Halloween Edition - 11 Scary Thoughts Dancers Have

It's been a while since I've done a list post. And it's Halloween weekend, so I thought I'd have a little fun with this one. If you are looking for high-brow, in-depth quality content, stay tuned for my next post or look at my previous posts via this link. For now, please enjoy these 11 SCARY thoughts that different types of dancers have.


The Freelance Dancer - "Well, this is a really nice gig, but I don't have anything else lined up after this. Could this be the end of my career?"


The Street Dancer - "What if this subway car slams on the breaks while I'm doing my big finale?"


The Company Dancer - "If I show up to class in costume, will the director think that I'm not serious about my dance career and take it out on me in casting?"


The Open Class Dancer -"What am I going to make for dinner after this class?"


The Broadway Dancer - "If I have to do this show one more time,  will I lose my mind!"


The Break Dancer - "Does spinning on my head increase my risk of balding?"


The Pre-Professional Dancer - "This is my second year at this finishing program. If I don't get a job by the end of this year, does that mean I need to quit and go to college?"


The Ballroom Dancer - "Why is she talking to that other guy over there? Is she plotting to switch partners?"


The Recreational Dancer - "What will ever come of my true aspirations to have a dance career if I'm not cast as Clara in The Nutcracker this year?"


The Club Dancer - "If I go out there and dance, everybody is clearly going to only be watching and judging me, right?"


The Stay-at-Home Dancer - "What if my Husband is secretly filming me sing and dance to my 90's playlist while I am vacuuming the floor to post it on the internet?"



Acting Professionally in a Rehearsal Studio

The Royal Ballet in rehearsal (Photo: Unknown)
Rehearsal etiquette is one of the many unspoken areas of our silent art form. There is no particular way that each and every rehearsal studio is run. But at the same time, there are general no-no's (and yes-yes') that are taught within the culture of a company as they create, fine-tune, and prepare a work for the stage.

Back a handful of years ago I was working with a pickup company that employed enough dancers to fill a small rehearsal room. In other words, our athletic group of 8 had to get along considering our company's size. A few of us were more seasoned than the others. But one dancer was enjoying the raw, empowering, and often shocking experience of their first job as a professional. Previously, I talked about my experience at my first full-time job with Houston Ballet and how I stepped on dancer's toes without even realizing it. After watching this type of situation from the other side, as a senior dancer, I was taught a lesson in kindness, patience, and humility.

Dancing for a big company is very different than dancing for a small ensemble. In a bigger company, dancers often feel more comfortable being up front (if not, sometimes, mean) when trying to streamline a young dancer into their place in the unique culture of a professional company. If any interaction becomes tense, dancers can retreat into their clique for comfort or hide behind other dancers who are more willing to stand their ground. But in a small company, there is nowhere to hide, very little hierarchy, and everybody has to interact frequently with one another in the studio.

Smuin Ballet in rehearsal (Photo: Chris Hardy)
Back to the occasion of watching this new dancer enter a rehearsal studio without the assimilation that the rest of us dancers had. It was a generally difficult situation to endure. The leadership wasn't very good at running a rehearsal studio and they let the dancers have a bit too much control over what happened. This new dancer became a stressor for other dancers as they were acting in ways that went way beyond the etiquette of most professional environments. Things like actively telling other dancers how to fix their dancing, counting over the choreographer, and regularly interrupting the process to crack jokes became the norm. And while the other dancers with more experience didn't approve of this behavior, the director and ballet mistress chose to allow it to continue.

Now, it is perfectly healthy to run a studio where dancers feel that they are a valuable part of the process, where the environment is light and friendly, and where a dancer feels that they can speak up when they feel that something isn't working properly. But this dancer started to become a distraction and affected the ability of others to work to the best of their abilities. Due to the size of the company, where another more experienced dancer may have talked to their freshly minted colleague, this dancer was left continually breaking "rehearsal-code" for the extent of the gig. This was most likely due to the fact that, in such a small group, everybody knew that a small amount of tension between two dancers would be felt by all.

In this company, many of the dancers looked up to me and respected my work. And for that reason, it was suggested by some that I speak to this dancer to give them an idea of professional rehearsal etiquette. But, as I stated before, I felt it would cause too much tension and that it was actually the responsibility of those in the front of the studio to hone this character in. Looking back, I'm glad I maintained this position. But this is the advice that I would offer that dancer today if I were the person at the front of the studio.

First things first, the way you act in a rehearsal studio as a student is completely different than when you are a professional. Most students who become professionals have reached the top of the hierarchy of a school. Essentially, if the school had a ranking, these dancers are the Principals of the school. In a professional company, a top-level student most often enters at the lowest rank and seniority. In most professional rehearsal setting, Principals have more leeway and freedom in their choices, actions, and vocal interaction than others. Not to say that a new professional can't have a voice or input. But it is the job of an apprentice or first year dancer to sit back and absorb what is happening around them. They don't have equal cultural standing to those higher ranked or more senior dancers. Just like in medieval times, the apprentice to the blacksmith didn't walk in on day one and start working with the iron. It may have taken a long time before the mentor allowed the apprentice to even touch any equipment, let alone lead the creation of a work of art.

