Monday, February 29, 2016

Women, Academia, Sport: I Dance Therefore I Am

The famed ballet choreographer George Balanchine once said, "I don't want dancers who want to dance. I want dancers who have to dance."

I have to dance. I do not think I could manage school, or much of anything else in fact, without dance. Unlike Erin, who calls herself a kinaesthetic thinker, I dance to get away from my thoughts and out of my head. Dance is the only thing I have ever found – except perhaps film – that allows me this reprieve. And as someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, and perfectionism, it is both a welcome and necessary reprieve.
I said I would dance anywhere. That includes near Parliament Hill!

When I talk about dance, unless I am referring specifically to my time inside a studio rehearsing a piece or working on my technique, I am usually speaking about improvisation. Though I enjoy these other aspects of dance, and recognize they are necessary to expanding my control over my body, and consequently, my ability to express myself as limitlessly as possible, I find the most solace in improvisation. Give me a dark room and some music, and my body takes care of the rest.

I will dance just about anywhere – from airports to parking lots, to between bookshelves in the library, in my room, and, of course, at dance studios. When I begin to panic and feel like my world is spiralling out of control, getting up and starting to move, with or without music, in any space, grounds me in my body. As someone whose mind is usually either stuck ruminating on the past, or else is speeding off into the future, dance draws me back into the present. I have been filled by some of the purest joy while dancing, but have also turned to dance when I am too numb to feel anything else. I often process my emotions, or at least allow myself room to feel them, through dance.

Ironically, I have both school and my perfectionism to thank for my years of training. Upon realizing that dance classes were perhaps the only things that would keep me from studying, over time, my parents gradually gave in to more classes, more workshops, and more competitions – anything to get me away from my textbooks. It was even thanks to my grade eight math teacher that I ended up at my high school where I studied dance. My parents were anxious to get his advice during a parent-teacher interview on where I might thrive most after middle school. As the story goes, he ignored their questions about IB and gifted programs, and instead asked if they had considered letting me go to an arts high school for dance. I have felt indebted to him ever since.

I have on occasion attempted to bring my love of dance into the classroom, and not infrequently use it as a frame of reference when trying to grasp new concepts. When we talk about gender roles, my mind inevitably turns to the tradition of ballet, which firmly relegates males and females to different choreographic parts[1]. When we discuss sexualisation, my thoughts turn to the alarming sexualisation of young children – mainly female – at dance competitions. When my sociology of education classes feel hopeless, I try to think back to my experiences of attending an arts high school, and I am reminded that there are alternative ways of approaching education.

I had a field day with my first aesthetics class in philosophy. I leaped at the opportunity to relate every assignment back to dance, which eventually led to me taking on an independent study on the aesthetics of dance. Though I enjoyed the independent study, I quickly realized that dance for me exists outside of the realm of the written word. My professor pointed out that my papers were riddled with unsubstantiated claims – but everyone can dance! We are born dancers! – and I learned that having the privilege to experience dance is enough for me. I do not want to try to capture something so elusive, magical in its nebulousness. Scrutiny can undermine sanctity. 

This summer my psychologist told me to make a list of all of my commitments I had signed up for during the school year. She instructed me to choose three to keep for certain, and to rank the rest in order of how much they would increase my stress and decrease the quality of my work. I tried to argue that my dance classes should not count as one of the three guaranteed commitments, because, like Gillian, who makes time for roller derby despite her packed schedule, dance is a given in my life. I simply don’t function without it. I take as many dance classes as I can, and have taught and choreographed dance for years. When I am asked what I do for fun (the list is scant), I sometimes forget to list dance because it is such an integral part of my life and identity that I do not see it as a hobby.

When I improvise, I feel seen, known, and understood. Improvising leaves no room to premeditate, no time to plan, curate, or refine the image you want to portray. This stands in stark contrast to my imposter syndrome and general insecurity, both of which cause me to feel like I am constantly “faking it”, and have yet to be found out for the (inadequate, terrible) person I really am. Being able to return to my body and know that embedded within it is an authentic version of myself is a blessing. Further, no one has ever been able to figure out why I approach everything in my life but dance with unceasing perfectionism. Somehow I have managed to reserve this one space in which I am allowed to simply be, and to enjoy myself. Though this is not the case for many dancers, especially those attempting to make a professional career out of dance and often those studying ballet, I am thankful to say my dance remains perfectionism-free.
Throwback to high school.

