Saturday, 28 November 2015

Not Meant To Be

I'm something of a believer in whether things are meant to be, or not. Whether you attribute it to the mysterious movings of the universe, serendipity, coincidence, fate, karma, predestiny, messages from God or the angels, there are times when you get the feeling that things are conspiring against a course of action. Then you have a choice; fight on and try to make it happen, or accept that some things are not meant to be. Of course, you may not believe in this and consider it a defeatist attitude, that you can make anything happen and do anything if you want it badly enough. I agree that some things are worth giving your all, but some are not. Pick your battles!

Last week I planned to treat myself to a somatics workshop. It's so long since I went up to Penpynfarch and I live even further away now, but the application of what I've learned in previous workshops has shown some subtle but positive results, both in dance and in managing the osteoarthritis.

Knowing I would hit the local rush hour, I gave myself an extra half an hour on the journey time suggested by the AA. The weather forecast was not good; Barney, the second of the Met Office/Met Eireann named storms was due. It would make for a horrible journey home, with a yellow warning for high winds starting from mid afternoon, but I reckoned if I stuck to main roads once out of Llandysul, it would be okay.

I set off on time and had only gone a couple of miles when I joined a queue of traffic into Haverfordwest. It took me all of my spare half hour to get past the town (normally a ten minute drive!), with red lights all the way. It was pouring with rain, blustery wind dumping bucketfuls onto the windscreens and roads. Drivers sensibly slowed down, but I got to a point on a road without a good place to overtake where I was behind a laden cattle truck grinding away at 20 miles an hour.  Each time we came to a junction, I was muttering 'please turn off', but no, it looked like it was going my way. I could see a tailback in my rear view mirror, and I bet those drivers were muttering something too.

By the time I had been driving for over an hour and a half, I had made 25 miles - half way - and had a splitting headache. I stopped at a garage for a toilet break and a drink of water. If I carried on in this worsening weather, I would get there in time for lunch, but feel compelled to set off early to avoid the worst of the weather. And I would hardly be able to move after driving for so long. Feeling like a complete and utter wimp, I decided to turn around and go back. Back up over the Preselis, through a pea-soup of low cloud and lashing rain. The cattle grid at Bwlch Gwynt was underwater, and the rain ran in rivulets down the roads to pool in the dips.

It took me nearly an hour and a half to get back home, too; a round trip of 50 plus miles in 3 hours. Knees stiff from driving, I dragged myself upstairs to email an apology, then into the kitchen to make a vegetable and bean stew, one of my ideal winter comfort foods.

I was waiting for a call to let me know the results of a job interview the previous day, but didn't get the call until a week later. It was a 'no', but at least they called with feedback, reinforcing my feeling that they would have been a good company to work for. Another thing that wasn't meant to be.

As I was writing this, I checked my email for a reply to another application, which seemed to be taking a long time. Sure enough, I had an email at last ... and it was a 'no'. It left me wondering what it takes, since I was sure I'd effectively ticked every skill and attribute in the job and personnel description. I can only hope that the two friends I know who were after the same job at least get an interview.

I've been pouring energy into trying to find employment, searching job sites, updating CVs, sending applications, reading around companies and skills in preparation for interviews which hardly ever happen. At a time when class numbers and commitment are low, and nobody seems to have money for anything which they consider non-essential (including proofreading!) I had hoped that employment would give me some money and security. Perhaps that's not meant to be.

Time to look again at my Plan B, and see what it would take to make it (or something like it) work. It will probably be a case of fighting to make it happen, but I would like to think that this time next year, things will be different.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Dancing Mindfully

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word at the moment, perhaps because it seems more necessary in our daily lives than ever. Or perhaps it's an idea whose time has come. It involves the deliberately focusing your attention on what's happening in and around you in the present moment, noticing and acknowledging thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgement.

