7.10.2014

100th Post - 100 Things That Inspire Me

When I started this blog over two years ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would embark on a project that has been viewed more than 50,000 times around the globe, put my name on a list of important bloggers, and gotten me hired to write articles for publications. I'm also proud to see that I have the breadth of knowledge in my field to produce content from week to week. With all of this said, today, Life of a Freelance Dancer reaches an entirely new milestone.

This post (yes, this one that you are reading right now) is our 100th post. Instead of trying to write something thoughtful or (more) self-embellishing, I offer to share 100 things that have inspired me to become the person and dancer I am today. Inspiration is what drives us to do what we do and be who we are. Here's a taste of what has developed me over the years.

It has taken me a great deal of time to compile this list. So thank you for your patience with the hiatus in posting. I have divided this list into a few categories, so feel free to peruse through the sub-sections (for those with a short attention span) to see who, what, which performances, and more have inspired me over the past 30 years. Maybe some of these items will inspire you along your path as well! Enjoy!

People (non-dance related):

1. My partner - My life partner, Dan Loya, who you have already read enough about (Read blog post here)

2. My Family - My family has inspired me to do what I wanted to do and to be who I am. Perhaps, in my childhood, there were certain challenges that inspired me to work hard for my art and push further to become successful. But in the end, everything worked out just right. Without the support, countless hours driving me to and from classes and rehearsals, allowing me to leave home a year early, letting
Mom, niece, brother, and sister
me be who I am, and continuing today as my never-exhausting cheerleaders, my career wouldn't have been possible.

3. Childhood Friends - I have been lucky to maintain a few friends from early on in my childhood as we have grown into full-fledged adults. Most of my friends from my school years have disappeared into suburban living; either falling off my radar or keeping the loosest of connections on Facebook. But these few friends that I am still very close with have and will always have my back, no matter the length of time or distance. And considering how much I travel and disappear at times, I am inspired by their willingness to understand me for who I am, what I do, and still stay connected.

Boyd & me
4. PNB Physical Therapist, Boyd Bender - Boyd is what I like to call a Virtuoso Physical Therapist. Beyond being stellar at his job of keeping PNB dancers onstage, he has worked with the likes of Tiger Woods, the WNBA-champion Seattle Storm, and sports teams all around the Pacific Northwest. Boyd has shown me what it means to be a generous and caring human being. Not only is he an inspirational person and father-figure to me, he is also a pretty cool guy!

5. Larry Rappoldt - The first time I ever recognized what it was to feel passionate about something was with music. I played the piano since I was 5. While I didn't fall for this instrument right away, by middle school my teacher had wooed me into playing the xylophone in our concert band. Within a year, I was bit by the music bug and had taken up the flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone. This is all thanks to the passion transferred to me by my childhood piano instructor and middle school band teacher, Larry Rappoldt. Larry taught me how important it was to love what I do. And the music education that I received with him helps me in my dancing every day. Plus, I still play the flute (and piano when I can find one to play).

6. The Generosity of Friends - I was talking about a friend that has helped me out a great deal lately. The person I was speaking with said, "Oh...you have a benefactor." I said, "No. They are just a friend." No matter how you put it, I have been very lucky to have come across some really great people throughout my career that believe so much in what I do, that they have helped me reach my goals outside of emotional support. Joerg Gablonski, Ray Hoekstra, and Mimi Chiang, among others, have been generous friends that have helped support my career and choreography.

Me, Grandma, bro, & sis after the Boscov's T-giving parade
7. My Grandmother - While my grandmother is no longer alive, when she saw that I was passionate about something (even at the young age of 5) she made sure to figure out a way to let me do what I wanted and needed to do. Living with the adversity of a lower-income household, we didn't always get what we wanted. But she made sure we got what we needed.

8. The Village - My mom always told me that I was raised by the village. There are so many people that were once a part of my life, and some who still are, that helped groom me into the man that I am today. I wouldn't have made it where I am today without The Village.


People (dancers/choreographers/writers)

9. Kimberly Martin - Perhaps, one of the most important people that has entered my life is a woman named Kimberly Martin. When I first met Kim, she was in her final years of dancing with the Russian Ballet Theatre of Delaware. Not only did Ms. Kim teach me, listen to my excited ramblings, and drive me to any and every audition I felt I needed to go to (sometimes taking trips to and from NYC 3 times in one weekend); she made me a part of her family. On weekends, I lived with Kim and she taught me what it was like to live as a ballet dancer; in rehearsal, in conversation, and in the home. Still, 12 years into my professional career, Kim is a very important part of who I am and always a family member to turn to in the good times, the bad, or with the craziest of ideas. 

10. Colleagues - I think it is important, when dancing for a company, to look around the room and find the dancers who inspire you. When dancing with Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and all of the companies since, there have been a great many dancers that I looked towards for inspiration. Benjamin Griffiths (PNB) taught me what it is to extend your lines. Lindsi Dec (PNB) taught me what it means to have a kind sense of humor when you dance and to be a supportive co-worker. Ingrid Zweifel (Houston) taught me how to use your shortcomings to your advantage. Rebecca Johnston (PNB) taught me that you can still get an education while you are dancing. Jessica Tretter (Rochester City Ballet) taught me that, if you really want to dance, you can wake up at 4 am every morning to make ends meet. Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet) taught me that you can become a professional, humble yourself back to a student, and become an international star. Melissa Hough (Norwegian National Ballet) taught me that your body type doesn't have to hold you back. Matthew Prescott (former Joffrey, current Phantom) taught me that there are careers beyond conventional company life. There are so many more people that I could list. Just take a look around the room, stop thinking about yourself for a moment, and see the inspiration around you.

11. Cynthia Gregory - I was very lucky to somehow get chosen to dance at the Hampton Dance Festival as a 16-year old hopeful. This was a pilot summer program that, unfortunately, never took off. We danced in the woods, hung out with a small group of 16 dancers (many of which have had great careers), and got to hang out with Cynthia Gregory for a week. Cynthia was so down to earth and even stayed in our un-airconditioned cabin for an entire week. At the end of the program, this legend gave all of us her information to stay in touch as we entered the beginnings of our dance careers. Throughout my career, Cynthia has always been available to offer me some advice or to listen to what I am up to. And, not only is she considered one of the only true American Prima Ballerina Assoluta's, she is inspiringly down to earth.

12. Role Models - Once I moved away from home, I had a handful of role-models and mentors that helped teach me what it took to be a ballet dancer. Fabulous teachers; like Jock Soto, Peter Boal, and Vladimir Djouloukhadze, taught me what I needed to know to push me in the direction of dancing with major companies. But nobody stepped up to the plate like School of American Ballet teacher Katrina Killian. Katrina wasn't even a teacher of mine. She chose me to perform in a handful of lecture demonstrations that take place every year through a SAB outreach program. While my work with her could have ceased there, Katrina pulled me into studios to work on my technique, advocated for me, and became a friendly face in a wildly competitive atmosphere. 

13. Carlos Acosta - I remember that day; I was sitting in Spanish class with my fellow Houston Ballet colleagues. We were taking a class through Houston Community College. About ten minutes into class, Carlos walked into the room and took about 5 minutes of the class with us. Carlos, in my days as a student, was the most incredible male dancer known to man. As his career winds down, I
still think of how I aspired to be like him for so long.

Ms. Maria Chapman!
14. Maria Chapman (my muse) - Beyond being my first partner at PNB, Maria Chapman taught me to trust in myself as a choreographer. While I haven't had the chance to choreograph on her since my first piece in the company's annual choreographer's showcase, I still see her dancing in my head every time I begin creating a new work.

15. Fernando Bujones - After spending much of my teenage years competing in competitions like Starpower and New York City Dance Alliance, I decided to enter the very first Youth America Grand Prix. I danced a variation from a ballet I had never heard of before, La Fille Mal Gardee, and learned the variation from a man I had never heard of, Fernando Bujones. This was my first inspiration as a young male ballet dancer.

