Killing the Arts with their Nonsense

Painted by my grandmother, Margureite Dunne

Painted by my grandmother, Margureite Dunne

As an unhappy teenager, I immersed myself in dance and theater.  The arts enabled me to paradoxically exist and disappear, which worked out well for a kid who felt invisible and, despite the desire to exist and be acknowledged, felt too insecure and uncomfortable to be noticed.  The arts also allowed me the freedom to live in a universe that ran parallel to a reality that, to my young self, was dark and sad. They gave me a voice when I was too shy and self-conscious to speak. They allowed me to holler without a sound and magically create beauty out of ugliness.

Thankfully, I was granted a modest degree of  talent and was able to pursue modern dance as a profession.  As I grew into adulthood, dancing became my drug, better than martinis or sex or cigarettes; although, I must admit, I derived great and perverse pleasure when I emerged damp and tired from the rehearsal studio, ventured out  into the cold New York City night and lit up.  There was just nothing that compared to the sensation of inhaling smoke and cold air into lungs freshly opened from intense physical activity. Ahhhhh..anyways..I am also happy to report that with age came greater happiness, and, when dancing, I achieved moments of pure joy.

Despite the wonderous moments, an artist’s life can be a difficult, dirty and weird one as well.  There were years when I lived like a subterranean rodent and shared my residents with rats and other vermin.  I lived in dangerous neighborhoods in Inwood and the lower east side.  I risked my life getting off the subway in the wee hours of he morning to schlep through the bowels of the city on my way home from working some shitty job to support my dancer’s existence. Thank God dancers don’t eat  because I would have been in trouble if I had to buy food, and I was certainly unwilling to abandon my beloved cigarettes. I love to smoke, and, although it’s been twelve years since my last puff (with the exception of the occasional cigar), I still miss it.

Eventually, I had to give up my artist’s life.  I simply would never make a living as a dancer and with the stress of not having money, health insurance or a safe place to live, I decided it was time to move on.  The thing is, I have never given up my love of the arts.  The other night I sat with Allegra and introduced her to the New York City Ballet.  We watched excerpts from Balanchine’s Jewels and the dancing was exquisite. We watched another YouTube video which included an interview with Peter Martins, New York City Ballet’s Artistic Director.  He spoke of the importance of the orchestra and the musicality of NYCB  dancers and explained how Balanchine’s choreography was about the music. I know the dancer’s love of music.  I understand how the low sad strains of a cello can flood you with tears and how the glorious notes of the violin as it makes its way up the scale can cause your heart to burn.  I guess that is why I always found over intellectualized modern dance numbers executed in silence to be obnoxious.

Even more bizarre to me than some of the avant garde modern dance pieces I have seen are some of the dance numbers I witnessed at the talent show of my son’s former parochial school. I guess I should preface this by stating that I simply don’t get what so many of the local dance studios are teaching the kids.  I do know that the parents are constantly buying bedazzled costumes for dance competitions.  How is it possible that dance competitions for six years olds even exist?  I mean, how can these studios possibly be instilling a love of the art form when the focus is competition?  I am confused. Are we talking about cheerleading or dancing?  What about the abstract expression of emotion?  What about developing a deep understanding and appreciation of the music?  Well…  at the aforementioned talent show many young students from the local competition dance academies performed, and I was appalled.  There was no artistry, no musicality, no technique.  There were, however, ridiculous movements set to songs with inappropriate lyrics.  What they are teaching children in these studios is not art, it is bedazzled suburban bullshit, or burbshit if you will. Dance studios are businesses, and they thrive in the burbs where parents are all too willing to enroll their children in whatever they think everyone else’s kids are doing.   In the burbs parents pay boatloads of money on lessons and clubs and teams, not necessarily because their children express an interest in these things but because they feel they should be doing these things.   I cannot help but question what these parents will say in ten or twelve years if their children express an interest in pursuing dance on a professional level.  Will they support their children entering the artist community or will they frown upon it and encourage their kids to enter more stable (ha!)  fields like finance, business and law? If they do encourage their children to pursue their dreams, then why not start them off in a reputable institution that respects the art form.  AND if they would never stand for their children becoming artists,  why expose them to it at all, especially on such a base level?  I guess the answer to that is that it’s just what suburban kids do and also perhaps a broad range of extracurriculars looks good on the college application.  Great.  Way to suck the soul out of the art form.