If you read this, and thought to yourself, “I wish I could dance,” please know that you can. Everyone can dance. I truly believe it is only socialized inhibitions, and perhaps in some cases, the limits and abilities of our bodies, that prevent us from dancing as we age. So turn off the lights and turn on your favourite song. And if you have a child and the means to do so, consider enrolling them in a dance class. You never know, you or they might just be someone who has to dance too.

My dance playlist is always evolving, but here are some songs that have stuck with me over the years (as well as a few that I am enjoying too much right now not to include).


Caroline Kovesi is a fourth year student at Mount Allison University. She is pursuing an Honours Bachelor of Arts in sociology with a minor in philosophy. She is passionate about de-stigmatizing mental health. Her academic work often focuses on the intersection of mental illness, disability, accessibility, and higher education. She recently started a blog exploring such topics called “for the love of a bear.”





[1] There are, though, some pretty fantastic ballet troupes beginning to play with gender bending, like Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Check this video out.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Women, Academia, Sport: Daily Affirmation

I thought I was going to use this much appreciated opportunity to write out some kind of overarching argument for the importance of the intersection between athletics and academics, particularly for women. But as I've thought about this issue over the last month, it turns out I can't in good conscience make this argument at all as women still, by far, undertake the majority of both service work in the university workplace and caretaking at home, a dreary and undebatable fact that means I'd be truly wrapped up in my own privilege if I were to say, "hey all you women, you really need to try training for something on top of all the other duties and responsibilities and drains on your time! I mean, it's really great and you'll feel good about yourself!" 

It is great. And it does make you feel good about yourself. But the time I've spent as a competitive cyclist and now runner/occasional triathlete have shown me how the barriers to participation, let alone access, are still very high. I'll return to this point toward the end of my post but to explain how I've come to this point, I'm afraid I need to indulge in some autobiography about my history as an athlete.

I've always been active and in love with running around and doing things, whether kicking or catching a ball, riding my bike on dirt or on roads, running around a track, or running on trails. But I always did this activities without any support network, with no understanding of training or technique or even nutrition, and - with the exception women like Missy Giove that I'd see in glossy magazines - with almost no role models. This isn't surprising considering I grew up in the 70s and 80s, on what was then the isolated world of Vancouver Island. Still, I had this lurking belief I could be good at sport - that I was capable and strong, even if there was no real evidence for this belief.

Maybe it's no coincidence my history as an academic followed a similar path, guided by my belief that maybe I could do this thing even if no one else around me thought one way or the other. So, after a few nerve-wracking years as a perpetually insecure, workaholic PhD student, I decided I'd try to build up my self-confidence from having almost none to, hopefully, at least having some. I started by coming up with an arbitrary amount of body fat I wanted to get down to at the local gym (incredibly, my personal life remained completely divorced from the work by Susan Bordo I was teaching at the same time), moved on to trying to do a sprint triathlon, and then - when we moved to Boulder, Colorado - trying what was for me the most intimidating of all: road bike racing.

I threw myself into training and racing road bikes for five years and, for those years, the sport gave me everything I was missing in the academic workplace. I wanted community, friends and connection and I found these things in spades, especially as a beginning Cat 4 racer. These women I trained and raced with, week in and week out for months at a time, were incredible - we pushed each other harder than we thought was possible; we learned together; we cheered each other on; we suffered together. It was a remarkable experience, especially compared to the profoundly isolationist and individualistic culture of academia. 

Those years racing and training also made me a more interesting person, one who became capable of talking with lawyers, accountants, physiotherapists, marketing managers, and sales associates. Not only did I learn about and engage with communities outside of academia but I also developed a more expanded sense of where exactly I stood in relation to my local and global community. It's such an obvious revelation, that existing only in a university environment makes one uni-dimensional. It's also obvious one cannot and should not work as many hours a day and days a week as one can hack. But somehow, academia - largely made up of type-A personalities who cannot stop striving seven days a week because of the lack of clear work-life boundaries - makes access to these obvious revelations very difficult.

I quit training and racing road bikes a couple years ago when I realized I'd achieved the goal I'd set out for myself (all I wanted was to become a Cat 2 racer, because somehow, narrowly, I thought that would mean I could finally tell myself I was "good" at this sport) and I was finding the 15 hours of training a week onerous rather than empowering. But still, the act of training taught me one lesson in particular that still hasn't left me: the value of having clear and bounded goals coupled with an acceptance of what I have today, who I am today, instead of who I could be or would like to be or should be. 

