Pro Track Week 0: How to get into professional aerial dance school at age 33, part 2

In the week before the audition, I probably drove Ben crazy.  We would go work out on the playground early in the morning, and then we’d grab a quick chai from Starbucks, sit outside in the sunshine, and I would obsessively talk about the upcoming auditions for Pro Track.

“I’m the oldest one,” I’d repeat like a broken record.  “The other girls are all ridiculously strong and flexible, and they’re not broken.  Most of them are 8 years younger than I am.  I don’t have a gymnastics background.  I don’t have a contemporary dance background.  I don’t quite have the strength requirements.  But I have a lot of experience.  My different movement background has got to add something unique to the program, right?  And Nancy and Val have been stepping over and correcting my form in fitness and giving me encouragement about my progress, so they have to see something in me, right?”

Ben would patiently let me fret, take a sip of his coffee, and then lovingly tell me I was being stupid.

Over the course of the Aerial Dance Festival, Ben and Andi and I would pick up tidbits of information about Pro Track and the auditions.  Someone said they’d take up to 12 candidates for the program.  Another said the ideal number was 10.  Someone said six had already been chosen.  Someone else said four.  Ben and Andi had talked to one of the women who’d already been accepted at an earlier audition, and she’d made it in even though she didn’t quite have all the strength requirements nailed.  Or so they told me.  Andi and I both hoarded this information, trying to figure out what our chances would be.  I trained harder.

In the meantime, I started week two of ADF with handstands, taught by a little, badass Japanese acrobalancer named Yuki.  I have never been able to hold a handstand. In fact, I hate the sensation of trying to train for one.  The idea of holding my bodyweight up by what have until recently been stick thin, lanky arms that were likely to give out and dump me straight on my head and ailing spine was a horrific one.  So I never learned.  I figured the best way to get over the mindfuck, and get closer to the minute handstand hold in the audition, was to sign myself up for a five day, 1.5 hour a day intensive at ADF.

Dani and Mary were in the class, both of them Frequent Flyer company members.  Dani performs stilt acrobatics and aerials at Lannie’s Clocktower with me, and was due to be one of the judges at the upcoming audition.  Both she and Mary confessed to struggling with handstands.  I felt a little better.  Jenna, the rose-haired pixie who was going to audition with me, rocked handstands and was wanting to work on pressing into them better.  Some people in the class, like me, were looking to dive into technique for the first time.  And so we did.  Over and over and over and over and over again.  We started with walking into them at the wall, holding for a minute, and then coming down.  And then doing it again.  And again.  And again.  Then we worked with partner spotting in the middle of the room.  First lifting a leg, and doing it over and over and over again.  Then working on a kick up.  Then a tuck up.  Then a straddle up.  Then a pike up.  Yuki came around and corrected our forms.  “You are not strong in shoulders,” she would admonish me in a Japanese accent.  “You need to work on shoulder strength.”  I found out that I didn’t have a lot of internal rotation in my arms.  I sat on the floor, puzzled, then did a snake arm (which is pretty much all external rotation) and a lightbulb went off.  When I purposefully rotated my shoulders internally, and gave myself a slight turnout with my hands, things started to go a little easier.

By day two I was doing handstand drills against the wall without a spot.  By day three I was cartwheeling out of them instead of waddling my feet and hands down.  By day four, I was finding places of balance for a few seconds in the middle of the room.  My arms and shoulders ached mercilessly, but I could see the progress, so I kept going.

On Thursday night, I went to the Dairy Center for a full makeup and costume dress rehearsal.  I’d been invited to participate in the first ever ADF Cabaret show, full of professional performers who were attending ADF.  It turned out I was the only ground-based act; I was doing my acrobatic sword routine, while everyone else was performing an aerial piece. Four of the performers were graduates of last year’s Pro Track class: Kate and Heidi, who did a hilarious lyra duet; Ilsa, whose piece started on lyra, proceeded into a back somersault dismount, and then continued with a running, flying dive roll into catchers hang on a low flying trapeze that just about stopped my heart; and Kayleigh, who is an absolute beast and does an amazing rope piece where she drags a briefcase onstage with her and keeps tearing receipts out of her costuming and hair.  The tech was gorgeous, and everyone stayed long after their tech times were done just to watch the other performers rehearse.  I found to my delight that I suddenly had my Silvia Salamanca toe sword balance standing split working, and that my hand balance section was a lot closer to a scorpion.  Score!

On Friday I started to break down from utter exhaustion.  I skipped the playground in the morning.  I jammed my ankle coming out of a handstand in class, and started to tear up.  I thought about sitting out the rest of class, or maybe going home and resting before the show, but I decided to push through after reasoning that it probably wasn’t a good idea to quit in front of Dani when she was judging my audition in two days.  So I stuffed my anxiety down, went back and forth between Dani and Mary as partners and spotters, and gently landed on my other ankle first as much as possible.  After about ten minutes, my ankle was doing ok and my handstand was as solid as I could muster again.

Sometimes you just have to work through the brick wall and the anxiety and the fear.

