Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sissone Tip

I'm full of good explanations
I started teaching sissone en avant this month. The trouble we're having is that some kids are trying to do a grand jeté instead of a sissone. So I've been explaining that sissone goes up before it goes out. Apparently it's a fairly tricky concept.

Last night I talked about how sissone is a fireworks step. Fireworks go way up in the air before they explode. "What happens if fireworks explode before they go up?" I asked.

"They blow up people!" was the emphatic, and correct, response.

"Right," I said, "Mass carnage is bad."

And then, in a moment of reserved brilliance, one of my very quietest dancers muttered, "Bless their hearts."

I laughed out loud. 

I take my work very seriously, but I also manage to have a really great time. 

Monday, October 21, 2013


Picking a relevant picture for "favoritism" is really hard
so I settled for a picture of one of my favorite hobbies:
decorating desserts

Favoritism is much more complex than I originally thought. I used to think, "How hard can this be? Treat everyone equally. Duh." I also used to think that treating everyone equally would look the same across the board. I now think "Treat everyone with dignity and respect." And dignity and respect demand flexibility.

It's an unavoidable fact: every artistic director (and, to a lesser degree, every teacher) has their favorite dancer(s). Some bodies work better for certain styles of choreography than others. Some personalities work better together than others. But, for me, as long as every dancer in the room has space to achieve their personal best, dignity and respect are still maintained. Remember that class I took that made me mad? The teacher wasn't respecting the potential of all her students. That was favoritism.

As a teacher, I get asked to do a lot of favors for parents. I'm sure that if I owned my own studio I'd be asked to do even more. I used to think that if you were going to do a favor for a mom who was a friend of yours outside of work, you should be equally willing to do a favor for a mom you don't really know. (Or dads. I know a lot of excellent, involved dads.) I am rethinking this. Granted, it would be a no-brainer if they were asking for the exact same favor, but that has yet to happen to me. The decision to do someone a favor is easier (for me) the more I know about a situation. And, obviously, I know more about my friends than I do parents I only know in passing.

Honestly, I don't want every detail about every parent's life. I already get more information than I want from some people. And, again, sometimes some personalities just click better than others. I don't want parents to feel like they need to buddy up to me just to ensure that their child gets a fair chance in class. So this is one area where things just aren't going to be exactly equal. As long as I'm not mean, I'm at peace with this.

Equality in choreography is basically impossible. Interesting dance simply will not be perfectly equal for all people. Not everyone can be center stage. If I had to ensure that each dancer spent exactly eight counts front and center, the dance would cease to be dancing. Tall dancers in corps work will be behind short dancers much of the time. It can't look equal to everyone.

If I worked my pieces so that they were homages to my favorite dancers with everyone else being just human scenery that would be favoritism. And horridly boring. (And I've totally seen it happen.) If my focus is on creating something beautiful where each person contributes to the whole, I am honoring the artist and potential in each dancer. It won't look perfectly equal, but I will be respecting everyone's contribution equally. 

There's one more element that needs addressing: just as you deserve dignity and respect, I also deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I recently had a mother hand me her contact info so I could "arrange a carpool for [her] daughter." Nope. I am not your lackey. Every time a child comes up to me in between classes with her hair a mess and says, "My mom said you could do my hair," it is disrespectful to me (I have things to do) and to my other students (who deserve 100% of my attention and their allotted class time.) I have more examples, but I'll spare you. 

I think favoritism hurts everyone. The favorites aren't critiqued or challenged as much as they could be; the "others" aren't given as many opportunities to try new things; no one's potential is maximized. Favoritism also requires me, the teacher, the one enforcing favored status, to make sure that I am absolutely, unquestioningly the authority. Frankly, I'm uncomfortable with that. I make mistakes and I want to have the freedom to grow and change. But I also hope that you will give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I'm trying my best to show dignity and respect. Because it will never look equal.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On Competition

I overheard an interesting snippet of conversation today. One dancer was retelling a story where someone said that dance was too competitive and that it was simply unnecessary in a professional company. Her stance was that, dude, this is competitive. If you don't like it, you're in the wrong line of work.