Speaking of sucking the soul out of the art, I also had a deeply disturbing experience at a local music studio.  Last year I enrolled Jack, then seven, in drum lessons.  I love drumming (listening, not playing) and Jack loves music, so we were both very excited to start.  As I have mentioned before, my Jack has some special needs, and, at the time, Jack was enrolled in school. For him, each day was more painful than the next, everyday bringing with it a new failure and additional blow to his already fragile self-esteem.  We enrolled him in music class to bring a bit of joy into his difficult week.  It was supposed to be fun and stress free.  And the first class was great.  His teacher had him tap along on his drum pad while he played Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” When class was over, Jack was pumped and eager to return the following week.  It was during the second class that things took a turn for the worse.  I observed from the window, so I know exactly when everything went south, which was when the instructor attempted to teach Jack how to read the notes.  Now Jack has attention issues, so what do you think he did after already having a long, hard day at school?  He zoned out. He quietly zoned out.  After class I was politely informed by his instructor that there was nothing more he could do with Jack and that I should buy him a play drum set.  Come again?! Dude, you’re a drumming teacher.  Your student is seven years old.  Why don’t you just ask him what kind of music he likes and let him follow along as you play?  Why don’t you just talk about music?  Why don’t you just let him play on the drum and you help him learn through discovery?  Why don’t you care?  Why don’t you give a fuck?  He’s a quirky kid, probably going to be some kind of artist.  He’s a bright kid.  He’s an interesting and passionate kid.  Why can’t you just show the slightest bit of interest?  Oh that’s right.  You work at the suburban music factory where all the “normal” kids of the world are sent to follow your curriculum and where the parents check to make sure that their current seven year olds and future masters of the universe learn to read as well as robotically play music.  Again-burbshit. What the hell would these people do with a true maniac artist?  Where would  Gelsey Kirkland or Van Gogh or Miles Davis or Foster Wallace or…stand in their esteem?

So, my advice to parents who want to instill a true love of the arts in their children is to first teach them yourself.  Listen to classical masterpieces, watch theater and dance productions, read great literature and talk about it, the nuances, the meaning, the underlying emotions.  Seek art in life, in it’s joy and grief.  Look at frozen ponds and enjoy the splendor of the ice sparkling like crystal in the sun.  Sit at the beach on a dark, gray day and seek the inspiration that Turner and Winslow Homer found.  Stand in your backyard on a cold winter morning and enjoy the silence and peace that only a winter morning can bring.  Find art in life, then find true lovers of art to teach your children.  Ignore bells and whistles and promises of sparkly polyester costumes and dance competition glory.  Look for passion,experience and sincerity, and, when you find that, you will find worthy mentors for your children.  And in supporting true artists, we save art.

Oh Competition. How I Loathe Thee.

I abhor competition. I am afraid of competition. I avoid competition at all costs. So, how am I supposed to raise my children in a highly competitive world?

I should pause for a moment and explain. I am not talking about
obvious competition, as in competitive sports. I’m talking about the other kind. The kind that drives people to behave in unflattering ways. The kind that stems from envy and insecurity and leads to nothing good. I’m talking about the kind of competition that pits not rivals but colleagues, friends, parents, family members, and those other groups who in theory should dwell harmoniously on this earth against each other and drives them to engage in silent battles with those they should support.

