Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to be a pole beginner

Back in my high school and college years, I was what people called a "seeker," mainly meaning that I read a lot of books about different religions, went to churches, meditated, got really good at astrology, etc. One thing I remember from all the zen buddhism books is the concept of "beginner's mind." I hate trying to distill a concept like that into everyday, non-buddhist language, because I'll screw it up, but the idea is that the openness of a new student is something wonderful, that even the masters should strive for. Or as my frustrated math teacher once complained to a roomful of unlistening students, "The hardest thing is to try to teach someone something they think they already know." As a long-time teacher of many different skills, that's one of the truest axioms I've ever heard.

So I'd like to start out by saying: embrace your beginnerhood. This is the most you're ever going to learn, because you'll be open to everything. You are fresh, enthusiastic, and welcoming. For most of us, it isn't long before we have Opinions about everything, preconceived notions about what performers and teachers we admire and which we look down on, what moves we are Good At and which we Can't Do, which is our Good Side and which is our Bad Side. I'm not saying don't form opinions, but you know, "Stay gold, Pony Boy." For us experienced dancers/athletes, it can be very difficult to revisit nature's first green, but it can be refreshing to try.

OK, so that's my philosophy/grad school advice. Here are some more specific, tangible thoughts for those just starting out, or those who want to renew their pole souls.

Try different studios and teachers
I think most of us have a strong sense of loyalty to where we learn and who we learn with. We admire our teachers, bond with our classmates, and feel at home with the routine of going to class. Meanwhile, going to a new studio can be intimidating and uncomfortable. You don't know what to expect, how long it's going to take to get there, if you're going to look like a dork in front of your new classmates and whether they're going to judge you for it. (I've tried to alleviate these fears as much as I can by posting studio reviews so you know what to expect when you go.) So the fidelity perpetuates.

Is this loyalty misplaced? Yes and no. As a teacher, I love that my students feel loyalty towards me, that they keep coming back for lessons, try to get their friends involved. I feel proud of them for their progress that I see each week, proud of myself for being a good enough teacher that they want to keep coming, and, yes, happy to have steady income. I like it, and they like it, so what's the problem?

I think that stepping outside your studio bubble is important for your growth as an artist. If you just want to show up to class once a week and burn some calories, then staying at one studio is fine. But you're not the kind of person who would be reading this blog. Most of you want to get really good, whether that means moving more gracefully or learning crazy tricks. You can learn a lot by working with the same teachers week after week, but you'll learn more by trying other teachers now and again.

And if you're not already feeling super attached to a single place, please don't be shy about shopping around. Try a class with every reputable studio in your area if you can. Pole studios are so, so, so different from each other, and so are teachers. I teach completely differently than most people that I've worked with. And if there aren't a lot of places offering drop-in classes, see who has an Open Pole jam that you can attend as a non-student. Open Poles are a great way to meet new people and see what tricks and sequences other local polers are working on, without committing to a series of classes or trying to figure out what level you would be at what school.

The pole community is big on workshops by touring teachers, so most of us do have the opportunity to try new instructors and studios. If, on the other hand, you were at a studio where none of the students ever trained anywhere else ever, that would concern me. Sure, a studio wants your money, but if they are discouraging you from branching out or sheltering you from the rest of the pole/aerial community, that's not a business, that's a cult.

Stop moaning and practice your tricks on both sides
Isn't it funny how quickly we decide that learning a new trick on the opposite side is mind-bogglingly impossible? Try this. OMG SO HARD. Try it two more times. OK, I'm starting to get it. Now try it on the other side. HOLY SHIT NO WAY THAT FEELS SO WEIRD OMG! Uh, yeah, it felt so weird THREE MINUTES AGO when you tried it on your first side, and it only took you a few tries to get over that.

I've already written extensively about the importance of learning tricks on both sides. I'm just bringing it up here because it's a particular problem for beginners. Look guys, if you don't face the challenge now, you will face it later, and it will be a lot harder and a much bigger deal. Please learn it right.

Don't focus only on learning new tricks to the exclusion of other kinds of training
This is more for people who are self-taught, as if you are in a class the teacher will probably take you through routines or freestyle, correct your form, and do some stretching and conditioning with you.

Getting a new trick for the first time is an amazing feeling. Every little move you get expands your possibilities. You can put this in a routine, in a performance. You can add it to your freestyle, to show off in class. You can sequence into it, sequence out of it. Plus, I hate to say it, but what tricks you can do has a lot of affect on how much respect you get from other polers. If you do a brass monkey, that puts you in one category. If you can do a handspring, that puts you in another. If you can do an iron X, that improves your ranking.

So the temptation to spend all your training time on new tricks is very high. But guess what: when you watch people perform who know a lot of tricks and don't train anything else, they tend to kind of suck. The movement is clunky and the performance uninspired. You need grace and flow, proper form, strength, flexibility, stage presence, and a good relationship with the music. Video yourself once in awhile, and you'll catch immediately all the spots where you're not pointing your toes or making That Face. Hire a ballet instructor or theatre director for an hour to get some pointers, or maybe do a skills exchange with a friend in that kind of business. Work out, whether you use the pole or the gym, to build strength, and find time to stretch. Choreograph a routine, maybe even sign up for a showcase. You will still have time to work on new tricks, and when you do them, people will enjoy watching them more.

Get over your fear of improvisation
I believe strongly in the value of improvisation, and I think most pole instructors and advanced polers do. In fact, the only polers who don't value improvisation are beginners. Oh my god, the giggling fits. The standing stiffly in the room, looking around, wondering why the song isn't over yet. Even if it's a guided or partial improvisation, beginners just freeze up.

I totally get it. I would feel EXACTLY the same way in your shoes. And we don't even let you drink in class to lower your inhibitions! So mean! Hopefully you have a teacher who can give you enough guidance that you don't feel like a complete moron, but at the end of the day, you are the one who is going to have to get over it. That might be very hard for some people, and some reading this before their first class might consider it a deal breaker. Tell you what: come up with a back-up plan. If the teacher tells you to improvise and you can't think of anything to do, have an easy, repetitive move you can revert to. Maybe it's walking around the pole, maybe it's swiveling your hips. Then as ideas and inspiration come up, you can throw them in. There, problem solved. OK?

Stop thinking we don't want to work with you because you aren't advanced
I hear this comment all the time. "Sorry, I'm not going to be any fun, I'm really basic."

Beginning polers, hear us out: WE LOVE YOU.

Where do I even begin? First of all, we get to awaken you to the love of pole and aerial arts. We get to see that passion bloom in you. We don't have to undo any bad habits, because you haven't picked them up yet. Plus, you're learning moves that we could sleepwalk through. I have to prepare much less for a beginner than for an advanced student, because the moves are all new to you, and I've taught them 100 times and have it down to a science. I enjoy teaching advanced students because I get to do unusual stuff with them, but they are so high maintenance! Half the time I go to teach them something, they're like "Oh I know that already," and I often need to teach them moves that I haven't done in 3 months because I haven't had anyone advanced enough to do them in that amount of time, so I have to practice it a lot myself to make sure it gets back up to seamless. And I really enjoy the process, but then when I get to teach you guys, it's like "Ahhh, a break!" Plus, there are more of you. The vast majority of teachers couldn't stay in business if they only liked teaching advanced students. Y'all are our bread and butter. That might not sound like a noble reason, but it doesn't hurt, either.

I hope this helps a few people who are just beginning their pole journey. And I'd also like to hear from other instructors about what they wish they could say to every first-time poler out there!

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