I have thoughts on this.
  • There is simply no way to make professional dance less competitive. There will always be more excellent dancers than there are jobs available. Complaining about it is like complaining about the economy--go ahead if you want, but it's completely pointless.
  • At the same time, my unreasonably-driven-I-should-probably-take-some-Xanax-or-something personality will go into fits if I think about competing with the other dancers in my class. For me, "competition" is a win-lose game where I am always the loser. (I'm working on this, guys. I am therapy's favorite child.)
So what's a girl to do? I take the sentiment and just call it another name. (Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? If the person doing the smelling had odd issues, yes.) Instead of looking at the dancers next to me as competition, I see them as visual examples of what I could accomplish. They are inspiring instead of intimidating.

Clearly, this is better for me emotionally. I also think that I am a better dancer because of this mindset. Everyone learns better when they feel safe and supported. Everyone dances better when they are unafraid. Letting other people show you possibilities turns class into a collaboration. Not only does the teacher have something to give you, so does every other person in the room. Suddenly your 90 minutes are so much richer.

I still push myself in class, but I don't compare myself to others. I still see my weaknesses, but I don't see them as fatal flaws. I still like feeling competent and accomplished, but now I can feel that way without needing to be the best in the room.

I am beginning to understand what Margot Fonteyn meant when she said, "Take your work seriously, but never yourself." One of these days I'll get the hang of it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Best Excuse Ever

I get pretty grouchy when girls come to ballet class with their hair down. I am not a control freak (okay, I totally am, but that's not why this bugs me)--having your hair down makes it hard to dance. And asking the teacher to do it assumes that I have nothing to do before class.

But . . . I had a little girl come to class with her hair down with an excuse so good, I laughed out loud. Apparently if you are clever, I will bend the rules for you. Here's her excuse, verbatim:
Miss Chelsea, I'm sorry my hair is down. We had family pictures this afternoon and it took longer than my mom expected because my brothers had to participate.
"My brothers had to participate." That is fabulous!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A First

This is not my happy face
I made my first dancer cry tonight. I feel terrible about it. Here's what happened:

I was rehearsing the buffoons for Nutcracker. The choreography has a section with cartwheels in it. The dancers weren't required to do cartwheels in the audition so I needed to get a handle on who could do what. 

I talked about how some dancers are really proud of their cartwheels and how some are really nervous about them but we are all on Team Buffoon and we cheer for everyone's best effort. I then threatened to tell on them to their mothers if I heard anyone making another dancer feel bad about their acrobatic prowess. (I didn't phrase it quite like that.)

[Side note: I am very aware of how it feels to lose a part because you can't cartwheel. It has totally happened to me. I was so relieved when I outgrew those roles. Then I decided that I was tired of feeling like I couldn't do something, so I took a gymnastics class solely to learn how to cartwheel. In college. I was twenty-two.]

So I sent cast B into the hall to peruse dance magazines because I knew that this would take a little while, that kids get chatty, and that chattiness in rehearsal makes me cranky. Then I had cast A cartwheel for me two people at a time. (First just one cartwheel, then four in a row.)

I'm glad I had them go two at a time; I could clearly see each dancer and (I hope) there was less pressure than doing a solo.

But that's where my best intentions went awry. One dancer wasn't confident with her single cartwheel and began to cry when I asked her to do four. You guys--I feel so bad! I made a child cry!! That is the opposite of what I'm about. (I'm even friends with the founder of BACA--he's gonna kill me.)

Anyway, I had the sweet little girl come sit next to me and I told about how I was way old when I finally learned to cartwheel, gave her a hug, and went on. I know the show must go on, but it was hard. 

A little later I told all the girls how proud I was of them for trying something a little scary and giving it their very best effort. And I had a good talk with the little girl's mom already, which I think is important. I mean, I'd want the teacher to talk with me if it had been my daughter.

But still. I could have gone a long time without ever making a kid cry.