16. Josh Spell, Kiyon Gaines, & Jordan Pacitti - When I first entered PNB, I figured I would spend a couple years in the corps and then quickly move through the ranks. One thing I never took into account was that I would have to learn how to function as a member of the corps. This is rarely taught to students at the top of their classes in school. These three gentlemen kindly taught me the ropes of dancing in a group of people. By the time that we all left the company, we were mentioned in publication as the "Golden Era" of PNB's corps men

17. Leigh Witchel - The first interaction I ever had with Leigh was after he reviewed my SAB workshop performance. He wrote a very nice review that pointed out the fact that I very excitedly air-bit as I finished the end of a very difficult variation. We finally connected in person when I performed at the Guggenheim Museum in their Works and Process series in 2011, where he moderated the performance. Ever since, Leigh has become a close friend, confidant, and mentor of mine. Beyond writing reviews as the dance critic for the NY Post, he also writes for multiple other dance publications.

18. Val Caniparoli & Amy Seiwert - I have had the luck to find friendship with two well-established choreographers, who have been helping guide me along my path as a dance-maker. Val Caniparoli and Amy Seiwert are always a simple message away from offering their insight and advice towards success.

19. Abby Relic (my cooter) - One friend who inspires me every day is my former co-worker, Abby Relic. I could go on for hours about this lovely lady, but I will say only this. The reason that Abby is so inspirational to me is for how freely and openly she loves and for the way that she lives and enjoys life. She also fully accepts me for who I am, no matter what. And not many people are like this.

20. Rosie Gaynor - This sweet-voiced balletomane turned dance writer has been an inspiration for me since she started writing about dance. We have spent many nights over dinner discussing every tiny aspect of the dance world. And while she definitely has an opinionand has no problem being critical in her writing, she once told me this. If she has something negative to say, she will always leave it out and find the positive that she found in the performance.

21. Angel Corella - Angel was very sweet when I worked with him during the few months I dance with American Ballet Theatre (concurrently while finishing my training at SAB). After that, he left the company to start up a national ballet company in Spain. Years and years of effort have been undermined by the Spanish government and their lack of support. And while Angel did recently have to let go of his dream for that company, I have so much respect for the fact that he tried against adversity for so many years. Not to mention that he was one of the most inspirational dancers I had ever seen dance during my training years.

22. Cathy Bartelmo-Moran - Another person who taught me passion from a young age was the director of my first true dance school, Chester Valley Dance Academy. Cathy Bartelmo-Moran was another person that taught me what it means to love what I do. She created an atmosphere that let me explore many different styles of dance without ever pressuring me to push towards a career. Though, when she saw that I wanted one, she did everything in her power to give me opportunities, quality teachers, and outlets to get what I needed.

23. SAB Friends - I talk a lot about my time at SAB because it was a very formidable time of my life. I have always enjoyed inspiring friends wherever I go. But none were like the group of friends that I had while at SAB. I was a very intense student and often took myself way too seriously. While this may have turned some people off, my friends not only remained loyal, but lovingly put me in check when I jumped too far off the deep end. Many of us are still very close today.

24. Ethan Stiefel - I remember watching Ethan Stiefel pirouette in the movie Center Stage a few weeks before attending my first ballet summer intensive with Houston Ballet. This is the first time that I remember noticing what it looks like to execute a truly beautiful pirouette, one that looks effortless and floats at the end. Noticing this moment changed my dancing entirely.


People (groups):

25. Dancers in General - Just the idea that there are incredible dancers all-around the world is fascinating to me. We are such a rare breed, but even with the small percentage of dancers compared to non-dancers in the world, this small group of professionals is fantastic. After leaving PNB, I was so happy to find this to be true, even in the smallest of companies I was working with. 

26. My Friends - My friends are all so wildly talented and successful. I think about the Facebook feed of many of the people I went to high school with and how most their friends are posting pictures of their weddings, babies, and vacations. My friends post about dance performances, links to Dance & Pointe Magazine, Broadway shows, Television shows, awards, and much more.

27. Prodigies - For those of us that have made it, at least, to a finishing school, we all know how inspiring a youthful prodigy can be in the classroom. These dancers push everybody in the room to work harder because somebody younger than them is already two steps ahead of them. The unfortunate reality of these prodigies is that many of them burnout before their career even gets started. For this reason, I am always drawn to watch the prodigies that actually live up to the expectations of their youth.

28. Sharers - People who share their stories when society tells them not to offer so much inspiration. I always say that people are comforted by hearing others experiences that are similar to theirs. 

29. Olympic Athletes - Before I fell in love with dance, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, it would either have been a gymnast or an ice skater (figure skating). I am still so inspired by the Olympics and the athletes that commit to one (or a very few) event/s that they compete in.

30. Selfless People - I have met so many selfless people over the years. My most recent experience with what I now call my "Housing Crisis of Oakland Ballet" really reassured me that there are so many selfless people in the world. I spent nearly 6 weeks staying with people that didn't even know me before I moved into their house gratis. I'm not always very selfless and these people inspire me to work on that.

31. People with Emotional Differences - I've always been fascinated by people who's minds don't work like a majority of the world's population. I spent 7 years in Seattle walking through an area behind my apartment that was riddled with homeless people. Instead of being annoyed, I was fascinated. I was also raised around mental illness and think that my understanding of why certain people acted a specific way has led to a lifelong fascination with people who see the world differently than I do.  

32. Other Asthmatics - Everybody has their struggles. I have spent much of my life struggling with Asthma. Only thanks to dance and woodwind instruments has my illness improved as I have gotten older. I love to hear stories about other athletes that have struggled with this ailment that makes it difficult to practice their sport. On a hard day, where I can barely catch my breathe, I can look to them for hope and relief.  

33. Celebrities - I'm not inspired to be a celebrity. Nor am I inspired by how celebrities live their lives. I don't read celebrity gossip mags or follow blogs. But what does inspire me about celebrities is how so many of them handle themselves in the public spotlight. I think I'd lose my shit, pronto, if I was being followed around by paparazzi all the time.

34. Grounded Successful People - It is always impressive to interact with somebody in our field that has high status, but is still very grounded. The more successful we become as artists, the more freedom we have to be as off-the-wall as we want to. Sometimes, people even prefer it that way. But when you are talking to a star or a genius and they aren't wildly eccentric or disinterested in having a regular conversation, that is very impressive to experience.

35. Gay Friends - I have been blessed with a handful of gay friends that were around during the Stonewall & AIDS era. When I was younger, I embraced my sexuality a bit less than I do today. The strength of these men and women that fought through some tragically tough times inspires me to be as positive a role model for my community as possible.

Companies:

36. Russian Ballet Theatre of Delaware - While this company no longer exists, this was my first introduction to the life of a ballet dancer. Most of my childhood ballet teachers came from this company and I had my first experiences in company class with this troupe that was mostly made out of Russian defectees.

37. Pacific Northwest Ballet - It is impossible to dance for a company for as long as I did and not feel inspired by it. PNB didn't only offer me a career, it offered me an important viewpoint and a pedigree to build the rest of my career off of.

38. Houston Ballet - This was the first summer program I ever attended, the first professional ballet company I ever saw perform, and my first full-time company contract.

39. American Ballet Theatre - Having seen as many of this company's VHS productions as possible, I was greatly inspired to dance at the level of the men in this company. While I did eventually accomplish this dream, when I was told I would have to wait to hear if a contract would become available, I decided to take an offer with Houston Ballet instead of risking losing that offer.

40. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago - I had seen contemporary performances performed by large ballet companies and small, local companies before. But I had never seen a world-class company that was purely devoted to contemporary works until Hubbard Street toured through Seattle. This company inspired me to explore the world of contemporary dance.


