My Story Matters

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

When my gal pal Sara Dobie Bauer, writing partner in crime and book nerd at SheKnows, asked to interview me for a piece on my dance career and body image, I didn’t hesitate. I said yes. I’ve long been an advocate for positive body image, having conquered an eating disorder in high school amidst high pressure dreams of becoming a professional dancer.

Sara sent me interview questions, I wrote her a novel, clicked send, and then…started to wonder if I’d done the right thing in sharing such a personal story.

Secrets are secrets for a reason. We don’t like to share them. We’re afraid of being judged, receiving unwanted pity, hurting relationships—it all boils down to fear. And I have to admit, I was a little nervous.

How would Sara supplement my interview? I trusted her implicitly, but I also know that writing is all about angles. What would hers be? Would people read this honest, heartfelt interview and judge me because of what I put myself through? Perhaps I should have said a little more about x…and a little less about y.

I was at a Spring training baseball game on Friday when I got the message from Sara that the piece was published on SheKnows. I clicked the link, held my breath…and realized that all of my worry had been completely irrational. My good friend lifted me up and wrote a beautiful piece about my personal journey. She captured the essence of me and my struggle in the story. She’d handled my secret with the utmost care.

The article is perfect. Go read it now!

I thanked Sara profusely and told her that if the article helped one person it would be worth it.

And then another beautiful thing happened. I received an outpouring of love and support and connection on Facebook, where I posted the article on my wall. People said they were inspired and asked to share the story. Friends said they admired me for my courage to be so open and honest about a very dark period of my life. Not a single negative comment.

body image reminder

And it served as a great reminder for me. It’s important to be vulnerable. It’s important to share our stories. Because we’re all in this thing together.

Thank you, interwebs, for the love this week. Sometimes, a girl just needs a good virtual hug to remember that her story matters.

R is for Restless

Photo by flickr user "David Noah1."

Photo by flickr user “David Noah1.”

Okay, it’s time to level with you all. The past few weeks have been hard. They’ve been hard because I’ve been feeling restless—and to be completely honest, a little depressed. Which is weird since it’s supposedly “the most wonderful time of the year.” It’s been hard to get excited about giving the important people in my life “the perfect gift” (which is usually my favorite part of this season), hard to celebrate with friends and family, and hard focus on the true meaning of Christmas (Happy birthday, Jesus!) It’s been hard because my life is absent of creativity right now. And that’s…just…weird.

Quitting dance has been difficult. I mean, how do you give up something that’s been part of your life for 18 years? And not just that, something that’s been your biggest passion in life? I guess the answer is you give it up because it’s physically hurting you. But what’s next? Do you dare try to replace it with something else? What if it can’t be replaced? It’s really hard to get excited about new endeavors, because I don’t think I’m completely ready to let go of my past as a dancer. I keep comparing new opportunities to it. “Painting will never be dance.” It’s like a bad breakup. I want to move on and I know that I need to, but how the hell do you do it?

And don’t get me wrong. There are amazing things in my life right now. Jonny Church Band has given me a sense of community that I haven’t felt in a long time, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I’ve had more time for friends and family lately, which has been wonderful. Writing will always be an outlet for me, but 1) it’s not social and this girl is an extrovert; 2) I sit in front of a computer for close to eight hours a day at work, so it’s hard to get motivated to spend more time in front of a computer screen when I get home; and 3) the rejection emails from literary magazines are starting to get to me. A writer’s end goal is to share their work, and I’m not really getting that opportunity right now.  

I’m craving the chance to CREATE and SHARE something. Dance provided that tenfold. I loved teaching, because once a week (or however often I was teaching) I had to come up with something from scratch. I had to pick music, a mood, steps, and then teach others how to execute a routine. With burlesque performance, I came up with wild concepts, music, costuming, and then made it come to life onstage. Choreographing for community theater is still a viable option for me and I absolutely adore it, but when I’m in between projects…um, how do I fill that time and still get my creativity fill? Yep, R is for restless.

I need a new letter, people. I’m realizing this. And I might be ready to consider something new. Instead of R or D, perhaps I’ll consider…  

T is for theater. Like the performance side of it. I do miss acting. Maybe it’s time to sign up for an acting class or five.

S is for spoken word poetry. I love this community. I love the way spoken word makes me feel. And I have some pieces that I think are good enough to share. I’ve just been too chicken shit (or busy) to actually get on a mic.

