Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bears, beers, and Bern.

On Wednesday, I traveled to Bern, Switzerland, to meet up with some friends, teach private lessons, and explore the city.

My friend and tour guide took me to her university. I am always impressed by and a little envious of the university buildings seen in Europe. 


I mean, come on. This looks like a palace by American standards. The interior was no less breathtaking. Walking in the halls, I could imagine being a researcher there, having deep, philosophical, academic thoughts.


The city featured many delightful facets. An old clock tower, so often a centerpiece of European cities.


Evidently there is a man whose job it is to wind up the clock every day. I wonder what he does with the rest of his day. Is he considered a full-time employee by the city?

Here was an abandoned building, made particularly striking by the reflection of the sky in its windows.


I love language humor. This bar plays off the word "wunderbar," meaning "wonderful."


Many stores along the main drag were below ground. Their entrances were reminiscent of cellar entryways. Naturally, they would do a lot to mitigate the look and appear less spooky.


We found some nice spots to get broader views of the city…



At one point, my friend told me the legend of how Bern got its name. The founder of Bern was lacking creativity, so he instructed his hunter to enter the nearby forest and shoot the first animal he saw, which would then become the namesake of the city. As you might figure, the hunter found a bear; thus, why the flag of Bern has a bear on it.

She related this story to me, which I found quite interesting, and then we stood for a while in silence. Eventually, she pointed to into the distance at a large building with flags on it. "See there? They have beers there. We'll go see them." Neat, I thought. Bern also crafts its own beer. I'm a fan of seeing craft breweries.

We walked for a while, crossed a bridge, and I looked down. "Aiya! There's a bear down there!" I exclaimed.


"Yes," she responded, with a sentiment of Obviously in her voice. "I told you, we would go to see the beers."

"Wait… I thought you were talking about that building where they craft beers, and we would go have some to drink."

We laughed a long time over this language confusion. "Well, they do serve beers there, I suppose you could go have one," she offered. I demurred, opting to get closer to the bears. From then on, we would always get a chuckle out of each other as she continued to pronounce the animal as "beers." Interestingly, the German word for bear is pronounced almost the same as the English word, but for some reason she couldn't shake the pronunciation that was embedded in her mind.

One of the bears was taking a nap. I envied him, as I was myself in the mood for one.


We concluded the tour with a visit to the rose garden, which featured a stellar view of the city. 


We sat there for an hour or so, chatting and snacking on food. It gave me a chance to reflect upon the weekend and my present course in life. We had first met back in November, and even then I was in a rather different place in my life. 

She commented that I felt a lot different from the last time. My usual confidence, my energy, my outgoing spirit was missing. This made sense. I was currently passing through a phase of introversion, and felt it keenly at Forwards, where I wasn't actually a teacher but everyone treated me equivalently. The group was keenly aware of my presence. Without the benefit of my teacher hat to put on and inhabit the extroverted side of my character, this level of attention withered my introverted side. (The jet lag no doubt made it worse.) Flowing into Sideways, I was still unable to find my stride as I struggled to sync of up with my teaching partner. Facing a mounting set of issues, I never peaked and shared my usual, spirited self with the group.

(As this post is written retrospectively over a month later, I'm pleased to say that this problem fell away within a week.)

For the first time in my life, I am much more fully committing to teaching full time. I have, for the most part, let go of the idea of working as a construction engineer, of using my degrees from school, of having something resembling a traditional life. While I continue to apply for jobs and occasional envision myself settling down in the near future, the dearth of opportunities makes this scenario an unlikely one, so I am left to continue making the best of my present situation, which involves traveling the world to teach dance. 

What a meandering, unexpected path my life has taken! How was I to know what would come when I first signed that leave of absence form and departed from the university campus? And now here I am, touring yet again in Europe, this time for four months. I live on the road, surviving off my earnings as a dance teacher, following a path I never thought conceivable for someone like me. I remember back in 2008, when I won my first competition at Emerald City Blues Festival, I first contemplated the idea of being a real dance teacher. And talking with Lucky later that year, him regaling me with grand stories of his travels in Europe. How I would have laughed if I told myself I would be doing the same six years later. 