It's been something I've been aware of since I was young, even though I didn't know it was called mindfulness, and didn't practise it regularly. I remember a lesson in primary school when I was six, perhaps seven. We sat quietly with our eyes closed and trying not to fidget, focusing our attention on the sounds of others in the room breathing, the class next door, birds outside, traffic, the warmth of the sun coming through the window, the feel of the wooden seat on bare legs. From time to time since then, I've been reminded how useful mindfulness is and each time, I wonder how I could have forgotten. Mindfulness practice is so called because it needs practice. It's so easy to go through life on auto-pilot, bouncing from one task to the next, planning and looking forward, or thinking about what you could, should, ought to have done or be doing.

Looking back on my year of yoga lessons (with Rose Thorn, Inner Yoga Trust and I thoroughly recommend her as a teacher), I realised it was something quite amazing. I haven't managed to clear a space yet to start my own daily yoga (and dance) practice, haven't found (and anyway, can't afford) another class and I'm missing it. It sorted out a worsening sacroiliac problem; I discovered that I had been unconsciously bracing myself by contracting my glutes and the resulting tension was enough to trigger some inflammation. I had probably started it as a balance strategy. Consciously relaxing and 'softening' the muscles as I was standing still was difficult at first, but seems to have paid off. I used to float out of class feeling great and wake up the following morning feeling as though I had been hit by a bus, so there was obviously a lot of work going on deep in the body. The significant and unexpected bonus was how much it helped me mentally, in terms of my ability to focus my attention inwards on my body, its movement, stillness, relaxation, feelings and breath. After years of twitching restlessly or just falling asleep when I tried to be still and meditate, I re-found my ability to do it and I love it.

The somatics workshops and yoga classes were part of my ongoing portfolio of ways to mitigate and counteract the effects of severe osteoarthritis in my knees and feet, relearning and changing the way I use my body. The new awareness of tension and alignment is allowing me to release tightness, especially in the knees, before the pain builds too much. The combination of range of movement exercises, knee supports, heat, massage, awareness and adjustment of alignment and plenty of rest mean that it's now several months since I needed to take any painkillers.

As a result, I can do more, and dance more, providing I remain mindful of the way I use my body. A carelessly aligned foot and leg during a turn could be enough to cause pain and loss of balance. I had thought I was quite good at listening to my body, but learning to sit down before I need to showed me how much I ignored messages from my body, and that's very much a dancer's thing. In dance training, you learn the technique for the steps or moves and learn to ignore the minor (and sometimes major) aches and pains involved in doing them, the tired and burning feet and muscles. Even as you block some sensations, you are practising some sort of mindfulness as you dance in the moment, in the music, but rely on muscle memory for the movements and choreography, and a sort of subliminal awareness of the space that you dance in and the other dancers around you. Is automaticity the opposite of mindfulness? It seems to me that dancing mindfully requires more practice than everyday mindfulness, as dance involves so many senses, it's impossible to give your full attention to all aspects of dance at the same time.

If you focus your attention on the movements themselves, your face can show that concentration. Breaking the movement down and then putting it back together is an essential part of learning it, but over-thinking can induce analysis-paralysis and tension in the body. Anyone who has learned to dance is familiar with this. Dance looks easy, good dance looks effortless (even if the dancer comes off stage pouring with sweat!). You know you can boogie around to your favourite tunes and you thought you were a pretty good dancer. So you start to dance in a given style and you find it's very difficult. You fight for the shape and the movement and become tense. The tension stops full movement and affects posture, which makes everything harder. You try harder to get it right and instead it goes even more wrong. You get frustrated and cross with yourself. Your mind starts to whirl with thoughts of how to get it right and make your body do what you want it to. You end up losing patience with yourself and with learning to dance. (I have a theory this is why many people like to dance but don't want to learn to dance, preferring dance exercise classes in which they can hide at the back and move any old how, without having to remember a routine or strive for correct movement technique. Following the leader, the movement goes in through the eyes and out through the body but bypasses the brain, a bit like copy-typing.) This is where mindfulness helps; another aspect of mindfulness is recollection, remembering to be aware of something. Remember to relax, stop over-thinking and allow the movement to flow.

