10.13.2014

The Rules of Company Class

I started writing this post back in July while creating at the National Choreographers Initiative, but quickly got distracted by the intensity of the choreographic process. It has been awhile since I posted, as I have been swamped while working the past few weeks in Anchorage, Alaska. While it is a few months since I started writing this blog, I feel that this topic is very relevant and hasn't been addressed much. So, I'd like to share. Enjoy!


National Choreographers Initiative dancers taking company class onstage
Back in October, I posted the rules of taking open class while prepping to dance with Barak Ballet in Los Angeles. Nine months later, I am back in the LA area having a completely different experience working as a choreographer for the National Choreographers Initiative. Each of us four choreographers have been offered the opportunity to teach company class for the professionals that have been brought in for this 3-week choreographic laboratory. I love teaching, so I happily took the director up on her offer. Having spent my first hour and a half on the other side of company class and digesting my vast experience taking class in an array of company cultures through freelancing has inspired me to gather a list of general rules for company class from both the teacher's side and the professional's side.

- Company class is a time for dancers to warmup their bodies and to improve their technique. This should generally be on their own terms. Some days a dancer is exhausted and just needs to wake their body up. Other days, a dancer may not have much rehearsal or may be understudying much of the day. During these periods, a pro may use class to push their technique to the next level. Company class is not an equal effort day to day.

- Company class instructors should approach class from an external perspective. Warmup should be approached very differently than classes that would be given to academy students. Yes, professionals need to be pushed, corrected, and kept on task. But company class should be nothing about the instructor and all about the dancers.

- It can be really effective for an instructor to offer combinations that relate to the work that is being prepared for performance. This offers the dancers an opportunity to perfect challenging sequences in choreography.

- Expectations of a dancer in company class should be very individual. If there is not a developed relationship with a group of dancers, it can be rude to make assumptions about why a dancer is acting a certain way in class. If a dancer changes my combination, I am assuming that they are making an important decision for themselves. Back to the first rule in this post, some dancers may be tired or hurting. Company class is a vehicle for the rest of the rehearsal day. Their is often an assumption that dancers must take class like they are students until they retire. Do every combination 100%, even if it doesn't feel good on your body. Of course, it is the dancer's responsibility to remain reasonable about their choices. For instance, if my back is sore from my recent injury, I may not perform arabesques or attitudes derriere in adagio or grand battements at barre. I am not being lazy. I am being smart about my body and extending the length of my career by making an educated decision to leave a combination out.

          (My mom sneaked video taking company class at PNB circa 2008)

- Apprentices and less experienced professionals should approach company class like they approached school class. It takes time to develop an understanding of what your body needs. I didn't start altering my approach to company class until I had my first injury three years into my career. At that point, I recognized that overworking any position in arabesque may be more detrimental to my dancing than beneficial.

- Instructors should try their own combinations with the music to make sure that the tempo is comfortable, doable, and what they imagined the exercise to be. To speak and hear a combination versus executing a combination is a very different experience.

- If a dancer is entering class with an established company, they should ask other dancers if they can stand in any specific barre spot before claiming space. If there aren't many spots available and you are waiting for dancers to show up and claim their regular spot, wait away from the barre until the instructor walks in. Typically, somebody will point you in the right direction of a dancer's place that isn't in attendance.

- I strongly believe that those who teach class should still be taking class. I find that I teach much better when I am checking in with my body and reminding myself what it feels like to dance. 

- If you are going to leave class early, you should always give the teacher a wave as you leave. To walk up and thank the teacher directly, as you would at the end of class, interrupts the flow for those who are continuing with class. Quietly grab your stuff, walk to the door, and wait for the teacher to acknowledge your exit.

- Generally, new or auditioning dancers should pay attention to the hierarchy of individuals in a class. If a dancer has been with the company for many years or is a Principal dancer, let them dance where they want to dance in center. Some dancers could care less about hierarchy, but some are very particular about this order.

- It is the instructors job to be sensitive about when to push dancers in class. I am a dancer that always appreciates corrections. As I stated before, some dancers just want to warm up and focus on their technique in rehearsals. If an instructor feels that a dancer is being lazy, then they can bring that up outside of class and try to push a dancer to work harder. One common error I see is that instructors make judgements about dancers that they barely know. A dancer that is altering a combination or skipping a combination is not necessarily a lazy dancer. Only when their is a developed relationship between a teacher and a professional is it fair to make a judgement.

- Teachers that don't teach to their ego are generally the most respected teachers.

- Do offer corrections to technique, but be careful when offering corrections in style. Once a dancer becomes a professional, for instance, they are very unlikely to change certain parts of their dancing. For instance, if a dancer takes their pirouette preparation from a straight back leg, they may not be willing to execute this from a bent back leg. If they have figured out how to execute a beautiful pirouette from one position, why force them to change it unless it is for choreography that requires unison.

- This is a pet peeve of mine, not necessarily a definitive rule. It is merely a suggestion. Professionals generally don't need to be given specific combinations for plies and stretching. Plies should be about telling the body that class is beginning and stretching should be about limbering your own individual needs. If a dancer doesn't know how to execute these on their own, they probably shouldn't be professionals. I tend to shut down if I am given an extravagant plie combination.

- In most companies that I have danced, it is generally acceptable to wear what you wish for class. When dancers are forced to wear a dress code or to take off their warmups, I have found that dancers are generally treated with a lower level of respect in those workplaces. 

- Instructors should learn to trust the dancers that they are teaching in their decisions. There is not often enough trust in dancers to make their own decisions.

