Body Dysmorphia in Retirement

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I’ve been struggling with my weight recently. Now, before I get angry tweets or confused looks, I am aware that I am not actually struggling with my weight. Yes, I could lose about 5 pounds and be happy to see my six-pack abs return. But in the grand scheme of things, I probably look fit to the general public and my doctor would likely tell me that I am in the lower range of healthy weights for men my height and age. Taking all of these things into consideration, there is one more important item to note. I am probably not the image of the person I see in the mirror and that has changed drastically since I retired from the stage and began focusing my energy on choreography and teaching.

Throughout my 13 year performance career, I was always quite confident about my body. Yes, like any human being, my weight fluctuates up and down a few pounds from week to week. And back then, it may have swung a bit more if I had an extended lay-off or was recovering from injury. But I never felt stressed by these fluctuations. I knew that I would soon be back in the studio dancing for 7 1/2 hours a day and the image of myself that I wanted others to see would return. I didn’t have body dysmorphia then. I knew what I looked like and trusted the reflection I saw in the mirror. My stress, confusion, and acute attention with my perceived body image wasn’t an immediate response to retirement, though. It was a gradual shift in mentality after a few events that grew into mistrust about the person I saw looking back at me in the mirror.

Weight is a constant topic among professional dancers. While some of those conversations are serious, more of them occur in jest. Perhaps, this is in response to the stresses of a job where the central product is one’s fitness and ability to control every ounce of their body. I can actually note two singular comments that began my distrust of my own perception of self.

The first of these comments occurred as I prepared for the role of Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This role requires the dancer to wear a transparent, open-front vest attached to a glorified dance belt over swirly tights down to one’s ankles. The funny thing is that I didn’t even have this costume in mind as I prepared for the role. I had been heavier earlier in the season due to an injury that kept me out of the studio. So, it made sense that I lost that weight as the season dragged on. Also important to note, beyond my rehearsal days and performances that season, I was secretly flying on weekends auditioning to leave the company. All of this dancing and stress had taken a few extra pounds off me. It was after a particularly long weekend of travel that I found myself rehearsing with a Principal dancer who was playing the role of Oberon (the character who acts as my master in the work). While other dancers were rehearsing the part, this dancer pulled me aside and told me, “You look bone.” After I looked strangely at him, wondering if comparing me to a skeleton was a good thing or a bad thing, he must have caught the confusion in my eyes. He very quickly followed up by telling me it was a good thing. I looked in the mirror at my thin frame and sunken-in cheeks and smiled at the compliment. My lowest professional weight had now become my benchmark for physical success, sex appeal, and confidence.

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Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Soon after this “compliment,” I moved on from Pacific Northwest Ballet, joined Ballet X, was let go from Ballet X, and started my life as a freelance dancer. With all of these changes and developments happening so abruptly, it took about a year after the bone comment before I had a moment to process all of the life changes I had experienced and allow my body to rest. It was also around this point that my freelance career began to take off and I careened on the wildest 4 year ride of my life.

One of the first stressors I noted during this period was that it was harder to stay in shape. I went from dancing 40 hours a week to rehearsing in bouts and taking expensive classes less frequently. Here, I began to see my strength, stamina, and weight fluctuate on a regular basis. If I was working a lot, friends would note that I was frighteningly skinny upon my return home. But after some time locally and not dancing due to extreme exhaustion, stress, and financial pressure, my weight would normalize or I would start to look a little soft around my torso. I controlled my frustration by telling myself that I needed the break, I would be working soon, or that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I believed myself, even if I wasn’t at my lowest weight standard.

It took only one comment to destroy my ability to see an honest reflection of myself. My body dysmorphia was triggered during a guesting opportunity with Festival Ballet Providence. During this gig, I had befriended one of the dancers who was growing into the role of the company’s regular male lead. I hung out with him once or twice outside of work and had briefly met his boyfriend. After an open studio rehearsal that the dancer’s partner attended, he walked over to me and poked me in the stomach with his index finger. I still don’t understand why he felt this was appropriate. But after poking me, he stated that I was “looking a little soft.” While I tried to laugh it off, the stress I was experiencing in my new career style and the concerns I already had about my inconsistent work and how it affected my body sent me in a tizzy. Luckily, I’ve never been at risk for an eating disorder. But from this point forth, I’ve always been overwhelmingly conscious of my weight and how others view my current fitness versus how I looked at my lowest weight. The worst part of this unsolicited poke was that I lost the ability to reasonably judge my own reflection and the memory of what physical attributes made me feel happy and confident.

I handled this issue like I do with everything else. I stress about it and try to micromanage the situation, but have difficulty finding a perfect balance that makes me most comfortable in all areas. My body dysmorphia has only gotten worse since I retired from my performance career. It stressed me out to be dancing less throughout my freelance career. I’m sure one can imagine how it has gotten worse when I am in front of the studio more often than standing at the barre.

