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Wednesday, November 20, 2013


If not for Vera-Ellen, I'm not sure I'd have become a dancer. 

Maybe that's too extreme. Maybe my worn out tape of Balanchine's The Nutcracker (starring one Macaulay Caulkin circa 1993) would have been enough to prod me to join the ranks of the bun-headed. But even more than wearing a glittery pink tutu and twirling on my toes like a perfect ballerina, I longed to dance like the leading ladies in the musicals of Hollywood's golden age. I wanted Ginger Rogers' elegance, Leslie Caron's sweetness, Ann Miller's charisma and Cyd Charisse's body. 
     Then, in the Classic Musicals aisle at Blockbuster,  I found Vera. Vera was the whole package, the real deal. She was blonde and petite, like me, similarities I embraced wholeheartedly when I finally realized that the genetic odds were against my ever having legs as long and shapely as Cyd's. She did it all--graceful ballet en pointe, fast tap numbers, athletic stunts and romantic duets--seemingly without effort. Vera-Ellen had this way of being both as cute and innocent as Shirley Temple and as sultry as Rita Hayworth. She just had it. Everything. 

     Vera's not very well remembered--not compared to the likes of Ann, Cyd or Ginger anyway. A couple of leading roles alongside big names like Gene Kelly and Donald O'Conner, a lot of second-billing dance roles in the 1940s, then nothing. Some blame the studio's unwillingness to give Vera "meatier" dramatic roles. Others point to her suspected anorexia and difficult personal life. Whatever the reason, I still feel a little personally slighted that my great dance role model is mostly forgotten. 
   What people do seem to remember is her standout role opposite Danny Kaye in White Christmas
     And her insanely small waist.
     But mostly White Christmas.
     It's a tradition in my family to watch White Christmas the day before Thanksgiving every year, usually while baking. When I was a kid, my big sister and I would take a break from rolling pie crusts and simmering cranberries to swoon over Vera and Danny's dance sequences and sing along with Bing and Rosemary. For a while there, we were the Hanes sisters. I took on the dancing role of Judy and my singing sister played Betty. We never took our floor show on the road to any rural Vermont inns, but that's on us.  Through every major change or move in my life, I've guarded my pre-Thanksgiving White Christmas tradition. I've watched it on an air mattress in a college dorm, barely 18 and barely functioning my first Thanksgiving away from home. I've dutifully played the DVD on laptops propped up on flour-dusted kitchen counters. I've practically forced my in-laws to project it on to their living room wall. It's not my favorite of Vera-Ellen's movies (that would be On the Town), but it's the most personal. For a while there, my sister and I were the Hanes sisters. One of us the dancer, the other a singer. We never took our floor show on the road to rural Vermont inns, but that's on us. 

   Few films capitalize so well on Vera's multifaceted dance abilities like White Christmas She has a few nice moments of "Fred and Ginger" elegance in "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" broken up with fast, jazzy tap sequences. The choreography for Mandy showcases her acrobatic abilities and crazy flexibility and no one can rock the three (four?) inch mustard heels like she does in "Abraham" (featuring my dream dance partner John Brascia). 

   To me as a young girl Vera-Ellen in White Christmas represented everything I thought a dancer should be: powerful, funny, feminine, beautiful, graceful wearer of twirly skirts. Vera's why, despite my focused ballet training, I could never quite shake the desire to be a song-and-dance performer in high heels and long red gloves. 

Some other great Vera-Ellen films to check out:
Words and Music (1948) -  "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet with Gene Kelly
The Belle of New York (1952) - with Fred Astaire 
Wonderm Man (1945) - with Danny Kaye

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sit Down!