- This is kind of a given. It is more common for dancers to talk in company class, whether catching up with a friend or discussing choreography for a later rehearsal. While it is ok to chat here and there, don't be disrespectful and talk throughout all of center. Show the instructor respect and offer your attention for a majority of class.

- One rule that I am a big advocate of is to support your fellow dancers. If somebody executes a major feat, show your appreciation. I'm also one of the first people to start clapping to the beat when a dancer accidentally ends up having a solo across the floor. Comaraderie and support go a long way in a difficult and competitive career.

- It is acceptable to miss company class here and there if your body really needs a break. Don't make a habit of missing class. If there is an instructor whose class you don't mesh well with, try to find a way to take another class to warm up, like open or academy classes.

- Now that you are a professional, don't approach class like you know everything. There is always something else you can learn.

- While most unionized companies don't require dancers to attend company class, keep in mind that this is more of a technicality than a pass to miss class. Beyond that, a great deal of casting, especially for incoming choreographers, takes place during class.

Company class can be a blur (PNB company class onstage circa 2004)
 - This is my own personal rule. I feel that company class, whether for a classical or contemporary company, should still be a classical ballet class. Ballet is the basis for most technical dance. When company class starts turning into an instructor's interpretation of a mix of classical and contemporary styles, dancer technique will suffer. Keep class as class.

- Whether you like the class or not, always thank the instructor and pianist after class. It is in our culture to clap at the end of class. If you really loved class, hoot and holler. Walk up to the pianist and shake their hand. Walk up to the instructor and say thank you. Instructors appreciate applause and recognition as much as dancers do. Most of them still are or once were in your position. 

9.23.2014

Why Post So Openly on Social Media

A movement from my ballet, Distinct Perceptions, inspired by a friend sharing about his severe OCD on Facebook (Dancer: Jackie McConnell - Photo: Dave Friedman)

My partner and I have this very specific conversation pretty regularly. "Did you see what Jimmy-Jam wrote on Facebook yesterday?" "Of course I did! How could you miss something like that?" "I can't believe that they would post that for the public to see!" "Well, how is that any different than what I post online?" "It's not...I could never do something like that! I like my privacy..." And that is how it goes. Every day, some people feel the temptation to post anything from their dance movements to their bowel movements, while others will barely share an ounce of their happiest pleasures. When somebody shares information that is socially acceptable, usually something positive (only once or twice though without appearing egotistical) or something mundane, most people move on without mentioning a word. But if somebody posts their lowest point, their biggest vice, their most embarrassing moment, or their struggles, they are often met with uncomfortable opposition or the socially appropriate cold shoulder (with whispers abound). I am definitely an over-sharer when it comes to my online presence. And while it has benefited me and hurt me, at times, I continue to share my thoughts, my lessons, and my life for friends and strangers to read. Why?

Let's start off here. I am a performer. A majority of my life, I have put myself out there on a stage. Sometimes, I get to play myself. Other times, I get to play a character. As a ballet dancer, one thing I rarely get to have is a voice. In the studio, dancers are generally told what to do. On the stage, a dancer doesn't get to tell the audience how they are feeling, what choices they've made, or what decisions were made for them. Beyond that, dancers are judged by their bodies, their strength, and their physical intuition. Rarely their mind.

When I first started blogging on Myspace, I guess I just wanted an outlet. I had just moved to a brand new city 3,000 miles away from home. I had very few friends and very few outlets. If I wanted to express myself, there weren't many people with whom I could openly discuss and assess my new-found adulthood. At the ripe old age of 20, I started using social media. It was almost like having a conversation with somebody who was a really good listener. On top of that, it was kind of like a mini-stage where I could present a performance. But that performance was my reality, my inner thinking, and my real-life personality. Having that outlet made me feel relevantly normal. I could share simple personal things with whomever felt like listening. And since very few actual people wanted to listen at the time, it filled the void and relieved the stress of being somewhere foreign with little support.

I'd take photos when I felt lonely in Seattle - Elliott Bay
As social media has grown over the years, nearly every American has at least dabbled in some form of online platform. This has led to a wide variety of ways people approach online networking. When I first started blogging, I would post about my inner dialogue while sitting on the bus system in Seattle. Sometimes, I would post how I was feeling after a bad set of casting went up. People started criticizing me for sharing how I felt, but in the end I knew it was my choice. When a Principal with PNB came up to me and told me I need to stop writing my thoughts and feelings online, I found it wildly ironic that she was admonishing me while clearly reading a majority of the posts I was writing.

After nearly a year of blogging, I made my first big social media mistake. After a really bad break-up with my first love, an attempt of friends to get us together to potentially reconcile, and another friend dabbing my fresh wounds with bounds of alcohol, I posted a nasty attack towards my former love. It was probably about 3 AM in the morning and by the time I had woken up nearly 6 hours later, that post had been read well over 100 times. I immediately deleted the post and felt ashamed for letting myself stoop to that level. It's the only post I've ever deleted. I learned a lot from that error. But I didn't stop approaching my public posting from the most honest and open place I possibly could.

Over time, I have had a handful of experiences that have been affected by my social media presence. I find that people are initially excited by my postings. It lets them have a better idea of who I am as a person without really knowing me at all. I also find that companies love it when you post something positive. Like, "Such an inspiring day working in the studio today." But, the moment that things start to go negative,  the formerly projected excitement turns into disdainful judgement.

