health

Not getting the part you want have your tail-feather ruffled? Don’t despair!

Politics exist everywhere.  It doesn’t mean squat about your dancing.  Roles, supposedly deserved, come and go un-danced.  You work tirelessly and devote yourself fully, yet you watch in the wings while another beautiful dancer takes the lime light.  You aren’t envious of their dancing.  You are proud of the way you move and express yourself.  You hold your art in confidence, but the results of the moment don’t quantify your efforts.  And the only thing I mean here by results are the tangible advancements your choreographer grants you, weighed against your expectations.  Amazing results are inevitable when you put your best effort behind your actions.  You may work as hard as you deem possible, and it still may not result in you center stage.  The beautiful effort you put forth shines, but might not be exactly what a choreographer wants to highlight.  None of this is a reflection of your value, but man it can feel like it.  How do you not fall down the slippery slope of questioning your own dancing when the choreographer doing the choosing isn’t granting you the recognition you desire?  The challenge posed to you is to not need the recognition, and not feel less than or second-rate.  Done.  Let’s do this.  How?!

I start by saying the obvious.  I love dancing with Parsons Dance, and it is one of my dreams come true.  On the inside of that dream, I deal with not getting the roles I want – an issue that can lie at the heart of any job.  It is not that I don’t want my dear friend to have that celebrated experience on stage, but it’s the aching desire to feel value from my determination, to have an outsider put a pretty little A+ on my dancing – pathetic, but true.  I thank human nature.  Hell, as a kid all I wanted in my beautifully simple life was to have Mom and Dad tote me around, kiss me, and applaud ad nauseam at my perfected, extremely fancy leg kick with a twirl and split finish.  Now, at 28, my inner child still cries for attention and validation in moments of weakness.  My poor and pathetic ego wants to get what I want at all times, to be the star, regardless if that star role contains moves and a persona that is even uniquely me.  Despite if I know the choreography more intimately than another (again, an unnecessary and useless comparison), my commitments do not always lead me to performing the part.  Worse yet, when my ego get’s bruised, it affects my dancing.  It distracts me.  It forces half of my energy to go towards keeping my head afloat rather than all my energy being devoted to the movement.

A few months ago, having been in this respected company for 3.5 years, I found myself upset in the studio during rehearsal;  not as much from not getting a part, but for feeling misunderstood.  My inner child was crying, “Look at me! I know this dance! Don’t I look lovely! Don’t you love how I am rond de jambing my leg with such pizazz! What? Do you like her rond de jambe better?! Look how hard I’m working!”  Logic does not reign in my brain during times of frustration.  If it did, I would kindly and obviously remind myself, “Just because I know all the dance moves, it does not mean that those are the dance moves truly meant for me.”   Followed by, “You are a beautiful person and dancer, and not getting this role has nothing to do with the level of respect and value you hold, in the company and beyond.”   Instead, my clear judgement left the room, and my emotions whined and paraded around in my head and heart.  It took a walk outside during lunch, a chat with one of my beloved Parsons family members, and a severe push to get a sweat going, to leave the thoughts outside and thrive for the rest of the day.  It was the disconnect between my dedication and the “results” that brought about the treacherous slope of defeat which lead to the ultimate death trap of questioning – questioning my artistic value.

Oh god, I typed it and at the moment I wish I could erase it from my screen and soul simultaneously.  I want to demand that I never question my artistic merits.  I want to demand that I always hold my self in high value.  Yet there are trying moments, that muffle these well-known facts-of-self down to a muted scream in my gut.

My value as a person and artist is not a wavering subject.  Value can only be granted to myself, from myself, and is never anyone else’s responsibility to deliver to me.  

How often do you let decisions made from the choreographer in the front of the room influence how you feel about yourself?  The truth: sometimes your artistic and personal sensibilities are not necessarily in alignment with the preferences of the choreographer and their work of the moment, despite their appreciation and respect of you.  There will be rehearsals when you feel a complete connection between yourself and your choreographer, and there will be times when you fight to get that deep connection back.  Dancing for a company is a business too.   A business full of people who have varying sensibilities of what they like and desire.  A business filled with pleasing not only individual dancers, but board members, booking agents, executive directors, the list goes on.  You have no idea why a choreographer makes the decisions they do.  Choreographers are people.  People who are predisposed to particular people’s movement styles based on their own history, mindset, and tendencies. It may be their preference, it may be someone else’s, it may be random.  Again, someone else’s decisions cannot effect your self-worth.  Not just that it shouldn’t.  It actually is completely unrelated.  

