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Monday, February 9, 2015

On Taking My Toddler to an Audition

A and me onstage after a  Nutcracker performance in 2014
A few weeks ago, I did something crazy.
I took my son to an audition.
I watched the mom-me and the dancer-me (two identities I work hard to keep separate as much as possible) collide spectacularly and peculiarly over the course of a six-hour drive across two states and eight hours of dancing, acting and singing in front of a couple dozen producers.

It's not as crazy as it sounds--my husband came with me to take care of our two-year-old while I tried to disguise my lack of singing ability and convince directors to cast me. The audition hall was overstuffed with 18 to 22 year old actors, most looking for their first professional job, and many of whom had traveled to the audition with their parents. For most of the day, my husband waited in the designated "parent lounge" with our son.
"Hey, I am a parent," Graham joked as he wrestled our two-year-old child away from the complimentary snack table.  I hadn't thought about what it would mean to take a toddler to a unified audition. It meant that along with focusing on the song and monologue I prepared, I'd also be worrying about my son--whether I'd packed enough toys for him, whether he'd have an accident requiring a total wardrobe change, whether any of the middle aged moms in the parent lounge would be annoyed by ten thousand recitals of The Itsy Bitsy Spider. It meant that I'd have to yell things like, "Don't throw snowballs at the actors!" on the front steps between a dance audition and a callback. Several times.
It meant that I'd have a severe mid-dancer-life crisis right there in my turquoise leotard and three-inch character heels.  There I was, the oldest dancer in the building (at age 25), feeling everyone's eyes on me as I exited from the dressing rooms with a small child on my hip, wiping his boot prints off my tights.
"Is he yours?" one rosy-cheeked teenager asked. When I replied affirmatively she said, "Oh. Well, it's great you're still trying to do this."
She was probably being sincere. I know that in my head. And it is great I can "still" do this dancing thing.
But her sympathetic expression and the fact that few producers seemed interested in me only magnified my own growing doubts.  What am I even doing here? I thought after every unsuccessful callback or slip up. The inner audition voice I was trying so hard to keep positive suddenly got real with me. I didn't belong here.
Truthfully? It was a voice I needed to hear.
The fact is, I'm not a recent BFA grad looking for her first job out of college. And as the weekend wore on, I felt more and more grateful for that.
I have an identity outside of cattle calls and 16 bar cuts and contrasting monologues that show type.
I have a dance and teaching career that's a little unconventional but a lot fulfilling.
I have a little boy who loves me whether or not I nailed the tap combination.
And those things are wonderful.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cracking Nuts

Act II of GDT's Nutcracker. Photo courtesy of Joe Tecza
When I was a little dancer, being in The Nutcracker was the highlight of my year. Every June, I'd start counting down the weeks until auditions. Once cast lists were announced, I wanted to rehearse every day, all day. I loved the work of learning choreography, becoming a character and making the steps look right.
   One year, when I was about 12 or 13, I remember waiting in the wings for my part, watching the sugar plum fairy. She wasn't doing much, just standing there in layers of stiff pale tulle and a tiara that glittered under the stage lights, arms floating by her sides. She exuded an other-worldly charisma and elegance that convinced me there was no other life for me.
    Long story short, there was another life in store for me.
   But that's a tale for another day.

   Given the important role Nutcracker played in my early ballet years, it's unsurprising that it became the first full length ballet I directed after launching my own little school and subsequent company. I've never felt much confidence in myself as a leader but living in a place with very little dance culture has forced me to become one. If I want a ballet to happen---I have to direct and choreograph it!
    I'd been toying with the idea of doing a Nutcracker for a couple of years. After trying and failing to recruit enough professional dancers for a contemporary ballet performance last year, I changed gears and started thinking more seriously about Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet. Last summer, I got in touch with the staff of the David A. Howe Public Library, where I'd performed with The Valley Theatre earlier in the year, to see if their auditorium would be a potential venue. I was surprised and thrilled when they offered to sponsor the production as an official library event. I was also panic-stricken--now I had no excuse not to go ahead with the show. The Nutcracker is a notoriously big undertaking for a first ballet. While many dance companies survive off the show's profits, the sets and costumes are traditionally elaborate and expensive. The large number of dancers, many of them children, required also makes casting tricky.
Party Scene. Photo courtesy of Joe Tecza. 

