Footage Friday: Muscle Memory

This is the third video in the creative collaboration series that my friend Marsha and I are working on (you can see the first 2 here and here).

When Marsha sent me this piece, I had to smile. It took me back more than a decade.

Long, long ago, when we were teenagers (I think…I’m bad with chronology), Marsha and I were both training intensively in our chosen art forms. She practiced increasingly complex and beautiful pieces of music on the piano, and I practiced increasingly complex and beautiful steps in ballet class.

And when we hung out at her house, we had a ritual of going into the play room where the piano was. She would play through her pieces, and I would stand in the small rectangle of open space behind her and dance. I’ve lost a lot of memories from my childhood, but this one remains a treasured favourite.

Marsha went home over Easter weekend, and she recorded this piece on the very same piano she used to play on when we’d dance and play together. And this video is my response.

I call this piece “Muscle Memory” because I started out with the idea of doing a very “balletic” dance (and you can see how the dance begins and ends that way). I wanted to see if I could still capture the essence and feeling of the dances I used to do in the play room, having not taken a ballet class in 8 years.

I think I managed it…but it wasn’t very comfortable (physically as well as emotionally—the inside of my right knee did NOT enjoy my attempts at turnout). And I couldn’t sustain it for the whole piece. I still like the end result, though. It’s more Meg-now than Meg-then, but it still, I hope, pays homage to the young girls in the play room.

Thank you, Marsha, for a beautiful piece, and for the great memories. <3

 

…What if?

I’m starting to think that I actually had my dream calling figured out when I was 26.

In the span of a year, I had discovered ecstatic dance and taken a Reiki Healing Dance™ course and a Kripalu DansKinetics® teacher training course. I was 100% grounded in this new, free, intuitive, healing dance modality. I felt powerful and free. And then my old teacher asked me to teach modern dance to her senior students.

…in hindsight, it’s probably a good thing that she never officially paid me for my time, because I certainly didn’t teach what she was expecting.

Of the three students I taught, two were girls I’d known when I was one of the senior girls and they were just six and eight years old. I knew what they were experiencing in their ballet classes—the endless grind of repetitive exercises, the screaming and snapping, the feelings of helplessness, the barely-contained rage.

I knew because I had lived it.

…I needed someone like me SO badly…

 

And I set out to give them what I would have wanted when I was in their shoes: I made it my mission to remind them why they loved to dance. And that there was more to dancing than what they were used to.

I did teach some modern technique, I suppose. And I used elements of the trainings I’d just taken, a bit. But mostly, I just set the stage and let them do the rest. I allowed the classes to be whatever the girls needed. Together, we lay on the floor and envisioned glowing bubbles of safety and love. We followed the breath into beautiful dances. We grounded and oozed. We pushed and pulled. We played games. We followed music into beautiful unknown spaces.

Occasionally I would catch my old teacher’s disapproving glares through the windows as we danced. But it didn’t matter. The girls were lost in the dance. They were glowing and grinning. They were safe. It. Was. Glorious.

Later, the girls were split up, and I taught one of them one-on-one. I’d known her since she was little, and our classes (if you can call them that) quickly morphed into something else entirely. We would sit and chat about whatever happened to be going on with her at the time, sometimes for half the class time. I would give her any insight I could. And then we would open up to the dance. We danced shapes, textures, elements and emotions. We went outside and found beautiful things to portray through movement. We played with oracle cards and energy work. We made our dance into a healing thing, a tool for transformation, a safe means of expression.

I still look back on that time as a major highlight of my 20s. I was in my element. I was connected. I was making a difference. I believed so passionately in my power to help that it brought tears to my eyes. And I saw the effects of my work every time the girls walked into my class.

Ever since then, I’ve been longing to get back to that place of service, of magic, of belief. But I told myself it was impossible. That I only managed it then because of my history with the girls and our shared rebellion. That I had to find a new, “more realistic” dream, fit inside a box, get the Certifications®  and the Trainings™ and follow the Rules©.

But now I’m starting to wonder…What if?

What if I could build upon those foundations and create something unique, personal, and deeply healing? What if it could really help people? And not just downtrodden ballet-dancers-in-training, but anyone—trained or not—who felt called to dance?

What if I had it figured out way back then, and all I needed was the confidence to translate it beyond the walls of that studio?

What if? What if?

Even entertaining the possibility and asking the question is progress.

Dance 5: (Don’t) Stop

When I was in my early 20s, my friends and I used to have awesome parties. We would get together at an apartment or a rented cottage, and we would drink and eat and hang out. OK, we still do those things, but the thing we don’t do any more is dance. We used to dance for hours. We had a special “parties” playlist, and every song had its own schtick. It was fabulous.