I am not good at sitting down.
     When I teach a ballet class, I get physical. I like to demonstrate steps full-out whenever possible. I walk around the room during combinations to offer individual corrections and hands-on assistance, if necessary. I'm the teacher who has a really hard time not doing the choreography with students as they practice. I'm more comfortable conveying ideas through movement than speech and, well, I just like to dance. 
     Yesterday, I got hit hard with a gross, icky stomach bug. One minute, I was feeling fine, prepping my afternoon classes and starting on costume orders for our spring performance. The next minute . . . well, I'll spare you the details, but it wasn't pretty.
    It was too late to call in a sub and or cancel, so I knew I'd have to figure out a way to make it through at least my two beginner ballet classes. I resigned myself to sitting in the front of the room, letting my assistant demonstrate as I called out steps and corrections.
     Despite feeling miserable, I actually found I enjoyed the new perspective sitting down offered. When I was sitting still--not pre-occupied with flitting around the room correcting everyone--I found myself noticing different strengths and weaknesses in my students I hadn't noticed before. I saw them moving more musically and organically. I better appreciated the progress they've made since the beginning of the year.
     Sitting down also forced me to use my words to offer corrections more than my hands. While I still think manually correcting alignment and placement is helpful for some students, I discovered that some of my dancers seemed to understand better when I spell things out verbally. Having to translate my correction into their bodies seemed to help them "get it" in a way I hadn't seen before.
     I don't think I'll ever let go of my energetic, bouncing-around-the-room teaching style, but from now on I plan to be more intentional about finding moments in class to be still, observe and appreciate my students.

    Fellow teachers, have you ever tried (or been forced to) sit down while teaching a dance class? Did you find it difficult?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Intuitive Eating, Normal Eating

     One of the best things I did, back when I was beginning the recovery process for my eating disorder was to see a registered dietitian. At the time I thought it was pointless. Like a lot of people with disordered eating habits, I knew about nutrition. I knew what foods were healthy and which were full of empty calories. I knew the difference between so-called "simple" carbs and complex carbs and which vegetables had the highest amounts of which vitamins. I could have told you the exact calorie count of every thing on your plate and the saturated fat contents of every box of crackers on the shelf at the grocery story.

     It turned out that the benefits of seeing a dietitian, for me, had less to do with learning to eat healthfully than learning to eat normally. Some eating disorder treatment plans call this the "re-feeding process." I prefer to think of it as a re-learning process: re-learning how to eat like you did as a child, before fears of cellulite and white leotards and what people might say if you go ahead and eat that extra serving of mashed potatoes.

    On one of our first meetings, she asked me what I thought normal eating was. I can't remember what I said--most likely, I just stared at my feet defiantly as I was prone to do in early treatment--but I remember that she pulled out some piece of paper and read the following piece (which I learned later was written by Ellyn Sater: 

"Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is eating mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings." 

     I've carried this with me over the years, particularly, for whatever reason, the part about the cookies. Probably because I really like cookies. 
     What I like about this idea is that it allows room for all the different reasons we eat. In dance, we're often taught to think of food as fuel and nothing else. God forbid you enjoy food or choose what you eat based on taste or mood once in a while.  The whole approach in the dance and exercise world always seemed to me like, like, "it's really annoying, I know, but you need calories to get through this variation, so eat these chia seeds and raw nuts and drink an organic cold-pressed juice and you're good." (For the record: I like all of those thing but as we've discussed, I also like cookies.) 
     A few years later--after I'd moved to NYC perfectly "recovered" only to start a long cycle of bingeing and restricting--I attended a talk by Susan Berry of Evolved Eating. She talked about the concept of intuitive eating. My world changed. 
    Intuitive eating can be different things to different people. For me, fundamentally, is just means paying attention. Eating just what I want when I'm hungry (what I really want and not just what I think I should want) and stopping when I'm full or don't want it anymore. Some days this might mean I eat pretty much just fruits and vegetables, because that's what I feel like, then the next day eating lots of grains. Sometimes I take two bites of my sandwich before I'm full and other times I clean my plate. Sometimes I over eat--like holidays or special dinners or when I make something that's just really, really delicious--and I've learned that that's okay sometimes. It doesn't mean I have to restrict at the next meal or run five miles or cry or purge. It's just food. If I notice eating a certain food before I dance makes me feel sluggish or gives me a stomach ache, chances are I won't feel like eating it again the next time. Intuitive eating is a process of learning to be tuned in to your body, to trust yourself, to be still and listen.
   For various physiological and psychological reasons, this approach may not work for everyone, but for the most part I think intuitive eating is a wonderful, unfortunately radical approach in our diet obsessed world. Sometimes I still have bad days: days when I don't want to eat or I want to do nothing but eat. If I don't want to eat, I try to pay attention and ask myself why. If it's because I'm not hungry, I respect that and wait until I do. If it's because I'm stressed or tired or feeling fat or worried of eating in front of people, I work through that and try to feed myself. I'm not perfect and I don't have all the answers, but I'm trying. One day at a time.

