Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘learning’

Advice From My First 7 Years as a Rolfer®

It’s been a little over 8 years since I graduated the Rolfing® basic training and slightly under 7 since I completed my licensure, got laid off, and made an abrupt transition into “full time” at about 2-3 clients a week at the time. Last year I completed my Advanced training and assisted a Unit 3 training for the first time and it’s had me thinking about how much has changed since I first stepped into a classroom in Boulder. I’ve reached the point where there’s no thought to calling myself a Rolfer anymore and even on the days that it just feels like work I still wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

I’ve had my first Rolfling (client who decided to become a Rolfer) and possibly a few more in the making so I’ve been thinking about some of the advice I can offer that I feel really helped me become the Rolfer I am today. It’s not a comprehensive list, but a number of salient points I’ve found useful along the way.

Worry Less About Fixing and More About Learning

It’s challenging to remember when someone is paying for your help but one of the things I wished I’d realized earlier is that it’s not incumbent on me to be everyone’s savior. In the course of my career I might seem like a total wizard to some people and a charlatan or waste of time to other people. In training it was easy to watch an instructor be magical and think that that was what I was supposed to produce in the next hour. And in hindsight what may have held me back in my first few years was the tendency to try and push harder when that sort of magic wasn’t happening.

Having recently assisted a training for the first time, I think that ideally Rolfing training would be something like a 4-year degree. But for a variety of factors it’s not reasonable to run things that way so what we get is a training that teaches enough enough to be dangerous then sets us up to spend our early years getting our “finishing school” from our clients and continuing education. Even being told “the 10-series is what you do for 5 years or until you know what you’re doing” is easy to lose sight of in that moment when you have hands on a new client who’s coming to you for help and your training didn’t tell you exactly what to do in that moment with that client’s particular issue.

Looking back, and in working with my first Rolfing mentee, I think one of the things that most served the Rolfer I have become at this point was learning to back off, stop trying to fix, and focus more on learning. Making my Rolfing practice into my Rolfing *Practice* as it were. When my job became not to fix in the moment but to be effective enough that people came back (when appropriate for them) that was when I think I started to really become more effective. Pacing things not only to the client’s rate of change but also to a level or touch where I could work but still listen an gain understanding of what was going on. So that has become my primary stock piece of advice to new Rolfers which I also found echoed to some level by my advice to first time dance students.

Your primary job for the first 5 years is not to fix people. It is to be effective enough that people want to come back so you can continue to learn from working with them.

Sweat the Small Talk

I started Rolfing training as an avowed introvert, quiet and shy. When I share with clients that this is where I started from, most having little to no trouble believing this (although that’s starting the change lately, *happy dance*). They are far more likely to have a hard time believing I’ve been a swing dancer for 15 years and taught, competed, and ran my own dance studio for a while. So when I say that I’ve found being chatty with clients is a valuable thing, it’s a pretty big statement from where I started.

I think the early stages of Rolfing training made it easy for me to get focused on the client’s body and issues therein. After all, as Dr. Rolf said, it is the part we work with because it’s what we can get our hands on. People tend to show up in my office because they have big issues that have been affecting their life for a while and it’s easy to hang up on those. But one of the things I’ve realized over time is that if I focus too much on the current issues it becomes hard to see why we’re doing all this work and where it is going for the client. Understanding my client’s strengths and resources and joys has proven every bit as important as their problems and it takes a certain level of trust and familiarity to share any of those.

Making small talk with clients (or bigger talk), chatting about their day, their likes, what they or their kids did this past weekend, etc. has been a major source of insight that I didn’t expect it to be. I find that the more levels I’m willing to work with my clients on the more effective I’ve been able to be. Since it’s impossible to really know a person from an intake form I find myself that I can learn and connect more with my clients in a conversational”rolling intake” way not unlike getting to know another human being in any other situation would. The more I’m willing to roam through subjects with clients, the more I get to see the bigger picture of who they are, how their issues and activities and woes and joys are influencing their lives, and very often in conversation I find words or ideas or other hooks to help empower them in their healing process (and I find plenty to help heal myself as well). Sometimes the conversation itself is an important part of the healing. And let’s be honest, it can be a weird thing to meet someone, get in your underwear, and have them work on you; carrying on a conversation like a normal person often seems to help with the process of normalizing the newness of Rolfing for a lot of clients.

When in Doubt, Ask the Client

Being unsure what to do seems to be a pretty common thread in my first few years and strikes me as likely to continue showing up pretty regularly in my practice for the rest of my life. In theory unless I’m working with another Rolfer, I’m the person in the room most likely to be the expert on Rolfing but that still often means not knowing. I’ve often seen situations where Rolfers seem to think they need to know what the client needs as a default. “How do I know when to do X?” is a common question I’ve heard in classes and I think it speaks to the uncertainty of working with bodies and human health. I’ve found that, for me, the simplest and most powerful solution is to own my uncertainty, say “I’m not sure” and then ask the client for input. After all, the client is the expert on being themselves and have been figuring out and meeting their own needs for a lot longer than I have, so why not use them as a resource?

I usually give the client an out by telling them”You’re paying me to figure it out” if they don’t have a clear preference or sense of which direction to go, but sharing ideas and asking for client input helps make the process collaborative and a team effort for the their health. It invites them into conversation with their body and offers them some practice with better defining their internal landscape. It makes my job a hell of a lot easier than trying to know everything all the time and it gives me more information for my own learning process. It’s humbling and humanizing to say “I don’t know” but I’ve found it’s almost always improved on my results and helped keep my ego from getting in the way of the work.