    We stayed on budget by borrowing a lot of costumes (thank you, Urban Impact Foundation and Steps Dance Studio!), and getting creative with our sets. The auditorium itself is very limited in terms of what types of sets can be accommodated--there's no fly space, for example--so instead of fancy backdrops we used furniture, handmade portable set pieces, and lighting to fill things out. In the future, I'd like to invest a little more in nicer costumes, particularly for the party scene and the flowers, but overall I thought we did very well with the limited resources at our disposal.
   Believe it or not, the hardest part about getting the production off the ground was finding dancers! Most productions have a cast of 100 dancers or more. Genesee Dance Theatre had just about thirty.
Thirty is not a lot. Thirty is especially not a lot when you consider that this number includes, a half a dozen non-dancing performers who played parents in the party scene, and about twenty children. While I did manage to scrape up enough dancers to put on the show (after five separate auditions), it meant cutting out some parts of the ballet. I opted out of doing a full snow scene, due to our inability to actually use fake snow and our very small number of company members available to create a corps de ballet of snowflakes.
     We ended up cutting two of the Act II "variations"--the Arabian dance and the Spanish dance. I just didn't have enough company members to go around! And, while, my good friend Lina Kent flew down from NYC to guest as the Sugar Plum Fairy, I just didn't have the budget for a cavalier. She danced the famous Sugar Plum Fairy solo beautifully and I hope we're able to stage the full pas de deux in future years.
   Production week itself was one of the most stressful periods of my life. We had a fairly sporadic rehearsal period leading up to the show thanks to the Thanksgiving holidays and our first stage rehearsal was, to put it kindly, a train wreck. Missed cues, forgotten choreography, disappearing props, sloppy dancing. I feel no guilt in saying that publicly because I think the cast will agree with me! That disaster of a rehearsal made the next week all the more rewarding. The dancers stepped up their game, applied the notes they were given, and worked hard to make the show the best it could possibly be. By the time we opened  to a completely full house that Friday, our Nutcracker was something I could feel proud of.

   The energy and excitement of the audience during both packed shows was contagious. We actually had to turn people away at the door--something that's never happened at any other show I've directed or choreographed. The highlight of the weekend for me was seeing the faces on the kids in the audience as we came out to greet them (in our tutus and tiaras). One adult members of the audience said, "I've always wanted to see a Nutcracker and this was magical" which is about the greatest thing I could have heard.
    Aside from the fun of dancing in the show (Trepak and Snow Queen), this undertaking was worthwhile if only for the immense confidence it's given me. I used to feel uncomfortable with my own choreographic skills and scared to death of being at the helm of a single show, let alone an entire company.
     With such a successful first show in the books, I feel motivated to see what other possibilities are on the horizon for this new company.
Nutcracker 2015, anyone?

How about that crushed velvet, eh? 


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review

       I long ago stopped trying to identify individual years as wholly good or irredeemably bad. Wrapping up months by the dozen, slapping a label on the whole package and stacking them neatly away somewhere in our nostalgia-addled memories does a disservice to lived experience. It's much easier to think of life as generally difficult and full of disappointment and get on with it.
     Sort of!
     A part of me is convinced the world will end at 11:59 pm each December 31st, so in the spirit of that approaching terror, and because this is my blog, and because I haven't blogged in a while, and because I did this last year, let's take a look back at my 2014.

January - March:
    These months were cold. So very cold. Some stuff happened, but mostly I remember the cold.
One weekend I braved the arctic temperatures and took the leap of attending a pretty Big Important Audition for one of my dream jobs.  I got all the way to the final round of callbacks after not even expecting to make the first (all singing!) cut and had an incredibly positive experience all around. It made me think that I might still be able to do this show biz thing for a few more years and got me itching just to audition, something I hadn't felt in years.

     My new BarreFIT program started taking off at HMAC in the early months of 2014 with two full classes every week. I enrolled in a Group Fitness Instructor certification program to expand my knowledge and make sure I'm up-to-date on the latest in exercise science as it pertains to training my clients. As a Pilates instructor and dancer, I was fairly confident I already knew most of what the program would teach me but as soon as I got the massive textbook full of anatomic illustrations, I knew I was in for some serious hours of study!