When I hurt my back in 2012 and was having a rough week in the studio with a choreographer who was treating me badly, I wrote a single sentence update about how lost I was feeling. A few days later, my boss (who had previously lauded my social media presence) pulled me aside and said, "You need to watch what you post online. Everybody knows that you are talking about us." The funny thing was that I mentioned no names, mentioned nothing of work, mentioned nothing of my injury. I was just feeling lost. But the second that there wasnt a big :-D on my Facebook, I was committing a foul act.

Sometimes, life is stormy - Mount Baldy, Alaska - 9/21/14
Recently, I have been watching an old friend on Facebook going through a hard time (I can also see that they are getting the support they need). Whether they are dealing with real life issues or having a complete emotional break down, I don't know. But watching this person post the darkest of life's moments for all to see online has been very interesting to watch. My partner keeps saying, "They really need to stop putting all of this for the public to see. It's mortifying!" While my reaction was, "Well, what if somebody else is going through something like this? Why should they be so ashamed to have this experience in public?" There is no right or wrong. But people learn from people. When one person smiles, often you will smile. When you watch somebody in pleasure, you often want to feel that pleasure. When a person cries, how often do people start crying around them? People are moved by people. And for some reason, people will often look down at other people who are experiencing something tragically moving because they don't want to be brought down by that experience.

What living a publicly present social life comes down to is that sentence in the above paragraph, "People are moved by people." Why should someone share what they are experiencing? Because it moves people to feel, it moves people to think, it moves people to act. Sometimes life is amazing. And sometimes, life just downright hurts. Sometimes, your boss makes you feel horrible. Sometimes, your organization gives you an award for being an upstanding employee. By reacting to life publicly, people are offering a real life cinema across the widest web of the world. And there really isn't anything wrong with that as long as you are willing to be open to the judgements, positive and negative, of all of those that interact in your web.


9.15.2014

Video Break - My New Choreography Reel

I spend a lot of time working on so many projects that it can sometimes be hard to keep track of where I am going and what I am doing. Well, amongst the craziness of my first few weeks in my new job position, I have still somehow found a way to keep freelancing at the forefront of my attention. One of my favorite things is when I receive new footage of a piece that I have danced in or created. Well, I received footage of Distinct Perceptions, the piece that I choreographed for the National Choreographers Initiative a few weeks ago, and have finally managed to update my choreography reel to start sending out. I am really excited to start pushing my freelance choreography career as much as I have with my freelance dancing. Here is the new reel. I certainly hope you enjoy!


9.04.2014

How to Survive Burn-Out

Every dancer has heard of it. Every dancer fears it. But few dancers actually have the tools to understand what it truly means to be burnt out. I've spent so many years of my life diving passionately into this career; perfecting my technique daily, reading and educating myself through dance periodicals, watching Youtube videos, and much more. I love dance more than most dancers that I know. For this very reason, how could it be possible that I ever would experience burnout within my passion. Well, it happened. And I am recovering from it. How did I get burnt out? What did I do to identify it? And what am I doing to make sure that my career as a dancer doesn't escape me?

It took me a long time to realize that I was burnt out. This wasn't a slow realization that occurred over time. It was more of a BAM! in your face type of moment. As many of my readers know, I was selected to choreograph for the National Choreographers Initiative this past July. After suffering an injury dancing in Oakland back in May, I took some time off to allow my body to recover. What I didn't realize was that my mind needed more recovery than my body did. I took an entire month off before starting to get back in shape. By the time that I had arrived at NCI, I was about 70% where I would hope to be if I was prepping for a performance. Since I was choreographing, I didn't need to be in performance shape. I figured that I would show up nearly there and spend the weeks that I was creating my piece working towards 100%. On the third day of company class, I noticed that my back wasn't quite as recovered as I had hoped it would be after taking the time off that I did. But instead of panicking like I may have in the past, I calmed myself with the knowledge that my choreography wouldn't be affected by my ability to physically perform. Keeping that in mind, I choreographed on
Leading my dancers in rehearsal at NCI
my dancers for the remainder of the day while in a bit of pain. I also noticed that I was starting to feel that something had changed mentally for me.

At the end of this gratifying workday, I called my partner as usual. But what came out of my mouth in our conversation was quite unusual. While I have had greatly gratifying experiences in my freelancing work over the past season, I realized that I hadn't enjoyed much of the time I had spent working in the studio or finding work in over a year, aside from performing onstage. Taking class and rehearsing without the pressure of surviving until the performance was a great relief. I spent that day conducting my dancers in joyful bliss. Feeling this way in the studio was something I hadn't experienced in over a year. How was this possible? I am in love with dance! But it was true. I instantaneously recognized that I was suffering from burnout.

You can see the emotional exhaustion - flying home from Oakland
The question at this point was, "What caused my burnout?" The roots of my affliction stemmed from one nasty seed. Fear. I spent my entire 2013 - 2014 season dancing in fear. The first day of my gig with Barak Ballet, my rental car broke down on PCH in rush hour traffic. I did a gig in West Virginia where I was told that I was going to stay with a host family, only to be left in a motel down the street from a handful of strip clubs (somebody even knocked on my door the first night). In San Francisco, I learned 2 ballets in a short period of time, only to find myself fighting to protect my body when being rushed through the rehearsal process. At yet another job, I learned an entire three act ballet in five 3-hour days to perform the role the following week. To cap out an exhausting season, I found myself living like a homeless person in Oakland and San Francisco, all while rehearsing in dangerous conditions. There was more, but I will leave it at that. Fear drove me deeply into burnout. Fear for my safety. Fear for my physical health. And fear that I was going to burn a bridge in many situations that unionized company dancers would likely walk out on. But one of the worst fears of all that kept me driving forth throughout this year of burnout was the fear that I couldn't pay my bills.