Get a Mentor

There is a lot to learn in this little niche therapy of ours, and fairly likely still a lot more than I’m aware of at 7/8 years in. My de facto mentors for the first few years were my first Rolfers, Bethany Ward and Larry Koliha. I knew going into my first 10-series that I was interested in being a Rolfer so Bethany gave me a behind-the-scenes view of her processes as we worked together and it was incredibly helpful and something I’ve carried in to working with potential Rolfers. Larry and Bethany are also faculty at the Rolf Institute which meant they were full of helpful thoughts on preparing for the training or reigning in my occasional oversteps in practicing (I got scolded for trying nosework on a friend before I had done any training).

It was a real boon to be able to have someone I could ask when I got stuck with a client or when a session had a detrimental result or even when I just felt like a client’s issue was out of my depth and it was better to refer them out to someone more experienced. At the same time, I had Larry’s advice that often the difficult clients are the ones you learn the most from as a guide to work on staying calm and continuing to hang with the moment when I was having trouble with a client or with my own body. And being able to take classes from Larry and Bethany and receive work from both of them over the years has been a great source of new-to-me ideas and feedback on if I’m getting the right idea or if I missed the point of something they were teaching.

And ultimately having mentors has also provided me a metric for realizing that I can be both different and awesome. One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that the people who excel in various fields often seem to do so in part by being deeply themselves in the process. Being able to compare notes with Bethany and Larry and the occasional shared client helped me realize that I didn’t have to always use their ideas to be effective and on occasion I saw something for a client that they didn’t and vice versa. Knowing and working with them gave me a model for success in this trade and over time also helped me realize that my success didn’t have to look the same way as their success.

Get a Colleague

I think perhaps even more important than finding a mentor is finding a peer with whom you can connect. Someone who you feel on an even playing field with and free to talk about your experiences, exchange work, challenge each other, be a shoulder to cry on, and grow in unison (if not always in the same direction or at the same rate). A good colleague provides a safe space to grow in a different way than a mentor and can also help be a great yardstick for our own progress.

One of the most valuable resources to me has been my first client-turned-Rolfer, Lisa Barr. While we started in sort of a mentor/mentee relationship at first, we transitioned pretty quickly to trying to be more like colleagues and equals and both of us feel we got far more benefit from that relationship in the long run. Lisa knows me far better than any other Rolfer because we make time to trade sessions, get coffee after the session, and spend time talking about life beyond the table. This close friendship not only means we have a strong supportive colleague but also gives us additional space to grow and often helps us connect the dots and do deeply transformative work with each other. I believe we are often able to evoke change with each other that more experienced practitioners couldn’t or didn’t because of the additional layers of trust and familiarity that we have built with each other.

Get a (Really Good) Therapist

I feel like I got very lucky with the therapist I started working with just after I finished Basic Training. I’d be dumped HARD during my Unit 3 and came home incredibly distraught and finally ended up working with the therapist who a doctor friend had been advising me to try for several years prior. Frank has been my go-to therapist through the growth of my career and someone I still see off and on as my life, body, etc. continue to shift and grow. Working with him has not only improved my life but it has made me a better Rolfer.

While I started from a place of being a pretty good listener, having a therapist to model on has provided so many small and large pieces towards presenting both a more compassionate and more open model of listening for my clients. My early few years working with Frank involved a lot of anger and his willingness to simply sit with it and advice to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” has, I think, made me a far more accessible therapist to my clients. I’ve learned how to sit and simply hear their stories and when appropriate share my own stories or my own thoughts as opposed to jumping to giving advice or trying to fix things for a client.

And in a more general way, I think it’s an important aspect of presenting balance in ourselves with our clients. As I keep my own personal self developing, I keep myself relatively sharp for helping others develop as well; plus having a close relationship with a therapist has been useful when I need to get a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a client.. And as a colleague recently said to me “I keep going to a therapist so that I don’t have to”.

You Get To Co-Create the Context

It took me a while to recognize it, but the average client coming into my office doesn’t seem to know what to expect from a Rolfing session. Rolfing can be hard to describe even if you’ve had it and it seems to almost defy the “elevator speech” level of communication. So even if they’ve been referred by another client, many new Rolfees seem to show up not knowing what the experience is going to look like.

While it’s easy to view this as a detriment, I have found this can be spun as a strength of the work as well. With minimal pre-conceived notions, it becomes possible to set the stage for our work in a different way than if someone is going for a spa massage or other therapeutic intervention more oriented to them simply receiving care. I have found this ability to re-contextualize our work together as something collaborative, exploratory, out-of-the-box, and holistic is of great benefit and helps go beyond just “fix my pain” to allow room for the sort of transformative work that drew me to Rolfing in the first place.

I aim to meet my clients on a person-to-person level first and foremost and to work as equals rather than play into certain professional roles and expectations. It works for me and it seems to work for the majority of my clients. I’ve seen other colleagues work it different ways that serve them where my strategy wouldn’t fit. But in essence, you get to set the tone of the relationship you want to create with your clients and the more you take advantage of that, the more your work starts to look like you which I generally seems to make the more powerful both for Rolfer and client.

