About Susan

Monday, July 30, 2012

Flesh and Blood

It seems completely obvious for a dancer to focus on movement, but I'm continually amazed by how much more I could be doing.  In fact, after today's rehearsal of an Uighur dance, I began to realize how much I wasn't doing.

To approximate what my coach, a distinguished teacher from the Beijing Dance Academy, told me in Chinese:

"Without ebb and flow, there is no contrast.  You merely have motion.  But when you focus on the origin of the movement and you know when to be soft and when to be hard, then!  Then, it becomes dance."

Another way she drove it home, after stopping me for the umpteenth time after a break in a series of turns:

"You've got the framework, but it's just the skeleton.  Breathe!  When you allow your body to fully live the movement, you build the flesh and blood.  That's what gives life to dance."

As she spoke, her eyes softened as her entire body melted into a mesmerizing fluidity of girlish coquetry.  She perfectly embodied the Uighur maiden, blushing secretly to herself at the mere thought of love.

During moments like this, I am unable to tear my eyes off of her.  How do I become that movement, so full of life?  I'm frustrated at my inability to sublimate the movement and simultaneously filled with complete adoration for my coach.  Her body, her eyes, every little thing about her, is completely captivating.

Then the moment is broken as her eyes harden and train upon me.  She's back in coach mode.  "You got that?"

Quickly I nod, not quite recovered, and try again.  And again, and again.  We run the dance several more times, and by the end I'm so far gone I barely hold the last pose, a snap backbend.  My coach is a tough trainer, but she takes pity on me at the end of the rehearsal.

"When you know the steps better, you'll get there," she said, her gaze softer.  You've already improved.  Be unafraid, let your body live the movement."  In a split second, her eyes sharpen.  "And for heaven's sake, let your neck go!"

"Yes, Teacher," I said, smiling, and do what I do at the end of every class: She dismisses me, and I bow with a hearty "Thank you, Teacher!" This formality is a given in China, and while my coach does not enforce it much here in the States I am careful to always show my respect.  Her proud, lifted chin does not quite hide her satisfied smile of approval.

Back home, I move in front of the mirror or in the light reflected off a window in the evenings, trying to find, and then grow, the movements within my body.  Instead of wearing them like an ill-fitting outfit, I must learn to activate them seamlessly as I tap into the appropriate state of being. Only then will I become the flesh and blood that is my dance.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Practicing to Make It Count

Countless hours practicing running pinwheel turns => showtime!

You know the feeling: that sinking sensation that, despite all the time you've put into working on getting better at something, you're nowhere near where you need to be.  Maybe you're still unable to execute a clean series of brisés volés to the left (me!); maybe you've been slaving away on fouette turns and are nowhere near the emblematic 32 in a row every ballerina aspires to.

Not Making Progress?  How Are You Practicing?
"I've done ballet for three years and I'm still no good!" is a cry of dismay I often hear from my mother, an adult beginner.  "But, Mamee," I explain patiently, "you're following very well but you haven't yet learned the fundamentals."  Dancers know that in order to gain technical prowess it is absolutely essential to understand how to use one's muscles, how to use one's body, the floor, and gravity to do what is required to make the required movements possible, much less make them beautiful. You must learn and internalize the basics. Unfortunately, my mother doesn't yet grasp this concept, and continues doing the movements in the same way she's always done them.

The point is, if you keep doing the same thing that isn't working over and over again, you're probably not going to see much improvement, if any.  My mother has indeed taken many ballet classes, sometimes going as much as five times a week.  The issue isn't frequency.  The issue is the nature of the practicing she does.

My mother takes open ballet classes, meaning she goes through a standard 1.5 hour technique class for adults with varying levels of experience.  The instructor cannot reasonably be asked to consistently teach the fundamentals that children learn as beginners to build a solid foundation for advancement.  Busy adults generally don't want to give up their hard-earned money for one whole month of concentrated work on how to stand properly in first position, or how to do a tendu in the correct manner. (1) In glossing over these essential fundamentals, however, adult beginning students like my mother find it very difficult to improve.