In my opinion, the main reason that dancers burnout is because they are forced to push forward when they are clearly afraid, tired, hurting, or more. If you are enjoying yourself and feeling rewarded by dance, it is almost impossible to burnout. But if you are pushing yourself to continue dancing because of pressure to perform, parents, promotion, pay, or pain, you are likely on the easy road to burning out. This past year while experiencing one of my most successful years working as a freelancer, I recognized something was wrong early on. Reading my blog back in October, it was clear that I was already pushing my limits with stress in my career. I hadn't spent more than 5 weeks at home in over 2 years. I missed financial stability. And I was exhausted by the constant need to stand up to employers and explain that, while I was hired short-term and there was no investment in me long-term, they needed to respect the limitations of the human body (proper rehearsal procedures, appropriate rehearsal time, etc). But back in October, it was the beginning of a new season and finding a full-time company position, at that time, was an impossibility. Beyond that, teaching jobs were mostly filled and I was limited in my options to find work. For these reasons, I continued to press forth and fight a battle not for my career, but survival.

Now that I recognized the reasons for my burnout, it was time for me to take action. Experiencing the trauma of overexerting and over-stressing your mind and body often woos you to play games with yourself. I was often depressed and considered ending my dance career altogether. I, even, found myself playing this dangerous game where I would ask myself, "Would I be upset if I just broke my ankle right now," or "What would I do if I never took a dance class again?" Once you start going down this road, it can be a slippery slope. My first task was to stop playing these games with myself. I also had to recognize that the pain from my injury, and a subsequent follow-up injury from compensating for my back, wasn't helping the situation. I stopped taking class and started taking care of myself.

My view while working to reclaim my Sunday guilt-free
Another major part of my burnout was the fact that I was working night and day. Class in the morning, gym afterwards, come home and look for work, update my website, teach class, come home and blog, look for more work, and worry about how this will all implode if I get hurt. This was a standard day for me. I, often, wouldn't even take a day off from this schedule unless I was working at a gig. I needed to stop looking for work and to let my information sit still for awhile. Beyond that, I needed to find ways to relax and smell the roses. For nearly 3 years, I couldn't just sit around all day on a Sunday watching TV, going for a walk, or sleeping in without feeling overwhelming, gut-punching guilt. I needed to take a break from the life that I had created to survive as a freelance dance artist.

I guess the big question here is, where am I today? I'm getting better. My body is feeling better. My mind is getting better. And I still love dance. I have been really lucky that an amazing job offer came my way right as I realized that I was burnt out. What I have found is that the best way to work through burnout is to lighten the load of that item that is burning you out. So many young dancers have felt the pain of burnout and fell completely out of a potentially beautiful career in dance. I feel that it is important to keep working on what you love while burnt out, just at a different capacity. I am currently working towards getting back in shape. Just at a much slower pace than I would typically do. I am focusing on keeping my body healthy, instead of beating it back into shape. I have also been lucky to have a renewed focus on dance through my choreography. Also, I am allowing myself to take more than a day off in between taking class if I feel it is necessary. If you keep your burnt out activity far enough away to allow for recovery, but close enough to allow that recovery to involve the work that has burnt you out, I truly believe that you will not become so overwhelmed that you push that activity out of your life permanently. I am also working with a new dance organization and exploring a new side of my dance career that is more stable and could lead to an eventually permanent transition after I am done with my dance career. I find that working on something that is gratifying, while working on something that is challenging helps to lessen the burden of this dangerous state.

At this point, I can't come out and say that I have survived burnout. But I can share my process and offer advice that has helped me throughout this process. While my current job doesn't have me dancing full-time, I am still keeping professional dance performance in my path. But instead of focusing on getting back onstage in an unhealthy way, I am focusing on healing my physical health and approaching the next stage of my performance career from a place of positive mental health. When I am back on top, in regards to my physical and emotional health, I am lucky to be in a place where I can continue to work in whatever capacity that I wish. Once again, I find myself hopeful to continue enjoying a professional performance career beyond the 12 years that I have already attained. But for now, I step back into my healing and continue to defend myself from that career-threatening injury called burnout.

Sitting on Flattop Mountain this weekend overlooking Anchorage, AK

8.22.2014

Stress-free Travel Tips from an "Economy" Jet-Setter

Waiting to get on my flight to Anchorage
Many of my friends and family have expressed awe or been enamored by the fact that I travel constantly. They think, “Famous dance artist sees the world stays in luxury accommodations all whilst doing what he loves!” Doesn’t get more glamorous than that. Right? Well, unfortunately, I am neither famous, nor a luxury jet-setter. In fact, I like to call myself an economy jet-setter. There is currently a little girl sitting behind me kicking my seat and another young lady, about 3 years older, sitting in front of me curling her feet under her seat to kick my feet. I really lucked out on this flight, though, because out of the three or so seats that didn’t sell, one of those is the middle seat next to me. But to make up for it, I get kiddy kicks and the rank vapors of a raw diaper that clearly has needed changing for about 2 hours. Yes, I am a jet-setter. But not in any sense a la Kardashian.

