Putting The Pieces Together

I spent an hour in the studio today to practice my solo for our student show in September and I’m feeling good! I feel strong and I’m starting to see how the events of the last few months have brought me to this good place.

When Rina announced there would be a show in September, I got nervous. I had pretty much taken off more than a month after my adventure in Albuquerque and I feared it would take me a while to get my body reconditioned. But yesterday in my first classes of this session — a two-hour tientos and bulerias fest — I felt great! The rush of endorphins had me so happy and pumped that I could have danced another two hours. I woke up sore, but that’s to be expected and it didn’t hinder my private rehearsal this morning. I’m back.

That seven-day ass kicking I got in Albuquerque changed me. Of the 10 pounds I lost there, I’ve surprisingly gained back only three, but I had been trying to watch what I eat while taking some time off from dancing. I feel great but give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be back down three to five pounds and feeling even better. My rapid June weight loss, while not ideal, reminded me that I’m a small-boned girl who truly feels better around 125, give or take a pound or two. Yep, that’s my fighting weight. It’s weird how much more stable and balanced I feel on my feet. Who knew a few pounds could make such a difference?

My next solo is a solea and while this scares me a little bit, I feel ready for it. I’ve danced it with a group a couple times and I love this palo. It’s so pretty, emotional. And did I mention it’s the same one I’m learning on guitar? It’s like the solea stars have aligned to allow me to be immersed in this rhythm, experiencing it as both dancer and musician. How perfect is that? I’m going to learn so much. I’m grateful.

Just when I think things might be falling to pieces, the pieces start falling into place. I love when that happens.

“In My Head I’m Awesome!”

At the end of every soleá class, Rina has us each freestyle a letra while everyone else plays palmas. Nothing fancy, just marking. This stresses me out every time, yet it’s also kind of my favorite part of class — not because I’m good at it. I suck at it, actually. My novice nerves always get the best of me, and I end up pausing awkwardly/making faces/blurting out obscenities while I count in my head and try to get back on the beat.

Still, I enjoy the challenge of getting out there alone and doing my thang. But even though I’m in a safe practice environment surrounded by friends, I’ve yet to be able to hold it together for one letra por soleá. When Rina explains the structure of the letra, I totally get it. When she demonstrates it for us, I totally get it. When I visualize myself doing it, I totally see it. Not only do I see it, but, as I declared to my classmates and teacher last night, “In my head I’m awesome!” So what, then, happens to me in class?

Sometimes it’s fatigue. Sometimes I’m nervous knowing all eyes are on me. And I am still an amateur. More than anything else, though, I simply think too hard about it and it messes me up. I should already know this about myself, really, because the whole over-thinking thing applies to other areas of my life …

I’ve realized I need to approach learning a dance the way I approach learning a song in the chorale. See, I don’t read music. I’ve been singing in choirs since I was 8, but I’ve never played an instrument so I never had to learn to read notes on a page. Nearly everyone else in the chorale has this ability, so when the conductor tells us things like, “change the half note to a quarter note followed by a quarter rest” and expects us to mark up our music, I just sit there and twirl my pencil. Even if I copied my neighbors music, the marks would mean nothing to me. I mean, I’m not completely clueless: I know how to follow along at a very basic level and I do understand things like staccato, legato, mezzoforte, etc., so I understand when he speaks dynamics. But just plain sight reading music? Forget it.

This musical shortcoming has forced me to compensate by being a very good listener. I hear very well. So when we’re running through a piece the first couple of times, I listen carefully to the notes and the dynamics. Then I sing my part by memory. I don’t count or depend on marks on a page. I just listen, learn and do it.

So it makes sense that I can do the soleá letra exercise smoothly in my living room, but not in class. At home, I’m just listening to the music, the cante … simply enjoying it because I’m alone with it and it sounds so good. In class, I’m trying to be methodical and count everything out because I think I’m supposed to. That doesn’t work for me because musically I don’t learn that way. Between my faulty approach and my tendency to half focus on messing up in front of my peers, I totally get why I struggle in a group setting.

Sure, counting is necessary sometimes, especially in a group choreography, but in a solo scenario there’s more room for individual interpretation, especially in something like soleá. I think initially I’m better off dancing “by ear” and worrying about the technicalities later. Does that make sense?

The dances, deconstructed

Since we began preparing for our shows, I’ve gone back and forth on which choreography presents the biggest challenge for me. Each is scary in its own way. Let’s break it down:

1. Cantiñas with mantón, or as I lovingly refer to it, baile de la muerte. First off, I have to say I love working with the shawl. I love … the contradiction of it … how do I explain it?… it’s like, when I’m doing it, I feel so ultra feminine, but I also feel like I need the arms of a dude to pull it off. The first couple of weeks I had some serious shoulder and arm pain. But week after week, my wings grew stronger and now I can even handle a heavier mantón. However, there are many hazards associated with this dance. Foremost, you need to be aware of your surroundings and take care not to whack your neighbor in the face, especially if you’ve got a large wingspan like I do. Somewhat along those lines, there’s a risk of having a silk collision with your neighbor which may result in two shawls becoming one knotted heap (I’ve seen it happen!). Then, and this is by far the worst, there’s what I like to call the “bats in the hair” scenario, during which the mantón inexplicably gets caught in your own hair and just sort of flutters wildly about the face while you try desperately to untangle it and shoo it away.