The Art of Deliberate Practice
This brings me to what Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, calls "deliberate practice": practice with the objective of improving your performance. (2) According to Ericsson:

"Deliberate practice is about changing your performance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time."

Get Feedback
This means that you have to understand what you need to do to improve.  You need to put yourself out there and ask for feedback.  Don't be afraid of losing face - you want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Remember - this is for you!  If you don't want to know what you don't want to hear about how you're doing, ask yourself: do you really want to improve?  Keep your eyes on the prize: you and eventual mastery!

Repeat Your Strategic Practice Routine
Once you know what you need to do to get better, do it. Over and over and over again.  In Chinese opera, it is said that one small hand gesture is the product of 10 years of concentrated labor.

Classically trained dancers are no stranger to this.  Even if you're an international superstar who has received 10 minutes of standing ovation at a major opera house the night before, you're back at the studio the next morning working on that step that didn't go quite perfectly.  It's the same formula on the road to mastering whatever it is you want to do.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help!
Put that pride away.  My mother still refuses to sign up for private ballet classes because she's afraid the instructor will think she's stupid if she doesn't pick things up right away.  If you are having trouble understanding how something works or how to do it, ask!  Otherwise, you'll always be stuck at the same place.  As my piano teacher says, "If you were perfect, you wouldn't be here, would you?"

Work On the Areas You're Having Trouble With
My success rate in executing clean turns to the right when I dance is low compared to my left turns. I can lift my left leg higher and more easily than my right leg.  Instead of working twice as much on turns to the right, or stretching to increase flexibility in my right leg, I could just do what takes less effort and look pretty good doing it.  This is a real pitfall.  What if a choreographer comes in and asks everyone to execute a series of turns to the right?  I'm not going to get cast in that piece!

That said, it can be advantageous to focus on one's strengths, and I admit I do like being cast in strong, athletic, or roles that require more acting, as these come more naturally to me and I feel in my element.  In general, if you really are not a particular type of dancer (e.g. adagio, brio, etc.), it may not be worth it to always try to go against your natural grain.

But when it comes to mastering something that you really want to do, you do have to focus on the problem areas - at least to the point of gaining enough proficiency towards overall progress.

It's Not Going to Be Easy, But You're Worth It!
As motivational expert Daniel Pink points out in his wonderful book Drive, "Prepare for the process to be mentally and physically exhausting."

If it was going to be easy, do you think it would be as interesting or worth doing?  Still, it's tough to make that commitment. I always dread working on running pinwheel turns in Chinese dance, but it's a staple technique and to get this down is to be able to dance many, many pieces.  Plus, I remind myself that I have come a long way since the days I first started learning it - I usually ended up either on the floor, or wanting to throw up (or both)!

But is it worth it?  Oh, yes. The free-flying sensation of pure movement that is owned by my body is worth every bit of repetition, N x 100 (or 1000, as it were).  As long as it's deliberate practice, that is.

So don't give up! If you know you want to improve and it really means something to you, practice with these fundamentals in mind:

  • Approach practice with the singular goal of improving your performance
  • Seek feedback - the good, the bad, the ugly
  • Work especially on areas that are holding you back from making progress
  • Do it over and over and over again

So if you want it badly enough, do yourself a huge favor and commit to improvement. Figure out what you want, and then find ways to do it really well.  You won't see it in 3 days, but by the 3000th day, you bet there will be a marked difference.  Onward, and upward!

(1) Excellent article on Dance Advantage on why the simple tendu one of the most important building blocks of classical dance

(2) For more on Professor Ericsson and the concept of deliberate practice, see this Forbes article

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Muscles! Princess! Muscles! Princess!

Trying my darndest to be graceful!

The integration of these diametrically opposed concepts is what a ballet dancer grapples with from day 1 as a student throughout the entirety of her career.  (Notice I didn't state "female ballet dancer" since the all-too-beautiful divas of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets Grandiva are wonderful examples of this dichotomy.  I love how each ballerina is referred to in the feminine.  Oh, to be Svetlana Lofatkina!)