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Looking at my post-performance career reflection in the mirror

The biggest challenge as a retired dancer with body dysmorphia is cultivating an honest, healthy image of what I look like to myself and how I think I should look as a former dancer. Should I hold myself to the skeletal standard that garnered me positive attention during my performance career? Am I expected to have six-pack abs as a choreographer? And, if I don’t, will I lose my sex appeal or get comments about the loss of my “hot” body? I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do know that it is important to consider a healthy image of myself as I age. In my 30’s, I still want to look like the person I was in my late 20’s. But it wouldn’t be fair for my 45 year old self to try and maintain the gold standard I had during my dancing days.

This post is more explorational than it is informational. I don’t yet have answers for retired dancers and how they should handle perception of their bodies after their prime athlete days. But what I can share is that I am working to understand how I view myself as I age, while appreciating that wonderful time when my body was fit just because I showed up to work. It would be unfair to always expect to look bone. So, now I need to explore what looks good on me at 34. And after I figure that out, I’ll probably have to reconsider that answer every 5-10 years. Just like the changes our bodies naturally endure as we age, we must also consider the mind.

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Teaching “One-Off” Classes

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Come Learn from Me at Broadway Dance Center’s Dance Teacher Workshop
Summer is the time that most students attend summer programs away from home, visit open class studios in New York City, attend conventions at national competitions, and enjoy short workshops that bring guest instructors to their studios. While this is a very exciting time for young dancers, it is also a time when dance educators have a variety of opportunities to break out of their regular schedules and share our art form with new audiences. These experiences often come in the form of one-off master classes or short workshops where one doesn’t really get enough time to dig into true technique, style, artistry, or choreography. It can be challenging to cultivate your best classes and share your most important lessons when you only get one and a half hours with a group of aspiring dancers. I’ve taught my fair share of classes where I may never get to work with the same students ever again. For this reason, I want to offer you some tips and tricks that I have learned over the years to help you offer your best classes, even when you only get one shot to make your point(e).
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Go in with a game plan, but be prepared to be flexible: I like to go into classes with a set idea of what I am going to teach. Though, it took me nearly 5 years in this offstage part of my career to begin teaching at any tuition-based program where I knew who was going to show up from week to week. Working as an open class instructor, a master class teacher, and a sub at the beginning of my career taught me how to adjust my teaching plans on the fly. It is always good to have combinations planned or concepts you would like to get across. But, sometimes, you show up with certain expectations that don’t align with the students who show up to the barre. In the end, it is the teacher’s responsibility to adjust their plans and offer the best classes possible.
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Don’t be afraid to ask for etiquette/behavior, but be more lenient than you are with your regular classes: Over time, I have learned that many of the one-off classes I’ve been brought in to teach are my pathway to help students who don’t have access to professional level training fall in love with our art form. I’ve taught at schools where the students show up for ballet in shorts, t-shirts, and socks. I’ve had experiences where the kids talk over me while I’m teaching. And I’ve had a plethora of situations occur in classes that most professionals new to teaching wouldn’t even know how to handle. What I’ve learned is that every classroom has a different culture and I can’t expect any of them to adhere to my standards unless they work with me on a regular basis. For this reason, I set a baseline level of behaviors that I am not willing to put up with. And if any student in particular has difficulty adhering to these expectations, I offer them a “3 Strikes and You Sit” option. Some of these guidelines include: the classroom is not a playground, we treat others with respect, we support our peers, and the fun is in the work. But when things don’t go exactly how I prefer to run my studio, I try to give them an idea of my expectations and suggest that they consider certain things for the future.
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Think of your class like a sample at a grocery store: Even the best instructors can’t teach a year worth of syllabus in one master class. If you try to impart too much of your knowledge onto students, they may feel overwhelmed with information that they can’t retain. When I teach these types of classes, I try to get an overview of the students needs during barre or the contemporary warm-up. And from there, I choose 2-3 ideas that I feel will really help push the group forward. If I can get a group of students to understand that placement is more important than a high extension or that 3 properly executed pirouettes are better than 7 spins, I feel that I have accomplished something. When you go to a grocery store, they won’t let you sample everything you plan on buying before you walk through the check out. But chances are there will be a few samples of things that you never considered buying and end up really enjoying.
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Don’t expect everybody in the class to love you:  Alright! I admit it! I’m really bad at this one. There’s nothing that inspires me more than seeing students work hard, gain results, and smile when they reach new heights. Sometimes, students already know how to learn our challenging athletic art form. But many students have yet to cultivate the joy that comes in hard work and its rewards. Just like ice cream flavors, everybody has a preference. Some students (both as a group and individually) really latch on to certain teacher’s style of teaching, corrections, and energy. At other points, it can feel nearly impossible to make one person smile in a room or respond with an energetic “YES” when you ask if they are ready to go. Don’t assume that every good class ends with students begging for your photograph, eagerly asking where you teach regularly, or looking up your instagram handle. In reality, sometimes it is about connecting with that one student who you inspire to push forth and work towards obtaining a career in dance. So, be sure to do what you do and not what you think students want you to do.
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If taking public transport and you aren’t familiar with where you are going, leave a cushion of time: This one is pretty straightforward and one of the most important pieces of advice that I can offer. It can be stressful showing up to teach with little idea whether the advanced level you are about to teach is what you assume to be advanced. Cut yourself some of the stress of teaching one-off classes and take a bus or train that has you arriving earlier than your class is scheduled. I can tell you from experience: if you are going to take a bus that arrives just in the nick of time for class, it is at least 50% likely to be late. So, suck it up and take the bus that arrives a half hour early. It will give you a chance to meet the directors, get changed, see the studio space, mentally prepare, warm yourself up, and assess what you are about to experience. And, worse comes to worse, when your bus is 20 minutes late, you still have 10 minutes to get acclimated.
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Be sure to ask information about a school before you arrive: This is something that I’ve recently gotten better at since I’ve become faculty at Broadway Dance Center and had more and more opportunities to share my art form around the world. It is always exciting when a school thinks that you have something to offer their students. But in reality, this invitation isn’t about you. It is about their students. I’ve learned to ask simple questions to make sure that I am catering my classes to the needs of a school. Before I arrive, I ask simple questions to get a feel for the atmosphere I’m about to enter. Ask questions like: What have the kids been working on? Is there anything in particular that would be helpful to focus on? Are you preparing for any performances or competitions? What do you feel are your student’s strengths and weaknesses? Do you run a pre-professional, recreational, or competition program? By asking these questions, you are gaining more information to prepare yourself to offer the best experience you possibly can.
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Don’t be so serious that the kids can’t have fun: This was one of the biggest lessons I had to learn when I began teaching one-off classes. Coming from a background training in world-renowned pre-professional schools and dancing for some of the nation’s most renowned ballet companies, I had forgotten what it was like to be a young kid interested in dance, yet not so serious that I knew it could be a profession. Major schools and companies teach their dancers how to work efficiently and effectively; essentially cutting out the niceties, demanding high expectations, and offering indiscreet feedback with expectations of immediately applying corrections. Most of the kids I have worked with in a one-off setting are still in the process of falling in love with dance. And many of them don’t yet realize that dance can be a career and lifestyle. For this reason, it is important to remember that we teach these kids to help them fall in love with dance. Dance is hard, hard work. But we must cultivate what it means to perform that hard work over time. Otherwise, we risk turning young talent away from our art form. Our job is to teach kids about the rewards of hard work and to share our joy and passion with the future of dance.

