Posts that are kinesthetic-ish

Some early drafts of dances in my brain

Writing this partially so I can look back later and see how each of them turned out — I don’t know which ones will fade out and which ones will turn into something and actually get performed. I’ve noticed that I seem to work exclusively on character pieces to songs with lyrics and a strong beat, so someday I may push out of that comfort zone — but right now, I’m happy.

Makers (working title) is something I hope to do for my “Race, Class, and Gender in Engineering Education” class in the fall with a cast entirely composed of female engineers (who may, like me, have no dance background). I want to explore how many female engineers “perform masculinity” in some way, and how exhausting that can be — so the entire cast is dressed in button-ups and ties performing aggressive, mechanical phrases in canon, and individual dancers and small groups intermittently collapse out of that into brief phrases from contact improvisation before dragging themselves back in. If ends up being really good, we’ll try to perform it at the 2014 American Society of Engineering Education conference in May.

The music for this is going to be an exercise in solo classical-style piano arrangement all its own; I’m adapting “Walk Like A Man” into a lilting waltz and “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” into florid arpeggios and mashing them together and I don’t know what else. The dance is more developed than the music, which I’ll ultimately need someone else to do.

Watching (working title), a lyrical hip-hop solo with a lot of ASL elements, set to Straight No Chaser’s cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” I wonder if this will end up being the first solo I choreograph and perform; my body fits inside it like a glove. This surprises me. I’ve never performed a signed piece. Au contraire: I’ve stayed far, far away from them lest I get labeled “Mel The Deaf Person” — and the movement vocabulary is unmistakably feminine (and the song is about the male gaze, to boot). But it’s Mel-feminine, and when set to all-male a capella vocals, it somehow works. I need more arm and core strength; there are some shapes here I would like to hold with better lines. But I’m curious to see where this goes.

Coast-to-Coast (working title)a heavily blues-influenced hip-hop piece set to Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings’ cover of “This Land Is Your Land.” I’ve been tinkering on it since October and it keeps changing from a solo to a duet to a trio and back again. I really want to see Onyx (one of my cast members from “In The Stacks”) do this — she has a spunk and attitude that would bring this hilariously to life — so it’s likely to be a duet or trio at XWorks this coming October right before she graduates.

Transmogrification (final title, ’cause it’s awesome) is  a trio inspired by the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes and set to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.” It’s got 3 characters — Calvin, Hobbes, and Calvin’s Mom, and the boy and his tiger tumble all around the stage reenacting highlights of the strip (I love love love the Spaceman Spiff section). The running gag is that Hobbes is a lithe, acrobatic character (in contrast to Calvin’s twitchier, more pent-up, combative movements) — but when Calvin’s Mom is onstage, he (probably danced by a “she”) abruptly turns into a prop manipulable by the other dancers. I have no idea how I’m going to cast this.

Xworks concert Fri/Sat: neon yellow duct tape, fishnet stockings (grr) and dancing in a library (yay)

Functional post here, advertising the XWorks dance concert in Pao Hall this Fri/Sat (3/1-3/2) at 5 and 7pm both nights, $5/ticket. Pieces I’m involved with:

2x+y=4: Spaceship-engine sounds, gongs, black costumes striped with neon duct tape… Amy’s modern choreography has me doing inversions, rolls, and a small solo in the back corner. Rehearsal conversations became increasingly Dadaist as the semester went along: “Backpack, paddle-turn, toothbrush — back step… microwave!”

In The Stacks is a quintet with four dancers and a book in a library. Hey, what else did you expect me to do my first time choreographing? Peggy Lee’s cover of “Fever” is now about flaming intellectual obsession; Kristen, Onyx, Ruchika, and I throw jackets, fight over the book, and briefly re-stage the evolution of man while doing bluesy jazz. (And I will do my first solo some other show.) Many thanks to Kyler for his early help setting the piece… then leaving for a dance apprenticeship in New Mexico before we could do a duet. Which I will track him down for someday, mark my words.

Five Merry Murderesses is Emily’s take on “All That Jazz” and my first time dancing with jazz shoes on. And fishnet stockings, booty shorts, a bright red garter, and choreography directions like “…now hit your favorite burlesque pose!” After some blank stares, I learned that ”burlesque” means “now we will move our hips independently of the rest of us!” and “let us do our leg extensions and plies veeerrrry sloooowwwly!” and “we will never have our weight evenly distributed over both feet!” Pushing waaaaaaay outside my comfort zone here. (Also, who the hell invented fishnet stockings, booty shorts, and garters? Can I slap them?)

