Archive | July, 2014

Should characters exist outside of their novels?

27 Jul

Most people who know me will know that I am a huge Harry Potter fan. When I say huge, I’m not exaggerating—when I was in third grade, I was sent to the principle’s office for an “intervention.” I just kept reading the first three Harry Potter books (the only ones that were released at that time) over and over again. My teacher got worried and sent me to the principle’s office. (I did walk out of there with “A Wrinkle In Time” so I guess it was a good trip).

I recently finished re-reading the seventh and final installment of the Harry Potter series because I saw the buzz that J.K. Rowling had recently released a new Harry Potter story on her Pottermore site. As I commented to a friend, I skipped the epilogue of the seventh book as any sensible human being would do, and I also have to say, I didn’t particularly care for the recently released Harry Potter story.

“Why?” you may ask, “would a diehard fan like yourself not relish every bit of new information about your childhood heroes?”

Because, although I’m still forming a full opinion about this, I don’t think that characters should necessarily continue to exist outside of their novels. The novel is a snapshot, a look at a set of characters at a specific time, and more importantly, within the context of a specific story. We loved Harry Potter because we were engrossed in his seven-year battle against the darkest wizard in history. His story, and the backstories tied to his story, was important, interesting, and meaningful, because they all existed within the context of the larger story being told. Now, J.K. Rowling is essentially writing a tabloid about fictional celebrities, dropping nonessential tidbits that, while interesting to hardcore fans, aren’t contributing to the development of an engrossing new story.

Pottermore is a little bit much for even me. I don’t REALLY need weekly coverage of the 2014 Quidditch World Cup…

I look to two of my other favorite authors to discuss this issue: John Green (of “The Fault in Our Stars” fame) and Margaret Mitchell (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gone with the Wind”).

John Green puts it so well on his website when asked about the fate of the characters in TFIOS:

“It’s not my book. It’s your book. I don’t make decisions about things that happen outside the text of the book; I can’t read something that isn’t there any more than you can. 
Anyway, there is no definitive way to end it or any other book. No story is ever over, because every human life ripples into every other one, and there is no way to end a story definitively and the search for a definitive end is (imho) the wrong search.”

A good author, I think, inspires your imagination and leaves a story open enough so that you, the reader, have the power to decide how it really ends. Or doesn’t end. A good book will stick with you—you’ll hash out various endings in your mind and ultimately, you are left with the most beautiful gift the author could have left you: choice. The story leaves a stronger impact because you are given partial responsibility for its continuation.

One of my favorite quotes from "The Fault in Our Stars," illustrates this point I'm trying to make so well.

One of my favorite quotes from “The Fault in Our Stars,” illustrates this point I’m trying to make so well.

Or perhaps it sticks because it reminds you of real life. Nothing in life has a neat ending, a tidy epilogue. We are all constantly in the process of writing our own stories and there are endless possibilities for how the tale goes. A book that’s left open gives you hope—hope that those characters can continue on in their lives, in their struggles, in their relationships and triumph again. Hope that they have learned from what happened in the story and will apply it to the rest of their lives.

Personally, I think that’s why “Gone with the Wind” endures. Margaret Mitchell said she never hashed out a “real” ending for “Gone With the Wind.” But we all hope that Rhett and Scarlett have learned from their mistakes, from what went wrong between them, to either fix their relationship, or move on and use those lessons for the “next one.”

I love this—Mitchell is quoted as saying, “For all I know, Rhett may have found someone else who was less—difficult.”

Though people have been wanting to know for 75-plus years if Rhett and Scarlett get back together, that was not part of the snapshot that Mitchell chose to put on display. Would “Gone with the Wind” have stuck around this long if the ending if there had been a neat epilogue where Rhett and Scarlett go to marital counseling, make up, and live “happily ever after”? Even stories that end “happily ever after” let you decide what that “happily ever after” looks like.

I think the ending lines of “Gone with the Wind” are perfect and leave us just what we need to know to continue our imaginings of the rest of the story… “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Of course we all want them to get back together! It's Rhett Butler, immortalized by Clark Gable. But the decision is yours.

Of course we all want them to get back together! It’s Rhett Butler, immortalized by Clark Gable. But the decision is yours.

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Salsa in Cuba: Just let it come to you

14 Jul

The reason that I decided to study abroad in Cuba in the spring of 2012 was because a friend casually said “You know Georgia, you could go salsa dancing every single day if you went to Cuba.” I’ve been to Cuba five times and a big question when I get back is always “Did you dance salsa a lot?”

My answer is always “Yes, but dancing just kind of happens in Cuba. You don’t really actively seek it out.” The best way to illustrate this point is a comparison of two nights out in Havana during the last trip I took.

The first one was a Wednesday night. I was meeting up with a dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in more than a year. The only plan we had was for him to pick me up when he arrived in Havana from Matanzas. Around 10 pm, Ariel and two of his friends showed up outside the house I was staying in, yelling from the street up to the third floor where I was staying, a lo Cubano.

            I ran downstairs, happily embraced Ariel, met his friends, and gave Ariel the gifts I had brought him. He asked what I wanted to do and he suggested we go see Interactivo, a music project I’d heard a lot about. They were playing at a venue, Bertolt Brecht, that I like in the Vedado neighborhood. We bought a few beers and sipped them as we walked from Centro to Vedado (which, FYI, is about an hour walk). We arrived at the spot, paid our $2 CUC cover, and went in.