Instead of the quiet but ever-present pressure in academia to continually work and produce, without rest and very often without end and without any clear indication of success (when is our work ever done? If you work for five years or longer to write a book and then wait a year and a half, sometimes two years, for the book to come out and be read by so few people, where is the triumph?), bike training presented me with the daily challenge to complete this set task, in this particular manner, in this set amount of time. Daily I'd ask myself, "Can I do this thing? Even though I'm tired? Even though I don't feel great and even though I don't have a lot of time? Can I push my body that hard? Can I finish the workout?" And very often the answer turned out to be "Yes, I can show up only with what I have to give today and yes, I can do this thing!" 

Eventually, the tiny, daily acknowledgements of what I had to give, given the circumstances of the day, turned into tiny, daily triumphs and then these triumphs came to influence both the way I go about my work as an academic and the way I think about my worth. Eventually, I came to ask myself, "Can I write 500 words today? Can I teach my classes with the knowledge and the energy I have today, rather than what I would like to have? Can I do this work in this two hours I have, before I spend time with my husband or my friends, rather than the eight hours I wish I had?"

All I have to offer here are my personal revelations about why my personal and professional life would be so much less if it weren't for sport. I especially can only speak for myself here, as I'm reminded of the day I showed up for my first cat 2 race and I saw only women who were either professional bike racers or women who were retired or women whose children were now in college or women who were fortunate enough not to have to work at all. It's a tremendous privilege to have the time and the resources I have to train, to hire a coach, to travel to races, to set goal race times and so on. 

The Author!

I know countless women who are tremendously gifted athletes but who cannot possibly add training to their already nearly impossible schedules involving work, committee meetings, student supervision/mentoring, not to mention their own childcare and housework responsibilities. I only wish we could find a way not so much to say, "You can do it! You can train for that event and compete in that race!" but rather, "We value your health, happiness, and sense of well-being! We support a shorter work week and after-school child care! We support a more even distribution of childcare and service responsibilities across genders!" 

Then imagine what women could accomplish.


  


Lori Emerson is amateur runner, cyclist, and fresh air lover in Boulder, Colorado. She is also an Associate Professor of English and Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado and Director of the Media Archaeology Lab

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Women, Academia, Sport: Easing In, Easing Out

My alarm usually goes off somewhere around 5:15 am, and I ease myself out of bed and into the kitchen. The kettle goes on, I feed the cat, and I quietly try to empty the dishwasher while the coffee brews. Mug in hand, I walk upstairs to my desk and start to write. There aren't all that many pages left now, and the pencilled in defence date in my calendar will be ready to be inked soon. The sun comes up as I work, and it is bright in the sky by the time I manage to drag myself away from the computer and back into the kitchen for breakfast. Moving from writing to getting ready for work never gets any easier, and I almost always want just a few more minutes at the computer. It usually results in me scarfing breakfast with one eye on the clock and resigning myself to still having cat hair on me somewhere, lint roller be damned.

I step out my door at 8:30, and for the next thirty minutes, I'm neither here nor there, neither Melissa the researcher nor Melissa the research administrator. I'm Melissa in motion, just me and my backpack and my feet. I ease into my working day. I walk along Harbord Street, inhaling the sweet, yeasty smell of challah and danish from Harbord Bakery, the heady whiff of chlorine from the university pool. I watch students playing soccer on the back field, listen to the Tower Road bells playing carols and hymns and show tunes. I cross the hustle of Queen's Park Circle into Queen's Park, and listen to the sudden hush once I step away from the traffic. I watch the fat squirrels and dogs and runners, admire the snow covered statues and black-barked trees. I always look up to marvel at the gold tiles on the roof of the government buildings on Wellesley, the last quiet spot before I step into the middle of the people and cars and noise and energy at College and Bay. I look out for the man reading while he walks past the pink elephant, also known as the McMurtry-Scott Building. One more block, and I'm through the doors and inside my office.

On days when I've had the hardest time walking away from my computer, from my writing, you'll find me talking through my ideas as I walk to work. With my headset in and voice recorder on, you'd think I was leaving someone a long voicemail. And I am--only that someone is myself. I talk myself, walk myself, through the ideas and connections that come to me as I stride through the city. I get to go back to my writing, back to my thinking. I don't have to snip the threads of my thoughts quite so soon, and I get to set the stage for doing it all again tomorrow. I do some of my best thinking during those thirty minutes, even better than when I'm running, and by the time I've gotten to the office, I've talked myself out and I'm ready to move on to the very different work that is my day job.