10 Things I’ve Learned Since Retiring

There are so many lessons to be learned in this life. In the past few weeks, I spent some time with a handful of my students coaching them while at the Youth America Grand Prix competition. I was so impressed to see how they held their own under the pressures of competition, and a handful of them even placed (one of them won the Grand Prix, two won 2nd & 3rd place in their categories, and a handful placed in the Top 12). While my job was to warm my kids up, hone in their focus, and provide support no matter the outcome of what happened onstage, I learned a very important lesson. Read on to see what that lesson was along with a handful of others I’ve learned since retiring from the stage.

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Two students I choreographed contemporary solos for at YAGP (Allison Chen – L, Elisabeth Beyer – R)

1. One of the most surprising lessons I’ve learned since retiring has been that I don’t have to take class every day to maintain my technique. As my schedule has become overwhelmingly booked with teaching, coaching, choreographing, podcasting, and blogging, I have had difficulty making it to class as often as I would like. But taking class 2-4 times each week (as opposed to 5-6 times) actually allows my body to recover and feel better from day to day. While there are a few areas I feel that I’ve lost ground in (adagio and extended stamina), I can still perform a majority of the feats I executed daily during my stage career. And if something isn’t working one day and it stresses me out in the moment, I just remind myself that I’m retired from the stage and class is now wholly for me again.

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See! I can still get a leg up!

2. With no intention for any negative connotation, a performance career is very selfish. In order to perfect one’s art, we must spend countless hours working on ourselves and focusing great attention to personal detail. Beyond this, due to the brevity of our careers, we tend to feel that we need to achieve every goal we set, gain every opportunity available, get cast in every role we dream of, and climb up the promotion ladder as fast as possible. It has been liberating to step outside the selfishness of my own performance career and to allow my focus to include others. In the past few weeks while coaching a handful of students to compete at Youth America Grand Prix , I suddenly became very aware of how invested I was in the success of my students. I was so extremely hopeful for them to perform well because their success and happiness was also mine. This post-career life has taught me that the success of many is greater than the success of one.

