Mixed Messages

“You can ask me any question about technique that you want.”

Except I can’t.

Boss said this last night at my lesson.  Two months ago he told me that I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions and that I should just do what he tells me, because he is the instructor and I am only the student.

(On a side note, he told me this at the same time he told me he is my instructor and not the Boss of my dancing.  I don’t think he realizes I am not his only student to refer to him this way and neither was I the first–its a habit I picked up from another of is students)

I don’t know how to ask questions without making him feel like I am undermining him as an instructor, though lord knows I have tried.

While its an interesting olive branch, history has shown me that whenever I ask questions it inevitably leads to conflict between us because one of 3 things happen (or sometimes all 3):

  1. He dismisses my question and says it either doesn’t matter or is something I ‘don’t need to worry about’.
  2. He assumes I am asking because I am trying to rush progress.
  3. He assumes that by asking I am really saying ‘Forget everything you think I should focus on and focus on only this instead because I want to’.

Very rarely is it numbers 2 or 3, and number 1 just leads me to frustration.  Whether a topic matters to him or not, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important to me and frequently on my mind (and sometimes interfering with other things I am working on).

More often than not, the question comes because I have observed something and am curious about it. Sometimes its related to a small personal project I am working on and I just need a bit of direction to know where to start to begin to work it out for myself.  Sometimes it is related to something else I am working on that my mind has latched on to and won’t let go.

An example–right now one of my exercises is rumba basic and focusing on making sure I step, then settle.  The biggest issue with this is when I step back with my right foot–I have a tendency to step there already settled with no way else to move my hip.  Its taken a lot of experimentation, but slowly I have found a way to step back on a straight leg without having my hip settled. This has led me to consider other steps where I step backwards, and to wonder about how to actually do rumba steps backwards, something I don’t recall working on in international rumba (I did it a lot in rhythm, but very different technique).  Its drawn my attention to the issue to the point that when I do figures with multiple back steps (like aida or reverse top) I find myself distracted by noticing I am not stepping right and trying to figure out how to fix it.  I have tried just walking backwards, but for whatever reason I can’t figure it out–there seems to be a big piece I am missing. In fact, it feels as though what I am doing might lead to injury of my hip as some of the movements I am trying to do are sometimes painful.

But if I ask Boss about that, he will likely think I am asking him to change my exercises or what he wants me to focus on (currently it seems to be forward steps), or he will tell me its something I don’t need to worry about right now.

But on the other hand, he has mentioned several times that my back steps in latin are not good, and while watching videos he has pointed out how others move backwards.

So I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place and mostly I just sort of wait and hope he will notice what is frustrating me and decide to address it.  Because I am not allowed to know his plan, I also have no way to know if my questions will just get naturally addressed when we get to that topic (if we get to that topic).

The rumba back steps are just one of the things I find myself wondering about and wanting to work on by myself.  I have time now since changing my practice schedule but I do feel like I don’t know where to start to work on them.  I am unsure enough that I am concerned I will teach myself wrong and develop bad habits or worse injure myself with bad technique.

But despite what Boss said at my lesson yesterday, I have been ‘bitten’ enough by questions being misinterpreted that I don’t feel I can ‘ask anything’ about technique–or anything really. I just don’t want to risk opening a giant can of worms.

So I wait and hope things will resolve themselves, and try not to let myself get too impatient or frustrated.

I can either ask questions or I can’t.

I don’t see how it can be both ways.

Racing thoughts

Ever feel like there is so much going through your mind you can’t quite catch it all?

That is what I felt like after dance last night.  Not necessarily a bad thing, it just seemed like a lot of pieces ‘clicked’ into place.  At the same time, I am not entirely sure that what has ‘clicked’ is right.

It started in my own practice. One of the exercises I had been struggling with just seemed to come together.  In the process, I tore the suede off of both my heel protectors on my shoe, but I glued them back on after practice.  It was back steps in standard.  For whatever reason, everything I had been struggling to do came together and I was able to move through the steps in one fluid movement instead of broken up into pieces.