Noticing without judgement is a difficult thing. When you are practising and are fully aware of how your body is moving, it's easy to be distracted when you do something wrong. Although you are actually making a judgement that your dancing or movement isn't as good as it should be, the ability to look more objectively at it in order to make improvements is positive and constructive, without wallowing in self-criticism. Part of mindfulness practice is to acknowledge the thought and move on. This is important for rehearsal, as you wouldn't stop and acknowledge a wrong move while performing.

Accepting that it might be impossible to be mindful of every aspect of dance while you're dancing, a good way to incorporate mindfulness in dance practice might be to focus on different aspects for different drills, dance pieces or practice sessions. For example, you might create or learn a movement phrase and repeat it several times, on each repeat shifting the focus:
  • The movements themselves; the technical aspects and how they feel in the body
  • The transitions between moves and shifts of weight
  • Movement difficulties, finding ways to move more easily and reduce the effort required
  • The movement dynamics - are they soft, sharp, floating, heavy, percussive, flowing ...?
  • The expression brought by the dynamics and the music
  • Your breathing. Are you forgetting to breathe, could you use it to assist movements (for example, breathing out on an accent such as a hip drop)?
  • The space in which you move, the direction of your body in relation to that space and the movement pathways. (For further information on spatial relationships, see my blog post here.)
If all this sounds a bit too intense and academic, remember that dance can be experienced with all the senses. While dancing freely, try focusing your awareness on each of your senses in turn:
  • Listen deeply to the music, its beat and rhythms, all its nuances, the different instruments, how the key/maqam/dromos makes you feel, and the jingle of your hip belt.
  • Wear scent, spray a little on your veil or scent the room with a candle or incense stick.
  • Feel the costume fabrics, their textures, colours, the glint and sparkle of beads and coins.
  • Notice the way your clothing moves. If you're wearing a skirt, hold or brush it outwards so that it catches the air as you move.
  • Feel the way the air flows over your bare arms as you move them.
  • Look at the way your body is moving (if you have a mirror), or follow the movement of a hand, the colour, drape and float of a veil.
  • Take a break, drink some water, feeling the moist coolness in your mouth.
I shall be giving a workshop in Cardigan on November 15th on Graceful Movement, which is something which can be learned and practised mindfully. I'm also planning a workshop (probably January) on Dance Dynamics, those characteristics or qualities of movement which bring contrast, variation and expression to dance movements and are important in musical expression. I'm also giving short sessions of mindful moving meditation at a free healing event at Haverfordwest Cricket Club on 21st November. This can be one-to-one or in small groups, seated or standing, and is great for stilling a whirling mind, relaxing and re-energising the body, so I hope people will come and take advantage as some of my friends will also be there offering reiki and massage, a little bit of personal relaxation time to go with the early Christmas shopping.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Keep Dancing!

I watched the first season of Strictly Come Dancing, loved the dancing but hated the way the results were given so much that I only dipped in and out of subsequent series' Saturday night shows. For some reason, I started watching the latest series and am completely hooked!

Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman, what a team! They are so sympathetic and the presentation is slick, even some of the terrible puns and one-liners crack me up. Don't get me wrong; Sir Bruce Forsyth is great, but I love that the presenters are all women. I also thoroughly enjoy Strictly - It Takes Two with Zoe Ball on week nights, with the insights into costume design and dance technique, as well as all the behind-the-scenes shots of dance training and interviews with the dancers. Saturday's show consistently refers to the Sunday night show as 'tomorrow', but of course it's filmed later on the Saturday, after the voting closes.  It has to be, so that the dancers can stay dressed and made up. So the group dance and the dancing which accompanies the guest singer must happen and be filmed out of sequence, to allow the professional dancers to change. I note the presenters and certainly Darcey Bussell out of the judges change their outfits for the 'results' show. I caught myself wondering whether any of the presenters, or Darcey Bussell, wear the same outfit twice throughout the series. And if they don't, how many dresses is that each?  How many wardrobes ...?

