dancing

A different kind of colour blind

I have lovely friends. Several reached out to me after my last post, just to remind me they are there. One girl in particular – she doesn’t get depression. We’ve had so many talks about it before; she sees how miserable I am, she worries, but she doesn’t get it. Can’t I just trick myself into feeling better? Fake it till I make it? Practice optimism?

That’s cute.

No, I can’t.

As in, I actually can’t. I fully acknowledge the benefits of optimism. I try avoid negativity whenever possible – it is such a drag at work, or in group dynamics. I look to assume positive intent, to see the good in people and the situation. Fucking hard, oftentimes sometimes, but I work very hard at it. I aim to extend to others the same compassion I hope to receive when I am struggling. I can do all that and still be depressive.

Depression is the inability to feel joy. It’s like waking up one day and being color blind.  My current funk is nowhere as drastic as my 2014 depression where I woke up one day in a world of claustrophobic grey. It didn’t matter that I knew that just the day before the sun was bright and the sky was blue; it didn’t matter that I could remember those colors. I was living in a world of grey. For the past two years, I’ve been mostly symptom-free, experiencing the full rainbow of emotions, discovering for the first time what it meant to be alive. I’d say that my current funk is more like living in a world where the Instagram Crema filter has been applied: everything is dimmed, and occasionally the saturation drops to almost nil. My capacity to feel deeply, especially deep happiness, is gone. I can optimistically believe that I will overcome this funk by diligently applying my toolbox: but I am still living in a bland world, and cannot see the bright variety of colours for what they are.

On Monday, I didn’t wanna go to kuduro. But the cornerstone of my tool box is exercise and kuduro = #sweatlife, so I made myself go. I vaguely remembered that once upon a time I loved kuduro, but that love was completely absent on Monday. I wanted a nap. In dance class, we learned a new choreography. It was fast, tricky footwork. I struggled to keep up. I came close to walking out of class several times: this is stupid, I’m a shit dancer, I can’t even count to 8, I look like a newborn giraffe, why the fuck am I here, I hate this, there’s no point. But vanity stopped me: that would be diva behavior, worthy of censure, and a poor reflection on the school & team. I’m no diva. Towards the end of class, I stopped trying to drown out those negative voices – impossible anyhow – and channeled my remaining energy on merely executing the steps (instead of dancing aka expressing myself).

 

Now, I KNOW I love dancing. I KNOW that kuduro makes me feel alive – I’ve documented it extensively in this blog. I can reread those posts all I want, I am the same physical person… but my depressive state makes that joy inaccessible. It has stolen my pleasure.

My rational brain knows my emotional brain is fucking around. But that’s the thing with emotions – they override reason. It doesn’t matter that my brain knows that my emotions are false, untrue, incorrect. These feelings dictate my reality. And to the extent my rational brain understands that this perceived emotional reality is false and unreliable… that adds a layer of confusion, doubt and exhaustion to every moment of the day.

It feels like a war. A constant battle between my two brains. The rational brain fighting to have its balanced, reliable, reality acknowledged and the emotional brain seeking to cover everything in this dark shadow that shuts out love, joy, happiness and sunshine. It is exhausting. “I know that I exist in a world of color and that even though I am only seeing shades of grey right now, the bleakest of views, I am probably ACTUALLY surrounded by vivid colors. But I can’t tell. I can’t feel.” And just like a color blind person can’t fake it by wearing colored lenses, I can’t fake it by plastering a smile on my face and hoping that will result in me feeling better eventually. A depressive person is incredibly skilled at smiling and appearing normal.

It almost seems like a cliché to say comedy comes from pain, but real comedy is connected to the deep pain and anguish we all feel. I worked with Robin Williams in an obscure film called Club Paradise. (…) Robin is one of the most deeply melancholy people you’ll ever meet. You can just see it all over him. It’s what makes him so human, and I love and respect him. Deep down, Bill (Murray) is as serious as a person can be. He’s raging, angry, and full of grief and unresolved emotions. He’s volcanic. Comedy gives them a place to work out ideas and entertain – and these guys love to entertain – but they want you to know they feel. (…) You go see Robin Williams do standup, and you can’t get more laughs than that. I’ve been onstage. I know what it feels like to have those waves of laughter. It’s like being bathed in love. Once you’ve had it, it’s like a drug. It wears off, and then you need something more. I want the audience to feel something more than that. I want them to feel my pain. – Harold Ramis (Sick in the Head, Judd Apatow, p.126)

If the battle is long enough, and the emotions vicious and destructive enough… that’s why the Robin Williams and the Chester Benningtons of this world seek the bliss of permanent silence.


