Abuse No More in the Arts

Do you feel like no matter how hard you try, it’s just not good enough for your teacher?

Do you feel pushed down, and small when you go to class or your lessons?

Do you feel like you can’t do anything right?
Like you are always wrong?

When was the last time you left your class or lesson and felt GOOD about yourself, and your progress with your Art?

If you can’t remember, there may be something deeper going on…and it actually has nothing to do with you.

If you have been feeling frustrated with your growth, it may be time to look at your teacher….

 

I took a year off dancing when I was 11.  I was living in England at the time, and my mother took me out of the ballet school I was attending in Bury St. Edmunds, because the teacher was holding me back.  I was the only American in the class, and even though I worked so hard, and my level was just as high as the others, I was the only one not allowed to move to the next level.

My mother was furious, and spoke with my teacher, hoping to gain understanding.  My teacher was a stone wall, and my mother deeply believed I was being discriminated against, after the conversation.

Rather than subject me and my love of dance to another year with this woman, she took me out.

We moved to Germany, and I got back to dancing once a week, and got my first pair of pointe shoes.  I was over the moon, but not really growing as much as a dancer.

Then we moved to Montgomery, Alabama and I was accepted into the Baldwin School for the Arts, and was taking dance two hours a day, five days a week at the advanced level class with a former Royal School of Ballet teacher, Leslie Caruso.

I was one of the WORST dancers in the class.  The year off from dance had affected me, as had the ho-hum teaching I had received when I was 13, once a week, at a studio on base in Heidelberg.  This was really the first time I was getting quality training on an intensive schedule…and something magical happened…I grew.  Not only my confidence, but my technique, my expression, and I started to choreograph.

I was excited to go to class!
I WANTED to go to class.

And I ended up receiving an award for Most Improved at the end of the year.  Leslie Caruso gave me a solo on pointe at the end of year recital to celebrate my journey.

I gained clarity that I was not going to be a professional ballerina, but knew I would be a performer.  I wanted dance to be a part of my life moving forward.  I was in love with it again!

From there, my father was stationed at the Pentagon, and I found a dance studio in Northern Virginia called the Russell School of Ballet.

I showed up for classes so excited to GROW, to learn, and to take everything Leslie had taught me and take my dance to the next level, especially with pointe.

And then the Russells held me back.
They told me I was only allowed to wear my pointe shoes at the bar.
And when they cast the Nutcracker my first year, I was cast as one of Clara’s friends…..not doing the gorgeous Snow number where I would have been performing on pointe.

I tried to justify it, and enjoy the performance, and just get back to working hard. But it felt horrible.

And then the following year when they cast the Nutcracker, I was cast as one of Clara’s friends…AGAIN.

I came home absolutely crestfallen.
I felt so frustrated.

My friends were doing Snow, and I felt so embarrassed.
Why wasn’t I being given the chance to shine?

And a belief was forming,
You’re not a strong dancer.
You’re just not that good.

Have you ever felt like this?
Torn down by your teacher and then believe you are hopeless?

How has this affected your Art today and your confidence?
Are you where you want to be?

 

Who is your teacher to you?
Who are they supposed to be?

I gained my education in the Arts at a time when the models of teaching were changing.  For a long time in the dance world, humiliation was the major tool.

Publicly shaming students was commonplace.  Some of the most successful choreographers and teachers were also deeply abusive to their students, yelling at them and breaking them down. Some were also deeply manipulative, using their power position to dominate over and sexually abuse.

That’s NOT right!
Did you come here today to WASTE my time?
Stop crying….no one cares.
That looks TERRIBLE…do it again.  Do it until you bleed and learn the lesson.
I will tell you when it’s acceptable.

For some students. this would work…but only for a time.  At the end of the day, the damage done was monumental to the students’ psyche, and would inevitably lead to addiction, depression, and burnout.

Humiliation is not sustainable.

And take a moment and check in,
How do these statements FEEL in your body?

Does it make you want to create?
Does it inspire you?

It didn’t for me. Not only that, it deeply stunted my growth as a dancer.  Being held back and demoralized only convinced me I deserved it.

I remember having a powerful conversation with a dear friend who is a professional opera singer, and also a master voice teacher.  He said,
The mark of a good teacher is in your results.  If you are not seeing and feeling big changes right away, so somewhere else.

I didn’t hear this until I was in my mid 30’s, but suddenly things begin to clarify.

I thought of my huge growth in dance and choreography in college, and attributed that to my amazing mentor, Spence Ford, who taught me how to be a professional dancer and choreographer.

I thought of my voice teacher in college, Dr. Susan Boardman, who opened me to the fact I was actually a soprano and had me singing high Cs, after I was convinced I was an alto.

I thought of my high school theatre teacher , Mr. Maiden, who taught me how to act, and all the roles I played in school productions, and how I decided to do musical theatre as a profession because of him.

I thought of my voice teacher I had for 12 years in the city, Linda Glick, who taught me how to belt healthfully, and all the jobs I booked because of that work.

And of course, it all comes back to Leslie Caruso.