The viewer voting still brings the element of a popularity contest, which is a shame. However, it does reflect a sort of popular vote on the entertainment value of each piece. It must also bring in some revenue for what must be a terrifically expensive show, with a heavy cast of dancers, live orchestra, singers, camera/sound/light/production crew, wardrobe, hair, make up, judges, guest performers, costumes, rehearsal space, studio overheads, and so on ad infinitum. Possibly the expense is the reason why it's an elimination contest, but it would be so lovely to see all the couples dance all the dances, see the improvement in the celebrities as dancers, and see weekly and cumulative leader boards of the judges' scores and the viewers' votes. The tension-pause before each couple's names are announced as 'safe' has lengthened from a ten count to twelve or more. Why would you do that? All of the dancers have mentioned what torture it is, and it's long enough for any suspense to evaporate into sheer annoyance. It's what turned me off Strictly in the first place. Count to eight if you must, but just get on with it!

We are at the half-way point of the series now, and it's started to get silly, with a couple who have been dancing brilliantly suddenly in the dance-off against the couple who sadly were at the bottom of the leader board. The look on everyone's faces when they knew the inevitable result even before they danced, and then after dancing before the judges' verdicts, had me in floods of tears, softy that I am. How the dancers held it together must be down to their sheer professionalism.

The viewer vote aside, it's really not about the celebrities being celebrities, but their weekly struggles to learn each new dance with the different techniques and styling. Or perhaps it's that the celebrity-dancers are all genuinely interested in learning to dance and are working really hard. I did a little ballroom dance in the past, but it was strictly social. Very basic steps, no mention of the finer points of footwork, hold positions and top line. I'm learning a lot from the judges' comments, which are generally fair and to the point. My internal critical voice now sounds like Craig Revel Horwood, which is an improvement. Yes, really! It's brought a new objectivity, making it easier for me to watch video of my dancing without beating myself up and feeling bad. It's like having a teacher I like and respect telling me what needs to be improved. ('Well, I'm sorry to say, darling, that there was so much wrong I don't know where to start. Hands, shape, definition, technique, and increase your choreographic content. The intensity was there, but you have to stop yourself getting too carried away and losing focus. And stop singing along.') So I can work on getting my internal critic to say 'Fab-u-lous, darling! A-ma-zing!'

Watching the show has brought up something which has long puzzled me: why are some people better dancers than others? There are plenty of scientific theories about 'beat deafness', insufficient GABA, and undeveloped neural pathways.  The first two to be eliminated in this series were both sportsmen. They were slim, fit, strong, should have a decent amount of coordination and body rhythm from their training and reasonable proprioception and control. Sportsmen should be fine with making their body do what they want it to, to follow instructions. It's clearly not enough to be slim, fit, young, strong, have great stamina or have the best one-to-one teacher and training time in real studio space with mirrors. The continual improvement of all dancers, however, shows just how important practice is. So what goes on? Setting aside conditions which affect proprioception, such as hypermobility and dyspraxia, and physical or motor problems, why should some people find dancing harder than others?

I've noticed that sometimes, women who are otherwise very fit and toned have a lot of trouble with belly dance, particularly finding it difficult to access soft, smooth movement in certain planes, especially using the core muscles. Having been an avid gym and aerobics bunny myself once (I know, hard to believe), I wonder if the two-beat, contract-release, on-off movement style becomes the muscle memory default. This is usually accompanied by a degree of tension, which stops full, fluid movement. Tension can be made worse by self-consciousness and self-criticism, over-thinking and trying too hard, until your mind is whirling and your brain has no processing power left to direct your body to dance.

Dance generally includes a wide range of dynamics; slow and fast, sudden and sustained, jerky and fluid. It also needs connection with the music, not just the beat, but an embodiment of rhythm. There are lots of other little details which need attention too, but they can be learned and improved with practice.

I'm giving a workshop in Cardigan this Sunday afternoon on graceful movement, to explore the dance elements which make the difference between gawky and gorgeous. So if you feel you lack grace, come to the workshop! You know you want to! And in the meantime ... Keep Dancing!