One woman sat on the bench against the windows, uncertain of her welcome or of her capability to move with the other Sunflower Wellness participants. I let her be; and soon enough she joined the circle.
I told them all of my initial experience as a presenter for a Breast Cancer Fund conference, “Recovering Sexuality After a Diagnosis of Cancer”. Then I taught them a short movement sequence and directed them just as I did the conference attendees 26 years ago —
“Okay, let’s do these steps deliberately clumsy and as though we’re embarrassed and shy. Good, now let’s try that sequence as angry and defiant! How about indifferent? Now confident, now sexy.”
What qualites do you present by the way that you hold yourself?
There may be a healing, emotional as well as physical, available in movement, especially when we considered not only the body mechanics of exercise, but also the WAY that we move.
Can you imagine other movement games that I might employ?
Just 3 people came to the Sunflower Wellness class this Friday; but they were very receptive to an intimate conversation. Between unison exercises using elastic tubing, I continued the tale of my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, 26 years ago.
Mom asked me not to drive down to L.A. for her treatment. She said that my action would give her cancer diagnosis greater weight than she wanted it to hold. In her mind, the trouble would be quickly and curatively resolved, “…so please don’t fuss over me about it.”
When does our concern as a care giver become a burden?
By the 5th year after my own primary cancer treatment, I too felt like my problem had been resolved. Then the disease recurred. I’m 4 years out from the second treatment, radiation, and, unlike the first time, still feel its weight. How powerful, the assignment of meaning and priority… how subjective. Is there any benefit to the worry?
Of course the assignment of significance doesn’t have to be about issues of mortality. I think what made Friday’s subsequent class conversation easy was the agreement in the room that, in general, life’s hardships and joys are a matter of individual interpretation. “It’s a marathon,” one of the participants commented.
I kept this week’s Sunflower Wellness class slow; and continued my story about Andrea Martin, the founder of the Marin Breast Cancer Fund.
What aspects of your life affirm a sense of purpose?
Perhaps seven or eight years passed before I saw her again. I was in my prime ballet performing years when Andrea asked me to be a presenter at one of her Breast Cancer Fund conferences. I was honored, but terrified by the prospect of leading hundreds of women who would gathered to cope with a disease I’d never experience; and, other than Andrea, no one in my world had ever had. What use could I possibly be to them? I was about to call Andrea to decline her offer, when I noticed the flashing read light on my answering machine. It was a message from my mother, informing me that she’d just been diagnosed. It felt like a command from God.
When I finished speaking to Mom, I immediately made the second call, “Hello Andrea, I’d love to participate in your conference.”
The conference “Recovering Sexuality After A Diagnosis of Breast Cancer” was a huge success. My part was exploring simple steps and then asking the women to adopt different moods and characters as they repeated the movement sequence, “Okay, this time I’ll put on rock music and I’d like you to do the step…this time bashful…okay, now angry…now defiant.” I used a classical music adagio for sadness, and when I thought them playfully confident and ready, I switch to a tune with latin percussion for SEXY.
What other group exercises do you think I might use to bring a similar experience to my class?
In this week’s Sunflower Wellness class I started sharing my personal cancer chronology from the beginning, with the story of meeting Andrea Martin. It was 1984, and I had never met anyone with cancer before then. I was finishing my studies at the Marin Ballet School while working as a fitness trainer, a fairly green trainer, in Sausalito. All new members of the Nautilus of Marin received a complimentary, introductory private training session; and Andrea was assigned to me. She was surprisingly cheerful as she told me that she’d just had her second mastectomy and had just founded The Breast Cancer Fund. She was planning to lead a group of fellow cancer survivors on a mountain climbing expedition, “Michael, I need strong legs, lots of stamina, and the ability to carry a heavy backpack despite the damage that my surgeries have done to my pectoral muscles.”
How do you find the courage to go beyond what you think you can do?
The exercise program I designed for Andrea worked beautifully. She had a successful climb, and from time to time hired me for additional private training. Then my professional ballet career took me away to distant places. I thought that I wouldn’t see Andrea again. How wrong I was. That initial collaboration was only the beginning.
None of this week’s class participants chimed in with their own stories; but the subsequent conversation flowed easy. I think the difference between this session and my awkward share the prior week, was the slow pace I employed to tell the story, and the peaceful affection for Andrea that the class participants could hear in my voice.
How do you think I should progress the class interaction?
The greatest challenge of my work week is leading the Sunflower Wellness class for cancer patients. Yes, the demand for modifications in order to accommodate one participant’s orthopedic concerns after another is constant; but that part is easy. I am a font of exercise repertoire. It’s the support-group part, conducting a conversation about mortality and the emotional and philosophical repercussions of cancer that shakes my confidence.
How does one introduce death into a conversation as if it were a routine topic, and sustain the sense of safety, even levity, in the room?
This Friday, as I unrolled my yoga mat, I told the class that I’d inherited the mat from my friend James Hutton. He died of same the disease that I have — prostate cancer. Jimmy was instrumental at a time when I had to come to terms with my own diagnosis. He took me to Commonweal, a retreat center on the northern California coast, where I made my decision about my primary treatment. Later, as his health declined, he purchased a handful of small apparatus, including that mat, so that I could train him on the deck of his studio apartment. Now the mat, medicine ball, elastic tubing, and pushup grips have returned to me.
