Monday, June 05, 2006

Losing your turns

What's a pirouette? Here's the Wikipedia defintion--and, as a former dancer, I can attest to its correctness:

One of the most famous ballet movements; this is where the dancer spins around on demi-pointe or pointe on one leg. The other leg can be in various different positions; the standard one being retiré. Others include the leg in attitude, and grand battement level, second position. They can also finish in arabesque or attitude positions. A pirouette can be en dehors - turning outwards, starting with both legs in plie, or en dedans - turning inwards.

The above definition may seem Greek to you (actually, of course, French) but to me the terms are as familiar as English. The terminology of ballet, repeated to me from the age of four till my late thirties, when I quit dancing, gets drummed into the brain until it becomes reflexive.

The diagram, for instance, shows an en dehors turn, since the dancer is spinning in the opposite direction from the leg supporting her weight, and her other leg is held in the postion known as passe.

But I'm not here to teach you dance--fortunately for both of us, since that would be quite a trick, online. I want to talk about the psychological phenomenon every dancer knows about, which is known as "losing your turns."

All of dance is hard for the dancer, although it's incredibly satisfying and rewarding, a completely absorbing meshing of the physical, musical, artistic, and spiritual. But turns are notoriously, especially hard for most people.

Certain people are different, however; they're that rare phenomenon known as "natural turners." Some strange trick of brain and inner ear, some unusual sense of centered balance, allows them to turn easily almost from the moment the step is first introduced to them. Natural turners almost never lose their turns; but the rest of us not only have to struggle to learn to turn, but always retain the perception that the knack can be lost.

Every person has a preferred side to which turning is easier, almost always the right. There have been only a few famous dancers who are/were "left-turners" (the extraordinary Fernando Bujones and the elegant Anthony Dowell come to mind), so most ballet choreography features turns to the right. The favored side for turning has no relation to handedness, by the way; it's an entirely separate issue (I'm left-handed and a right turner, for example).

So the way the brain is structured is definitely part of what makes turns easy or hard. Turns are also especially challenging because, more than any other part of ballet, they require strength and relaxation in almost equal measure. Tension is a great turn-killer, especially tension of the head and neck, which have to work together to move fluidly in the manner known as "spotting" in order to avoid getting too dizzy (spotting involves keeping the eyes on a single "spot" until the last moment of the turn, and then whipping the head around quickly to come back and focus on that object again).

The best comparison I can think of is to baseball: the batter's swing and the pitcher's curve ball. Both are notorious for disappearing for unknown reasons, sometimes for a long time (sometimes ending a career, actually), and then mysteriously reappearing. When a batter loses his swing, he works with a coach, trying to locate the problem, fine-tuning things till it returns.

Likewise with dancers. You can see them practicing their turns after class, over and over and over, looking in the ever-present mirror to see if they can detect that elusive flaw that's spoiling their turns. Because when turns go, it's not a pretty sight. Balance is a thing that's either on or off; a person who could once do four flawless revolutions from a single push-off preparation will now have trouble getting around twice--perhaps even hopping to complete the revolutions or, (for a female) falling off pointe, which can involve an ignominious and dangerous pratfall.

Virtually all dancers know that losing one's turns is a possibility every time they take the preparation for a turn (unsually a momentary pause in fourth or fifth position with the knee bend known as a demi-plie, eyes fixed on ahead for the "spotting," arms poised to whip and then close in for a bit of added impetus [see diagram]) . It's a leap--well, not exactly a leap--of faith, a push into the unknown. Will the turn hold? The dancer has to have the confidence that it will, and relax into it, bringing together all his/her technique and knowledge without really thinking about it. It's part of the dancer's body memory, and trust has to enter into it.

Strangely enough, writing a blog has some aspects of this process, too. No, it doesn't have that element of physical release--au contraire, it's physically quite static. But every day, or even several times a day, the blogger faces that blank screen and has to take a little preparation and push off, assuming the turn (of phrase) will come. It's different from other types of writing, because there's so little time to prepare, and even less time to polish. One must produce at a fairly fast clip, digesting the news and what's being said on other blogs (sometimes swallowing whole without chewing enough) and then saying one's piece.

I'm not complaining; it's a self-imposed labor of love. Sometimes I face that blank screen with eager anticipation--I've got an idea, the words flow, and the thing practically writes itself. A quadruple turn, as it were. Other times I cast about for something to say, or I have an idea but my thoughts are hard to sort out, or I realize that to do justice to the topic I'd really have to write a small book. Sometimes the product is only so-so; sometimes I'm just hopping around and fall off pointe. But the next day I usually return to take my place again, make my preparation, and try to relax into the turn with confidence. And, if it doesn't turn out quite right, I try again the next day.


At 2:31 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

baseball and dance, a rather bizzare combination if I may say so.