S is for singing and songwriting. I’ve neglected Lucille, my guitar. It might be time to pick her up again and see if I can figure out some strumming and some song lyrics.

I guess I really just need some inspiration and some motivation to start moving away from what I used to do. I need a fresh start. I need to build a new identity that’s at least a little separate from dance.

Maybe it needs to start with a conversation that goes a little something like this…

“Dance, it’s not me—it’s you…”

 

Photo licensing – David Noah1

Underland: White Nightmare

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

I have an appreciation for folks who can take classic stories and turn them on their heads. It seems like an easy undertaking, but it isn’t. To do it right, you have to stay true to the foundation of the original story and then carefully craft differences that introduce new elements that are wholly your own—but are still believable in the context of the original story.

Angel Castro and his talented cast of dancers did exactly that with Underland: White Nightmare, the premiere performance by Castro’s dance company, Halo Movement Collective. The show was a dastardly take on Alice in Wonderland that was both frighteningly innovative and frighteningly familiar.

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Innovative because Angel re-imagined the world that Alice finds herself in when she tumbles down the rabbit hole. Instead of a vibrant landscape populated by zany characters—something out of a Disney coloring book—Underland had us blanketed in white. From a gnarled, white tree to the white paper cranes observing the action from above to the white costuming, everything was stark and blank, which made it all a little menacing, the white reminiscent not of purity and grace but of insane asylums, hospitals, and desolate, foreign landscapes. It was, indeed, a white nightmare.

Audience members were separated from the action by metal lattices that not only bisected characters and scenes in a really interesting and artful way, but also made us feel like we were watching something we shouldn’t be. Perhaps we were at the zoo watching dangerous animals from behind a fence. Perhaps the barricades were there for our own protection.

Of course, the lattices played a major part in a pivotal scene at the end of the show, but more on that later. First, I want to tell you about the characters…

Traditionally, the focus of Alice in Wonderland is on, well, Alice. It’s her story. Yes, it’s peppered with her interactions with other zany characters, but at the end of the day, we really only care about Alice.

Angel’s Underland provided a different experience by showing us each of the characters as individuals. The show began with Alice’s fall into Underland, but then the stage was passed to each individual character–or duos in some cases–so they could introduce themselves. Of course, there were group pieces, too, but the solos and duos were extremely rich with character.

Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, played by Anna McLellan and Alexis Stephens, seemed like they couldn’t function without each other. Always a step ahead or a step behind, they moved together and then connected with seemingly vacant gazes. They reminded me a bit of minions, but in the best way possible—easily molded and ready to strike. These tour guides of Underland showed Alice her way to the tea party.

The Mad Hatter, played by Jose Soto, appeared to be dealing with addiction, shaking, spinning, and paranoid as all hell. His twitchy actions made me itch. And I know I’ve been watching too much Breaking Bad, but he appeared to be a product of some magical meth. Or perhaps it was opium tea that was on the menu at the tea party. A very merry unbirthday it was as Tweedle Dum, Tweedle Dee, The Mad Hatter, and Alice all went on a drug trip together.

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

Underland Flowers, played by Liz Ann Hewett and Rianna Rhoads, continued to lure Alice deeper and deeper into Underland, exhibiting both a haunting grace and crazy athleticism as they partnered together. It was like a Waltz of the Flowers duo, but instead of pretty and fragile they were on the brink of madness, all loose energy.

The Caterpillar, played by Jenna Lyn Myers, seemed to have any insatiable obsession with movement, contorting herself into new shapes as she underwent a metamorphosis. The least menacing of the characters, Alice watched the caterpillar move with a smile on her face. Too bad all the characters turned on her later.

The Red Queen, played by Charlene Norris, exhibited both vanity and insecurity by constantly checking her reflection in a mirror. Who knew the Red Queen was secretly an obsessive-compulsive who fears either her good looks fading or her very self fading while she isn’t looking. Though she exhibited ruthlessness in the final moments of the show, in solitude she was almost a sad character.

And Alice, played by Kalli Sparish, well, Alice was just lost, physically and metaphorically. Kalli occupied a really unique space with this character, because she’s a wonderful actress and so her movements were committed and intentional, but they looked tentative. This was the perfect balance as we know Alice is a tourist in Underland. Her emotions and reactions are very real, but she’s nervous and unsure.