Traveling stresses people out. I love watching people give one another the stink eye when somebody walks straight up to the horribly organized lines at the gate where every passenger is bottlenecked towards a ticketing agent that is only the beginning setting of your jetting ways. Truth be told, it doesn’t really matter the order that you line up, as we are all going to be on the same plane. Still, for some reason, traveling stirs great fear of being left behind, being left without, or suffering unimaginable discomfort. Out of all of those, the last one is probably the most accurate item.

I care so much about packing
I have developed this really nonchalant habit of packing last second. To be completely honest, I don’t really give a shit if I forget something. If I didn’t pack underwear, I can easily go out and buy some cheap underwear from Target. If I forget sunscreen, I can simply run to the closest convenience store for whichever brand is cheapest and doesn’t look like one of those dangerous tubes of Chinese toothpaste that were being put out years ago. There are very few items that are so strategically pertinent to assuring me the perfect trip that I need to pack it days in advance, all so that I can go back to my luggage and recheck it every day for 3 days before leaving. Once I forgot to pack my make-up bag for performances. I left that performance $15 in the hole and with a backup set of make-up for that performance when I didn’t realize that my foundation was out. In the end, I just consider it an asset.

I would say the most stressful part of traveling for me is making sure that I arrive to the airport on-time. Perhaps, I wait a little too long and have to speed walk to the train. Or maybe my partner and I didn’t plan the hourly Enterprise Rent-A-Car well, and we got stuck in rush-hour traffic. But what I’ve learned is that most of the time, even if I get to the airport with barely over an hour to get to the gate, I always make it.

The next potentially stressful step of traveling would be the weight of my luggage. I have somehow mastered the 50 pound mark in a piece of luggage that could easily hold 100 pounds or more. I can pick up my luggage and guess within a few pounds whether I will be over or not. Some people need to stand on a scale with their luggage and deduct their weight, but I have only misgauged the weight of my luggage once in the past 3 years. Worst comes to worst, I am so close that I can easily pull one or two items out and inconvenience myself a bit by carrying it around the entire trip. I almost always bring two bags brimming with a mixture of regular clothes, dance clothes, toiletries, and equipment to keep my body running properly. I find that I can keep the weight of my luggage down by limiting toiletries and purchasing them once I arrive on location. Whether the company that I am working for pays for my luggage or not, I generally try to check one bag and drag a carry-on and backpack to the gate.

Economy jet-setter < Casual Traveler
The next step of being an economy jet-setter is to go through security. Although I am more expert than most travelers, I still have to stand in the same line as everybody else while watching the elite few who have traveled more, or can afford to pay TSA off, slide through relaxed security measures. This line is the next place that I watch my fellow less-traveled peers start to panic. First things first, before you even get to the line, prepare yourself. Take everything in your pockets and put it in your backpack, purse, or carry-on. That doesn’t mean jewelry, but it does mean your wallet, chapstick, cell phone, change, and any other materials you may keep in your pockets. Put your hat away, take off your jacket, slide your belt off, and don’t forget that hoodie. Just make it as simple as possible. Once you get past the people that verify you have a boarding pass, you are going to wait in line for anywhere from a few minutes to over a half hour. If you’re flight is getting close, tell a TSA agent. But be prepared, most of the time they are going to be short with you. It may feel rude to you because you think your time and flight are more important than anyone else at that moment. Yes, they heard you. Yes, they want to help you. But there are likely about 100-200 other people that they also have to care about at any given moment. Give them a chance to keep order and assess the situation. If a few minutes have passed and they haven’t addressed it, check in again. They are more likely to get you to your plane on time than not. Airports lose money when passengers miss flights, they are set up to get as many people on their flights as possible. Just don’t panic!

Now that you’ve put everything together and you’ve waited in line watching people roll their eyes, huffing and puffing, or on the verge of tears, you will come up to the next TSA agent. They will look at your ID (that you took out before you put your wallet away) and ticket. I never really understand what they are doing up there. Whether profiling, thinking about dinner, or just making sure that you have proper documentation, I don’t know. But what I do know is that you should at least try to look like you don’t have anything to hide. A smile and a, “Hello. How are you,” might not hurt either. After you are either approved or thrown into a holding cell (joking), you will be pushed towards a line to have your bags and body scanned. Grab two containers. Throw your laptop in one and your shoes/jacket/hoodie/other personal items in the other one. Make sure you put your computer bag in the scanner first, followed by your computer, your personal items, then any carry-on luggage. You can then choose to let some random trained personnel in another room who has seen a thousand outlines of people’s body parts each week look at a scan of your body or do a thorough pat down. I’d rather somebody ogle my shadowy goodies than have them pat down with rubber gloves. Once you get the green light to collect your items, rush over to the scanner and hope that you remembered to remove that canister of mace you keep in your bookbag because your boyfriend is paranoid about you walking the streets alone. Now that you see your items, you are ready to quickly throw everything that you meticulously pulled out back together. I always put my book bag in the scanner first because I don’t want to hold onto my computer while I’m waiting for my book bag to come out. If things start to take awhile, I can throw my shoes, hoodie, and hat back on. Your big carry on should be last because you likely haven’t taken anything out of it. Grab and go.

Once you’ve collected your personal belongings, it is now time to dash towards your gate to wait for an hour and a half because you were nervous that you might not make it to your gate in 2 hours. I always opt for a relaxing walk around the airport. Maybe I’ll find a nice view, a store I’ve never heard of, or an outlet to charge my phone or computer before my oft cross-country flight. Every once in awhile, I run into somebody I know. This method usually helps me feel as if I have yet to begin a potentially long travel day. I do my best to feel like I am just going about a normal day, like walking through a mall. In fact, I try to arrive at my gate within minutes of the boarding time for my flight. Sometimes, I’ll even wait until after the called time to arrive. Once you arrive at the gate, you feel like you are committed. And beyond that, there is rarely a good place to sit, other than the floor, during those moments prior to boarding.

