Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for the ‘Self-Care’ Category

First, Make It Not Suck

The title of this article is my Rule #1 that I give new dancers who are worried about being desirable to dance with. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to be a great dancer to be fun to dance with and, in my experience, it’s simply not true. Some of my favorite and memorable dances are with total beginners who were just having so much fun that they couldn’t be bothered to worry about whether they were doing it right or not. I generally tell people that if you can make the dance not suck, then it’s already in C+/B- territory and anything beyond that is gravy. And making it not suck is typically as simple as the following three factors.

It Sucks If It Hurts
It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening
It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

Generally speaking, if it doesn’t suck it’s pretty good. You can be off-time, you can only have 2 moves, etc. and you can still be plenty enjoyable to dance with. I tend to remember this best from a friend in tango who put it as something like “Sometimes it’s great to just walk”. To be clear, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have dances that suck once in a while, but if you keep these three things in mind, I think you’re already ahead of the game for being a delightful person to dance with.

It Sucks If It Hurts

no-painThis one seems simple and obvious, but it’s amazing sometimes how easy it is to forget. I see a lot of this as stemming from “I have to get the move right” style thinking with dancers, really at any level. Trying to forces moves or movements runs a high risk of doing something that doesn’t jive with yours or your partner’s body and worrying about making the move work or end a certain way lends itself to forcing it. Yes, it’s lovely to hit that 32 count sequence just the way you thought or simply finish a basic turn on time, but doing so at the expense of your body or your partner’s body kind of ruins the moment.

I work with this in beginner lessons by building moves off of natural movement and teaching the dance with people moving together throughout rather than dividing leads and follows, teaching them a specific movements separately, and then pushing them back together and expecting them to suddenly match each other. While it can be more complex learning this way, it focuses the learning on partnership instead of individuals and helps make lead/follow interaction the primary energy of the dance rather than footwork. If people are thinking about their feet first, they tend to lose sight of the fact that there’s another person attached to them. If you focus first on that human interaction, it’s much easier to avoid hurting each other or be aware of it and shift when it happens.

And to be clear, this can happen at any level and with both genders. I regularly hear complaints about painful leading from several male instructors in my area and I’ve chosen to stop dancing with one female instructor who routinely gripped my hand so hard that I would worry about having to work with it the next day. Pain or comfort are achievable at any level of dancing, choose comfort.

It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening

no-creepingIn the context of dance I think this mostly translates to “don’t assume you have the right to anyone’s body, time, or social interaction”. It’s easy and rather enticing to say things like “the boundaries are just different in dance” but I believe this often gets taken as “the rules of engagement around consent are different too”. The act of dancing with someone is just as much a negotiation as any other social interaction. The more it’s a balanced interaction where “no” is treated as a completely legitimate answer, the less likely this is to be an issue.

Again, I think this boils down to making the interaction human first and dance second. It’s easy when you’re in a new social environment to start to compromise on boundaries, particularly if you’re worried about seeing the other person on a regular basis. This may be different in other scenes, but I think the influence of Southern culture in my area means you often see people avoid challenging the few creepy apples at a dance because they would rather put up with the behavior than deal with a potential conflict. I don’t think there’s some singular right answer to this, but as we as a society are starting to talk about boundaries and consent more, I hope to see these conversations start happening one-on-one in the dance world more and hopefully enough of those will lead to some really great shifts.

It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

power-differentialThis is probably the most pervasive but also the most subtle one and therefore easier to overlook; enough so that I spent most of a year saying the first two make it not suck aspects before I thought of this. As much as we love to talk about equality and togetherness in the dance scene, there can also be a lot of hierarchy at play, partly real partly in our own heads. When you set up a perceived power differential between lead and follow or experienced dancer and newbie it makes the dance more about roles and less about humanity. It also makes it much easier for things like dancesplaining to occur and for dancers who feel they are in the less powerful position to be less likely to hold their boundaries if one of the first two ways of sucking occurs and less likely to speak out for what gives them joy in the dance.

I had lunch a couple days ago with a former dance student and we got talking about the challenges of this when he was a beginner. Now, for context, this is someone who routinely speaks in from of large groups of people and performs original songs in public; I consider him to be incredibly brave, creative, and very willing to engage with the challenges associated with growing in any skill. He told me that he found there tended to be two types of dancers offering him feedback as a newbie, those who’d ask if they could make a suggestion and others who would launch unprompted into critiquing his dancing or telling him “you know what you should do…” Watching him talk about it, I could even see his body shrink in on itself as he talked about the second type and the memory of being criticized.

Don’t get me wrong, criticism and understanding what and how to do things better is an important part of growing as a dancer. However, there’s a time and a place for it and more and less effective ways to communicate these concepts. I see lots of “better” dancers telling newer dancers what they should do without realizing that they are presenting the information in a way that widens the gap between them rather than bridging it. Ineffectively worded or improperly timed feedback like this tends to create a subtext messaging of “It’s not OK for you to be new or learning; you should be better” and even without poor feedback this is the sort of message that I see a lot of people telling themselves.

It’s normal for there to be a difference in experience, you just don’t have to turn it into a difference in power or value. Feedback can be a tool to raise people up but it can also be a tool to bludgeon them into being less than. And again, this can happen at any level; there are several instructors in my scene who I routinely observe and receive complaints about dancesplaining through entire dances on the floor. When you drive this kind of wedge between yourself and your partner, it pretty much kills the team vibe of a dance partnership and turns it into two lonely people holding hands and doing moves at each other.