A ballerina must be as strong as steel to perform technical feats that are - let's face it - largely unnatural to the human body.  But the audience must only see the luminous radiance of a beautiful woman: regal, poised, yet delicate and pliant.

So we work hard on building strength and length, meticulously and carefully.  We must be strong, but we must not bulk up in the wrong places.  "Lengthen, don't grip!  Do you want thunder thighs?"  If I had a penny for every time I've been told that ...

And when we're strong enough, our appearance and movement must not be the embodiment of that strength.  We must be strength sublimated into grace.  We must be strength in agility, fortresses of ethereal beauty.   

It's not easy for me.  I'm naturally a tomboy and love "strong" roles.  It's at once a great challenge and completely frustrating to work on "girly" roles.  I'm often told that I look too hefty in my upper body, that I need to soften.  I soften, and then I'm told I'm not regal enough.  I straighten my back, my elbows all the way to the tips of my fingers, and lift my chin a little.  No, no, no, too stiff!  And so it goes.

I owe the title of this post to one of my favorite teachers, Ramon from Ballet San Jose.  "You must feel like you're the most important person in the world," he smiled, encouraging me to show the carriage befitting a ballet dancer during center adagio.  "You are a princess!"

In nearly the same breath he gave another correction as I executed a développé écarté (slow extension of the leg to the side) - "Muscles!" to let me know I needed to tighten even more to smooth the movement into a beautiful unfurling of leg.  I repeated the movement.  "Princess!" he exclaimed, lengthening his back and chest to indicate the lifted, proud yet relaxed look I should be projecting.  "Muscles!  Princess!" he repeated as I tried again.

Finally I did it to his satisfaction, and only after I closed into fifth position carefully did I burst into laughter; I couldn't help myself.  At Ramon's quizzical look, I gestured to my lower body, "Muscles!" and then my upper body, "Princess!" and after a beat repeated in quick succession,  "Muscles!  Princess!"

Ramon smiled and said in the indulgent manner only he can pull off, "Yes, that's right."  (I really appreciate Ramon's patience and sense of humor ... if it had been another teacher I probably wouldn't have allowed myself to laugh!)

Even as I struggle with projecting strength and delicacy as a seamless whole, I'm gratified to know that at least I'm improving.  I admit I can see the difference in more recent performances, as well as when my Chinese dance coach gives me a rare and unexpected compliment: "It's a little more natural, now," she told me not long ago, and then gave me more corrections on how to improve.  When Chinese dance gets girly, it's really girly.

I'm ready to keep learning, to keep trying to become more graceful.

So, bring it on!!  Er, I mean, yes, please!  ;-)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fitness Challenge On!

Feels so great to stretch at the studio after all that gym work!

I'd meant to update sooner, but life has this amazing way of filling my days with so much that I'm only getting to it now!  Happily, a good deal of that activity has been physical.  I completed the 2 Week Challenge!  (Read about how it all started.)  It wasn't easy ... After facing kettlebells, trainer Nic introduced me to other new (and seemingly cruel) ways to build strength and endurance.

The Squat Rack
I laughed at the name until I realized what I was supposed to do.  The great thing about the squat rack is you can use it in different ways. First I was directed to use it as modified pull-up tool, with my body held straight with core engaged right beneath the bar. It's like this: Put both hands on the bar (set low) and pull yourself up, keeping your body perfectly straight. Nic wanted me to sweat and groan, so he had me put my legs way out beyond the rack - less leverage means more work!

That was fun, but then I got the real deal. The bar was adjusted to my standing height so I could lift the bar off the rack and place it on my shoulders. All I was missing were buckets on either end, filled with water or noodles or whatever!

First I did squats, then single leg lunges, then again - then Nic began adding weights on the end (be careful what you wish for!). By then I was starting to fatigue with the repeated reps, so after I finished each set, I watched in trepidation as Nic calmly picked up progressively bigger black weights. In the end, after nearly dying, he informed me that I'd been lifting 60 pounds at the end. Whoa! I was proud of myself!

