catching red unitard at a midwest audition… the list goes on.

Luck matters in your dancing.

Opportunities will come to you or to your peers, and sometimes the only real reason why is that you got lucky. (Or she did.)

There’s now way to control for luck or to predict it.

If that makes you feel a little queasy, it should. Luck is like that.

However, what you can prepare for is what happens right afterwards. If the Patriots had played badly after the coin toss, or had let the pressure get to them, they wouldn’t have scored when they needed to. Instead they played the way they knew they needed to play. They showed up and played their best when that door opened, and they won.

If you’re an understudy, luck might help get you the part, but how you perform is entirely up to you.

Luck might help you land a contract, but how you dance your first professional season is in your hands.

So remember that while luck plays a part in success, it never plays the biggest part which comes afterwards. Prepare for that part, so that, like the Patriots in this historic Superbowl,  you’re ready when luck finally smiles on you.

 

Over-scheduled and Stressed Out

I just got this question from a dance mom on my website: “What would you suggest for the stressed out high schooler/ dancer? My son has so much on his plate and as a family we don’t get to see each other until Friday night.”

I hear this a lot. Although the specifics differ, the dancers I work with and talk to are living highly scheduled lives. They’re running from school to dance, then eating dinner at 9:00pm and doing homework until the wee hours. It can be hard to feel on top of anything at such a pace.

How do you handle this as a dancer? As a family?

There is no simple fix, but here’s a place to start.

First, determine what you need more of. 

  • Sleep?
  • Sit-down Meals?
  • Family time?
  • Alone time?
  • Time for schoolwork?

Yes, yes, and yes! I hear you, but for purposes of getting started, try to pick only one or two things. Then take a look at your average day and week. Usually, there’s some time in there, often in between two scheduled things, that could be better used.

Here are two concrete examples:

  • Maybe on the train (or car) ride to dance class, you could either do some schoolwork or use the time for self-care, like listening to calming music or doing a breathing exercise.
  • Maybe you’re a person who does homework with your phone next to you, inviting distractions and multi-tasking. Homework can take twice as long when interrupted, so try putting your phone in another room and applying your full mind to the task at hand. Most people find that when they focus completely, they work faster and more efficiently. If that’s true for you, then you’ve just created more time in your day.

More generally though, try these things:

  • Prioritize downtime: When faced with the option of adding another thing to your schedule, resist. Make sure you’re getting some unscheduled downtime every week when you can relax and recharge (in whatever way works best for you).

This includes dancing. It’s important to take at least one day off per week from dancing. Resist the urge to do class on a Sunday!

  • Prioritize self-care: Although we all can use more self-care, dancers need it more than most. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of training alongside an academic schedule can produce faster than normal burnout.

Be sure to make time for sleep (at least 8 hours/night), resting your body (legs up, couch time), and eating healthy meals three times a day. It sounds basic, but cutting any of these corners can make you feel even more stressed.

  • Minimize social media: yeah, yeah, you’ve heard this one before. The thing is, unless you don’t own a smartphone, you probably spend a lot more time on social media than you’re aware of. Start keeping track of how many times a day you pick up your phone to check a text message or Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook. Imagine if you created mini-breaks from media to turn your attention to self-care or family-time? It’s an experiment worth trying. You might find you feel calmer and more on top of things.

I suggest adopting one of the above and committing to it for the next three weeks. See how it goes and if you feel any less stressed. Then move on to the next thing. Slowly, over time, you can build new habits for yourself and your family that offer little pockets of sanity. And hopefully, you’ll feel the difference!

 

Eat More, Do More

Eat More, Do More

A dancer-friend of mine once told me that she wished someone had imparted this piece of wisdom to her when she was training: rather than eating less (as many dancers seem to do), and feeling that she had to conserve her energy and be careful about not overdoing it, wouldn’t it have made more sense to eat more and do more? Yes! In fact, that is the way to go. The question is, what to eat and do more of?

When most of us think about eating more, we often think this means eating everything. We hear “eat more” and think, “Yes! I AM going to have dessert after lunch…AND dinner! And throw in that bag of chips!”

