What I'm learning from dancing poorly

Those of you who follow my @offbeatbride Instagram stories have seeing a lot my dance weirdness real-time, but here's the larger story about what I'm up to.

No seriously, I have no fucking clue wtf is going on here.

In 2014 and again in 2015, I saw a Led Zepplin-themed burlesque show in Seattle called House of Thee Unholy. It included a piece done to the song Kashmir, performed by a local dancer who goes by the name of Lily Verlaine. The choreography was an insanely athletic ballet/burlesque/I don't even know what, and involved Lily being on one leg for like five straight minutes.

I was like HOLY SHIT the first time I saw it, and then the second time I was like NO SERIOUSLY HOLY FUCKING SHIT.

Flash forward to this fall, after the election. Another former Seattle dancer posted a thing on Facebook that inspired me so much that I asked her if I could republish it on Offbeat Home:

This in mind, I emailed Lily totally out of the blue. We have friends in common and have met a few times over the years, but haven't ever really spent time together, so re-introducing myself, I told her I was inspired by the piece of work she'd done all those years ago. I asked her if she would take me on as a student… not to learn that specifically that routine, but to get some of the vibe of it.

My motivation here was a) learning and growing and b) spending my money where I think it makes a difference — which includes directly putting it into the hands of women artists whose work I admire.

She was all, "I'd love to, but you should know that preparing for that piece of work was a whole mental, physical, spiritual practice."

And I was all YOU ARE SPEAKING MY LANGUAGE, and she agreed to do four sessions of intensive training with me.

Session 1: Holy shit I am bad at ballet

The first session started with tea and conversation about beginner's mind, hitting emotional walls, and therapeutic/spiritual breakthroughs. Then Lily had me do a 10-minute walking meditation, and then we did 90 minutes of novice ballet training to Led Zepplin.

Keep in mind that while I'm a life-long dancer, I've got zero classical training. I'm not especially good at complex choreography, nor do I have much experience with being instructed. I might have an at-home dance studio, but it's for goofing around and having fun in — I do not have the physical or verbal vocabulary of a trained dancer.

I don't know the language of ballet, I don't know the poses, I don't know the postures, I know nothing. Talk about beginner's mind, OY. But, I dance a lot and my body's strong, so during my first session with Lily, it was clear that I was confused, but I wasn't completely fucked.

"Sorry, your leg is probably tired," Lily apologized, after several minutes of drilling me on some weird foot/leg thing I can't remember the name of.

I tuned into my leg and was all, "…No, my leg's fine. But my brain is exhausted."

So she just kept drilling me. And I was awful! But it was awesome! I spent my weekend practicing pliés over and over again. It was awkward because I don't know wtf I was doing, but I did okay.

Then I went back for more the next Monday.

Sorry @lilyverlaine … This was Friday.

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Session 2: All about surrendering

One of the things Lily had told me about the piece of choreography was that it was all about surrender.

"I had to surrender myself to the movement" Lily had told me during our first session, and I was like "Ug, surrender. Working with that sensation for sure."

For the second session, Lily had me do an hour-long training in Odissi dance with different teacher named Douglas.

Douglas had a lot of information he wanted to impart and went rapid fire, trying to fit as much into our hour together as he could. We quickly went from basic philosophies (temple dancers who would do sensual dance for their temple's deities, check!), to basic concepts (slapping the ground with your feet like tap dancing, check!), to basic movement (stomp with one foot, shift torso and chin in opposing direction, wait I think I almost…), to walking movement (swan walk, where you make your legs like a bow and arrow and then shift your hips and hold your hands, and wait hold on if I just try it a few more–), and then different arm positions (Holding your right hand flat as an offering, and then your left to the side, and wait, how did the feet go…), and then mudras (sanskrit hand pose! sanskrit hand pose! sanskrit hand pose! wait, how did my hips go in the swan wa–), and then a lovely turn that by the time we got to that I was basically just falling over. Oh, and I kept panting through my mouth (it was hard work!) instead of breathing through my nose.

I was… pretty bad at Odissi. The only thing I was decent at was the "being low" squatting part, because it's the leg muscles that I work all the time in barre and hip hop. But I couldn't master the initial basic movement (stop, shift torso and then how does the chin go?) and I was at maybe 30% mastery of the basic walking step (so many little body parts to handle that I was all up in my brain and couldn't get the muscle memory down). The stuff beyond that was completely out of my grasp.