And then it changed. Dancing became something we did only at weddings. I don’t know why that happened…did we get bored of the same songs over and over? Were we less fit? More self-conscious? Just not interested? All of the above?

I miss those parties. I was “the dancing girl,” first to start and longest to move, never afraid to get up and dance alone. When did that stop?

This past New Years I was determined to revisit my fabulous younger dancing self. I was going to get up and dance, dammit, regardless of everyone else.

Did I?

Sort of. A little. Self-consciously. In the corner.

I couldn’t access that fabulous dancing diva. She couldn’t get out from under the layers of “not _____ enough.” Not fit enough, not strong enough, not confident enough. And also “too ____.” Too old, too fat, too unfit. Too likely to hurt myself. Too easily mockable. And what would my friends think?

…writing this out, it makes me sad. I’m not any of those things, not really. I’m fit and strong enough to dance, at least for a bit (and that will help me dance longer next time). I’m confident enough to post this video online, which has to be scarier than dancing in front of people I know and love, right? And there’s no such thing as “too fat to dance.”

The hurting-myself fear is a whole separate issue with its own complex layers, but the bottom line is that I will be OK, especially if I build my fitness up gradually. People who want to mock me can eff off. And it’s not like my friends have never seen me dance before.

So there.

This video is dedicated to the fabulous dancer-at-parties I used to be. The one I peeked at last New Years. The one I am dedicated to excavating fully by next New Years.

Want to dance with me?

 

What Are Your Awesome Stories? Here’s one of mine…

It’s late fall here in Nova Scotia, and the weather (apart from some freakishly warm and much-appreciated days this week) is getting chilly. The other night I was getting dressed for a coffee date with a friend of mine, and I pulled out a scarf.

This scarf.

And it made me smile. Because the scarf has a great story behind it.

Over the summer between my first and second year, Skidmore College’s campus sprouted an art museum. The Tang museum opened its doors in October with an exhibit called S.O.S. Scenes of Sounds, and it featured all kinds of exhibits that made noise.

I don’t really remember being all that excited about the museum or the exhibition. At the time I’m pretty sure we all thought the museum was kind of funny looking. But then one day before the opening, this man came to watch our improvisation (dance) class. Our teacher told us that his name was Nick Cave and that he was looking for some dancers to wear his sound-making costumes during the museum opening.

So we danced. We danced our hearts out. And he watched. And at the end of class he picked 3 students to wear his costumes. I was one of them.

On the day of the opening, when the museum was packed, we got into costume and went outside. We started out on this big exterior staircase leading down to the main exhibit room. We walked down slowly, wearing our full-body soundsuits. Very slowly people began to notice our approach. And then we entered this narrow area enclosed between two walls (and doors) of glass, and we just went wild, improvising all kinds of movement in the giant, rustling costumes as the museum-goers watched. It was incredible.

 

Several weeks later, I got a package in the mail. It contained a note from Nick Cave thanking me for dancing for him and presenting this scarf (from his fashion line) as a token of gratitude. I’ve treasured it ever since.

When I went looking for video of these soundsuits, I found out that he went on to make many, many more of them. He’s had exhibits around the world. Hundreds of people have seen them and performed in them. And I danced in one of them 11 years ago, right near the beginning. That’s pretty effing cool.

I think we all have stories like this one…not necessarily about dancing, but about a really awesome experience and a memory we treasure. Sometimes I feel like we don’t like to talk about them because it feels too much like tooting our own horn.

But you know what? Forget that…I say let’s share our awesome stories proudly. Let’s tell the world. Because the world needs to know that cool things like this happen to “normal people” (whatever that means). And stories are important. Your story is important.

What’s your awesome story? And don’t tell me you don’t have one.

Dancing With the Past: It’s never too late to finish what you started

This is a piece of music from the soundtrack of the movie Pi. The year after I graduated from high school, I began to choreograph a solo to it. It was the most technically challenging and choreographically intricate piece I’d ever done. I worked on it for hours. And then I showed it to the wrong person.

And their comment was “Huh…it’s kind of sloppy, isn’t it?”

…I never worked on it again.

13 years later, I’m still sad about this. I’ve been through all the stages on this one: anger at the commenter, insecurity about my abilities, feigned indifference, anger at myself for giving up, and sadness at the entire situation.

Here’s what I know now: Of COURSE the piece was sloppy. I’d only just started…I only had the first third of it done. But it could have been great. I know it could have been great. I remember the very beginning, and it was amazing.

But I forgot all of this. I was so overwhelmed with pain and self-doubt that I gave up on it. I didn’t stand in my own power. And I have regretted it for more than a decade.

I am not alone in this experience.

Do you have a project you loved but stopped working on? Do you have a project you’re nursing tenderly and worried about sucking at?