If It Doesn’t Suck, It’s Generally Pretty Good

There’s an old Woody Allen joke that pizza is like sex “Even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good”. While I like the idea of the joke, I think it’s a bit off the mark. I look at it through a bit more of a lens of pizza or dancing or sex don’t have to be the most amazing pizza/dance/sex I’ve ever had to be good, but if something sucks there’s almost an addition of insult to injury that makes it all the worse. Having recently had the worst Chicken and Dumplings of my life a couple weeks ago, I can say that, like most comfort foods, when it’s decent dance is kind of inherently good, but if you make it terrible it will irritate people enough that they’ll shut down from you, talk about it to their friends, or post about it on the internet.

At it’s core, partner dancing is a shared experience. So long as you aren’t doing any of the above and putting your partner or other dancers around you on guard then it becomes easy to step beyond our standard social boundaries and create a shared experience. If the dance turns to suck in one form or another, then those boundaries tend to harden into barriers and both partners (and the floor around them) lose out on that social interaction.

Making it not suck also frees up a lot of energy and attention for learning. When something sucks, and even when it’s just a sucky feeling of your own creation through self-judgement, there is so much time and energy spent by the mind in either defending or reinforcing that sucky feeling that much less learning/growth occurs. When it doesn’t suck, there’s a lot more room for empowerment, for focus on the task being learned, and while not always completely safe there is a lot more safety available to take the risks and push into challenging territory that growth and learning requires.
dont-hurt-them

And the TL;DR version of all this, summed up much more succinctly by the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them at least don’t hurt them.”

 

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Stepping Away from The Lindy Lab

About a month and a half ago I ended my tenure running a dance studio and one week ago I finished cleaning out the office at The Lindy Lab. It was a dream I’d had for about 10 years and 3 years ago got the chance to try making it a reality. The greater reality turned out to be, not so much a nightmare, but more one of those weird confusing WTF dreams that just leave you questioning your own brain and feeling like you may not get back to sleep that night. So I’m moving on to other pursuits and wanted to put together a post to share my experience so I can close out with friends and community on why I’m doing this and hopefully express something that may be useful to future folks walking a similar path.

TL;DR version: I took a moonshot on setting up a studio to try and spark transformation in my scene and found I couldn’t create or gather enough support or buy-in to make the idea sustainable for myself. After watching my own energy flag for close to two years, I chose to get out before I soured on dance and did my best to leave the scene with a great space to create in.

What This Post Is and Isn’t

This will be, to the best of my ability, an honest telling of why I chose to move on. It was, in many ways, a difficult tenure and a difficult decision to leave and I don’t want to candy coat that. I also want to be clear that in trying to speak truthfully about my experiences, I am, for the most part, at peace with the past on this or actively working to making peace with it. There were a lot of frustrations and results that I will likely never fully understand the “why’s” but I have plenty of responsibility in that as well. I’m grateful that I got to take the chance I did and humbled by what I learned from it and will try to cleanly communicate both the positives and negatives that lead to this course of action.

Backstory

I’ve been dancing in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill swing scene since 2002. I grew up in this scene, took lessons from just about anybody and everybody who was teaching and grew immensely as a person through dance. I found a love of body mechanics in dancing that lead me into my career in Rolfing which, in turn, deeply affected my teaching. I had a longer term vision of buying an old church to forge a mixed-use space to house both my Rolfing practice and some sort of dance/movement space. The Lindy Lab at Triangle Dance Studios was a way to test the concept in a rental situation before I considered buying a space. It was also intended to be a space for growth, creativity, and exploration in dancing which I felt had never been strongly offered in this area since I started dancing.

Creating a Space to Support the Dance

I’ve written before about the difficulties I had with the studio build. But suffice to say in the course of about 2 months I spent probably $10k and 400 or so hours of my own time plus a lot of friend’s man hours building a space to raise the level of ambiance for our scene. It has significantly raised the bar for the studio that owns the space and nudged the owner to take some steps to improve all the other studio spaces there. I hear from the studio owner that people rave about the studio but really nobody seeks me out to say thank you and there seems to be a general lack of care from other renters and dance scene for trying to care for the space. People tend to break things or move things out of sight and make no effort to replace or even note that they have broken things. It has helped me understand why the studio owners tend not to go all out on their spaces and the past year I’ve had the refrain of “this is why we can’t have nice things” in my head more times than I expected to. While I’m happy for the improved spaces for the scene and proud of what we built, it ultimately seemed like people responded to a different space a bit, but not enough to affect their behavior towards taking greater care of the space.

Teaching From a Radically Different Head Space

To put it succinctly, I have taken a fundamentally different approach to teaching dance than any other instructor I have seen on the swing dance world stage. I took my training as a Rolfer and developed a way to help people find dance in their existing movements, using what they already know and treating dance as inherent rather than something that must be taught. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of faults as a teacher and I believe that pretty much every teacher out there does something better than I do. But I built my teaching to provide a base that would allow people to travel and learn readily, giving them a “first principles” base of knowledge to be able to fill in the gaps from things other teacher don’t say (or don’t know to say). I tended to receive comments from students who traveled that they rarely encountered an international teacher saying something about mechanics that they hadn’t heard from me already and I’d taught it more succinctly and accessibly.