When I got to my lesson, I still had some exercises to go through that we didn’t get to at the last lesson, but Boss wanted to have a look again at what I was doing in samba and cha cha lock steps, to make an adjustment to how I am stepping forward.  Essentially, my goal now in stepping forward in both exercises is to focus on keeping the leg as straight as possible and my upper body over it.  I hadn’t been focusing on it before, mostly because I was focusing on other things (and thought I was supposed to do differently), but once I did it a couple of times, it just made sense.  In my mind I was actually thinking ‘why didn’t you just say so’, but sometimes that is just how things go. I am not really sure if the same idea applies to rumba, or if I am already doing it.

After the exercises, we were working on a section in tango that is basically a contra check between two different fallaways.  What was interesting about it was that it gave me an opportunity to experiment a little with my position to get a better idea of what is closer to right, versus well into wrong.  By the time we finished, I had a much better idea of what I needed to do, but also what I could allow myself to do, such as settling down into my knees for stability.  I have a habit of ending leaning back when I close my feet, and not noticing until I stop moving.  I noticed though that part of the problem was I was closing my feet completely together instead of offset which affected my balance.  Once I started off-setting them, the issue got better.  Still have to keep an eye on it though.

My right foot is slowly coming in line, but I have to stay on top of it to keep it from turning out. Overall, more than a few pieces fell into place for tango.

After tango, we worked on the section in waltz we have been doing with a spin turn to turning locks to the right.  Mostly I was doing it on my own to try to get some better control over what I was doing, and to figure out a little bit of the alignments, but we were also doing it together.  In contrast to what I am doing in latin, one of the challenges in waltz is to NOT straighten my knees too much and to keep them bent and flexible.

The other challenge is trickier.  I am still warring with myself about how much I can do.  I can tell I am still being cautious most of the time–even when I intend not to be–and I am still trying to find what I would call a ‘new’ comfort level.  Usually what happens is I push myself outside my comfort zone, then freak myself out, and scale it back.  Trying to find that balance is still eluding me, but in many ways I guess knowing is half the battle.

Later on last night, I had a bit of a revelation, although it could be completely wrong.  I was going through my rumba routine in my head, and thinking about how it would work with the lead and follow.  Somewhere it occurred to me that perhaps when my hip goes back and my upper body goes forward, then the resistance through my arm from my should should follow what my upper body is doing.  I don’t know if it’s right or not–it could be the opposite of what I need, but what is significant to me is that I am finally starting to connect the lead/follow with movements my body makes, instead of just guessing.  I am just not quite sure which movement should determine the direction of the follow–my hips or upper body.

It’s interesting how things seem to just suddenly come together.

The Return and End of Smooth

Stopping dance proved to be disastrous for my health.

The day after I decided to stop, I had a complete breakdown and ended up at the ER.  I didn’t think it was possible to get worse than I was, but believe me, it was much much worse.  With everything else, the medication I was on gave me violent mood swings as levels of brain chemicals went up and down until a stable level was achieved.

It was the longest and most difficult 3 weeks of my life.  I really thought I might die, and to be honest, I wished the cancer had killed me.  It was a very very dark time.  On top of everything else, stopping dance actually made the grief I am going through over losing my fertility even more poignant, because I felt as though I had absolutely nothing left to hold on to. I had created a giant hole in my life that I could no longer fill and the little bit of joy and meaning I had in my life disappeared.

But somehow I got through it.  It took a lot of talk with mental health experts, time for medication to kick in and dose adjustments, and a complete reevaluation of my life and dance.

On top of the medical staff, I also (with their encouragement) talked with other dancers in the community (pro/am and amateur), non-dancers and Boss.  I took more than a week to go through and write out all of my thoughts on dance–what was important to me, what I wanted to do with dance, what I felt was missing, what needed to change, and where dance fit into my life–or where I wanted it to fit.  I wrote because that was the best way to express myself and let it all out.  It took me a week and was more than 10 pages, but it helped me find a place for dance in my life–even pro/am.

It took a while, because my energy levels have been quite non-existent and it took some lessons of just talking things through with Boss before I was ready to come back, and we were able to agree on changes that worked for both of us, and hopefully will help to address the issues I was struggling with.

There will be two significant changes to the structure of my lessons.  First, one lesson a week will be devoted to working on showcase/performance routines.  This is to give me an opportunity to be creative and collaborative in dance, something I was missing a lot.  Second, half a lesson every other week will be spent on ‘dance appreciation’.  Time to discuss dance, look at videos of different levels and styles, and develop my ability to think critically about dance and recognize various aspects of it.