I have been grateful for the mixture of adventures and relaxation found in my weekdays between dance events. These moments of quiet help me gain perspective on my life: to see how far it has come, to theorize on where it is headed next, and to appreciate where I am currently.

Challenges with vulnerability: or, Questioning the "Suck It Up" philosophy.

Here's a familiar feeling: sitting on a train bound to a new city, reflecting upon the beautiful moments and great trials of the past couple weeks.

It's nice, this taking of time to order my thoughts, to catalogue my experiences, and to share with all of you. While I (ideally) do three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing to dump mental overhead, I find that blogging / journaling exercises a different part of my brain and serves a separate purpose. These periods of quiet, where I can sit in my world of words, listen to music, and just acknowledge the many things of my life are such a luxury. Fortunately, I have deliberately reduced the intensity of my travel schedule for this time period compared to last fall. That should leave me more space to keep up more regular entries.

I arrived in Switzerland last Tuesday and headed straight to Lucerne for Forwards, the pre-Sideways camp taught by Brenda, -topher, and Catherine. I noted that Zurich airport and the Swiss transit system has become second-nature to me. Entering the country or traveling from one city to the next is no longer a big ordeal; I may or may not look up train times and I can breeze through the computer ticket tellers.

I was surprised by the number of familiar faces at Forwards. A good sign that Europe is increasingly becoming a community that I'm a part of, much like the United States. People whom I am genuinely excited to see and enjoy spending time together.

I was also surprised by my introversion over the first couple days. Tuesday was particularly intense. For some reason, I could hardly meet anyone's eyes, I had no inspiration to speak up in groups, I felt very small and withdrawn, and that I wanted to get smaller because I was taking up too much space. Was it because I felt like I was being treated as a special teacher, even though I was a student like everyone else? Was it because I was so severely sleep deprived and exhausted, with all my barriers lowered, that were anyone to actually reach into my eyes they would find a swirling messy pool of mixed emotions, and the thought of being known in that moment was terrifying? Was I not ready for the eyes, the attention of a large group of people without first putting on the teacher hat?

I'm reading this book on vulnerability by BrenĂ© Brown, Daring Greatly. It's been making the rounds in my circles, thanks to her presentation on the topic at a TEDx conference going viral. The book first appeared in my life back in October, where it sat on my shelf for many months. It resurfaced in February on a couple, independent occasions, which I took as evidence that it was time to read it. Having already packed it away in storage, I bought a new copy to carry in Europe. 

Since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking about vulnerability, how I handle it, and how could I do better. I have always thought of myself as being an open person. I communicate well, I connect easily with others, and a speak from the heart. But I'm finding that there is much I hold hidden from the world, family, and lovers. There's a poetic dramatic irony to the situation, in that I used to fancy myself the more vulnerable person in my relationship with Lauren, and yet here I find that I am almost as equally guarded about my feelings and fear the thought of discovery, of being known.

The reasons for avoiding vulnerability are complex and intertwined, but here are a few I have identified recently:

1. I do not share my inner thoughts because I fear judgment from others or their negative repurcussions. It makes me naturally diplomatic, and also indirect. I do not want people to know my struggles, my frustrations, my judgment of others, my disappointment in myself, my critical mind. There are people whom are not on my favorites list, yet I still appreciate having them be some part of my life, so I play politic and enjoy a life of shared limited vulnerability. Does that hurt me in the long run? 

2. I fear that I am unworthy of love. If people knew the real me, they would distance themselves. They would think less of me, trust me less, spend less time with me. So I try to keep the negative, the sad, the downsides of my character contained and hidden. I work actively against this fear (as do most people whom live "wholehearted" lives), but I must acknowledge that it plays some role however infrequent or small.

3. I do not want to burden others with my Self. I am programmed to take care of my own demons. Man up, suck it up, don't be a wuss, don't be a bother, don't be co-dependent. Males have this one particularly hard, since self-sufficiency and strength are reinforced societal norms. If I unload my worries upon someone else, does that make me weaker? Do I become annoying by sharing my fears too frequently, I become a downer? Once I had been advised that you are ready to share the burden with another if you don't need to share it; that is the marker of a healthy independent strength. But how can you really know if you don't need it? And even if you don't need it, is it not unlike training that part of your emotional toolset less intensely? Further, what exactly do I get out of sharing with another person that I can't just process on my own with the many tools at my disposal? What's the point of it all, really? Do I get anything out of verbally processing a situation with another person? How deep does it need to go?