Lack of Return Students

The response to classes was a somewhat baffling combination of intense appreciation coupled with lack of attendance. While I consistently received praise for the style of teaching and was told it made the dance far more accessible or made people comfortable in a way that nobody else had, such statements also frequently came from people showing up once and never returning. I also encountered a number of people choosing to take from an instructor who was closer even if they felt they got less from that instructor. I’ve been over this many times with friends and fellow dancers and we’ve never really been able to determine if people couldn’t tell the difference in the quality of material or simply had other priorities or goals. But frankly it was disheartening to find myself teaching someone how to do another instructor’s material without it hurting them or their partner (when prior instructors had just shrugged at or been completely oblivious to the pain) and then have those students just head back to previous instructors. I had some really great engaged students 2-3 years ago, but somewhere in the past year and a half that seemed to disappear and a sustained lack of excited students eventually wore down my excitement for teaching.

Did Not Play Well With Other Instructors

I had high hopes going in but found it pretty much untenable to work with any other local instructors. Where I had expected collaboration I more often ran into passive-aggressive silence and where I tried to show respect to former teachers I mostly saw them reference me as someone they taught, oblivious to the fact that I spent the middle 5 years of my dancing career unlearning habits from them in order to be the dancer I am today. Suffice to say I’d seen some of the drama and instructor bullshit coming up in this scene and had hoped to change the conversation. In the course of several years, I feel like was wholely unsuccessful and ended up being just as bad. Some of the standard instructor power trips in the dance world are hot button issues for me and I hoped to set an example or talk to other instructors in a way that would help, but when I didn’t get far I got frustrated and started getting on my own little petty tyrant power trip.

I’m quite sure I was as much of a pain in the ass to other instructors as they were to me and I just generally found that it was more effort than benefit to work with anyone who I hadn’t trained. I would have liked to have things turn out differently but I’ll echo a sentiment I heard time after time the last few years that the instructors (and I include myself in this) are some of the most off-putting people in the scene and one of the primary reasons that more people don’t step up to help. I was fortunate enough to have some friends willing to kick my ass about it when I was making things ugly and I already find my interactions with people being lighter as I’ve basically removed myself from any need to be in contact with that energy.

Timing Suuuuucked

In general, I think there was also a strong element of timing to all of this. Attendance rose and fell but seemed to be in an overall decline in general for the last 4 years or so, even before I started Lindy Lab. Options like Groupon and Living Social seem to have run their course in this area so options that used to provide quick boosts to prior studios didn’t amount to much. In general, it seems like this area is in a bit of a dip in terms of advanced dancers getting more into jobs or marriages or whatever as well so while that core hasn’t disappeared it has become less consistent week to week than it was a few years ago. It does seem to be starting to uptick as I’m handing things off, so I’m heartened, but generally I felt like I spent so much keeping things going through a trough in the cycle that I stopped having much interest in sticking around to push things back uphill once the cycle picked up again. And, on a personal level, add in things like a multi-year house renovation and a 5 year career overhaul and by this past spring I felt pretty certain I wasn’t going to have anything left to give if I kept going.

Deciding to Quit

All these factors came together earlier this year to culminate in a decision to quit. I say I’m quitting because I’m trying to take ownership of that word. It’s a word I haven’t been comfortable with as long as I can remember and I think it’s about time to redefine it for myself. I’ve spent many years in my life holding onto situations, activities, and relationships where I was not getting back the energy I put in and I’ve slowly come to understand that that just doesn’t serve me long term. So, having given it a good 3 years, trying as many angles and tactics as I could without completely tanking myself, I’ve decided to quit with as much integrity as I can and move on to other pursuits.

Space to Grow

Ultimately I am quitting both to create space for myself and to create space for The Lindy Lab. If I had continued to head the studio, I believe it would have taken me an awfully long time to rebound even if it had been possible. Stepping back and turning it over to a committee of committed and excited dancers creates much more space for LL to grow again. It also frees me up to focus on aspects that I did enjoy, namely teaching and special events. And frankly, I find I’m greatly happier having my evenings free to spend with friends, fix up my house, cook, read, etc. The person I’ve been trying to be for several years now has arrived much more readily by creating space than it did by pursuing achievement. The Lindy Lab was an amazing vehicle for me to grow and learn and, for a time, to spread some Lindy Love to some wonderful people and I look forward to seeing it grow and change under new leadership.

The Hopeful Aftermath

I spent a lot of my past year wondering if I was just in the way. And while I don’t think it will just completely rebound, it does seem that attendance has already started to pick up as we’ve worked through handing things off over the past two months. There is definitely space for someone excited and motivated to jump in and start teaching Lindy in the area and the workload is already being spread better than I ever managed to do it.

I just had a former dance student who travels and lectures on education tell me he presents some of my teaching tactics all over the country to great success. A Rolfer in Portland who I was talking to about teaching asked me excitedly if I would be willing to share a workshop on how I teach dance. So it seems that whether I decide to teach again or not, some of the key tenants that I wanted to get out to the world are getting out.

And perhaps simply put, I think I’ve finally managed to swap out “Try to change the world and hopefully that will make me happy” for “Let myself by happy and see how the world shifts”.

We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Cup: A Thought on Happiness and Relationships

It’s my birthday tomorrow and I’m realizing it’s been about a year since I had the following epiphany but haven’t gotten around to writing it down.