By getting some back story on each character experience, we stumble upon pathos. Though this is a mad, mad, mad world and most of the characters are—let’s face it—villains, we feel for them. We start to understand their actions—and we also start to wonder if they are really evil or if they are simply a product of their environment–this stark, lonely underworld. It’s conflicting and uncomfortable and brilliant.

Of course, we wouldn’t have felt this way if the dancers were not also committed actors. And they were. Each dancer attacked their role and their choreography with gusto. And speaking of choreography, hats off to Angel. As a dancer myself, I left the show thinking, That’s how dancers want to move. Dancers will be seeking Angel out so they can experience and perform that type of movement. It’s something fresh for the dance scene in Arizona, which we really need right now. Don’t get me wrong–there are beautiful and stunning companies in the Arizona dance scene, but they’ve all been established for quite some time. It’s nice to see something so shiny and new. There’s something exciting about a new venture, a new artistic voice.

But back to the show!

Underland did not end well for Alice. Instead of painting roses, the cast of characters surrounded Alice and painted her red as the Red Queen watched, because I’m pretty sure she ordered the painting. Strips of fabric were pulled from pouches of Alice’s costume and tied to the metal lattices near the audience. Alice writhed in the final moments of the show and then sank before us. The final haunting image was Alice’s corset hanging from the red strips of fabric while she ran backstage for the curtain call. It was such a visceral image, I wanted to pull out my camera phone and take a picture.

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I found myself in tears when congratulating Angel after the show. He did it all—the concept, the choreography, the costuming, the music selection, the minutiae it takes to put on a dance show—and he offered up his art and craft not for a fee but for donations so that the Phoenix community could experience his vision without worrying about the cost of a dance show. In short, he succeeded. Brilliantly. And I’m very proud of him for it.

I told Angel he better get working on his next show. The Phoenix scene needs to see more of his work.

And if he doesn’t get to it, I’m going to kick his ass.

The Curtain Goes Up on The Little Mermaid TONIGHT!

Little Mermaid

One of my fondest childhood memories is going to see Disney’s The Little Mermaid in the theater with my dad. I remember being incredibly terrified by Ursula when she grew to mammoth proportions and threatened to take over the sea. And goodness did I want to be a mermaid! Over the next few years, my friends and I regularly tipped over our Fisher Price picnic table so that we could sit in it like a boat and reenact, oh, the whole movie. And I will confess, at the ripe old age of 28, I still sing “Part of Your World” in my house when I’m alone. 

Let’s face it: mermaids are pretty magical. 

So when asked if you’d like to choreograph a stage production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid you don’t say no. 

Well, I didn’t anyway. I said, uh, yeah!!! 

The curtain goes up on Desert Foothills Theater’s production tonight and I am stupidly happy to have my name printed in the program. As always, I’m so proud of the kids in this show. I’m proud of them because they learn and work and remember and perform. They remind me of how special theater can be. And they’re just so dang cute. 

If you want to relive the magic of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, come see the show. It debuts tonight and runs through Sunday the 13th. Tickets are disappearing quickly, so get yours today through the Desert Foothills Theater website. 

Hope to see you at the show!

I’m With the Band

dancing 1

Since being introduced to local band Medicine Tent, I’ve been a grade-A groupie. I carry amps to and from gigs. I go to nearly every show. I try to get people off their asses and on the dance floor during their sets. And I may or may not be in an illicit relationship with the saxophone player. Musicians are my kryptonite. I know this and I embrace him…er, it. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m taking my groupie love to another level – because the band has decided to take their show to another level. You are reading the blog of the official choreographer for the Medicine Tent stage show! That’s right; the band has decided to stack their sets with backup dancers! We’re full on fly girls for Phoenix’s most danceable band. 

Photo by Soulinh Khaivilay. All rights reserved.

Photo by Soulinh Khaivilay. All rights reserved.

Our first gig avec danseurs was at Last Exit Live on July 25th. My girl Laci and I got decked out in fire engine red, threw on some sassy lipstick, rolled up our fishnet stockings, and took to the dance floor as the first strains of “If You Like to Party” began.  And that’s when the magic happened. You know how a lot of times it just takes one overzealous dancer on a dance floor to start a party? Well, when there are two overzealous dancers, all hell breaks loose – and the party just keeps going. 

