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When life gives you lemons

Quando a vida nos dá limões

Para português, clique em EN/PT no menu de opções acima.

I know the last couple of weeks haven’t been easy for anyone. We, as performing artists, have definitely been affected by covid-19 tremendously and could not have continued on with rehearsals and performances. No matter what you do, our professional and private engagements have suddenly been put to a halt; however, that doesn’t mean that the world is going to end tomorrow (it could well happen someday though) or that we can’t take this moment of pause to just appreciate other things in life. It is actually a great opportunity to become aware of other aspects of our ‘being’ that we have neglected so far, or pursue an interest we’ve always wished to explore if only we had the time. Easier said than done, I know.

At the beginning of quarantine, I was in shock mode. Kevin and I had just come back from Chamonix. We’d spent the weekend with my brother and his girlfriend, our first trip being just the four of us, without my parents. We stayed in a cosy airbnb with breath-taking views of the mountains and had amazing fondue and wine. Up Aiguille du Midi, with the stunning sight of Mont Blanc, the world seemed very peaceful. White peaks and blue skies surrounding us as far as the eye could see. This was, I now realise, the calm before the storm!! As soon as I arrived back home, I got an email from our company manager saying that all Monday rehearsals had been cancelled. I still went into the theatre the next day, did a barre with some friends, genuinely thinking that I had to be ready for four acts of Swan Lake that Thursday. 'Better not take another day off,' I thought. It was hard to believe that the shows would actually be cancelled. I was in total denial. The Royal Opera House would never shut!

Aiguille du Midi with Carol and Leo

But then it did shut its doors. We were just getting started with Swan Lake performances of all things, one of the toughest ballets for the girls in my opinion. We couldn’t be more active at work. Going from that to suddenly stopping completely?! It all felt so surreal. My first reaction was: what’s the point of doing any exercise right now and trying to stay fit if we might be stuck at home for a while?! The second week felt a little easier, except I got a sore stomach and bad indigestion. I know this usually happens when I feel anxious, and all these uncertainties would have definitely flared it up. Staying away from coffee and alcohol and just living on potatoes, chicken and rice was NOT ideal.

We each have our own way of coping with uncertainty. Taking it one day at a time and slowly coming to terms with the situation is how I’ve been managing to turn things around.

Meaghan Grace-Hinkis, Romany Pajdak, Elizabeth Harrod
Cygnets in Act 2 Swan Lake

I decided to focus on my studies. I had a two-thousand-word essay due, and what a treat it was to have that distraction! I was glad to finally have enough time to spend on my writing but then realised that having all the time in the world is not such a good idea either. I would have to plan out a schedule, otherwise I’d sit on the computer all day. Once submitted, I was looking forward to moving on to my next and final assignment of the module, a three-thousand-word essay and the longest I would have ever written.

The first task was to do a critical read of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, my first experience reading an illustrated novel. I’d read a few comic books as a child (Mauricio de Sousa’s Turma da Monica was a favourite) but that was about it. I had the impression that illustrated novels were made up mostly of drawings, that the images would be too distracting. But Stardust changed my mind completely. More than the gorgeous illustration, I was captivated by its content: the journey to fulfil your Heart’s Desire. It is one that resonates with everyone. A boy sets off on a quest to find and catch a falling star, a promise he’d made to his lover. Sweet! I loved the topic and got on it pretty enthusiastically, only to find out a few days later that the Open University was cancelling further assignments. What????? I was selfishly thinking how could a long-distance learning also be affected by corona?? All this time I was finally going to have dedicated to my essays (and not editing papers in between rehearsals or right before curtain-up feeling all flustered) gone to waste.

Feeling quite upset about it, I thought of our long-gone normality. Back then, what were the things I would have wanted to do with my breaks had I not had my assignments? For starters, since I began my course three years ago, I have pretty much stopped reading solely for pleasure. As for my poor journal, I would touch it once in a blue moon. It was time I picked up on my old habits! Why not take things a little further and start a blog, like I’ve always wanted? I had been pondering on this idea for a while when I spotted a new follower on my Instagram, her name was @thedancepsychologist. Reading her blog really inspired me so I messaged her to say how grateful I was for her insight on dancers' mental health. We got talking, and that’s when she asked me if we could write one together, which led me to starting this blog!

Sometimes it only takes someone to give you that little push, a word of encouragement, for you to have the nerve to start something new.