I don’t think it is appropriate for me to ask class participants to tell their cancer narratives; but I hope that by sharing mine, my fellow patients will experience the strength of our commonality.
My story about Jimmy fell into an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t have a segue prepared to take the group into a period of intimate sharing. Perhaps the participants aren’t seeking the kind of support to which I aspire. I know only that, for me, it is the most important element of the class and the reason that I’m there. I am most certainly on my edge, at the outer reaches of my abilities, where growth occurs.
Have you any suggestions?
“We have a great product here. We should create our Performance Project elsewhere, take it on the road, maybe to Marin County,” my choreographer colleagues exclaim.
“Your last ballet class was well attended by fine dancers,” one of my students praised me, “Keep this up and you’ll soon have a troupe!”
Success however takes more than talent and enthusiasm. Like preparing for a difficult dance jump, dreams also require careful timing and positioning in order to come true. I learned the concept of positioning years ago, in a workshop for selling health club memberships. “Don’t make the Ask until you’ve positioned the sale.”
Positioning is more than preparing just yourself for success. Your surrounding circumstances must also be prepared, logistics like venue and administrative processes; and even more importantly — people.
The larger the scale or scope of the vision, the more buy-in one needs from other people; and that takes time, a LOT of time. My former dance company had seven departments and a calendar planned a year in advance. The preparation was always more work than that performance.
Still, the dream of a portable dance program, or of directing another local performing troupe is seductive even while it’s daunting. I know good people for collaboration; and my fitness business supports me well enough now to take some risk.
How do you know when it’s time to jump?
What can you recommend?
It’s time to jump… for both me and my students. However, on any given day, there are good reasons for not risking those steps in the air (i.e. age, injury, intimidation, confusion about the jump sequence). That doesn’t mean one abandons the attempt. There are very studied and effective ways to take the jump out of the jump, and still get the most out of the choreography.It’s called “marking”.
This season my students are going to learn how to fully mark steps. Then we’ll have no excuse for giving up, and fading into the back of the studio due to fear or fatigue. Our contemporary culture praises extreme, exhaustive effort. We confuse 100% physical effort with 100% commitment. Wrong.
Mastery comes from coordinating degrees of effort.
How do you know how much, and when, to push yourself?
This season we’ll learn how to properly mark the jumps in order to master six elements of their execution:
- Landings (safe and with clean and clear positions)
- Rhythm (the body mechanics do not match the downbeat of the music)
- Horizontal lift versus traveling distance (for every step)
- Arms (their position and pathway)
- Face (there’s more to it than simply watching oneself in the mirror)
- Accent (for every step) and the dramatic Arch (of the musical or movement phrase)
How’s that for an autumn harvest?
Talent abounds; but there’s only so much time and free rehearsal space available to foster communal creativity. I need to be very efficient with my tribe’s resources!I’ve got one-third of a dance to choreograph for the Autumn Performance Project on Thanksgiving weekend. I wonder if I can reconfigure the petite allegro combination from my ballet class into a popular, gestural sequence that will appeal to novice dancers who may be more comfortable with hip-hop than classical dance. Can I transform one little jump sequence into something-for-everyone? It has to fit Mike Posner’s pop tune,
“Cooler Than Me.”
How do you make your efforts yield their broadest impact?
Maybe I don’t have to come up with the vision of this double-duty dance all by myself. The art salon that I host each month at my fitness studio always begins with a communally created dance. I’ll try giving my problem to my guests, and ask them to transform the ballet pattern.
I teach the same step sequences for an entire quarter, for a season. This allow the students enough time to go beyond rudimentary memorization of steps and mastering coordination of their limbs. By the end of a three month period, we’re able to address what matters most to me — musical phrasing and the options for individual artistic choices, rather than body mechanics.
This is the last week of summer. Time to move on .
As with when doing a dress rehearsal for performance (or for any creative endeavor), there is always a longing for just a little more time, always room for improvement (i.e. In this summer session now ending, we never quite got the hang of that arabesque turn; and the legs are still late to close position in the air for the jumping step called assemble’).
How do you bring a sense of satisfaction to the decision that your work is complete?
Whatever the sequences I weave together for the autumn class, I’ll include those steps in which our mastery is deficient. We may be done with our summer patterns; but the technical challenges continue. Maybe the greatest satisfaction is with our long-term results.
Do you agree?
My current theme for dance class instruction is Entrances & Exits. In the studio we explore the concepts literally; but as metaphor the theme continues to resonate for me long after class.
Examples are everywhere — the greetings that one bothers to make entering a dinner party (or not), or the manner in which one exits a business meeting, are doors to and from experiences, deserving of attention.
Sometimes the periods of one’s life have no defined portal; they’re more like a tunnel or a continuous staircase. My mother’s death earlier this year was clearly an exit for her. The same moment was an entrance for me and my family to a new phase of existence…not so easily defined as Mom’s departure.
How do you recognize and honor a passage?
Sometimes when the season changes with the coloring of leaves, I think that I’ve entered a new period of my life; but its beginning may be only a vague feeling. The presence of a doorway into a new time of life is a matter of interpretation; and yet that interpretation, that recognition that one is entering or exiting, makes a huge difference going forward.
What do you think?