The dance floor broke out in a fever. Laci and I had everyone doing “The Big Wiggle” like they’d been doing it their whole lives. (What is “The Big Wiggle” you ask? You’re gonna have to come to a gig to find out!) I had the lead singer of Bethany Heights step-touching and hip rolling with me. Laci and I got complete strangers to bust a move with us. 

At the end of the set, I was sweaty and giddy – and so was the audience. We could all feel it. We’d just done something great. 

And it’s greatness YOU should come out to experience! Come shimmy with us!

Medicine Tent will be playing: 

*August 16th – Sail Inn – 9 pm

August 22nd – Joe’s Grotto – 11 pm

August 24th – RAW artist’s showcase at Monarch Theater – Purchase tickets

September 17th – Last Exit Live – 8:30 pm

October 6th – Burlesque for Boobies at Alice Cooperstown – 1 pm

And chances are good they will continue to book more and more amazing shows! Stay up to date on all things Medicine Tent by visiting their Sound Cloud, YouTube channel, and Facebook page.

Hope to shake it with you soon!

*As a disclaimer, there will not be backup dancers at this gig. I know, sad face!

Confessions of an “Adult” Dance Class Instructor

me

It was over iced coffee with a pastor that I came to the true realization of why I love teaching “adult” dance classes so much. Yes, that’s right, I had this epiphany while discussing my spiritual journey with a man of God. Let’s just say that I have an incredibly progressive pastor and go to an incredibly progressive church, which works out well since I have a rather progressive mind and outlook on things.

I explained to him during our conversation that one thing that always made me nervous about going to church or talking to truly devout people is the fact that I used to lead a double life – and sometimes, I still do. I was a burlesque entertainer for a few years with a local dance company called Scandalesque. There are pictures of me scantily clad on the good old interwebs covered in feathers and sequins and fishnet stockings and merkins and pasties. I’ve done some implied nude modeling for a friend’s line of couture scarves inspired by desert landscapes (and it was tasteful and gorgeous!). I’ve taught dance classes that have helped women tap into their innate sexuality. Currently, I teach pole dancing at Purple Rain Pole Fitness in booty shorts and hooker heels.

I love me some feather fans! Photo by Michael McNamara of the Arizona Republic.

I love me some feather fans! Photo by Michael McNamara of the Arizona Republic.

And I won’t apologize for any of it. I don’t think any of it is wrong or that anyone can chastise me for the work that I do. And I don’t think I’m any less holy or deserving of spirituality because of it.

And that’s because is goes so much deeper than a hip roll or a bustier. I don’t teach because I like sex. I don’t teach solely to be provocative – although it is a perk! What can I say? I do love the attention.

I teach “adult” dance classes because women need body consciousness and confidence. Women need a place where sexuality is okay and they can explore it without compromising their safety. Women need a place where they can be strong and beautiful and not have to answer to anyone but themselves. Women need a place where they can learn and be encouraged by other women.

I know this, because a few years ago, I was the woman who needed all of these things.

My last serious relationship was not a positive one. I won’t get into the details, but the breakup (which spanned over a six-month period) left me emotionally exhausted, completely insecure, and a little unhinged. It was bad. Really bad.

Enter Scandalesque and an opportunity that scared the shit out of me – the opportunity to become a burlesque entertainer. I went for it, because I needed something in my life that made me feel something other than insecurity. And so I tried on an alter ego and fell in love with her. I tapped back into my body and found a new way to move. I learned the art of the tease. I realized that with the roll of a shoulder, I could command the attention of a room. I found out I was a decent costume maker. I got back on the mic and started singing publicly.

Most importantly, I found a part of me I thought I’d lost. I found that vibrant, sexy, beautiful girl who could take over the world on a Saturday afternoon if she wanted to.

Gams! Photo by Joe Abbruscato of Mr. Anathema Photography. All rights reserved.

Gams! Photo by Joe Abbruscato of Mr. Anathema Photography. All rights reserved.

I healed, because I remembered my worth. And my worth wasn’t found in merkins or studded bras or corsets. It was found in the way I could take the stage, the way I could make eye contact with someone and smile genuinely during performance, the confidence that every single curve of my body was put there for a reason. (Seriously, if you ever really want to tackle body image issues, start performing in front of people virtually naked. Problem solved.)

I began to realize that my alter ego was simply an extension of myself. And thank God I did. Because I couldn’t be the girl I am today without her. And I think I’m pretty fabulous.