Last year shortly after my birthday I was having lunch with a friend and talking about relationships and I realized that somewhere along the line, my approach to relationships had changed significantly. I’d been building skills for several years around the idea that I needed to be happy with myself, not seeking a relationship to make me happy and I realized that not only had that shift occurred but a rather apt metaphor for it had formed in my unconscious mind. And in the midst of that conversation I found myself speaking it consciously for the first time.

If I think of my own happiness as a cup to be filled, I used to view the cup as my own thing and that I had to find a person to fill that cup. What I’ve come to feel now is that what goes into the cup is mine and
the cup is also mine, but the people in my life contribute by helping me to grow (or sometimes shrink) the size of the cup. So adding loves/friendships/etc. to my life helps to grow my capacity for happiness rather than making me happier. And whatever I am cultivating in myself helps to fill the cup with joy or love or sorrow or whatever else I am choosing in that time.

To say the least, this recontextualizing has made some slow but profound shifts in my way of being the past year. I’ve found myself both feeling closer to people and much more patient with time apart. And despite some very intense ups and downs with a major home renovation (which I am living in), I’ve started to find a much more even keel internal state without too much grasping for a relationship to try and distract myself.

As my birthday neared this year I started thinking back on this revelation and noticed as well that I’ve started to do a much better job of regulating my social interaction to my energy levels. In times when I’ve been particularly tired but overcommitted to social interaction I could feel like the contents of my cup were becoming watered down, too little of me to fill a too big cup or “like butter scraped over too much bread” (one of my favorite Tolkien lines that’s been coming to mind a lot ) and it’s been a useful cue to slow down, settle into a smaller group of friends for a bit until I had more of myself to give again.

And in weeks like the past two where I could feel myself constrained and feeling lonely under the pressures of construction it cued me to reach out to a few more folks to help me “upsize” my cup and have space to feel full instead of spilling over.

In addition, I’ve found myself becoming better at allowing friendships to be more fluid. I have a few friends who are in similarly stressful situations to my own and we’ve gone through some periods of being close and periods of needing tons of space or to not talk for a while. It still makes me nervous, but I’ve found a certain peace with allowing
that space to exist and a much better understanding of how allowing space can serve to make a friendship stronger sometimes.

In short, realizing that I am the source of my own joy and that the people in my life can help me to hold more of that joy and share it has helped me be happier, balance my time better, and feel more able to give and receive when I choose to spend time with friends and loved ones. And in the spirit of growing my cup, if you found this useful or have thoughts to share, I’d love to connect about it. 🙂

Scar Tissue Workshop with Sharon Wheeler review

In the past years, I’ve noticed the strongest trend in my Rolfing continuing ed and the one I’ve benefited most from is adding tissues to my repertoire. So about a month ago when a space opened up at a nearby (or at least within driving distance) workshop with Sharon Wheeler on working with scar tissue, I jumped at the chance. And boy am I glad I did because adding Sharon’s Scar Work to my skillset has already helped a lot of clients in the intervening two weeks and given me some new insights into how the body heals.

About the Workshop

Curiously, I wound up being the only male in a class of 15 women (including the instructors and assistants). I don’t gather this is the norm, but it was a curious experience given that most of my basic trainings in Rolfing were heavy on masculine energy. That said, the workshop was in many ways, exceptionally well suited to my kinesthetic learning style, a half day or so of demonstration, followed by 3 rounds of working on each other and then in a team fashion working on model clients, giving us the ability to rotate at will between clients, observe and attempt working on different scars, and stand back to watch when we felt moved to. If you learn well from a relatively unstructured environment, like getting your hands dirty in class, and want to work with your classmates as peers, I’d highly recommend Sharon’s teaching style.

About the Work

The work, I found kind of fascinating. Without going into too much detail, I describe it as very very light sweepy and scrubby type of work. In my head, I refer to it more as “noodling around” than “work”. I’m sure there are at least a couple layers of sophistication I still have to develop with it, but so far it’s been surprising how immediately it is possible to be effective with this work. Scars soften, mobility is improved, areas begin to feel integrated, and often sensation returns to areas that many clients have referred to as feeling not a part of them or dormant. And all of this with no pain and a very oppositional approach to the “you have to break it up” approach that I typically hear in regards to scar tissue.

Why I Think it Works

Sharon made it clear that while she has found this style to work for 40+ years, she’s not entirely sure why it works although they are starting to do research on it now. Because I tend to be a non-linear thinker and like to draw connections, I let my mind wander on the “why does it work” question throughout the workshop and came up with the following ideas. Note that this is just my working theory, nothing proven and subject to change as I go deeper into this sort of work.

My first impression was that it seemed like unlocking or restarting time in the body. The work seems to be similarly effective with recent scars as well as very old scars and in most cases the scars seem to soften and begin to blend in with the surrounding skin and, in a number of cases, nerve function seemed to return almost immediately. It’s almost as if the tissue reaches 80% or 90% healed and then somehow had gotten stuck, almost like it were cryogenically frozen mid-healing and the scar work thaws it back out and allows it to complete.

The working theory that I’ve developed around it is that the work seems to simulate licking wounds (albeit without the saliva). Most mammals seem to do this and while it’s typically explored as a method of cleaning, it seems possible to me that in the course of evolution, tissues have evolved to respond to licking by healing further and integrating better with the “original” tissues around them. While I don’t have evidence to support that theory, it does seem to make a certain level of intuitive sense to me and to most of the clients I’ve shared this theory with.