I drove home after class and cried the whole way. I took on a challenge and, uh, it was challenging. That was the whole point.  The other whole point was stepping back and observing how I deal with challenge and frustration and failure. FASCINATING.

Here's the progression I observed in myself:

When confronted with challenge, here's how my brain reacted:

  1. Embarrassment (I look dumb)
  2. Frustration (ug, why aren't I getting it?!)
  3. Blame (the teaching is too fast!)
  4. Doubt (…no wait, I'm just too slow)
  5. Rejection (welp, I've hit my capacity to take in more info, and my brain just shut off)

…Annnnd we're done!!

It was all SO INTERESTING.

Really uncomfortable, but interesting. It's just another form of therapy.

So I keep practicing

This is totally my practice these days, on pretty much all levels — physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social. I challenge myself, and then learn from how poorly I handle it. Then, I keep practicing. Every day, I put on the music, and I keep running the drills. This phase of instruction for me is going slower.

 

I recognize the ways in which, when I get uncomfortable, I flail. I push harder, go faster, move more. Rather than sit with discomfort, I go into action and GO HARD.

I get it. I totally get it. I'm anxious, and I've learned to manage my anxiety through motion. But the discomfort-driven pushing and flailing has also lead me to injure myself… career-wise, intellectually, socially, physically. My foot is finally almost healed SIX MONTHS after I hurt it by getting too excited and sprinting down hills. I recognize the ways last year that I pushed myself so hard and so fast that I broke some things that maybe, with a little less shoving and sprinting and running and "too soon"-ing, I could have moved along at a more comfortable pace.

Session 3: Look up and proprioception

Lily's and my third session is more ballet drills, working on my tendency to stare at my feet, and trying to keep my hip flexor from locking up when I lift my leg.

"Don't look down," she says, and I gulp and nod and try to keep looking up, even when I'm frustrated and stuck. Maybe especially when I'm frustrated and stuck.

It's all metaphor.

"I know you want to look at your feet because you don't know where they are in space," she says, "But you have to start to learn to feel your placement."

"Ooh ooh, there's a word for that," I say. "A friend in San Francisco just told me about it. Purplo-section or something?"

"Proprioception," Lily corrects me. "Yeah, that's what you need to work on: being able to feel where your body is in the space, without having to look."

Adding to personal development to-do checklist: understanding my place in the world, without having to constantly stare at it.

I spent the weekend dancing poorly slower, and trying not to stare at my feet. My pliés are getting better, so now I can focus on looking up.

…Even slower. 🎶 London Grammar "Hey Now"

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Session 4: Surrender harder

We started with deep pliés, going slower and slower and slower. Two eight counts down, two eight counts back up. Doing it without holding onto the barre.

"The big thing I want you to understand about this piece," Lily tells me, "Is how much I had to surrender into it. If I held onto it too tight, my muscles locked and I fell over."

"Surrender," I nod. "Yeah, that's… hard."

"You have to have a faith in your body and the movement," she says, and I'm nodding and then I'm crying on my dance teacher and FUCK WELCOME TO MY LIFE THESE DAYS.

Back to plié drills today. Next session with @lilyverlaine Friday.

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Surrender to the slowness

I keep practicing, going through my drills: humble, challenged. Surrender. Learn a sense of place in the world. Go slower.

No, even slower.

…Nope, slower than that.

So slow it feels sillyI mention off-handedly that I got a divorce a year and a half ago and people say things like, oh jesus so it's really really fresh. And it feels like forever to me, but I think about it and I'm like, well really the separation was only 16 months ago, and the divorce itself was just filed a year ago, and really wasn't final 'til the summer… and jesus it really hasn't been that long.

Now, through this dance practice, I am forcing myself to slow down. Way down. Kashmire is a long song, and there's plenty of time. It's weird to go slow… it feels vulnerable. You can see all the little pieces of motion. There's time to be seen. I have to keep track of where I am in space or else I get lost.

I take baths.

Go even slower.

I go so slow that I can't even get two steps in before the 15-second video finishes.

….Slower….

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EVEN SLOWER.

And I cry through the song again, and go even slower.

