Monthly Archives: September 2009

With or Without Hair Shirt?

I would like to dedicate this blog entry to Mr. Arthur Mitchell.

When I was dancing, I always wanted more. More roles, more recognition, and I wanted it now. I think, to some extent, that hunger for more is normal and good if it is in balanced with gratitude and rooted in compassion. I was neither grateful or compassionate, least of all towards myself. When I did not get what I wanted when I wanted, I pouted and blamed the world. I turned my hatred inward and began a regimen of abuse that would make St. Theresa’s hair shirt feel like rabbit fur against a baby’s bum. (As a side note, I once made a pilgrimage to Avila to visit one of St. Theresa’s convents. The stark little cells that the nuns slept and whipped themselves in felt strangely like home.)

But there was a good aspect to all of that waiting. After a sound thrashing, I would go back into the studio and work my ass off. I believed in hard work even when, at times, I didn’t believe in God. There is something undeniable about sweat and after a good work-out, I felt like I had something sacred that no one could take away. My director made me earn everything I got to dance. He made me prove myself. Finally, one day he nodded and said, “Now you’re a ballerina.”

He knew what he was doing in making me fight the good fight. And though at many times in the midst of that fight I secretly cursed him, in the end I was grateful. To be given something that I hadn’t earned would have been a grave disservice to me and to the art form.

So, you can imagine that I was surprised when, at the beginning of the semester, students approached me to ask if  they could be moved up to a higher level. When it first happened I thought, hmmm, maybe there’s something I’ve overlooked, but after the fourth person asked, I realized I’d been duped.

In all my years of waiting, I never would have dreamt of asking for a promotion. Not from a teacher. Not from a director. Never. Some small sane part of me knew that that was inappropriate. To ask for such a thing would be like, well, cheating. I had faith that my hard work would be recognized eventually and if it wasn’t, that was on me.

After I got over my initial shock, I was able to see the larger picture. These students have grown up in a time of shameless self-promotion, extreme narcissism and rampant entitlement, none of which is their fault.  They are actually taught to maneuver through the world in this fashion, that it’s healthy to be pushy, and when you don’t get what you want, blame someone else and move on. This is a recipe for bitterness later in life.

I remember hearing in some English class somewhere an interview with James Baldwin where he was talking about bitterness. He said it was ok to be angry (I’m paraphrasing. It was years ago.) Anger can be turned into positive action, like writing a book, but bitterness was another story. He was warning black folks not to become bitter because it rots the soul. Nothing good can grow from a bitter heart.

I don’t want our young people to become bitter. I don’t want them to sit around, bitching and moaning about what they didn’t get. I don’t want them to manipulate their way through life. I want them to hit the high C. I want them to dance their dance even if only a handful of people ever see it. Even if no one ever sees it, I want them to know that there is a joy in being authentic to oneself.  And if they do make it big, great. They will have more to contribute to the consciousness of humanity than a good hair weave and a boob job.

Out of all the information that we were fed in school, they never told us this: that life is hard. That doesn’t mean that you have to torture yourself like I did. The challenge is built in. You can have it with or without hair shirt. But the good news is that it feels great to come out on the other side of a challenge if you’ve fought the good fight. The outcome is never what you think it’s gonna be, because that person that was imagining what it would be like in the first place has been replaced with someone sharper. That’s what it means to grow and the responsibility for that really is in one’s own hands.

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Dear Ms. Jimenez…

TaipsychHey Ms. Jimenez. I just need some advice on a few things. I want to know how you dealt with the competition in dance. Like, for example, there’s a teacher that has a favorite student and always casts her in the lead part. I feel that I am just as capable of doing those roles, but my ability is overlooked. And another thing: there is this huge debate going on, not just in my head, but amongst the other students, as to who is really the better dancer between us two. I am friends with this person and I hope it will stay that way.  I am really struggling with all of this. Sincerely, Lost

Dear Lost,

You have talents that are uniquely yours. Each one of us comes here with our own voice, our own story to tell and our own means of expression, although I know it is hard to remember this when we are swept away in a heated moment by fear and jealousy.

First of all, don’t beat yourself up about having these feelings. They are human and we all experience them. Don’t down play your emotions either. Emotions that are suppressed tend to stew and come out later in aberrant, sometimes violent, ways. Find a safe place, or perhaps a safe person, with whom you can let it all out.

When your emotions are calmed and your mind cleared, try to see the illusion that is at work here. The other dancer is not an obstacle to your success. There is no obstacle, except the one that you are creating. By focusing on the other dancer and comparing yourself to her, you are misplacing valuable energy that would be put to better use by focusing on yourself.