*************

The show went well, although I did lose my sword at the end of the scorpion and was shaky on the standing split toe balance.  I was just exhausted.  The rest of the piece, as I saw on video later, was one of the most solid and competent routines I’ve done in a long time, so I called it square and collapsed into bed.

On Saturday I didn’t leave bed.  Well, I left once to run an errand, but I just let my body poop out and stay there the rest of the day.  I had thought about going to open gym at the circus center to run my routine a few more times, but I knew I was at the point of diminishing returns and didn’t want to subject myself to further injury the day before my audition.  The Brit coddled me and fed me.  I watched movies and napped.  I came to terms with the fact that my audition was going to be what it was going to be, and I’d have to be cool with that.

On Sunday morning, I got up early, stretched a bit, ate well, and put on a leotard, tights, and rolled up sweat pants.  I did my makeup.  I rolled my hair up around an elastic headband and pinned it tight.

And then I drove to Broomfield for a Donna class.

Donna Mejia has been holding two hour workout workshops throughout the summer, mostly long conditioning warm-ups with drills and across-the-floor sequences.  After bombing these kinds of classes when I first arrived, I was really proud of the fact that I could handle the hardest variations and drills by the end of the summer.  Donna’s work always makes my body feel amazing and happy, so I decided to use this last class at Tribal Church as a warmup.

“Shouldn’t your audition be soon?” Donna asked when I came in.

“Today,” I answered.

She gave me a “damn, woman!” look, wished me the very best of luck, and gave me the best warmup and stretching session I could ask for.  She also spent a long time on modern fusion choreography toward the end of class, and to my surprise, I was nailing it.  With all the working out and conditioning I’d been doing on the playground, I was finally able to make a lot of moves happen that I hadn’t seen since my ballet training at age twelve.  “Holy crap,” I thought.  “I’m having a good day.  Rock on.”

When I arrived at Frequent Flyers with snacks and a giant water bottle, I found the audition had expanded to 8 women.  Andi had made the late cut, and a few girls who made the decision to audition at ADF applied and were allowed.  At first we were pretty quiet.  Those of us that had been in classes together during ADF made small, quiet chitchat, but for the most part everyone was stretching in straddle on the floor and looking nervously at everyone else.

The audition went like this:  we had a little bit of time to sign in, pay our audition fee, and warm up.  From there, Dani taught us a modern dance choreography for half an hour.  The sequence wasn’t impossible, but the instruction moved quickly, so you had to be on your game to get it all and have it completely under your feet.  By the end, when we were performing in two groups a few times, pretty much everybody had it, even the girls without as much of a dance background.

From there, Nancy Smith (founder and director of Frequent Flyers) taught us a low flying “dance” trapeze choreography.  It was relatively simple and straightforward.  The instructions were to perform it slowly, efficiently, controlled, and with a relaxed neck.  Totally doable.  Everybody nailed it.

Then Valerie pulled down the silks and started showing us a sequence.  It was a single knee climb (flipping upside down, hooking a knee on the fabric, pulling yourself upright in a giant situp, and then doing it again), to a salto (forward somersault that’s a little terrifying), into a back balance, into a helicopter (spinning sideways down to the ground while handing the fabric that’s holding you up around your body).  In other words, shit was hard.  My brain understood what they were doing: “Oh,” said brain.  “This is where they separate the women from the girls.”  Meanwhile the bottom had dropped out of my stomach, and I thought “This is it.  This is where I blow the audition.”

I took a couple of deep breaths and decided to give it all a shot and see what I could make my new, somewhat stronger body do.  I hadn’t been able to do knee climbs well as I was rebuilding, but I tried it and though it was awkward, I mostly did it.  Salto I managed to do, trying to gloss over and skip the period you go through when you’re learning a new drop where you sit in the wrapped position at the top of the silks and stare at the ground below you and work up the courage to let go and fall.  Back balance I understood by the second practice run.  Helicopter I just. Couldn’t. Do.  We’ve had it a couple times in level 2 and I still haven’t gotten my brain wrapped around it.  Or my body stable enough.  As soon as you lose control of it, it cinches like a torture device around your stomach, squishing your internal organs with your body weight, and you’re toast.  I kept getting stuck.  Fuck.

Again, sometimes you just have to work through the brick wall and the anxiety and the fear.  I went ahead and made peace in my head with not making pro-track, and decided to keep going for the experience.

When we ran through, the girls in the audition ran the gamut from “nailed the sequence” to “got parts of it and ended with a tangle on the floor.”  I was in the second group.  Andi, knowing that she was also going to end up in the second group, made the absolutely brilliant choice to turn her entire run through into an awkward physical comedy routine that had everybody howling with laughter.  It also showed off her strength as a trained actor.  Brilliant.

After this was the strength and flexibility requirements.  We’d all warmed up to each other enough that we all made an effort to cheer each other on, which was helpful from a mental health standpoint.  I got all of the flexibility requirements, most of the strength requirements, and was in the ballpark for the rest (2 and a half dead hang pull-ups, 50 second handstand hold, 5 toe ups that didn’t quite hit the bar, but were kinda close).