I’ll also be providing one of the voiceovers for Nina’s piece To Have And To Hold, thus checking off another bucket-list item (have speaking part in stage production — a sentence is a speaking part.) I need a lot of studio and dancing time to center myself this week, and am thankful that I have it.

O metabrain: choose the version of “Fever” I’ll dance my first solo to

Okay, folks. I’m choreographing my first solo. I might not get to perform it until the spring — or even next fall, depending — but having the guts to get up and do a solo is something I’d like to do. (Bravery exercises! Face ALL the fears!)

I want to do it to the song “Fever” — anyone who does swing or blues should know this song, and anyone who knows the lyrics should now be saying “Mel? You? Solo? To that?” Yep yep. (Face ALL the fears!) Okay, okay, there’s a twist to it that I won’t reveal now but which will make this all make sense once the piece is finished. But it is a pretty, um, sexy-sounding song, and… I’m actually honoring that.)

Now I need to pick a particular cover to dance to, and that’s where you come in, o people with more music knowledge than I.

I am looking for something slow, bluesy, simple — male or female vocalist doesn’t matter, but I want the percussion to be bursty and loud and sudden, especially in phrases like “Fever / <DRUM!> / In the morning” or “Fever / <DRUM!> / I’m a fire”, and I want the accompanying track to be sparse (in my perfect world, it’s just a vocalist, a drummer, and a bassist). And in case it makes a difference, I’m going to have to cut the thing for time, and will almost definitely be nixing the Pocahontas verse.

So far, the best one I’ve found is (I think) this Peggy Lee version — it’s pretty sparse, and I love the swinging female vocals, but it’s a bit faster than I’d like, and the drum is not as prominent as I could wish. (I guess you could mix it to slow the sound down and amplify the drums, but I don’t know how to do that.)

Alternatives: Elvis Presley’s cover is too big-band, and the original Little Willie John doesn’t have the percussion I want. The Ella Fitzgerald cover is lovely but awfully fast. The Rose McGowan cover has a great tempo — if anything, it’s a little too slow! but is only part of the song, and missing the percussion.

Go go go!

An interlude on physical status: I run fast after an allnighter

After sleeping (really, lying down — I’m not sure if I ever was unconscious) for the half-hour between 6:35 and 7:05AM, I went to the gym with an empty stomach and no hydration and proceeded to run my fastest mile time of the year (8 minutes and some number of seconds I was too tired to remember) while feeling like absolute physical shit: side stitches and physical/mental exhaustion causing a lower-than-usual level of exertion, a sloppy stride, and patterns of muscular tension (mostly in my neck) that I occasionally, tiredly, remembered to relax.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, but it’s interesting to note that my physical best several months ago — after hiking across England but before I started dancing and hitting the gym on a frequent and regular basis — pales in comparison to my physical… way-less-than-best now.

I think I’m going to respond to that by drinking a lot of water to wash down my extremely healthy lunch and scheduling an afternoon nap into my day. Writing! Writing! I feel this massive flywheel turning; ideas are spinning out, if only I can type enough to capture them!

My first dance tech rehearsal: ZOMG THE COLORED LIGHTS THEY THEY THEY are awfully disorienting.

Things look different on a stage with lights. At tech rehearsal for Teena’s hip hop piece tonight, I stumbled through the first runthrough — the lights turned on! and there were colors! and where was I? and the music had a totally different quality played through the stage soundsystem than from a boombox nearby. I needed to reset, play the song inside my head, squint into the darkness when Mary Beth called out instructions (Bryce, thankfully, relayed them to me when he realized I couldn’t lipread outside the flood of stage lights).

Tech rehearsal for Kyler’s piece went off with fewer hitches, though the loudness of the music means I’m now entirely dependent on feeling vibrations through the floor in order to tell when to uncurl and scramble up after Lily. I used to be able to hear and feel her fall. Now it’s just the feeling.

It was fascinating to watch how disoriented I was. My entire visual environment had been thrown into disarray, and I live by my visual environment. I think I recovered fairly quickly, though. I learn fast. And by tomorrow night’s dress rehearsal, I’ll be okay now that I know what to expect, and I know to ask my fellow dancers to give me physical cues in the dark (shoulder-taps, not whispers).

I never thought I’d actually be dancing on a stage. I’ve worked tech for dancers before — I even got paid once in college when a troupe of traveling dancers came by and Steve Westwood and I signed on to work the show. The lights turned the stage into a different world; I still remember rolling and flying props onstage mid-song; scooting out a luggage for a dancer to catch and sit on, floating a balloon down for another to grab. They leapt and rolled and flirted and fought to brassy jazz vocals and soft piano music and everything in between. I’m used to seeing that from the sidelines — admiring, contributing, but not being out there in the spot.