On the way home, I do the same walk in reverse -- from busy to quiet, work to home, shedding stress and responsibility as I walk. Some days I stop in at the bakery for a loaf of that fragrant bread and a tub of ruby beets, or pick up a bunch of tulips at the corner. I walk into the house footloose and fancy free, ready to be home, be relaxed, be productive in different ways. I feed the cat, put the kettle back on. Later, I'll ease back into bed, and I sleep like a stone. Work waits for me, but I'm home and it stays there. My walk that does that, and so much more.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Women, Academia, Sport: Academia On Wheels

                                                       Academia on Wheels

The Author! Photo credit: Martyn Boston

“What are you going to do to reduce the stress in your life?” the doctor asked me in September 2012 after I described the shooting head pains I’d been having for five months. We’d also discussed my middle-of-the-night hospitalization in July for chest pains the day before I submitted the manuscript for my second monograph.

My response to the doctor’s question? I laughed. My teaching term was beginning in two weeks. I couldn’t conceive of anything it was in my power to do, bar quitting my job, that would effect any sort of meaningful stress reduction.

But I did do something in the fall of 2012 that took me a while to connect to what the doctor had asked me: I went to a roller derby recruitment event. I had figure skated as a child, but I knew nothing about roller derby. A friend of mine had recently become involved (another academic, who is now a fantastic roller derby referee), however, and encouraged me to do the same. I watched Whip It! and was confused (turns out it’s not terribly representative of the actual sport). But the recruitment event was held down the road from my house, I was curious, and I had nothing to lose.

For those who don’t know (and/or have been equally confused by Whip It!), roller derby is a contact sport played on quad roller skates. Although men play it, too (both on men’s and co-ed teams), roller derby, in its current incarnation, is a twenty-first-century phenomenon initially devised for women. Its much-vaunted ethos of “by the skaters, for the skaters” has the effect of bolstering a sense of community both on- and off-track. While individual skaters may have different senses of themselves in relation to feminism, on the whole I would say that roller derby constitutes an empowering, feminist space.

What a difference, then, to the oftentimes explicit misogyny of the academic workplace. And while I often get asked about the risk of injury in roller derby—“Isn’t it really violent?”—I can’t help but think of myself in that doctor’s office, as she tried to point out what my body was telling me three years ago: it had had enough of what my job was putting me through.

“When do you have time?” I’m also asked, given my commitments not only as a skater on both A and B squads, but also, currently, a member of our training committee. When I started roller derby, I skated in the evening of my heaviest teaching day of the week, when the last thing I could do was keep working, and the only thing I could do, it seemed, was skate.

Gradually, I realised that roller derby was helping to save me. My acupuncturist, whom I consulted about those mysterious shooting head pains, told me I should think about my feet. It occurred to me that skating ensured I was thinking about my feet: certainly, to think about work in the middle of a contact sport would have been foolish. My feet enabled me to give my head a break.

When I was lying in the hospital bed in July 2012, I caught myself worrying about whether I would die before my book came out. My chest pains, thankfully, turned out to have a muscular, rather than cardiac, source, brought on by a six-week cough and the toll on my body of the final push towards my manuscript deadline. I was discharged in the morning.

But I was determined, as an academic working in the UK system structured not only by a lack of tenure (abolished, surprise surprise, by Thatcher) but also by “Research Excellence Framework” imperatives, never again to let myself think about my mortality as a publication record problem. I was determined to reclaim something resembling a life, and a healthy one at that.

It may seem paradoxical to think about a contact sport as a form of self-care, but roller derby has almost certainly played that role for me. And while my academic career is likely to last longer than my roller derby career, I am convinced that I am only able to keep going in the former because of powerful lessons taught to me by the latter.

Gillian Roberts is an Associate Professor in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at Nottingham University. Her focus is on Canadian cultural texts and their circulation and celebration examines how the boundaries of 'Canadianness' are constructed and reconstructed according to opportunities for Canada to accrue cultural power. Her work consistently returns to hospitality discourse both in its engagement with immigrant and hyphenate Canadian writers who become internationally celebrated and in my interest in the Canada-US border: in both these areas, she is interested in how a 'Canadian host position' is constructed, as well as in the discrepancy between Canada's projection of itself as hospitable and the exclusivity with which 'Canadianness' is often defined. Her second monograph, Discrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border, has recently been published by McGill-Queen's University Press (2015).