After that was the 1 on 1 interviews.  We all stretched, rehearsed a little bit, ate snacks, and chatted with each other while we waited to go back.  We were much more open and friendly now.  One awesome professional dancer and aerialist, Mandy, had just flown in from San Francisco the day before and was working through both the audition demands and the altitude adjustment.  Another, Joanna, was a professional ballerina who’d danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet and had been exposed to aerial work during a couple of ocean cruise gigs.  Joanna was a last minute auditioner, and was a little sheepish about not being as familiar with aerials, and about not coming with a fully fleshed out audition piece.  She asked me a lot of questions and I tried my best to reassure her that she wasn’t dead in the water, and that they were just looking to see how she moved in the air.  When they gave her a two point harness, she did an extraordinarily beautiful improvisation with some of the most beautiful lines and movement quality I’ve ever seen.

When my interview finally came, I stepped into the office and sat down in the hot seat.  They asked me how my body and back were doing, and I told them truthfully that I was doing well, my body workers were supportive and gave me the all-clear, and that the last couple weeks of training hard had actually reduced my usual chronic pain.  They asked how I would deal with being a student again, after having a mature career on my own, and whether I would be willing to put myself in their hands and let them remake me, to which I responded with an enthusiastic yes.  Then they asked how my job was going, whether I thought it was stable, and if I’d be able to handle the balance of working and pro track, and I said I thought so.  At the end, I made my case that my brain and ideas and experience were my greatest assets, and that my body would catch up pretty quickly to the rest if they gave me a shot.  They agreed, and I was dismissed.

Our individual audition pieces were the final part of the audition.  By that point, we’d been going pell mell for almost five hours, and we were all starting to fade.  I wondered if this was part of the audition design as well, seeing how well we could handle long hours of pro track beat down.  Most of us started rethinking our pieces, switching more to improvisation, pulling out power moves that we weren’t sure we’d be able to land.  In the end, everyone was amazing.  Mandy was competent and smooth on silks.  Jenna cranked out an extremely athletic static trapeze routine.  Joanna’s double harness improv was beautifully graceful.  Linda hauled in a portable pole and did a fierce and frenetic routine.  Meri, another young pole dancer, used an invented apparatus called a T-pole and spun quickly.  Andi did silks and worked the emotional content.  A young girl with blonde dreadlocks from Denver named Halle pulled off a solid silks routine.  And I?  I did ok.  I wanted to push the story of my musicality and maturity as a choreographer, so I made a silks piece about revolution and worked really hard on really hitting musical cues.  It’s a risk because fabric can sometimes misbehave, which can put you off the music and leave you scrambling the rest of the piece to catch back up.  My body was exhausted, and so the lines probably weren’t quite as straight as they could have been, and some of my transitions were more of a fight than smooth, but I hit all the cues, and didn’t think I’d done anything to beat myself up about.

And then we were done.  The whole audition was a bit over 6 hours, and I felt completely drained.  Andi asked if she could come over to my flat to decompress and debrief.  Apparently she had started to feel very ill during the strength requirement portion and didn’t perform as well as she wanted to.  Sitting on my front balcony, we deconstructed the entire audition together: how we thought we did, how we thought each other did, how we thought everyone else did, where we thought they’d draw the line.  Really, I thought everyone could potentially make the program; it just depended on what Frequent Flyers wanted and was looking for.  I could very easily end up on the other side of the line, considering I couldn’t nail the silks sequence.

My phone whistled.  I absent-mindedly picked it up while I was mid-sentence to Andi, and the preview pane showed an email from Valerie saying “Natalie!  We would like to offer you a position in our 2014 Training Program….”

“Holy shit,” I said.  “I got in.”

Andi’s eyes opened wide, and she reached for my phone so she could check her email.  A few minutes later, her face fell.  Her email was empty.  We sat quietly for a while, me excited for myself, but also sad for my buddy, and unsure of what to say.

In the end, they took six people from my audition group: me, Linda, Jenna, Mandy, Joanna, Meri.  We joined Kate and Heidi, the pro-trackers from last year who performed the lyra duet in the cabaret—they decided to return for another go round; Anna, a single mother and trapeze specialist from Chicago; Alysha, a contemporary dance major who had torn her ACL in pro track last year and was back for a second try following knee surgery and extensive rehab; and to my delight, I found out Laura Burgamy from the Wing Project in Knoxville had gotten in on an earlier audition.  Laura performed at the fourth Festival of Doom and had helped train a couple of the girls in Alternacirque.

I’ll be doing a big catchup post in the next couple days about the first three weeks of pro-track: getting used to 25 hours a week of aerial dance, Frequent Flyers’ philosophy and approach, the amazing women I’m working with, work-life-relationship balance, and crying through my entire first week of class.  Before I go though, I do want to mention that Andi is doing awesome, has joined both the student company and the high flyers program at FF, and plans to Hulk Smash her way into Pro Track next year.  Go Andi!

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