Wobbly Walking Push-Ups
I have no idea what this exercise is called, but picture having your hands and feet in low-rider rollerskates that have gone wonky like bad shopping or airplane carts (you know, where the wheels will *not* go straight) and walking with your arms L-R, pushup, R-L, pushup, repeating, for 200 yards.  And then back again.  Body straight, with only the arms doing the walking.

Cruel and unusual punishment, I say!  I thought my upper arms were going to fall off - I could hardly do another pushup towards middle of the second set (yes, second set up and down, another 400 yards) even if I could manage to walk forward, arms shaking.

The funny part was that just about everyone on the gym floor stopped to watch and gave me helpful encouragement.  "You kicked butt," Nic told me after I picked my sweaty self off the floor, "Most guys can't even make it down one way the first time - I couldn't."  I totally didn't believe that he couldn't the first time, but then again, dance has given me a stronger than average core, which has helped me immeasurably throughout my fitness challenge.

Shock Your Body!
I did many other kinds of exercises in between, but the above two really made a deep impression on me.  They were super hard and very rewarding.  "C'mon, strong!  Mighty Mouse!" Nic would say whenever I started to flag.  (I sometimes wear a yellow t-shirt depicting Mighty Mouse in flight, over my leotard and shorts.)

In the weeks since, I've incorporated many new and interesting exercises and techniques into my warm-ups and workouts.  I like to "shock" my body by mixing it up each day so it doesn't get too accustomed to using only one set of muscles.  It's more interesting, and it also has me cross-training for the first time in my life!

I've found that I really enjoy working my body in different ways.  It informs my dancing and hasn't bulked me up like my Chinese dance teacher cautions me not to do (I'd never tell her I am going to the gym!).  I feel stronger in my core, too, and my endurance has improved.

The best part is, working out makes me love dancing even more.  I feel gratified when I lengthen my muscles and point my feet, shod in slippers and not trainers.

Most of all, I feel like I have more ways to challenge myself and to take care of my body.  I want to be like Skip, the 60 year old who congratulated me on my pushup walks - he was incredibly fit and proceeded to do the same exercise, but with a unicycle for his feet.  Hard core!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Susan vs. Kettlebell

I love me some kettlebell ... sort of!

No, it's not a legal battle:  I'm on day five of my self-imposed Two Week Challenge at a local gym, and what a journey it's been so far!  In addition to taking hour-long classes auspiciously named "Body Sculpt" and "Muscle Mix", I've been working with a personal trainer in half-hour sessions.  I found out mid-week that my trainer, Nic, is known as "The Punisher".  He is a Mixed Martial Arts athlete and looks like it.  Like most dancers, I am pretty good at driving myself hard, so I wanted someone who would push me - Nic certainly is tough!

My goals of cross-training and exploring different ways of working my body are certainly being met.  I thought that as a dancer, I'd already learned how to use my muscles in myriad ways, especially with my work in Chinese ethnic dance.  But as soon as I started the challenge at the gym, I learned just how much dance has trained me to use my body in one way: Up and forward, on the balls of my feet, always stretching towards the heavens.  Even Korean dance, the most "down" I've ever had to be, is still forward compared to what I'm working on now.

Back on Your Heels!
One of the first things I learned was the proper "squat" stance.  It is a prerequisite to many exercises, including one that involves holding a kettlebell and swinging it between the legs, then snapping the hips upward to swing the kettlebell up.  After Nic showed me the stance and moves, I gamely picked up the weight and nearly swung myself out across the room.

"Back on the heels!  Sit in your hips!  Butt back into your hips!  On the heels, snap the hips, on the heels!" Nic barked, albeit in an encouraging way.

Wait, what do you mean, "back on the heels" and "sit in your hips"?  This was the very antithesis of everything I've ever learned!  It suddenly dawned on me as I panted and sweated that this was going to be very tough and interesting, indeed.

