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End-of-Year Meltdowns Got You Down?

It’s spring, so that means meltdowns and performances. (Haha.) Seriously though, it’s definitely performance time: most dance schools are having their end-of-year shows to showcase all the good work their dancers have accomplished over the year. So it’s a time of excitement but also nerves, often for teachers as much as students. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward (no pun intended), but the anticipation can stir emotions into a real frenzy.

If you’re still in the countdown to an end-of-year show and are either experiencing meltdown-inducing levels of stress yourself or dealing with them from your peers or teachers, here are some fun tips to keep you sane.

  • Perfection will not be achieved between today and the performance, so let go of that as a goal. How you’re rehearsing today is the best indicator of how the show will go, so start turning on your face muscles to get ready to glow onstage because…
  • Performances are the reason you work as hard as you do every day. They should be exhilarating, as well as fun. If you keep the focus on dancing your best and having fun, you’ll be happier.
  • If your teacher(s) is overly stressed, don’t take it personally; end-of-year shows are an evaluation of them as well as you, so they’re entitled to jitters. Remind yourself of that if those jitters become meltdowns: everyone is doing their best and some people cope better than others.
  • Be in control of yourself and only yourself. There’s no point in trying to fix everyone else’s problems because it won’t work. Turn your focus inwards to yourself: how can you be best prepared to perform well? Keep your focus there to feel less stressed.
  • Finally, mark the end of your school year with a celebration after the performance, however small. It’s important to mark the occasion with a dinner out or some other way to celebrate your accomplishments.

Don’t fall into the trap of letting stress overshadow your performance(s); learning to cope with pre-show jitters is a big part of becoming a happy performer. If you have tried all of the above and still can’t deal, email me. I can definitely help.

 

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!

 

Considering Meditation? The Path is Curiosity

If you are considering, or have ever considered, meditation, then these wise words are for you. They are from Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, whose practical advice and unusual perspective are always spot on.

The path of meditation and the path of our lives altogether has to do with curiosity, inquisitiveness. The ground is ourselves; we’re here to study ourselves and to get to know ourselves now, not later. People often say to me, “I wanted to come and have an interview with you, I wanted to write you a letter, I wanted to call you on the phone, but I wanted to wait until I was more together.” And I think, “Well, if you’re anything like me, you could wait forever!”

So come as you are. The magic is being willing to open to that, being willing to be fully awake to that. One of the main discoveries of meditation is seeing how we continually run away from the present moment, how we avoid being here just as we are. That’s not considered to be a problem; the point is to see it.”   Pema Chodron.

Meditation is a tool, and learning to use it is like learning to use any tool: it takes time and it’s a process.

Pema’s quote tells us to start wherever you are; don’t wait until you’ve reached some “magic” place where you are perfectly poised to meditate. It will most likely never come, and then you would miss what meditation is for: it’s for day-to-day life; it’s for helping you get to a better place.

And the good news is, it doesn’t cost anything or take much time. 5-10 minutes a day of slow breathing while sitting still can make a huge difference in your stress levels (lowering them) and in your ability to focus (improving it).

For more information on Pema, check out her website. (Yes, even Buddhist nuns have websites!)

Injured? Don't Watch Class.

Injured? Don’t Watch Class.

In theory…

When you are injured, it is often customary to be asked to sit and watch class. In theory, this is a good idea that should have practical benefits. Learning from observation and keeping your head in the game are two reasons I have heard teachers give for this request.

In practice…

In practice though, watching class when you are injured is a recipe for disaster because you are not happily absorbing corrections and gaining insight into things. Instead, you are undergoing what my students have variously called “mental torture,” “instant depression,” and “a lesson in frustration.” Does that sound overdramatic? It’s not.

The psychological impact of not being able to do something you love should not be underestimated: it is huge. A dancer who cannot use his/her body can experience a range of emotions from anger to sadness. Being reminded of what you are unable to do can have a deeply destructive effect, and that effect can impact your healing process.

We know that a large part of recovery from illness and injury is state of mind: the more positive you are, the faster you will heal. The mind-body connection is powerful, and if you spend your days in despair, it will be difficult to get back in the studio even when you’re given the medical okay.

Here are some more effective ways for you to spend your time.

