I’ve been dancing almost five years, and I’d hoped that by now it wouldn’t completely throw me to add arms to a new piece of choreography. But it does.
In the dance company, we’re working on the most complex choreography for our big show in November. We’ve been working on the footwork patterns since the end of January. It’s not that the footwork is all that difficult; it’s just that we have to do it in a circle. With a ton of direction changes. And the person next to you is never doing the same thing you are. And then we have to repeat it all. On the other foot. Going the other way. This piece is really fun, but there’s a reason Leslie dubbed it, “Fast. Feet. FUCK!”
We were finally starting to get comfortable with what the hell our feet were supposed to do over the last couple of weeks, and last night our fearless director decided it was time to add arms and skirt work.
And the dance completely fell apart.
With thirteen dancers, most of whom have never danced in a circle, and a few of whom (myself especially) have very limited experience dancing in twenty-five yard skirts, this was to be expected. Adding another layer can be overwhelming at times; you focus so hard on one part of your body that everything else sort of goes out the window. And due to the circular nature of this particular piece, last night’s immediate result was a lot of confusion and near-collisions between dancers. No one was injured, and by the end of rehearsal most of us had at least gotten our feet to remember where they were going. It was a really big layer to put on an already insane choreography, and in the hour and a half we worked on it last night, we made a lot of progress.
But I was still really frustrated with myself.
This is because my arms are dumb. They always have been. When I first started dancing, I could never get very comfortable with them. If I made mistakes in choreography, nine times out of ten it was the arms. Especially in the more classical Middle Eastern styles, I just didn’t know what to do with them. My instructors made it look so effortless, so casual and soft and pretty. I would mimic them exactly, but on me it felt harsh and forced and incredibly uncomfortable. “Just relax into it,” I’d try to tell myself, while pushing my shoulder blades down and lifting my head and remembering not to lock my elbows and keep my elbows back and not letting myself break the line at my wrists and…you get the idea. And then under all that, I’d have to dance! OVERLOAD. OVERLOAD. DOES NOT COMPUTE.
Pre-dance, I never had much need to move my arm and my hip and my foot in different ways all at the same time. It’s just not one of those practical life skills. I’ve also never been a true multitasker. I can shift my focus from one thing to another quickly, but when I’m focused on something I AM FOCUSED ON IT. Before I started dancing, I couldn’t even rub my belly and pat my head at the same time. Chewing gum and walking was an achievement.
Five years later, it’s gotten a lot better. My fusion teacher has us doing three things at once, and I’m like, alright let’s go. You want me to put a shimmy on top of a travelling Mayan? BRING IT. You want me to do a smooth chest circle on top of sharp hip lifts and a grapevine? AWESOME. I may not be able to do it right off, but give me a bit and I can usually figure it out. And even if I can’t, I’ll at least have fun trying.
But I’m still never completely comfortable with my arms.
Since I started dancing, I’ve always had an uncanny ability to remember choreography; it gets into my muscle memory really fast. But that also means that if the choreography is changed, it takes me longer than most people to unlearn the original steps and relearn it the new way. This is especially true of my stupid arms. And even if I don’t mean to when we’re just learning the feet, I often end up doing something repetitive with my arms. After a while, this repetition gets ingrained in my body, becoming a part of the footwork without me realizing it. And then when we add arms, it feels like I have to start all over, breaking everything down super slowly until I can get it in my head and in my body.
So last night when we tried to add the arm/skirt pattern over the fastest freakishly fast part of the piece, even going stupidly slow, I just couldn’t get it. It’s the snippet of choreography that I’ve been working on the longest; our director showed it to me in the beginning of December. It’s counted in six and three sets of four instead of the even eights I’m used to, so it was confusing enough just in the feet. Even after five months, I still have to think about it to get it right.
And I now have five months’ worth of practice to reprogram in my brain to add the arms. I know I should be patient with myself. In the light of day I know that with some practice, I CAN do it. But last night, when I finally had to give up on the arms all together for that part, it made me really mad.
And before rehearsal I was all excited that I’d kept up with the sun salutations in yoga. Little victories are so easily squashed.