  [P.S. How does vegan eating fit in with all of this? Pretty simple for me. I tell myself that if I really want something non-vegan I can have it. But because of my convictions and tastes, I rarely do.]


Monday, November 11, 2013

Baby Ballerinas: Teaching Creative Movement

A dozen three and four year olds.

A big, open room. 

Thirty minutes.


     Three and four year old dance classes are a staple of most recreational dance studios. "Creative movement" classes for this age group are becoming more and more common at even the most serious pre-professional schools. While kids this young aren't developmentally ready to learn much technique, they are ready to move, explore music and, most importantly, to love dance. From a business perspective, it may also be wise to open your doors to younger students and their families in hopes of inspiring loyalty to your school. 

      As a new dance teacher, I was full of enthusiasm for this baby ballerina set, but unsure how to go about teaching them. My preference has always been for working with older kids who have the patience for my nit-picky corrections. How could I teach these tots to dance and lay the foundations for proper technical development while still respecting and encouraging their need to learn through play? 

     At first, I structured my "Creative Movement" class (originally just for three year olds) a lot like my Pre-Ballet class which is geared toward five and six year olds, just with fewer exercises. This was fine and the kids still had fun, but they didn't retain much from week to week and certain kids had trouble focusing on the steps and standing in lines. I did some research, observed classes by other teachers and evolved my creative movement syllabus to make it more focused on, well, actual creative movement, than formal dance. I thought I'd share my ideas for fellow teachers: 

 Predictable, but Exciting 
     Most kids at this age thrive on routine. Following a set class structure helps kids know what to expect each class helping them feel less overwhelmed. My students also like naming their favorite activities and "telling me" what part of class we're doing next. Every class follows the same basic structure:

  • "Hello dance" - a song with guided movement from a creative movement CD 
  • Circle stretching 
  • "Ballet time" - working on two or three very basic ballet/technique ideas like sixth position (and first position later in the year), demi plie, port de bras
  • Across the floor/follow the leader
  • Games 
  • Goodbye dance - bowing together and clapping for ourselves
  • Stickers/reward 
     To keep their interest, I scatter my introduction of new steps or concepts throughout the year and try to rotate the games we play each week. 

Use Props Wisely
      Some teachers use a lot of props and toys in their creative movement classes which can be great. I don't like to use as many props because of both the logistical problems (time it takes to take out and put away in a 30 minute class) and because I want kids to focus on their own bodies and how they move. Some simple props I like to include are yoga mats or large floor "spots" for jumping activities. I have kids practice lining up behind the mats or spots then explain to them that the mats are rain puddles. 
      We jump in and out the puddles with both feet ("splash!"), then practice leaping over the puddles from one foot to another foot. I also like to use scarves to demonstrate slow movement and fast movement or to let the kids dance with during the games portion of class. 