It’s OK to do Free Work

At times, offering free work has been one of the best tools to create a learning environment for myself and to be effective with clients I might not otherwise have helped. Offering free work significantly cuts down the anxiety around producing results for money which helps me feel space to experiment and take risks I might have talked myself out of. Sometimes a client shows up with an issue so outside of my experience that I have no idea if I can help but I want to try and see both if I can help them and if I can learn something. For instance, when I had a lactation consultant start sending me infants with tongue tie issues I spent the first few months doing free work on babies. This allowed me to create training space for myself and the freedom to experiment helped me to play with tactics that were both new to me and seemingly outside of what other tongue tie workers were doing.

Offering free work has also been a great way to smooth things over with clients on the rare occasion where something goes wrong from a session. This happens occasionally when a client struggles with integrating a session or every once in a while when I make a mistake. I try to first do no harm, so when I feel I’ve done something that adversely affected a client, it helps me stay in integrity with my intentions to either return their money for that session or offer free work until they feel better. Some of this is self soothing but it also goes a long way towards restoring trust with clients and being clear that we are working for their betterment and it gives me a chance to get hands on them again and try to learn where things went sideways. The most memorable case of this working for both me and a client happened when I was working with a first time client and had one of her ribs pop out of alignment. She called me the next day saying she was in pain and would be unable to come back, so I offered to do free work until the issue resolved. I spent 6 weeks doing free sessions for her until it felt better but I learned a lot about ribs and haven’t had that happen since, plus she became one of my best clients for a number of years.

Be Careful With Discount Work

One of the things I’ve learned over time is it’s equally important that my clients are covering my needs as that I am covering theirs. At the base level this means that I need to get enough money and/or emotional return on my time and energy to make doing work sustainable. While offering discounted work is occasionally valuable as a marketing or accessibility tool it can also be fairly destructive to the sustainability and quality of my work and client relationships.

I’ve run Groupons twice in my earlier days and found that those kind of steep discounts invite a lot of clients only looking for more discounts. I’ve gotten a few wonderful folks out of each one, but not at a much higher rate than what was already coming through my door by referral. At the same time Groupon tended to bring in a higher than average level of people just there for cheap work and less engaged in the process in general. Additionally the ones who wanted to stick around but only if I kept offering them a discounted rate tended to be the ones frequently going on fun weekend outings worth several times the discount they were asking for. While I don’t fault anyone for trying to save money, it typically seemed like the issue with these cases was one more of priority than true need for a discount which ended up feeling to me like a de-valuing of my time and effort. Noticing this effect has also made me very mindful of making sure my providers feel fully valued when I go to other therapists/practitioners/artists/etc nowadays.

So my early years pricing advice has been to set a price that feels good, and maybe a little uncomfortably high in the sense that it gives you space to grow into. Start from the market price for Rolfing in your area and adjust up or down to find that sweet spot for yourself. I don’t think money is everything but it is the most easily quantifiable and I do believe it communicates something about how people value my time and effort. What I found running Groupons was that doing a lot of work at a steep discount tended to affect the quality of my work across the board. So at this point I’m very mindful of offering discounts and making sure that I take care of my needs in a sustainable fashion that keeps me doing great work for my clients and myself.

Start with 3s When Strategizing and Pitching Work

I started out doing a lot of one-off sessions at dance events so I didn’t get particularly tied to the Ten-Series sales pitch but over time I’ve learned that it’s not where I prefer to start with clients. And clients coming in for the first time tend to find the idea of committing to 10 sessions upfront for a therapy and a person they have never tried to be rather daunting.

3 sessions is a much more manageable amount to consider for trying something new and I find it is typically enough for most clients to decide if we are making forward progress towards their needs and goals. For the last few years I’ve told new clients to “give it 3 sessions and that should give you a good sense of whether or not we’re making forward progress and/or if we need to change directions.” After a year or two working with that number as a proving ground, I’ve found there’s better client engagement and return, more people helped, and I’ve gotten much better at honing in on my clients’ core needs. Plus I find it typically takes 3-5 sessions to really start establishing a trust and rapport that allows for deeper work so when clients stick around past that point we usually get to dive into even cooler territory. Or if a client and I aren’t making some progress in 3 sessions I’m much better informed by then to be able to suggest someone or something that might be more helpful to their needs.

Strategise/Be Opportunistic About Classes for Advanced Training

My practice is in Raleigh, North Carolina in the USA. In the time I’ve been in practice there have been just a handful of RISI credits offered within even a day’s driving distance. When I finally got around to planning for Advanced Training I found myself scrambling to get the required prerequisites done in time. I actually ended up finishing my prerequisites mid-Advanced by flying to LA for a class on my way down to Brazil for the second half of my Advanced Training.

So generally now I recommend to newer Rolfers that they keep an eye out for the workshops near them, try to spread out the CEUs you need to get through RISI for your Advanced Training. If you live in Boulder or Seattle or the like it’s probably not a particular issue. But if you live a couple hundred miles or more from the nearest place where RISI regularly offers classes then pay attention to when they come up and try to maybe take one class every year or two. This will help you be ahead of the Advanced Training game when it comes time to cash in those prerequisite classes.

Titration and Pacing

One of the first pieces of advice I got from Bethany when I did a mentored session with her was to slow down and find the first layer of resistance rather than diving straight to as deep as I could do. I started out with a “Get in there and FIX IT” mentality that, in hindsight, was partly driven by a desire to speed through my own discomfort with my client’s expectations of relief (ESPECIALLY in the cases where I got a client who’d been to a much more experienced Rolfer elsewhere). It took a number of years and a fair amount of confidence and self loving growth to reach a point where I could just hang out at a client’s pace of change and feel (for the most part) comfortable with the discomfort of “they’re not feeling better yet and I’m not sure if they will”. The more I became comfortable with not having to ‘fix’ a client and just helping them evoke change at a pace that worked for them the more effective my work became. And curiously enough, the less I rushed things, the more rapidly they seemed become available to shift.