It’s still a weird moment, stepping out and having the lights turn on. How did I get here? What am I doing? Gotta figure out how to console myself that I’m supposed to be there. Better yet, just focus on dancing. Deep breaths. It’s good. You’re learning!

Next up: more Readiness stuff. I am still writing! I just, y’know, had a full day of classes and meetings and finished all my homework for a week today; it’s been packed with non-Readiness from 7:30am-10pm, so I just started for the day an hour ago. Let’s see if I can close by midnight, get some sleep for a change.

My first 24 hours with hip-hop: YES.

My first exposure to hip-hop happened about… oh, 16 hours ago. And. And and. YES.

I clearly do not have the core and shoulder strength needed, nor some of the balance skills, to do most of the moves properly. But that can be built. I can hear and get inside the music — these are big, throbbing, bassy beats — and most awesomely, the movement style feels like it fits me. It’s got the down-and-loose vibe and smoothness I like about dancing blues, but it also takes in rage and anger, fighting, explosiveness…

I want more.

Teena Marie Custer is at Purdue this week, and I’m inhaling as much of her teaching as I can before I fly to Seattle tomorrow. I went to her choreography session last night (she’s setting a piece on us and we’re dancing to Frank Ocean’s Thinking About You), came home, slept, woke up and ran to Holly’s Modern 1 class this morning where we did Butoh (mindblowing; I’d never heard of it before) and then begged to be allowed to stay for her Jazz II class which Teena was teaching. She said yes, and so I did, and we learned top rocking and go-downs and floorwork and a really basic freeze (chair freeze) and the one-step and the back sweep and the three-step and I’m hooked and my deltoids will hate me in the morning.

But only in the morning, because I’ve got an hour to shower and dash to the R programming workgroup, then meetings meetings and then dancing with Kyler, then PCDC’s workshop with Teena, and then Teena’s choreography session again — that’s 5 doses of dancing in one day. I love that my body can do this. I can move, I can move, I can move!

That’s all. Just that explosion of joy, of learning to let myself come out more and more and more.

Undoing the head stabilization habit

Okay, this is cool. From ReadingMate:

Though reading could be a useful activity for joggers running on a treadmill, reading while running can be quite tiresome especially to eyes. Since the relative location of the eyes to the contents (i.e., the text) is vigorously changing, our eyes must constantly adjust to such changes, which is burdensome. In order to alleviate this difficulty, we developed a infrared-camera-based contents stabilization technique, called “ReadingMate,” by using head-tracking to track the location of the jogger’s head/eyes and relocate the contents on a screen so that the contents appear to be stabilized.

Maybe not the most pragmatic thing ever — I started thinking of what you could do with a projector on the wall before going “wait… wait, maybe not most useful interface ever to think about implementing in apartment” — but it’s an interesting look about head tracking, which is something I’ve been thinking about lately.

One thing I became aware of on the 2nd day of dance class (several weeks ago, now) was my habit of horizontally stabilizing my head. This makes sense; I’m more reliant than most on fine-tuned visual input (lipreading, supplementary text). These are mostly still and vertical. Hence, my head is still and vertical, even when the rest of my body is moving — a habit I’m breaking now in my motion, deliberately. There’s still a moment of slight fear when I let my head go out of vertical and spin around: wait! You’ll miss something! But I know I’ve put myself in a situation where there’s nothing to miss.

I wonder what I can do to make this more of an environmental factor, a habit of sorts, in the places I’m in. Hanging worksheets/instructions on my wall off-kilter might be a start, so I actually need to lean (with good body alignment — consciousness!) to read them properly.

thoughts after the dance partnering workshop

Contact improv, modern dance partnering, and blues dance. Sounds like the activity set of someone who’s extremely comfortable with physical contact, right?

Not so much in my case. I’m constantly working to overcome touch-phobia and physical awkwardness, but there’s probably no better way to do it than to plunge into environments where you get instructions like “and now you’re going to run and plant your pelvis on top of your partner’s pelvis” (and people, let me tell you: THAT IS HARD). Blues taught me how to move and relax and respond to someone else’s physical presence with my body and not so much my brain; today’s modern dance partnering workshop (required for Purdue’s Contemporary Dance Company) added in a weight-bearing aspect that I am still, quite frankly, terrified of. I know I’m a reasonably compact 130 lbs and know the rudiments of falling safely, but still.