Performances & Shows:

41. Stars of the 21st Century Gala/In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated - Ms. Kim (read #9) had tickets to see the Stars of the 21st Century Gala in New York City back in 1999. When one of her friends wasn't able to attend, she gifted me the extra ticket. I remember that I enjoyed watching these stars perform famous pas de deux from multiple ballets. But when a couple from Paris Opera Ballet performed a pas de deux from Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, I knew that I was going to be a ballet dancer. After dancing in jazz competitions for years, I didn't know that ballet could be edgy and adrenaline-pumping. I walked out of the theatre that night with a changed perspective and inspired to change my life.



42. Dark Matters - Crystal Pite's incredible Dark Matters is a touring production that is part dance theatre and part pure contemporary dance. I would love to get inside this woman's mind to see where she came up with the idea of a stick person that a man creates that slowly turns on him and kills his owner. After the entire stage crashes down on top of the death scene at the end of the first act, the second act opens up to some of the most fluid and intricate dancing I've ever seen.



43. Wicked - The Broadway show that is the prequel to The Wizard of Oz doesn't just have a great story. The dancing and music sent chills up and down my body. Definitely in my top five favorite shows.

44.  Alchemy - When I was still training, I lived with Ms. Kim on weekends. If she wasn't home, I would watch her ballet videos like there was no tomorrow. There was one piece that I had seen Russian Ballet Theatre of Delaware perform live, Alchemy by Daniel Baudendistel, that blew my mind. I would sometimes watch this video multiple times in a row, I was so obsessed.

45. Shoot the Moon - When I was in Los Angeles performing with Barak Ballet, I finally got to see Nederlands Dans Theatre perform. One of the works that evening was a piece by Lightfoot Leon titled Shoot the Moon. I've seen dance theatre before, but never like this. This beautiful work was set to Philip Glass music and included a set of 3 wall-papered room that rotated on an axis set in the center of the stage, windows, and live camera work that was projected in black and white above the stage. This was one of the most mind-blowing performances I've ever seen.



46. Triad - This MacMillan ballet was performed for the filming of American Ballet Theatre at The Met. Robert LaFosse, Amanda McKerrow, and Johann Renvall dance in a twisted love triangle to a beautiful Prokofiev score. Seeing this ballet on VHS play with the nuances of the music was the first time I truly recognized musicality.



47. So You Think You Can Dance - I know I'm gonna get shit for this one, but it is very true that this show inspires me. Beautiful dancers, beautiful stories, beautiful dancing, amazing choreographers, and (best of all) exposure to the country for our art. Yeah, some of the stuff on that show is pure shit, but I feel the show offers more than enough inspiration to make up for the unnecessary drama and blips of cheesy choreography.


Performances I've been in:

48. A Midsummer's Night Dream - The first time I saw this piece was at the Houston Ballet summer intensive on PBS. Little did I know that the company I was watching on TV would soon become my home company. After seeing NYCB perform this piece live the following summer, I knew that I had to dance this ballet and I had to play Puck. It took a long time, but let's just say mission accomplished. Though, it took me nearly 10 years and about 5 different roles to get there.



49. One Flat Thing, Reproduced - This strange Forsythe work that starts with the screeching of 20 tables being hauled onstage by the dancers and drives forth with a nightly remix of electronic noises was one of the first works I was ever called out of the Corps to dance in. My first few years at PNB, I struggled to get noticed by our boss. But once the Forsythe stagers came into the studio and workshopped with us dancers for a few days, I got my chance. From then on, Peter Boal finally noticed that I excelled at contemporary works and my trajectory in the company changed.



50. West Side Story - I have never performed in the musical theatre production of West Side Story, but I did have the opportunity to dance Robbins' West Side Story Suite at PNB. I performed the short, but crazy breakout solo during Cool, and I became quite known for my inspired performances of this cracked out solo. This was one of the first times that I felt that I had truly found how to dive into a character.

51. Romeo and Juliet - When I danced Romeo with the Fort Wayne Ballet this past season, I knew I was going to love the experience. Romeo is such an iconic role that many male dancers dream of dancing as a child. Getting the chance to tackle iconic roles, like this one, are what push people like me through those hard combinations in class.

Lucia Rogers & me (Photo: Jeffrey Crane)

52. Serious Pleasures - Getting to perform this Dove work that is so centered on raw sexuality really inspired me to change my dancing. Where I had always tried to dance within this perfect framework of technique, I was finally able to let everything loose onstage.



Leah Merchant & me (Photo: Angela Sterling)
53. Rubies - The Stravinsky score starts like a flash of lightning followed by a large crash of thunder. The primary-thunder silence gives way to a slight rumble of what is to come. Then the storm arrives starts. This is how Balanchine's Rubies enters the stage. My first viewing of Rubies was San Francisco Ballet at City Center. This was one of the first Balanchine ballets that I really loved. Little did I know I would perform this work over 30 times throughout my career at PNB. In fact, my final show at PNB was dancing Rubies.


Music:

54. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring - This powerful piece of music doesn't only have a great back story, it is one of the most amazing works ever created. Whether thinking about working directly with Glen Tetley a few months before he passed, playing the composition on my IPhone, dancing this excruciatingly exhausting work in 10 times in 10 days, or sitting in the audience listening to an orchestra play, I always end up with goosebumps on my arms and tears in my eyes.


55. Minimalist Music - Composers like Philip Glass, John Adams, and Steve Reich create music that doesn't always tell you what is happening, but instead inspires you to feel a mood. I love sitting around the house, zoning out to the beautifully harmonic, repetitious beauty of a minimalist work. This mood music also works magic for choreography because it allows the choreographer to have more freedom to create their work based off of their own choices versus what the music tells them to do.

56. Tchaikovsky - Very few composers have made so much music that is so beautiful and iconic. In fact, I don't think I would've fallen in love with classical music if it weren't for this man.

57. Electronic Music - Before the days of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), before anybody decided to come up with a douche-y abbreviation for this amazing style of music, I used to listen to electronic dance music. My friends would make fun of me for the thumping beats, the rise and fall, and the lack of any popular vocal artists singing the tunes I enjoyed so much. Nearly 20 years later, electronic music is everywhere. Now I'm proud to say that I was a trend-setter and am still a regular listener.


Dance Related:

58. Curtain Out - When the curtain flies out and you feel the cool rush of an air conditioned theatre hit the stage and there are thousands of people in the theatre sitting in collective silence. This. Is. Incredible. 

59. Choreographing - I love the art of making dance. Beyond working with the dancers and getting to have a majority say in the product that is put onstage. I'm in love with the idea that choreographing let's people see inside my mind. There are very few times in life where you can show somebody exactly what it looks like inside your brain. (Me at my next show. "Yeah. Did you see that? That's what my brain looks like")

60. Contemporary Work - I was more focused on jazz and modern when I was a kid, so when I found the middle ground between ballet and jazz, I fell in love. 

61. Conditions for Dancers - Being an AGMA delegate for 3 years at PNB taught me how inspirational it can be to fight for better conditions for dancers. Whether it be physical studio conditions, healthcare, or salary, I am greatly inspired by our art's fight to be treated like the world-class athletes we are. 

62. Jackson International Ballet Competition - The first time I heard about an IBC, I was studying with the Russian Ballet Theatre of Delaware and they had hired two prodigies, the Canterna sisters, to perform in their repertory production. One had just returned from Jackson with a gold medal, one of the most prestigious awards in the world competition circuit. Following that, I tried to go to the competition twice, but my efforts were hampered by the director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet not feeling I was ready and later by strep throat, a tonsillectomy, and mono. While I have aged out, I still love following the competition every few years when it comes back around.