I got this message today from a friend from my extended social circle:

I’m so proud of you! You’re opening up and addressing important mental health issues. My friend was talking about her struggle with depression and I gave her my phone so she could read the article you posted the other day. She was trying to find words to explain to me how she feels and I just said – read this. And then, when she was done reading, she said “Yup! That’s me”. It allowed us to have a really great conversation once it was out in the open. So thank you.

I’m clearly doing not that badly, because I did feel something reading that. Possibly that was my rational brain jumping up and down excitedly, sticking out its middle finger at my emotional brain, and shouting, “SEE, motherfucker?! Vanilla DOES have a voice, she DOES have painful stories, and she WILL continue writing.”

Kizomba is a dance of the world. Until it’s not.

As the child of immigrants, I’ve often laughed at the culture clashes and distinctive behavioural patterns – My Big Fat Greek Wedding is almost an autobiography, apart from the small detail of the wrong country (Russia), and how I am still unmarried. I live in a world where race, culture, nationality are visible, identifiable, noticeable. I am not color-blind when it comes to skin: I celebrate the entire rainbow. However, North American society is not tolerant towards minorities, prejudice and bias run deep,​ systemic discrimination and white privilege are real, not debatable. Previous musings include:

The more I’ve tried to educate myself to avoid unconscious biases about minorities, the more I’ve learned about the commonly held perceptions about whites, and I’m uncomfortably aware of the weight of my white privilege and just how impossible it is for others to be color-blind when they see my skin color. #lossofinnocence #poorlittlewhitegirl


My eclectic tastes draw me equally to ballet as to African dances like kuduro/semba/kizomba. Unfortunately, not only do I have negative sensuality, but it is a well known fact: white people can’t dance. I mean, if Dave Chapelle says so, it must be true? Still, I can’t help it. The music makes me feel alive.

After one too many comments about how I can’t shake my hips like the other girls in the class, GT pulled me aside at a party and told me I should stop making such disparaging skin-based comments: it made the others uncomfortable. It was a silly stereotype, it wasn’t true, I was part of the team, not all black people can dance, just drop it Vanilla, ok? It’s in bad taste. Because I was too wrapped up in my insecurities, I didn’t listen to him. A few weeks later, following a constructive criticism during practice from Teacher, my response of “yes, well I CAN’T pop my hips any more, I’m white, I’m missing a few joints to have that kind of mobility” produced a tirade from Teacher.

I’m sick of this “white” business. There is no white, there is no black, there is just dance. You are not a white dancer. You are A dancer. Your job is to move to the music. Music doesn’t care what color your skin is. We all hear the same music, we all dance to the same music. Yes, kizomba is from Angola, but every country dances kizomba. One of the biggest kizomba festivals in the world is in Moscow. And in Sweden. And in the Netherlands. Are you going to tell me all those people can’t dance? Kizomba is a dance of the world. Stop with this stupid bullshit and get to work. I told you to pop your hips. Pop them.

Ok then.


Back when Beaut introduced me to Kizomba: “The music is so good! Except for the French Kizomba music, that stuff is crap. And there is so much of it! The French love to believe they invented Kizomba. They think it’s theirs now, they have quite the history of claiming whatever they like from other cultures.”

Walking home from dance class last week, I ran into a guy I used to kickbox with many years ago. Beautiful black guy from Europe, he always was a looker. We chatted a few minutes, catching up on each other’s life. When he found out I’d quit boxing for dancing, he was intrigued. “What kind of dancing?” Kuduro/Semba/Kizomba, with the odd moment of Salsa. “Lol, taking us over, are you? Hey, relax, I was joking. It’s cool, you have good taste at least.”

Kizomba is a dance of the world… a world in which whites have a long, violent history of cultural appropriation.


I love my school. I love how much enjoyment we derive from watching each other grow as dancers. We are all on the same journey together, regardless of our individual levels of competency. When I am with my team, I do start to believe that dancing is dancing, and kizomba/semba/kuduro is a dance of the world.

At the end of yesterday’s kuduro class we had a boys vs girls showdown. The cheering in these videos makes me so happy. (Same choreography as in this post.)