Pacing for myself as a human and practitioner is important as well. When I first started, two of the local Rolfers were closing their offices and I expected to be flooded with clients. In hindsight I’m glad I ended up getting very few of their people coming to me because it gave me time for my body to adjust and strengthen with this work. It made for some tough financial years in the middle but I believe that taking 5 years to reach a relatively full practice helped me be a better kind of strong and stable for this work.

Learning to pace and spread out my learning has been of great help. The desire to know ALL THE THINGS is certainly there for me at times and occasionally it’s worth cramming a few classes together. But it’s worth remembering that sometimes our clients integrate the most when we take our hands off of them. And similarly, we as practitioners and people integrate similarly when we just settle in and do the work where we are and with what we have at that moment.

Go Beyond Fascia/Try Things/Make It Your Own

I didn’t plan it this way, but looking back at the last 4 or 5 years of Continuing Ed for myself, I did as much learning about tissues other than fascia, as I did taking more traditionally Rolfing/fascial work classes. Nerve work, scar tissue, visceral, and deeper cranial rhythms all helped me refine my touch, expand my range, and take my fascial work deeper as well. Plus watching the various instructors for these courses helped gain a broader idea of how many directions this work can go and how much you can personalize it to your own knowledge base, body type, and way of being.

I started to define Rolfing, at least for myself, as something more of a philosophy than a technique. Most of the experienced Rolfers I know seem to have borrowed pieces of other work that isn’t strictly from the original Rolfing tradition and most of them do work that is in some way distinctly reflective of who they are as a person. As I observed this, I began to think of Rolfing less as a tool and more of an organizing principle for how I arrange my toolbox and how I go about using those tools to help someone (ordering of interventions, seeing beyond the surface, etc.). Thus, to to me, Rolfing becomes not a specific product or service that I offer but rather a context for offering my best therapeutic self to help people, which is part of how my work began to reflect me as a person.

Get Some Work for Yourself

Simple enough but so easy to get away from the habit. Believe in your own product and get Rolfing (and any other work that calls you) not just when you need it but before you need it. Having gone through phases of both I can say I think my clients’ results are markedly better in the periods where I’m spending or even overspending on self care compared to the periods where I wasn’t getting any work for 6 months or so.

Make Room for the Work to Change You

When I started down the path of this work, I oriented to it strongly as “I want this so I can do good things for others” What I failed to predict in those early stages was how much the work would also become a tool for letting the world do for and change me. At nearly 10 years since my first Rolfing sessions, I’m suddenly encountering the idea from multiple sources that the spiritual/personal growth work that we do is not just for ourselves but for all of our relationships and our clients as well. And after spending most of my life orienting as a giver, I find myself learning some really powerful lessons about how much I’m capable of receiving as well.

When I started training as a Rolfer I was on antidepressants, living in a construction zone of a house , and unconvinced that I had much value in the world. I was rather painfully shy, afraid of judgement, and felt stuck going down some family paths that I didn’t even realize I was on. Last year one of my colleagues told me when she had first met me seven years ago she was sure I was going to be a pain in her ass because I was dreadfully unhappy and couldn’t see it for myself.

Yesterday the same colleague told me she’s looking forward to the day when her children reach the point of change that I’ve gotten to lately. I’ve also had comments from pretty much every Rolfer I’ve worked with long-term about how much my body and way of being have changed over time. I still have the rest of my life to grow but I’m significantly happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than I was before I entered this process.

As I changed, my work changed and grew. The more my energy and way of being improved, the better my clients’ results got. In a grand sense, I don’t think of this work as fixing or creating a change in someone, it’s helping them (and ourselves) remove or work through the roadblocks to being our best, happiest, lightest selves. The more we allow ourselves to soften into our hard spaces, the more we learn how to offer similar space to our clients, our friends, and ourselves. So regardless of where you start from, probably my biggest advice to new Rolfers is to be open to the work changing you, challenging you, and bringing you to places in yourself that you may not have been able to imagine when you walked into your Unit 1 training.

How I Became a Rolfer®

In 2002 I graduated from NC State University with a degree in Computer Science. By the time I graduated I was fairly sure that tech wasn’t exactly going to be a deep and abiding passion, but I had the story that I was supposed to go to college and supposed to get a job based on that. So, when I started in 1997, it had seemed like tech was going to keep being more and more important in almost every field and I figured it would work itself out in one way or another. Through this time I was working for various facilities departments at UNC-CH mostly doing mapping of their underground utilities.

Also in 2002 I went to my first swing dance. I’d taken a social dance class for PE credits somewhere in the prior year then broken my hand playing basketball in the spring. As I was waiting for it to heal up, a friend of mine who’d been involved in swing dance a few years earlier during the original revival days was talking about getting back into dance. Right after graduation we went out dancing a couple times then I took off to Australia to visit a friend studying abroad and she moved to Denver just as I got back. I happened to go out one more time on my own and ran into another friend at the dance who directed me to some places for further dance instruction. I started taking classes and within 6 months the then fairly shy and introvert me had the rather weird idea that I wanted to learn how to teach swing.