Now they have started to make boarding announcements and have slowly crept from calling military, those with children, or those with disabilities to first class, air mile program members, and whomever else they feel like treating better than we economy jet-setters. Airlines usually like to put stowage on the plane first, and believe you me, ballet dancers never fly first-class, business, or economy-preferred. While your boarding number may have been called, you don’t necessarily have to board with your group. You will not be denied access because you didn’t follow the crowd. Anyway, why would you want to be first on a plane only to sit and watch everybody else get on the flight after you. The last thing I want to do is increase the amount of time that I have to sit in, perhaps, the most uncomfortable chair manufactured next to an electric chair? While a majority of my fellow flyers are performing the stink-eyed bottleneck dance that I earlier referred to, I’m sitting in one of those newly emptied seats at the gate shortening the duration of my flight.

When I finally muster up the energy to drag my carry-on to the gate, I execute one of the best tricks an economy jet-setter has. Most people feel like they need to have their carry-on by their sides all the way to their destination. I have seen grown adults act like this is their childhood “blankey.”I have actually seen people in tears over being torn apart from their beloved baggage. But the way I see it is exactly as it sounds. Baggage! I don’t need any extra baggage. Especially, if my dearest employer wanted to save a few pennies and has me connecting at a hub airport with less than 30 minutes for my next departure. While others stomp their feet and act like babies, I always walk up to the counter and offer to check my carry-on to my destination to save their precious overhead space. The truth is, I’ve only had my luggage lost once or twice. And it was never really a crisis. I always got it in the end. And while, maybe I could have more options to occupy myself on my flight in my carry-on, I almost always bring too much entertainment. So, I check my bag at the gate, which is almost always met with a “thank you” from the tired of the same old story airline staff. In the end, what nobody realizes is that I just pulled a fast one on them. I actually packed my carry-on with all of my heavier clothes, like jeans, jackets, sweatshirts, etc. My drag-bag is actually heavier per-capita than my larger checked luggage. My other luggage was under 50 pounds because of this tactic and I only had to pay to check one of my bags. Very sneaky, right?

Now that I have dropped the ball-and-chain of my carry-on, I walk onto the airplane with a light and airy smile upon my face knowing that I won’t have to run to that next terminal with luggage dragging behind me. I calmly sit in my seat, look around at the rest of the flight, finally taking a deep breath, and beg to whatever god I don’t believe in that nobody sits next to me. This rarely happens, but it’s worth having some hope in life. Before everybody sits down, I check my airline magazine to see if the crossword has been done. And if it has, I sneakily check the other seats before my flight companions take their seats. I pop in my earbuds, start playing some music, and think about how much I would rather be home with my hubby right now.

My scarf sleeping trick
The next step of having a comfortable travel experience is to get in a comfortable place to sleep. Whether you are sitting at the window (which I prefer), the aisle, or the “bitch” middle seat, I have a few tips to make life more wonderful. You know those round, 3/4 circle neck pillows that people love to travel with? Well, I think they are being marketed incorrectly. These things don’t really help prevent you from leaving with a neck ache if you fall asleep with one on. But, they do provide amazing lower back support if you throw it under your achey, dance-ridden back. I always make sure I wear the loosest, trendiest pants possible. I also take off my shoes immediately upon sitting. Yes, shoes. My fellow flip-flop wearers usually end up with numb, frozen toes by the time we reach cruising altitude. If you put your backpack or purse in the middle of the storage under your seat, you can put your shoes on the sides of your bag, slip your legs on top of your shoes and around your bag, and stretch your legs out for the entirety of the flight. I always make sure that I wear an oversized hoodie and bring a scarf, as well. When you are ready to fall into your plane slumber, pull your hood up and over your eyes, grab your scarf, shove it inside the hoodie between your neck and shoulder on the side you would like to lean your head, and VOILA you can sleep without your head ever having to hang over the side of the cliff of a pillow. This, I assure you, is the most comfortable way to sleep on a flight.

Now that you’ve fallen asleep comfortably and shortened the strain of a tedious flight, welcome to your glorious jet-setting destination. Take pictures for Instagram. Post jet-setting statuses to Facebook. And be sure to let people know that you are getting paid to live this facade of a glamorous lifestyle. But all kidding aside, traveling isn’t really that stressful. If your flight is delayed or, even, cancelled, you will be fine. If your luggage doesn’t show up, you will make do. If you’re luggage is overweight, you’ll find a way to make it under or pay the extra fee. For those that travel infrequently, even the most minor hiccups can bring a surge of adrenaline and put one on the defense. But in all reality, you are about 99% going to end up where you are supposed to be, around the time you are supposed to be, with all of your belongings. Oh, and that lucky middle seat that is empty next to me? I kindly asked the father behind me to switch seats with his little bundle of joy, as to stop the 3 hour kicking rampage I have incurred. With this post; you win, I win, we all win! Cheers to the jet-setting life!

Safe Travels!

8.07.2014

Should Artists be Shamed into Taking "Normal" Jobs?