     On the performing side of things, I appeared in a dinner theater production, Daddy's Girl with a local community theater group. It was my first time doing a community theater production not directed by Nic Gunning and it was fun to be part of an ensemble comedy show. 

Daddy's Girl at Short Tract Town Theatre

April - May
     I kicked off the month of April with a weekend of performances playing Shelby Latcherie in Steel Magnolias back under the direction of Nic Gunning with The Valley Theatre. We performed at the Nancy Howe Auditorium (at the David A. Howe Public Library) which has become one of my favorite local venues. The auditorium feels intimate and inviting but can accommodate an audience of 300 (plenty for this area) and has a comfortable backstage space. 
    After winding down from back to back shows, I flew to Texas with my husband and son for the Easter holiday. We spent most of our time visiting my family in San Antonio and also sneaked in a couple of days playing at beach in Port Aransas. (Our toddler loved the sand and the seagulls but was terrified of the waves.)
       In May, HMAC presented its annual Spring Showcase. This production was different than the showcases of previous years--I decided to stage a very abridged version of Swan Lake utilizing all of my ballet students. This was my first attempt at staging any type of story ballet and I felt terrified and incompetent throughout much of the process. I'm pleased with how my students pulled it off, though, and it gave me the confidence to tackle bigger projects as a director/choreographer (foreshadowing!).
Steel Magnolias with The Valley Theatre

June, July, August
    My baby turned two years old in June. The rest of the month is sort of a blur. 
  I planted a garden and more than half of the crops failed or were destroyed by critters. (Curse your cuteness, baby groundhogs!) I converted one of our big closets into a writing cave and only wrote there consistently for about a month before returning to the familiar arms of my living room sofa to tackle client work and creative projects.
     Anyway, I did succeed at passing my GFI exam through the American Council on Exercise and taught a ton of private and group fitness classes. I was also able to attend part of a summer ballet intensive a couple of hours from my house and take some dance, Pilates and yoga classes in Buffalo and Rochester. 
September - October
     A new school year means a new season at HMAC! We managed to grow our student numbers again, particularly for my adult programs. Genesee Dance Theatre officially formed after three rounds of auditions and a lot of self-doubt on my end. We dove headfirst into rehearsals for the company's first production--The Nutcracker. In the middle of all of this I also started dancing with another company, In His Steps based out of Dundee, NY, and became a barre/group ex instructor at a local YMCA! 
     With October came my 25th birthday, a fun weekend in Buffalo to celebrate said birthday, and another new part-time job at an independent bookstore and coffee shop. Yeah. I like being busy. 

November - December
        Most of November and December were dedicated to working (and working and working and working) as well as final rehearsals, preparations and performances for Genesee Dance Theatre's production of The Nutcracker. 
   The Howe Auditorium ended up being able to sponsor our production, enabling us to offer the show at no charge to audience members. Local businesses, individuals and families met the rest of the production's start-up needs and, somehow, we pulled it off. I need to do a full blog post just about the experience of putting the show together but for now I'll concentrate on the fact that it was, all things considered, a smashing success. We packed the house at both performances--even ended up turning people away--and received a ton of great feedback. It makes me hopeful for the future of dance in Allegany county.

    Nutcracker about killed me (and resulted in nasty Achilles tendonitis) so while my studio is closed for a couple of weeks, I've been recouping--spending a lot of time eating in my pajamas, playing and trying (with mixed success) to potty train my son, and catching up on my reading. 

      For me, 2014 was a brilliant year for dancing and performing and rediscovering what I value most about those disciplines. As far as my personal life, 2014 felt like one long trudge through a freezing cold wasteland without shoes and a sack of bricks on my back. I wish that the passing of another year meant that trudge was over but I know it's not. 2015 is full of uncertainty for me and my family. There's a real possibility that everything about my life will be different in six months--a prospect that both thrills and terrifies me. 

I'd like to end on a more positive note but this post is too long as is. Happy New Year, blog reader friends! 