63. Imperfection - It was a great day for me when I came to the realization that the dance world is imperfect. Perfect technique doesn't mean promotion. Perfect choreography doesn't equal a perfect review. Perfect execution doesn't equal a perfect body and lengthy career. The beauty of the dance world is watching imperfect people trying to be as perfect as possible in an imperfect art.

64. Hyperextension - Being one of those dancers that was less than blessed physically, I have always been inspired by the beautiful line that hyperextended knees create. Yeah, they can be weak. But I don't care! I'd take an inch or two of hyperextension any day.

My friend, Lauren Fadeley (PA Ballet Principal), giving you major hyperextension w/Zach Hench

65. Playing a character - I find there is nothing more inspiring and rewarding than getting to fully envelope yourself in a character role onstage. I can easily get lost in pretending to be someone else. Instead of trying to play that character, I try to actually be that character.

66. Live Orchestra - There is nothing that compares to having live orchestra while you are dancing. Yes, there can be a sense of risk in that you don't know how fast the conductor will go or if the musicians will be having an on night. But feeling the music being created as you dance adds amazing possibilities to connect to the music.

67. Unaware Talent - This one is pretty straightforward. It is enjoyable to sit back and watch a dancer that is superbly talented, but completely unaware of it. Whether through naivete or inexperience, it is a beautiful reminder of how we all started dancing.

68. Influence - I am greatly inspired by the idea that if I work hard and passionately to achieve as much success and knowledge in my field as possible, that people will turn to me for work, advice, and influence in our field. 

69. True Training Academies - Schools that turn out a multitude of professionals on the regular fascinate me. There are so many academies across the country that have a small few dancers that make dance a career for themselves. But there are schools like Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Draper Center for Dance, Marin Ballet, Westside Ballet Academy, and a small handful more that have a track record over years and years of pumping out highly skilled dancers from their start.

70. Street-style dancing - We always wish we could be something else. Me? I always wished that I was a phenomenal commercial hip-hop or street-style dancer. These dancers look so cool with all their swag and moves. Fluid, broken apart, amazingly fast pattern work, acrobatics, and wild adaptability are all qualities that street-style dancers share.


71. Floating - The feeling of floating in a perfectly executed pirouette or jump.

72. Standing Ovations - It feels incredible to have an audience jump to it's feet within moments of the end of a performance. It is rare for it to happen so quickly, but when it does you know you have been a part of something spectacular and special.


Others:
73. Unique Happenings in your Day to Day - When I lived with a direct view of South Street in Philly, every day around noon an elderly man wearing shorts, no shirt (if it was hot), and rollerblades, would skate by playing the trumpet. No music, just a bunch of honks and note changes. While he doesn't directly inspire me with his nonsense, I love when something so unique happens in your day to day that it completely pulls your attention out of your own world. I love taking notice of the odd and quirky things that grab me throughout the day.

74. Making People Think - I think that I look at the world from a very unique and open perspective. If I can get somebody to look at a subject from a new viewpoint, I feel that I have accomplished a monumental task.

75. Big Cities - Very few things inspire me as much as large metropolitan cities. Tall buildings, people everywhere, a variety of fascinating culture to explore, fun events, important things happening, and much more. I feed off of the energy like a plug in an outlet.

76. International Travel - Going back to my inspiration about making people think. International travel does exactly that to me. It is so easy to get caught up in our way of life and within our culture, that we can forget that our reality is completely different than somebody in a place like Vietnam or Kenya.

77. Sex - Beyond all things in this world, I think sex is one of the most inspiring things. And we would all be lying if we didn't say that many works are inspired by the human body and sexuality. Dancers are the epitome of classy, sexual inspiration.

78. Making People Happy - I love seeing people's responses to one of my actions that made somebody's day a little better. Whether it be a performance or an act of kindness, I always feel the reward and want to do it again.

79. "Coming out on top" stories - I struggle with this one. I always find the story of a dancer who navigated a challenging path that made it out on top. It is impossible not to find these stories inspiring. But at the same time, their stories are told as if that is the final chapter of their book. I love to hear about dancers succeeding in the face of difficult circumstance, but I also try to keep in mind that their story continues beyond the exposure of their past.

80. Biggest Loser - I am an absolute sucker for the Biggest Loser television show. While it is clearly sensationalism at its' best, I love the message that it puts out. Some days, I swear I'm going to gain a few hundred pounds just so I can be on that show. "Former Ballet Dancer Tries to Shed the Pounds and Make a Comeback!"

81. American Beauty - This movie is the first movie that I saw that really made me think out of the box. What a fascinating way that some of these characters see and experience life. I very specifically recall the film of the plastic bag blowing in the wind. Since I've seen this movie, I've choreographed to the soundtrack and worked directly with the composer's sister.


82. Japanese Culture - I always tell people that I am an Asian stuck in a white person's body. Alright, so maybe that sounds offensive, but I mean it as the biggest compliment. I love how future-forward this sophisticated Eastern culture can be, while at the same time being so respectful of its' past.

Dan & me at Shibuya crossing in Tokyo
83. Money - Money seems to inspire many things in life. Sometimes good and sometimes bad. I am inspired by money mostly because I want to travel internationally and eat/drink at expensive restaurants.

84. Green - Ok. I realize. Yes, stating that a color is inspirational is really odd. But I'm going to do it anyway. First off, give me a break. I am writing 100 things that inspire me. Beyond that, I really, truly love the color green. Clothes, nature, beautiful eyes, and so much more. 

85. Nightclubs - There are few places that people can go and dance their asses off without caring what they look like.

86. Skyscrapers - I am a skyscraper afficionado, or nerd. The fact that the human species has found a way to build these beautiful constructions high into the clouds has and always will fascinate me.

87. Autumn - There is no season that has so much to offer like the Fall season. Change is probably one of the most inspirational things on Earth. There are few times of the year where change can be so vividly apparent.

88. Fame - Not the movie or TV show. This can sometimes seem shallow, but I am inspired by fame. I love the idea of having a certain amount of fame. Enough where people pull you aside to show appreciation for your work and passion, but not so much that you can't go out in public without some privacy.

89. Inspiring Others - The idea that I can inspire others is unimaginably inspiring. It pushes me to work harder and go further.

90. Reality - I'm fascinated by the idea that reality isn't equal for all. My reality is my own reality, but that doesn't make it right or wrong. The way somebody views a pool of water may be completely different than the way I see it.

91. Natural Disasters - Whether hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, etc., it is incredible what our earth can do and how different we look at life when they happen.

92. Fear - Fear is, unfortunately, one of the biggest factors that inspires me. If I'm too tired to take class, I take class out of fear that my technique will falter. If I don't feel like looking for freelancing work, fear reminds me that I need to pay my bills. While a negative way to get things done, it is inspirational nonetheless.

93. Coffee - The fact that my love affair with coffee only started 3 years ago doesn't equal the measure of happiness coffee gives me. Coffee inspires me to wake up, it inspires me to finish class, and it inspires me to do things when I don't feel I have the energy to accomplish them.

94. 2nd Chances - This one can often be very difficult for me to give. But when somebody gives me a second chance, I am always so hopeful of proving myself and coming out on top. It is so inspirational to see somebody let go and offer another opportunity to right a wrong.

95. Social Media - This platform has given me a voice within my community that I may never have been able to have if social media weren't available. From this blog to Myspace to Facebook to Twitter, Instagram and more, I have ways to get my thoughts out, to stay connected, and help my community.

96. Philadelphia - When I was a child, I felt that I had to move out of Philly because it had nothing to offer me. By the time that I just happened to get a job in Philly ten years later, I didn't realize that Philly was such an important place for me. I was raised in the suburbs and a lot of people who helped groom me to be the person that I am today live in the area. Beyond that, I'm close to New York City. The best part of living in Philly, though, is that it is perhaps one of the most unique cities in the country. Few cities in the US have as much charm and history to pull inspiration from.