Early Dance Years and (Slight) Intro to Rolfing

swing_dance_ebc

Dancing back in the days of having hair

Jump forward a couple of years and I was learning to teach, dancing up a storm, and temporarily unemployed for a year. I also happened to be dating someone who messed up her shoulder in a car accident and after extensive difficulty with it, had finally been directed to a Rolfer which she described as “an hour of intense pain, but it worked” and was the only thing that really got her moving forward out of the injury. At the time I can recall she suggested it as a career path saying “you’re strong, you could hurt people, you should be a Rolfer!” I was a bit intrigued as I looked into it and was not feeling particularly motivated by the search for another tech job. However, I had only recently paid off my college loans and had no desire to go back into debt at the time so I set the idea aside.

By this point I was also traveling enough to discover dance beyond the confines of the Triangle where I started. I was particularly enamored with the teaching of Paul Overton and Sharon Ashe and realizing that there was a lot more possibility to the teaching of dance than any of the local instructors were offering. Even so, I was taking from everyone I could locally including a period of taking three classes from three different instructors in three different locations on one night. At the same time I was also watching what life looked like as a dance instructor and coming to understand that while I loved it, I had no desire to make it my primary source of income.

Paragon Years

I eventually found my way back into my first (and only) private sector tech job at a company called Paragon Application Systems working on ATM testing tools and financial transaction simulation. While it was satisfying to create products that our customers found useful, I didn’t feel any particular passion for the work. This was also the first tech job where I had a few coworkers who were really stoked about programming. They would go home and read about new coding ideas, wanted to implement whatever the latest coding methodology was, etc. Watching them I knew I felt similarly about dance but was clearly never going to feel that passionately about programming. As I considered what another 30 years in programming might look like for me I decided I’d better find a different career if I wanted to have that sort of passion.

Around this time I was partnering with another dancer who was going through massage school. It seems to be common for massage schools to briefly mention the existence of Rolfing and when she mentioned something about wanting to try Rolfing, it re-sparked my inquiry into it. I wasn’t experiencing any particular pains, but my 8-10 hour-a-day computer posture was something I knew was holding me back in competition dancing and dance instructors just telling me to “stand up straight” for years hadn’t done much to alleviate it. So I looked around, found Bethany Ward who was the only local Rolfer with a reasonably informative website at the time plus she offered Saturday appointments, making the half hour drive or so to her office much more accessible for me.

First Session and Series

I’ve talked to Bethany about this recently and she doesn’t remember how our first session went so I’m reporting this from admittedly probably a bit biased recollection. I don’t honestly recall the session as a whole but I remember three salient points.

  1. My own thought of “What do you mean my ribs are supposed to move? Nobody told me ribs are supposed to do that” (now I recognize that it’s a pretty common idea in physical modalities but at the time it was very clear that this was a whole deeper level of understanding the body than any dance teacher I had yet encountered).
  2. Heavily-introverted-at-the-time me rambling on for pretty much the entire session. I really remember just feeling totally unable to shut up.
  3. Walking out with a clear sense of YES, THIS! I WANT IT. and almost immediately asking Bethany when we could find some time to meet and talk about what it looks like to train to do this work.

The rest of the session is sort of lost to my memory but it was great having it established early on that I planned to go to the Rolf Institute. As we went through my series Bethany kept me in the loop in a behind-the-scenes sort of way that gave me insight to build on in training. And as we worked and I talked to friends about my plans to become a Rolfer, people started willingly letting me put hands on them and experiment, trying to replicate some of the stuff I felt Bethany doing on me.

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Before & After photos from my first Ten-Series

Support and Hurdles for Getting to Boulder

In my life there had been a few projects that just seemed like foregone conclusions from the time I started them: getting my Eagle Scout, becoming a dance teacher, and then becoming a Rolfer. It was one of those pursuits that, in hindsight, I basically powered through hurdles without thinking about it where I have let challenges stop me in pursuits less important to me.

The first hurdle was getting my work to give me leave to take 2 month sabbaticals to go train. I had a meeting with my boss and simply told him I didn’t think I wanted to be a programmer for the rest of my life and here was this Rolfing thing that I wanted to do, here’s how the training looks, and could we make it work for me to keep my job through the training. Very fortunately for me they liked my work enough that they wanted to keep me around and we made arrangements for me to take two months off at a time then come back to work for 6-8 months in between trainings.

Knowing that work would support it, my next challenge was family support. My mom was supportive but my parents had apparently had a friend years ago who’d become a Rolfer and was fairly un-grounded so my dad seemed convinced I was just going to turn into a crystal-toting hippie. In past I think I’d almost always tended to hide it or fight back when my dad disagreed with something that stoked my fire. This time I simply accepted his concern without much comment and proceeded along with my plans to go. When I came back a month or two later with my registration for Unit 1 in Boulder, he seemed a bit surprised then fell into being more accepting of my plans.

The final big hurdle came during my drive out to Unit 1. I took a solo trip from Raleigh, NC to Boulder, CO and somewhere in the middle of Missouri the fuel pump in my Saturn started to die. The car managed to limp to the next big town where I found a Saturn dealership and lost a day’s worth of driving time and all of my discretionary fund for the trip. The Saturn guys went out of their way (including driving halfway to St. Louis for a part) to get me back on the road. I arrived in Boulder a day late(r than planned) and a number of dollars short with barely enough time to land and get my head on straight for the first day of class.