At the beginning of 2014, I posted an article on Facebook about the hotly debated emergency extension of unemployment benefits. My intention was to use this platform to put a face to a statistic for people who are connected to me through this social media site. Instead of getting the chance to inform some of my friends, an acquaintance I had met only a few times nastily and judgmentally brought an unexpected wave of wrath onto my page. This person, who barely knew me, was judging my use of unemployment without even hearing how I ended up on the assistance program or how I had been desperately searching for a full-time job in my field. I had spent a great deal of time trying to find solid employment in the dance world. But instead of asking for facts, she berated me by stating that I was abusing the system and should just go ahead and get a restaurant job or work as a barista. She felt that it was my duty to take whatever menial job necessary to get off of unemployment. After spending months and months executing well beyond the 3 required weekly work searches (3 being the minimum), I was being reprimanded by someone who wasn't informed in the least about my situation. Little did she know that I was barely collecting benefits as it was because of my freelance work and part-time teaching job with Koresh Dance Company. While it was uncomfortable having this woman awkwardly attack me on a public forum, she also got me thinking about what was considered an appropriate job for not just myself, but all professional dancers and artists.

I wouldn't necessarily say I've ever had a normal job. When I was 14, I would help my mom out at her Dollar Store. But I was so young and dedicated to dance that it didn't last long before I was at the studio daily. In fact, I can't even remember if she paid me. My first full-time job was working as an apprentice with Houston Ballet at the ripe age of 19. I have spent 12 years cultivating my career as a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, and an advocate for the arts. When I found out that the benefit of unemployment (my safety net and right after being unrightfully fired for an on the job injury) wouldn't be extended, I panicked. I was already employed part-time and collecting a small amount of salary each week teaching at Koresh. I had also obtained about 12 weeks of dance work through the end of Spring. I wouldn't end up receiving unemployment during those weeks that I was dancing and received a reduced rate when I was off due to my part-time compensation. Unemployment was just a safety net for me until I could find a regular place to dance and call home. But all of a sudden, I found myself questioning if I was a bad citizen and whether or not I should desperately take any minimum wage job I could find, which I would have had no experience in and probably wouldn't provide anything sufficient enough to pay all of my bills.

I have many freelancing friends that take restaurant, barista, and other random jobs just to make ends meet. They often miss class and stand on their feet for hours before and after working those very feet in a rehearsal studio. Not only is this exhausting, but it can heighten one's chance of injury and accelerate the process of burnout. When I started looking into getting a normal non-dance related job, I found myself living in fear and anxiety. Will I have to give up my dance career? Will I suffer from depression? Will the quality of my dancing go downhill? How can I go from making $1000 per show to minimum wage plus tips? Beyond that, can my eccentric artist personality coexist in a non-artistic workspace? I had so many questions that came up when I considered this as an option.

The woman that chose to publicly criticize me stated that she had to get a restaurant job while trying to make ends meet while striving to make a career for herself as a ballet student going through finishing school. She, unfortunately, never made a professional career as a dancer and moved on to other work. When I read this information, it made a little more sense. At one point in this person's time as a dance student, she had to step outside of her art to make ends meet in order to keep reaching for her goal of dancing professionally. While she had the heart of an artist, it wasn't her career. Since then, she has cultivated a successful career beyond her dancing years. Without experiencing our career, people often assume that a professional artist's art isn't actually a career. When she argued that unemployment wasn't an end to a means for me to continue practicing my art, it all began to make sense to me. It also made me very sad about the way that most people, including a former hopeful dancer, looked at artists. It is so very often that people forget that art is a legitimate job. If you work in marketing, you should look for jobs in the marketing field. Not McDonalds. But if you are an artist, you are expected to look for a job in the field of "what-the-fuck-ever-I-can-get." It is greatly unfortunate that this double-standard exists. But a great percentage of our society feels this way, even those that once aspired to be just like me and my artist friends.

So, the question is, should I have just taken any menial job outside of my profession that seemed below my standards because I am a professional artist? I don't know. But even without one of those jobs, I have found ways to make ends meet (even if, at times, tightly so). And because I held out and resisted the temptation of this localized socio-cultural bullying, I was able to obtain a full-time job in my field that appropriately represents the professional artist that I am and rewards me as such. Yes, sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. But professional artists need to remember that art is their job. Not some fun, child-like hobby that we are too stubborn to let go of.

A desperate moment in my new work, Distinct Perceptions (Dancers: Shira Lanyi & Allen Abrams - Photo: Dave Friedman)


7.29.2014

A Freelance Dancer's Summer Dream - National Choreographers Initiative

My beautiful cast of dancers for NCI 2014
I just finished a wildly intense 3-week program with the National Choreographers Initiative. Yesterday, my long-time friend who danced in my new ballet, Jackie McConnell (also whom I met as a teen at the Houston Ballet summer intensive 13 or so years ago), sent me a text message expressing joy and sadness. My response to her was, "I love when I leave a gig and I feel sad. It means that something beautiful has happened." Well, something beautiful did happen and 4 choreographers, 16 dancers, and a dance laboratory setting created by director Molly Lynch was all it took to create a magical and rewarding program that takes place in, of all times of the year, the summer.

Jackie McConnell in Distinct Perceptions (Photo: Dave Friedman)
The sun and heat are up outside while the AC is on inside and people just want to live on a towel by the beach collecting seashells. Summertime is a great time for humanity, but it is a really poor time for the dance community (read about the "summer slow-down" here). It makes sense. Why would people want to buy tickets to sit in a dark, cool theatre when they could be lounging by the pool or watching an outdoor screening of some 90's movie? This can present a problem for freelance dance artists and company members across the country. While many dancers spend their summer teaching at summer intensives or recovering their bodies, most don't have a chance to extend their reach as an artist until the first leaves start falling come September. But all of this changed a little over a decade ago when Molly established her program that selects "4 choreographers of note" to create new works on campus at the studios of the University of California - Irvine.

