Karly Barrett


Improving your posture is not an easy task once your body becomes set in its ways. The obvious reason is that your joints lose their range of motion, your muscles become long in the wrong places and short in the wrong places, and everything gets tight. In my case, for example, the ribs and thoracic spinal joints do not move as freely as they should, and especially the upper thoracic spine is habitually curved forward. This places my head too far forward, placing strain on the whole axial system. This is not easy to reverse at my age, and I have been spending just over two hours a day at it for more than six months. (See here and here for more.) I am prepared to work on it for several more years, if necessary. I plan to live at least into my 90s and want to have a strong, flexible, pain free body for as long as possible.

One less obvious way that improving your posture is not an easy task is that habitual body position seems to be activity-specific. I am pretty good and improving at good posture while standing, sitting, and walking, for example, but only while doing extremely simple versions of those activities. Sitting in my truck, driving straight on the highway, it’s easy to have good posture as long as I am thinking about it. Making a right turn, however, is a completely different deal, for two reasons. First, the attention that I use to remember posture tends to be taken up by the brain activity of making the turn. Second, it seems that my body has a way of making a right turn that is a gestalt: what I am looking at and for, what I am thinking about, how I move, and the position of my entire body is molded by the pattern and memory of 24 years of right-turn making.

So unravelling that and making right turns with good posture takes some doing. And that leaves left turns pretty much untouched, not to mention playing guitar, having an emotional conversation, or leading an underarm pass while partner dancing.

I was cutting up big pieces of plywood today, using a table saw. I tried to figure out how to do this series of motions while keeping my body in good alignment. I wished that I could have a construction-slash-posture coach there, helping me out. Then I started fantasizing about people who use table saws for a living getting trained like that. I have worked on construction crews, and if you are lucky you get trained how not to cut off your fingers, but you never get trained how not to have a painful back in ten or twenty years. If it was successful, I bet the extra cost would be more than made up for by the reduction in worker’s comp claims.

On the other hand, it might not be successful. When I was first learning to dance, my teacher, Karly, spent some time emphasizing the importance of posture and moving my body into good posture. “Remember this,” she said. “This is what good posture feels like when you are dancing.” The problem was, I did not keep doing it. I think maybe I couldn’t. It was too much to think about at the same time–the feel of leading, the moves I was trying to lead, and posture. It was overwhelming. For that to have worked, I think I would have needed Karly to insist on perfect posture and never moving on before I could lead each move with perfect posture. That would have been very slow. On the other hand, I am going to have to do all of that work anyway, so that I can dance without hurting my body. That is my next project with dancing–start over, re-learning the simplest moves with perfect posture.

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Here’s the video of me and Karly performing in downtown Eugene. (Thanks to David for filming!)

I wanted to learn this sequence because I wanted to steal some of Todd Yanacome’s moves and some of his style. Watching this I’d say I’ve been partly successful. I learned a bunch of moves, most of which I’ve been able to lead in improvised dances. I’m still quite a ways off on style, though. That’s my major criticism of my performance (not Karly’s–I think she looks great). I don’t have Todd’s relaxed poise, I hang my head a lot, my arms are not graceful or precise, and I look a little frantic. It’s good to see what I need to work on. (I posted Todd and Naomi’s original (improvised) version of it here, if you want to compare.) I was having fun, too–that’s another sign of my improvement. Performing Lindy used to freak me out.

It’s the nicest I’ve ever dressed up to dance. I came right from the clinic, so I’m in my therapist costume.

As a kid I was in the newspaper every month or so. It was a small town and I performed in a lot of plays, played in a lot of concerts, swam in a lot of swim meets, made a lot of honor rolls, etc. Plus, my dad is a professional photographer, and in those days supplied a high percentage of the photos the High Desert Star ran. I’m pretty sure they just ran anything he sent them, to make their papers look professional, and write little stories to justify running the photos. My local fame paid off at least once, when my car broke down on a highway 40 miles outside of town. Within minutes, a woman stopped and offered me a ride. She said, “You’re one of the Lester boys, aren’t you? I thought I recognized you from the newspaper!”

The pace has slowed considerably since then, so it was a little thrill to get a photo of me and Karly performing in downtown Eugene for Summer In the City.

It’s very difficult to photograph dancers so they look like they are dancing. At least one of them, usually me, looks as if they are just standing there. This is one of the first photos of me dancing where it really looks like I’m dancing. Thanks, Kevin Clark!

Here’s a clip of the new choreography I’m learning with Karly, as of last week. I love it–so musical and so relaxed! I would love to be able to move like Dax does in this clip–especially the loose grace in his arms.

Reanna says I might be able to pull off the vest and bow tie, too. What do you think?

I’m on one of the new fliers for ELLA, the group that I teach Lindy with in Eugene. It’s the group that gave me my first swing lessons, too. We have a dance every Wednesday evening, with a drop-in, beginning lesson just before. If you’re in Eugene, come join us at Agate Hall, at the University of Oregon.

This flier was designed by my friend, Karly Barrett. My partner in the photo is another friend, Renukah Hunter. The photo is by Martin & Renee Norred.

I am a few weeks past halfway through my 38th year, conveniently marked by my brother Damian’s birthday, and the start of my spring term. Here’s an update on how my intentions for the year are coming along.

1. Add new knowledge to the field of social psychology: I have just finished (I hope) crunching numbers for my honors thesis, and I can say that I have helped produce some new evidence, at least. It is not as sexy as I had hoped, but I have learned a whole lot about the process of psychology research, and that is the main point, as my advisor keeps reminding me.