My practice is changing as well.  I will still do some drilling, but it will not be the sole focus on my practice, it will be about 2/3rd of it.  The rest of the time will be spent on working through steps and routines as I want to.  The goal of that is to mix time spent drilling, which is more meditative, repetitive, and not requiring a lot of thought, with other aspects of dance that require me to ‘figure out’ and think through what I am working on.

I am also scaling back everything I am doing.  I will be focusing only on international style, and full gold routines for competing.  I will not be competing in smooth anymore.  Boss had wanted to turn the smooth routines into showcase routines, but to me it would be rubbing salt in the wound to work on the routines, but not be able to compete them.

And so ends smooth for me.

It is yet another casualty to cancer.  In all honesty, it hurts a lot, but at the same time I am grateful to still have some way to dance.  My relationships have also taken a huge loss and been damaged through the difficulties of the last month and I do fear they may never really mend.

I saw the surgeon and my hysterectomy will be likely end June/early July.  It will be 4-6 weeks of recovery off of dance and work.  It will be another slow and careful recovery.  The small silver lining is that with a little luck (and I am definitely due!) it will alleviate many of the symptoms from the hormone therapy as I will no longer need ovarian suppression and my hormone levels should fluctuate less allowing my mental health to stabilize.

In the meantime, I wait for a solid date for my surgery and attempt to hold my life together as best I can until then.  Every day is still a struggle, but the past week has seen me become a bit stronger and able to return to strength training.  This week allowed me to return to dance.

I am scared that everything will fall apart again before all of this is finished.  It’s taking a lot to control the depression and anxiety, and I am still in constant pain.  The hot flashes are happening in cycles indicating my ovaries are not as suppressed as they should be.  I have to have another shot in May, but the surgeon told me her goal is for it to be the last one. I truly hope so.

I am taking things one day at a time and trying to live my life as best I can.  I am so far able to work and keep up with it.  Strength training makes me feel better, not drained or exhausted and I am seeing genuine improvement in strength for the first time in almost a year.  In the middle of everything, I managed to finish the first 3 courses of my Masters, and am now working on my 4th.  So far, my lessons have been positive and also leave me feeling better than when I arrived.

I have slowly returned to myself and hope to maintain it.  I have lost much in the last month and I continue to grieve for my fertility–something I expect will continue until after the surgery when it is truly gone.  Things are rocky, difficult, but manageable.

At least for now.

I am back.

Another Surgery….

I have been quiet while having to deal with some health issues related to the hormone therapy.

I found out today that I will be having a total hysterectomy end June/early July.  The sincere hope is that once my ovaries are gone, my hormones will settle down and I can get back to feeling like myself again.

In the meantime, the hormone therapy has more or less crashed my entire system.  Because stopping the hormone therapy is not an option (the shot lasts until May), I have had to be treated with medication for the side effects.  Almost 4 weeks later, I seem to be finally starting to get to a functional point.

I say functional.  The psychiatrist who is treating me calls it ‘presenteeism’–it’s one step up from absenteeism.  Instead of being absent from my life, I am there, just not really participating.

To be perfectly honest, I have never felt worse in my life–including during chemo, radiation, and after surgery.  And I feel helpless to do anything about it, I can only manage it.

Slowly, the mental health issues are improving, but unfortunately the physical ones are not.  I am exhausted.  I am ready for bed at 6 pm after a full day of work.  It takes almost 12 hours for me to feel refreshed.  When I am awake, my energy is fairly fleeting.  It has improved a little in the last week (likely due to the medication), but it is still very restrictive.  I also ache all over.  If you have ever had aches from a fever, that is what I feel like all the time.  That in itself is exhausting.  Usually by 2 pm I have to take some ibuprofen to take the edge off.  I also have frequent headaches and right now the hot flashes are fairly frequent.

At least now, I have a general time frame to aim for when things might get better.  I say might because there is no way to know how my body will respond to surgical menopause versus chemical menopause, but there is a good chance that without my ovaries causing fluctuating hormone levels, things will stabilize and be more controllable.