These are questions that float to the surface of my consciousness with some regularity. Just recently I had such a situation with Nicole. I had to wake up early yesterday to do several hours of work, despite staying up late and being destroyed from the weekend. The details of why are beside the point… and also, I don't feel comfortable sharing them in this space (guards against vulnerability rearing their ugly heads again). The point is that I had a lot of work to do and a host of emotions, stresses, and anxieties about the situation. I considered intimating this, since it was on my mind and affecting me, but there was a voice that said, "She doesn't want to hear that. We all have stress, don't put this on her, she doesn't need it and you don't need to unload it. Sharing is just seeking an excuse for not handling the situation well, it is stripping your agency and allowing you to play victim to your situation. Be tough, contain it, compartmentalize it and deal with it in the appropriate time and place. Git 'er done." Eventually I settled on providing an abbreviated version, but it was abundantly clear that I was only letting her see a glimpse, like an FYI statement rather than an invitation to dig in. It was… unsatisfying. I keenly felt the wall I had erected between us in that interaction. Yet it did allow me to keep the emotions contained, to not have them pollute our shared space. In an alternate universe where I did end up sharing a deeper side, would that have been any better? Would I walk away feeling better, more secure, more capable to handle the situation? Would there be a net positive effect? I'm not clear as to the answer. 

I did not go into the blog post expecting to write about vulnerability. It came out on its own accord. I suppose that's the beauty of writing, isn't it? One minute you're very aware of what you're writing, and then you look up and it's suddenly thirty minutes later, you have been scribing constantly and are only vaguely conscious of what came out.

Well, the train ride is almost done. For those whom made it this far, thanks for reading.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A day of respite.

After a long, challenging weekend of teaching at Sideways, much of the teaching staff embarked on a trip to Mt. Rigi near Luzerne.

We enjoyed a beautiful boat trip…



The weather was quite clear, affording us stunning views of Luzerne's environs.


Along our way to the top, we got caught up in a snowball fight. It began with -topher and me lobbing snowballs from a really long distance, trying to hit each other. I won the contest. (Hah!) With the contest finished, we closed ground and descended into chaotic, closed-quarters snowball combat.



What a lovely gang! Once we summited (which wasn't particularly hard), we got to playing! Plastic shopping bags were brought along to serve as makeshift sleds. With the help of my scissors to split them open (again, you never know when you'll need a pair…), we started the races.


It didn't always go particularly well -- they were plastic bags, after all.


But, we all persevered.



A popular style was to go down two people at a time, in order to build momentum.


We eventually grew tired of that, and graduated to many other forms of sledding down the mountain. We got creative. Going down headfirst on your belly, holding your legs behind you. Going down on your back headfirst. Skiing down with a plastic bag under each foot. The group had tremendous fun coming up with new ways to slide down the mountainside.


We also made snow sculptures, such as an igloo.


Overall, a tremendously fun time. It was a relief to interact with people as friends, to play together, especially after spending so much time working together and being professional and serious all the time. 


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Reflections on Enter The Blues 2014.

The past several weeks have been, like always, a whirlwind experience. Back over Feb 14-16, I flew down to Atlanta for Enter The Blues. It served as a rare opportunity for Julie and I to compete together in the Strictly competition. While I did my Boston residency to teach and train with Julie, the opportunity to actually throw down was most welcome. The dancing, the people, the food were all so wonderful and memorable, but I must admit that the competitions were the highlight of the weekend for me.

In addition to the Strictly competition, Julie and I were paired for the Invitational Jack & Jill competition. I thought we danced well and had a great deal of fun. I was proud of what we shared with each other and the audience. There was a great moment when I was in a deep lunge and Julie cut across me and started climbing on my body. I could see it in her movement, she said with her whole body, "Here comes the competition monster -- I'm going to crawl on top of you and it's going to look amazing." Several audience members said that we had excellent dance chemistry and were shocked to learn that we rarely have the opportunity to dance or practice together. 