As soon as we walked in the door, I ran into my friend Andres (“El Fino”) and some of his friends from his dance workshop at the Teatro Nacional that I had unsuccessfully attempted to join earlier that week. Our group was ready to gozar. The band was rocking—there were probably at least eight or ten musicians on stage playing a groovy fusion of traditional Cuban music, rap, hip-hop, rock, and funk. Though there were a good number of tourists there, it was mostly a local crowd, and the whole place was pulsating with people dancing casino (which is pretty much Salsa). One of Fino’s friends, a dancer in a local troupe, grabbed me and seemed surprised that I could keep up. At one point, the music turned to an African rumba-style song—extremely percussive and intense, and I’m right in front of the band, sandwiched between El Fino and his professional dancer friend, following along to the almost-primal rumba movements. Dancing in a club in Havana in between two good-looking mulato men—had I died and gone to heaven?

The next evening, I went to 1830, a restaurant/club overlooking Havana Harbor that has Casino (read: Salsa) nights twice a week. I had been to 1830 before and enjoyed it, even though it’s definitely more of a spot for older Canadian women to come and learn to dance with young, black professional dance instructors. (Yeah, it’s a little weird). There are a lot of really good dancers at 1830, but a good deal of them will try to hustle you into taking lessons with them if you’re a tourist. I met El Fino and his dancer friend from Chile at 1830. I had to beg El Fino to let me pay his cover in exchange for him accompanying me—he didn’t want to go because, though a $3 CUC cover is hardly anything for tourists, it’s a little steep for a lot of Cubans (especially following the $2 CUC cover Fino had paid the night before at Brecht). We had a good time dancing, doing a silly line dance, and watching a performance at midnight, but it certainly felt more forced than the night before.

For the most part, the only Cubans at 1830 were professional dancers trying to get clients or accompanying their foreign students. There wasn’t the same sense of abandon and organic energy that I felt the night before. It was fun, but it was too orchestrated. You went to 1830 specifically to dance casino, versus going to see the band at Brecht, where you went to see an amazing group of musicians and it inevitably erupted into a dance party. But that wasn’t really the REASON for going.

I think my big takeaway from this was what I’ve always known about spending time in Cuba—you have to just go with the flow. You can’t expect too much to happen exactly as planned or on a specific itinerary. Let the experiences come to you, whether it’s dancing Casino, seeing a great band, or enjoying a long walk from Centro to Vedado with a best friend.

People who have traveled to Cuba and danced, what do you think? Is my assessment accurate, or is this just one side of the story? People who have traveled in other countries, do you agree with just letting experiences come to you

What makes a professional dancer?

10 Jul

I get asked on a fairly regular basis if I am a professional dancer, and I’m never sure how to respond. A few months ago, I posted something on Facebook asking for people’s opinion about what makes a professional dancer. The input was interesting and has been percolating as a blog post for while.

What level of training is required to be considered a professional?

A good friend of mine who is a professional musician argued that your professional status (in any field) is determined by the level of education obtained. You wouldn’t go to a doctor who doesn’t have a degree but just has been “practicing a lot.” In the dance world, however, it’s not as cut-and-dried. You don’t necessarily need a degree or certification in dance to be a professional dancer.

Your training speaks for itself when you’re dancing— however I do think that professional dancer should have a solid resume of several years of taking classes at studios or schools and some amount of performing experience. But there’s no magic or across-the-board formula—it’s not “Ten years of ballet here, four years of jazz here, five years of hip-hop here, three years of performing here” and POOF, you qualify as a pro. Again, training speaks for itself and you can always spot a well-trained dancer in any style of dance.

Should dance be your primary source of income if you are calling yourself a professional dancer?

No matter what your field is, it seems like the way of the world is such now that very few people have one primary source of income, and the dance world is no different. It’s not uncommon for people to work multiple jobs to make ends meet or have a few side hustles. The dance world is hard to be fully financially supported in. Many companies don’t have a large enough budget to pay their performers full-time salaries. I know plenty of dancers and dance teachers who spend every day driving from one studio to another teaching classes to piece together an income.

One of my best friends lives in San Francisco and said she’s had to adapt her definition of a professional dancer given the cost of living in the Bay Area. She said she knows incredible dancers who perform with first-class choreographers and companies, but still have to supplement their income with other jobs.

As someone who auditioned for professional ballet companies and was met only with the prospect of unpaid apprenticeships that might one day turn into a contract, I can’t imagine trying to be in a company full-time and trying to work enough to pay my bills. Would you consider unpaid apprentices in a professional company ‘professional dancers’?

A rose by any other name

At the end of the day, does it really matter what label you put on yourself? I think about one of my friends Betto at Mambo Dinamico—he’s a great teacher, choreographer, and performer—definitely a consummate professional, but he has a day job as well. His primary source of income is not dancing but he’s still a pro.

I struggle to define myself as a dancer—I have more than sixteen years of ballet training and performing, as well as experience training and performing in contemporary, modern, ballroom, and of course Salsa. I’ve taught dance for five years in various incarnations and spend a LOT of time every week dancing. I’ve been paid to dance and paid to teach and yet I don’t consider myself a professional because it’s not a full-time thing. I think if I had decided to not go to college and dance straight out of high school, I could have been a professional ballerina, but that wasn’t the life that I wanted. I often think that if I lived in a bigger city with more access to instructors, studios, and performance teams, I could “go pro” with Salsa, but the life that I want (at least for now) is in Charleston, and I had to make a choice.

I know several people who are the same way—could have gone to the top as dancers, but decided that school, having a family, or living in a certain area was more important to their ultimate life goal. Being a professional dancer is not an easy life by any means—I’m proud and excited for friends and colleagues I know who are “making it,” but I also know how much work, dedication, and sacrifice it took to get there.

No matter how you define yourself, make sure to always act professional (Thanks Megrez Mosher, professional aerialist, for that tip!). Whether you’re freelancing or just taking classes, act right. Show up early or on time, dress appropriately, and respect whoever is running the show.

I’d love to hear your thoughts—leave a comment and let’s continue this conversation!