29 February 2016

The Law And Grace In Performing Art - Part I

I was six years old when I started dance classes. Legend has it that I begged my parents for classes for an entire year previous and they figured if I could spend a whole year talking about it, I must really want it. So they enrolled me in the only dance school they could find that didn't require them to work a bingo at any point.

I loved it. I spent five years there, and enjoyed every second of the first three. Even in the final two years I did enjoy it (or at least I thought I did), but by then my teacher's extremely negative attitude was starting to have an effect on me, even though I couldn't see it in myself. But my parents could, and they made the executive decision to pull me out (despite many tears and vehement protests on my part). It wasn't until years later that they began to hear about some of the cruel things that teacher did to us -- demanding perfection and knowledge without first showing us what we were expected to do, mocking students in front of the entire class if we did a technical thing wrong that we didn't even know about yet, straight up being mean or condescending, and she was the queen of favouritism to boot. For my entire final year in that school, she never once referred to me by name. She would have us do a centre exercise in two groups, and it would always be: "Ashley, Jessica, and Stephanie, Group One, the rest of you, Group Two." I was always 'the rest of you.' This same teacher also once told my parents straight up that I would fail the RAD exam. I passed that exam with my highest personal mark ever on an RAD exam -- and I've passed every RAD exam I've ever taken.

It was, in short, an extremely shame-based style of instruction. You were told only that you were doing it wrong, you weren't even told what you were doing wrong. You were expected to be perfect right off the bat and if you weren't, then you obviously weren't cut out to be a ballerina and you would spend the rest of your years at that school being ignored.

After that school, I took three years off. I wandered about aimlessly, looking for something else to do with my time. This was about the time that I began to really get into music (as a listener), but aside from that, nothing stuck. I took voice lessons, realised I was awful at singing, took some scrapbooking and paper art classes, realised I didn't have the patience for it, tried to develop friendships at our new church, realised that nobody there at the time gave a crap whether I was breathing or not. Finally I relinquished myself to the fact that I really just wanted to be dancing.

Although my mother was clearly taken aback by my revelation and I think was really hoping I would have left my childhood dream behind and joined the real world, she did seek out another dance school. This one was significantly farther away, but that didn't matter to me and so my parents decided they'd give it a try.

For the first four years or so, I said absolutely nothing in class and I expected nothing less than absolute perfection of myself. That was how I was trained at the first school -- shut up and do it perfectly. And I motivated myself with shame. My new teacher didn't provide any kind of mocking or sarcastic feedback, but by that time I was perfectly capable of providing it for myself... You're about a flexible as a two-by-four. You'll never do a grande battement like that and how do you expect to be any good if you can't be flexible? You can't even do a basic single pirouette and look at that -- all of the others can. They probably think you're stupid because you can't even land a single. You should have remembered that sequence. It's so easy. You didn't remember it because you're stupid. How can you call yourself a dancer? How stupid can you be to think that you can just come back to it? You're too old for this. You should be better than them and you're not. What's the point of even trying? You'll never be good enough. You're too stupid. You have no talent.
I think I started to open up a little when my new teacher commented off-hand that I was 'very musical.'

...Say what?

For the entire five years that I had been at that first school, my teacher had been saying things like, 'you're too fast,' 'you never listen to the music,' 'you have no rhythm,' 'you need to slow down.' I didn't know at the time exactly what she was getting at because she never explained it to me, but by the time my second teacher made that comment about me being musical, I knew that I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, 'musical.' I couldn't even read music. My sister could, but not me. I was too stupid.

It was slow going, and I wonder how much that second teacher knew about my first school -- if anything, since my parents didn't know a lot of it either -- and how much she might have despaired over the years that I would never stop berating myself. I wouldn't do it out loud, of course, because nobody needs to hear that, but I wouldn't be surprised if my self-hatred was plainly written on my face (and she is perceptive -- the other day she remarked (not asked, remarked) that I wasn't feeling well and it wasn't until she said that that I realised I was, in fact, feeling a bit out of it).
Anyway, even after that 'musical' comment, it wasn't an instant turnaround. In fact, I never really realised how patient she had been with me and how good it is to study under her until this past year, when I started thinking about what my life would have been like had I either stayed at that first school, or stayed away from dance entirely.

That second teacher, whether she knew it or not, had her work cut out for her when I walked in the studio door. And she spent upwards of the next five years patiently undoing the knot of self-loathing that I had been taught to weave and pull tight at that first school. She's never addressed it directly -- I don't even know how much if it she knows. But over years of gentle corrections -- not mocking lectures -- and the calm assurance that we'll 'get it yet, even if it isn't today' -- not 'that was horrendous. You're making me seasick. Do it again until it resembles something good' -- I began to actually enjoy myself again. I began to feel like I wasn't an embarrassment to dance and most of all I began to lose my crippling fear of being noticed by the teacher. In the first school, being noticed by the teacher, especially if you weren't one of her special favourites, was almost worse than being ignored -- it meant a long tirade mocking you for some minor thing that was merely an oversight and easily corrected (she literally went on a fifteen-minute tear one time because another girl had forgotten to straighten her knees. If she had simply said, "Make sure your knees are straight," that would have done the trick. But she made snide comments about it for fifteen minutes).

I probably don't have to tell you at this point that in five years at the second school, I made significantly more progress than I did in the same amount of time at the first school. My second teacher certainly didn't expect any less of us -- in fact, I had a hard time at first keeping up with the sheer amount of technique in her school because I wasn't used to it -- but we were allowed to make the occasional mistake. We were expected to improve, but not without the teacher demonstrating and explaining the correct way until we understood.

The difference was grace.

At the first school, we were expected to follow the letter of the law, instantly, without question, and without a single fault. At the second school, we were expected to adhere to the general 'laws' of ballet, but she understood that internalising the feel of it wasn't instant, and she gave us a(n) (often extremely lengthy) grace period within which to master it. And whenever she did correct our technique, it was gently, not with a harsh derisive smoker's laugh.

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