Boulder, Colorado Unit 1

Unit 1 is the section of the Rolfing training that gets you started and focuses on anatomy and touch skills. I rented a basement room from a Rolfer about 2 miles from the Institute and the class was taught by Michael Polon and Suzanne Picard with Sterling Cassel assisting. A few of the salient points from my Unit 1:

  1. On the first day that we started getting into anatomy we ended up modeling scapulae (shoulder blades) out of clay. As I worked to get the acromion process right I had the thought “I’m definitely in the right place.” And all throughout my training past and continuing I’ve been impressed with the multi-dimensional approach to teaching at the Rolf Institute.
  2. I went through a rough breakup at the beginning of the second week with a woman I’d been dating for 2 years at that point. It was a long time coming but at the time it really hurt and after a day of trying to stifle it I ended up breaking down crying in front of the whole class, sharing what had happened. Hugs ensued and the whole class got me a card the next day: one of many lessons to follow in the power of vulnerability.
  3. About halfway through the training I was trading a session with one of my closer classmates. We were following an area in her lower ribs that felt “dark” to her and after 10-15 minutes of working into it she started sobbing and went through a big emotional release for another 10-20 minutes. In the aftermath of this experience I realized that in a sense I hadn’t actively done anything to make it happen and it had only taken patience and presence to co-create the space with her for her to have that experience.
  4. Jonesing for barbecue one day and taking Michael’s suggestion that my classmate, Allie, and I head down to Daddy Bruce’s BBQ where we got mammoth ribs slathered in sauce and a generic sandwich cookie for dessert. The place has since closed, but the memory retains a special place in my heart for that moment of comfort.
  5. Towards the end of class I felt like I was having an easy time with the anatomy and touch skills and was looking to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I asked Michael what I should be working on personally/spiritually to round out my skills. His response was “figure out what’s holding you back from giving yourself fully to the world” and recommended a book to me: The Way Of The Superior Man that ended up shaping a lot of my exploration into healing my relationship with masculine energy and my own masculinity over the next few years. In some ways I’ve moved deeper than the concepts in the book since then but it was a huge turning point for me at the time.

I finished Unit 1 with a certificate in Skillful Touch, a wording that earned me plenty of juvenile comments (not that I have anything against good innuendo, it was just pretty consistent).

Boulder, Colorado Unit 2

Unit 2 in the Rolfing basic training took me deeper into anatomy and touch skills and is where we first learn and practice the Ten-Series on each other. At this point I’d already been sort of practicing it with a few friends based on what I remembered from my work with Bethany, but this was where I really started to get it. Thomas Walker lead the class with Kima Kramer assisting. A full 2 months in Colorado staying with a local dancer and her husband in Longmont stuck some of these memories in my mind:

  1. I started to feel a little bit more at home with some of the dancers in Boulder and Denver. I was going out more regularly, starting to try a few things and getting out to dinner and such more often new and existing dance friends. This is where I started feeling like Colorado was (and still is) my second home dance scene.
  2. Thomas’ influence played a strong part in the development of my Rolfing touch having more listening in it and learning to be effective on the lighter pressure side of the spectrum. It helped further enhance ideas about how Rolfing doesn’t have to hurt and how to be effective in the moments when it doesn’t.
  3. I found two things that to this day remain some of my favorite breakfasts when I’m in Boulder; Santiago’s breakfast burritos and pretty much anything from Lucile’s Creole Cafe which became a haven when I wanted grits.
  4. In Unit 2 we learn the Ten-Series by practicing it on each other. I had been warned by Bethany to make sure I had good work lined up after I got back because getting learning sessions several times a week can really mess things up. I felt very lucky to have my closest friend from Unit 1 as my practitioner and a male classmate who I jived with as my practice client. My practitioner however had conflict with her practitioner so on the days she worked on me after receiving her session I had to be pretty on my game about minding my own boundaries and at times taking care of her while I was on the table. Overall though I had great sessions and came out of Unit 2 feeling built up rather than broken down.
  5. I have a strong recollection of my 7th session with my client. 7th session involves the mouth and nose work which he had an emotional charge around but hadn’t mentioned to me. The session went totally fine but when he got off the table it was fully soaked in sweat. It was a good lesson about how I might miss a client’s reaction or how they might hide something to make a session go the way they thing it is supposed to.
  6. Work on opening my chest has been a mainstay of my personal Rolfing journey. One day Thomas was doing a demo session with me standing in front of the whole class and working on opening some of my ribs using hands-on pressure and my own movement. At some point he asked me to see if I could let the corners of my mouth float towards the ceiling. As my mouth crested towards a smile I felt a major draw back in and had to say “I’m not ready to go there yet.” This became one of the early realizations that feeling happy was one of the most vulnerable and scary things I could feel. It also started to shape my idea of allowing the work to pace to the client and not always trying to force things open.

I ended Unit 2 feeling good, happy to be flying home rather than driving, and both excited and nervous about my developing plans to take my Unit 3 training in Brazil instead of returning to Boulder.

Barra do Sahy, Brasil Unit 3

When I had been in my Unit 2 trying to decide who to do my Unit 3 training with, an email had gone out notifying us of a Unit 3 training in Brazil. The Brazil course had a combined Rolf Movement Certification with the Unit 3 completion and would be taught by Monica Caspari for Movement and Jan Sultan for the hands-on with Raquel Motta assisting. As far as I could tell from asking around this was like a dream team of instruction so despite not knowing the language or anyone who’d be there, I signed up and booked a room in a beach house to stay at in Barra do Sahy, São Paulo, Brasil. Along with the Movement Certification, Unit 3 involves further deepening our anatomy and therapeutic skills and taking two practice clients through a Ten-Series with instructor supervision. If the view alone isn’t enough to explain why I decided to go, here are a few other highlights of what I got out of that training:

brazil_hammock

And people ask me why I’d choose to go to Brazil…

  1. There were several weeks of exploration and embodiment work with the movement training; challenging the ways we moved and exploring ways to move with more ease and less effort. Monica was an incredible teacher and more than anything else what has etched itself on my soul was her statement that “The primary cause of physical dysfunction is social inhibition.” I take this statement with a grain of salt but ever since in my dancing, my teaching, my work, and my self explorations that idea has informed my work, helping me make sense of motions, pains, and challenges that pure biomechanics couldn’t fully explain.
  2. I got dumped again (by a different woman) somewhere around the second week into training. This was probably the most challenging breakup of my life as I was thousands of miles away from any familiar support network. In hindsight I dodged a bullet with her, but at the time it added a really rough component to contemplate throughout the training.
  3. The beach house which several of us stayed in had a wood-fired sauna that became a focal point for the nights when we needed to decompress. Multiple nights 5 or 6 of us would pile in, watch the bay through the window in the sauna overlooking it and talk through whatever was going on with us through the training or life in general.
  4. Jan became my primary influence from basic training for the power and value of the heavier side of the Rolfing touch spectrum. Between Jan’s teaching and Thomas in Unit 2, I feel I got a good sense of the ends of the spectrum and a foundation for finding a lot of shades in the middle. I don’t think Jan typically used or encouraged us to use any more force than necessary to achieve results but he also had no problem digging in. I have an image of him at one time coming up to observe me working on a client, assessed what was going on and the result we were after and simply said “You’re just gonna have to hurt her.” I also watched a few of my classmates who were really reticent to work in uncomfortable levels with their clients and in my perception it seemed like it sometimes prevented them from creating the healing that their clients needed.
  5. Watching Jan working was amazing and inspiring. It both gave me an idea of what might be possible at at the same time was so distant from what I was able to do at the time that I started to realize there was no way at one year I’d be able to do it like Jan was doing it with his 40+ years. Instead of being disheartening, it actually became an idea that helped me relax, be at peace with where I was as a practitioner and do the best work I was capable of in that moment without so much judging it against the work of those far more experienced than me. This ease seemed to make my work better and my learning faster as I was able to be more present to where I was rather than worrying about where I thought I should be.
  6. My Ten-Series clients were a 60-something Brazillian aesthetician who I didn’t have much language in common with and an ex-pat American who I was grateful to be able to conduct sessions in English with. We relatively quickly fell into a routine of lectures in the morning followed by a two hour lunch break where I’d typically eat then go swim in the ocean for 45 minutes or so, come back, work with a client, then finish the day with lectures. My clients progressed well and I had the absolute best tan of my life.
  7. We were in Brazil over Thanksgiving so one of our ex-American clients who owned a restaurant bought a turkey and invited all the class and all of our practice clients to Thanksgiving dinner.
  8. After the end of her series, my ex-American client invited me over for dinner at her house. It’s the sort of thing that might have been frowned upon in Boulder but in Brazil it was no big deal. It turned into one of the most formative experiences of the trip as my client and I talked about and shared our experiences through the series and in both our lives in general. Of particular influence to me was the fact that she called me out on a few of my less composed moments in class and helped me realize that my clients could see my issues as much as I saw theirs. It’s taken a number of years to really pull it all together, but it has made a huge difference overall in how I work with and relate to my clients now.

I don’t know what to say about Brazil other than I think it has made worlds of difference in who I became as a person and a practitioner and I am forever grateful for having had the opportunity and courage to go there. While I don’t think it’s for everyone, I pretty much recommend every Rolfing student consider it as an option. That said, I was also grateful to return home and be able to not have to worry about sharing a common language when I wanted to go buy a burger or soap or just say more than “Oi. Tudo bem?” to someone on the street.

Lucking Into The Center

thecenterlogoThe final stage of the “becoming a Rolfer” process for me landed in finding an office and building a practice to the point where saying “I’m a Rolfer” felt natural rather than new and weird. I landed at The Center through a curious series of events. As I was settling into the idea of being an alternative health practitioner, I figured it would be worthwhile to familiarize myself with some of the other practitioners locally. I was curious to try out acupuncture and got a referral to Quinn Takei as a great acupuncturist. I went and did a few sessions with Quinn and was impressed with his office and professionalism. On my last session of the series with him I noticed one of the massage therapists packing up her office to move out. I asked if he would be interested in having a Rolfer in the office and the rest is kind of history.

About a month after I had gotten a lease at The Center I was laid off from my programming job at Paragon. It was a year or two in the banking crisis and they were having to make cutbacks. So instead of the slow easing into Rolfing that I had intended, I got a bit shoved into full time. It took a few years and a few withdrawals from my retirement savings to really get settled in here, but I haven’t looked back. And while I can’t exactly recommend the way I got here, I’m dreadfully grateful to have found work that feeds my soul and lets me do something that I feel is of value to the world.

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.”

 

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”.

The Basic as Savasana

Last night I taught a class for the first year anniversary of Cirque de Vol studios staff holiday party.  It was a group of all teachers in various circus arts (hooping, aerial silks, trapeze, etc.) so they were taking to the lessons and within a few minutes, happily spinning, twirling, and flinging each other around the floor.  Things got rowdy and raucous and I wanted a way to introduce a texture of calmer energy into the mix.  So, given that the crowd would all be familiar with various movement forms, including yoga, I decided to tell them to think of the basic like Savasana.