UC-Irvine Dance Department studios
It was three weeks ago today that I arrived at this same location where I experienced what I often call the most inspiring summer of my childhood. Thirteen years ago, I attended the 2nd annual American Ballet Theatre - Orange County summer intensive on the exact same campus that NCI is held. I felt very nostalgic and hopeful about being back in these studios where my career-trajectory changed back in 2001. When I was a kid, I arrived knowing that I would be attending Houston Ballet Academy's year-round program. But by the time I left, I had begged my mom to let me attend an audition for the School of American Ballet. In the end, I went to the Kirov Academy of Ballet, but that decision was an integral part of what set me on my path to get where I am today. This time, I didn't arrive in Orange County a student, but one of the 4 choreographers selected out of over 60 applicants for this prestigious workshop. I was proud, honored, and quite nervous.

After arriving, we choreographers watched the dancers (who ranged from young newbies to seasoned professionals) take class, auditioned them in our style, selected our cast, and held our first short rehearsals. There were sixteen beautiful dancers who work as freelancers and/or dance with companies like Sacramento Ballet, Richmond Ballet, Ballet Austin, Texas Ballet Theater, Momix, Festival Ballet Providence, Company C Contemporary Ballet, and Nashville Ballet. But for the next 3 weeks, they would all function as freelancers working as one company. I was lucky enough to be invited to choreograph or dance for this program. But since you can only do one, I chose to choreograph because of the prestige and relative challenge of obtaining this opportunity. If I had not been selected as a choreographer, I definitely would have loved to work as a dancer.

The schedule for NCI is quite intense. Class starts every day at 10 am. Following the warmup, there are two 3-hour blocks of rehearsals, where dancers are split into two separate casts to work with two different choreographers. After the first few hours of rehearsal, there is a 45-minute lunch followed by the next 3-hour block with the other two choreographers.

NCI 2014 Choreographers - Me, Garrett, Gabrielle, & Philip
Every season, Molly selects four diferent choreographers to create works. So, the program can be a very different experience from year to year. One summer dancers may be asked to work with only neo-classical choreographers, when the next year most could be extremely contemporary. This year, we had a very diverse mix of choreographers for the program. Philip Neal; former NYC Ballet Principal, Gabrielle Lamb; former Morphoses & Les Grands Ballet Canadiens soloist, and Garrett Smith; Norwegian National Ballet dancer, were the other choreographers that joined me in creating new pieces. The wide range of dance that each of us  asked the dancers to adapt to and perform were about as different as you could imagine. The dancers definitely stepped up to the challenge.

In total, the dancers spent about 6-hours each day partaking in the creation of our new works. One special aspect of the NCI program is that there is no pressure on choreographers to finish their product, to present a fully-realized concept, or to create a perfect piece for reviewers to critique. The intention of this program is to give the choreographers a chance to explore something new or challenge themselves to reach out of their comfort zone. After the final performance, there are no reviews. This can present a unique experience for dancers as well, since they often get to experience choreographers testing new styles, unconventional processes, and less explored techniques on them. With the intensity of the program, the close collaboration, and the reduced pressure, the dancers easily bond with most choreographers throughout the experience.

Distinct Perceptions (Photo: Dave Friedman)
Beyond the studio, the dancers spend a lot of time together while living in dormitories down the block from the studios. Most dancers have fond memories of special bonds with peers during summer intensives. Once we become adults, we don't often have this type of co-op experience. By the time you hit about 24 years old, you really start to enjoy your own privacy. But the dancers expressed throughout their time at the dorms the deep sense of bonding that takes place when you work and live in close quarters with one another. Making dinners together, going to Disneyland and the beach together, and enjoying some time away from normal life to focus only on dance for a period of time can be very special. And to make matters better, you can even have a glass or two of wine without fear that you are going to be kicked out and sent home if the chaperone catches you imbibing. All-around, the dancers expressed plenty of enjoyment with most aspects of the Initative.

The Irvine Barclay Theater
At the end of the 3-week program, there is a public showing of the 4 creations at the beautiful 750-seat Irvine Barclay Theater. With 11 years of the community supporting this program, the show almost always sells out to a very highly engaged audience. There is no budget for costuming, the curtain never comes down, and the choreographers don't bow at the end of their piece. But instead, they offer a stellar lighting designer (Monique L'Heureux), a choreographer introduction before each piece, and a Q&A with the choreographers following the program. The audience leaves feeling like they took part in an integral piece of the future of dance, the dancers leave with a sense of accomplishment, and the choreographers leave with a sense of renewed exploration. In the end, inspiration is the common thread.

Looking at the list of choreographers that have gone through the NCI program is like reading a Who's Who of accomplished dance-makers. Val Caniparoli (international choreographer), Edwaard Liang (BalletMet director), Amy Seiwert (Smuin resident choreographer, Imagery founder/director), Olivier Wevers (founder/director of Whim W'him), Melissa Barak (Barak Ballet founder/director), amongst many other names have all taken part in the program. For the dancers, this program isn't just a chance to stretch themselves as artists. It is a chance to make connections with choreographers who are often at the beginning of what can become very accomplished careers. To establish that type of connection early on in their career can be one of the most valuable networking opportunities for any dancer and can change the way they approach their work.

Distinct Perceptions (Photo: Dave Friedman)