My next bit of advice is to keep an open mind about your idea of what a rehearsal should look like. School rehearsals are often much slower paced with more time to retain choreography, fine-tune, and engage in conversation. Many professional environments are much faster-paced and don't open up the room to ask questions or discuss particular material until all of the material is already out. This is to help streamline the process and may even be an effective money-saver. In school, most of the students are paying to dance. In a professional environment, time is money. The longer dancers are in rehearsal, the more they get paid and the more time spent paying for rehearsal space (esp. in freelance or project based gigs that don't have a home studio). There are reasons for professional rehearsal culture that go beyond personalities and people getting along.

Joffrey Ballet in rehearsal (Photo: Lenny Gilmore)
The final idea I'd like to share about rehearsal etiquette is a grey area that is fluid from company to company, but generally recognized in some way or another. I'd like to bring up seniority and respect for dancers with more experience. One of the big issues with this fresh, new dancer was that they felt their presence in the studio was absolutely equal in contribution to the more experienced dancers around them. I'd love to say that this is the perfect ideal, but it was actually one of the most challenging aspects of working with this person. The difficulty laid in looking at them as a person versus their job and position as a dancer. As a person, we all enjoyed this dancer very much and wanted to give them a chance to find their place. But as a dancer, many of us felt disrespected by this person's actions. For instance, a young dancer should never think it is acceptable to offer unwarranted corrections to a more senior dancer. Additionally, taking over a rehearsal space and telling dancers how to count or how your exploration of the process is more correct can be horribly disrespectful and doesn't acknowledge a dancer's wisdom gained from time put in. Whether a young dancer is more naturally talented than a senior dancer doesn't play into the fact that dancers with seniority have spent years fine-tuning their technique, movement, and rehearsal practice. The value in hiring more senior dancers is that they have existed in a professional dance studio much longer than younger dancers. They are brought back to dance for an organization because they have a very keen sense of how to work effectively and professionally in a variety of work environments. Even a dancer with immense talent can not innately understand this. And for this reason, it is extremely important that they take a step back and absorb the culture that experienced dancers project. Because in the end, these senior dancers are not projecting their own idea of the culture. They are projecting the culture that came before them and taught them that culture and so on. You are essentially being taught the cultural history of the company by learning from those who came before you, absorbing it, and then will hopefully pass it on when you aren't the young or new one any more.

As you can see, I shied away from sharing too many specific items about how to act in a studio. This is mostly because each and every studio functions differently and most effectively per the needs of an organization. I don't want any dancer to ever feel completely stifled by trying to fit in to the culture of a dance company's rehearsal process. But if you approach a professional rehearsal studio with respect for those around you and respect for what came before, it will be much easier to acclimate to dancing for a company. And, if you are lucky enough, perhaps, you will have the staying power to become one of those dancers that helps the next generation learn a company's culture from your fine example.


Get Out of Your Comfort Zone - Honeymoon Edition

One of my images from our trip to Machu Picchu
Hola mi amigos! I'm BACK!!!! I hope that you haven't missed me too much. At the moment, I'm flying high on a travel-bender sitting in the aeropuerto in Lima, Peru. This isn't the first or second time I've been here in the past few weeks. But it is definitely the longest period with my current layover time queueing at 6 hours (only 2 more to go). Over the past 3 weeks, I have bartered at ramshackle markets in horribly broken Spanish with excessively wooing Peruvian ladies in Lima. I've experienced the short and light-headed breathlessness of Soroche (or altitude sickness) that walking only a few wildly tight, steeply climbing streets of historically scenic Cusco, Peru can quickly bring on. Shortly after my time in Peru, I was again fumbling through my Spanish to order enough pisco sours to loosen up and dance among the locals at a club in Santiago, Chile. Whether struggling through a conversation to purchase a bus ticket to Valparaiso, Chile, navigating the Subte (subway) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, or finding our way to the historical center of Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, my husband and I spent our amazing 3 week South American honeymoon utterly and uncomfortably out of our comfort zones. But it was all worth it to make it to the centerpiece of our journey, and to one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu! I know you've missed me (or at least my posts ;-) ) over these past weeks, but I hope you forgive me for my silence during our travels. And, even better. There's a lesson here for all!

Exploring the historic Plaza de Armas of Cusco, Peru
These past few weeks of travel have been full of fun, excitement, discomfort, frustration, unexpected joy, utter submission, and much love. A flooding array of emotions and challenges can accompany what sounds like a fun, daring adventure. But with good intentions come hard lessons. Here, food poisoning from eating at a questionable airport restaurant, exchanging money on a random street that all the travel blogs wrote to go to in order to save big bucks on exchange rates (too bad they stopped writing those blogs two years ago when these cambios, or cash houses, became obsolete and...maybe...even illegal), or walking a few miles into a sketchy neighborhood without any phone service or knowledge of transportation out of there. But at the same time, watching an ancient Inca site breathing through heavenly clouds, haggling a silkenly soft alpaca sweater to the equivalent of $10 USD, seeing the most incredible display of street art carved into the cutest city on earth, and standing by your new spouse's side to share these experiences was well worth the moments that thrust us anywhere but close to comfortable.