To unruffle my feathers in times of distress, hopping in the studio, taking an open class I know I enjoy, or even trying a new class – dancing material I will never perform after those 2 hours – has from time to time, been a lovely reminder of why I do what I do.  There is nothing political or expected about open class.  I can go in, dance my heart out, and not give a crap if anyone else in the room is going to like me, I mean, my dancing (a shockingly, occasionally hard thing to separate).  The frightening bottom line about taking class for you alone?  You’ll probably dance better, with complete abandon, as you always should, and get recognized for it because you could care less for the recognition.  Politics in the studio of a job we work for can make us lose that freedom.  So get it back somewhere else.  Refresh your memory of the feeling.  Get your confidence boost and lighthearted spirit back and then kick ass back at “work.”

You are the one thing you can control and maintain.  Only you, yourself, can continuously cultivate a sense of home, comfort, sanity, and integrity.  When others rock your boat, break your ship, they’ve cracked into your vulnerabilities.  They are not welcome.  Working hard and having your passion lead all your intentions will never set you astray.  You will see results.  You will not care about roles or jobs gained or lost.  You will become a better artist, person, and technician.  More importantly, your confidence and self-value will be unwavering and take you places you could never conceive possible, and most gloriously, they will be uniquely and entirely yours.

The Weight of 20 Pounds: A Battle Worth Fighting

I wish I could say I wasn’t plagued by the upsetting dancer-with-eating-disorder cliché, but unfortunately life decided to teach me a lesson instead.  (Don’t you just love that?)  My struggle reared its ugly head while in the middle of my college career, but its origins started way before then when I would nitpick more than just my technique in the mirror as a dance-crazed teenager.  Perfection was what I was after, and I thought I found the surest path to get an extra inch closer.  In reality, those shedded inches were traded for self-deprivation, not only of my physical being, but of my inner pride.  Quite the shame.  Here’s my story, to help abate yours or nip it in your perfect size tush before the seed is even planted.

As a type-A girl who strives for perfection I took control over one more element in my life to achieve a skewed version of greater success.  In entire honesty, I never felt I was restraining myself from food.  I never felt I was even trying “that” hard to lose weight.  My goal was to get into good shape before my next semester at college, and to me, good shape didn’t exactly refer to stamina or strength as much as it did to appearing more “dancerly.”  In the summer months prior to my junior year at Marymount Manhattan College, I was enrolled in a summer course in nutrition.  The class opened up my mind to a better, healthier diet, but, go figure, I took those lessons to the extreme.  I started actively reading labels for more wholesome ingredients and became tediously aware of serving sizes.   All positive health improvements, but only when followed with an air of casual knowledge rather than intense absolutes.

Upon my return to Marymount, teachers took note of my more slender figure.  “Christina you look so thin, don’t lose any more weight please.”  Being told I was thin was a compliment to me.  It brought a devilish smile to my face when someone acknowledged my deteriorating figure.  While I didn’t actively change my newfound eating habits, I continued to slowly lose more weight.  In my head I just thought I was maintaining the slender figure I had proudly achieved.  However, instead I was wasting away and achieving the not-so-sexy skin and bones look.  Let’s set the record straight – I was extremely thin, too thin, by anyone’s standards.  Probably around 100 pound on my medium-build, 5’5 frame.  Yet it remained easy for me to see someone with a more severe case of anorexia as sickly; where their bones were all you saw protruding harshly at rigid angles to form a horrid semblance of a natural figure.  Can you cry, “Denial?”  I was convinced there was nothing wrong with my body, that I didn’t have any disorder, and my pitifully constrained dinners were what someone who performed with their body should have been eating.  I wonder, scared to think how far away I was from this extremeness.  Probably not as far off as I thought; my mental delusion was on par for diving into the deep end.