Monday, October 27, 2014

25 Things Redux

Last year, right before my birthday I posted a list of 25 things I wanted to accomplish in my 25th year. I turn 25 tomorrow and completely forgot about that post until it showed up on my Timehop feed a few days ago. I clicked through to the post and held my breath, expecting to feel disappointed about all the things I was sure I'd failed to accomplish. Instead, I felt surprised by the many milestones I've reached over the past year and the personal growth I experienced. It's been a year of being honest with myself about my own strengths, weaknesses and values. Instead of sweeping the ugly broken pieces of life under the rug, I've faced them and tried (to varying levels of success) to repair them.
 Many of my priorities have shifted as a result. My goals are different. Life has changed.

So, to mark the completion of a quarter of a century of living, let's look back at that list of goals I set for myself one year ago. The items accomplished are bolded, explanations italicized..

1) Establish and commit to a regular writing routine (at least over the summer. . . .)
2) Finish a short story.
3) Finish a non-fiction essay.
4) Submit something to another literary magazine.
5) Finalize my MFA program applications.

6) Become certified to teach the ABT curriculum.
7) Audition/submit myself for at least two dance (performing) jobs.
8) Lay the ground work for establishing a new company in western NY.
9) Expand the theater and voice offerings at my studio, including establishing weekly classes in music and acting. (We had a voice class for a few months before losing our teacher. That counts!)

10) Finally master all Teasers on the mat (I can do them correctly, but am still working on improvement as always.)
11) Take an apparatus class.
12) Earn a second Pilates certification
13) Become certified to teach another fitness discipline (Group exercise through ACE, 7/14, and currently taking a yogafit homestudy course to expand my knowledge.)

14) Become a more consistent meal planner
15) Finish decorating and furnishing our house
16) Finally get our wedding photos and A's baby photos printed and framed
17) Spend daily time in scripture.
18) Plan and grow a more varied garden* (attempted without much success)
19) Take a much belated honeymoon/five year anniversary trip with Graham (sort of . . .day trip for 5th anniversary; overnight trip for my birthday this year)
20) Go an entire week without using social media.
21) Take a class in something completely new.
22) Be intentional about serving and participating in church life
23) Donate at least $100 to a worthy cause or family in need.
24) Figure out a more effective way to organize our budget.
25) Take better care of my marriage, including taking at least two baby-free dates with Graham every month.

I  notice that the Personal, Home and Family category is where I struggled most. There are quite a few reasons for that and I may do a post on how my home life is shifting and evolving soon. 

While it's fun to make these lists and look back on them, I don't think I'll make any similar ones for a while. This year has taught me that life is too unpredictable to plan so meticulously. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Morning Pilates Mat Routine

In Pilates--at least in what is now called classical Pilates--the mat exercises are typically practiced in the same order from class to class. Pilates schools and instructors may differ slightly on the correct order of certain exercises with some incorporating modern modifications based on new understandings of the body, but in general classical Pilates teachers stick to the tried-and-true sequencing. Once you come to class a few times you'll begin to remember the order and can start to flow naturally from one move to another both in class and at home. But many of us are crunched for time when it comes to our home practice and clients often ask me, "What exercises should I be doing if I only have 15 minutes?"
     The answer will depend greatly on the individual (Pilates, despite it's formulaic structure, really is so personal!), their experience level, knowledge of the exercises, and points of weakness. Individual adjustments aside, the following routine is a quick 15 - 20 minute sequence I love to do first thing in the morning. This sequence will increase the flow of oxygen to your muscles, elevate your heart rate to warm-up the body, and give you a nice burst of energy to start your day.

Disclaimer: Always consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program, particularly if you have any underlying medical conditions or injuries. For optimal results and safety, I recommend you first learn these exercises in a Pilates class under the instruction of a knowledgeable teacher. 

Morning Mat Pilates 
For this workout you only need an exercise mat! If you don't have one, a thin blanket or towel on a non-skid surface will work as well.

Before you begin:
Focus on body awareness and breath. Lay on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet placed on the mat about hip-width apart. Reach your palms onto the mat right next to your legs. Imagine lengthening your fingertips toward the edge of the mat as you sink your shoulders away from your ears. Take a deep breath in through your nose and let it out through your mouth as you feel your navel draw toward your spine. Repeat the inhale and, on your next exhale, soften the curve of your lower back toward the mat keeping the navel drawn toward your spine. Make sure you are not tensing your gluteus or shoving your lower back down. Take a few more breaths here, focusing on keeping the abdominals engaged and the shoulders down. For more on the neutral spine position and a few helpful body awareness exercises, click here. 

