Definitions of Success

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I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘success’ lately in relation to dance. What it means to be successful, to find greatness and what that means for different people. This past weekend I went to Rock that Swing Festival in Munich and competing brought to light some familiar feelings and insights around competing that I thought I’d share. These are definitely coloured by my experience as a figure skater, solo dancer, jack and jill participant, partnered swing dancer, opera singer and burlesque performer. They are by no means groundbreaking, but might be helpful to someone else especially as people start preparing for London Swing Festival in May.

1. Define success before the competition. Why are you doing it? For the love of performing? For the thrill? To challenge your personal dancing? To place? Decide what success is before and then whatever the outcome take a moment to celebrate afterwards. You’ve worked hard.
2. Be kind to yourself. Unless it’s a showcase of some kind, you don’t get to pick the music, sometimes you don’t pick your partner or even the texture of the floor. The moment you walk on the dancefloor you’re winning – so don’t let other s#$% affect your state. Go back to what you defined as success. Sometimes it’s winning, sometimes it’s just sharing what you love with other people. If things go wrong, let them go. It’s just dancing! (I personally struggle with this, but you really do have to do it.)
3. Only wear things you’ve danced in before. This is something that I see far more in burlesque then lindy hop, but it still applies. Practice or social dance in the things you want to compete in. You’d marvel at how many things go flying or rip or tear when you haven’t tested them out. Wear that necklace or dress and make sure it’s not going to be more memorable then your performance.
4. Consistency is key. Practice your routine. Film yourself, watch the video and look for things to celebrate AND things to improve. Let yourself get comfortable with particular movements, tempos etc. It’s the easiest way to alleviate stress.
5. Look up. Maybe smile. Whether it’s burlesque, swing dance, cabaret – whatever – it’s about connection. Look up and connect with the people in the audience. Invite them in, make them a part of your success. They want you to do well and are on your side, let them give you energy. You’re in this together! That’s part of what makes dancing, performing and competing fun. If you lose this part it lacks the joy and life it deserves – that you deserve.

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Crisis of consent and gender in a social dance

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Over the last two weeks, it has come to light that a highly respected international lindy hop teacher abused his position in the scene and sexually abused many young women. I am dumbstruck. I am outraged. I am profoundly concerned with how we move forward as a global community. The survivors who have come forward to share their experiences are incredibly strong women and I can only empathize – but I don’t think that’s good enough. I started lindy hopping a month shy of my 19th birthday, in a scene where I was the youngest person by four years for several years. I learned from Steven Mitchell, I have friends who’s dancing was dramatically shaped by his mentorship. We have suffered a sucker punch as a community. There are far smarter people then I am having a thoughtful and vital dialogue around creating a safe space and environment where vulnerable people are protected in our scene. These conversations surround vital codes of conduct, social monitoring and tactics.

I wanted to touch on something I’ve been thinking about over the last few days that’s aligned but slightly tangential. I think we’re having a crisis of consent.  I should say that this all came about after a conversation with my teaching partner where he asked, ‘why are you a better leader, then I am a follower’? Well! When I started dancing, there were many ‘creepy old men’ in the Toronto dance scene. I learned how to lead because it meant that I could save friends from these leaders by cutting in on the next song. It was a survival skill for the social dance floor. I will say that Toronto Lindy Hop have done a strong job of hearing and reacting to community members’ concerns since this time, but why did we all have to wait years for this kind of feedback and conversation? In the 10 years I’ve been dancing, I’ve been groped, grabbed, held on to and pulled on to the dance floor. I have had men say in appropriate things to me while dancing, hold me to close and not ask consent. It is a light hearted environment where I often rely on my humour to get me away from these leaders. And it’s worked well! But I feel like I can do more. I know leaders who here in the London scene get pulled, bullied and guilted into dancing because somehow by spending their personal money and choosing to spend their free time in a ballroom entitles another person to dance with them whether or not they want too. Why can’t we say no? Why do we feel shame around calling someone out on inappropriate conduct on the social dancefloor? Why is does the responsibility fall on the organizer when it should be on each and every one of us to socially monitor each other? Dancing is sexual – we touch – but it is consensual! In that, you must ask. You must ask for a dance verbally or non-verbally (if there is a language barrier) but there is a need for consent. There is also a need for entitled behaviour to go fly a kite. If someone says no to a dance kindly, take it with grace. What if everyone led and followed and everyone valued dancing with each other regardless of gender or traditional dance role? That would be a world where there was lead and follow balance and perhaps higher understanding and empathy towards one another. How do we make this better?

I teach, I am a community leader. I have a responsibility to keep my friends and students safe.

I also have a responsibility as a woman to diminish male patriarchy on the social dance floor. We are equals in this dance. We need each other in either role. It is when we value one partner more than the other that we create the kind of power and hotbed for bad people to do bad things. I feel that we do value leaders more and there is an element of misogyny in that because leaders are often men. It’s movement after all – something that isn’t necessarily gendered. I’d love to see more performance and teaching partnerships of men dancing with men where both are agile and strong and one isn’t camp-ing up the ‘follower’ role. It feels like a bit like a panto.