That’s not what I mean though. What I mean is to eat more whole foods, more REAL foods: more greens and veggies, more whole grains, more fruits, more beans. As athletes, dancers need adequate fuel, and that fuel cannot be substandard in quality. If you were taking a road trip across the country, would you fill your car with the dirtiest, cheapest gas you could find? You could, but you wouldn’t get very far and your car would be in a sad state after a few hours.

It’s a crude metaphor, but the same is true for your dancing body: if you fill it with processed foods, sugar, simple carbs, and/or junk food, you’re not going to much out of it. Most dancers I have worked with tend to eat very little actual food. Instead, they exist on snack foods: pretzels, nuts, rice cakes- nibbles of finger food rather than the real deal. And they usually think that they have good energy and strength; they don’t even know what they’re missing. Once we get them on a diet of whole foods, there are some pretty exciting changes like increased energy and power reserves they never experienced before.

Once you have adequate fuel, you’ll know you can do more- you’ll feel stronger and more energetic. You’ll have the fuel for the cross training which is so critical to improving. (What kind of cross training to do depends on your body, what kind of dancing you’re doing, and previous injuries you’ve sustained. Check out this post from a few weeks ago about fitness and this link to a Dance Spirit article on cross training.)

You’ll also have energy to get through your day. It used to surprise me to hear young dancers talk about how tired they were all of the time- then I realized how little they were eating and it made perfect sense. Of course you slow down when there is no fuel in the system: your body is conserving energy. And with low/no fuel, your dancing suffers. But with a full tank of whole foods that is regularly replenished, your body will be capable of amazing things. How else do we explain marathon runners, mountain climbers, and cyclists? Are we saying that dancers aren’t capable of that level of exertion? I think not. I think most dancers can do a lot more than they think- the trouble is, without adequate fuel, you’ll never know what you’re capable of.

Lessons From Yoga for Dancers: Lesson 3

Lessons From Yoga – Lesson 3

Lesson 3: Letting Go Does NOT Equal Laziness.

I still remember dancing days when I could turn like a top, and then days when nothing I did could make those pirohuettes happen. I also remember my response to those dark days: total frustration. I actually remember the sensation that would rise through my body and into my head: hot, red, angry and confused. Then, I would pull myself together and apply my well-engrained dancer’s work ethic: I would practice over and over again, pushing through the problem in the hopes of arriving at a solution.

Unfortunately, it didn’t always work. In fact, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure it didn’t do me much good, most of the time. So why did I stick to that plan? I think it’s because dancers have a hard time letting go; it feels totally foreign, and often we confuse it with being lazy or giving up. I was never good at letting to go, particularly when it came to my technique.

And this is where Lesson 3 from Yoga comes in…

…much of yoga requires relaxation and deep breathing (which cannot be done when tense and straining). Success is achieved when the breath initiates the movement, and when we accept our bodies and abilities in that moment. And sometimes, things don’t work, just like in dance.

But unlike dance, yoga instructors have a different approach: they recognize that one day is not always like the next: there are variations in what our bodies can tackle and that is okay. It’s not a sign of devolving ability, or lack of dedication or discipline. Just, some days, you can do a head stand or a triple pirohuette, and some days you can’t. *

So yoga instructors say things like, “Go into lotus, if it is available to you today.” If you can’t make lotus that day, you can sit cross-legged, and no one seems to mind.

It has taken me a long time to stop minding and to just let go when I can’t achieve something I did yesterday. In that moment, when I let go and surrender to breathing, I grow in a different way. I accept that I am human, that my body is slightly different every day, and that my real challenge is in letting go, not in pushing hard.

This is an important lesson for dancers who are taught to be perfect every day and to really beat themselves up for variations in the abilities. Sometimes relaxing can help. Give it a try.

 

* This reminds me of a performance of Don Quixote I saw last spring at ABT where Gillian Murphy danced Kitri. Murphy is an exceptional turner who regularly wows audiences with her multiples, but that night, she was off. Rather than feeling disappointed, I was actually excited to see her dance on an off-night (which was still incredible) because it gave me the opportunity to see her work through her body’s issues. Of course, she was fantastic and if you didn’t know she was a turner, you never would have guessed she wasn’t on.

