Preconceived Notions: Expanding an Idea

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Disclaimer: this is a post about ballet school. It is also the start of a conversation. Even if you know nothing of ballet or ballet school, this might resonate with you if you have ever had the joy and the challenge of parenting a young child. Read on.

Last week a local magazine whose demographic is young families published an article I wrote about ballet school; you can go here to see it archived online.  It is a thumbnail sketch of how to choose a ballet school for your young child, particularly if you are uninitiated in the ways of the squirrely ballet world. The article I wrote initially was many times longer, scaled down to fit the parameters of this particular publication. After I mentioned I had written it and posted a photo of the top of the article via social media, several people asked right away to see it; the magazine consortium’s editors were kind enough to make it available electronically. My conclusion is that schools and parents of aspiring young dancers are hungry for this kind of insider perspective. It has nothing to do with this particular piece of writing and everything to do with a big problem in the ballet world, and the bigger dance world, and even in other disciplines that have nothing to do with dance. And that is the absence of a primer, of solid, useful help for parents, their children, and their teachers.

My former roomie from long-ago ballet school days (who is one of the most thoughtful and intellectual people I know) posted a link to this brief blog post as a comment in the thread. In it the father of young daughters opines (justifiably) about some of the worst warts in so-called “competition” schools, which are not the same as ballet schools (but there can most certainly be overlap–in the school’s practices and its culture). The problems are neither unusual nor surprising. He poses two basic questions: first, who would do this to children? And second, why would a parent allow their child to be part of this? (I am synthesizing several questions, to be fair to this dad).

My answers are simple. First, plenty of people would do this to children. And second (perhaps more significantly), a parent would allow their child to be part of it because they do not know any better.

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You would be correct in thinking I might have distilled this down a bit too far, particularly on the second point above. Which is precisely why I have a pressing desire to unpack this more completely, especially now that I have taken a step outside the classroom. I have much to say about the subject of dance schools in America, and schools which purvey classical ballet instruction in particular. I write from the perspective of a person who grew up steeped in the form, whose mom danced professionally, and later directed her own schools, and who still teaches. I also write from the perspective of the founding director of a classical ballet school, an instructor with training in classical ballet pedagogy, and more than a decade of experience at the front of the classroom. Not insignificantly, I write from the perspective of a parent.

It is only natural for parents (and their children) to bring with them ideas of what they think ballet means, and what ballet school is, when they start down that road. Some preconceptions are closer to the mark than others. But it is so painful to see misconceptions fed and encouraged in teaching environments, and especially awful when children are hurt by them. It should matter to parents. When I still had my school, my mission was simple: excellent instruction in classical ballet technique. But the philosophy therein included something else important: helping students and their parents become intelligent consumers of classical ballet.

Ignorance is dangerous, said Charles Dickens:

This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Okay, that is dramatic language, but it is effective. I will present a few more ideas here in the near future, with a view towards a different platform ultimately. I would love to help erase what is written on that boy’s brow.

In fairness to competition schools, there are very good ones out there, and good competition-style instructors and coaches who would not condone what the dance dad observed in his post. But I sure wish I could have talked to him when he was trying to navigate his way through the morass.

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Note: photos used in this post belong to the author. Please don’t steal–it’s not nice. The dance dad would back me up on that.

 

 

Rebecca’s Reading Challenge

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Rebecca is an intelligent, creative woman whose work I had only known through her blog when I arrived in Vermont. Later we met in person on several very happy occasions, once at her beautiful home (we also discovered we lived on roughly opposite ends of the exact same rural highway). Anywho. About a month ago Rebecca started a reading challenge, where she suggested anybody so interested would join her (and her family) in reading a book a month, in a particular category, the first one being a book set in a different country. This was on January 9th, meaning that the chosen book was to have been read and reported upon by February 9th. Or not, up to the participants (it’s pretty dang informal).

For some reason I decided I needed this challenge, seeing as I was smack in the middle of my third move to a new town in as many years, on the threshold of starting work for a really groovy marketing company on January 19th–and starting a new life with my Handsome Chef Boyfriend. This has been a huge transition for everybody concerned. Ergo, the book challenge. Makes perfect sense. Time to turn a new leaf.

So I chose Thea Astley’s novel, Beach Masters, penned in 1986 and set in the <fictional> South Pacific island of Kristi, where the idyllic lives of the French and English colonists are about to be upset by a native coup, of sorts.

A bit of background.

In February of 2000 I had a challenging first-grader at home and was thoroughly immersed in my busy family life, my primary occupation parenting him and thinking about what I saw myself doing, maybe professionally, a few years down the road. I woke up one morning just before Valentine’s Day with a terrifying obstruction in the central vision of one eye. It turned out to be a serious retina disease. A day after my diagnosis I had invasive eye surgery in an attempt to save my central vision, which was only somewhat successful. Over a period of years I’ve had thirteen recurrences (typical for this particular disease), the most recent one since I moved to Vermont–that was the only one that involuted on its own and never required follow-up treatment. The worst part of this insidious disease aside from blindness is that it requires constant monitoring, which is lifelong. And there is a chance it will move to the other eye at some point (it often does).