This also makes very real for me something I have been avoiding–I will never have children.  It was highly unlikely before, but this makes it an absolute ‘no’. In many ways I am grieving for the children I will never have, and I have to acknowledge and give myself time to do that.

To be perfectly honest, I am not really sure if I ever would have had children or if it was something I wanted to do, but I took comfort in having the option. There is a lot more to that, but there are some things I need to keep to myself :).

I do have some dance news.

After I decided to stop dancing, I did go and advertise for a partner in the area where I live.  The response, I am sad to say was two offers for sex and one guy who was genuinely interested in dance, but who also was looking more for a relationship.  It was disappointing, but not really more than I expected, to be honest.

I had a fairly significant breakdown shortly after making my decision.

As part of that, I spent a lot of time discussing dance and what it means to me with my health care professionals.  They encouraged me to reevaluate and to talk to another dancer in the community.  They also pointed out that since my system was so depressed, no matter how much I might want to, I would never be able to see the good side to dance, only the bad.

It took a lot of talk, both with an amateur dancer who has also had breast cancer and previously danced pro/am herself when her partner was unwell, and talking with Boss, in addition to the health care professionals.

In the end, I decided to start writing.  I wrote about what led me to dance, what I enjoy about it, what I want from it, where I am, where I want to be, what I think of pro/am, how I want to learn–in short, 10 pages about dance, going through everything.

It was the most comprehensive evaluation of dance I have ever done, and it occurred to me that throughout my sickness I have had to reevaluate almost every area of my life–but I have never reevaluated dance.

It was long overdue, and it revealed a lot about what I really want and it is quite different from what I was doing and the direction I was going.

I don’t want to say more on that for now, but the evaluation is on-going.

One of the biggest obstacles I am encountering right now is actually the lack of energy, but I hope it will get better.

We shall see.  But now I seem to have something of a timeline for when this nightmare might end.

And so I fight on…

Struggling

I am filled with fear that the hormone therapy is having very negative side effects.

I did end up going to see the doctor again today about my sinuses and he prescribed some antibiotics as the weekend made clear that they are now quite likely infected.  With some luck, I should start to feel better by Wednesday.

But my fear is that the sinus infection is really only going to clear up the pain and pressure in my sinuses, but that the fatigue and achiness, and general listlessness and depression will remain.

I do expect some side effects from the hormone therapy, but at the same time I have to be able to have some quality of life and at least right now I don’t have that.

I am willing to believe that some of what I am feeling is due to being sick, but at the same time it would be naive of me to think that it is all the sinus infection.

My biggest concern is that I am pretty sure the hormone therapy is making me depressed and that to counter that it will be necessary to take anti-depressants.  I want to be clear that it is not the stigma of mental health that worries me, but the need to add yet more chemicals to my body to counter the effects of chemicals I am already forced to add to my body.  On top of that, anti-depressants have their own list of side effects and I am limited in those I can take because of the hormone therapy.  It’s just a big overwhelming mess and a road I really don’t want to go down.

But if I am realistic with myself, I am struggling a lot more than I should be right now.  I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.  I have started a new (old) position at work and I can’t seem to generate any excitement about it.  I go to practice dance and I wonder what the point is and I have no interest in what I am doing.  I am going through the motions like a robot.  I am working on a masters in a subject I usually feel very passionate about but can’t seem to motivate myself to do the readings or assignments.  I am usually very consistent about getting to the gym and doing strength training but I have no motivation for that either.

And while it seems like I am doing a lot, I have not been able to do even half as much as I was able to do previously.  I am very frustrated with that.  On top of that, despite being on the medication to promote weight loss for 4 months, my weight has barely budged–even with good (and prescribed) diet and regular exercise.

As time goes by, I find myself wondering more and more if I should just accept that the life I knew is over.  I should just be resigned to being overweight and heavy and feeling terrible.

So many people have been so supportive, but I feel rather guilty when they tell me over and over that I am so strong and brave for fighting and conquering cancer.  Yes, I was able to be strong and brave and had great support, but it seems that the price you pay for beating cancer is to feel miserable for the rest of your life. That is the truth of  my experience.  I am constantly beat down by my health no matter how hard I work to make it better and I am tired.

