“Be Bones”

A favorite Mantra of mine “be bones” stems from the comments of two great teachers I studied with who shared this basic idea with their classes. Maybe you’ve heard this concept mentioned before as well. It is helpful to think of yourself as a skeleton when you dance. When you think of yourself as only bones, you shed layers of concern about many things such as how you appear to others, your own criticisms of yourself, and the heavy weight of seriousness we often give to what we are doing. It’s easy to feel light and silly and to have fun with movement when everyone in the room is made equal by becoming a room full of dancing bones. And your bad-hair day or faded tights don’t matter if what you look at in the mirror is below the outer layers. Try it! This is so freeing. Although it’s fun to have a class full of dancers thinking this way, you can do it for yourself, in your own mind and it can work just as well. It feels silly in a good-way and its empowering because you soon realize how attention to your skeleton is a major key to mastering technique. Suddenly difficult things become simple and easy. You no longer have- to pick up a heavy muscle laden leg into develope, just rotate that thigh bone in the hip socket, shift the angle, and let the fleshy stuff fly up!

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It’s a practical practice and simultaneously a metaphysical one.  As dancers, we are playing with physics, and focusing on our bones just makes dealing with gravity easier. But we’re also thinking feeling beings who are shaping our reality by what we think and feel moment by moment. A commentary of self-criticism as we look at ourselves in the mirror creates the opposite of what most of us are seeking in dance. But a lighthearted, wise perspective that we are all ultimately the same, skeletons, finite beings sharing a universal experience of being on this planet helps to put your mind in a good space so you can achieve the dancing goals you’ve set for yourself while feeling happy and at ease.


“It Can Happen, Like Magic!”

Of all the lessons that I learned as a student of dance, this one is my favorite.  It struck a chord at just the right moment for me as a young dancer. I had been struggling because I was working too forcefully. I had an unconscious belief that to get ballet right, one had to struggle and push oneself.  This was a misinterpretation. Yes, for certain, dancers like any other artist/craft

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person must strive to perfect their craft and are bound to tackle obstacles and travel peaks and valleys of accomplishment throughout their career. But there are intelligent, sensitive ways to work, as well as narrow minded, forceful ways to work. And I was suffering with the latter at the time. I wasn’t working intelligently.  Yes, I was focusing on technique and I had good direction from my teachers, but I was obsessing over technique. I was pushing myself but there was no clarity or inspiration behind the push. Instead, there were mostly fears and a need to be perfect.

With a good teacher, time, and maturity, I began to learn the nuances of “good work” versus “hard work” and what that means for a dancer.  I was surprised to discover the secret lies first in one’s attitude toward oneself as a dancer, and second in one’s imagination; in one’s ideas and the imagery that surround the steps and movements one executes.  The imagery a teacher gives you and the imagery that you create for yourself is what gives you true understanding of how to express a movement and how to do it in an inspired way so that you enjoy it and those watching enjoy it in turn.

The experience that turned me in the right direction regarding “good work” in the studio or “sensitive work” as I like to think of it now was something interesting my teacher Madame Charisse said to me in class. I was struggling with a pirouette combination during center work and she noticed and walked over to me. She touched my arm and said, “sometimes dancers don’t have to work hard to achieve something, it just happens, like that, like magic. It really does happen, more often than you’d think.”

It was so cool because she knew just what to say to me based on where I was mentally at the time. She knew how to phrase her wise advice so that it would influence me.  If she had said Mary, you need an attitude of effortlessness. If you allow yourself to experience the movement and enjoy it, the technique that you have been drilling into your body will naturally do its job and you will achieve the desired results. I would have found a way to beat myself up with that and work too hard at doing what she described. But the way she phrased it “like magic” zoomed me into a place where allowing space for something to happen of its own accord was the only option. It was exactly what I needed and It was a gift that changed my whole attitude toward myself as a dancer for the better. It was a life line.

By stressing that spontaneous achievements can and do happen she cleverly gave me a window of hope and I thought “yes, I believe that”. Madame Charisse was like a guru for me so she was the perfect person to give me this message for it to work on my mind.  I hadn’t been consciously aware that I had lost faith in myself and lost the healthy confidence in myself that was the key to inspired dancing. After that point, I began to heal from the mental pitfalls that had become habits which were blocking me from dancing well and happily. More and more often I began to think “it happens like magic, it can! it does! It happens all the time”. And I began to embody this concept and regain the confidence and joy I had lost over the years. I was feeling excited and hopeful during class now, I felt that at any moment something wonderful could happen and it often did after that. I highly recommend this healthy mental attitude that at any moment you may do something fantastic, you just need to be ready for it by remembering it can happen. Just like that – like magic.

Dance for Yourself

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I began taking ballet lessons at the age of 2.  By the age of 17, I had gotten seriously involved in the world of ballet and was taking class six days a week, attending summer intensives and going to master classes left and right.  I was starting to feel burnt out.  It felt  as though I was  losing touch with the reason I loved dance in the first place; that simple joy of moving in beautiful ways, and sharing that joy.  I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to a master teacher named Nanette Charisse at that time in my life.  Through her magical skill for bringing dancers out and bringing them beyond their comfortable edge, I was cured of this painful situation.

The cathartic experience occurred in one class, during one or two center exercises but the lesson has been sinking in over the weeks, months, and years since.  I was asked to stop the combination we were working on and attempt it again but this time do it “because it makes me feel so good” were Madame Charisse’s words.  Do it because it feels so good that some of it needs to spill out”.  Then Mdm. Went on to explain that there is an energetic “hole” in the upper chest where the love you feel for the dance, the energy you generate, pours out and is free to flow to the audience. She also explained that therefore the chin must be lifted slightly. Not for pompous pride but because you feel so good about what you are doing that the chin must get out of the way  so as not to block the energy that flows from you. This is the healthy form of pride.

Well, it took a few tries but each time I began the combination again I found it easier to acknowledge to myself that I did in fact love the way these movements felt and it was ok to let myself feel that and have it be seen (Ballet therapy)!  My father happened to be videotaping this class and not only did I see myself transforming in the studio mirror as I danced, but the video clearly showed a change in the quality of the dancing. Before Mdm.’s assistance it had been painful or boring to watch, afterward, captivating and pleasant.

This was one of many amazing revelations for me facilitated by Mdm. Charisse. She is perhaps the most significant teacher in my life.  I am forever grateful to her. Though she passed away some years ago, her energetic presence is strong in my reality. The way I think about dancing as well as everything in life has been positively altered by this wonderful teacher. I’m honored to have been touched by this great soul.