What I’ve Done With the Work

In the 3 weeks since the workshop I’ve played with a lot of different ideas and seen some great results with some general trends. Here are a few of the things I’ve been able to create with the tools from the workshop.

  • Worked on several C-section/hysterectomy/etc. scars. Saw hips find more neutral tilt and spinal/sacral tension on the opposite side tend to relax more or easier.
  • 2 appendectomy scars, both of which softened significantly and were able to twist through the torso more readily along with releases in back and hip tension.
  • Worked on my own circumcision scar. Found that the tissue softened a good amount, there were numerous signs of nervous system release in my body (stomach gurgling, shaking, etc.) and since then the tissue has been both softer, more sensitive, and I have experienced a distinct ease and better functioning in my pelvic floor.
  • Started recovering a divot in a client’s breast left over from a lumpectomy 8 years prior. The client had also been unable to feel her armpit by the breast since her cancer treatment and left with sensation restored to the area.
  • Worked with a 3x operated on ACL replacement for a soccer player who had been having trouble with it since the first surgery. After 2 sessions, reports that the knee is much more mobile and feels stronger than the leg that has not been operated on.
  • Starting to reassemble cartilage in my own right ear which was shattered in high school when I got cauliflower ear in wrestling. I’ve felt several pieces of cartilage “pop” back into place kind of like I’m shifting tectonic plates back into an alignment and my hearing in that ear has improved after a week or so of the ear going through a phase of feeling plugged up. Still some work to do there, but it seems to be making progress.

I’ve worked on a variety of other small scars in the meantime as well and in almost all cases I noticed that clients seemed to settle in on a deeper level after the scar work than I had typically seen them settle in past.

All in all, this has been a great style of work to add to my toolbox. It’s allowed me to help clients further resolve, heal, and integrate a variety of scars on both a physical and, in some cases, emotional level. Integrating the scars seems to make them more mobile, even out the color with surrounding skin, and allow for better structural work in and around the areas. I think it’s an excellent addition to helping people heal old wounds, fully resolve surgical interventions, and in some cases, recover nerve function that they were told might never return.

Many thanks to Sharon for sharing this work and being a gracious teacher. 🙂

Keyboarding for Happy Shoulders (and Necks and Backs)

In my Rolfing® practice, I see many clients with desk jobs who have concerns about their posture at work.  I see a variety of strategies for how to position feet, butts, and backs, but very few people seem to be considering what their hands are doing.  The keyboarding position most people use puts a significant strain on posture in such a way that it is often overlooked.  While many people work hard to sit upright at their desks, I think it is generally impossible to achieve a fully upright and relaxed posture while using a standard keyboard.

The typical keyboard (even most ergonomically designed ones) place the hands inside shoulder width for the average adult.  Where the hands go, the shoulders tend to follow.  With the hands placed near the center of the body, the shoulders roll forward to follow them, often creeping over top of the ribs and driving the head and neck forward as well.  Over time, more of the body can follow this hunching, leading to the creation of images like this:
evolution_of_man_ape_to_computer

Front_view_hands_close_and_openSide_view_hands_close_and_openIf we examine this positioning in contrast, you can see how the different positions of the hands affect closing or opening in the shoulders and chest.  With the hands inside shoulder width, the chest collapses and the shoulders round forward (if you have trouble seeing this, consider the wrinkling in the front of the shirt).  You can also see from the profile view how the shoulders slide forward significantly when the hands are placed close together.  You can also try these positions yourself and feel the difference.  Most people find the open position to be more relaxed and free but don’t think about it in daily life because they have habituated to the standard keyboard position.

While it made sense in the age of mechanical typewriters to set the keys as close as possible, the digital age offers a wider range of options with which we can adapt technology to fit our bodies rather than the other way around.  There are options available now that can allow us to type while maintaining an open and comfortable hand and shoulder position, what I refer to in dance classes as a “natural shoulder angle”.  The closer you can get your shoulders to this open position, the more room it will allow for full breathing, a relaxed neck, and for the shoulders to settle onto the back.  To that end, I have been experimenting with the following options that allow for a fully open posture when using a computer.  In all cases I found they produced a much more comfortable and engaged sitting position and often improved the flow of my writing once I had acclimated to the new position.

Dual Keyboards

Dual_KeyboardsThis is the cheap, easy, and accessible setup I suggest to people first trying out a wider hand position.  The basic idea is that with the advent of USB keyboards, most computers can now accept input from multiple USB keyboards at one time.  So, you can simply set up two keyboards and, assuming you can touch type, place your left hand on the left hand keys on the left keyboard and the right on the right keyboard.  While it is not the most elegant solution, it gives you a lot of room to experiment and is a particularly cheap “tester” option which I usually recommend before committing to more pricey equipment.

Split Keyboard

Kinesis_KeyboardThis is the keyboard I primarily recommend as a long-term solution.  The Kinesis Freestyle2 keyboard is a fully split keyboard with a cord between the two halves.  They offer a 9 inch cord or 20 inch cord option, I highly recommend the 20 inch as the 9 inch option is not enough to get my hands wider than shoulder width.  While it can take a bit of getting used to, I found it relatively easy and intuitive to make the switch from touch typing with a regular keyboard and it is much easier to orient my hands to the two smaller halves versus trying to find the right position with the dual keyboard setup.  I also find that I feel more productive and creative when typing on this for an extended period of time and experience a lot less fatigue in my neck and upper back.  It also provides a lot of versatility for users of various shapes and if you get tired of the open position, you can readily slide the two halves together for use like a normal keyboard.