​​

Just like my boxing gym was a perfect example of what could be if tolerance, respect and acceptance were the norm instead of the exception, my dance school gives me hope that occasionally, as a species, we can set aside our differences long enough to listen to the music and enjoy a quick dance. Fun fact: my boxing gym and my dance school are in the same building. So maybe, this has nothing to do with Coach and Teacher’s leadership skills and values, and everything to do with the specific GPS coordinates of the location. The chemical mix of the cement used in the building – undetectable fumes produce abnormally peaceful & loving human behaviour?! Must be it.

3.5 inches makes all the difference

My hair is not very long. Most days, I leave it loose, wavy or straight, because it stays out of my eyes so I’ve no urgent need to style it.

At dance practice on Sunday, we practiced a move where the lady lies on the ground, the leader steps over her head, and by placing the back of his foot under her neck, kicks her upright in one swift motion. Its a tricky move. Kick, repeat, kick, repeat, kick, repeat. My partner is a new member of the squad, and he was having trouble kicking me with sufficient gusto for me to stand up. After one to many sharp remarks from Assistant Teacher, my partner gave me a very energetic kick upright… while standing on a lock of my hair.

I stopped dancing. Swore loudly, to avoid crying. Left the dance floor to hunt for bobby pins. As I rummaged through my purse, Assistant Teacher asked me what was I doing, quitting mid-song?! “We are practicing for a show, the show must go on!” Without turning around, I suggested Assistant Teacher look on the dance floor, he should see the reason why I was taking a wee break. Silence. “Oh. Ouch.”

Not the lock of hair in question, but a fairly accurate comparison of the amount of hair I lost with that dance move.

Lesson: 3.5 inches of hair is long enough to be problematic. I am NEVER leaving it untied again. #baldnessisnotmydesiredlook

Next, we practiced the kuduro routine for the show. I’d never danced kuduro in heels. Game-changer. All of my weight on my tippy toes, instead of on my heels. I wiped out twice in practice. Not exactly confidence-boosting, finding oneself flat on one’s ass, 2 hours before a show.

I survived. Below, my 2nd time on stage, first time performing all components of the choreography. You can spot where I’m wobbly, trying not to lose my balance in my 3.5 inch heels.

 

Hairloss and fear of falling on stage notwithstanding… that was SO MUCH FUN. #sufferingforonesart

3.5 inches is DEFINITELY enough to be a memorable experience.

The advantage of a digital trail

You know those Facebook memories? Lately, a lot of ppl in my dance community have been sharing memories. Several times in May, I was surprised to not remember the moments being shared –  sure enough: I didn’t know those people at that date. Kinda hard to remember something I never witnessed with a bunch of ppl I hadn’t yet met.

I forget that I’ve been dancing for less than a year. Thank goodness for this blog, which helps me keep track of the stories in my life.

Thanks to Teacher’s propensity to tape everything and share it on social media, I have concrete evidence of my learning curve. Behold, a choreography learned in beginning of January 2017.

Kuduro • AfroHouse | drkizomba.com

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We did not revisit that choreography until this past Tuesday. Behold, the same choreography, set to different music.

 

4.5 months makes a lot of difference.


Boxing taught me a lot of life lessons, at a time in my life where I was defenceless against my shadow. My depressions had me convinced I was worthless. Through boxing, I learned to fight – and there is no point of fighting for a worthless cause; to fight means I am worth fighting for. Key lesson.

Dancing is the next step. To dance is to accept one’s spot in space and to be seen as one is, imperfections and all, rather than as one would like to be perceived. To dance kizomba is to accept connection. It is an intimate, sensual, physical dance: chest and legs touching.  As a follower I must accept the leader’s lead: that requires giving up control, trusting him to guide me with clarity so that I can translate that into movement. It is a form of vulnerability. By accepting to follow, I must accept that I will sometimes get it wrong: I won’t understand, I’ll step on the leader’s toes & stumble, I’ll react too slowly, I’ll fuckup his intentions. I must accept that my imperfections will be seen and trust that the leader will treat them with kindness and patience and work through them so we can create something lovely together. My overriding need for perfectionism is one of the ways my shadow wears me down into depression, bc perfectionism is incompatible with compassion and vulnerability, the two cornerstones of human connection. By dancing, therefore, I am weakening my perfectionist tendencies, and strengthening my capacity for compassion and tolerance for vulnerability. By dancing, I am keeping my shadow at bay.

Accepting that vulnerability and connection hasn’t been easy: I still resist. The most common feedback I get from Teacher and his assistant is, “Try to follow, ‘Nilla, please? You are not the leader“. As I embrace the struggle of letting go of all the noise in my head, and opening myself up to the music and every partner’s unique energy, I am applying these lessons to my daily life. Setting aside one’s agenda to listen to another person, accepting that one’s imperfections will be seen and are just as worthy of compassion as those of others, are principles that apply just as much to verbal communication as to non-verbal communication. By dancing, I am learning kindness.

