Finding Balance in the Chaos
As much of the country ends another week of shelter-in-place (or at the very least, extreme social distancing), I see many dancers feeling adrift, unmoored. The lucky ones already have a schedule up and running: homeschooling or online schooling already in place, teachers and coaches ready to turn to virtual privates overnight, a comforting sense of boundaries and expectations quickly laid down as guide rails when the usual ones have been so abruptly pulled up. We move through our private sessions together online, subdued but focused and at least somewhat comfortable in the “new normal”.
Others, though, aren’t so lucky. A season shut down mid-rehearsal and contracts canceled with a big question mark hanging over next season’s renewals. Ballet studios and academic schools closed completely while flustered administrators scramble to develop a whole new skill set overnight. Spring breaks extended with no possibility of leaving the house. Dancers are bouncing around emotionally like a pinball in a machine, unsure what the future holds and unable to figure out what they should be doing. Or even feeling. Those sessions I see the barely contained fear and worry in their faces - and in their bodies, as they struggle to have control over SOMETHING, even if it’s just a pushup.
How are we supposed to maintain our balance in this new world? How can we keep control of our bodies, our health, our careers, when we can’t even control when we’ll get groceries next?
I was recently re-listening to a Dancewell podcast on the concept of balance, and several things about it struck me in a new way. Marissa Schaeffer was interviewing Leigh Schanfein, M.S. about balance in dancers. The podcast is excellent and I highly recommend listening to the whole thing, but here’s what really struck me:
According to Leigh (and I’m going to be quoting and paraphrasing her a lot because there’s lots in there to unpack), balance is basically equilibrium: it’s the attempt of a system that is in flux to maintain its stasis. Stability is a resistance to a disruption in the equilibrium: think of tripping but having the ability to recover yourself and not fall.
How does this apply to our situation right now? We are attempting to maintain our stasis - our way of life, our goals, our plans - in the midst of great flux. We are fighting for our emotional and mental balance. Whether or not we have stability in our life isn’t dependent on our ability to keep everything frozen and held in place. It’s dependent on our ability to resist a disruption to our equilibrium. Our circumstances trip us: do we have the means to recover and not fall?
Listen: when you try to stand and balance, you’re never completely stationary - there’s always some sort of give and take, called sway. I ask my dancers to stand on one leg and balance with their eyes closed at the start of every session - and I watch how much they sway, how they react, how they try to right themselves.
Leigh explains that good balance is often defined as having a really small amount of sway or small center of pressure displacement (your center of pressure is the average place where all of your weight is on the ground). So to some experts, good balance = not a lot of sway. See that? But here’s where it gets interesting: some studies have actually found a HIGH center of pressure displacement in dancers! Translated into English, we have a lot of sway! And yet we have great balance! What??
Picture someone standing on both feet with his eyes closed. He’s rocking back and forth slightly, swaying lightly from front to back. Now picture someone else standing in the same position, but rocking wildly in a wind. Who would you say has better balance? The one who barely sways, or the one who sways wildly (a large center of pressure displacement) but who doesn’t fall down?
Leigh points out that “dancers have a more chaotic center of pressure - it’s more random. If you have a more random behavior in your balance, then you’re probably more able to be likely to be able to respond successfully to perturbation (disturbance). They (scientists) theorize that dancers have exploratory behaviors in their balance and that way are much more accommodating if a perturbation should occur.”
Did you see that? Dancers sway more. Dancers have more randomness to our position. But we are better at balancing because of it.
We? Are masters of balancing in chaos.
I mean, think about it. We live in the midst of chaos all the time. Short-term contracts, not knowing when you'll hear about your scholarship, cobbling together the rent with luck and band-aids, going from 8 shows a week of Snow to a 3-week hiatus with no company class offered. We live with uncertainty and chaos on a daily basis.
Which means we can do this.
Keeping your balance during these times doesn’t mean rigidity to your schedule. It doesn’t mean pretending everything is exactly the same. It means that when something challenges you, you find the tools to help you not fall.
Last week the internet was flooded with livestreaming dance classes. You can take four or five a day! You’ll not lose a single minute of training for your career! You’ll come out of this stronger/faster/better! And for lots of people, these classes are a huge gift. I’ve loved watching some of my teaching idols giving a class in their living rooms, and my daughters are taking from people they’d never have a chance to learn from in real life.
But if these classes make you anxious? Or guilty? Turn off the social media. These classes won’t help you stay balanced - they’ll just push you further the other way. Perhaps, right now, you need space to grieve what you’ve lost this semester: a lead role in the spring show; a chance to go to New York and dance for dozens of world-class companies; your first professional contract. It’s ok to set the tights aside and process through this. And if you need someone to help you with it? Go to Doctors for Dancers or ask me and I’ll refer you to some of my smart friends who specialize in this kind of help.
Or perhaps you think that, with your entire career out of your control, you can at least control your weight and finally get those few stubborn pounds off. Your body, at least, will be perfect. Disordered eating and unhealthy thoughts can easily take root in days like these, and I strongly encourage you to reach out and get help before your balance is completely thrown.
You are unique and have something to offer that no one else in this world does. And I am giving you permission right now to find your balance in whatever way you need to, even if it looks different than your friends’ choices.
Regardless of what type of perturbation is thrown at you, I know you can survive and even thrive right now. Because finding our equilibrium in uncertainty is something we excel at. Last-minute injury throws you onstage in a role you’ve never rehearsed? You go onstage and shine. A scholarship falls through for your dream summer intensive? You create your own stay-at-home intensive and work with favorite local teachers and show up to class in August better than ever. A dream role is given to someone else? You find joy for your friend, process through your grief, and know that your story isn’t finished. We are dancers. And you have my permission to find your balance
We are in the midst of chaos. But dancers are experts at balancing in that chaos.
Let yourself your sway.