Being in a space where teachers and skilled partners make it more mentally and physically safe to do this helps, and having the expectation that I will move like this helps. Above all, for me, it’s knowing (in all the dancing that I do) that there’s nothing beyond the dancing to interpret; I don’t need to worry that touch means flirting or anything else (which I do worry about, because I am so oblivious to romance-related social cues and DO NOT WANT THEM anyway). So the studio and the dance floor become places where I can feel safe moving and where my body can get to know itself and become more fluent, less awkward. I’ll start going to the contact improv jams when they start up next week.

Clothes have also been something I’ve been getting more comfortable with over the past… it’s not even the past year, it feels like the past 9 months in particular, but it must have started slowly before that. I used to feel extremely awkward in anything other than long jeans and a t-shirt with a software-related logo proclaiming (I hoped) that I should be treated as a fellow geek and not an incompetent person. Shorts made me cringe, anything with pink was definitely out, and the more masculine I could get my silhouette through sweaters, jackets, and the like, the better.

So it’s nice to be able to now run through campus in a tank top and shorts (and pink-and-orange toe shoes) and be amazed at how little shame I feel; I expect the cringing to be there, but it’s… not! And I actually feel strong and confident and good with the wind drying the sweat in my hair and the sun warming my body. It will take a long time before I’m as comfortable in the physical world as I am in the intellectual one, and a longer time yet before I’m even remotely close to comfortable in the emotional world, and… I won’t even talk about the others. But it’s good to know that I can learn these things, that none of these domains is truly closed to me.

This week has been full of lovely things. Experimenting during Kyler’s dance rehearsal Tuesday night, then learning how to do breakdance freezes at Kelley’s rehearsal on Wednesday (the visible bruises on my shoulder have now faded; they’ll probably start again on Monday when I try doing the rapid backbend-to-floor again). Dinner with friends on Thursday after another wonderful dance rehearsal, and my summer writing group (Joi and Patricia) coming over Friday night to continue our playful prodding and shaping of each other’s research.

This morning was the dance workshop, after which I packed crepe ingredients into my car and drove out to the office for a portfolio-making party. On the way, I remembered the first time I came to Purdue’s campus; I think I was 13 or 14, before high school, and how strange and different and big it seemed in patchwork pieces I saw under heavy chaperoning; how different it feels now, even if I remember bits and pieces being the same (the bookstore, the Union, the dorms we stayed in across the street from Young Hall). When I am with a child, I will try to remember how it feels to have the world be vivid and awake and built in constantly expanding patches.

The thing I appreciate the most about my morning gym and dance classes is that my body is a terrible liar.

My mind is a great liar. “Oh, I’m not that tired,” it will say. “Good to go! I can work another couple hours, fresh as a daisy, crankin’ out the good stuff!” And then it proceeds to go “bluggggggghhhh” and spew nonsense all over itself after a few minutes.

It’s sort of like when one of my little cousins was 4 and insisted that she didn’t need her stroller for the 3-mile walk to the train station because she was a Big Girl and could do it All By Herself. Less than halfway there, I needed to start carrying her. A mile away, she suddenly realized she Had To Pee Now, so I ended up making up a 1200 meter sprint with a preschooler on my back, shouting things like “JUST HOLD IT! HOOOOLD IT!” and singing Disney songs in an attempt to distract Small Child from Full Bladder. (We made it to Finagle a Bagel in time. Phew.)

Fortunately, my physical self hasn’t learned that sort of self-deception. If I haven’t eaten correctly that morning or the day before, if I haven’t stretched, or gotten adequate sleep, or if I’m stressed or just plain tense, my body immediately shows it; I don’t spin as readily, sprint as fast, concentrate on dance moves quite so well. I step out of time, run out of breath, momentarily wonder what’s wrong with me before I remember. And then I go “aha, what did I do or not-do that is making this happen?” and have the chance to correct it — eat better food, drink water, rub out tight muscles, sleep earlier — the next round, and then I get the chance to check my answers 24 hours later.

Another good thing about this schedule is that it forces me to think about occasional moments of poor performance as experimental results that directly follow from controllable variables (“I’m missing moves because I’m mentally sluggish because I got less than 5 hours of sleep”) and not as a result of permanent ingrained brokenness on my part (“I’m missing moves because I’m kinesthetically stupid and can NEVER DO THIS EVER”). When I have good days, I know it’s probably because I’ve worked hard at the right things, kept all the right habits. When I have bad days, I know it’s probably because I haven’t.

This morning I was coming from my parents’ house after a Labor Day BBQ feast, so I had tons of food last night, went to bed past midnight, then woke up at 5am for a 2.5-hour drive that ended when I parked my car outside the dance studio and went in with just 5 minutes before class to warm up, having only had a hasty gobble of leftovers for breakfast 3 hours earlier. Needless to say, I didn’t dance particularly well today.

