Monday, August 12, 2013

Inspired vs. Discouraged

This weekend I went to the Pole Sport Organization national championships in Vegas to shoot the performances as one half of Alloy Images. Over two days, I watched every minute as nearly 100 dancers presented their pieces onstage - and I have a confession. I came away inspired, but a little discouraged too. Watching competitions can be such an emotional roller coaster.

When does a dance become just a gymnastics showcase? When does inspiration become discouragement? I can't pinpoint the moment. But at some point in the day, I turned off the camera after one piece and I let out a big sigh. I'm never going to be that good, I thought. I don't care about fonjis. I can't do those insane power moves. Why am I even dancing? Why do I bother performing? What's the point? I don't even compare to that girl.

I know that I'm not alone. After every competition, big or small, someone posts a video on facebook of an uber-intense power pole routine with a caption that's a variation of "what am I doing with my life? why do I even try?"

Well, after feeling sorry for myself for a good 30 seconds I remembered why I try. This weekend I also saw some visceral, brave, soul-shaking pieces that didn't have anything to do with power pole. Don't get me wrong, a great iron X can make me cheer, but it doesn't necessarily SAY anything to me. The performances that stuck with me this weekend were deeper. They required a kind of rawness, something I've written about many times on this blog. Crystal Belcher performed to "Strange Fruit," and left the audience in shocked silence, absolutely torn open with her hauntingly beautiful piece about the lynching of African Americans - before they burst into wild applause. Danielle Romano honored a relative with her heart-wrenching performance about going slowly out of your mind through torture and captivity. These dancers were the definition of epic - in the literary sense.
They didn't just tell us a simple story. Their characters had nuance and depth. They clawed their way to triumph, felt the torture of heartbreak or came crashing to earth in despair. These were not pole ROUTINES. They were STORIES. They were artwork in motion.

And that's what yanked me out of feeling like I don't belong in this world. So maybe I'm not going to win any competitions unless I learn to fonji. But the bottom line is - I'm the only one who can tell my stories. I just have to reach deep enough, give enough of myself to the audience that they feel what I feel. And anyone can do that. I saw little glimpses of it even in the Level 1 performances - women who are just learning basic spins and still struggle with their bodies - nevertheless, they gave me moments of delight. It's not about being "good." It's about what you have to say.

There were too many dancers this weekend who opened themselves up onstage, didn't place or forgot a trick and ended up crying in the wings. It just kills me when I see that happen, because I have walked offstage feeling like a failure too. Although - it's always from trying to be impressive, comparing myself to other dancers, and feeling like I come up short.

Of course in a competition, it feels like it's all about that comparison - but in my experience, the pieces that felt as if they were crawling out of me were what impressed the audience, not the routines I put together because I was TRYING to be impressive. It takes time, and it's so hard, but it's worth it. As an artist you will always be hungry and you will never be satisfied. But when you can give voice to a story that comes from your soul, it's as close as you will ever get. Find those stories. Pay attention to them. Your inner artist is saying something important. Listen.

I leave you with this quote from Martha Graham, that hangs on the wall in my home studio. It keeps me sane, on those long nights when I am choreographing all alone and feeling frustrated.
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. 
Martha Graham


  1. This is beautiful and so very inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Beautifully said. Thank you for sharing! This is a bit long, but worth quoting. A piece written by one of my favorite authors:

    The breath, the breath, the divine life spark we call the breath knows the way to true life. 

    I do not care how you look, how you move, how you see, how you hear, I do not care if you are a trained dancer or have not danced in ten decades, I dont care if you have two legs, one or none .... i want you never to be tied into your bones like an animal hobbled and chained to the side of the road when there is music, beautiful music.


I want you to be free to BREATHE up the music and cry out, even against your ego's will or mistaken propriety or having been told nice girls and good boys dont, or you'll look stupid... whatever the dont is.

    Youre not going to look stupid, you're going to look free and your smile will be your beacon of knowing so.

Overthrow learned paralysis of the body regarding music and dancing: we dont care what you were told when you were a kid. Or an adult.

    Those days are over and most of whomever told you no longer hold sway over you dear soul... you're with us now... the tribe of the Sacred Heart, many of us Scar Clan... and our tribe dances, to each her own, to each his own. 

    Think on it, and as you can and wish, take back your dancing spirit you were born with.

    Observe: EVERY baby child dances. Male, female. They have never had lessons. They just go with the beat as THEY choose. 

So too, you. Your body and spirit were born to breathe and to move: This is what we call dancing. No more. No less.

    As you wish, you can do it, and we'll all be taking your hands and celebrating that you have come alive again.

    I send great love to your dancing bones and heart,

  3. I'm an artist in a number of different mediums, and this spoke to me on every level. Thank you for this.

  4. Thanks for this it is truly inspiring!

  5. I'm so glad you wrote this! It's so, so true. Only you can tell your story and it takes gravitas and grace to tell it. Thank you, thank you!

  6. Iris, thank you for writing about this. So much of what you said resonates with me. I compete mainly because I love the process--picking a song/theme, choreo, costume, pushing myself to get better, hair/make up and of course PICTURES--but I have realized that I don't love the actual event quite as much. Despite what I think of as a (relatively) emotionally stable nature and a life outside of pole, I can't help but feel a little demoralized when my scores are mediocre. Why it should affect me this way is a bit of a mystery to myself because I don't choreograph my routine for the judges and I know I'm not some pole superstar. Furtheremore, in my day job I take care of people who are going through some very devastating emotional things and on an overall level, my mediocre showing at a pole competition really does not compare. But then not only do I still feel demoralized, now I feel demoralized and like an asshole.

    Sorry, this is a bit of a long post but really I'm trying to say thanks for saying what so many of us feel. I would also suggest that a routine does not always have to tell a story or evoke some deep emotional response to be good. No doubt,these are great routines and I love to watch them. But I also love to watch someone come out and just enjoy thier movement and be sensual and, yes, even sexy (gasp!).

  7. Dear Iris Sparrowhawk, thank you for writing your piece and sharing it with the world. I am that person who burst a wee bit into tears in the wings after a recent competition I just entered. I am relieved to know that I'm not the only one who feels that tinge of discouragement! After reading your article, I feel even more comforted.