2. Break my habit of scratching and picking my skin, including biting my lip: I have made some progress here, using a technique Reanna told me about: snapping myself with a hair band around my wrist whenever I had the urge to touch myself. My success varies clearly with my stress level. It requires mindfulness. Another insight/confusion: picking and lip biting, I can tell, are pure stress responses, but the scratching I think is more than that. I seem to be an itchier than normal person. A dermatologist told me that it was the “notoriously harsh” hand-made soap I have been using. I accepted that explanation until I realized on my ride home that he had been wrong. I only use soap on a few key areas. By his reasoning my armpits should be itchier than most of me, and they are not. Any ideas?

3. Celibacy: This has been no problem. I have not been tested, however; no one that I am aware of has wanted to have sex with me. When I first told Grace about this one, she said, “You are going to learn a lot from doing that, but you know, now that you are committed, you will immediately meet someone who will make it very challenging.” Well, not yet.

4. Dance every day, working on 1) musicality 2) vocabulary 3) style: This is going pretty well, though some days my dancing is just a token, so I could say I did. I had a big breakthrough in musicality on my fast dancing at Seattle Balboa Festival in February. The choreography I have been working on with Karly has been helping my working vocabulary. And the main reason I decided to take ballet is to improve my poise and lines. It is easy for me to get into an I-could-be-doing-so-much-more/better state. There is a guy who started in the same beginning class that I did in Eugene who really dove in and is now a rock-star dancer in Portland, winning national competitions. But I still give myself a thumbs up on this one.

5. Finish bachelor’s degree: Yes. I am on track to graduate with honors on June 13, 2009.

6. Get accepted into a couples and family therapy graduate program: Yes. I start in the University of Oregon’s CFT masters program on September 29 (happy birthday to me!), 2009. I’m very excited.

7. Maintain this blog: I have a lot more ideas for posts than actual posts, but I am pretty happy with NME so far. It has been a consistent source of inspiration for me. I get about 20 clicks a day, on average, which seems pretty respectable. The lowest I go is three (two of which are my ever-hopeful-for-a-post Mom, I just discovered), and my peak was 62 on March 31, the day after I posted the guide to my sidebar. I wonder who you all are.

8. Meditate every day: Yes. Sometimes just a few minutes, but yes.

9. Produce a record with David Waingarten: This is not going to happen this year, which I’m sad about. I love this guy’s voice and songwriting. He also makes movies, though, and that’s what he did with his time and money this year. The movie looks good, though. Here’s a preview: This Is Now

10. Record an EP with my band, Abandon Ship: This project is not on schedule, partly because of #12, below, and partly because of how much work an honors thesis is, on top of an internship and classes. I am working on it , but it will almost certainly not be done by my birthday.

11. See healthcare provider each month until all my body concerns are resolved: Yes, I have been doing this. I’ve seen a dermatologist, an orthopedist, a urologist, and two chiropractors. I’m disappointed with the results, so far. I seem to be collecting concerns faster than I am resolving them. Hmm… That makes it seem like I am on my last legs. I am quite healthy, overall, actually.

12. Set up a slick system of musical collaboration over the internet and use it regularly: This has come together much slower than I anticipated, but I have every reason to believe I will be up and running by early May. I can hardly wait.

13. Shift my schedule three hours earlier for at least one term: In bed by 11 pm: I’m very happy with this one, so far. I have not pulled it off perfectly for a term straight—my dance schedule conflicts somewhat with it—but I’d say 90% of the time I’m in bed by 11:30, at least, and that means I’m waking up naturally before my alarm 90% of the time. I love it!

14. Sing out every day: I have not been doing this as I had hoped. I am still inspired to sing out like my friend Zen Zenith, but I have not been working on it with any regularity.

15. Take African dance classes: Yes, I have taken two classes from master dancer Alseny Yansane, and they were awesome. Unfortunately, I have been having this low back pain that has kept me from dancing with that extreme athleticism. When my back stops hurting, I will go back.

16. Write at least one song per month: Nope. I have not written even one complete song. Ouch.

17. Make at least one of each item in Maya’s cookbook: Yummm. I have made four of 19 recipes: Fluffy Whole Wheat Pancakes, Super Hero Granola, Corn Chowder, and Maya’s Tomato soup. They were all excellent except I burned the granola.

One of my intentions this year is to work on three elements of my dancing: musicality, vocabulary, and style. By vocabulary I mean working vocabulary, and by that I mean how much I can remember and use when I’m out on the dance floor. I’ve spent the last several years developing my lead, which in the partner-dancing world is like your accent. My dancing is a lot like my Spanish: My accent is great but my vocabulary is like a three-year-old’s. I don’t mean to denigrate myself by saying that; being able to lead well is really important. Maybe it’s more like being able to make specific sounds clearly and intentionally than like an accent. This may be taking the dancing-as-language metaphor too far, but I think learning to social dance is a lot like learning a language.

Anyway, I’ve just started learning some choreography with my friend and teacher, Karly, thinking it’s the best way to increase my working vocabulary. (This is her, upside-down, dancing with Russ, a guy from Portland.) Swing dancing is almost always improvised, so I’ve learned very little choreography and I’ve found it quite challenging when I have tried it, remembering what to do next, and it’s reminded me of how I feel on the dance floor, racking my brain for something interesting to do. I imagine that learning this choreography will help my musicality and style, as well. It’s a dance by two of my favorite swing dancers, Todd Yannacone and Naomi Uyama. They are improvising, not doing choreography, but what they do is so musical! The song (a great one, by Duke Ellington) is moderately fast but they look relaxed and they hit the quirky little rhythmic phrases in such an effortlessly cool way, like the hit at :45, and the bu-bu-bum-bum at :55. I also like how they flow between Lindy (the circular stuff), Charlseton (the kicky stuff), tandem Charleston (the back-to-front kicky stuff), jazz steps, and just screwing around. And I love how much fun they look like they are having. They obviously know and really like the song and like dancing with each other. Here it is: