Nanako Yamamoto performing in the Nutcracker (Photo by Eduardo Patino NYC)

The Dancer’s Guide to Getting Through the Holidays

"The disappointment hits in waves," Calista Jones says of this year's canceled production of The Nutcracker. A high school senior who performs with the Appalachian Ballet Company in Maryville, TN, Jones was excited to be cast in soloist roles this year: the Raggedy Ann doll in the party scene, as well as the lead Russian dancer. "I wasn't surprised when the show was canceled, but I'm still sad about it," she says. "My holiday season has revolved around Nutcracker for seven years, and now it's not here."

Canceled Nutcrackers are just one of many "bah, humbug" moments that dancers are likely to encounter over the pandemic-shadowed holidays. Add in some more common seasonal stressors, like family gatherings and training-routine shake-ups, and you have the perfect recipe for a tough time. Thankfully, dancers are known for being adaptable and resilient: Here are some tips to keep your mind merry and bright as 2020 comes to a long-awaited end.

Fighting Food Guilt

(Getty images)

"The holidays can be a pressure cooker for dancers who have issues with food," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, RDN, LD, CD. That's especially true in 2020. You may love and anticipate seasonal goodies. But after a year of less rigorous training, and without Nutcracker keeping you on your toes, you may feel guilty even thinking about having a treat.

For those struggling with food guilt, Koskinen proposes a mindset change: "We use the term 'fuel' a lot, but I'd like to replace it with 'nourish,'" she says. "Nourishing yourself is proactive, rather than restrictive." It's also about the whole person, not just your physical body. In that sense, a holiday cookie can be nourishing. "If a treat brings you joy, let it bring you joy," Koskinen says. "There are no good foods or bad foods, and you are not good or bad based on what you eat."

Of course, there are ways to be mindful as you indulge. Have a healthy meal first, rather than filling up on sweets. Make yourself a small plate of treats, instead of snacking endlessly. If you enjoy baking, eat some now, and freeze some for later. Above all, "Be gentle with yourself," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet. "Give yourself permission to enjoy the season without going to extremes."

Dealing With Unsupportive Family

Are you dreading holiday gatherings or Zoom chats with family members who don't support your dance dreams? Prepare some talking points before your dad starts his lecture on how COVID-19 has killed the arts or your aunt begins gushing about your cousins' more lucrative career paths. "This could be a time to share why you are so passionate about dance," says Kaslow. "Talk about what you love. Then, let your family know you understand their concerns. The arts have been devastated this year. Because this time is extra-challenging, you need extra support—if not financial, then emotional."

Stress to your family all of the ways in which dance training benefits you. What have you gained, aside from strength and flexibility? "Studying dance gives you life's lessons in an embodied way," says Jan Erkert, head of the dance department at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. "Responsibility, dedication, creative thinking—those things are at the heart of what we do. Parents should know that those life skills will serve dancers in any job." Overall, know that you're not alone in dealing with these kinds of conversations. Make sure to prioritize some time over the holidays to connect with, and vent to, your fellow dancers. "We're all going through it," says 16-year-old Sydney Jones-Rumph, who trains at Dance Xperience in Mount Laurel, NJ. "What helps me the most is having my friends with me."

 Finding Space to Move at Home

When things are already difficult, small frustrations can loom large. For dancers who are still studying remotely—or those whose schools did reopen but have now closed—the battle over dance space could be the last straw. It's too cold in many areas to dance outside. Indoor rooms that were fine in April may have been rearranged for holiday decorations. (A fellow teacher recently told American Repertory Ballet dancer Nanako Yamamoto she was afraid a student was going to knock down her Christmas tree!)

Instead of letting resentment build up, problem-solve. Perhaps fragile ornaments can be left off the tree this year, just to be safe. Maybe your family can wait to put out presents until Christmas Eve. If necessary, turn to your teachers for help. "I've guided students in setting up their environment for class," Yamamoto says. "We can also decide to focus on little details, instead of big movements, while you're at home." Erkert is having her college students explore concepts like weight, spiral and articulation of joints within self-created, structured improvisations that leave them room to adapt to their spatial limitations over winter break. "Conditions aren't ideal," she says, "but we have to choose to learn in the situation we're given."

Looking Ahead to 2021

Calista Jones performing in the Nutcracker in 2019 (Abigail Werner, courtesy Kylie Morton Berry)

A new year normally represents a fresh start, but you may not have that sense this year, as the pandemic drags on. Feeling anxious about the future can cast a shadow over the whole holiday season. "I've been worrying a lot about my studio getting shut down again," Jones-Rumph admits. "It's hard to stay motivated when I'm at home by myself. I want things to be getting better, but it feels like they're getting worse."

In times of uncertainty, "Figure out what you can control, and take as much control as you can over those things," Kaslow says. "Uncertainty makes us feel powerless. If you're intentional about things you can control—warming up properly, taking this many classes per week—it's easier to let go of what you can't control. We call that 'radical acceptance.'"

Count down to 2021 by setting attainable goals: Talk to your teachers about what would be realistic for you. Be sure to plan for the circumstances you're in, not the ones you wish you had. "COVID-19 has taught us that nothing is certain," Erkert says. "But it's also taught us self-agency, perseverance, determination. Those are such valuable lessons." If you've made it to the end of 2020 without giving up hope, congratulate yourself! This holiday season, that's something worth celebrating.

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Because all dancers have experienced it at some point or another (Getty Images/patat)

How Dancers Can Beat Zoom Fatigue

Now that we're more than nine months into the pandemic, there's a big chance you're feeling Zoom-ed out. Read: Totally overusing the video-conferencing app for school and dance classes—and everything else. And according to dance/movement therapist Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, there's good reason for that: "Managing your environment in a virtual space is taxing on the mind, and therefore taxing on the body."

Hornthal attributes these feelings, in part, to a mind–body disconnect that happens when we use the app: Your body knows you are alone in the room, but your mind sees a group of people on screen—and managing this COVID-era reality can be, well, exhausting. But we can also feel Zoom fatigue, Hornthal says, from having to "constantly be present to the third 'person' in the room: the Zoom camera." Uh, relatable!

So if staring at a grid of fuzzy faces—or into the abyss of that cold, dark lens on your device—has you feeling less than energized, here are some ways to cope.

Take breaks from tech throughout the day

Tamia Strickland, a sophomore in the Ailey/Fordham BFA dance program, trains both in person (with a mask, of course!) and online but says there are unique challenges that come with the latter. For one, she says, it's hard "to stay focused and motivated when you are in your basement or living room staring at a computer screen all by yourself—and all day long." These feelings can lead to frustration: You want to stay engaged with the class, but after staring at your computer screen for so long, you start to feel unmotivated.

As a remedy, Hornthal suggests taking breaks from your tech devices when you can. "The last thing you want to do," she says, "is exit a Zoom session and then immediately jump onto your phone." Instead, take a breather from everything virtual, and give your mind—and body—time to recalibrate. "Create space to connect or reconnect with your body when you are off technology," Hornthal says. "Take a walk, practice mindful breathing, embrace nature."

Move for yourself—and on your own

Another way to overcome feelings of online-class fatigue, Hornthal says, is to find time to move on your own—away from the camera on your device. As you begin moving for yourself, try to recognize and notice your own body wisdom. As a dancer, this could simply mean taking stock of what feels good and natural to your body as you, say, indulge in an improv sesh.

Tim Roberts, a Maryland dance studio owner and former performer, says giving his students time to turn their cameras off and work through their own movement has helped keep them motivated. "Opening that space for them is so necessary­ and beneficial, and helps them appreciate the time they do have with me," he says.

If you're not feeling up to a movement break, consider cooling down the mind and body by taking some time to stretch out and take up space in the body, Hornthal says. By encouraging greater body awareness, stretching can help give you more insight into what your body needs at any given point—a physical check-in before you head back into The Land of Zoom.

Tap into your other senses

When you're on Zoom, you're constantly using your eyes—to learn choreography, to support fellow dancers, to catch physical cues from teachers—so it's important, Hornthal says, to give yourself screen breaks. As you give your eyes a rest, take time to whet your other senses: Squeeze a stress ball; smell the outside air; gulp a tasty green smoothie; listen to your favorite playlist. The key here is to take in stimuli that trigger your other senses, rather than continuing to use (or overuse) your sense of sight.

And as a golden rule for your overall Zoom-life health, always remember: "It isn't just dance that is happening online—our entire lives are virtual," Hornthal says. "That means we have to be intentional with our downtime, and turn off technology, so we can tune in to ourselves."

Because honestly, what could be better than dancing alongside your mom? (Getty Images/undrey)

How You Can Support the Beginner Dancer in Your Life

Plenty of us have been dancing since we were teeny-tiny tappers and trinas, but walking into a dance class as an older beginner can be seriously intimidating. Luckily, one silver lining of the pandemic is that it's easier than ever to try out a two-step without even stepping into the studio—virtual classes seem to be everywhere we click nowadays.

Is one of your friends, siblings, parents, or grandparents interested in starting to dance, but totally unsure about where to begin? As the resident dancer in their lives, there are plenty of ways for you to encourage them. Here are just a few of the ways to support the newest dancer in your life.

Roll Out the Recommendations

The pandemic has opened up a whole new world of dance classes that you can stream right into your living room. By now, you're probably a seasoned Zoom dance pro. So start by asking your aspiring dancer what their goals are. Are they looking to just become more active? Study a specific genre of dance? Find a new creative outlet? Take that info and help them narrow down what kinds of virtual classes they might enjoy. Then, recommend some studios you know and love.

Be sure to give your friend or relative an impression of what to expect from their virtual class. Don't forget to offer Zoom-specific tips, like where to place their camera, or how to rearrange their furniture to provide enough space for class. And if they're nervous (or don't want the pressure of being on camera for their first few classes), let them know it's okay to leave their camera off until they're ready to try class with it on. After all, if Hugh Jackman can do it, so can they

Join Their Journey

Maybe you'd also like to broaden your dance horizons, or your friend is looking for an accountability partner. Try taking a beginner level class with your friend in a style you're unfamiliar with. Plenty of studios offer workshops for beginning dancers in a variety of styles, like Broadway Dance Center's Absolute Beginner Workshop seriesAbsolute Beginner Workshop series, which offers a series in every genre from ballet to street jazz.

Another option is to find a dance class video on YouTube, like Kathryn Morgan's at-home class series, and take it at the same time over a Zoom call by sharing your screen. That way, you can pause the video if you need to answer a question from your friend. (And try your best to remain calm when they ask you, for the fifth time, what "plié" means.)

Cheer Them Through Challenges

Most importantly, be there to support your friend or relative in their new dance journey. You know that there can be bumps along the road, but you also know that nothing compares to the feeling of nailing a hard combo, or accomplishing your next dance goal. The newest dancer in your life has all those milestones to look forward to along the way. Don't let them get discouraged when it's difficult —and help them celebrate their accomplishments, big or small.

Photo by Anaiah Simons, courtesy Taylor Jade Edgin

How Dance Helped Me Achieve Success in My Nondance Career Path

Like most kids, by the age of 4 I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up…a dancer. And sure, every kid picks a career to play along with—doctor, veterinarian, princess. But from that young age of 4, I was determined to turn my dream into a reality.

I spent my adolescent years in multiple dance companies, training to make the move to L.A. And then I got it: glimpses of my big break. I began working for and with the choreographers on my bucket list, got accepted into dance companies I'd tirelessly watch on YouTube, and even made it on that national commercial that my friends, family (and don't forget the frenemies!) got to see on repeat.

But then, suddenly, I felt a shift. Was I, the dancer who spent 18 years of blood, sweat and tears (and a crap ton of money) getting burnt out from the everyday hustle of my industry?

If I'm being honest, I always felt like the odd one out in my profession. It took me about four years of paying my dues in L.A. to realize that everything that was different about myself—and my mind—would serve as the catapult towards my new career path as a creative director.

Just Outside of Dance

While grappling with my sudden change of desire, I reflected on where it all started. I remembered being 10 years old, listening to the Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk album in the car, closing my eyes and visualizing a whole music video in my head. And while I thought that meant I would just be the choreographer or the dancer performing in the video, I never realized it might also mean I could be the person to bring the music video to life.

I flashed back to my various experiences on set as a dancer. I remembered how I always took interest in communicating with other departments and learning about their industries, and realized that it's OK to pursue creative endeavors beyond dance. I also paid close attention to how I was treated on set as "talent," taking all the things I learned and didn't like into deep consideration.

Growing Into the Role

Opening my mind allowed for a lot of fun opportunities, like the time I got to star as the lead in a music video that I was also hired to choreograph and direct, or when I started working with my teenage idol and mentor D-Trix, who taught me how to simultaneously choreograph and direct a piece for the camera. Combining my passions just felt right, but the coolest part about developing my knowledge as a creative director was that I got to do it in spaces I was already familiar with. Creating in the dance industry without actually dancing helped me discover that even though I'm focused on this new, creative role, I can still maintain my deep connection with dance.

I've spent the last four years continuing down the creative-direction path, developing artists, producing music videos, and marketing for friends. A favorite moment for me was working with Nya Bloom, a friend and upcoming artist who I convinced not only to create a short film for his first project, but also to hire me as a director.

After six months of brainstorming together, we pitched our ideas to an investor who loved them and granted us a budget. From there, I was hired as set designer, choreographer, stylist and director for the project, which granted me the opportunity to hire all my friends, from dancers and actors to DP and editors. We paid everyone their full rates and ran our production in succinct timing, wrapping everyone 30 to 60 minutes earlier than planned.

I was ecstatic to use all my skills from previous jobs as a dancer on set, and everything I had observed from my previous experiences, to put my skills to the test and produce a visual that turned out even better than we could've imagined.

Edgin getting comfortable in the directors' seat (Avo Guedekelian, courtesy Edgin)

Dancing to My Own Beat

I pride myself in not underpaying or overworking dancers and (subtly) brag about being the person to book you for a 12-hour day, release you ahead of schedule, and still pay you your full day rate. It's really important to me, as someone who has been in the positions I'm now hiring for, to make sure the talent is as comfortable and happy as possible.

As I've gained more experience in my role as a creative director and taking on artist development, I've realized that having a dance background made finding success in these nondancing roles so much easier. So, whether you choose to join a prestigious company as a full-time dancer or become a freelance creative director who dances whenever they feel like it, just know that dance is a tool that can help you achieve success in spaces you may have never imagined.

I'm so grateful for my now 21 years of dance experience for introducing me to my true calling in life. There was never a moment wasted, and I can dance to the beat of my own drum now.

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