Links to descriptions and demonstrations of each exercise are included!

Happy Pilates-ing! 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

How I (Try to) Make it Work

     I don't read blogs as much as I used to back in the days of Google Reader (RIP) but lately I have been following this Moms Make it Work series on Julia's blog.  My family is entering a point of transition as my husband reaches the end of his undergraduate education and we decide where and how to take our next steps. I like reading thoughts from moms in all different life stages, from those who work full time to those who stay at home and the growing number of moms who, like me, straddle those two worlds. I've also gotten a lot of questions from friends and acquaintances about how work and childcare and chores are managed in our household, so I thought I'd do my own little "moms make it work" post about how I try to balance everything. (The answer is usually, "not very well.")
Barre buddies!

   A Typical Day
    Our days vary greatly depending on Graham's class schedule and my teaching schedule but we try to keep Gus's routine as consistent as possible. He tends to wake up at about 6:30 (though lately he's been sleeping until 7:00 am--glorious!) and I'll get him up, dressed, to the potty (on a good day) and downstairs where I try to get him to eat some breakfast as I make coffee. Graham leaves for school around 7:30 and, because we only have one car in our family, I'll often drive him the three miles to campus so Gus and I can have the car for running errands. Gus and I are home together until 3:00 pm, with the exception of Tuesdays when I teach three hours in the morning and Gus goes to a babysitter. I do my studio admin work like answering emails, updating student accounts, paying bills and planning lessons while Gus naps and usually squeeze in an extra hour of work or writing while he watches an episode of Sesame Street before or after his nap. At 3:00 pm Graham comes home and I usually head down to the studio to start "real" work. Graham stays home with Gus, making him dinner, giving him his bath and putting him down for bed around 7:00 pm. I'm grateful for a husband who doesn't mind our 50/50 childcare split because so far I've been able to work without paying for too much childcare! Every now and then, Gus has to come with me to the studio to clean or teach private lessons. He usually does well but I am not good at having a "mom brain" and "teacher brain" on at the same time, so I prefer him to stay home when I'm teaching.

Teaching Hours
     The last couple of years, I maintained a schedule where I was consistently teaching several hours of physically demanding classes Monday - Thursday, plus a couple of hours on Fridays or Saturdays, after taking care of a baby/toddler all day. Some people can handle that type of schedule but it was really wearing on my brain and body and a big strain for our family. This year I made the decision to combine a couple of ballet classes, so I'm at my studio for a total of about 20 teaching hours and four or five rehearsal hours each week, mostly on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. Tuesdays I finish teaching before noon and have the evening off to take yoga or even stay home and have dinner at a normal time! Thursdays, I've been teaching a couple of Pilates and barre classes in another town but will soon be devoting those evenings to ministry with a Christian ballet company near Seneca Lake. I'm so excited for the opportunity to dance and perform a little bit again in a ministry capacity!
     I get home from work anywhere between 8:00 pm and 9:30 pm. Usually, I make myself a late dinner and spend an hour or two before bed catching up with my husband or reading. I know some WAHMs who are able to squeeze in some working hours at night but my brain just doesn't function productively at night so I try to stay off the computer and away from my "at-home" work unless there's something really pressing to be done.
I take care of most of the day-to-day chores in our household (at least the indoor ones) but I'm pretty terrible at it.  Graham says it's because I'm "only meticulous about ballet." Keeping the counters clean and free of clutter, the dirty dishes at a manageable number, and the laundry done is about the extent of my capabilities on a good day but I'm getting much better! A de-cluttered house and reasonably tidy kitchen are essential to my peace of mind.

Would I do it differently?
This is something I'm trying to figure out. In some ways, I have the best of both worlds. I used to think I'd really like being a stay-at-home-mom but the reality of it is so different and I know I'll always need another outlet (or ten). I do really appreciate that I get to earn a living, mostly outside the home, while simultaneously getting to spend my days with my son.
         Sometimes I'm frustrated with trying to be both a full-time working mom 100% responsible for her family's income and a full-time stay-at-home-mom. We've talked a little bit about it and we think our ideal situation would be for Graham to work full time and for me to just teach/dance/perform part-time in the evenings without the added stress of running a business. That said, I'm incredibly thankful to get to own a business in a field I love where I am right now. It just may not be forever--we're taking that one step, one year at a time.