HOME
97. Love - I have always had trouble expressing love verbally. But I have no problem showing love. It is such a powerful feeling that inspires all of the great things that happen in the world.

98. Congeniality - Somebody cracks a joke that isn't funny and 3 out of 4 people in the conversation roll their eyes. The 4th person laughs at the joke, even though they don't find it humorous. I am always appreciative of that 4th person and aspire to be like them. Where is the value in making a person feel like shit when all anybody really wants is to feel like they fit in and make people feel good.

99. Success - Just the idea of success is inspirational to me. What inspires success? Watching others and/or experiencing your own success.

100. Myself - I am sure that this is not how anybody expected me to finish this post. But I think it is important for people to read this and understand that it is an integral part of each and everyone's life. I inspire myself. I don't often give myself enough credit for where I have come from and where I have gone. My successes have inspired greater successes. And while, at times, I can be very hard on myself, I wouldn't be able to achieve anything if I wasn't the person that I am.

What has inspired you to become who you are?

6.19.2014

Create Your Own Blog

Writing this blog
When I started this blog a little over two years ago, I had little idea that it would become a great platform for me to share, educate, and speak out about issues while on the journey of my dance career. In fact, I only really started this blog because I was scared shitless about finding my own work. I knew that I had writing skills and a unique perspective. But I saw blogging more as a personal journal that could potentially be used as a marketing tool instead of a platform for sharing my experiences, thoughts on dance politics, or a handbook for independent contractors of all professions. Yesterday, Life of a Freelance Dancer reached over 50,000 views. And as it approaches 100 posts (this will be #99), I have decided to share some of my secrets about creating a blog and how to write compelling posts that draw your audience into your unique world.

I don't know if it's our age or more of a popular trend within the ballet world, but I have had a great many friends mention to me that they want to start freelancing. Since I started a blog that is unique and contains material that has generally been untouched in the past, I get a lot of people reaching out to me about working as an independent contractor. During a handful of these conversations, more than a few of these dancers have told me that they are considering starting their own blog. They see that I have been successful with it and figure, "If he can do it, I can do it." The problem I often find, though, is that not much more thought has gone into something that can be a monumental task.

The first thing I do when somebody mentions that they are going to start a blog is ask questions. I always begin with, "What is your niche?" The obvious answer for us is dance. But is that enough to be compelling? There are many styles of dance, different types of dancers, and a multitude of tracks that somebody can be on throughout their career. The first thing that a potential blogger needs to think about is finding their niche. This special place one hopes to hold in the blogosphere needs to be one topic in which the blogger has endless knowledge and exponential passion. It may seem like an easy task to sit down and write about a subject here and there, but it is absolutely impossible to maintain one's writings over an extended period of time if the topic doesn't mean the world to you. This is the ultimate reason that most bloggers fizzle out within the first month or two of writing.

Once a writer chooses their niche, they need to take other things into consideration. How often do you plan on blogging? If a blogger plans to write whenever they feel inspired, they are not going to be able to maintain an audience. Even things that people are most passionate about usually swing up and down on the scale of inspiration. When I started LOFD, my plan was always to write one blog post per week. I didn't know if this was feasible, but it seemed often enough to keep people coming back to check in and infrequent enough to keep me from burning out. Two years later, the longest I've gone without writing has been two weeks. And while I wasn't posting during that period, it wasn't because I was uninspired. It was because I was too busy rehearsing or performing to sit down and create content. It is extremely important to post with regularity, as it will help you to maintain your audience. And, believe it or not, if nobody is reading your blog, you are that much less likely to continue writing.

Now that you have considered your niche and time management, why would somebody want to read your blog. Just writing about a specific area of expertise doesn't mean that everybody who has interest in that topic will read what you have written. I have heard people tell me, I'm going to write about me doing this and my review of that and my experience with this and my thoughts on that. My response can come off pretty offensively, but it is one of the most important things to consider. What makes you so interesting? So, you are a ballerina that likes fine dining. Or you have a special knack for knitting leg warmers. But just because you are passionate about something and you shared it on a public platform doesn't make you or your writing interesting. What makes a writer compelling is finding their own unique voice. When you talk to somebody in person, you can hear their vocal inflection as they speak. But reading a smattering of letters jumbled together on a blog with pretty colors in the background and IPhone photos in the foreground does not draw an audience into a story. Creating a unique writing style within your own content will make one far more interesting. Beyond the way that I phrase my posts, I am known to be too openly honest for most of today's common social standards. But the combination of these two things give me a unique voice that makes my writings stand out in ways that others may not. The tendency is for people to watch somebody do something successfully and to attempt to become successful by copying how that person garnered their success. This rarely works. Find what is unique about you, put yourself out there, and people will read what you have to say.

At this point you've created your blog, so the next step is to write your first post. What are you going to write about and how many topics have you already compiled? Most first-time bloggers think that they are going to come up with all of their topics on the fly as they find inspiration. Some people can do this. But for most of us bloggers, we need to compile a list of possible topics for the future. I generally write about what I am experiencing or inspired by in the moment. But as I stated above, you don't always feel equally inspired to write. How are you supposed to write when you don't feel any motivation and it has been days since you last planned on posting? Nothing can destroy your drive to blog more than writing a handful of forced entries. Not only do these posts take too much energy to write, but they often come off as uninspired to readers. And as for maintaining readers with humdrum content, you can think of it like this. If you go to a restaurant once and the food is bad or the service was poor, how likely are you to return to that restaurant? Unless you have already pulled in a loyal following of readers, this can force people to stay away from your content before they even get to the entree. I always have a list of, at least, ten blog topics that I could write about if I can't think of any other subjects. I have gotten to the point where I rarely need to touch that list. But every once in awhile, I'm too busy to be imaginative or in too little of a writing mood to conjure up a new topic.

When trying to summon new material to write about, I find that I write best when I am inspired. What inspires you? I can be inspired by something that I have experienced at a gig, a conversation with a friend about dance politics, or even a random person walking down the street having a conversation with a fire hydrant. I find that when I am truly inspired by a topic, I can write a blog in a wildly short period of time. If I'm less inspired, the task is more tedious and takes a lot more effort. Keep in mind that inspiration doesn't always have to be positive. But, if you are inspired and passionate about something, people will be more likely to enjoy your content. How many times have you seen a street performer present an act skillfully with passion and stood in the street smiling to yourself. If you can write passionately inspired posts, people will respond the same way. And they will come back for more. Who doesn't feel good when they are pursuing something that they feel passionate about?

The main reason that bloggers continue posting in a public forum is because they want people to read their content. If you post and don't tell anybody about your writing, nobody will know it exists. Most people figure that they will simply post their blogs on their Facebook or Twitter. And they think that all of their friends will read what they write and then their friends will share with their friends and their blog will become famous. It unfortunately doesn't work like that. The more you sell your blog in your own social media feed, the more likely your friends are to get annoyed with you. I do post every blog on my accounts, but I don't post about it much more than that. When I first started blogging, I oversold myself to my friends and I instantly saw fewer comments, less likes, and some even deleted me. Using social media successfully is a delicate balance of posting enough, not posting too much, and delivering interesting content that isn't too sad or self-indulged. The best way I find to draw in readers is a combination of social media and Search Engine Optimization (or SEO).

One of my recent Twitter posts
For social media, I always post a link to my most recent blog on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, typically with a quote from my writing. On Twitter, I always make sure that I use hashtags for #dance, #ballet, #freelance, and/or #blog. This allows people that are interested in these topics to find my tweet, even if they don't follow me. Beyond that, I have each individual post linked on a separate LOFD fan page on facebook and on a board in Pinterest. The way my blog is set up, you can only see the most recent post at the top of the page. Most of my other posts are hidden on the sidebar or on other pages of my blog. Since I have spent so much time writing each post, I don't want them to disappear into the blogosphere only to be found when somebody searches a specific topic. On Pinterest, each blog post is pinned to the board like a post it. This makes it easy to scroll through individual pieces versus scrolling through entire pages of writing.