So, when I teach dance classes, I’m trying to pass the torch. I’m trying to create a sacred space for women in which they can recognize and celebrate how damn beautiful they are. In all actuality, it’s a public service. If a woman stands up a little straighter, smiles a little brighter, feels a little more confident in that new dress, I’ve done my job. Because that woman might apply for a better job because she has some newfound confidence – or her relationship with her husband might be enriched because she finally feels comfortable in her own skin – or she may find the artist within herself and feel more personally fulfilled.

And I’ve seen it happen. I’ve had women who’ve come up to me and thanked me for things that are so much bigger than a dance class. And I’m happy and proud that I helped them get there.

That’s why I teach “adult” dance classes. I want to empower women. I want to inspire others. I want to positively affect lives.

And my pastor and my church and God understand that.

Strut Happens

Strut - disco

“I love my life – because this is my life,” I said to my friend Sara last night while watching bellbottom-clad men disco dance across the stage at Icepics.

 Last night, I introduced Sara to the Men of Strut and I’m pretty sure they’ll be lifelong friends. We were thoroughly entertained, to say the very least.

The Men of Strut show graces the stage of Icepics the last Sunday of every month and, I believe, the third Thursday of the month, too. It’s unlike anything else in Arizona. Because the show is an intersection of male revue, Chippendale’s, drag performance (without the female illusionist component), and boylesque. Which all just equals awesome.

Strut - Bohemian

The show opened with a lip-synched rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” – in period costumes. Dallas, Ish, and Geo acted out one of my favorite Queen songs, complete with a flashlight opening to pay homage to the classic music video, a hat change to create a “mama,” a fake gun to accommodate the lyric “just killed a man” (although Dallas kept waking from death to wave at us!), and a very dramatic hanging at the close of the song. Sara and I sang along and screamed.

After the hanged men left the stage, our host of the evening, Oliver Town, came out (pun intended) for some witty repartee. He’s one of my favorite hosts. Always silver-tongued, dressed to the nines, and quick on his feet with an inappropriate joke, Oliver is the consummate MC. In demonstrating how to properly throw money onto the stage, I hit him in the nipple with a one dollar bill and we formed a bond.

Next up, the boys came out in leather for a Prince/Madonna shake down…and maybe Dallas pulled me up onstage. With any other show, I would be wary. But with Strut, I know these boys are simply having fun, enjoying the camp, and are aiming for everyone to have a good time. (It doesn’t hurt that they are gay – I mean, safest place ever for a straight girl, right?) I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy this show so much – it isn’t meant to be serious. It’s meant to be fun – a celebration of dance, costume, the human body, and a little camp thrown in for good measure.

Strut - superhero

That being said, these men really commit to putting on a good show and strutting their stuff. They are rehearsed, anything but shy onstage, and clearly enjoy what they do.

I also appreciate that despite the flavor of this show, the performers are gracious and accommodating. They help you on and offstage, make eye contact and thank you genuinely when you tip them, and I’m proud to report that my hand was kissed a time or two last night. Being a gentleman makes all the difference.

Throughout the night, we were treated to Bee Gees impressions, a feisty cook (Dallas was working on quite the dish!), a gang of superheroes (Geo, with his chiseled features, makes a perfect Superman), Broadway numbers, a little Latin flavor (Ish can move those hips), and guest performer Roman Holiday (who is cute as a button and clearly has had some ballet training, girl).

Strut - Backstreet

My personal favorite was a Backstreet Boys medley! Sara and I ran up to the stage like crazy fans, crying and waving dollar bills at them. I’m pretty sure we made them break character and they thanked us after the show for our over-the-top antics.

In “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” Dallas, Geo, and Ish nearly bared it all, leaving us hooting and hollering and cracking up.

And of course, they ended the show with a “Macho Man”/”YMCA” mash-up. Oh yes, the costumes were on point, which by the way, are made by the lovely Geo, who went to school for fashion design.

With $4 martinis flowing, laughter aplenty, and a little T&A (okay, maybe a lot of it), it was a grade A night.

Strut - YMCA

We’ll be back to visit the Men of Strut again, because these boys work hard and then werk it out. It’s a beautiful thing.

And I get it. ‘Cause sometimes, you just gotta strut.

My Arabian Nights

Photo by flickr user "Loren Javier."

Photo by flickr user “Loren Javier.”

I have officially traded boas for baklava, jewels for jazz hands, aerial arts for Agrabah – and I couldn’t be happier.