I also think the conversation happening now is the most important in my and our personal dance history. How do we equalize the value of leaders and followers, how do we hold ourselves (every community member) accountable and ensure the safety of vulnerable people and what do we as a community stand for? The lindy hop community is growing and that brings more people and not all people are good – but how do we make sure we know that we have done our best to be a place where everyone can celebrate, dance and collaborate? I am having that conversation with myself and my peers and I ask you for help, guidance and your perspective.

Year in review: 2014 – all killer no filler

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Alright, so 2014 is winding down and like everyone it’s a good time to reflect. I can say with all sincerity that 2014 has been the most powerful, transformative and exciting year of my life – thus far. In 2013 I embraced risk, I quit my job, I moved halfway around the world and I chose to walk away from projects that brought we tremendous joy but all with an eye to focusing on my personal skills, well being and art. 2014 has ended up a pastiche of unimaginable accomplishments. Things I never dreamed for myself…that’s something. I spent many mornings, many moments thinking “I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing”. I recognize how precious that is.

In 2014, I taught more than 120+ hours of lindy hop and burlesque. I met a record number of people and struck many deep rooted and meaningful friendships. I debuted in two international burlesque festivals, I performed in five countries and was sought out for the first time in my cabaret and lindy hop career. I graced the pages of a national UK magazine, the iconic stage of Madame Jojo’s in Soho, ate late night Punjabi deli with a Carnby Preacher in New York, rode in a Fiat Convertible in Northern Ontario with a cabaret showgirl, made cobbler with old time newly engaged friends, ate brunch with occasion-inducing lindy hop instructors, watched my best friend get married by Sable Beach and celebrated with many bottles of bubbles.

After years of struggling to get into a masters program, I not only completed my Masters but graduated with distinction. I had the opportunity to live in San Francisco and align with so many old and new friends, for which I am so grateful.

London is my new home and cannot replace Toronto, or those people, but it definitely feels like exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. I feel like I’m becoming my best self here. My long time dance ambitions have life, vibrancy and voice here! In a way that I never imagined. I’m so inspired, excited and ready for what will come next.

There have been so many quiet moments of fear, uncertainty, longing, heartache and unsureness. I have felt overwhelmed. I have missed hugs, or kind words from good friends. I have felt far and sickness in the pit of my stomach. I have friends going through incredible challenge and I feel powerless and all I can do is be present as best I can through Facebook, Twitter, text, Skype and Facetime. But these feelings are normal, expected, necessary. My friend Nikola always says that when your heart grows it’s bound to ache a bit. In these moments, I always try to slow down, be grateful, be kind and be indulgent with myself.

This weekend, I attended a day’s worth of workshops for my new job in Harrow and at St. Joseph’s Hospice. Seeing 120 six year old kids totally mesmerized by an orchestra concert with Dame Felicity Lott and it reminded me why we create art – to broker music experience and the process of bringing people together. To create magic and community. In many ways lindy hop feels the same way. It has the same impact on my heart. On Sunday, in front of many of my dance students I won the solo charleston contest at our Christmas Ball (a personal first). I still remember in 2009 going in for back surgery and thinking….will I be able to dance again and that fear. What a triumph! It felt like an affirmation that I am on the right path and that 2015 will bring challenge and previously unattainable chance.

Things I learned in 2014:
People are home.
If I focus on my own personal vision, magic happens.
Others believe in my artistic gifts – am I ready to pursue them with drive, focus and fervour?
If I listen to my gut and it will steer me well.
Worrying less is often better.
Kindness is mandatory.
I make no excuses or apologies for loving you all boldly, with my whole heart.
Gratitude trumps shitty days always.
Alignment makes more sense then chance.

For 2015 I wish you: 
Good health.
Ease.
Joyful adventures.
Walks in the woods.
A favourite new dress or pair of shoes.
And many moments with those who bring out the best in you.
I’m ready to fall in love with 2015 and for 2015 to fall in love with me. After my graduation, I remember looking at my parents and saying, “this doesn’t feel like an end, it feels like a beginning.” I’m so excited friends to see where this adventure goes and to connect with you along the way.

To my friends, family, fellow students, dance students, teaching partners, dancing partners, work colleagues, peers and worldwide community…for what has been the most insightful year in my life to date, thank you. My heart is open and I’m ready. Happy new year to you.

 

Learning to worry less

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I worry. I fret. I examine situations from multiple perspectives and contemplate outcomes. I like to feel in control. I know lots of people who feel the same way. My mother is certainly someone who worries.

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However, in times of unknown promise and opportunity, I’ve been thinking about what ‘worry’ brings? Often nothing good. So, let’s not confuse worrying with pragmatism. Of course, you should think things through, especially when it comes to big life changing decisions, or things that affect multiple people in substantive ways, but you also need to let go of worry. At least I do. I’ve been focusing on letting things come to me, accepting help, embracing comfort and being forgiving to myself. It drops the heart rate and makes the unknown far more palatable, sweet even.