As for Search Engine Optimization, this is where things get a little trickier. I am still on a bit of a learning curve when it comes to SEO. But using blogger, I have a few tricks that I use to increase traffic to my website. SEO is essentially creating pathways to have search engines, like Google and Bing, move your site closer to the top when somebody searches a topic that may relate to your blog. In my posts, I try to find ways to insert links to articles and businesses that are related to my writings. Make sure that you are being honest to your writing with these links. Don't add a random link that has no relation to your work because it is popular. But adding links to other searchable subjects may have your blog showing up when somebody searches for a place, like the School of American Ballet. Also, be sure to add labels/keywords after you have finished your post. In Blogger, there is a sidebar with post settings that allows you to add labels to your content. During my editing process, I search for words in my writing that really stand out as important to the post or names/subjects that are highly searched. For instance, if I wrote a post that included a story about working with Christopher Wheeldon, I am surely going to include him in that list. The more searchable your blog is, the more likely you are to gather readers. And the higher the viewership, the longer the life of your blog.

At the end of the day, you may ask me why I spend so much time sitting at my computer having a conversation with my keyboard? I never thought of myself as a writer until recently. Obviously, the excitement of seeing the number of views on my content tick higher and higher contribute to my long stream of writings. But the reason that I continue blogging from week to week is because it gives me a platform to express my thoughts, views, and explorations to people that I don't even know. I can help somebody I've never met learn how to get a job or cope with shitty conditions in their workplace. I always tell people that criticize me for sharing so much about my personal and not-so-personal life online this. There are so many times in life that we feel alone, like we are experiencing something all by ourselves. Those of us that have a platform to share MUST do so for those people. At some point, somebody has experienced what I have along my journey through my career and life.  Sometimes, though, they don't realize that they weren't the only one to have ever experienced it. If putting a little too much of myself out there helps somebody else in their time of need, I'm more than happy to help. With all of this said, if you've got it in you, GET STARTED WRITING!

Don't be afraid to express yourself

6.11.2014

Healthy Competition - From Student to Freelancer

An old photo of me around age 4
As a youth, I was quite competitive. I wouldn't necessarily say that I was one of those kids who was in your face, I will cut you, competitive. But I got a great sense of satisfaction from the competition that dance offered me. Taking a look through my training, competition years, and finishing school to my first few years in a company, becoming a seasoned professional, and finally to my life as a freelance dancer; it is interesting to see how my sense of competition has shifted and matured. Without any sense of competition, I don't think I could have achieved the level of dancing that I am at today. But at the same time, I can look back and see where competition helped me, as well as hurt me along my path.

When I started dancing, I was too young to really understand competition. I was 2 years old and would sit with my mom in the lobby of our local dance school where my sister was taking creative movement classes. With all of my youthful exuberance, I kept running into my sister's class and interrupting their growing into a flower and skipping down the street exercises. When the instructor could have viewed my interruption as a nuisance, she instead saw it as an opportunity. Instead of scolding my mother for my misbehaving, she offered me a chance to join my sibling and her sisterly skippers. This was contingent upon me staying in class and remaining focused. After a few years in class and a few years off from dance, I started taking lessons again.

I never had a competitive appetite at the age of 7. I only took one class a week. Perhaps, it was due to the fact that I only saw dance as a hobby. Or maybe it was because I was the only boy in class. I don't recollect trying to do better than any of my peers, as I was just having fun. My first memory of feeling competitive was after I attended my first dance competition at the age of 13. My studio had decided to enter a few numbers in the regional Starpower - National Talent Competition. At this point, I hadn't even worn my first pair of tights in performance (the director feared that I wouldn't stick around if she made me wear tights in public), let alone considered outside talent or other boys that dance. I remember sitting in awe; seeing kids my age and gender dancing circles around me. Most of that competition, I spent sitting in the audience thinking about how I didn't understand why they were better than me, but I knew that there was something different about their dancing. This is the first time that I recognized technical achievement and, perhaps, the first time I felt that I needed to compete with the dancers around me to reach my greatest potential. I had experienced competition in Tae Kwon Do and in other areas of my schooling and hobbies, but I never really looked at dance from a competitive place.

As my teenage years passed, I attended more competitions and added conventions, workshops, and master classes to the mix. I never felt that I was nasty in my competitive attitude towards other dancers, but I slowly became one of the most ambitious dancers around. If I was in a class, I was standing front and center. If there was a master class, I was always the last dancer to leave the room to ask the teacher about corrections or for advice to show how hungry I was. If I was competing, I wanted to win first place overall. I guess I could say that I went from zero to 100 in a short period of time. I never threw any of my peers under the bus or cut anybody off, but I was competitive in spirit and made sure that I was seen and that my presence was known.

An old audition photo (Photo: Rosemary O'Connor)
Once I started attending auditions for ballet summer intensives, my experience at conventions helped me out. Having learned combinations amongst hundreds of eager dancers in ridiculously close proximity on carpet, as well as my ambition to be discovered, helped me gain notice more than my technique. I knew how to step out of a crowd and be seen. My competitive spirit didn't allow for shyness or measure. While I had really started to excel in my jazz, tap, and contemporary technique, I was quite far behind in my ballet technique. Ironically, I had fallen in love with ballet at 15 after seeing several School of American Ballet students perform besides me in a small company's Nutcracker. While I didn't have the chops to back up my eagerness, my competitive edge pushed me to audition out of my comfort zone. I attended any and every audition that I could. I talked to the teachers afterwards. I followed up the auditions with written letters of interest. And, after a failed first year of summer auditions, the next year I received a handful of non-scholarship offers to a number of summer intensives (which, being male, is a great testament to how much technique I was lacking).

While my mom wanted me to attend the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, a full-scholarship program, I insisted on attending Houston Ballet's summer intensive; one of the only ballet programs that offered me a partial scholarship. I knew that I would be surrounded by more male dancers in Houston than I would have been at the Governor's School. During this summer, I became much more intensely competitive. For the first time ever, I wasn't one of the best in class. I was surrounded by dozens of talented guys that had been focused on their ballet training for much longer than I had been. I was light years behind them and well aware that I had to play catch up. While I was never outrightly competitive towards the other boys in the program, I think that my intense approach to catching up was off-putting to a handful of my classmates. I didn't understand the culture and I didn't care what others thought of me. Everybody has heard that they shouldn't be competing with anyone other than themselves, but I didn't agree with that. I had spent a majority of my training in competition with myself and a bunch of girls, and I felt that this approach had only gotten me so far. I needed to be front and center in order to be seen and receive corrections. I also spent a lot of time watching other guys who got more attention than me analyzing what they were doing better. At times, I didn't understand why other teachers were drawn to them. I was under the impression that I was just as good as these guys, but they seemed to be on track for an invitation into the year-round program.

By the end of the summer, I somehow left with an offer to join the academy for their year-round program, but with very few buddies that I had really bonded with during my six weeks in Texas. I didn't understand why I had connected with so many of the girls at the program, yet so few boys. It is all quite clear now. In order to push myself towards the central focus of the teachers and obtain my spot with the school for the year, I had inadvertently segregated myself from many of my peers. When my mom refused to let me attend HBA because she felt that I needed to finish out high school (which I did the next year as a junior), my loss of competition (and, in my mind, improvement) made for a miserable year. During that summer, I had learned that I improved the most when I had comparable or better competition surrounding me. Returning to a local school, where I felt that I had none, felt like a deadly blow to my future in dance.

