Sunday, September 14, 2014

Breathe, Just Breathe

I struggle with anxiety.

I used to say "I'm a stressed-out person," partly because anxiety is a medical condition, and I've never been diagnosed with it or any other mental disorder.  I recently stopped saying that in favor of the former saying, but in doing so I'm not trying to diagnose myself; for all I know, my anxiety level is perfectly normal.  There is a reason why I changed my verbiage but I'll talk about that later.  The important thing is, I get anxious/stressed out/nervous/worried easily, frequently, and sometimes to a high degree.

For me, stress is something that can either build over time or attack with almost no warning.  I might handle a relatively difficult situation just fine, but then freak out over something as small as not having dinner made, or forgetting to do a chore at home.  Other times, those little things don't bother me so much and it's the big things that get me really worrying.  When I'm under a lot of pressure, approaching a deadline, or just really busy, I'll feel the weight of anxiety on me for a while before I start to crack.  Other times, I'll feel perfectly fine until something happens, and then it's like a flash flood: I can feel it panic coming, and then, before I can do anything about it, I'm already under water, paralyzed and overwhelmed with emotion.  Sometimes my asthma/breathing difficulties compound the problem because my throat will close up and I can't breathe very well, which makes me panic even more.

This isn't fun to write.  But I feel like I should write it anyway.

This may sound weird, but Robin Williams' death really affected me.  I'm not sure why.  I never met him, and I don't follow celebrities or know anything about their personal lives in general.  In a sense, his death was like losing about fifteen fictional friends at once (other bibliophiles will identify with this).  But on a deeper level, depression and suicide are serious issues for my family and me - long story short, let's just say they hit close to home.

When Robin Williams died, my Facebook feed was filled with articles and blog posts about depression and suicide.  I read lots of good articles about understanding mental disorders and the people who have them.  I read lots of good articles about dealing with depression as well.  And they got me thinking.

When I get anxious, I feel out of control.  I don't know how to stop it.  I don't know how to prevent it.  So I decided I needed to do something about it.

When I was in high school, whenever I felt depressed, I wrote poetry.  I journaled every day, but journaling never helped me feel better as much as poetry did.  I think it's because you can stop a journal entry anywhere, but a poem has to finish.  It has to have an ending, and working that out, I guess, helped me process through what I was feeling.  I felt like I was taking something dark and ugly and turning it into something that had a sort of beauty, a work of art.

Recently I've started something different.  I know a little yoga (every dancer does).  So lately, when I feel the anxiety welling up, I get up and do a yoga exercise for a couple minutes.  I've done this a few times, and it really does help.  As a dancer, I'm pretty sure I'm addicted to endorphins, so it makes sense that movement helps me feel better.  On top of that, the slow, methodical progression I do requires some focus, and that makes me take my mind off my problems and my stress just long enough to have a clearer head when I'm done.  Third, breathing is an important part of yoga.  As I go through the exercise, I have to concentrate on slowly inhaling and exhaling, which I think also helps to steady my nerves as well as keep my airways open.

Yesterday something else helped.  I was starting to stress out about some work-related stuff, and Justin very simply asked me what I had done that day.  You see, we had a talk recently about how I tend to feel overwhelmed by busyness and to-do lists, and Justin said that I should make it my goal to do one or two things on my list each day, instead of trying to do everything in one day (which is what I tend to try to do, and then I freak out when I can't accomplish everything).  So when Justin asked me what I had done that day, it reminded me that I had been productive already, and it wasn't going to kill me if I didn't finish everything on my list in the next five minutes.  Especially since it was a Saturday. Anyway, I started to calm down.

I don't totally have a handle on this yet.  But I'm going to give this a trial period, and if nothing changes I'll talk to my doctor.

I said at the beginning that I stopped referring to myself as a stressed-out person and instead started saying that I'm dealing with anxiety.  When I used the former phrasing, I saw myself as the problem.  And I didn't think there was anything I could do about it.  When I decided to start saying that I struggle with anxiety, it meant that it was something I could deal with, something I didn't have to accept as an inevitable part of who I am, but something that I could change.  From a clinical standpoint, I don't know if that makes any sense at all, but it does help me feel more in control of what I'm dealing with, and that in itself, for me, is its own kind of victory.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Focus on Cholesterol

I am 27, which apparently is the age when you start getting your cholesterol levels checked, because I had mine checked for the first time this year.  I was a little nervous because 1) both my mom and my uncle have had high cholesterol and 2) I really like dairy products.

