Thursday, March 30, 2017

I am or was a dancer, and that's okay except the parts that weren't (autistic athlete series)

I was exposed to dance earliest of all my attempted athletic endeavors. I've been in and out of dance for years.This would not be the case, however, if I had not done gymnastics. We're gunna just throw that right out there.

Not because I don't like dancing, but because dancers are really hit or miss, as are dance environments, teachers, and organizers. I keep going back to it, so obviously I enjoy it, but there are situations I cannot and will not put up with.

My first experience with dance was a parent/child tap class when I was about 4 or 5. This was an alarmingly bad choice, as anyone who has known me for more than 10 minutes knows. I expressed a desire to try ballet at this time, but my mom wanted to take tap so tap we took. If it hadn't been such a small class (3 kids, 3 parents) I'd not have been able to deal, and I did make a habit of hiding my tap shoes. I don't remember the teacher at all but tap is the one kind of dance I unreservedly will never try again.

My next dance experience line dancing of all things. My mom and stepdad met country dancing. As a family, we all went country dancing--their favorite teachers opened a club that was all ages, so we could go any night.  I know it is dorky and uncool and I do not give a single fuck that it is dorky and uncool, because it was also really fun. The moves are simple, and you do the same 64 counts or less over and over and over. And the number of moves is fairly limited, so they're just remixed. AND generally one song is played for the same dance and only that dance (although if the floor isn't too crowded you can get 2 groups doing 2 different ones, and you may have a couple's dance going around the edges) so there's always a right thing to do. I'm pretty sure line dancing is the way I learned to position my body in relation to other people's bodies, just as gymnastics is how I learned to master my body.

Given where I grew up, country line dancing also offered me an in to a social activity. That all ages country club? Was a hot thing to do in my hometown, because it was something that could be done without parents. I'm from the midwest, ok? So when I had friends, I also had a place to hang out with them on Saturday nights. And I had enough mastery that I wasn't their dorky awkward friend tagging along, I was one of the people who knew a bunch of the dances and could figure out by following along many of the others. As much as people bag on country line dancing, it was a net positive for me. I made a friend there. I hung out with friends there, like a Real Kid. I learned to space my body in relation to a whole lot of others, and I developed a rudimentary sense of rhythm. These are all useful things.

In high school the Y I competed for also decided it needed a competitive dance program. One of my friends was a dancer and was transferring from her old studio for other reasons, a couple girls who took tumbling classes also danced for the Y, and I was encouraged by my coaches and my friend to join them in a class. I can do a backflip, I can do full splits, I can be taught to dance, seemed to be the rationale here. As my dance teachers also coached me, their assessment in this matter could be trusted.

And, it turns out, I could be taught to dance. We did 2 jazz numbers (one technically in the novelty category, since it had tricks) for competition and a lyrical one as well for the recital. Our costumes were pretty simple to keep prices within reach of our participants, which also meant they were not a sensory nightmare. I actually wore the top of our lyrical costume as streetwear until it fell apart. My teachers were skilled in the art of showing off all the dancers to our best advantage, and in positive motivation. We never won anything I don't think, I still don't understand dance competition scoring, but we had fun (and I got to make a teacher who I tumbled with for about 6 months really mad by doing a skill she didn't think I'd ever do, but that was just a bonus). The makeup involved was a sensory problem (fortunately I have strong enough coloring that I could make due without lipstick on stage, mostly) and the leaving at 5 AM for competition was not any more fun for dance than it was for gymnastics, but it happened.We also learned that I have too much hair for a gymnastics coach to put into one French braid but that's neither good nor bad, it just is.

These experiences--dance at the Y and line dancing--are what compelled me to take ballet in college. This was a much more mixed bag. I took two semesters, took time off, took some open classes at a studio much later, and half a term a couple years ago. The format of barre, at least, is almost accessible. You do the same families of movement in the same order every time. The choreography for each segment of barre rearranges itself, but it's always plies then tendus then jetes etc etc.

The problems are...I do not learn choreography by having words said at me. I gotta see it at least once. I can learn it by seeing. This was an even bigger problem in open floor settings because the possibility for crashing into others is significant. So I was always behind on learning the exercises. In some classes this is fine. In some it's not.

There's also elements of dream student/nightmare student that happened in ballet. I'm very flexible. This is a constant. Ballet teachers love this. Except my turnout is really, really bad. Like horrible. And teachers, to a greater or lesser extent, treated this like a won't rather than a can't. I really can't get my hips to turn out more than 90 degrees (perfect turnout is 180). I also had a really hard time finding my arms until I danced in wrist weights for a month, which exasperated my first teacher. My last teacher though is the reason I'm probably done with ballet. Not only am I flexible, I am muscular. I am descended from people who, like, live their lives on horses. Who get on and off at speed. My musculature reflects that--it's quick and it is bulky.

No one gets to tell me I jump good for a big girl. I jump good for anyone and it's a really twisted world in which someone is telling me that my body is too big. No one's body is too big.

Between the body snark and my knees always hurting from trying to maximize my turnout, and the taking my inability to learn choreography without actually seeing it personally, I was done. That's not ok. This is a community college ballet class here. I don't need that shit in my life, so I walked out & dropped the class.

