This morning, I took my puppy to the dog park. Well, of course, it’s not a proper “dog park”, because all of the actual dog parks in Brooklyn have been gated and locked since the start of NYC’s stay-at-home orders. Rather, it’s a giant field covered in mud, grass, and lots and lots of dogs. Dogs who run off-leash between the hours of 7:00am and 9:00am.
We adopted our pup Lyanna in February. When we introduce her, people often mishear the name. “Leona?” they ask. “Anya? Wynonna?”. “Lyanna,” we repeat. “You know, Lyanna Mormont, The Lady of Bear Island?” They look at us blankly. “Her namesake is the tough little girl from Game of Thrones who leads the men into battle.” Most people then nod politely and admit they have never seen Game of Thrones. But Lyanna is not offended. She is too busy rolling in mud.
To distract her, I’ll usually toss a ball across the field. She’s only 6 months old and so we’re still working on the whole “fetch” thing. She seems to get the concept of finding the ball, but she hasn’t quite grasped the “bringing it back” part yet. Once she has the ball between her teeth, she will parade around the field, showing off her prize. Sometimes the other dogs get jealous and chase her, which she loves. Eventually, there will be a whole line of dogs following her, and she looks quite like her namesake indeed.
While I watch her with a pride usually reserved for human children, I also chat with the other dog owners, who are all diligently wearing masks and staying six feet apart. Because my neighborhood in particular is something of an “epicenter of an epicenter” for the virus, and people are careful not to be careless. Aside from my partner (Lyanna’s dad), these dog owners are the only other humans I have seen in the flesh since March 12th, 2020, which seems like a lifetime ago now.
At the beginning of March, my life was very different. I had just committed to a regular teaching slot at Peridance Capezio Center, and was setting choreography on International/Intensive Semester students. I was anticipating rehearsal for an upcoming performance at the McCarter Theater Center, and was also writing and choreographing a new show. Not to mention that it was audition season as well as competition season. My calendar was stacked.
In one week, everything changed. On Saturday, March 7th, I was judging a dance competition with Spirit of Dance Awards. While on break, my fellow judges and I heard about a new virus that had been circulating, and we were encouraged to wash our hands more than usual. We speculated whether the virus would affect future competitions or not. The next week, my competition event was canceled. Then gradually, all events were canceled. The rest of my jobs followed suit. One week, I was an overbooked dancer, choreographer, and director. The week after, I was unemployed. My friends and I estimated that quarantine would last one week, maybe two. Then Broadway announced that it was closing until Easter. “Easter!” we said, “That seems excessive!” Oh, how little we knew.
It is now May 9th, 2020. We are going on our third month of quarantine, which, in New York, is anticipated to extend to at least June 1st, if not longer. Needless to say, my life is very different now. Though I miss eating at restaurants and performing, it’s certainly not all bad. In March, my weekends would include an early morning flight, 16-hour competition days, and a late-night return, followed by weekdays of auditions, classes, and rehearsals. Now, I wake up to birdcalls, throw on some sweatpants, feed my sleepy puppy and leisurely make my way to the dog park. There is almost no traffic, and the cherry blossoms on my block are blooming so violently that I can smell them through my mask.
Lyanna has dropped her ball at my feet (which is, of course, now covered in dirt and slobber, thanks girl) and is playing with Lola, a 7-month-old Golden Retriever, who is as fluffy and adorable as you are picturing in your head. Lola’s owner is an artist as well, and we often talk about her daughters, both of whom are gymnasts on an Olympic track. Today we talk about how her daughters are trying to keep up with their conditioning in quarantine, and what a difficult time they are having. Even though the whole world is experiencing a shutdown, her daughters worry that someone, somewhere, is out-training them and that when Nationals are rescheduled (if they are), they will be out of stamina and skills. The uncertainty and unfairness makes them angry. They pace the house. They lash out. (P.S. ESPN wrote a piece about her daughters. If you would like to read it, check out this link!)
I tell her that I can relate as an adult dancer, and can only imagine what it must feel like as a young athlete at such a crucial training period. As a young dancer, I insisted on sleeping in splits (DISCLAIMER: please don’t do this - it’s bad for your joints and circulation, which I learned later, but I guess we all do stupid things when we’re 14) and felt guilty and restless when I missed one week of ballet class to go on a family vacation. If I was a 14-year-old trying to train now, I would absolutely be losing my mind in quarantine.
It made me think a bit (while I stood there watching Lyanna nibble Lola’s ear), how many young dancers must feel trapped at the moment. How many must feel cheated out of performing and making art. How many must feel that, through no real fault of their own, they are losing their technique, and hard-earned strength. It made me sad for them, and I wondered, what advice could I give them? Did I have any advice to give?
When friends ask me how I’m doing I usually say, “You know. Weird.” It’s the most honest answer I can come up with at the moment. Lately, I haven’t felt like my typical creative, motivated self. Even though I see my talented friends teaching classes, organizing projects, or learning new skills, I don’t always want to participate, and that’s not like me. It feels like I’m lacking something fundamental about myself.
However, here’s the good news: if you feel this way, you’re not crazy. In fact, it’s a textbook “normal” reaction. The theory is outlined in this article from Psychology Today, if you’d like to read the whole thing. If not, I’ll summarize.