I wanted to talk a bit about what I've been up to, and at the same time create some relevant content for you guys. In my thought process while prepping to write this piece, it clicked for me that it was time to talk about getting out of our comfort zones. There are many ways to get out of your comfort zone. For instance, I am an expert traveler. But only when it comes to domestic travel within the United States. I haven't been out of the country in 6 years as I've focused on building certain aspects of my career. For me, I could have stayed comfortable and had my honeymoon in the US. But that idea, while easy and relaxing, would have been completely within my husband and my comfort zone. We threw around the possibility of traveling somewhere international, but in a more developed country with lavish, comfortable accommodations. This option would have been slightly out of our comfort zone, but still offer us some ease of mind and relaxation to celebrate our union. But if any of you have gotten to know me over the years while reading Life of a Freelance Dancer, you know that neither of those experiences are close to my style (nor my husbands).

Enjoying art in the Parque Esulturas in Santiago, Chile
When Danya and I looked into honeymoon options, we were most excited by traveling to places where there was a strong language barrier, where in some places you can't even brush your teeth with the water, where people asked to pose in pictures with me because they had never seen somebody with green eyes before, and where there is the possibility that we may find ourselves in potentially dangerous situations (nothing too crazy, right). Why, you may ask, would a newlywed couple want to thrust themselves this far out of their comfort zones on such an occasion as their honeymoon? Because we thrive on experiences that force us to grow, force us to question the way that we live our lives, and force us to open our minds to the possibility of greater understanding (in many areas of of life) than we have today. I feel this is a relevant lesson in life, society on a global scale, and even dance.

I remember back when I first fell in love with ballet. I didn't know much about what I was doing, aside from the knowledge that there was this amazing school where kids were selected to dance in the mornings and afternoons (the School of American Ballet) and got to focus on dance like I had been focusing on math and science. I also knew that I was a little behind, but felt I might be able to catch up if I did enough research and worked my ass off. I pulled open the January 2000 issue of Dance Magazine and decided to ask if I could audition for the summer intensives I had found with either the biggest ads or in the biggest cities (because, ya know, the bigger the city or the bigger the ad, the better the company?). I was lucky to have a supportive family and an even more supportive teacher and school director to help me follow my uncultivated dream. I jumped into the deep-end fast, and nobody stopped to second guess my ambition. And I guess a lot hasn't changed since then.

Enjoying the centerpiece of our honeymoon, Machu Picchu
After all of my summer intensive auditions that year, even as a male, I had only been accepted to a small handful of the programs I applied for (practically none with scholarship). One that gave me a minor scholarship and really stood out to me was Houston Ballet Academy. I had also received a full-ride to the now defunded Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, where my mom was an alumni in their vocal department. Obviously, after her experience there, I was given a gentle, but clear push to go where the money was because I was almost guaranteed a lot of attention (especially being a male dancer) and my mom knew I would have a positive experience there.

But in typical Barry fashion, I had my eyes set on jumping into a pool of water with no definitive bottom. At the time, I just did it. But I can explain this decision more clearly now. I innately knew that there were two ways to grow as a person; in small, safe building steps or in one fell swoop with great potential for success or failure. I made the choice to put a lot of money on one number, instead of buying a handful of inexpensive scratch tickets from the lottery.

Dancing thru a tour of Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires
Looking back, I feel I did this for a good reason. If I went to the Governor's School, I would be exposed to something slightly comfortable and something slightly unknown. I would slowly begin developing a new taste for different styles of training. From there, I could slowly build to the next step. Going to Houston Ballet Academy for the summer, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Nobody I knew had attended the program previously, but I had heard positive things about it through the grapevine during auditions and from the company's very limited internet presence (remember, it was the early days of the internet). Something told me that I needed to be in an environment that I didn't understand, that tested my belief system, and that showed me a new way of looking at the world, only here it was the ballet world. I truly believe that this first risk I took in my career, before it was even a career, changed the trajectory of my life and was a major turning point in getting where I have been, where I am, and where I am going.

There is so much to learn from putting oneself out there in multiple different aspects of their lives, especially as an artist. It is the job of an artist to offer unexplored perspectives to audiences for acceptance, discomfort, and expansion of their own values and life experiences. If one doesn't want to push themselves outside of their own comfort zone, it is our responsibility to share our experiences and challenge them to grow. In life, we are often presented with three different options. Ones that allow zero growth, little growth, and great growth. Those choices that often offer the greatest growth can be the most painful, challenging, and uncomfortable experiences. Like a caterpillar bursting out of its cocoon as a butterfly or like a mother giving birth to a child, these experiences are likely very frightening and often painful. But the rewards from stepping into the unknown, discomfort and pain in growth, and expansion of mind, self, and being can reap benefits, rewards, and joy that couldn't be understood or experienced in one's life otherwise.

Taking in standing atop the amazingness that is Cusco, Peru