Returning to my alma mater as an adult - The School of American Ballet
My junior year passed and I finished out my last year of high school ready to finally make my move to Houston. While I was offered to attend again, I ended up finishing my training at the Kirov Academy of Ballet and the School of American Ballet. During this time, my approach to competition became much more aggressive. The thing about this is that, at the time, I didn't see myself as being competitive. Dancers often tell themselves that they aren't competing. I had convinced myself that I wouldn't talk to any of my peers during class because I needed to focus on myself. I still felt that I had to make up for lost time since I started focusing on ballet so late. I also convinced myself that I very strategically chose barre spots and center spots because I learned best in the front and center. While I felt this was practical, it came off as cut-throat. When a friend did well, and I didn't understand why they were called out instead of me, I was genuinely happy for them, but genuinely disappointed for myself. Then, I would find myself watching those that were doing well, analyzing what they had done to beat me to the punch, and changing my behavior to hopefully surpass them on their successful path.

Some of my closest friends and closest competition while @ SAB '03 (Jermel Johnson - Principal PA Ballet, me, Arron Scott - ABT, Troy Schumacker - NYCB, Will Lin-Yee - Soloist PNB, Andrew Scordato - NYCB)

Throughout my training, I would constantly tell myself that my competition did better than me because they had a better body than I did. Their feet were more flexible, knees were hyperextended, and their extensions were sky-high. So, I focused on what I thought I was good at. Intelligence, work-ethic, and sheer hunger for success. In the end, these things worked for me. And at high-level schools like The Kirov and SAB, you learn that you can become good friends with your competition. As long as you understand and support one another in their successes, a strong bond can still be formed within your competitive circle. Also, you begin to understand that you are all working towards a similar goal, but each end point is never exactly the same. Through this, we were able to bond, even with the possibility that a friend could outdo you and take a spot in the company that you desperately wanted to dance.

By the time that I had made it out of school, I was reaching the peak of my competitive streak. I was hired into Houston Ballet with 5 other apprentices. Since the company's union contract only allowed dancers to spend one year as an Apprentice, I knew that I had to make an impression to get promoted into the Corps and make one fast. To make matters more stressful, 4 of the 6 Apprentices were male. I immediately began to stake my claim in the front of class and to bond with one of the other apprentices, who would eventually become one of my best friends in Houston. A few weeks into my first season as a pro, one of the Principal dancers pulled me aside and yelled at me for standing in front of him during company class. I didn't understand why he was so upset, as he had already proven himself to the director. I felt that I had to compete to prove my worth to my new boss. Later in the season, my best friend was hired into the company before I had heard if I would be offered a Corps contract. A combination of these two factors started the decline of my competitive fierceness with other dancers around me. I was given two abrupt lessons. First, once you become professional, being competitive can actually cause greater stress than it can success. Second, I realized that I could potentially hurt a great friendship if I chose to be competitive instead of supportive.

Once I had competed my way into the professional world, I began to notice how cut-throat competition was not as much a part of the bigger picture of great success and I began to understand the idea of competing with oneself. In a company of 50 dancers, everybody wants to be on top. But the idea of what it means to be at the top is constantly changing. Did you dance opening night of a leading role? Were you featured on that poster that is being hung around town? Did Dance magazine feature you as a rising star? Were you called out with positive praise in the most recent review? There are many possibilities for dancers to rise to the top. The top is also fluid from program to program and often out of a dancer's control.

In green tights - PNB in Glass Pieces by Robbins (Photo: Angela Sterling)
After I joined PNB and started to really get a sense of what it was to be a true Corps member, I realized that I needed to start working towards something more cohesive with my fellow dancers. In order to improve, I had to start looking at what I needed to do and not where I was compared to everybody else. The idea of competing with myself became very true. I started to become off-put by dancers that acted exactly as I had when I was younger. And I realized that overtly competitive dancers often elicited the remark, "Who does he think he is?"

After a few years in the same workplace, you can get pigeon-holed into the type of dancer that the director thinks you are. When I was younger and casting would go up, my competitive nature might have made me feel like somebody took a role from me that I felt I deserved. In reality, it was not so much the idea that somebody took a role from me. Instead, it was the idea that I had to convince the director that I belonged in that role (whether through my dancing or verbally). And, of course, politics always comes into play. As I spent more time working besides the same colleagues who I had once felt the need to compete with, I began to feel that they weren't standing in my way to the top. Instead, my way to the top was in trying to convince the people casting ballets to believe in me and see in me what I, myself, and others saw.

Lucia Rogers & me as Romeo and Juliet w/ Fort Wayne Ballet

(Photo: Jeffrey Crane)
Working in the manner that I do as a freelancer, competition is nearly non-existent. Since I am not working with a company from program to program, I don't feel the need to compete for roles. I usually have a good idea of what I will be dancing before I show up for my first day of work. I have walked into companies and felt a strong sense of competition projected onto me from a few different dancers. One, in particular, was a dancer in his first year with a company where I had previously freelanced. This dancer felt so intensely competitive towards me that they became stand-offish and began walking up to me during rehearsals to give me corrections. After a firm discussion telling them that they needed to let the director do their job if they felt I needed fixing, they left me alone. Perhaps, it is the time that I have spent in the field. But, more likely, it is the fashion in which I currently conduct business. As a freelancer, I feel that I am not a threat to any dancer in any organization where I work. I am brought in to do my job and leave. I'm not going to take a dancer's job. I'm not going to take their future roles. I come in, I do what I was brought in to do, and I leave. It's essentially a non-competitive position.

Typical self-promotion - Did you see me in Dance Magazine?
I find that while I feel mostly uncompetitive, there is one place that I still feel a hint of competitive comparison. While I love social media and stay connected through these venues due to my travels, I find that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are more often used by professional dancers for self-promotion than as a way to stay in touch. I am one of the biggest offenders on these platforms. Whenever I sign into one of these sites, I am proud to see what successful friends I have. But I find that, at times, I have to keep myself in check when I feel the need to start comparing my successes with their self-promoted successes. In the end, we were all wildly competitive as kids, which connected us on similar paths and pushed us upward and onward towards great successes.

No matter how mature I grow within my competitive nature, there will always be a sense of comparison to others in my field. Competition was an exciting aspect of dance that not only grew my interest in the field, but helped me grow to the level of artistry and excellence I have achieved today. Dancers learn through healthy competition. It is important for us to keep in mind that the kindest, healthiest competition is one that supports others and supports oneself in the most positive, growth-forward way.

My friend Jermel & me waiting for a bus to go on tour w/ABT in the middle of a blizzard

6.03.2014

Injuries: How to Handle Injury & Preventable Factors

On the table with one of my favorite people, PNB Physical Therapist Boyd Bender
I feel it is time that we have an open, honest conversation about injury. One of the worst things you can do in this dance world is to speak publicly about a current injury. A dancer doesn't want to be thought of as weak, a liability, a repeat offender, or anything else. Even worse, a dancer doesn't want an employer to turn to them years after their last injury and say, "I read that you've had this injury before and you lied about your health when you arrived." But I am going to do it anyway. I am going to proclaim in public that I am injured. I feel that it is important that dancers stop hiding issues like this and speak out about our experiences. Every professional dancer will face injury at some point, and while many will share their comeback stories after they're fully recovered, few will share about it as they are going through it. Yes, I have been lucky enough to spend the last 2 1/2 years healthy (albeit minor aches and pains). But today, and for the last month, I am suffering from an injury that kept me from performing at my last gig and has forced me to take the last month completely off from most physical activity.

Where does one start with a topic like this? Usually the first question is, "How did you get injured?" Again, another taboo topic, but I'm gonna be as honest as possible here. While there are times that a dancer may become injured due to some freak occurrence, one can usually look to a variety of components that contributed to their injury. I have a pretty clear idea of what caused me to suffer a lumbar (lower back) sprain.

There are what I consider to be four factors that, when neglected, often lead to a dancer's body breaking down. Rehearsal/ performance conditions, rehearsal procedures, physical maintenance, and rest periods. When I became injured back in the beginning of May, I felt that three of these factors had absolutely contributed to me needing to pull myself out of a performance series.

