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