The essence of what you really want, I think, is to dance well and for your teacher to recognize this. You are being given the opportunity to do just that with the roles you have been given. By being grateful for what you do get and bringing that positive energy to your work, you will start to excel. Only by doing this will you win the trust of that teacher; only by excelling in the task at hand will you show that teacher that you are capable of handling more.

If you must ask, “Why didn’t I get that role?” Try to do it from a place of humility and willingness to work on your weaknesses. Use it as a question to move you forward rather than fuel for the ego and its characteristic sense of entitlement. Be humble enough to admit to yourself that even though you think you may be ready for something, perhaps you are not. This is more likely the case, not favoritism. After all, your teachers want you to make them look good! They may see a bigger picture that you do not.

Put your faith in hard work. When you start to really see results, others will too. Also, you will be so proud of your achievement that you will be less swayed by the opinions of others.

Someone once said that comparison is the thief of joy. You will never know in any absolute sense that you are better than another. All you can know is that you are doing your best. So do your best. Nurture your friendship with this other dancer and do not engage in pettiness and gossip. (Those who do are creating obstacles. Don’t get stuck in that web.) Remember that the biggest enemy lies within. And if you forget and that jealous feeling creeps back in, just recognize it for what it is: an inner alarm that’s telling you to refocus your energy on you.

You may email questions for Ms. Jimenez at piyung@aol.com.


The Process is its Own Reward

IMG_0630Like most children, I was deeply intuitive. I had an inner knowing about my career as a dancer, for example, and other little things. I never talked about this knowing with anyone. With other children, it was unneccessary, and with adults, futile, because one of the things I knew was that they wouldn’t get it. Knowing what number the carnival roulette wheel would stop on may have been unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but knowing that I knew was another matter entirely. At least to me.

Though I could not speak the inner voice with words, I could through movement. Movement could express the essence of the knowing, of being, of one’s own truth, even though I could not have articulated that at the time. While this form of expression won me attention in the studio, my stunted verbal communication left me frustrated in other ways.  I did not yet have the language to translate what I felt on the inside to others on the outside. I doubted that anyone would be interested anyway, or that anyone would let me do what I wanted to do. I became used to being dismissed by adults and stopped trying to talk to them. I found adults to generally be a bunch of rainers-on-the-paraders. I learned to tip-toe, to sneak around in order to have my way, but I often got caught and punished. My once accepting, confident nature turned rebellious and confused. As I matured, insecurity masqueraded as aloofness. I became more and more afraid.

Dancing, once an outlet for my truth, became distorted. I looked to it to make me happy, make me whole again, but that was like making it into a container that it was never meant to fill. It was only ever a way to express my already-happiness, not a means to an end. When it failed to deliver, I forced my will upon it with a vengeance, doing harm to myself and others. I set high goals: this role, this promotion, more, more,  more. Through a tremendous act of will, I got what I wanted, only to realize with dismay that I still wasn’t happy.

Of course, the process wasn’t as clear cut as all that. In spite of myself, there were fleeting moments of grace and joy. When I looked back on those moments, I realized that surrender, not will, played the bigger role.

When I say surrender, I don’t necessarily mean being passive. Sometimes surrendering to the demands of the moment required great effort. But whether passive or active, in those moments of joy, I surrendered to flow, an act that always required faith. When will was aligned with faith, or another way to say this is that when the intellect was in service to the heart, I was filled with the joy of remembering who I was beyond my fear and confusion.

I once asked a teacher of mine, Ken Ludden, how I could surrender to this flow all the time. He said that he didn’t think we were meant to exist in flow all the time, for that would negate the need for faith. To grow spiritually, which is to grow in faith, is what we are all here for (in case you were wondering). Hey, that works for me.

I was greatly soothed by that response. It took the pressure off, the constant pressure to be or do something else, the pressure to achieve something in order to be happy.

Even if I can’t be there all the time, I try to cultivate it in myself and my students, many of whom are in the throes of their own rebellion. When you get right down to it, the application of will without flow just makes someone a royal pain in the ass. Besides,  you can’t really dance without it. Or truly live.

I watch my new little puppy, Chulo, run and play. He is a happy love machine, and apparently, an enlightened master, because he has never forgotten that to play is the way. The process is its own reward.

I contacted Ken to get his approval about using what he said in this post. This is his response:

Dear Tai,

So good to hear from you.  I read what you wrote and it seems fine to me.  My only
hesitation is in the definition of what being in the flow is.  Where it means making
no decisions, taking only re-active measures, then there is no faith, for one is
simply responding.  But stepping out of that reactionary mode and becoming active is
what tests faith, for we must act on what we believe is right, rather than on what
is required.  But as it reads, if they read the whole thing you’ve written I believe
they will understand it exactly.

Love,
Ken


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