I really don’t like to dwell on this thing, because then it wins. But the point of telling the story is that I made some resolutions after my diagnosis and surgery. I had to lay face down in a special recovery chair for a week following surgery, during which time I was not allowed to read. At all. I could not move my eyes back and forth across lines of text because of the strain on recovering muscles. A friend brought me a bunch of audio books, so I at least had those, but precious little else to occupy the longest seven days of my life, marked not only by intense boredom and paralyzing fear, but horrific low back pain and waves of nausea. And a lot of time to think about things. One thing I resolved: I would never, ever again waste time on a book that 1) someone insisted I should read, no matter how pure their intentions, or 2) that did not hook me pretty quickly once I started reading it. When you might lose your ability to read at all, you get to make rules like that.

I spent a big part of 2012 going through an enormous library I had built over two decades, making difficult decisions about which of my books would come with me to Vermont and which I would leave behind. I fingered the spine of Beach Masters, and several other novels on the same shelf, and threw them into one of the many “keep” piles.

So here now is my attempt to synthesize the last month of reading. First, I am not finished–I’m about halfway there; I am lucky if I can read a couple of pages a day right now. Second, this book makes no sense to meThe New York Times gave it a fantastic review when it was published, and Thea Astley (now gone) was a celebrated, award-winning author–highly respected. So I have every confidence the problem lies with me. But I have struggled like crazy to follow the plot, and keep up with character names, and to understand the pidgin English, with its phonetic spellings–sometimes I get it, often I do not. And I understand its importance to the telling of the story.

But mainly, I broke my own ruleI stuck with a bad book (bad to me, at least), hoping I would at some point find its magic. And right after I started reading I found a bookmark a few pages into it. I had already been down this road once before, and thought better of it.

So guess what the next theme is in Rebecca’s challenge? A book you started but never finished. Mmm-hmm. Totally serious. I am sitting on the fence here, trying to decide what to do. But I am thinking I’ll keep on with this one, and maybe I’ll actually finish it by March 9th. Rebecca is hugely inspiring (and way more literate and articulate than I). I’ll let you know what happens.

Meanwhile, want to take the challenge? I’d love it if you’d join me (and Rebecca).

Somebody Please Hand Me My Oil Can

Dancers have such ugly feet.–Anne Bancroft, The Turning Point

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Handsome Chef Boyfriend looked at that photo and said, Your feet don’t look that bad in real life.

Cheeky.

I don’t really care how they look (a benefit of age and wisdom, I think). They’ve served me pretty well for most of my life.

Recently not so much.

I went to a conditioning class last Wednesday afternoon, nevermind which kind. It was the first time I had not been the person standing at the front of the room in more than a couple of years, when I was still living in Knoxville and teaching adult ballet classes with conditioning, along with many other ballet classes week to week. I was also going to the gym for conditioning classes and running about thirty miles weekly. I felt good approaching the mid-century mark of my life, with the exception of a nagging heel injury and an old running injury in my right knee that still flares up inexplicably from time to time. And I was about twenty pounds lighter than I am now.

October 2012 in NYC with   Ryan and Billy, two ballet besties
October 2012 in NYC with Ryan and Billy, two ballet besties

After I lost my teaching job in October I had to think on my feet. Which left very little time for me to use them. I tried to explain this to my doctor during a checkup a few weeks ago when she berated me for 1) gaining weight, and 2) not exercising. You are preaching to the choir, I said. She kept on going. You need to exercise at least three times a week, she said. (This was after I tried to explain where I was two years ago, that I was a ballet teacher, that I was super thin after my marriage failed, that I exercised for a living. And that my life had been through a lot of big changes in a small space of time. And that a chronic foot injury had continued to worsen for the past couple of years. And that my immediate concern was survival.) More pontification.

I find this preachy stuff insufferable. In 2011 I was still healing from a stress fracture in my left heel, a whopping case of plantar fasciitis, and posterior tibial tendonitis. To say my foot was badly compromised would be an understatement. I had pushed through all kinds of pain, until I could push no more. My orthopedist consented to cycling as a substitute for running, which I did for about six months while my foot got (somewhat) better. I bought a new bicycle and rode it 25 miles, every single day. And continued to teach ballet through all of it, because I owned a school and had no choice. I learned how to use a medley of tools to keep going–judicious use of Ibuprofen (abusive use on a bad day), ice baths, therapeutic stretching, taping, massage. Forget physical therapy: I spent hours and hours there, with little improvement, and much of what I was asked to do I was already doing on my own anyway.

So about last Wednesday. I knew I would be tight, sore the next day, all of that. And that my range of motion likely would have suffered attrition since October.

It was much worse than I could have imagined. In fact, it was horrible. A bit shocking, really.

As a young ballet student I think I believed I would always know how to move, that it would somehow be effortless. And when I got a little older, I fooled myself into thinking that this ancient, contrived art form would only serve me well as time marched on. I never truly thought I was possibly doing some things that were hastening the ageing process and that ultimately bone, joint, and sinew would uprise against me and declare mutiny. Damn them all.

I am not really sure where this leaves me. I spend my days at work in this new chapter of my life sitting, thinking, writing, which is a good thing. Standing up to take a quick break is difficult and painful. Conventional wisdom among practitioners of dance and sports medicine dictates that rest is important–probably the most important part of recovery from injuries. I have not had a chance to rest since I founded a ballet school in 2006. Time will tell. But I am not crazy about chronic pain, and I feel older than my years, by a lot. I have a burning desire to run again, which I emphatically can’t do right now. I am not even sure I can ride a bicycle (which is out of the question until April or May in Vermont, anyway).

So my plan is to go to a class a few times a week and try my best to just move.

I really, really need that oil can.