I guess I have somewhat designed my life so I can avoid competition whenever possible, and this has worked in my favor. During meetings and other engagements with colleagues I always look to hang with the older part-timers, those folks who have retired from previous careers and now work for the sheer pleasure of it. These are some low-key cats with nothing to prove. We can chat about work, or not. One thing is for sure–we will not be nervously talking over one another, trying to prove who is more talented, better read, intellectually superior. No. In fact, retirees just don’t give a shit and really, neither do I. I mean, like myself,they care about the quality of their work and are passionate about what they do, but they are not competing for anything. If the older set isn’t present at a work function, I know I’m going to leave with a headache and an impending panic attack.

Speaking of work, just the other day a colleague approached me in the hallway. She wanted to know if I would be applying for the full-time position that will be opening within the next few months. I assured her that I would not, that, at present time, I simply could not, but I wished her luck (it would be completely superfluous to inquire whether she was planning on applying). I thought the issue was settled, so I was surprised when, upon our next meeting, she needed to know the details of my resume. When forced to share, I let her in on what I perceived was unsettling news. My resume is pretty good, if I do say so myself; although, I think my penchant for platform stilettos and sparkle eye shadow leads some of my academic friends to underestimate my credentials. Anyway, the topic has not been broached again. Thank God. You guys enjoy yourselves. Thankfully, I am not in the race.

If competition in the workplace freaks me the hell out, you can only imagine how I feel about hanging with parent competitors, far more formidable foes than you will ever find on a football field or in a lion’s den for that matter. My first experience with Mommy competition was in the physical therapist’s office. Jack was about nine months old and diagnosed with mild torticollis. He and I were in the waiting room when I recognized a woman with a daughter about my son’s age who I had met at childbirth class. Well we got to talking about the kids, how they had the same condition and their initial evaluation by the therapist. Apparently, according to this mother, her daughter scored “off the charts” on one of the therapist’s evaluations. Huh? It’s not like the therapist administered the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Babies and the little baby genius earned a score of infinity. Wow!!! As far as I could recall, the test took ten minutes and involved a Fischer Price toy piano and a ball, and my son’s score was in fact “on the charts.”

And so it has gone. Surreal encounters with lunatic parents desperate to prove their children superior in one way or another. Unfortunately, as my kids get older, I am now witnessing their weird encounters with what must be the offspring of these competitive parents. At the beach this summer, a little boy about Jack’s just wouldn’t relent with the “I’m better” comments. “I can hold my breath longer.” “I can race faster.” “I can do the butterfly and you can’t.” Blah, blah, blah. It went on and on. Thankfully Jack just doesn’t give a damn. At some point my guy just swam away. Right on little man. Doing it mommy style.

This brings us to the park encounter which inspired this post. Allegra found a new friend. The two girls played quite nicely until they discovered that both take ballet classes. Suddenly, play stopped and competition began with new little friend asking to see Allegra’s first position, pirouettes and leaps and then correcting her, showing her the “right” way and informing my daughter that her dancing was not very good. Allegra looked at me, hurt and confused. At that point I broke it up and whisked my little sprite away. A line had been crossed. As a former dancer myself, I have a deep love of ballet. Although I haven’t danced professionally in years, dance is a part of life in the Nanni house. We always dance. Practically every theme song to every children’s show has a special dance choreographed by the kids and I. We dance to be silly and cool and happy. We dance to rock and pop and electronica and classical music. Dance for us is primal and joyful. To see my four-year daughter told that her dancing wasn’t good enough; to see the look of hurt in her eyes disturbed me.

I hate silly, unnecessary competition. I hate dance competitions. I hate when dance is reduced to a sport and robbed of its beauty and artistry. And so too with life. Life is not a sport; it is art, sometimes beautiful, sometimes joyful, sometimes tragic, but art none the less. There is no place for diminishing anyone to advance oneself. That is ugliness, not artistry.

And so, what do I teach my children? How are they to survive in a competitive world? I guess they just need to learn how to dance on through. They need to learn how to be the kindest and the best they can possibly be. They must learn to maximize their God-given talents…and not give a shit about what everyone else is doing. Carry on little ones. You are great and fabulous and perfectly imperfect. Be good; do your best. My love for you is constant. You will be okay. You are wonderous. You are art.