After a grueling half hour of variations on kettlebell routines, involving single arm swings, presses overhead, circling the kettlebell around the head with elbows tight, and so forth, I was feeling it everywhere.  The next day I could barely bend my legs without acutely feeling all these new muscles that I'd never engaged before, since I am never back on my heels.

By the way, when I first laid eyes on the 18lb iron thing Nic had placed before me on the floor, all I could think of was those weights that would, if you were unlucky, drop on your character and cause his untimely demise in the old sidescroller game Dark Castle.  I certainly wasn't going to let the kettlebell crush me, and yesterday was my second session of kettleball delight - a series of 5 exercises, repeated twice.

And you know what, I felt stronger the second time around!  I felt more secure in the back of my heels, butt so far out that it felt like it was in outer space.  However, this position really does enable you to snap your hips and get that kettlebell up so you're not only using brute force in the arms.  It works your whole body like you wouldn't believe.

Two unexpected side effects of this work:

1) I am acutely aware of where I'm weak and where I've been cheating in dance.  Nearly all moves are done in perfect parallel in the fitness world, and if you're attached to a kettlebell even the smallest imbalance is magnified 100 fold (or so it feels).  I realized that I've been skewing my body in arabesque to the left much more grossly than I'd imagined.  I felt how much less strong I am on that side, and now know what I need to work on.  Bless/Darn that kettlebell!

2) Going to ballet technique class after a fitness workout reminds me of how much I love ballet, and how much it is "home" for my body.  I get to engage those familiar muscles, to lengthen, to stretch to the sky.  It was like a breath of fresh air, despite my soreness.  Ah ...

Week Two, here we come.  I'll best you yet, kettlebell!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Into the Unknown

Yi Ethnic Dance "MoSheGe" - A great endurance buster!
... the Unknown being "fitness"!  I'd come across many references to "cross-training" as an important component to overall strength for dancers in various publications such as Dance Magazine and Pointe.  Ever since coming back from working in Beijing last year where I didn't dance at all and resorted to running on the "hamster wheel" at the tiny hotel gym to keep up a shred of endurance, I've become much more aware of what it takes to stay in shape.

I still feel woefully out of shape, to be honest, as I haven't been performing as often these days.  I hope to get back into the groove soon, but in the meantime I need to make myself strong.  Unfortunately, technique class doesn't seem to be cutting it.

To be sure, class is everything I need to feel my muscles working, to feel the floor, to make sure I'm doing things the right way.  I will not go without it!  And yet, I'm not sweating as much as I'd like - petit allegro and grand allegro across the floor are exhilarating (I've always loved jumping) but it's over all too soon, and my heart rate has only just started to get going!  As a result, I end up feeling somewhat unfulfilled.  I continue working after class, of course, but after reading about cross-training I decided to venture into the realm of "fitness" to see what the fuss was about.

I even leafed through the Health and SELF magazines my cousin and sister had lying about their homes to see what kind of exercises they recommend for their readers.  I tried to ignore the inevitable feature headlines ("Flat Belly Secrets!" "Drop 10 Pounds Eating What You Love!") and cut to the exercises.  That's when I vowed to try this strange looking contraption called the elliptical - it's supposed to be good for the heart rate and have less impact on the knees, which seemed fitting for a dancer.

I searched my memory for any references to the elliptical, and all I could come up with was Bill Murray's character in the film Lost in Translation in the scene where he gets on the machine and goes out of control on it, haplessly calling out, "Help ... HELP!!"  Undaunted, I bravely wandered into the gym at work and the very next day and tried it.  I didn't go out of control, and rather liked the experience.  I could listen to my podcasts, sweat, and even close my eyes and zone out if I wanted to.  (Doing the latter on a treadmill would have disastrous, slapstick results.)  Afterwards, I would work on my core, backbends, and other stretches.

I've kept this "cardio" activity up the past few weeks and am not sure if I should mix things up more, since honestly this kind of activity isn't exactly as interesting or stimulating as dance is for me (read: monotonous, despite the podcasts).  I'm still exploring some of the "fitness" sites and publications. While I occasionally find some useful exercises or tips, I find that in general these cater to folks with goals and needs different than those of dancers.  Conversely, dance publications often focus on certain aspects of technique, and those all-too-familiar areas of insecurity: turnout, arched feet, a higher arabesque, etc. rather than overall strength and total body health.