When I examined what she did, I realized she actually created a powerful environment for me to learn, one where I was ENCOURAGED. An environment that was safe.

At the end of the year, I went to her and thanked her deeply saying,
Ms. Caruso.  I was one of the WORST dancers in your class at the beginning of the year.  Why did you put me in the advanced class instead of the intermediate?

She looked at me and smiled simply, saying,
I saw potential in you.

And there it is…..the largest difference between humiliation and abuse…..the INTENTION and what the teacher sees.

Leslie saw the BEST in me.  She believed in me, and held me high, everyday.  THAT is why I grew.

 

So, what does your teacher see in you?
Do they have your best interests at heart?

Or are they too steeped in their own frustrations and failures?

You want a teacher who KNOWS what they are teaching, and you want a teacher who is CLEAN.

Clean of misguided anger, and truly in service.

And you can FEEL it in your body.
You can feel when your teacher is truly there for you, guiding you.

And this doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges!  Of course there will be.  Learning your Art means you will come up against all your demons, doubts, and fears because it means so much and because it takes quite a bit of SKILL to be a professional artist. We have to arrive to our classes and lessons OPEN and willing to learn.  That is our work, and responsibility.

But, is your teacher SKILLFULLY holding you as you grow?
Are they encouraging you?

Or tearing you down?

Take stock of the teachers where you have had the most growth, and if you are feeling super stuck right now, it may be time to have a heart to heart with your next steps.

Thankfully, times are changing, but there are still many teachers who abuse their roles of power.

Know you always have a choice to leave.
You have the choice to CHOOSE who guides you as you become Unstoppable.

 

I see you.
I see your brilliance.

Tune in to what actually feeds sustainable growth in your Art.  Tune into what actually OPENS you and allows you to tap into your unique artistic voice.

I’m holding your vision high.  And the right teacher for you will see this too.

 

 

 

Photography: Caitlin Cannon Photography

It’s All in the Timing

The music swells, the lights dim, and every seat is filled with Tschaikovsky’s famous score.  This is the ultimate romantic fairytale, with a cast of fantastical characters…..

Sleeping Beauty

I lean forward in my red plush seat, the overture in full swing, excited for my first encounter with this famous Balanchine ballet.

And then it all stops…..and the conductor waves his baton to halt.

Let’s try that again!

Because this isn’t a normal performance….quite the opposite in fact.  Tonight, I am witnessing the final dress rehearsal of New York City Ballet’s production.

And there will be stopping.

This is bringing back memories…..

 

I’ve spent most of my adult life on stage.

Whether I was dancing or singing or acting, or doing them all at once…I often found myself in full costume under glowing lights with full makeup.

I may have been flipping my skirt in Buenos Aires, or grabbing my long cat tail in a junkyard, or singing under the sea with a glittery fin.

I’ve been up there so many times in the final dress, figuring out the spacing, the lights, my costume, and how to transfer the hard work I did in the rehearsal room to a live audience and no mirror.

Most of all…I found myself dealing with timing.

A show is like a well oiled machine, after all.  There are so many moving pieces, and they all come together for Opening Night.

They all come together to create that magic the audience experiences, and the magic I feel as an Artist.  It’s that knowing of exactly when to take each step within the story, like puzzle pieces coming together.

 

Watching the final dress of Sleeping Beauty was fascinating.  The choreography is some of the most intricate and challenging I’ve seen, and the tempos were brisk.

And not every dancer was keeping up. As it was dress rehearsal, some were still settling in, and there were missed steps.  The artistic director was on stage for most of the dress rehearsal giving notes and adjusting spacing.

So, the real question became, what was setting those dancers apart?  The ones who were on their game, and those who were struggling?

How was Aurora so poised and balanced?

Timing.

In ballet, and with Tschaikovsky’s driving score, there has to be absolute attack and understanding of what and where to place your body.

And really, how is this different than any other Artistic endeavor?

With your Art, do you know where you need to be and when?

Or are you just throwing your work out with no direction?

 

There were many moments in my career that felt like I was being stopped.  I felt held up. I would book a great show, and feel like that would get me to Broadway, and then blow a callback.  I would be in dance class and fall out of my pirouette…again.

I would witness the ease and flow of another dancer sailing through a triple turn and see quite quickly what was missing in my body…

Alignment and breath.

There was such a holding on, and pushing.  I wasn’t trusting my work and doubting.  I wasn’t trusting the hours and years I had put in, and placing my attention on the PRESENT moment.  I was too busy in the future, worried about what COULD go wrong, instead of placing all my energy in the execution of now.

So, my timing was off.

Start and Stop…..

My own inner conductor was waving his baton to say,

Let’s try that again!

A reminder to wake up and place my attention where it needed to be so I could deliver my most powerful performance and feel the fulfillment of my Art.

So, where is your attention?

What is your conductor saying to you?

Are you in the present moment of your Art or living in the failures of your past?

Perhaps that is why you keep stopping.

Your point of power is always the present moment.

So lace up your shoes, and let’s dance.