Thinking about it this morning, I felt like it was a pretty good analogy.  For the beginner, the basic is a place to rest and reconnect before going out and doing the next crazy, new set of moves.  And as a growing dancer, the swingout, like savasana, becomes a place to deepen practice and feel out both the holes in your dancing and the beauties in it.  And as the swingout becomes ingrained, it is something you can always come back to and a place where there is almost an infinite space in which one grow and evolve for as long as you continue to dance/practice.

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.”

Following as Active Choice: An Experiment in Wording

A few years ago at The Experiment I had a conversation with a follow who said that while she felt like an equal partner in her marriage, she did not feel like an equal partner in dancing.  My experience dancing with a significant number of follows is that they view the dance as if their part is somehow less important or requires less attention than leading does.  While I have been aware of this issue for years, it has recently occurred to me that some of this attitude could result from the passive language that is often used in teaching follows, especially at early stages.

Over the last few months I have been working intently to  rewrite my teaching language to clearly present following as a role with equal importance in the dance.  I have found that a few key wording changes have produced very different results in the way student followers dance, at least in the short time that I have been experimenting with this.  While I’m aware that these results are by no means a clear indicator of long-term success, given the current national online conversation about gender relations in the swing scene, it seems beneficial to share what I have found so far.  Given the current experimental phase, I figured I would write this up like a high school chemistry experiment rather than a lecture.

I’d also like to give a quick thanks to everyone who has helped me work through how to talk about this, and to all the leads and follows who’ve given me feedback to help me refine ideas to this stage.

Examining Effects of Active Choice In Following

Introduction

Following in dance is often presented to beginners as a purely reactive role.  Analogies for following often involve passive objects on frictionless surfaces, and follows are told to “wait for the lead.”  More attention is given to leads in most classes and follows often receive praise for doing things as expected rather than for following what was actually lead.  After months or years of working to become a “good follow,” follows may suddenly be thrown the idea that they should start adding creatively to the dance, which can seem counter to the skills they have spent their early dance career developing.  It can be a treacherous cocktail of mixed messages about doing what you’re told while being creative and matching the lead, yet also being yourself.

But what happens if we teach following as a “choice” rather than a “should”?  Instead of presenting following as doing what the lead says, what if we present it as listening for the lead as a suggestion or invitation and choosing how to respond?  By altering language and presenting the role as equally capable of influencing the dynamic of the partnership (rather than exclusively reacting to the movements and signals of the lead) we hope to see a rise in confidence of the follows as well as a greater sense of “team” in dance couples.

Methods/Experiments

In teaching private lessons, both experienced and new follows were presented with the idea that following is a choice.  Of particular note is one follower with several years experience who, while commanding in her daily life, has always seemed to lack confidence in her dancing.  This student was asked to think of following as a matter of interpreting the lead and choosing to execute her interpretation as explicitly as she wanted (i.e., purely following), rather than thinking of following as doing it “right” or “wrong.”

In group classes, focus was placed on the follow’s ability to control their own side of the connection (i.e., their own arm) and their ability to suggest ideas in connection or pulse simply by altering their own movements.  Time was spent asking the leads to dance with no pulse or off time and for follows to exhibit strong pulse and rhythm to influence the lead into matching, bringing the couple on beat together.  Followers were presented with the idea of being able to use stretch in frame to generate energy for their own movement, and both lead and follows were taught that they could stretch their own frame individually and as a means of communication to their partner.

Test wordings and exercises were used over approximately 20 follows in 3 months of classes.

Results

In response to this style of teaching, follows have generally been very appreciative of the use of active wording.  They have also advanced faster and appear to be actively engaged in trying to understand how to follow movements rather than asking “what am I supposed to do?”

Follows have exhibited greater flow of motion and more willingness to put their own energy into movement, plus greater trust of support from the lead.  Multiple follows are also exhibiting spontaneous creativity in following and footwork within the first few months of learning to dance.

Dancesplaining has been nearly non-existent in the classroom setting during this experiment.  There has been more positive partner interaction in rotation, such as discussing how to make a move work rather than assigning blame if it doesn’t.

The most dramatic result occurred with a private-lesson student.  Immediately after introducing the idea of interpretation and choice, the follow’s movements became significantly more confident (or actually read as confident for first time that we ever observed); movements became fluid, and she began to smile and have fun.

graph

Conclusions

Presenting following as an active interpretation and choice to respond appears to help follows feel more confident in their dancing and less nervous about doing it “right.”  They also appear more comfortable with the idea of shared responsibility for creative aspects of the dance.  Preliminary results seem to indicate that they are also more interested in continuing to learn and improve than in past classes which used more passive wording.

This style of wording also appears to reduce pressure on the leads by giving them time to integrate their own material while follows work on new material, and by presenting the dance as a shared creation rather than content purely dependent on the lead.  Leads are also able to focus attention in different places when follows are empowered to share responsibility for concepts like pulse and rhythm.

Overall, dances in this experimental mode have exhibited more teamwork and less “2 people holding hands and dancing around each other.”  Both roles seem more excited, less fearful of each other, and less worried about judgement.  Students appear to be approaching the dance and learning as a team rather than as isolated individuals.

While it remains to be seen how this will affect dancing in the longer term, preliminary findings show a great deal of promise.  Feedback from each side has been positive, both in terms of how students feel about the dance and how they feel about the instruction.

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