As part of my exploration, I am embarking on some personal training sessions at a local gym.  The goal is to challenge myself to completely different styles of movement and exercise, to see what I can do and what this does for me.  Yes, I'm a little nervous.  Stay tuned for the next chapter of my fitness exploration!  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Waters of Tibet

My first performance of a Tibetan dance is now under my belt!  After having worked tirelessly on keeping my upper body held and yet my knees very loose - such a difficult combination for a classically trained dancer! - I feel that I've finally had a taste of this unique and beautiful style.  I have yet a long way to go to get anywhere near fluent in it, as most dancers who take ballet class regularly know well, it's a real challenge to be relax the body and be "down" rather than tense and lift "up" on a strong beat.  

This dance was quite special for me, as through my research to prepare for the dance I was able to learn an intriguing aspect of Tibetan culture.  As you might have heard, water is scarce these days in the region, but the relationship Tibetans have with water has a quasi-religious quality.  The dance, whose title translates best to "Wellspring" (源), is a celebration of this wonderful element that gives us the gift of life.  And yet, it is to be revered with seriousness, given the destructive quality it can have when it overwhelms that to which it gave life.  

The piece's movements reflect this relationship with water: The opening is serious, almost dirgelike.  This soon progresses to frolicking and then gleeful splashing, finally giving way to serene contemplation.  

Not only have I begun to internalize a new style of movement, I am widening my cultural vocabulary.  I look forward to this every time I learn a new dance, even if it's in a style I have studied before.  And, I find it personally fitting that I dance a piece about the wonder of water, as "Ocean" (海) is my middle name in Chinese.  It's true that there are no oceans in Tibet, but the urbanity and yet mystical quality of water itself is worthy of reverence. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mind over Body

Today's ballet technique class was taught by Laura, whom I'd never taken class with before.  She mentioned she had recently returned from a decade or dancing and teaching in Amsterdam and was now mostly teaching at Alonzo King's LINES Ballet and at the ODC in San Francisco, which was exciting to hear.  Her class did not disappoint - it was full of class-strict, classical staples, but yet wonderfully influenced by a slightly contemporary edge.

What really got my attention was Laura's singular focus on the influence the mind has over the body.  After we finished a combination at the barre that ended in a front passe balance, she asked us what our thoughts were as we got into the balance.  To be honest, my thoughts were something like: "Okay, balance coming up.  HUT!" and as a result, as Laura helpfully pointed out to me, my chin was lifted a little too high, and my chest, neck, and shoulders tight.  Was I even breathing?  Probably not enough!

Now I'm pretty proud of my strength and the balances I'm able to execute.  But does that mean I can't improve or make it easier?  As I found out, I certainly can make it easier, and present a more beautiful presence at the same time.  Laura exhorted us to think very positive thoughts as we embarked on our balances.  "I am so ON today!" she exclaimed gleefully as she pulled up into a passe balance.  We all laughed, but when we tried it from there and throughout the rest of the class, I was humbled by the difference it made.

In addition, I received another crucial correction from Laura: I'm pushing my chest out too soon when hitting a balance, especially at the end of a moving combination.  I was to pique up into a back attitude en releve (step onto the ball of the foot, with the other leg bent behind me), and I was giving the full "Ta-DA!" with my upper body way too soon.  "If you give it all at the beginning, there's nothing else left!  Save it a little, then when you know you've established the balance, then show it all off!"    

The result of these two observations was that I felt I could balance for longer, with less tension in my upper body, and it was just ... less effort.  As I stepped into my attitude balance, it was not about "nailing it", it was about establishing a presence and then blooming into the full movement.  I hesitate to even call it a pose - when I tried her correction, I was constantly moving, evolving.  I felt elegant and beautiful, even!