How does your family "make it work"? I'd love to hear about it! 


Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Time, Not a Place: A Weekend in NYC and Montclair

    When we first moved to Houghton, Graham promised me we'd come back to visit New York City "every couple of months at least." New York was the place where I became an adult. It was difficult for me to imagine a life without the daily struggle to find a seat on a crowded 6 train, the near-constant search for more affordable apartments or the mad rush up seventh avenue trying to get from my book selling job to an audition at Chelsea Studios. Although I was feeling worn out by a city that clearly didn't want me, I also assumed it would always be central to my life, a "home base" of sorts.
   It's true that when I first moved away, I missed the city constantly. Before leaving, I'd agonized over the decision for months. It sounds melodramatic but giving up this place that had always been a central part of the grand plan I had for my life was difficult and maybe a little emotionally traumatic. In fact, after three months in Houghton I went back to the city on my own for almost a month. (I was childless and living off of freelance writing income at the time which allowed for this kind of enormous flexibility.) It was too long really to be there on my own, surfing from one friend's couch to the next and living out of a suitcase when I was a married woman with a grown-up home. I still often feel guilty about leaving Graham on his own for so long particularly in a place where we knew so few people. In retrospect, I think it was selfish and inconsiderate of me, so I never did a long visit like that again. I committed to the new place we'd chosen, new jobs, and our new life which by that time was soon to include a baby.
   Anyway, big surprise: we rarely made it to NYC for visits after that--just once together for my 22nd birthday. I've returned alone (or with Gus) every fall since then, each time promising I'll make my visits more frequent in the coming year.
    Last weekend, I took an overnight bus from Rochester to midtown Manhattan. I drank coffee and read a book in Bryant Park while the sun came up. I thought about how strange it was to feel more at home on a park bench in a city that constantly smells like a sewer surrounded by strangers than in a comfortable farmhouse surrounded by beautiful countryside and people who love me. I took the train uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as soon as it opened for the day and visited my favorite exhibits alone in near silence, something I wish I'd done more often when I went to college just a few blocks away. The rest of the day included coffee and meals with old friends, taking ballet classes, and feeling guilty for leaving my husband and son alone for an entire weekend (#momguilt).

looking up from Bryant Park in the morning
   At the end of the day, I took the train out to visit and stay with an old friend who now lives in Montclair, NJ. I've never been the biggest fan of New Jersey, so I was surprised that I absolutely loved this town. Even though I was exhausted from 24 hours of traveling, city walking, and dancing, we went out an explored the neighborhood. Sitting at a sidewalk cafe and having dessert at 10 o'clock at night while catching up with an old and dear friend was honestly the highlight of the weekend for me. When you find a friend you can really listen to and share things with openly, hold onto him or her, because those friendships are the best.
       Saturday, I didn't even feel the need to go back into the city. Instead, I took Pilates at a studio near my friend's apartment, explored the town a little more, and caught an incredible dance performance nearby. Although I did do more city activities on Sunday before catching an afternoon bus back to Rochester, I realized on this trip that I miss a time in my life rather than a place. When I crave city life it's because I'm missing the feeling of possibility I had as a seventeen-year-old moving to Manhattan to start "real life" in the fall of 2007.  I miss being able to walk down the street and meet one of my (few but close)  friends for a cup of coffee. I miss the sense that any crazy, wild, life shaking thing can happen to you if only you're in the right place at the right time.  I feel now like I was so eager to grow up and settle down that I didn't take advantage of some of the opportunities I had by getting to go to school in such a diverse place with so many resources. But that's just nostalgia and hindsight stewing together to alter my memory. I know that I ultimately made the right decisions, that the NYC transplant life was not for me and that this life is what God wanted for me. Still, I feel a mad desire to live closer to that imagined potential future.

Maybe New Jersey will be seeing a lot more of me in the future.

There's something I never thought I'd say.