Keyboard and Laptop

Keyboard_and_LaptopAt this point, many people I know don’t even have a desktop computer and do most of their computer work from a laptop.  If you are constantly travelling or working from various places with a laptop, you can cut down on clutter by using the laptop keyboard plus a single portable keyboard.  Similar to the dual keyboard setup above, but with less desk usage and higher portability.  While I used a hard keyboard for the photo, you could also readily use something more portable like folding or rollable keyboard.  It does add a little bit of strain turning the head towards the screen, but it can easily be balanced by switching sides with the spare keyboard.

Whatever options you choose to use, my general suggestions are to think first about what positions your body feels ideal in and then look for ways to adjust your work environment to support those positions.  Too often I see people struggle to maintain a comfortable posture simply because the tools they are using necessitate a more cramped position.  The more you set up your environment to support good posture, the healthier your positioning will tend to be without always having to think about sitting up straight.

Lessons From Building a Dance Studio

It’s been about 6 months since I wrote a post.  Some of that has come from being legitimately busy building a new dance studio for the Raleigh/Durham swing scene, and then a lot of it lately has been being nearly burned out from said studio construction.  So I felt it might be a good return to writing to say a few things about what I learned in the process of taking over a raw space and upgrading it to a fully realized dance space these last few months.  I’d have to say I learned a great deal from this process and there’s more than a few things I wish I had known (about the process and about myself) going into it.  So for anyone who may find this useful, here’s what I learned from building a dance studio:

It’s hard to please everyone on details, but a comprehensive vision will pay off

Paint SamplesWith any given project, at a certain point I had to stop asking for input.  Starting off with the ideal of making the studio a place to foster community, I had a desire to try and please everyone.  The problem came about when asking more than a few people for their opinions or ideas inevitably seemed to create an ever-widening field of possibilities and preferences.  I spent a lot of time in the first few months of design work worried about getting it “right”, which doesn’t work if you want to follow everyone’s first choice or suggestion.  Wall colors were a prime example of this, everyone had a different baseline suggestion, from orange to purple.  Ultimately I found it helped a great deal to focus the overall vision, things like “vintage feel, classy, energizing” to help make those decisions.  And while even I cringed at some of the detail decisions (the orange walls scared me on the first coat) making decisions with that vision in mind helped pull something together that so far most everyone seems to be happy with even if particular details may not have been their cup of tea (or mine).

Over-buy tools and materials, return the excess after

Many times I got halfway into a project and realized I hadn’t bought enough of something.  Whether it was a lack paint, or lumber, or tools for pulling staples. the resulting extra trips to the store were both a huge pain in the ass and cost me a lot in terms of time and motivation.  Having to take an extra hour in the middle of at least half the projects to make a second (or third or fourth) run to the hardware store started to feel brutal.  By the end, I was just buying probably double what I expected to use and returning the extra and it was so much nicer to be able to roll through a project and return the extra materials at my convenience.  If you aren’t absolutely sure you’ve got enough, I’d recommend just go ahead and buy a bit more.

Everyone will offer to help paint

I haz a brushDon’t get me wrong, I loved all the offers of help, but almost everyone’s first offer was to help paint.  This isn’t a critique so much as an observation.  I think most folks’ first instinct was to offer to help do something they know how to do and are comfortable with.  Asking people to step outside their comfort zone and help me lay tile or reset insulation or other skilled tasks tended to require me to spend a bit more time supervising and directing.  While it did take more time, I found myself enjoying teaching in some cases or making a team effort to figure out how to complete a project in others.  If you’re going to have help from a team of folks, it seems it’s good to figure out what tasks you need done and ask people specifically to help with them.  I got a lot more out of picking particular tasks to get done and throwing a workday or asking specific people to help me than I did from just generally asking for help.

Make work days into events

gal-officespace18-jpgProbably the most successful workday we had was a “Office Space” staple removing party.  I had purchased some old church pews from a local church with the plan of using them for bench seating in the new studio.  Unfortunately, they were upholstered and I wildly underestimated how much effort it would take to fully de-upholster 10 church pews.  That said, getting a bunch of staple removers and offering to show “Office Space” on a big projector screen while we worked produced probably the best attended workday of the whole construction period.  Anything you can do to make it interesting and engaging for people to help is a big bonus.

I dig on intensity, but…

In the course of doing this, I not only was spending the vast majority of my free time on the studio but also experience my busiest two months ever as a Rolfer®.  This meant I was typically spending 10-16 hours a day for those two months working on the studio or on clients.  Looking back, and still recovering on sleep and energy now, I would say I pretty much trashed myself in the process of doing this and while I was aware I was tired, my awareness barely scratched the surface of just how badly I was in sleep (and other necessities) debt.  But something about it at the same time felt so right.  The intensity of it was like a high and between that and a sort of mania to finish the studio so I could rest, I basically took this triumphant 8-year dream and made it such a draining thing that when it was over, I fell apart instead of being able to enjoy it.

I don’t want to be Luke Skywalker

It wasn’t until about 2 months after finishing the major construction that I ran across this TED talk on popular kid’s media and how it affects our view of gender roles.  I’ve watched this several times now and the subsequent viewings have really driven it home where I feel like I went wrong in this process.