And I think about all the things I've shoved at and rushed and screamed through and pushed and tugged because I wasn't willing to go slow or surrender or enjoy the ride or just give things a chance…. and it tastes so, so sad but also like grateful pie, because I always have this opportunity in this moment to practice doing things differently.

Even slower.

I'm experimenting with archiving a few of my Insta stories on a new account, @studiohaaay. Follow along if you're into this kind of stuff.

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  1. I'm getting "Error loading this resource" and a large dark rectangle throughout this piece. Both in Chrome and IE.

    1 agrees
  2. Thank you for this. I needed it today. The world feels so influx, and there's so much transition and I'm struggling with feeling stagnant even though I've got good things going. It's a nice reminder to remember surrendering and letting things be slow.

  3. This is one of the best stories I've read in a profoundly long time, and made me cry, and wish I had a dance teacher like that too. I miss having a body that does something more than (badly) carry my messed up brain around.

    4 agree
    • "I had a dance teacher like that too…" Remember that part of this story wasn't me deciding to take a class that was being offered. I cold-called someone who's work I admired and just asked her if she'd take me on as a student.

      Go find a dancer your admire, and learn from them. <3

      1 agrees
  4. Thank you. I've been learning to play roller derby for the last year. I started without knowing how to skate at all. It's definitely a challenge. Sometimes I leave practice feeling like a badass, other times I cry the whole way home. It's so easy to forget how hard it can be to learn new things.

    2 agree
    • Oof, it's humbling as fuck sometimes, yeah? I think it's so important –especially as your brain gets older, and wants to settle into ruts around who you are or what you're like. It's important to keep learning, even (or rather ESPECIALLY) when it's hard.

      2 agree
    • I'm in week three of fresh meat. And this piece is a really good way to say how I feel. I haven't done something new and different and outside my normal capabilities in a very long time – this is a different kind of hard to the adulting, health problems, new studying kind of hard I'm used to. It's hard work to go at your own pace in a group where your pace is slow in comparison – but I recognize I will get there in the end, and hopefully safe and with solid skills from going at my own pace!

      1 agrees
  5. Lets have a moment of awe and wonderment for odissi to Led Zeppelin at butoh speed.
    .
    .
    .
    Thank you.
    xoxo
    Q

    • HA! Yes, exactly this. It's an odd combo, but somehow… it's amazing to play with.

  6. I think it's so awesome that you're volunteering your mind, spirit and body for such a challenge.

    My first thought on seeing these videos was 'Man, I gotta work on my balance,' and then… har har that's what your therapist has been telling you for a while now.

    I struggle with physical balance because clumsy has been a part of my narrative since I was a tot. I don't trust my body to hold me up, so I stare at the floor and pick my steps and–oh, falling over! But surrendering into the loving arms of thousands of years of biped evolution is inconceivable for me?

    1 agrees
    • Yeah, the therapy metaphors run DEEP with this stuff. Plus, it's an interesting way to move around more, so win/win.

  7. Thank you for writing this! It is fascinating how we deal with challenge and learning something new. I've been feeling guilty for being all talk and no practice for like the past year. I'm trying to learn pinstriping and sign lettering (wow so very very difficult) and wrapping my head around the fact that I've got to put the hours in is haaaaard. But we keep going, that therein lies the path.

  8. I recently came to a revelation about myself, that I would rather be uncomfortable and anxious pushing myself, than sitting around bored and in a rut. So I really admire you for pushing your own boundaries. It makes me think about that saying people have about doing yoga "I bend so I don't break."

    3 agree
  9. I started Ballet as an adult last October and went through a similar process. It's a group class, so double the embarrassment when I definitely started crying during the first class because I had no idea where my feet were. I cried a few times over Ballet class. How long do you put up with doing something you're so BAD at?
    I tried to address this myself by setting my expectations low – I suck at this. I know I suck at this. My goal is to get slightly LESS sucky after a few months. And, you know what, I did get a little less sucky after a few months.

    1 agrees
  10. Thank for sharing this. I've enjoyed following your dance journey on Instagram, but I really love how vulnerable you are to the process. And you've helped me articulate to myself why I was almost in tears in pilates class last week (the frustration! the mental expectations! life in general!)

    PS – how did you get your body so damn strong?!

    1 agrees
    • The short answer to that question is physical therapy, Barre 3, and daily dancing at home.

  11. I react to challenges the same exact fucking way. Thank you for this piece. It was amazing.

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