Learning with Games
Games are a fundamental part of my creative movement class. Sometimes I'll devote as much as 1/3 of the class to them. I use games to emphasize different movement concepts we've learned such as dancing different speeds or telling stories with out bodies. 
     One of my favorite ones for this age group (and up to age 7 or 8) is the "magic elevator" game. I have the kids line up by the barre and pretend it's a magical elevator. I'll say, "The elevator doors are opening and today, we're in a [place]. Show me how you move in [place]." The place might be an ice rink, under the sea, a jungle, high in the air, outer space, or even a room full of sticky jello. I might call out descriptions of the place or, if they're stuck, suggestions for how to move in different spaces, if they need guidance. I always finish with the elevator taking us back to the ballet studio so we can move on to the goodbye dance. 

Be Flexible
Kids can be unpredictable. While I never let kids dictate the class or the activities, I try to stay in tune with the general mood of the class. If their attention is wavering during "ballet time" I'll move right to across the floor activities, even if it means abandoning a step I was trying to teach them. If they don't seem to be responding well to one game, I'll try another. Every group of kids is different and what works one day might not work the next. 

Above all, enjoy your students! Encourage their joyfullness. Listen to their worries. Let them love you and let them dance. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Thousand Things Before "Thin"

As I work toward group exercise certification, I'm discouraged by how much rhetoric in the fitness industry and even study manuals is concerned with fat and thinness and weight loss. I love helping people improve their lives through exercise and better health. Sometimes, yes, this means weight loss, but I've never believed that a lower weight is automatically equivalent to better health. When I think about "fitness", endurance, strength, energy, and overall mental and physical well being matter so much more to me than a number on the scale. After a treacherous struggle with weight preoccupation, this is a good place to be.

I'm planning to write a little bit more on my no-diet diet philosophy later this month. In the mean time, this quote from my heroine J.K. Rowling sums up my thoughts on the matter:

     "'Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her. I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? 

     "I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before ‘thin’. And frankly, I’d rather they didn’t give a gust of stinking chihuahua flatulence whether the woman standing next to them has fleshier knees than they do. Let my girls be Hermiones, rather than Pansy Parkinsons.” 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Reasons I Eat Vegan

Happy World Vegan Month!

My close friends and family know that I maintain a vegan diet  but I tend not to be outspoken about it or the reasons why I chose to start eating this way almost eight years ago. For one, I hate preachy vegans. I don't want to be lumped in with "them" (whoever "them" is). For another, I dislike inconveniencing or offending others. When I'm at a dinner party or out to eat with a new group of people, I try not to make a big deal out of my eating choices and don't even bring it up unless asked. 99% of my family and friends are meat eaters and dairy lovers and I'm fine with that. It does not offend me. I do not wait outside their houses to shower them with red paint. However, I'm always happy to give advice, offer encouragement and share recipes with those interested in reducing the number of animal products they consume.

    It's trendy right now to go vegan for health reasons or as a way of dieting. While I definitely think vegan eating is healthy (as long as it's not exclusively tater tots and french bread) I am not vegan for my health (as evidenced by that plate of tater tots I consumed on Wednesday).

In honor of World Vegan Month, I wanted to share five of the several dozen reasons I choose not to eat dairy, meat or eggs:

       1. Factory farming is really messed up. 

       2. The idea of eating animals weirds me out. I just can't see the difference between a puppy and a pig, ethically, other than that one is socially acceptable to eat.

       3. There are too many other tasty foods in the world. When friends of mine discuss trying to eat vegetarian or vegan I always encourage them to focus on all the foods they can eat. Every vegetable, fruit, grain, bean, legume; herbs and spices; nuts; spices; dark chocolate.  Even Oreos are vegan, you guys!

       4. It's less expensive, most of the time. Yeah, you can do super expensive versions of veganism by purchasing a lot of pre-packaged meat substitutes and fancy vegan cheeses made from cashews and organic Himalayan raindrops, but you can also build your diet around beans, grains and on-sale produce. Meat is pricey!

   5. I feel better, mentally and physically. I like knowing that I'm not supporting inhumane practices or animal suffering by eating my dinner. Sorry if that makes me a big smelly hippie.
Also, my stomach likes not having to digest lactose. The end.

Now go make some delicious vegan chili!