When it came to rehearsal conditions, we rehearsed for weeks on end in a studio that was not sprung and without proper heating. Throughout the rehearsal period, we were also asked to perform on concrete at multiple venues indoors and outside, often without any spacing rehearsals.

Our rehearsal procedures were also uncommon throughout much of the process. While we had six weeks to prepare for our performances, we learned a majority of our choreography at breakneck speed. After urgently learning the material, we immediately began running the complete works full-out. A very important part of the rehearsal process was lost. The actual rehearsing, digesting of material, and building of stamina. As for rest periods, our typical 2-day weekends during rehearsal weeks were often taken away by outreach and event performances.

What I looked like sleeping in that child's loft bed
Lastly, housing wasn't provided for out-of-town dancers. I definitely learned my lesson here, as a host that I found through a home-exchange website stopped responding to my messages after I had already arrived. This left me to move 5 times over 5 weeks; sleeping on couches and a child's loft bed for an entire month. While I made sure that I had enough sleep, my body and mind couldn't ever fully rest. Not having a proper place to sleep surely had a great impact on my spinal health.

It seems that the only factor that was positively met during my stint was in my physical maintenance. I found a great chiropractor, San Francisco-based Dr. Kevin Linzey, who not only was a skilled practitioner, but cared more about my ability to practice my art than charging me a rate I couldn't afford. If you look at all of these items, you can see that it came as no surprise that I left this gig in so much pain that it prevented me from performing.

In a full-time company without freelancers, there is a common procedure that most dancers follow when it comes to an injury. Initially, most dancers aren't sure if their injury will improve enough to perform. Unless they experience a fracture or major sprain, there is always the possibility that the dancer can dance through/around their pain. It isn't uncommon for a dancer to mention to artistic staff that they have an injury and need to rest for a few days or take it easy in rehearsal. This period is an assessment for the dancer to determine if treatment and/or rest is improving their condition or if it is going to take a longer period of time to get better. Once a dancer determines that they are unable to dance, the director will usually find a replacement for the dancer and allow the injured dancer to take the necessary time to rehab and get better. From here, a dancer will usually open a worker's compensation claim, which is their legal right as an employee of the organization. Generally, worker's comp will provide the necessary treatment (doctor, X-ray, MRI, therapy, surgery, etc) for a dancer to get back on point. Beyond taking care of treatment, worker's compensation will often pay a portion of an injured dancer's salary, so that they can sustain themselves during the recovery process.

The initial stage of dealing with an injury as an independent contractor looks very much like that of a fully contracted dancer. When I woke up one morning barely able to walk, I sent the director an email giving him a heads up about my condition. Following the email, I hobbled on in to the studio to have a conversation and come up with a plan. Prior to entering the studio, I had already come up with my own ideas of how to resolve my potential absence. If you enter a tricky conversation with a plan, it can likely alleviate some of the stress that an injury can throw on an organization. Most freelancing jobs that I have worked have used 10 or less dancers. One dancer going out can cause a lot of stress and panic when there is nobody to cover for that person. My plan took into account that we had a week and a half before the performances. If I acted immediately on my pain and took myself out of the show, I may have put undue stress on the company had my back calmed down quickly. I told the director that I was going to get as much treatment as possible and would give them an answer by the beginning of our performance week, if not earlier. We, then, agreed that I would teach other dancers significant parts of choreography (as much as I could in my state) that only I knew. I also mentioned that I had some strong medication to help with my inflammation and that I would take it to give myself the best chance of a quick recovery (I always ask my doctor for a prescription when I travel for work in the event of an emergency while I am away from home. I have never used it in my 3 years of freelancing until this moment. Still, most any traveling freelancer should carry emergency medication with them in the event that they get injured. This saves a great deal of time, money, and stress). Once I had fully informed him of the possible scenarios, it was his choice to wait or take me out of the shows. We agreed to wait.

The hardest part about assessing an injury while nearing a performance period is staying calm. Most people's natural tendency is to keep testing their injured area to see if it is feeling well enough to perform, whether taking class or stretching into the injury. I really wanted to jump into class to see how much I could do when the medication started kicking in and relieving my pain. But I knew that I needed a few more days before I could test anything. Once I finished the medication and most of the inflammation had dissappated, I tested out my back with a few exercises at home. When I realized that twisting and bending was still causing me pain, even with my recovered mobility, I immediately messaged the director that I would need to pull out of the performances. I did this a day earlier than we agreed. I figured that the more time the company had, the more prepared my colleagues would be and the less stress would be added to their preparations.

Freelance dancers, unfortunately, don't have the privilege of utilizing their employer's worker's comp if they get hurt on the job. Since most freelancers are independent contractors, the leadership of different dance companies have absolutely no responsibility to a dancer beyond paying them and other loose terms in their agreement, even if they contributed to them getting hurt. If a director doesn't provide a safe workplace and a dancer chooses to continue with that production, the dancer has to deal with the conditions, speak up in hopes of resolving the issues, or, in a last resort, quit the job. If, like me, a dancer does become injured, they are on their own in taking care of their health.

My E-stim unit (my savior)
As soon as I became injured, I had an appointment with the chiropractor I had found. I also started seeing an acupuncturist, getting massage, and using an E-stim (electrical stimulation) unit that I was given by my physical therapist when I had been previously injured. While I knew I couldn't afford to pay for multiple treatments per week, I sucked it up and put nearly $300 on my credit card during the first week alone to try and get better. Not only was I losing money for therapy, but I was also in danger of losing money because I could no longer fulfill the terms of my contract. I knew that this would be a great financial stress for me, so I went ahead and asked the company if I could perform office work to continue getting paid. My flight didn't leave for another week after I stopped rehearsing and if I couldn't pay for my therapy, I surely couldn't afford to pay to change my plane ticket. Also, if I was still in town, I might as well make myself useful. This is always a reasonable request to consider if you are hurt and have to remain on location.

Luckily, the company agreed to let me do this, and I continued helping the organization by writing a blog, doing menial office work, and speaking at outreach events. While it was very helpful that the company was willing to do this for me, they had no responsibility to agree to it. Since returning home, I have taken nearly a month off with no physical activity for 2 weeks. I started incorporating gym exercises on week 3 and yoga on this 4th week. I have also maintained my therapy and am on a clear road to recovery, if hurting a bit in my pocketbook.

Now that I am home and have spent the last month recovering (and I'm feeling a lot better), it is easier to look back and see where things went wrong. There were multiple factors that amounted in my getting injured. It is clear to me that prevention is the most important item I would like to address in this post. I did my best when I began to fear for the worst by pulling the director aside and speaking about my concerns. After a good conversation, unfortunately, the conditions only showed minor improvement. At that point, I had to make a decision. Do I quit the gig or do I continue dancing in an environment that has a high risk for injury? For multiple reasons, I decided that quitting just wasn't the right decision. Once I did become injured, I handled the situation in a very thoughtful and respectful manner.

While injuries are not always preventable, they can be greatly reduced by considering the conditions and procedures that dancers have to rehearse in. I call on all companies that hire freelancers to please think about the four factors I've mentioned above before hiring dancers as independent contractors. While you are hiring them to help raise your level of dancing, create something new, or to fill in gaps in your productions, please take into consideration that our health is extremely important to us and our survival is our body. If conditions are dangerous and a dancer gets injured, you have no obligation to them. If a freelance dancer gets hurt because of conditions that could have been prevented or thought out more carefully, they can't make a living, may struggle to pay and get care for a faster recovery, and may lose their dancing career altogether. I urge each and every employer to consider what I have written and to do their best to assure dancers who are independent contractors (or any dancer) a safe and respectful environment.

PLEASE DON'T HURT ME