Lastly, it was a compliment to even be part of the Invitational. Most of the other competitors were other national or international instructors, some of whom were teaching at this weekend. All of them are dancers whom I admire.

The Strictly competition, by contrast, did not go so swimmingly. The all-skate felt fine, but I realized at the end that there were several elements I had been working on in my dance that completely fled my body in the rush of adrenaline upon stepping out onto the floor. The biggest piece was to make the dance look less flat, even if the music didn't have a big dynamic range. Much to my chagrin, our first spotlight felt way too short and did not go anywhere in particular. Missed opportunity #2. The second spotlight allowed us to redeem ourselves with a super strong entrance, middle, and finish. In my mind, we were batting 1 for 3.

The results left me feeling mixed, insecure. A strong finish is good, but we definitely did not dance our best on the first two rounds. Hanging over my head was the knowledge that I was working with the inimitable Julie Brown, a person whom I deeply respect and admire as a dancer (and teacher, and person, but those are beside the point here). Julie has that magic touch that when she competes, she wins -- or at least places consistently. I wanted very much to showcase Julie's talents, provide the base to make her shine, while still sharing my own dance. After that mixed performance, I thought perhaps I didn't pull it off this time. Which doesn't mean I'm a bad dancer, but it does mean that I squandered the opportunity. My language (viewed in retrospect) betrays a belief that I was accountable for the shortcomings of the dance. I realize this is unfair to myself, that it takes two to Tango -- err, Blues. I think this comes from a firm belief in Julie's talents as a competitor. It is not unreasonable to posit that Julie is a more experienced and capable competitor, making my performance the limiting reagent in the chemical process that we call dance competitions. But with some encouragement from Rachel (and also kudos to me for asking for support in the first place, which I normally don't do -- go learning!), I returned to good spirits for the last few hours of the late night and had a wonderful time dancing.

Sunday rolls around, with my time split between being with my computer work to chip away at my enormous work backlog and being with my friends and having a rollicking good time. I competed in the solo prelims and, thanks to a visit from the muse, got tapped for finals. This result was a big moment for me, as there were many dancers in the prelims whom I look to for inspiration in solo dancing. I bet I won over the judges when, while dancing to Brother Yusef's uptempo song where he references the Humpty Dumpty story, I acted it out the story, replete with a tumble to simulate the fall, followed by some dancing on my butt (a move I incidentally lifted from my Congolese dance teacher Goga). Definitely the winner right there. (At least the audience loved it, and I was having a good time.) For the finals, I managed to quiet my nerves enough to enjoy the dances and the movement. I felt good, I felt in my body, I felt confident. I did not feel like I ran out of material (which often happens in solo), nor that I dipped into other solo stylings that are not Blues (which also happens). My positive perception was reflected back by the praise lauded by friends, saying I looked like I was really embodying the music and dancing through the body.

By this point, I had let go of the competition results. I was happy with how the solo went, and I was proud to be in the invitational, and glad to make finals in the strictly. After one makes finals, getting placement can be a total crapshoot -- judges scoring can be all over the place. So I try not to worry about it as much. 

But once Megan begins announcing the winners for the Invitational Jack & Jill, my heart leaps into my throat with anticipation and my knees weaken.

3rd place goes to Shawn Hershey and Rachel Stirling. I am happy for them. I update my chances of placing to be lower, because I loved what they did.

"And in 2nd place…" I don't remember a thing after the word "Andrew" leaves Megan's mouth. I vaguely recall jumping up and down and being really excited. 

2nd place in the Invitational! Alright! Yes! An exciting moment, a high placement in a lineup of 8 couples most of whom are national-grade instructors -- including those teaching at Enter The Blues that weekend. I was beaming with pride.

They eventually get to the Strictly competition. I am fully amped. I have no idea what to expect. 3rd place goes to Brian and Laura. After 2nd place is awarded to John and Shoshi, I don't even hazard a breath. Dare I hope? It's all or nothing now. And first place goes to...

"Andrew Smith & Julie Brown!"