  • Ask your doctor and PT what types of activities you can safely do, and then find a way to do them. When I had my fracture, I was cleared for swimming, so I joined the YMCA and swam every day. If you can ride a bike or do non-weight bearing Pilates, for example, get started right away. The sooner you start moving that body of yours, the better you’ll feel. 
  • Take class in your mind. (What? Yes, in your mind.) Mental rehearsal will keep the mind-body connection alive and receptive even when you can’t take class (or full class). Find a quiet space where you can close your eyes and visualize yourself taking class. Use recorded music if it helps. It takes a lot of concentration to do this, so you may only get through part or half of class the first few times. Try to recall recent corrections, and really allow yourself to feel as if you are dancing.
  • Get support. Dancers identify so strongly with their dancing, that when injured, they can feel lost. That feeling can become darker before it gets better. Keep tabs on how you’re feeling, and don’t be afraid to ask for support from teachers, friends, family, and professionals: seek out a coach or therapist. Talking with people about how you feel is an important part of the healing process.
  • Learn something new. If your healing and rehab process leaves you with time on your hands, don’t spend it wishing you could dance- it will only create a negative feedback loop and you’ll feel worse. Instead, commit to learning something new; when I was injured, I did a night school class at a local university; an injured friend of mine took a cooking class. Think about what you’d like to improve in your life (healthier foods, improve your mental fitness, brush up on your Spanish skills…) and dive in.

The aim is to keep your mind active and receptive, and your energy positive, which allows you to reframe your injury as an opportunity. Sitting and watching class often has the opposite effect, so be sure to talk to your teachers about how that request affects your mental health. Then, share your plan for recovery with them. 

Are you or have you been injured recently? How did you stay positive through the healing process?

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.

Meditate, Breathe: Summoning My Inner Tibetan

This morning I escaped to my Ashtanga yoga practice. I needed to meditate and breathe, and not just in the usual sense.

Since last Friday’s horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I have been on a roller coaster of emotions: pain for the victims’ families, friends, and teachers; immense sadness at the loss of so many innocent little children; horror at the  senselessness of such a devastating act.

I have also been angry at our country, our leaders, our health care system- all people and institutions which should be capable of working together in  a manner which could have prevented this from ever happening. These feelings and a sense of helplessness in the face of it all have kept me slightly nervy and emotional all weekend.

So this morning, I really needed to get out of my head and into my body and breath. I thought it would help me, and it did, but in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

In the middle of my practice, I found myself drifting towards thoughts of the event: things I’d heard on the radio, images I’d seen online. My eyes would well with tears and I caught myself grinding my teeth. “Come back to the breath,” I kept telling my mind. And then, out of nowhere, “Peace.”

Repeating “Peace” brought me to a quieter place emotionally, and I was able to finish my practice.

It also gave me a small personal epiphany about meditative monks, like the Tibetans. I had never been entirely sure how I felt about monks removed from the world, praying and meditating; I confess I have wondered sometimes how those actions could make a difference.

Today, I think I had a tiny glimpse into the power of a meditative practice: I felt active. I felt connected to those families. It is something to experience compassion and pain for someone else’s suffering, to hold it in your own mind and heart, and then release it on the breath. The relief I felt at being able to do something, anything, was powerful; I can see how it could even be healing.

Separating Fact from Opinion

A young dancer’s days are spent listening to other people’s voices. Teachers, mentors, artistic directors, partners, choreographers, and many parents all talk to the young dancer about their dancing. Some feedback they give is work-focused, like corrections on technique and insights to build artistry. Other pieces of feedback are opinions, like comments on your appearance or work ethic.

Factual feedback is golden: it’s the kind of information you can write down in a journal and meditate on on future days. It’s information that you can *act* on and it’s about your dancing. 

Opinion-based feedback is much more personal in nature. It might be about your work ethic or how you look or something innate to you, like your intelligence. It’s information about YOU, not about your dancing. This type of feedback, when negative, can be destructive; it can erode your sense of who you are and your self-worth.

Negative, opinion-based feedback has no place in the studio. Ever. 

But people offer it all the time. Trying to get teachers and artistic directors to not use opinion-based feedback is … well, it’s impossible. So let’s skip that and instead try to shift your perspective. Try thinking about distancing who you are from how you dance.

Dancers often look at me with puzzled expressions when I suggest that it’s important to start to separate themselves from their dancing. “But…I am a dancer. When I dance, it’s me. It’s the same thing.”

I hear you. I felt the same way when I was dancing. But here’s the thing: there IS a difference.