In fact, I am honestly completely exhausted.  I haven’t been sleeping well since my last shot to the point where I have been waking frequently throughout the night.  I was almost able to stop taking my insomnia medication (a big step back), but now I am finding it necessary to increase back to a full dose to see if that helps me sleep through the night.

I am not completely sure where to turn for this.  I almost have too many doctors.  Is this a problem for the oncologist? My family doctor? The mental health nurse?  It seems like if I go to one, I will be referred to another.  I am not scheduled to see the oncologist until April, and I am to see my family doctor next week.  Because of the sinus infection, I feel like I have missed far too much work due to illness, which is one of the issues I was sent back to this position to fix.

Regardless, it is obvious to me that I cannot continue living like this.  Part of me want to wait a couple days and see what goes away with the sinus infection, but the other part is very concerned that nothing but the pain and pressure in my face will leave.

I find that I am constantly trying to find something to get excited about–whether dance or work or school–and everything keeps falling short.  Once again I had a lesson where I found myself unable to concentrate and Boss had to repeatedly make changes to what we were working on.  At one point, I had a hot flash so bad while working on a standard exercise I had to push Boss away because I felt like his body heat was suffocating me.  That said, we do have a section of a rumba routine to add to the waltz routine from last week.

I just want things to get better and stay that way for a while.

That isn’t too much to ask, is it?

Trying to relax

There are many dimensions to that statement for me.

First, I just feel over-stressed today and I can’t really figure out why.  It seems like I have been telling myself to just ‘calm down’ most of the day.  I am feeling better than I have, but I am still quite tired.  I am hopeful the weekend will allow me to rest.

But what I really want to talk about is how this relates to dance.  As I mentioned yesterday, during my lesson even though I was feeling scattered and unfocused there were some significant ‘light bulbs’ that seemed to come on that I wanted to reflect on.  The result of that reflection is a general realization that I need to give myself permission to relax when I dance.

That probably sounds a little strange, but I will try my best to explain–and perhaps I will clear some of the clouds surrounding it in my head too.

First, in standard.  A couple of different comments have come together to make sense of this.  The first was a comment from a coach that I have a tendency to ‘raise my arms too high’.  Among other things, I didn’t think that was really possible, so it took a little bit of thinking and adjusting to figure out what that meant.  The second was one from Boss yesterday that I tend to pull him after turns because I turn my entire body as a block from hip to shoulders (or something similar to this–it was a bit of a half-formed verbalization of something he realized).

Regardless, it led me to making some adjustments to my frame, the first of which was letting the level of my arms come down a little.  The result of this is that instead of having strong rigid tension through my back and shoulders directed across towards Boss, I was suddenly able to provide resistance up towards him.  It was a slight change, but allowed me to be less rigid through my arms and shoulders and freed up my should blades to allow them move–something that I wasn’t really able to do before.  It’s still engaging the same muscles, but it is using them in a slightly different way, and it keeps me from feeling like I have to constantly fight to keep my shoulders down.

This actually led to a conversation with Boss that it is ok to allow my shoulder blades to turn independent of the rest of my body and that in some steps it is actually needed.  The combination of these things actually is leading to a dance position that feels much less tight and rigid and actually easier to control (because I am not completely focused on setting one specific position and then trying to keep my upper body from moving).

I am still concerned I am missing a couple pieces, but I certainly have a little more pieces in place than I did before.

Expanding on that, is a similar issue in latin.  When we were working on rumba yesterday, I was having endless issues with my arms and upper body, to the point where Boss was actually pushing my shoulder down to get me to drop my elbow and relax my arm.  I have a tendency to raise my arms and elbow too high using my triceps instead of my shoulder to do it. Add to that constantly resisting in the wrong direction and it made for a pretty frustrating part of the lesson.

Later in the lesson though, as we were discussing upper body movements in standard I remembered I wanted to ask about one of my arm exercises for latin.  This began a pretty detailed conversation about arm movements and actually resulted in forgetting about my arms (for the most part), and focusing on learning how to just move my upper body from my shoulder blade.  It’s a pretty detailed breakdown of the required movement, but I find that when I use my arms they distract me and usually result in me using the wrong muscles to compensate for a lack of understanding of the correct shoulder movement (and strength).