Not to say ballet was completely negative, although it was ultimately an environment I will not deal with. One of the projects I was part of was setting up a dance class for autistic children who couldn't, or couldn't yet, access the class settings available. We had three students and three assistants, and only one wasn't autistic. They all learned things, performed in the recital, and two of them transitioned to integrated dance classes (and in one case, theater as well) in our pilot year. The program is fully funded in perpetuity. Although I've grown in my ideas about "for autism" dance classes and such, I was really proud to be part of it. That was the least restrictive environment, at that time, for our students. If I had not done ballet, I'd not have gotten to be involved in that (and they'd probably have done it in a more neurotypical-focused way).

Other dance bugs bit me too. Enter: swing dance.

I've written a lot on this blog about swing dance, since swing dance is where I figured out that I love dancing and hate dancers.

With so much background in finding my body, and with figuring out how my body is in space relative to others, swing dance was a natural fit. It's high energy. The beat is usually pretty clear. I don't have to decide what to do if I am following. Your feet do the same thing for the most part, and the lead tells you where to go with body cues. It's social interaction but not too much, since each song is generally under five minutes. And the touching is scripted, so it worked for me. It's also generally not electronic music.

I did make friends dancing, but ultimately it's ableist as shit. Nah, the ADA doesn't apply to us, you're an asshole for saying it does. Nah, it's totally cool to go to an event that hired someone to assault you with a flash, we really wanted to go why are you mad at us?

I miss swing dancing but swing dancers, especially here, can go fuck themselves. I miss people trying to get me dizzy. I do. But I can't deal with the environment. At all. Jesus doesn't mean the ADA doesn't apply to you. Oh yes, that's a thing I was told. So as much as I love swing dancing, working with a partner so everyone has fun, I can't deal with the events.

Then there was modern. I actually wrote a post about modern dance on this blog, sort of. The format was extremely accessible and the teacher wanted students to learn more than he wanted them to Become Dancers. Some of the movements were alien to me, but it was fun and progress was seen as good. My flexibility was also not an excuse to expect ridiculous things from me.

Around this time I also attended a belly dancing class with a friend of mine, although I had iffy feelings about it and cultural appropriation. I hated the first teacher instantly for her autistic hate (she has A Brother) and for the way that she didn't adjust her teaching, at all, for the learning and body styles of the students. Throwing advanced things at us and saying "oh just relax" doesn't work for me. Our second teacher spoke biomechanics, so that actually did work for me and I learned a lot. She also taught the way I learn choreography (show me once. Do it with me twice. There we go now you know). Alas, she said things that were low key racist and then high key ableist. So we were done there. The last teacher we tried...said things high key racist and I was done. I've also decided that belly dance is not mine to do, but the holy shit bigotry from teachers didn't help.

Dance has been a mixed bag. I am glad I tried it, even tap, but the culture is so hit or miss that whether a class will be great or terrible is a hard guess. In a perfect world all kids could be safely exposed to dance but we clearly don't live in that world.


fiona said...

I wish I could have continued with dance. I was shoved into ballet and tap at the age of five. I couldn't figure out what it was for. I had never seen a ballet or a professional tap dancer. There was just this woman with a cane who screamed at you constantly if you were slightly out of position (see: traditional ballet teaching) and was rumoured to hit the older students.

She must have been good - at least one girl in my class went on to dance with the Royal Ballet. But it was a couple of hours of screaming (her) and misery (me) twice a week and no one ever explained what it was for. eventually my mother let me stop going because she was told I'd never be any good. I did some classes in my 20s and loved it but couldn't fit it around shift work.

Tchaikovsky always makes my feet twitch.

Iba said...

I hear you. Thanks for writing.

bec p said...

This is fascinating to me, and I really appreciate you sharing your perspective. I was a professional dancer, and was fortunate to have mostly teachers who were very careful to adapt their styles to the students in the room. I did have meltdowns in response one girl's exasperating habits regularly. Once she was trying to choreograph an experimental work on a company full of dancers who had no experience with the type of improv she was using. She literally made some vague gesture with her fingers and told us to not think, just move. When I asked her questions about whether she wanted us touching, staying in one place or traversing the space, high or low movements, etc., she told me I was "cheating" in asking for direction. I told her it was not my job to choreograph her piece for her. Accommodating anyone for anything is foreign to the ballet world. They take it as an insult, and assume you're being a drama queen or are too weak for the job. You lose out on roles if you don't shut up and deal. I finally lost my job over it, but it was not because I was a bad dancer, but because I couldn't handle the studio atmosphere and my life was a multitask nightmare of three kids, two jobs with tons of diverse responsibility, and no clear schedule. It was announced, without my foreknowledge one day, that I was going to address the company with a formal apology and promise to never come in frazzled again. I cried and told everyone that I was truly sorry, and I couldn't promise that. I was fired a week later. All that said, when it came to the rules of the technique and the benefit to my proprioception, I'd say the years were successful on a personal level. Dance allows me to express my emotion and empathy more clearly with others, and obsess over patterns while making something beautiful.