I set out with every intention of being Dorothy.  I was even resistant to thinking of the studio as “mine” because I wanted the community to feel invested in it, I wanted people to have input, etc.  I can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I lost that sense and started treating it like My Quest rather than an adventure with friends.

After several months of this, I came out the other end of the projects and realized I had alienated myself not just from the scene in general (had barely danced for 2 months) but also from the people who had been willing to work closest with me.  I had gone into the studio idea hoping to seriously foster community and feel closer to the people and the dance I love.  Instead I created a situation where I felt I had pushed myself further away both from the experience I wanted and the people I most cared about.

Were I to do this over again, this is one of the big pieces I would change about how I worked at it.  I wanted this to be a project suffused with love, and it may have been for a few people, but for myself, I lost that sense.  I don’t know how much to blame ego or exhaustion or trouble with expressing gratitude or whatever else.  But when the wheels came off and I felt buried in the work, I wish I had been more cognizant to know I have people there who wanted to support me and that it would have been ok to just back the fuck off and complete the studio at a more reasonable pace and do it together rather than smashing myself and feeling alone.

Even when it’s over, it’s not over

So it’s about 4 months later now and I’m finally getting to where I feel mostly recovered from the ordeal that I made out of the studio.  Even these past few weeks I have still had a few days where I’ve ended up sleeping 16-18 hours in 24 and it amazes me to see how much strain my body took on.  But for all the rough patches I created for myself, I’m starting to feel really good about it again.

It’s taking a good deal of work and introspection but some of the friendships are getting patched up.  After feeling like I pushed myself into isolation, I’m re-examining some of the things that lead me to that and finding new ways (to me at least) to connect with people.  Not all of the friendships are as patched up as I would like them to be, but some have even gotten deeper as I’ve made amends.

The studio continues to be a project, and probably will be even after the last project is done.  It’s a constantly evolving process and that’s one of the things I loved about the idea starting out.  On the plus side, I’m being a lot more mindful of managing my time and expectations, handling goals in reasonable amounts of time and letting them slide when they don’t make sense for whatever reason (like being scheduled on a day when I ended up sleeping 16 hours).  It’s made the projects a lot more enjoyable to complete and the ones that I’m still getting help from friends on are a lot more enjoyable and a lot more connected when I leave room for joking and chatting along with the work.

There are a lot of things I could have done better in working on the studio, but even having mucked up a portion of it, the space is beginning to thrive and the energy of the dances continues to improve.  And even as beat up as I’ve been this year, I’m starting to find more reasons to smile about the whole thing and more plans to keep making myself and studio awesomer.  For now, I’d like to end 2013 with a quote that someone recently put on the wall at my office, “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”

In Defense of the Rotator Cuff

This post is being written at the request of a lovely Aussie follower who has suffered multiple rotator cuff tears in the course of her dance life. While not all dancers suffer from rotator tears, it’s a fair bet that almost every dance will run afoul of their shoulders at some point. The following ideas should help you minimize your chances of injury in those moments of potential crisis. Note that while I will give some specific lead or follow examples, all of these should hold mechanically true for both leading and following.

A quick note before anyone jumps up to tell me that their instructor told them to do it differently, I’m speaking here from a biomechanical and injury-proofing standpoint, not an aesthetic or stylistic standpoint. I personally find that solid body mechanics tends to translate to great aesthetics for me, and I try to base my dancing first and foremost on things that I think will allow me to keep dancing for the rest of my life. These are the best safe & effectively connecting body mechanics that I have come up with in 11 years and if I develop or encounter a better idea, I’ll definitely post about it.

Anatomy Time!

rotator cuffThe rotator cuff is the group of muscles connecting the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula).  The reason these are important is that the shoulder blade is a relatively mobile and therefore unstable joint. The surface of the shoulder joint (glenoid fossa) is essentially a very shallow bowl that has been overfilled with the head of the humerus. This makes the joint very mobile, but also vulnerable to sliding around or out of the socket (one of the reasons shoulder dislocations are far more common than, say, hip dislocations). The muscles of the rotator cuff are all oriented closely around the joint to rotate the humerus in the joint, provide stability, and protect against injuries like dislocations.

Dancing Based on Natural Angle

Based partly on the rigors of modern life, most of us have become habituated to some less-than-natural positions for our arms. The arms-straight-ahead position that most of us spend a lot of time in (driving, typing, etc.) rolls the shoulder in a way that compresses the front of the joint and, over time, tends to make the shoulders stick forward even when our arms are at our side. Many people, either by instruction or habit from daily life, learn to dance with their arms straight in front of them, reinforcing this compression, and putting the shoulder in an unstable position to deal with strong pushes or pulls. I feel that opening the shoulder up to a neutral and balanced position makes it both more stable and far more functional at handling the demands of swing dancing.

To reacquaint yourself with this position, first hold your arms up around belly button height then slowly move them from reaching straight ahead to straight out to the side. As you swing through this range, you should notice that the level of tension in the shoulder lessens as you move towards the middle of the arc, hits a point of minimal tension, and then the tension starts to increase as you continue towards the end of the arc. You should also notice the position of tensions shift as you pass to either side of that middle point. This point of minimal tension is what I refer to in classes as the natural angle of the shoulder. It is the angle at which the rotator cuff is most relaxed and therefore most able to react to various forces. The exact angle varies from person to person but typically falls somewhere between 30-60 degrees from straight out front and places the hands in a position wider than the shoulders.