YOU are you. Your dancing is something that you DO. It’s very, very personal, for sure. And yes, your body is you. But imagine this: Imagine someone criticizing your handwriting. How deeply personal would you take that criticism? Is your handwriting YOU?

My guess is it wouldn’t hurt you the way a negative comment about your dancing would. So use that idea as a model for how to start separating your dancing from who you are as a person. It’s a long process, but one that will really help you move past the negative impact of opinion-based feedback.

Also, when you get feedback, try to separate it in your mind into fact-based and opinion-based. Hold onto the fact-based stuff: write it down, meditate on it, use it.

If the opinion-based feedback is negative and/or is not connected to the work (i.e. your dancing), evaluate how helpful that information really is to your progress. Maybe there’s a “fact jewel” in the muck- if so, fish it out and try to use it. If not, let it go.

When you can hear an opinion as an opinion, you can decide how to respond to it.  Opinions that do not move you forward on your path of progress and understanding are not worth much. Give yourself permission to toss them away.

Sing a Song (In Your Head)

Sing a Song (In Your Head)

I’ve been having trouble lately quieting my mind: it’s on replay these days with to-do lists and various other things. It’s been really difficult to find a quiet mental place where I can truly relax and be in the moment. I’ve tried breathing deeply and also repeating a mantra, things that have worked in the past, but no dice.

So, this morning, walking to my office, I tried a new tactic. I tried singing a song in my head. I didn’t invent this, I’m sorry to say. It’s a technique that marathon runners, among others, use to stay in the moment. They memorize playlists and then “play” them in their minds during races. It helps block out the incessant whirring of their brains. (And can you imagine how much whirring could happen during a 25-mile run? Seriously. Anyone would need a strategy.)

It turns out, it is really hard to think about anything else when you are singing the words to a song. (Which is not true when you’re actually listening to music, right? Raise your hand if you have completely missed entire songs in a playlist because you are so distracted by your thoughts. My hand is up.)

Anyway, I sang three songs by the time I got to work and it worked! I didn’t have any random thoughts wander in and pull me away from my being in the moment.  Furthermore, I felt mentally refreshed by the time I arrived at my office. It was refreshing to get off the hamster wheel of my noisy brain.

So, the next time your brain is being annoyingly overactive, pick a song you know the words to and start singing in your head. (This is a great time sing music that other people don’t appreciate: no one will hear it but you!) Make a mental note of how you feel afterwards. If it’s helpful, maybe cue up a little playlist for yourself so you have it at the ready.

Love Your Dancing: Find the Joy

Does it ever feel like you’ve forgotten how to love dancing? It’s something I hear from my dancers a lot. “Dance is so hard. Why do I do this to myself? I don’t even know why I’m dancing anymore!”

I remember those days. I remember long, hard days of taking corrections, analyzing every finger and toe in the mirror, and constantly looking, looking, looking for problems. And since there are *always* problems, it can start to feel like you’re never going to get where you’re going.

First, everyone has those days, so take a deep breath and know that you’re not alone.

Second, every minute of every day does not have to be about perfection or fixing things. (So just ditch that idea!)

Third, when you do feel like you’re going down that black hole of perfection and analyzation, it’s definitely time to step away from the mirror and the nitpicking and just…dance.

Dance like your biggest fan is watching. You have someone in your life who *loves* your dancing – everyone does. That person never sees the mistakes and thinks everything you do is golden. Imagine that person standing in the front of the studio, or at the door, and dance for that person only. Just let go, feel the music, feel your body engaging in the movement and enjoy the wonderful feeling that dancing gives you.

Allowing yourself to do this will reconnect you to the reasons that you started dancing in the first place. Too often, those reasons can get lost in the day-to-day experience of training. It’s like missing the forest for the trees: you work and sweat and cry, and at the end of the day, you have no joy to show for it.

I think that’s a real pity, and perhaps the worst casualty of taking it all a little too seriously. One of my dancers likes to remind herself that she’s not curing cancer and no one’s life depends on her nailing the final diagonal in her variation. That helps put her endeavors into perspective and it helps her remember to love it. Otherwise, what’s it all for?

The next time you find yourself sinking beneath the weight of your imperfections, or consistently leaving the studio with feelings of loss or frustration, try to take a step back. Ask yourself, why do I dance? Then tap into that answer the next time you’re dancing. You owe it to yourself to at least enjoy yourself a little bit everyday.