When my friend Aubrey asked me if I would be interested in choreographing Aladdin Jr. for Desert Foothills Theater, it was a no brainer. This will be her directorial debut, she’s like a sister to me, deep in my gut I miss my high school theater days, and really, who doesn’t love Disney’s Aladdin?

But through this process, I’ve discovered heaps of motivation and satisfaction I didn’t plan for. It’s been a beautiful experience – one that I hope to repeat.

First of all, let’s talk about the kids.

I made the conscious decision to leave studio teaching behind a number of years ago. Don’t get me wrong – I love teaching kids. But there were always the kids who didn’t really want to be there. Recitals and competitions were exhausting and becoming more and more demoralizing (a lot of judges are bribed to award certain honors to certain studios that pay a certain amount of money to the competition itself – and don’t get me started on inappropriate costumes and music…). And let’s face it, sometimes studio politics can be hard to navigate, too.

The kids I’m working with on Aladdin take all of those past experiences and obliterate them. These kids want to be there. They work hard. They’ve learned a tremendous amount of music, choreography, and blocking since March…and they want more. I feel like when I’m teaching them something, it resonates. I only hope that what I share will help them get their dream part someday.

Secondly, let’s talk about my team. Director, music director, stage manager, choreographer…we’re all on the same page. We work collaboratively. We have the same expectations for the kids across the board. And we run a tight ship. There is very little that is tolerated at rehearsal. But we also manage to have fun, teach these kids a thing or two, and what we’re putting together is pretty special.

Photo by flickr user "Loren Javier."

Photo by flickr user “Loren Javier.”

Next, there’s this spark of creativity that’s been resurrected in me. I’ve missed musical theater. I’ve missed it a lot. I watch these kids and I remember my own hours working on sets and learning lines and forming amazing bonds with other performers. I’m connecting to a part of me that’s been waiting in the wings since – goodness, probably high school. But it’s still there. And I’m feeding it now. It’s been so much fun to research images and dance styles and push myself to create character-driven movement that’s in line with the musical theater genre.

Watching my work danced back to me is such a cool feeling. I’ve been performing so much that I almost forgot how wonderful it is to place your vision on someone else and then watch it unfold. Sometimes, they’ll take it somewhere and make it something new and their own. Sometimes, you surprise yourself with what you’re able to create. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work and you have to create on the spot. All of it is rewarding.

Lastly, my back is playing nice in the sandbox! I’ll admit the first few rehearsals were a bit rough. But that was also the most physical I’d been in awhile. By the third rehearsal, I was enjoying the movement. I think that being involved in this production has allowed me to stay active without completely breaking my body down (as I’m infamous for doing when I’m injured).

So, long story short, I’ve been enjoying my Arabian nights. They’ve been so fulfilling. I’ve rediscovered some joy. I’m feeling accomplished and able. I’m really proud of this work – and I’m happy I can still announce that I’m a dancer at the end of the day.

If you’d like to get in on the magic, tickets for Aladdin Jr. are now available for purchase on DFT’s website. You could also choose to have tea with Jasmine. Mm hmm. I know you want to.

Come on down. Stop on by. Hop a carpet and fly to another Arabian night.

 

Photo licensing – Loren Javier
 

Happiness v. Joy

Photo by flickr user "Shakespearesmonkey."

Photo by flickr user “Shakespearesmonkey.”

I went to church on Easter Sunday. It’s been awhile. I’m one of those bad Christians who really only goes twice a year – if I can even commit to that. I had a bad break-up with the church years ago, so these days I tend to consider myself a person of faith – not just of Christianity, but spirituality altogether – Buddhism, Judaism, Islam – they all have some messaging I can hold onto. And the whole “person of faith” thing – that’s only on a good day. I just try to strive to be a good person who understands right from wrong and only fucks up every once in a while.

Even so, I’ll go to church. I’ll admit that I tend to feel a little uncomfortable, like I’m the puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. But I always seem to find some sort of inspiration or lesson that fits into my life, too. I’m happy to take that.

Easter Sunday was no exception. The pastor at Deer Valley Lutheran was starting a session on joy. And I learned a little something – or rather was reminded of a little something. And that’s the difference between happiness and joy.

Happiness is temporary, fleeting, usually material. Joy is something that’s constant and needs to be nurtured and lives within.

I needed that reminder on Sunday.