Laura's consistent reminders and excited exclamations of "Yes!" whenever someone incorporated her corrections were very encouraging, and made me work that much harder.  I wanted to receive a "Yes!"  (I did get a few :-)

"Have your mind be a witness to your body," Laura concluded about the positive thoughts concept, and I was struck by how powerful this statement was.  It also made me realize just how much dancers must overrule the natural tendencies of our bodies in order to hone our art, to constantly gird ourselves psychologically to master limb and muscle.  But the way Laura described it, I suddenly felt that it's less about overcoming our bodies, but about observing and encouraging.  Our bodies are, after all, our prized instruments - I've only got the one, and it's irreplaceable.  It's time to stop fighting it and to work with what I've got, imperfections and all, and to make the best of it!  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In the Eye of the Beholder

I was volunteered recently to collaborate with a few photographers who had no experience working with dancers, and I gladly obliged since it's always interesting to see what results from working with photographers.  A photo shoot is always a neat opportunity to try out new poses and movements as well as go with the tried and true.

When I received some of the photos, I was dismayed by what I saw were unflattering angles and broken lines.  Did I really look that bad, or were the photographers just not capturing the moment?  But then I realized that this was 'working as intended' - the images I'd received were what the photographers considered the cream of their crop.  What I expected to see was obviously not their ideal.

Take the image here: I was disappointed because I'd worked so hard, jumping countless times (on a concrete floor!), to create the look of the bottom leg folded beneath my body while the other was behind me towards my head. So why did the photographer insist on framing the moment just as my bottom leg nearly made contact with the ground for landing, rather than to seize the jump at its greatest height?  

You can imagine my surprise when the photographer beamed proudly at this image, explaining how he'd captured the symmetry of my legs in opposition, "like a yin and yang symbol."  I'd never thought of it this way, and began to see his point despite my dismay.  I find I've warmed up to the image ... a little.

More important, this interesting experience made me realize how insular the dance world is and how much we take for granted the definitions of correct and incorrect in terms of classical lines.  We scrutinize ourselves in the mirror every day and take pains (literally) to learn what the "correct" positions feel like on our bodies.  But, upon seeing the collection of images from three non-dance photographers, I'm beginning to understand that beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.  To know that someone sees something perfect and lovely in what I consider to be a complete miss is, to be honest, really refreshing!  It kindles hope within me that even I, with my flawed body and limited facility, can provide a perfect moment in dance for someone.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Challenge of Contrasts

It's fascinating (and sometimes frustrating!) to be working on classical ballet technique, and then to switch to something wildly different like the Tibetan dance I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show. Ballet is, as most dancers say, is 'up', referencing the pulled up, elongated muscles and posture, while Tibetan is 'down'.

Now, there are many different kinds of 'down'.  When I was in NYC studying latin jazz with Maria Torres, I learned to put my weight into my steps to get that deliberate, pert forward momentum that makes this dance style so alluring.  That's one kind of 'down'.  However, the torso is still very much held upright, making latin a kind of contrast unto itself.  

But Tibetan?  It's closer to what looks like a relaxed version of knee-bending seen in some styles of hip-hop, but with a fluid upper body and precisely placed arms and hands.  It's new to me, and I still haven't figured it out yet.  I'm still too 'up' and it makes me look awkward in a number of moves; the straight legs and trained upper body break the flow of the movement.  I still have a little bit of time to get it right before I go onstage.  I'd better keep practicing with the mirror and internalizing the Tibetan feeling - fast!

At the same time, I love the feeling of being pulled up all the time in technique class.  It's like my bread and butter (or, for my Asian side, rice and vegetables); very basic and yet oh-so-satisfying.  This morning in class, our instructor, Rika, told me to hold onto my rotation three times as much on my way up from plie.  It turns out that I've been letting it go ever so slightly, which results in my tush sticking out in a very un-balletic manner.  I sweat all through the barre, and by center all the muscles in my groin were especially tired.  It was an exhilarating feeling - I'm starting to get it, a little!  That's all I can ask for - progress, one bit at a time, in whatever style I'm working on.