But that’s okay. I’m fueling up with sweet potatoes and roasted chicken right now — good, healthy food, followed by repeated long draughts at the water fountain during (frequent) typing breaks. And I’ve got a dance rehearsal late tonight, so we’ll see if this gets me into better shape — if I do any better then. More chances to check my answers! And a good dose of awareness that this evening, even if my brain thinks that it isn’t tired, it probably is, and that my whole self needs to rest.

Thank you, body, for being my canary in the coalmine of grad school.

Fitting yourself a sit-to-stand desk

It’s been a while since I wrote about geeky things, so here goes: I love my new desk setup. Several months in the making and saving, a few days in shopping, and a few hours of setup and calibration… and it makes me smile every time I use it.

Design criteria:

  • A sit-stand workstation that makes use of my existing laptop, monitor, and keyboard/mouse.
  • Assisted lifting that does not require power – which means hydraulics or springs or levers or something of the sort. Sorry, geekdesk.
  • Affordable on a grad student’s budget. (This desk is the most expensive piece of furniture in my apartment, but it’s also the one I’ll spend the most time at. The bed is the second most expensive, and it’s probably the one I’ll spend the second most time using, so this seemed fair.)
  • Sturdy — which, for something this specialized and load-bearing, means getting quality components meant for the use, rather than cobbling together stacks of boxes and books and clamps myself.
  • Portable, such that I can disassemble the components and haul them to the next place in a minivan (better yet: car).

I wanted a sit-stand workstation because I spend ridiculous amounts of time on my computer and am the restless sort, so being able to change positions and maintain proper alignment while I fidget around is a real boon to ergonomics. I’ve made makeshift sitting and standing desks for years, from kitchen counters to book piles to a strategically placed empty dresser, but no matter how well I set them up, a static desk just didn’t seem right.

The past few years of experimentation did teach me about how one should be aligned in both sitting and standing positions, though.

Once you know the proper alignment, all you have to do is measure three dimensions, then figure out how to buy or craft the components so the desk will fit you. Here’s what to measure on yourself:

Based on that, you need equipment with the following specs:

  • A = vertical distance between monitor top and keyboard bottom
  • B-C = vertical distance the sit-stand mechanism needs to adjust
  • Don’t forget to get the weight of your monitor, keyboard, and laptop, or whatever you’re thinking about putting on your sit-stand mechanism, and making sure it can support and lift that!

For all of these, it’s a good idea to get things that adjust beyond the minimums you need – for instance, if my next laptop is bigger and heavier, the stand should still support it. One thing I appreciate about my chosen stand is that the monitor can adjust both together with and independently of the keyboard – that way I can move the whole setup up and down in one go (since dimension A does not change between sitting and standing), and also change the keyboard-monitor height difference (for instance, if a taller friend wants to use my computer for a bit).

Here are the relevant specs on the sit-stand workstation I chose. They didn’t specify dimension A precisely, but the pictures and the 5″ of dimension-A-adjustment specification convinced me that I could get it to fit within my range.

  • Weight Capacity: Maximum load on height-adjustment assembly = 31 lbs (14 kg). LCD weight = 6–16 lbs (2.7–7.2 kg), laptop = 6–10 lbs (2.7–4.5 kg), combined weight of LCD/laptop = 12–26 lbs (5.5–11.8 kg)
  • † Lift Range: LCD and keyboard adjust 18″ (46 cm) in tandem; LCD and laptop adjust 5″ (13 cm) independently; maximum LCD/laptop height adjustment = 23″ (58 cm)

My final bill of materials:

Total: $580 USD

You’ll notice I chose to put the monitor stand on a giant desk, and use the same surface for digital and paper work. I could also put it on a small table and use that as solely a computer workstation, then have a big desk separate from that just for papers and workshop-type adventures — and I may, depending on the nature of my lab classes in the fall semester (if I have any) or whether I start doing hobby electronics or something of the sort. If you go this route, you can do the whole thing for under $500; just get the ergotron and a cheap but sturdy folding card table, or a small computer desk at Goodwill, and you’ll be all set with a more compact computer desk than mine.

It’s not perfect; I’ve yet to figure out cord management, and adjusting the tension on the spring so it counterbalanced my computer equipment precisely took a bit of awkward fiddling ’till I got it right, but I’m a huge fan. Over the next few months, we’ll see how my back and productivity feel, but as of day 3, I like it very much, and find myself moving it up and down frequently enough (multiple times an hour — told you I was restless) to think I’ve made a rather good investment in this setup.