So the exercise is now about moving one side of my upper body initiating from the shoulder blade, then adding my arms within the limits of that range of motion in a separate movement.  The first thing I noticed when trying this? I can’t raise my arm anywhere near as high as I was even starting it previously.  Again, what I was doing previously was ‘too high’.  We also discovered that I was trying to move my shoulder blade but would stop the movement when I needed to engage movement of my rib cage (because I thought I wasn’t supposed to turn my ribs).  I have no idea how this concept will go, but I am hopeful that it might start to correct issues with my arm styling that have been noted by a couple coaches lately.

Peripherally related to that is the issue I am having with settling my hip in latin.  I either do it too soon or not at all.  The main reason? I find myself fighting ‘settling’ because I am worried I will ‘collapse’ and don’t want to relax into the hip.  Essentially, I am afraid to allow myself to let go.

So the theme for the last week of dance seems to be that for whatever reason, I am getting in my own way by working so hard to try to control my movements that I am not allowing myself to move when I am supposed to (did you follow that?).

No wonder I am wound up and feel tense when I dance.

Competing Criteria

You would think that choosing a competition to go to would be a pretty straight-forward thing.

Apparently not.

Now that I have my masters residency behind me, I am looking to decide on competitions to give me something concrete to focus on.  What I have discovered is that because my focus for competing (when I was sick it was more about just getting on the floor) has shifted, deciding on a competition is not as simple as it was before.  A big part of that problem is that while I know my focus in competing has shifted, I am not quite sure what it has shifted to.

As a pro/am student, when choosing competitions it is easy to focus on the bottom line–what can I afford, what is the best value for my money and when can I afford it.  I feel like that is a big part of what has been driving my decisions for competitions.

But the question I would like to be asking first is: What is the best value for my dancing?

And that is harder to nail down.  Right now, I am doing a lot of shifting and rebuilding.  I am changing levels and that means learning new routines.  I want to focus more on closed events, but at the same time I don’t want to disregard the open events so we are also looking to work with a choreographer to develop open routines.  I am trying to rebuild the strength and fitness I lost while sick, while at the same time (hopefully) also improving my technique and overall dancing.

When looking at where to compete right now, the biggest issue is that Boss and I haven’t really set any competition goals.  We seem to be going about it backwards.  We are looking at competitions, and then setting goals for them.  I think I would rather look at what I want to achieve from a competition and then see what competition will fit that goal–and still be affordable.

One of the biggest issues with this right now is that we are heading into summer when competition are few and far between.  On top of this, competing in the US is pretty much off the table with the increasing prices there and the exchange rate.  Not to mention the political climate and travel unpredictability.

While I may be ready to put routines on the floor this summer, there really isn’t a competitive opportunity to do that.  That will mean shifting the focus a bit and looking either longer term, or shorter term.  Do I try to do a comp at the end of June, or do I wait and do two in the fall?  If I do one in June, my routines aren’t likely to be very polished and it would be basically trialing them at the competition.  How much do I want to spend on doing that?  Do I want to use most of my competing budget to attend a competition (which would be great), with routines that aren’t well polished and not likely to be competitive?  Or would it be better to find a more local competition with smaller events to get those routines on the floor before going out against the ‘big dogs’.

Part of this is that as much as I like to support the local competitions, I inevitably end up competing against the same people, getting the same results, being seen by the same judges.  The pro/am portion of these competitions is always small without much variety.  The same 3 teachers bring out the same 2-3 students in multiple events.  I have become quite disenchanted with that.  I really want to branch out and get on the floor in a new area against new people I don’t usually compete against.

But again, it brings me back to the question–when dance-wise is the best time to do this so that the opportunity is not wasted due to lack of preparation time?  It’s one thing to feel ‘ready’.  It’s another to not have routines or be able to complete a full round on the floor.

Whatever I decide, the one thing I need to be sure of is that it is a decision I can accept.  If not, I will only resent it and that is not good for me or my dancing.  It’s a lot to think on, but the only rush is my desire to have a firm goal to focus on.

Competing, especially pro/am is an investment and as such takes a lot of thought and consideration.  But it is important to remember that it is not just an investment of money–it is also an investment of time, practice, discipline, motivation and personal well-being.

The trick is to figure out what meets the value for all those criteria.