At 4:41 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger neoneoconned said...

i have to say that, while i cannot abide your politics i am impressed by your range of enthusiasms.

At 5:13 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger Senescent Wasp said...

Neo, I have to say that I appreciate and value your writing and your voice. Your's is one of my daily must reads.

Getting a visual focus point is also an aspect or another activity. Back in the days before helmet restraints in motor racing we were taught to do this in a spin out in order to get out of the way or start racing again.

One would wonder why someone who could not abide someone else's politics and who has changed no minds would continue to comment in a clearly hostile environment. Could it be a form of secular evangelical "Witnessing for Christ"? Isn't it interesting how similar political and religious belief is? Of course, it is so much easier when the stakes, such as the auto de fe and the fire, are low and actual; you know, discomfort; is absent.

There may be, however, a better explanation and it might be exhibitionism, the ability to wave your particular, anonymous lily in public without people actually seeing just how small it is.

At 7:19 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger al fin said...

The issue of "changing minds" is an interesting one. While neo and most of neo's readers understand what it means to change one's mind, most of the trolls have no concept of what it takes to change a person's mind. That is precisely why they are so ineffectual in their efforts. All they can do is pollute the discussion enough to discourage some readers from visiting regularly.

One thing that amuses me is how irate some people get at neo for having abandoned their particular political point of view. How dare she!

At 7:58 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger Cappy said...

Is that Confud posing? He of the stupid, foreign Rugby, et. al.

At 8:11 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I don't see anyone's post other than the 5 above mine.

At 8:24 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger Senescent Wasp said...

al fin,
All they can do is pollute the discussion enough to discourage some readers from visiting regularly

At the end of the day, I think that conversion is not what they have in mind so much as the discouragement you mention. Putting in five comments with five non embedded links in five different comments can't be anything else. They're not really interested in discussion or they would embed the links and build a comment around them.

At 1:36 AM, June 06, 2006, Blogger strcpy said...

I shoot quite a bit of competetive archery, both compound and recurve. Bare with me on this - it will eventually sound familiar.

No matter if using sights or barebow (no sights) you need to draw the bow to your anchor (a point, usually on your face - corner of your mouth, edge of jaw bone, whatever). You then need to, as relaxed as possible, do a "push/pull" - your bow arm pushes and your string arm pulls. Proper form is such that on your bow arm your fingers/wrist are totally relaxed, your arm structure such that most of the draw weight is held by your bones with the weight held in your back muscles (deltoids, usually around 45lb for a recurve, 20 or so for a compound). In your string arm your fingers must hold the weight, your wrist and forearm totally relaxed, you will have to have *some* tension in your tricepts and msot of the holding weight on your back also. You then block everything out of your mind but aiming - the shot just happens after that.

The push/pull is very very very slight. Lets say you draw 28", to get to your shot you need to draw 28.01" with the relaxed push/pull. It's really hard to have that much tension alternating back and forth with total relaxation - it normally takes years to do any decent at it, then a few more years to get the surprise release (letting the shot happen).

That should sound somewhat familiar - a really difficult combination of relaxed/tense that requires focus on a single thing. I don't know about dance, but something that makes it hard in archery is that to shoot in the higher levels your shot sequence may have 30+ steps that have to be done *exactly* the same every time (for instance, a movement of less than a 1/32" of where the bow grip hits my hand will drop me points - only perfects have a chance at winning).

Then, archers get what we call "target panic". Essentially it is when you can not hold/shoot on target. There are two types of archers, ones with target panic and ones that will get it. It can be such that you can not aim into the center, once in the center you can not shoot, shoot as soon as you look in the center, and a few others strange ones. Very much like "loosing your turns" - it's mental.

For us (and I suspect any performance anxiety), it is usually trying to focus on two things at a time - humans can only truly focus on one thing at a time. Archers have to focus on the aim and let all the other stuff just dissapear. If you focus on hitting your anchor, not missing, hitting the center, anything other than aiming it all falls apart. I rather suspect that the part about thinking about loosing your turns causes you to, well, loose your turns. I'm willing to bet it turns into "Did I move here correctly", "did I push too hard/too light", and pretty much anything than just forget it and focus on the one thing you have too.

Target panic can be sudden and extreme - one bad shot and if you can't get it off your mind it freezes your ability to perform at any level. It's always amazed me how pretty much every sport on the planet has this thing occur. I've played judo, shotgun, rifle, pistol, baseball, golf, and archery - they all have some form of it. Ironically enough the archers seem to have had the best methods of identifying it and curing it that I've known of (ironic in that they do everything else horrid). I've been able to adapt the drills to almost anything and have it successful - many times WAY better than the standard ways to solve it.

At 7:54 AM, June 06, 2006, Blogger Goesh said...

I flop and flounder on the dance floor for the most part....


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