It’s Never Too Late to Change Direction

Dancers put a lot of time, energy and passion into their dancing. That dedication often spills over into other areas of our lives: we approach many other things in life with that same spirit of staying the course, without a thought to the direction we’re going.

When we’ve put so much on the line, it can be difficult to admit to ourselves, or others, that we are heading in the wrong direction. Our commitment is so complete, that there is little space for doubt or re-evaluation. When we do see the problem, a stubbornness can set in that says, “I came this far; I can’t turn back now.”

Personally

I had an experience like this while dancing professionally. While I had a natural facility for ballet and the technique often looked right on my body, it wasn’t always coming from a place of understanding. A good example was my alignment in allegro: when I was moving quickly, my knees were rarely over my toes, so that when I landed from jumps, I was often rolling in on my ankles and twisting my knees. It was very slight, but I knew it was happening.

Sometimes, the ballet master would point it out. I remember thinking on many occasions that I should really do something about that, but it seemed daunting. How was I going to slow down long enough to fix the alignment in my lower legs? Where would I begin?

In my mind, I had missed the window for fixing old problems – now I was a professional and had to keep moving forward. I told myself, “I can’t regress now, I’ve come too far.”

It wasn’t until I got a stress fracture that I understood the full effect of my stubbornness. I had been going further and further down a wrong road, and refused to admit it. Had I taken the time to investigate my alignment with a PT or a teacher, I might not have given myself the fracture.

“No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn around.”

I’m sharing this little phrase with you as a reminder that we have never gone so far in the wrong direction that we can’t turn around. We can always choose to take a new direction in our training, our habits, and our thinking.

Also, moving in the wrong direction has consequences: it takes us further from our goals. In some cases, like mine, our goals are brought to a standstill for a while. So, even if turning around feels like a setback, face that with the same determination you have in your dancing. Slowing down in order to reorient yourself in the right direction is well worth the effort.

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall: Part I

Mirror as Crutch

As dancers, we are trained to work in front of a mirror. For as many as eight hours a day, we scrutinize every inch of our bodies from our fingertips to our toes, searching for…what? Are we using the mirror to scrutinize our dancing or are we getting distracted?

I was taught that the mirror was a tool and that by looking, I would become more self-sufficient at spotting and correcting my errors of alignment, line, and technique. In fact, when I was training, I used my reflection constantly to correct myself and it was helpful.

However, at some point in my training, the power dynamic shifted and the mirror came out on top. When I couldn’t see my reflection, my technique suffered. When my image was blocked by another dancer, I didn’t feel my feet or my extensions in the same way. I became reliant on my reflection to dance well. It stopped being a tool and became a crutch.

How Does It Happen?

In my experience, this is something that happens to most dancers at some point.  We often have trouble feeling things like where an arabesque is (90 degrees? 110 degrees?) or whether our feet are pointing in petite allegro, so we look at our reflection to see what’s going on.

Find Out Where You Stand

If any of this sounds familiar, then try this little experiment over the summer. Start by asking yourself some questions:

  1. If I am having a good class- I’m on my leg, I feel centered and balanced- does that change if I stop looking in the mirror?
  2. Does my image of my body or technique get better or worse when I see myself?
  3. When I see my image in a distorted mirror (the so-called “fat” mirror), does this change how I feel about myself or my dancing?
  4. When my reflection is “taken away” or covered, do I panic? Do I lose my center and my bearings? If so, how long does it take for me to get re-oriented?
  5. How much time do I spend correcting errors vs. noticing other things about myself (hair, make-up, leotard, etc) or other dancers?

Your answers to these questions may indicate that it’s time to start thinking about how to change your relationship with the mirror. It will take some time, but will be well worth the effort. You’ll dance in a more organic way if your movement comes from what you feel in your body, rather than what you see with your eyes.

Answer the above questions and tell me what you’ve learned. I’d love to hear from you. Next time, we’ll talk about ways to start changing how you work with your own image.