O.U. books I've read this year

Subconsciously, I must have decided along the course of this quarantine that I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I’ve had plenty of challenging situations, the biggest one thrown at me by my dear old friend Rodrigo Almarales, who asked me to record a ballet barre so he could post it on his Instagram @dancewearroyale. Believe it or not, I had never taught a ballet class before. It is crazy when you think that my mom owns a ballet school! I’ve managed to get away with it all these years. It wasn’t for lack of encouragement on my dad’s part, or hers. It all came down to my fear of not being good enough.

I always felt like I would have no authority in the room. I’m shorter than most students, way too shy, and don’t speak loud and clear. Would I even know how to give them corrections? Would I make them hate ballet? Part of this reluctance comes out of admiration and respect for all my mentors. I think it takes a lot of talent, love, and skills to be a good teacher, someone that will inspire you and bring out your very best. I've been lucky to have had great examples throughout my training and career. Marcia Lago, Toshie Kobayashi, Deborah Hess, Yoko Ichino, to mention a few. But that also raised the standards high for me.

It took a lot of begging on Rodrigo’s part. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I made a very conscious decision that I would send him anything, just to show I’d made the effort. I set up my phone, pressed record, and pretended I was doing my own warm up. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it afterwards. I know I’d have chickened out, so I sent it as it was and didn’t tell a soul about it, except my mom. I was very surprised when Rodrigo said he would edit and post it, and even more surprised when my mom watched it and said it was o.k.! I trust her judgement, she’s always been very honest (sometimes too honest). I’m sure she would have told me to put some make up on, do my hair pretty, look more presentable. But I think she wanted to be supportive and saw it as an opportunity, not to be critical, but to ask me to do the same recording for her. 'You have nothing to be afraid of', she said.

Virtual ballet lesson with Ballet Marcia Lago

I always think of how amazing it is that people see me as an inspiring dancer, but what if they don't see me as a good teacher? Truth is, the fear of what others will think stops a lot of us from doing what we want to do, or convinces us that we are not really that bothered. I’ve never liked being judged. When I was little I’d burst out in tears if anyone pointed fingers and laughed at me. I’d feel so embarrassed, I've been this way all my life! I’d probably still cry now if I fell in the studio doing an exercise and people laughed. But sometimes my desire to overcome new challenges and grow as a person speaks louder. Instead of focusing on that minority that will probably criticise or mock me, I choose to focus on those I’d be inspiring or helping.

Once you take that first small step, others will follow more easily. Things start to shift; new opportunities might appear to keep you aiming higher and further, you start to feel good about yourself and proud of being brave. The next ballet barre I taught was an online session on Zoom for my mom’s students. I did it this time really thinking of what I wanted them to take from it, what I had to give that was unique (thanks to some wonderful tips from tia Lu, my very first ballet teacher, who had watched on @dancewearroyale that first barre I’d recorded).

Since then, more opportunities came for me to teach on Zoom. Having had a go with Ballet Marcia Lago before, I felt confident enough to accept their invitation. And I know it is not the same as having taught face to face (how could it be?) but it is a baby step for me in feeling comfortable with the idea I've so dreaded. Dancing and teaching are two very different things. I don’t know if I have my mom’s vocation for it, but I'm willing to give it a try.

Images: Yoko Ichino (top left), Toshie Kobayashi (top right), Deborah Hess (bottom left), Marcia Lago (bottom right)

It took me a while to feel motivated to be ‘dancing’ at home, but the first day we had our virtual company class was enough to get me back on my feet. Seeing all the familiar faces now all over the world, some reunited with family, reminded me of what truly matters: humanity, love, compassion. Everyone was doing their part to protect their loved ones and others, we were all in this together! It felt so good to listen to classical music and move again. It made me realise how much I had missed dancing and what a calming effect it has on me. Dancing is not just being physical. Especially barre, that which slowly gets us going every day, helps us connect with our bodies and our inner being. When you take away the worries of what is in your agenda for the day, it becomes less of a means to an end. You can appreciate it as an end in itself. As my dear friend Mariana Rodrigues wrote on her blog...

‘Take the stressful and not so nice aspects of our jobs away, and an opportunity comes to be reminded of the beautiful things in it.’

I believe it in my core that if you allow yourself to do the things that scare you, new opportunities will come and drive you in the right direction. Taking this time to explore new paths from the comfort of my own home has been rewarding. Without the pressure of being productive or active, I just found my own way of making lemonade out of this bitter moment. There are good and bad days. Sunny days are more than welcome! If anything, this is teaching us not to take our existence for granted.


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