Are you a worrier? Here are a couple of suggestions that seem to work for me on how to manage your worry today:
1. Take deep breaths more. Stop what ever you’re doing and take a deep breath, maybe even a couple.
2. Be kind to yourself. Think and say nice things to yourself – you have many lovely attributes why not acknowledge them?
3. Ask for help. Let those you love and who love you know that you need some support, hugs, high fives. If they don’t know how can they help?

Oh! And listen to great, restoring, invigorating music – whatever genre speaks to you. I find it takes daily effort to deal with these feelings, and I’m noticing a difference. It’s hard though, it’s a choice. Please feel free to share things that work for you if you’d like. I’d definitely love to read them.

Delicious Ambiguity

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I was all prepared to write a diatribe about the an article in the Guardian about not-for-profits posting chief executive salaries to raise public opinion and how it perpetuates a “not-for-profit means for-loss” mentality, but now I’m sort of sidetracked. Read the article. Let me know what you think.

I just feel like not-for-profits already post this information in their charity returns. If you draw more media attention to it the super crazy people who hide in anonymous internet caves will come out and have a field day with their crazy ‘tax payer’ rants. I pay taxes too! Just because I chose to work for a charity doesn’t mean I chose to be poor. Talent, vigor and work ethic deserve to be remunerated properly in ALL INDUSTRIES. Nuff said.

I guess the thing I really wanted to talk about is the concept of ‘uncertainty.’ In two weeks I turn 28.

In three months I’ll finish my masters. I have no idea where I’m going to live. I don’t have a job. I have debt. There are moments where I am ok with this ambiguity. There are other moments where I feel like it’s going to crush me. It feels a bit like I’m being tossed about in a wind storm, but I mean – that’s what I signed on for! There is no greater time to be blown about. The trick is to let the wind carry me rather than try to walk against it or resist it. I like being in control, the mistress of my destiny…but right now that’s not really an option. I can only take care of myself and quietly appreciate these moments and express my gratitude to those that have made this year so special and unusual.

I definitely feel like I’m building up to something new and exciting…I don’t know what it is yet. I’ll definitely let you know when I know. For now, a little Gilda Radner quote: “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

How are you all making out?

Mental Health, you and me

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Mental health challenges touch each and every one of us. It may be you personally, or someone you love, but it’s there. Silent. Full of shame. Full of fear. Recently, someone I love very much opened the dialogue to discuss their mental health challenges and I am in awe of their courage. I’ve been privy to several friends working through very difficult medical ailments and have experienced depression first hand. Prior to having back surgery in 2009, I isolated myself from my community, my friends and spent too much time with a poor excuse for a boyfriend. I stopped sleeping, was in constant pain and fought to get through my work day without crying. Let me tell you, lack of sleep makes you insane! Doesn’t matter who you are! I couldn’t control what was happening to my body, I had no idea if I would be able to dance again and was terribly scared. I reached out for help. With the support of my GP, I worked with an incredible Psychotherapist. For the record, I love therapy. I think we all should be in therapy! I learned so much about myself and my coping mechanisms with my therapist. She helped me understand why I felt the way I felt and how to manage it for the long term. I remember when I told someone I was seeing a therapist and they told me I was “not a person who went to therapy”. It felt like a slap in the face. It made me wonder, what type of people do go to therapy?

This was on such a small scale and yet I feel for those who think there is a major social stigma on our collective and personal mental health. Therefore, I ask all of us, let’s make mental health and wellbeing a topic of dinner conversation with those we love. Let’s support each other to find the systems we need to acknowledge, heal and grow. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto had a wonderful campaign all about the stigma and social perceptions around mental health issues. I include one of their ads here. For those working through their our mental health struggles, my love, respect and energy to you. You’re very brave, whether or not you feel that way some days.

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Playing for keeps – moving abroad and other musings

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I’ve been thinking about community a lot lately. How you build a life? Friendship requirements. Worthiness. I moved to London with a motley crew of acquaintances and find myself feeling more and more settled. I keep asking myself, “what’s changed?”

I’ve had a couple of friends ask for some tips on moving continents so here are a couple that seem relevant this week:

1. You’re never ready. You’ll repack your bag at least four times and you’ll forget at least five things. “Man, if only I had that *insert item of clothing/or piece of loved junk here*.” It’s ok. It’s just stuff, you can buy/sell/replace stuff. Or friends can bring it with them on follow up trips.
2. Take people up on their offers of friendship. If your cousin, friend, colleague, casual acquaintance, barista or dry cleaner offer to connect you with a friend or relative of theirs – TAKE IT! You never know. So and so’s bff from when they were 12 could turn out to be your fav brunch buddy in a new place. It’s like when you see someone knows people you know on Facebook. They are vetted and are less likely to be cray cray.
3. I know you hate ‘cold calling’ people, but get over it. Email those weak tie potential friends. Go to a Meetup and then judge whether or not you want to join from a corner in the bar. If the meetup is lame, make friends with the bartender (strategic friendship).
4. Put some work in. Friendships and business relationships take effort. You need to put some time and love into fostering that connection. Check in to see how people are doing by email, text or phone. Whether or not you can get together, it shows you’re thinking of them.

That’s my poetic waxing on a Friday friend. Be indulgent. Be kind to yourself take some risks. Here’s some ukulele music for you.