I stopped listening to my body’s gauge of hunger and analyzed my meals as if it was possible for them to be graded.  It was the realization I really ate at least 4 servings of hummus and crackers in a sitting without hesitation, eagerly going back for seconds, that spawned the desire to shift some habits.  Additionally, I would try not to eat too close to bed time;  possibly allowing myself to indulge in some carrots or some other veggie if I was ravenous and felt like I couldn’t make it through the night.  (Couldn’t make it?! All I was doing was sleeping, but I obviously put myself on such an impossible regimen.)  It was valid to strive for diversity and nutrients in my diet, but it was critical to ingest the calories I as a dancer burned during the day to be prepared for the physical work required.  Any time I absent-mindedly stuffed my face with trail mix or some other pathetic “bird-like” semblance of a meal, guilt ensued.   Then I would try to compensate at the next meal, to ease the guilt away.  How sad to be so pre-occupied with the cyclical thoughts of food, eating, and guilt when there were so many other more productive, positive, care-free thoughts to be had.  I was taking my own life away from myself when I thought I was taking control of it.

The most tragic part?  I felt great.  What more do you need to continue with a downward spiral?  I felt on top of my dance game, when I was truly at the bottom.  I no longer had to hop, wiggle, and squat my way into my skinny jeans fresh out of the wash, and the thought of “Do I look fat in this?” was relieved from my concerns because I was aware I was thin, just not aware I was too thin.  This was the kicker; the fact that I knew I was skinny allowed me to take class in a freer state of mind and ride the wave of my deformed, yet positive view of my body.  I would be in my pink tights and proud to stand in an arabesque facing entirely profile to the mirror.  I didn’t have one thought of, “Ugh, that low belly and thigh are a bit unfortunate.”  Perfect!  I was free to think about sailing around effortlessly in a promenade, luxuriating in my épaulement, and smoothly accentuating whatever turnout I could muster with a sense of hard-earned contentment.  To top it off, I didn’t get my period for 9 months.  While I knew in the back of my mind this was bad, I would be lying if I didn’t say it was glorious to be cramp and bloat free. (To be bloated at 100 pounds seems like an impossible feat.)  I wish I could have added crabby to the list, but while I don’t particularly recall feeling temperamental while in this fragile state, I cannot imagine a body without enough fuel fostering a peaceful mind.

This entire time, I thought I was doing good for myself – caring for my instrument and being performance ready.  What made me come to the realization I was off my rocker?  My parents were scared for me and were near tears when they came to see me perform.  They told me they were going to get me help and that I needed to put on weight.  Seeing their urgency about an issue I thought didn’t exist, especially to warrant their extreme reaction, made me reconsider.  I also honestly knew in my gut not getting my period was my body’s way of shutting down and not functioning as a woman’s should.  Gratefully, the intervention was something I was willing to accept.  I did have concern for my optimal health and the repercussions of losing bone density and being at risk of injury, potentially greatly halting my dancing career all together, horribly frightened me.  Almost as much as (heaven forbid!) putting on some weight.

Gradually seeing the poundage creep on to my scrawny frame and maintaining a sense of self-pride was the most challenging aspect of the struggle.  Losing the weight and controlling my appetite was easy.  Five extra pounds, on the other hand, felt like I was wearing a balloon suit while doing pliés at the barré.  One of the hardest things for me was to get accustomed to having boobs again.  And by boobs, I am referring to my lovely A-cup chest.  Having these mounds of excess flesh with a mind of their own attached smack in the front of my body was hard to grapple with while I stuffed them into the same leotard that once housed essentially just my nipples.  A woman with a chest didn’t exactly measure up to this fantastical, adolescent dancer image I conjured and idolized, making my breasts a source of agony and symbolized me being out of shape rather than simply a beautiful woman.

Along my road to recovery, I became heavier than I was before I was sick.  I intuitively felt I would need to go further in the opposite direction, before I could balance myself and feel at my healthiest.  I let this new heavier body, limit my dancing.  It disabled me because I didn’t feel prideful.  It was a distraction that took me out of the work and into the mirror, concerned with the appearance of movement rather than the movement itself.  The honest truth was my mind hadn’t made as much of a shift as I had believed and hoped; I still critically judged my body.