I think I screamed with excitement. I could not contain myself. Catching Julie in my arms, I spun her around in the air for several rotations, jumping up and down and laughing and yelling. I was shocked, humbled, honored, and at a complete and utter loss. It really happened! After a very long dry spell of no competition wins -- and as mentioned in previous posts, even not making it to finals (Enter The Blues 2013, Nocturne, Rose City Blues 2013) -- I had at long last taken the gold.

I was overwhelmed with joy, unable to stop smiling even though my face hurt.

After some intense but brief celebrations, Megan moves on to announce the Solo competition winners.

When my name got called for 2nd place, I couldn't bring myself to get to my feet. It was all too much. I placed?! I dragged my body out to the center, where Shawn (3rd place) greeted me with a hug down on the floor and then pulled me to my feet.

For the first time in my dance career, I received three placements in one weekend -- a Jack & Jill, Strictly, and Solo. To top that with taking first place in one and second in the others was just more than I could handle.

I simply couldn't dance. Ever person I greeted, I would start squealing and wiggling and jumping. Much of the rest of the night was spent in this fashion: up high on cloud nine.

Luckily I captured the Strictly and Solo on camera, and some of the J&J was covered.

Invitational Jack & Jill:

* * * * *

Two weeks after the fact, a stupid grin breaks across my face whenever I recall this event. The peer validation was certainly timely, even if it wasn't needed. Following Rose City Blues and my ego-crushing failure to make it to J&J finals, I spent a lot of time letting go of the outcome. I let go of my desire to be the best dancer out there. (Tess, if you ever read this I can already imagine you shaking your head and spouting objections as me as any good friend would.) Some people just have natural talent as dancers and performers. Rose City Blues was an indication to me that perhaps I was not one of those people. I was good, for sure, very good. But not at that stratospheric level of dance excellence occupied by (in my opinion) folks like Dan Repsch, Jenny Sowden, or Julie Brown. Here was a healthy dose of reality: my passion lies in teaching anyway, so why put so much focus on competition anyway? Put my energy and time into developing my teaching craft.

Still, I can't help but want to work on my dancing. I may never achieve the same dancer demi-god status of Dan and Jenny, but that should not stop me from striving to climb Mount Olympus. Regardless of the end state, the journey is worthwhile and prompts growth. And once I got back from Europe, I did a lot of work on my dancing craft. I wanted so much to push the envelope of my dancing. Concepts of conversational dance first developed with Nicole Trissell back in September were finally integrating deeply in my dance, coming naturally. I spent a week training with Barry & Catherine & -topher, danced my heart out for DFX, and spent weekends training with Julie and Flouer. I picked up Insanity again to regain whole-body strength. Watching practice videos of myself, I saw the result of my hard work, the incorporation of elements I've been training for many months. I remember how I was dancing back in September, and now my dancing has vastly grown and improved.

For all that effort, it is of course wonderful to receive positive reinforcement from your peers. Social acceptance is not far up the Maslow's hierarchy of needs; turns out it does a great deal of good for me. It's not desparately needed, but boy it sure does feel good. To have your respected colleagues say, "Yes, we like what you're doing." We all want to receive respect in our craft.

The timing of the boost was impeccable. Usually I am only proud of competition results if I feel like I've been working hard at it before then. This event came at the tail end of a long span of concerted training, and just before a long stretch of focusing on teaching (Boston workshop, Rain City Blues, then Europe) when I won't get to do more development. It reassured me that I am finding a balance between developing my dance and teaching, and the dancing seems to be going well.

I think we benefit from these bursts of support and affirmation. Art is a tricksy thing. As dance teachers, it's easy to fall into ruts where we feel stale, incapable of getting hired, imposters. Even while I'm about to embark on a such an epic tour of Europe filled mostly with teaching, I'm already looking to the late summer and fall, and concerned about not getting tapped for gigs. I worry that I am spending too much time in Europe and that I'm viewed as outdated, not on the circuit by US organizers and instructors. It's hard to not look at peers and ask, "What are they doing or bringing that I am not? Is that a gap that I can close?" (Yes, I realize it's silly. No one said insecurity was logical.) 

So these moments are diamonds that we stash away and hold in our hearts, to draw out and shine a light upon to combat the dark thoughts with a prismatic beam.

Progressing through the next four months, I will keep holding on to this diamond, use it to reinforce that I am on a good path and have it inspire me to always push forward.