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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Facing Our Fears

Is failure your biggest fear?
It's mine. 
Both dancers and writers we possess an all-encompassing kind of artistic perfectionism,  the kind that plants seeds of devilish obsession, doubt and fear in our self-critical minds. The gothic heart of Black Swan pumps the blood of overblown ballet stereotypes along with unfortunate truths about the dance world  to sustain film's chilling plot. But beyond sprouting wings and attempting to murder fellow company members, dancers have to struggle daily against their own worst fears- that they aren't enough, that they won't make it, that they will fail.
    My own crippling fear of failure nearly destroyed me--as a person and a dancer--several times. I can't pretend I've found the perfect method of dealing with incessant perfectionism or self-doubt, but a quote from this interview with the incredible Jenifer Ringer made me take pause. Ms. Ringer, a principal with the New York City Ballet, made headlines last December when New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay noted that Ringer "looked as thought she'd eaten one sugar plum too many" in his review of City Ballet's "Nutcracker." Macaulay's remark caused an uproar in media and on dance blogs everywhere. Ringer remains open about her past struggles with eating disorders and responded to the critic gracefully both on the Today Show and Oprah: 
 "My first thought was, 'It's happened. My worst nightmare. Somebody has called me heavy in the press and lots of people are going to read about it.' But then my next thought was, 'It's happened and I'm okay and I'm fine the way I am and I have survived it.' I think it's just because I had gone through my eating disorders, I had gone through depression, I had lost dance for a while because of my eating disorders."
-Jenifer Ringer (From, emphasis mine)

    Jeni faced her "worst nightmare." And she's okay. What if spending our lives suppressing our fears, we were able to face them, acknowledge them, and move on? If our worst nightmares came true, could we even use them as a launching pad? In J.K. Rowling's 2008 Harvard commencement speech (Do I quote this too much? Maybe.) she discusses the fringe benefits of failure, how rock bottom was a place of new beginnings for her. Both Rowling and Ringer (when she first left NYCB and after Macaulay's comments) found themselves in nightmarish situations. Others might have wallowed in self-pity, used failure as an excuse to quit trying, to forget about their dreams. Instead, these women found power in failure. They faced their fear, acknowledged their nightmares, and kept making art. 

Will you do the same? 

Thursday, February 17, 2011


In high school, I remember running into a good friend (who was not a dancer) on my way into a cardio class at the gym. 

     "Why do you need to workout?" she asked. "Don't you already dance a jazillion hours a day?"
     Exchanging stories with professional and pre-professional dancers, I discovered that questions like these from  non-dancing "normies" are pretty common. Why would we want to drag our already worn-out bodies to extra fitnesses classes or workouts? Don't we burn enough calories in ballet class? Athletes typically understand that, for dancers, it's not (or shouldn't be) about exercising more--it's about exercising differently. 

    Cross-training with moderate weight lifting and classes like Pilates and Yoga complement dancer's training by strengthening muscles that don't get enough attention in daily dance classes. And since most ballet, jazz and modern classes are anaerobic--requiring bursts of high-intensity movement followed by rest periods--cardiovascular exercises are necessary to build the endurance we need to perform full-length shows and long variations. 

    Throughout most of high school, I was a cross-training nut. I ran on the elliptical for at least an hour daily, swam, and took Pilates classes several times a week in addition to my dance classes, rehearsals and performances. Unfortunately, I didn't do it with a healthy attitude--I was more focused on burning extra calories and keeping my weight down than protecting those muscles, ligaments and joints. Instead of improving my endurance levels, I exhausted my body so much that I could barely get through a petite allegro combination.  By the time I got to New York City I was so burnt out on the whole body-image obsession that I let my non-dancing exercise routine fall completely by the wayside, almost in protest. I also noticed that a lot of dancers I met "cross-trained" for similar reasons that I did: to look skinnier, to "get ripped", to get an edge on the competition. 
     On the other end of the spectrum are those who ignore body conditioning for a different kind of over-training. I see this trend among ballet dancers especially. Ballerinas tend to be single-minded by nature and are taught that the more classes they take, the better they will be. This is true to some extent. The only way to get better at ballet is by--surprise!-- taking ballet. 
     But there's a limit.
     By working the same muscles over and over again with no variation, you set yourself up for fatigue, injury and burnout. Everyone's body responds differently to various training methods, but find a balance between the extremes of over training, over exercising, and never exercising was one of the best things I ever did for my body and my dancing. 
    As a younger dancer, I saw my ballet technique improve when I added modern, jazz and occasional tap classes to my regimen, in addition to Pilates. My dancing became less tense, my extensions improved, and my balance became rock-solid. (Okay, "rock-solid" is an exaggeration, but it definitely improved!) Teachers noticed more height in my jumps and better phrasing in my petite allegro (thank you, tap). In the past year or so, I've found that regular cross-training yields similar improvements for my dancing overall, not to mention my mood. Rather than the obsessive exercising of my teen years, I now workout to improve my overall sense of wellness and to keep my body working while giving it a little break from the never ending series of battements and jetés still in my future. Plus the endorphins are awesome.

   I'm incredibly interested in dancer fitness at the moment and I want to know: 
   How do you cross-train? Have you noticed a difference in your dancing? 

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Very Long Walk

"When you’re writing, it’s rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe you up onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it’s got to be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see that everything you’ve done all ties up. But it’s a very, very long, slow process."
-Roald Dahl
I am on a very long walk right now.