It is this mindset, so prevalent in dancers, that serves as the initiation to take drastic measures to senselessly curb food intake.  So you need to cut the cycle in your thought process.  

While muddling through this mental shift, I had a nauseating number of helpful conversations with my loving and patient mother, but I will never forget her once uttered words I vehemently disagreed with, “This might always be something you struggle with.”  Excuse me? Always?  Absolutely not.  In a beautifully unpredictable world filled with ever evolving minds, nothing remains constant and people never cease to amaze with their capacity to change, adapt, and shift through the obstacles of life.  If my mind has done a 180 degree turn around when it comes to everything from boyfriends, education, Freudian philosophies, tofu, and the Muppets, then there is absolutely no reason why a mental shift around proper eating habits isn’t possible.  So the words “you might never like the way you look,” and “this will always be an issue” is the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever heard.

Now how do you start this shift?

I did see a therapist to help sort through the emotional turmoil and wrap my mind around the seriousness of the issue.  It was helpful to acknowledge all the thoughts and relationships I had growing up that nurtured this twisted mentality.  Honestly however, I didn’t feel our sessions were extremely insightful, and ultimately she encouraged me to fulfill the work I needed to do on myself.  After a few weekly sessions, I let our time together go and kept an introspective gaze on my reoccurring thoughts.

I repeatedly recited to myself, “I have to fuel my body and this is me and it’s beautiful.”   Various self-loving mantras under a protective veil of inner patience would immediately follow any critical and harshly guilty digs to myself.   I reminded myself of the stunning power in a womanly figure and began to believe the asexual, prepubescent look was not all that and a bag of chips (let’s be real, it was no chips!).  The clothes that once sagged on my wilted tushie had a field day with the comeback of my bubble butt.  Me, on the other hand, initially gawked in the mirror, not so proudly and with a tinge of disgust, before my womanly sass and ass eventually became too much fun to not saunter and flaunt in the heyday of my early twenties.

Nevertheless, in the guts of this mental battle, life threw me tests.  A phone call from a director, chatting about an upcoming season asked me if I planned on getting in shape for it.  “You know. Slim down.”  In complete defense mode, I claimed I didn’t need to and wasn’t willing to drop pounds and sacrifice my health.  A proud moment for myself.  The harsh reality – I wasn’t in my best shape.  However, negotiating the thin line between healthy eating habits and obsessive, pre-occupied ones was too sensitive a debate for me to embark upon at the time.

Ahh! The challenge of being a performing artist.

While performing a visual art form, there is a need to be physically fit.  Some companies (not all, and this should play a part when deciding where you work) are known for maintaining a physical aesthetic, and to ignore this fact would be unrealistic.  The physical work done on a daily basis in the studio prepares our bodies for the strength, stamina, and flexibility necessary.  Sometimes the work is enough to maintain a lean and strong physique, and other times as a performer you have to step up your game when an important show is coming up to make sure you feel your best.

Yes, you take class in front of a mirror all day long.  Yes, you are there captiously sharpening your technique to extreme levels of excellence, and those critiques can sneakily enter your perception of your body.  When are you done striving for the perfect figure and instead enjoy the one you’ve been blessed with?   When the meticulous training and body affliction is all you focus on, you are not dancing.  You are merely moving and fretting.  You won’t get in better shape from worrying tediously at every moment.  There has to come a point when the look of the body is disassociated from the movement, and the beauty of the dance take over.

Let go of compulsive premeditation about meals and issue yourself freedom and an open mind to thoughts of significance.  Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.  Eat what makes your body feel good and function at its optimum.  Or don’t, and then fully indulge and enjoy!  Tacking on any guilt with eating something less than nutritious or eating too much of something is absurd.  Food is pleasure and is to be savored.  Being mad at oneself only perpetuates the ugly cycle of emotional eating.  Don’t get upset at yourself.  Laugh at its ridiculous reoccurrence, grant yourself patience without judgement, and let it go – no matter how long this lesson takes. To unleash your fullest capacity as an artist and simply as a happy person, navigating a health relationship with food and your body is a battle worth fighting.

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