When I chose to quit dance performance in January, I knew it would be hard. I’ve dedicated my life since the age of 10 to showing off onstage, inspiring others through movement, sharing stories through performance. I placed most of my energy into training, costuming, building my name, taking chances. Dance makes me joyful. It isn’t temporary. It’s an identity, a way of life, something that satisfies my soul.

When you leave that behind, what’s left?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I stacked my world with future opportunities back in January – a couple of choreography gigs, intention to learn how to play the guitar, those sorts of things. But I had to wait a few months to get those projects started – and I also had to take some time to heal from a back injury in November. In the interim, I started to lose some joy.

I turned to happiness – in the form of new clothes, manicures and pedicures, lots of food, those sorts of thing. String ‘em together and there’s a hell of a lot of happiness there. But not much underneath it.

Listening to the pastor Sunday, I realized what was missing. Here’s the deal. I need joy in my life. It’s that simple.

Since Sunday, I’ve been rethinking and refocusing.

This is what joy looks like. Photo by the wonderful Devon Christopher Adams.

This is what joy looks like. Photo by the wonderful Devon Christopher Adams.

Here are the things that make me joyful:

  • Teaching – sharing my knowledge and talent with others
  • Helping others – philanthropic efforts where I make a difference
  • Making my boyfriend smile and laugh
  • Being surrounded by people who inspire me and who are simply good people
  • Artistic expression
  • Projects that require dedication and work

Yes, I’m a work horse- people pleaser-hopeful romantic with kickass friends. And I like it that way. I need it that way, because it fulfills me in ways that ice cream cones or a new cardigan never will.

And now that I’ve taken some inventory, I’ll be searching for joy daily. That search has already yielded some pretty fantastic results.

Last night marked my second night teaching choreography for a youth production of Aladdin that a good friend of mine is directing. Rehearsals are three hours, but they feel like five minutes. The kids are amazing and willing and sweet. I feel useful. I’m creating another world. I’m making a difference in the lives of these kids and if I can affect them positively in any way, I’ll be ecstatic. Last night, I happily stayed up till about 11 working on more choreography, sipping wine, and giddily rerunning the song “One Jump Ahead.”

I’ve started posting one thing I’m grateful for every day on my Facebook, so I can keep in mind all of the things that make my life so beautiful.

I’ve scheduled philanthropy projects with good girl friends, so we can give back to the community together…and dish some gossip at the same time.

I’ve been flirting shamelessly with my boyfriend. I can’t wait to see him again.

The past few days, I’ve felt full, brimming over, positive. I suddenly have so much energy and optimism. Rediscovering joy is a beautiful thing…And I’m beginning to feel like I’m back.

First Position

Photo by flickr user "Crazy House Capers."

Photo by flickr user “Crazy House Capers.”

Each year, thousands of dancers vy for the opportunity to compete at the Youth American Grand Prix, a competition that showcases the cream of the crop to some of the most prestigious ballet schools and companies worldwide. For the competing 9-16 year-olds, it’s an opportunity to get noticed early on so that they are sought after for jobs when they are old enough. For the 17-19 year-olds, it’s an opportunity to receive scholarships to ballet schools or professional contracts with ballet companies. For some, it’s their only chance at making a dream (a dream that’s required hours of practice, countless injuries, and stupid amounts of money) a reality. Sixty seconds could decide your future.

Aran keeps his foot stretcher right next to his BB gun in his room; it looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Miko is precocious, one of the oldest souls I’ve witnessed, and could be a huge star. Her brother, Jules, on the other hand, is talented, but doesn’t have the resolve to become a professional, but no matter, his humor and smile are priceless. This may be Rebecca’s only chance. Michaela has overcome unspeakable tragedy to follow her dream. If I were a teenager, I would want Joan Sebastian to be my boyfriend–so much soul and tenacity.

Aran, Miko, Jules, Rebecca, Michaela, and Joan Sebastian are all entrants of the Youth American Grand Prix and through the course of the documentary First Position, we learn about their history, their personal lives, and then follow them through what is undoubtedly the most nerve-racking competition of their lives.

"Photo by flickr user "gregory.ackland."

“Photo by flickr user “gregory.ackland.”

Aran is 11. He started dancing when he was four. He currently lives near a U.S. Navy base in Naples, Italy where his family is stationed. By the way, they are stationed there because Aran’s father accepted a six-month assignment in Kuwait so they wouldn’t be relocated to a place where ballet training wouldn’t be available for Aran.

