Danceletter 1

Longer than I expected

On (Not) Being Good

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions—making them or keeping them—but once, just once, I made one that really worked. It was the end of 2009, and I was considering giving up dancing. I was in the car with my dad, maybe heading back to New York after the holidays. I must have been going on about how I wasn’t a “good enough” dancer, and he disagreed. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it made me think: “Wait—maybe I should stop worrying so much, all the time, about trying to be good.

That became my resolution. To keep dancing, without caring if I was good. To dance badly. To suspend judgement of myself and just dance. That January I performed with Riverdance for the last time. (If you didn’t know, now you do: I was in Riverdance.) And in February, I took my first class at the Merce Cunningham School. I did my best to make an evening routine of going to class there, and to quiet the inner critic that had become so harsh during my years of competitive Irish dancing, harsh enough to leave me paralyzed, on (or past) the verge of tears, if I couldn’t do something “right.”

And you know what? I started to feel a shift. As I kept dancing in that low-stakes way, doors began to open. I reconnected with friends from college, who invited me to rehearse with them. I ventured to P.A.R.T.S. and Impulstanz in Europe for summer classes. I worked with choreographers who challenged me, while allowing me to be fully myself. I saw that what I’d perceived as my limitations could also be my strengths. And for a good four years, I found more pleasure in dancing than ever before (except, maybe, for the time I got to be Michael Jackson in my high-school dance recital).

If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’re wondering, “Um, what did I sign up for?” Not to worry. Not every Danceletter will be so confessional (though actually, I shouldn’t make any promises). But for me, this nine-year-old resolution relates to why I’m here right now, embarking on this email experiment. I’ve always struggled, in my writing, with the same perfectionism that gnawed at me as a dancer. Of course, perfectionism can be productive to an extent. It’s good to be careful and self-critical, and to strive to do your best. But as any recovering perfectionist knows, those tendencies, when left unchecked, can also totally backfire, to the point where you have trouble doing anything, certainly anything interesting, for fear of making—gasp!—a mistake.

Reviewing dance for the New York Times over the past five years has definitely helped me to work through this. When you’re writing on an overnight deadline, and when your missteps are extremely public, you sort of have no choice but to get over yourself, to accept that you’ll have good days and bad and many in between. But those old thought patterns hold on tight—especially, I think, when learned through the body, via rigid dance training, from a young age—and I still have work to do in unraveling them.

For me, these letters are part of that unraveling process. I sat down to write this first one feeling unsure of what to say. Turns out I needed five paragraphs to clarify, for myself, what I’m doing here. My resolution this year, in this space, is to attempt just writing. I’m already really good at judging what comes out (I could delete all of the above for being too sappy, too earnest, too personal). Time to try something different.

From the Internet

Moving into more traditionally newsletter-y territory, I bring you the pressing news of… what I’ve been enjoying on the internet. (I think this will be a recurring feature.) Here are some favorite dance and dance-adjacent findings from the past few weeks:

Pro Cheerleading Podcast: I came across this gem of a program, subtitled “The Truth Behind the Poms,” after reading this excellent story by Abby Haglage about the exploitation of NBA dancers. Hosts/best friends Mhkeeba and Brittany are former NFL cheerleaders dishing really real talk about their industry, on topics ranging from uniform mishaps to eating disorders. Do they identify as “feminists”? I still can’t tell. Highly recommend, especially for dancers, who I think will share my fascination with the level of detail at which the hosts discuss their (former) jobs. Season 2 starts soon.

Alexandra Waterbury on the Scarlett Letter Reports: “Enjoy” is not quite the right word for this one. In an interview with Amanda Knox, Waterbury (whose lawsuit against New York City Ballet accelerated the ballet world’s #MeToo reckoning this past fall) talks about her relationship with former NYCB principal Chase Finlay, who is accused of sharing explicit photos and videos of her without her consent. Asked what the company should do now, she says: “The way that the institutions are structured, your voice actually would hurt your career more than it would help it.” I’m really hoping that the next director (who will it be??) does something to change this.

Round Dance at Danspace: January, as many of you know, is a crazy-busy time for dance in New York. I saw a lot (more on that, maybe, in the next letter), but a highlight for me was attending the beautiful three-hour opening of the First Nations Dialogues (a series I profiled here). The ceremony culminated in a Round Dance, a simple circle dance led by George Stonefish, which it turns out was being filmed from above. It was crowded, but we made it work. I love the image of the whole room moving together.

Inwood Movement Channel: I’m not exaggerating, or just being cute or something, when I say that Feldenkrais (the gentle somatic education method) was one of the most important classes I took in college. So I was excited learn that my teacher, Tessa Chandler, has started a YouTube channel for her practice, Inwood Movement. If you, like me, spend a lot of time sitting, you’ll appreciate her first lesson, on sitting well.

AOC’s Rite of Spring: Surely you didn’t miss all those videos of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing to every song. Just thought I’d share my favorite, posted by the music writer Zoë Madonna on Twitter. An ROS adaptation for our times.

Shows (etc.) to See

A few quick New York-centric recommendations:

Miguel Gutierrez’s latest work, This Bridge Called My A** (trying to avoid spam filters) runs at the Chocolate Factory through Jan. 19. I reviewed it here, and while it’s sold out, I recommend getting on the wait list, which starts 45 minutes before each show.

Somehow after all these years in New York, I’ve still never seen the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, but this is the year that changes. They’ll be at the Theater for the New City, Jan. 25-Feb. 3, with their 44th Annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow.

As part of “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done,” Movement Research will be taking over the MoMA atrium, Jan. 17-25. The full list of classes and workshops is here, and they are free (though RSVP is required, and some are already full). I’m planning to go to at least one myself, and I’m curious to see how class in the very public atrium unfolds. Also looking forward to this symposium on the 27th, which will “reassess the Judson group’s continuing influence on contemporary practice.”

That’s all (“all”) for now! Thanks for reading.

Siobhan