For months, I used to freeze up into a rigid unmoving blob on the dancefloor if a dance partner attempted such a move – I’d panic, convinced he’d drop me. My rejection of connection & vulnerability, physically manifested as an uncontrollable reaction.

​When I think of how much my life has changed since quitting boxing and taking up dancing, my confidence, my relationship with my body, my ever-expanding social circle, I can’t believe I crammed all that in such a short time period. I can’t wait to see what other lessons await me. There is so much to learn, technically and emotionally; so much happiness and joy to discover.

And I’ll have a digital trail to remind me of all these key lessons.

My Moonstruck

Few movies influenced me as much as Moonstruck growing up.

I must have been 12years old when I first watched it with my parents. My mother had to explain so much. The different kinds of love, the different reasons for marriage, the different ways adults get stuck and stop fully living, the messiness that comes from passion, forgiveness and the struggle to be honest, and the power of art (opera). Set in Little Italy in NYC, I could relate to a lot of the idiosyncrasies that come from being a 2nd generation immigrant. I thought Cher was beautiful, both before and after her makeover in the movie – possibly my first female role model that wasn’t a Disney princess. It is also the first time I truly appreciated comedy. It’s a funny movie.

Some of the key scenes from that movie happen at the Metropolitan Opera. I longed to see the famous Chagall painting that hangs therein, and to feel for myself the power of music in that concert hall. Which I did, in 2011. A broke student, I splurged on $250 tickets to go see Rigotello with one of my girlfriends. In 2014, I returned to the Met, this time alone, to fulfill a bucket list item of seeing Polina Semionova dance the lead in Manon. Both times, I hoped to run into Cher and Nicolas Cage, because obvi they must go to all the performances there, always, right?

This past weekend, I treated myself to a weekend getaway to NYC to visit my cousin & her fiancé. Her sister joined us. They’d been wanting to try out the ABT, and waited till I was available to join them, as I’m the balletomane of the family. I was SO excited to share my passion for ballet with them, specifically at this dream location of my childhood.

I cried as Giselle fell in love with her player-prince, was betrayed, went crazy from the shock of her beloved’s unfaithfulness, and died from the heartache. That was followed by intermission: I sipped a glass of bubbly out on the Met balcony with my cousins under the beautiful NYC night sky. I thought my heart would burst from the beauty of the night.

It occurred to me that I’ve undergone a similar character arc to Cher’s in Moonstruck. I was stuck in a place of depression, trying to live a safe life. I rejected vulnerability for the longest time. I tried to build a life that would avoid hurt and grief. Then the Universe threw Beaut at me, like it threw Nicolas Cage at Cher, and suddenly I was alive.

Ronny: Come upstairs. I don’t care why you come. No, that’s not what I mean. Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either. But love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people… and die. I mean, the storybooks are bullshit! Now, I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!

Beaut might no longer be in the picture, but he left me with dance. And through dance, my life is changing beyond recognition. The people I’m meeting; the lessons I’m learning; the trips I am taking; performing. Life is messy, thrilling and exhilarating, both on and off the dancefloor. That’s not the same happy ending that Cher’s character experiences in Moonstruck – but I’ll live happily ever after just the same. And what better moment to acknowledge how far I’ve come than at the Met, where Cher learned to feel as deeply as I have?

(Incidentally, that quote from Moonstruck is a very apt description of the story line of Giselle, the ballet we went to see. I love it when the Universe echoes the same message over and over, in different manners. #subtlenotsubtle)


It was a wonderful weekend with my cousins.

We walked through Central Park and the High Line. Little oasis of greens in the bustling city.

We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.

This weekend was perfect.

Bougie ‘Nilla

Kizomba, Afrohouse, Semba, Kuduro, Urban Kiz… That’s all that is on my Fbk, my blog’s fbk, my IG. Y’all are forgiven for believing that I am obsessed. I am obsessed.

But.

My true love remains ballet. Always and forever. There is no greater art or discipline, nothing – and I do mean nothing – that can give me more feels.

I’m headed to NYC for a little bougie weekend getaway with 2 of my cousins. We are going to the ABT to see Giselle. I’m such a balletomane, I insisted on picking the exact date and seats, bc I have my favorite ballerinas, and am very picky about which ballerina is suited for what role.