3. This may sound odd since my attention has shifted from fully focusing on my own instrument. But my technique has improved greatly since I began teaching and coaching dancers. While teaching my students, I often have to find unique ways to express muscle engagement, joint movement, placement, balance, coordination, and more. I find myself evaluating my own work in class much more meticulously as I explore the best way to convey information to students while teaching. This has netted an overall positive in my own dancing, as I have a greater understanding of many things that I hadn’t grasped during my performance career.

4. I didn’t always notice this, but there were many times that I wish I had a certain type of support, guidance, or mentorship during my career. I left home at the age of 17 to train and I moved across the country into my own apartment at the age of 19 to start my career with Houston Ballet. As I transitioned to Pacific Northwest Ballet, became an adult, and eventually navigated my way through a national career as a traveling freelancer, I often wished that I had more support in many ways. Now that I have stepped into a more educational leadership role, I have been baffled by the number of dancers who have reached out to me in need of physical, emotional, and financial support. If these are the dancers that are asking for help, I can’t imagine the number of dancers who don’t ask. One thing that has become abundantly clear to me is the need for support in our community and the lack of resources, access, and assistance available to help our the real-life culture of our country.

5. Throughout my nearly 13-year performance career, I gave up a great deal to fulfill my life’s biggest dream. From saying no to social events to avoiding activities that had even the slightest risk of injury, traveling for 4 years away from the comfort of my friends and family, and avoiding foods that may add that extra pound of weight onto my body, I sacrificed much to enjoy what I still consider one of the greatest experiences of my life. Now that I am officially retired from the stage, I have been able to enjoy my time in different ways. I now see that there is so much more to life than dance. But that doesn’t mean I love it any less. It is still the focal point of much of my attention. But I don’t limit myself in ways that I used to and I don’t feel like I am missing out as much.

6. While there is often a great deal of competition and comparison throughout a performance career, all former professional dancers share a special bond that connects them once offstage. One of my favorite experiences in recent history came while teaching a master class at Uptown Dance Company in Houston, TX when a former colleague with Houston Ballet took my class. She had been a long-time soloist with the company when I joined as a young apprentice and I looked up to her and respected her time put in. Since I was younger, I remember feeling shy around her. But now that we are both retired and have shared similar career experiences, we shared some good conversation and laughs while reminiscing about our past career lives.

7. When you retire, some aches and pains go away and other aches and pains get worse (The ones that get worse are usually when you are teaching – see previous blog post about this here). But the stress and anxiety that accompanies minor to moderate pain or injury is not nearly as great as when you are preparing to perform.

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Papa Bear

8. When I was finishing up my career in my early 30’s, I was often considered older for a dancer. By my late 20’s, I already found myself a guiding force for younger dancers entering the field. In fact, at one gig, I was jokingly referred to as Papa Bear. When I finally decided to officially retire at the age of 32, I suddenly became young again. I can’t tell you how many people have mentioned how young I am for a teacher and choreographer at my level, even at the age of 34. It was quite surprising to see how quickly I went from being old to young again. Perhaps, retirement from a performance career is the real fountain of youth.

9. Dancers are the face of our field. But as I have started to experience how I am treated (whether locally or traveling) as a choreographer and dance educator, I have come to see how absolutely undervalued and mistreated dancers are. When I freelanced around the country as a performer, I had to fiercely negotiate a livable wage, deal with questionable housing accommodations, and handle situations in and out of the studio that most professionals in other fields would never find themselves in. Since I have begun working in my post-performance career, I have been treated much more respectfully when it comes to salary, travel, accommodations, and treatment. This is definitely something that I would like to inspire to change in our field. I am still baffled that dancers, the face of our art form, are so often the least valued commodity in dance.

10. I’m actually more in love with dance than I have ever been. I thought that getting to perform my dream roles in my dream companies would be the pinnacle of my love for the art form. But while those experiences were amazing, there was a certain level of stress and anxiety that went hand-in-hand with preparation activities and live performance. Now that I have succeeded in my performance career and have moved on to teach and choreograph, I get to enjoy every part of the dance world that I love, leave the parts that I don’t love behind, and make sure that almost everything I do is for me, because I want to do it, and to share my passion with others.

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My latest cohort of adult dancers in my Absolute Beginner Workshop at Broadway Dance Center – Next Workshop is 4/8/ – 5/27 on Sundays at 6 pm – Sign up at BroadwayDanceCenter.com