Just do it. Trust your vision. Finish your project, no matter how many people tell you it sucks (or, alternatively, don’t show anyone until you’re done, that could work too). Trust me, “doing it anyway” sucks WAY less than regretting something for 13 years.

It’s NEVER too late.

I thought it was too late for me to finish this piece because I can’t physically do the dance steps any more. But there are always possibilities. I have a friend who can do the steps for me. It is never too late to finish what you started.

I’m going to do it.
You can do it too.

Please, just do it. Create that thing that calls out to you. Listen to it, bring it out into the world. The world needs your creations. Do it. Don’t let it hang over you forever.

Falling Down

Up until the end of Grade Eleven, I had very little experience with modern dance. I’d taken one term of modern classes, and I’d found the technique interesting but slightly uncomfortable. And then I went to Walnut Hill…and everything changed.

This technique was completely different —it flowed. It was all about breath and weight and swinging the body like a pendulum. And it felt completely right on my body. I can’t express in words how much I adored (STILL adore) this style. I took every class I could get…and 13 years later, I still remember half the warmup exercises.

This is the only real example photo I have…but you can kind of see the swing and get a sense of the release, I think.

 

I have a great memory of a modern class where we were doing a difficult combination across the floor. I threw myself into the final turn…and fell on my butt. I got up, bright red, and looking at the teacher in desperate apology for “failing.” She smiled at me, turned to the class and said “See? Meg threw so much energy into the dance that she lost control. And that’s good. I want you all to attack this phrase with as much passion as Meg.” (OK, fine, I just paraphrased, but you get the idea). She gave me a suggestion about form and how to harness the energy more efficiently and told me to try again.

And suddenly I was on top of the world. I ran back to try the combination again, and this time I danced with all my might…and didn’t fall.

How often do we make mistakes and then beat ourselves over the head with them? How often do we avoid trying something for fear of making a mistake or failing (however we define that failure)?

What would it be like if we could approach our own dances —physical, mental, or emotional— the way that my modern teacher approached my dance? What would that look like to you?

To me it would look like trying 100%, really leaping in with all of my might. It would look like expressing myself with passion and flowing through the movements and not worrying so much about the “scary” parts…just…MOVING JOYFULLY.

It would look…a little scary at the start…but pretty darn awesome once I got going.

And if I fell…at least I’d know that I was dancing with all of my might.

The problem with pirouettes (a ballet parable)

Back when I was a bunhead, I developed a huge block when it came to pirouettes. They were the bane of my existence. I could do a single turn with very little trouble, but when it came to double turns, forget it.

I couldn’t get enough momentum for multiple turns while still keeping the correct form, and when I did make it around, I would be so startled that I would fall out of the turn.

My teacher, obviously, wanted me to be able to overcome my block. She was training me to be a professional ballerina, and multiple pirouettes are a basic requirement. She found my block intensely frustrating…

…and she let me know it.

“Single turns are unacceptable!” she would snap, “DO IT AGAIN.” I would try, and fail, and she would sigh in a way that made me feel about 2 inches tall. “No. Do it again,” she would growl, seeming to tower over me.

…It occurs to me in hindsight that she was actually several inches shorter than me by this point, but she seemed very, very tall.

But no matter how much she yelled, how many hundred times we did the exercises, how frustrated we both got, my turns, if anything, got worse.

When I went away to study at Walnut Hill, I was astounded. My teachers sensed my desire to improve, and they empathized with my frustration and self-criticism. They offered suggestions based on their experience, and if their initial suggestions didn’t help, they thought outside the box. For example, one teacher suggested that toning my core muscles and my arms would help my turns, and that made a huge difference.

Their approach slowly helped me realize that, while pirouettes were definitely a problem area for me, that was OK. Dancers have strengths and weaknesses. It didn’t mean I was hopeless, it just meant that I needed to work on that particular area even more. It was OK to fall, so long as I got back up and tried again.

The best teachers know that yelling and threats only make a challenge seem more scary. Instead of losing patience and screaming, they say something closer to “It’s OK. I see that you *insert problem here* Why don’t you try again and this time *insert possible solution*?” I’m not just talking about ballet here either.

I did manage to do consistent doubles (on the right side, at least) by the time I’d spent a year with the teachers at Walnut Hill. Their multiple viewpoints and corrections -coupled with the fact that not one of them ever lost patience or yelled at me- helped me to work through the block and make progress (although I admit that I dreaded pirouettes for the rest of my time in ballet class).

I’m telling this story for a reason, of course.

When you’re trying something new and you can’t quite get it, what approach do you take with yourself? Do you mentally tell yourself off, shaking your head at your own incompetence and your sub-par performance? Or do you dust yourself off, acknowledge your feelings of frustration, try to see the problem from another angle, and try again ?

So often I find I’m stuck in Option 1. The kinder option is always the better one. We just need to remember that it’s there.