His instructor, Denys Ganio, is the stereotypical French ballet teacher, smoking during class, smacking his students on the stomach or the legs to remind them to tighten and activate their muscles– strict. But if you’ve ever been in the ballet world, you understand that this is love and commitment to a student, not bullying. You also see Denys praise Aran and ruffle his hair as if he were his own son.

“When I work with Aran, I’m not working with an 11 year-old boy. If we have one or two like him in our life, that’s a lot,” Denys remarks. And he’s not lying. It’s hard to remember that Aran is 11 when you see him dance. He’s mature and masculine and dedicated.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Michaela trains at The Rock School. But many years before her ballet training began, she was an orphan in Sierra Leone, Africa, during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Her parents were shot by rebels, leaving her orphaned. “It’s a miracle I’m even here,” Michael says. “When I was younger, I thought I was dreaming.”

At the orphanage, Michaela saw a dance magazine with a prima ballerina on the cover and she vowed that if she ever left Sierra Leone, she would become a prima ballerina. And she’s well on her way with the steadfast support of her adopted parents and the staff at The Rock School. But Michaela is also aware that to do so she has to battle racial stereotypes to prove that a Black ballerina can also be graceful and light and delicate.

Colombian-born Joan (pronounced “Joe on”) Sebastian left his native country to follow his aspiration to be a professional ballet dancer. At the age of 16, he lives in New York City with a roommate, training every day, and using calling cards to connect with his family when he can. The documentary doesn’t touch on his financial or school situation, but I imagine that his life revolves around dancing; chances are good he doesn’t attend school and may have a job.

Despite all of this, the smile that blooms on Joan Sebastian’s face when he speaks of his love for dancing proves that though unorthodox, it was the right decision for him to leave his family and follow his dream. His entry in the Youth America Grand Prix could make or break his career.

Photo by flickr user "kunstlab."

Photo by flickr user “kunstlab.”

Over the past 10-15 years, the amount of money Rebecca’s parents have invested in her ballet education and performance could fund four years of college. Needless to say, the stakes are high for her at the competition. At 17, her career as a ballet dancer began yesterday. She needs an offer from a company at the Youth America Grand Prix in order to justify the years of practice and financial strain. A self-defined “princess,” Rebecca is a seemingly-perfect candidate for company membership. She is commercially beautiful, her body is lithe, flexible, and lean, and her talent is crazy.

“Most kids my age, they’re not 100% sure what they’re gonna to do, but I know I’m gonna do ballet for the rest of my life. Most people that say I’ve missed out on childhood, I think I’ve just had the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.”

Enter Miko, 12 years old and ready for the rest of her life to start already. Her mother, Satoko, has devoted her life to helping her children achieve their dreams (yes, she’s a stage mom–overly involved and invested, but she isn’t scary the way the moms on Toddlers and Tiaras are). Miko is home schooled so that she can have more hours in the day to practice ballet.

Her brother, Jules (10), trains with Miko, but it’s obvious that he would rather be reading a Calvin and Hobbes comic book than donning tights and practicing tour jetes. He has more talent than most 10 year-old boys pursuing ballet, but you can tell his heart isn’t in it for the long haul. His understanding of a man’s role in ballet and his devilish grin all but make up for it though. He’s trying so hard (in the shadow of his sister, no doubt), and we all love an underdog.

Gaya, a close friend of Aran, is from Israel and she’s adorable and youthful offstage, but onstage, she has a maturity that astounds. Her mother creates her routines and does her choreography; you can see the pride she has for her daughter, but she’s less of a stage mom and more of a steadfast support system. Aran and Gaya together–they are utterly adorable. While watching the documentary, I had daydreams about the two of them getting accepted into the same company, growing and dancing together.

me

These are the high stakes stories of First Position…and they are riveting, emotional, feel good, heartbreaking, and amazing. Watching the dedication and passion these kids possess, you get invested. You want to root them on. You want to see them succeed, because they’ve worked so hard and they want it so bad. Many times throughout this film, I clapped, I cheered, I exclaimed. I bet my roommate was wondering what was happening downstairs!

Added bonus – The DVD contains bonus footage of all of the dance routines in their entirety, which is a feast for the eyes. This is a must-see for any dancer or appreciator of the arts.

So, who wins and who fails? You’ll have to watch it to find out!

Photo licensing info:
Crazy House Capers
gregory.ackland
kunstlab