2. Soleá, presented by the advanced class. I believe “advanced” says it all. I’m relatively new to the this level, so this is an incredible test and challenge for me. Not only is the choreography and footwork more difficult, but soleá itself is just more difficult to “hear” musically, at least for me. This is the one that taught me that I didn’t know how to count to 12. I eventually figured it out (sort of) but it was tough. So when I perform this one, I’ve got to be super focused on executing the choreography and super in-tune with the musicians behind me, otherwise it’s not going to fly. For added pressure, I’m in the front with crazy-good girl with the killer turns to my right. How do I look good next to that? (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Hotcakes.)

3. Soleá por bulería, my solo piece. SOLO. As in, alone. Alone, as in, with no one to look to if I blank out and forget what the hell comes next or fall out of compás. It’s just me and the sound of my own feet out there. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little bit of pressure. But I KNOW the dance well, so choreography isn’t the main issue here. The real challenge for me with this one is shaking off my nerves so that I can do the choreography well, with authority and showmanship. Since performing this in May, I’ve worked a lot on cleaning up the little things and I HOPE that’s evident. I want so badly to attain that certain level of grace and elegance.

Ok, so after going through all that, I still can’t decide which is scariest. I guess it doesn’t matter — they all deserve and require the same amount of work, perhaps just in different ways. But I think working on these dances, with the diverse challenges they present, has taught me so much over the last three months. I can’t wait to show you what I’ve learned.

Mini meltdowns and dance therapy

I have an awful habit of filling my figurative pockets with all the insults, injustices and the like that I collect from from day to day, like ugly little marbles to look at or play with later. Then one day it’s like I’ve got hundreds of these cracked, dirty little suckers stuffed in there weighing me down until they finally spill out, get under foot and cause me to slip and fall on my face.

This is how my little meltdowns happen. It’s been a little while since I’ve had one so I guess I was due. Don’t get me wrong — my meltdowns don’t involve screaming, crying (well, ok, there might be some light weeping involved) or punching walls or anything like that. No, it’s more of a quiet, slumped-over-in-the-drivers-seat-with-my-head-on-the-wheel kinda thing. This is how I felt today.

I don’t have any huge problems so I kinda feel like a whiny little brat when I get like this. But hey, I’m just a girl, and crap does get to me now and then. And I think having not danced in a week didn’t help, since I had no where to channel my marbles for seven days. After putting in two hours of practice time tonight, I felt a little better. Good to get my mind off dumb things and super-dumb people who jack my sunshine. Luckily anger, sadness, heartbreak and such sort of come in handy when dancing soleá.

I’m not sure there’s a point to this post. In fact, I’ve totally lost my train of thought. I guess I just have a lot on my mind and needed to get some of it out. I’ll stop now. Thanks for listening.

Someone to Count On/With

So my homegirl and I decided we’re going meet weekly to practice our solos for the show in December, and last night was our first session. It was an hour well spent, even though we didn’t spend a minute practicing our solos …

Because we are both in the Thursday night soleá class, which is advanced and somewhat scary for us, we thought it might be a good idea to review the choreography before this week’s session. It’s a good thing we did. I had not yet reviewed the video from the last session, so I had no recollection of where to even start. But Homegirl kind of knew and she had the video on her cell phone, so we watched it together and then tried to imitate it. And hilarity ensued.

It’s amazing how you can watch a five-second bit of video and immediately forget what you just saw. “Ok, it’s the left foot … let’s try it … wait … no, wait …left??… let’s watch that again…” I’d say this scene played out once or twice or 12 times during the hour. At some points we’d just stop and stare at each other blankly or with furrowed brows, helplessly trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. And then we’d bust out laughing.

The most ridiculous part, though, was the fact that it took us about 45 minutes to figure out how to count to 12. Here we are, two bright, relatively coordinated ladies, and we could not for the life of us count for soleá. And when we finally could, trying to dance at the same time was just a hot mess. There were a few “damn it!”s. There were some “S?;@!”s. And I’m pretty sure a few f-bombs were dropped. But hey, what’s a few flamenco f-bombs between friends?

In the final minutes of our rehearsal, we were able to pull ourselves together and count/dance in the proper rhythm and we had the choreography down. Yes!

Ok, so for the first 45 minutes we were a couple of fumbling flamencapotamuses (Homegirl’s word, I can’t take credit) but when we finally got it figured out, it felt sooooooo good. And these little victories go a long way when you’re trying to build confidence.

But we learned a bigger lesson: We depend on the teacher way more than we should at this point. We shouldn’t be constantly looking to her to put the counts to the music for us and cue us in. No, we should be able to do that on our own, at any moment, without thought. I think this lesson is really going to help when we’re each on stage alone in December.

Practicing with Homegirl is great because we’re both preparing to solo for the second time. We get each other and learn from each other, and can share a few laughs in the process. How cool is that?