The last time I was in NYC was in 2014: my 30th birthday present to myself was to go see Polina Semionova in Manon, as a solocation. It was my first solo trip, not for work. It was a few weeks before the start of this blog, a few weeks before my depression, a few days after the biggest trainwreck of my dating life (at that point). I wept as I watched Manon go from an innocent girl, to a woman unable to control her sexual impulses, torn between the desire for a nice life and true love, and her eventual death as the price for her sins.

Now, I prepare myself to watch Giselle. I will weep as I watch a young girl with terrible taste in men fall in love with a playboy. He makes her fall for him, only for her to realize she was just a distraction – he is engaged to a beautiful noblewoman. She snaps – unable to process such dehumanizing treatment – goes psycho (the name for that part of the ballet is the “Mad scene”. Giselle goes bonkers; any woman can relate) and then dies from heartbreak. Playboy filled with regret, visits her tomb, only to be haunted by the Ghosts of Jilted Women Past who seek revenge by casting a spell on him to make him dance until he dies from exhaustion. Ghost Giselle intervenes from the afterworld, because although betrayed by him, her love is pure, and she forgives him.

WHO SAYS BALLET IS NOT RELATABLE?! If both of those plot-lines are not accurate descriptions of dating as a single girl in your 30s, I dunno what is.

#soexcited

#badandbougie


Further thoughts on ballet:

That time I danced on stage

So.

I danced in my first show this past Friday, at the Montreal Salsa Convention (MSC).

How did this happen, you wonder? Well. Funny story.

2pm: Teacher asks me if I’d mind showing up at the studio for 6pm to help with the preps for the show. 4 couples from the Dance Squad were supposed to perform at the MSC on Friday night. I was not slated to be one of them – reasonable given my not-so-succesful run of dance practices. No prob, of course I’ll help, I was intending on coming to support my teammates anyways.

3pm: I text Teacher to say, actually, I’ve an appointment from 6-7pm, so I’ll show up a little later than initially anticipated. Much as I love the Dance Squad, I’d rather not bail on my meeting without a valid reason. Rude.

4pm: Multiple missed calls from Teacher. Pick up, Vanilla. Ok ok, but I am at work on a conference call, I’ll call you back as soon as I am free.

4:20pm: Teacher messages the Dance Squad group text, to inform everyone of the various meeting times and locations and to-dos pre-show. He lists the names of the 8 performers – surprise! Vanilla is one of them. Performers have to be at the studio for a last minute practice at 6pm. I bolt from the office, hoping that Friday traffic on a long-weekend won’t be too bad, pass by my place to grab all my dance stuff. It turns out that my body reacts to the stress of a dance show exactly the same as it does for a boxing fight: a massive, uncontrollable attack of the nervous shits, which evacuates everything from my body and then I compulsively step on the scale to check my weight. Right. I forget – I no longer have to make weight, nor do I need my mouth-guard. Time to go! I arrive at the studio only 8 minutes late.

6pm: I meet my dance partner, a guy I’ve never danced with before; a former student of Teacher who now owns his own dance school out in California. He’d flown into Montreal late Thursday night, alone – his dance partner couldn’t make it. He learned the entire choreography in two hours on Friday, but needed a partner. Vanilla, the backup plan. Vanilla, who’d never yet danced the choreography from beginning to end, and had never danced it in her 3.5″ heeled dance shoes. Vanilla, who loves a good challenge.

7pm: Our practice is over. My partner only dropped me once, I only strained his back 7 times and Teacher only yelled a handful of times. I now know the choreography, almost. Success! Time to go register, and change into our costumes.

8:30pm: Arrive at the venue. Scope out the stage – huge. Spend an hour marking the steps with my partner. Manage to do 2 walk-throughs without any significant fuck-ups. Two. That’s a lot.

10pm: Showtime. We are the third team to get on stage. I refuse to watch anything backstage, as the cheers from the 200-300 person audience are defeaning. Nope. Imma just hangout in the back, and hold my partner’s arm and stay calm. Oh look at that! We are walking on stage! Oh hey! The music is starting! Oh wow! This is fun, let me wink at the crowd! Oops, I just did a minor fuckup, oh well, sorry partner. Hey wait! Already done?! I was only getting started, let’s do that again THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN.

11pm-3am: Party with the Dance Squad, none of us able to wipe off the grin from our faces. Teacher looks on, amused and low-key proud of his newest generation of dance aficionados.

Kiz me, babe! Manuel dos Santos in the house! #msc2k17

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