When I’m dancing, part of protecting my shoulder is that I consider this angle to be home base for how I orient to my partner. I remember as a newbie being taught things like spotlighting or to “square off” to my partner and it always felt a bit forced. I have found orienting myself to my partner based on the natural angle of my shoulder to be far more connected and comfortable and consequently safer for my shoulder. My hand and arm move to follow or lead my partner and I adjust the angle of my body to keep my shoulder in an open, relaxed and ready position. It can be counter-intuitive to the way many of us orient to our hands, but once you get used to it, it should make a lot of sense for your body.

Chest Up, Shoulders Down

The other typical position that can compromise the rotator cuff is the overhead lift of leading and following turns. Many dancers don’t just bring the hand and forearm up when they turn, they also raise the shoulder blade. Lifting the shoulder blade off the ribs puts the shoulder in a vulnerable position by disconnecting it from the support of the ribs. Without the support of the ribs, it becomes much easier for a pull at the wrong time to bend the shoulder into an angle that will injure it. I have found the next two concepts to be exceptionally helpful in keeping the shoulder in a safe position during spins and turns.

Paint the Fence (aka NO ROTATION)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A common stressor that many dancers put on their shoulder is trying to rotate it out as they lift. While I realize it is a fairly common cue, I find the “checking your watch” method of leading turns does not make kinesthetic sense to me. Rotating the arm to look at your wrist forces the elbow above the shoulder blade which then pulls the shoulder up with it. The more the elbow flairs away from the body, the more the shoulder separates from the ribs, reducing both stability and connection.

A far more effective method of raising the arm comes in an approximation of Mr. Miyagi’s paint the fence exercise from The Karate Kid (the original, not the remake). Keeping with the natural angle of the shoulder, the motion of the arm is basically just “Uuuup…, Dooown…” and the torso moves to create the turn.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37pbIySnjg]

Unlike Daniel-san, for dance purposes you’ll want to let your elbow be loose, relaxed, and weighted so that it stays low as your arm comes up. But notice in the motion of the movie that this is a whole body motion. You can see the muscles of the chest flex and relax with the motion and you should be able to feel them activating. If you try to same “look at your watch” motion, and feel your pecs, you’ll notice they have almost no activation. Keeping the arm rising and falling and making adjustments with the torso rather than the shoulder rotation will put you in a much safer position and typically keep you more connected to your partner (which also helps you be safer). By maintaining the connection of the arm to the torso, you can also effectively lead turns by initiating small rotations from the chest and spine rather than large motions from the arm.

Scapula as Counterweight (or Turns and Trebuchets)

The other issue I often see putting shoulders in harm’s way is the tendency to think that everything needs to go up. People become so focused on their hand that they forget there is a wrist, elbow, shoulder, and ultimately, spine attached to that hand. So if your only awareness is the hand needs to go up, everything else in that chain tends to go with it. Again, the shoulder rises and you are suddenly in the vulnerable position of having your hand above your head with only your rotator cuff actively holding the shoulder in the socket.

trebuchetWhat has served me best is to bring an awareness of my shoulder blade and to think of it as a counterweight to the arm, similar to but not quite as unbalanced as the counterweighting found in a trebuchet. When I want my arm to rise, I don’t think about taking my hand up, but rather, I think about initiating by allowing the scapula to slide down (inferior) my back and away from my head. This serves to stabilize the shoulder in several ways. One, it insures that my arm does not come up without my scapula being solidly in touch with my ribs and it additionally eases some of the effort of lifting my arm, meaning my hand goes up with less muscular effort and I have more freedom to adjust in case of emergency. One of the easiest ways to experience this is to stand with your back against the wall and try both lifting your shoulder blade as your arm rises or letting it slide downward as your arm rises. With the downward slide, you should feel more of the engagement in your chest and back and your arm should feel much lighter and floaty than when you lift the shoulder blade with it.

incline_pulleyThe counterweight idea is not only useful for turns, but can also be applied to protecting the shoulder from collapsing forward when stretching out in swingouts, tossouts, rocksteps, etc. In a stretch where the arm is not going to come up above shoulder level, think of the shoulder blade as a counterweight to the front of the chest and allow the chest to rise and open as the shoulder blade descends. In the inclined pulley illustration, think of M as the shoulder blade and m as the arm. So long as M is weighty enough, it will resist being pulled up and over the top by m. But if the force of m wins out, then the shoulder blade (M) will be pulled up over the top of the pulley and it will all tumble down the slope. By letting your shoulder blade remain weighty when stretching (at a natural angle) it will prevent a lot of potential strains and sprains that can occur from collapsing and hyper-extending the shoulder.

Keep it Personal

There is no one right way to do this. There is a great deal more variability in human anatomy that a typical textbook will not show and as such, there is a great deal of variability in function as well. The safest angle for one dancer may feel very unstable for another and so on. The more you can create ease in your body, the more ready your muscles will be to keep itself in safe and comfortable positioning. Similar to the non-Newtonian frame concept, the more you are in a fluid, rather than rigid, state to start, the more readily you will be able to react both to potential threats and to communications from your partner. In addition, the safer your body position feels, the more it will free up your attention to try more awesome things. Use the above as suggestions to play with your own angles and ways of conceiving of motion and use whether it feels more tense or less tense as the metric for more vulnerable or less vulnerable.

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