Basically, there’s this scientific theory of human psychology called “Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs”. Think of it as a pyramid with a wide base and a small pointy tip, like those old food pyramid graphics.
At the bottom of the pyramid is the first slice, labeled “Physiological” (which includes the most biologically basic things humans need to survive - water, air, food, etc). The second slice, above the first, is called “Safety” (meaning both physical and emotional safety from threats). Above that is the third, “Love and Belonging” (or the desire to give and receive love). The fourth is “Esteem” (confidence and respect for oneself), and the fifth, at the very top of the pyramid, is “Self-Actualization” (the desire to better yourself, which includes hobbies, spiritual study, learning new skills, and making art).
The theory goes that humans can’t even focus on the upper levels of the pyramid until more base needs are met. In other words, if you were choking on a grape, your brain would prioritize getting your airway clear so that you could breathe (“Physiological Need”) before it would start worrying whether or not your crush likes you (“Love and Belonging”).
But! Let’s say your crush gave you the Heimlich maneuver and you coughed up the grape. You breathe deeply. You take a sip of water. Physiological need: check! Then you look around to see if there are any more grapes around. You throw them in the trash, just to be sure it doesn’t happen again. Safety: check! Then you think about the fact that your crush saved your life. Your crush gives you a hug and says “I’m glad you’re alright!” Love and Belonging: check! Then you look around the cafeteria and you realize that everyone is watching you. You are immediately embarrassed and worry they will laugh at you. But a few seconds later, someone starts to applaud the heroic actions of your crush, and pretty soon the whole room is clapping. Self-Esteem: Check! Then you think about what a great story this would be for the standup routine you’re working on. And we’ve arrived at the top of the pyramid: Self-Actualization.
Now that we’re all on the same page thanks to the silly story about the grape, most well-adjusted people spend the majority of their lives in the top two slices of the pyramid (Self-Actualisation and Esteem). It is where we feel safe enough to ride bikes, play board games, and make jewelry. However, the virus and the immediate impact it has on our lives (whether we are in physical or psychological danger) sends us right back down to the bottom of the pyramid. When we fear for our basic need to stay alive, perhaps fear for our financial safety, we don’t have the energy to focus on making a new app, writing a symphony, or staying in shape. It’s way less important to our brains than “staying alive”, and thank goodness it is. It’s one of the reasons humans have survived as long as we have!
Because the cultural, political, social and scientific landscape is constantly in flux during this time, our brains feel different levels of safety (or are on different rungs of the Hierarchy) each and every day, and that’s totally normal!
Once I learned this, I decided to start being a little more patient with my brain. It’s only trying to keep me safe, after all. Now, I don’t try and force it to be creative. I don’t force myself to take virtual class if I’m not feeling it (chances are my brain would be preoccupied anyway). What I try to do (and what I would advise if you are feeling trapped or anxious) is to give myself some grace, not beat myself up, and enjoy whatever rung of the pyramid I happen to be on today.
Some days, I am at the bottom of the pyramid. When I’m at the bottom, I give myself permission to put on fuzzy socks, make tea and watch a documentary. I allow myself to enjoy it without feeling guilty that I’m not “working out”. I know my technique won’t disappear if I skip barre for one day (which is the secret your ballet teachers don’t tell you - just don’t skip it for a long time). Besides, “taking a break” allows you to fill the well of your creativity so you can use it later. For example, maybe I’ll use the documentary as a jumping-off point for the next piece I create! If not, at least I’ll be a more developed and informed human being, which is never a bad thing. Also, taking a day off means you’ll be more motivated and excited when you do feel the desire to get dancy or creative. The bottom of the pyramid is about reminding yourself that you are alive and safe and that it’s a good thing.
Some days, I’m in the middle of the pyramid. On those days, I’ll put on my favorite bathing suit and dance around the apartment. Sometimes Lyanna joins in. It’s nice just feeling the shift of my weight on the floor, with no choreography or training exercises in mind. It reminds me why I like to dance in the first place, without the added stress of training or goal-setting. Listening to an old song I used to love, or baking a pie that I used to make with my Grandma has the same effect. The middle of the pyramid is about reminding yourself that you love and are loved, and that it’s a good thing.
Today, however, I’m at the top of the pyramid.
I watch my puppy chase a squirrel (she and the squirrels have been at war for a while now: Squirrels 3, Lyanna 1) and I think about all the places I want to take her hiking.
I get a sudden urge to learn how to use a pottery wheel. It’s a strange desire, but I don’t question it. I have time now, after all, and I never had time for such frivolous things in my old life. Why not take advantage?
Or perhaps I’ll choreograph. Teach a virtual class. Learn to paint. Go running. Play the clarinet. The possibilities seem endless.
But as my dog and I leave the park, I suddenly know exactly what I’m going to do today.
“I think I’m going to write a blog!” I tell Lyanna. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
But she has found an interesting stick, and doesn’t seem to hear.
Ashley is an award winning performer, choreographer, director, and filmmaker who is based in NYC. She is a proud graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (B.F.A. in Dance, B.A. in English and American Literature) and the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance in Austria. She is currently working on a new show called FALL OF THE HOUSE (writer and choreographer) and will be directing and choreographing the Princeton Triangle Show at the McCarter Theater in November.
Follow Her: @alm433, @fallofthehouseplay