My results came back, and sure enough, my cholesterol is high.  LDL levels under 150 are considered "normal" (at least on my chart - it depends on your risk level), 151-199 is borderline, and 200+ is high.  My LDL level was 200 on the dot.


I am a 27-year-old, 120-pound ballerina.  I shouldn't have high cholesterol.  So I have organized a Plan of Attack to get a handle on this.

Step 1: Nuts.  I almost never eat nuts and they are supposed to help.  I am trying to eat a salad with slivered almonds, or some dried fruit and nuts, every day. (Also I created an awesome salad dressing the other day using only olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and honey).

Step 2: Fish.  I almost never eat fish because it's expensive.  I got some smoked salmon and made it last about a week and a half.  Tuna also contains omega-3 fatty acids, but because of possible traces of mercury I've been told you shouldn't eat it more than about once a week.  I'm going to aim for eating fish at least twice a week.

Step 3: Fruit.  Berries are a good source of soluble fiber, apparently.  My mom and I know someone who has a blueberry farm and she gave us tons of blueberries this summer.  I'm putting them in fat-free, plain Greek yogurt with a little honey mixed in, then putting that in the freezer.  It's delicious.  I've been eating blueberries every day for about a week and a half.  Once I run out of my local blueberries I'll probably cut back to every other day because blueberries are expensive.  Oh, and I keep my blueberries frozen.

Step 4: Dairy.  I really, really, really love dairy products.  I've already switched from butter to a trans-fat-free spread for everything except baking.  I've started reducing my cheese intake at lunch by replacing sliced cheese with crumbled feta, which (though high in sodium) is low in fat.  I also use less of it because it's so flavorful.  I also abandoned flavored yogurts during my sugar-free Lent this year.  Now I only buy non-fat plain Greek yogurt, so I feel like I'm doing well on that front.  The final aspect of dairy is milk - I'm used to drinking 2% and I don't think I can switch to skim just yet, so I'm going to start buying 1% and see how that goes.

Step 5: Grains.  I really like Honey Nut Cheerios, but it has 9 grams of sugar per serving compared to 1 gram in regular Cheerios.  I bought a box of the latter and we'll see how it goes.  I'll try to alternate between that and oatmeal for breakfast.

Step 7: Vegetables.  I haven't been eating as many potatoes as I used to, and those are a good source of soluble fiber.  So are peas, legumes, carrots and beans, which I do eat occasionally.  I'll try to eat at least one of these each day.

Step 8: Plant Sterols and stanols.  Okay, I have no idea what a sterol or a stanol is but they're really good for lowering cholesterol.  Some butter-substitute spreads have them, and some fruit juices have them too, but they occur naturally in small amounts in lots of plants.  I guess I will just have to look for "plant sterols" in the stuff I already buy.

Step 9: Mayonnaise.  I know it's nasty, but I love mayonnaise.  But it is just not good for you, and I haven't found a mayonnaise substitute that I am okay with yet.  So I'm not going to buy mayonnaise anymore . . . I may try to make some homemade mayo with olive oil to see if that tastes better than the commercial stuff.

So that's my plan.  Can I do it?  Will it work?  I would like to get my cholesterol under 150 by next year; if doing all this doesn't work I'll ask my doctor about additional treatments.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How Egalitarianism Made My Husband a Better Leader

This post will either please a lot of people or make a lot of people mad. I'm excited to see which it is.

My husband and I entered marriage as complementarians. We believed God’s plan for marriage was for the husband to be the head of the household, to be a servant leader while the wife submitted to his leadership. I knew Justin loved me and I trusted him, so I didn’t have a problem with this idea. I also knew that he valued my judgment, in some cases above his own, and he wouldn’t make decisions without me.

I don't think Justin was ever comfortable with the “leader” part of the “servant leader” title. He worried that he would make a bad decision, or that exercising his authority would undervalue or invalidate my input. We thought that the husband’s authority was more like “veto power” if we couldn’t agree on something (something C. S. Lewis suggested in Mere Christianity). While we were dating and engaged, we tried to work out problems together, as a team, and that didn’t change when we got married. The handful of times he said he was making an executive decision were not even about things we disagreed on (usually this had to do with my personal safety, like when he told me he didn’t want me to give rides to strangers). With few exceptions, Justin shied away from exercising authority or making unilateral decisions. He didn’t feel like a leader type, and he questioned himself a lot. He wasn’t sure how to lead.

That said, becoming egalitarian was my husband’s idea. (Yes, it's ironic.)

I am a creature of habit. In my free time, I read the same books and watch the same TV shows over and over. In college, I ate the same things every day for breakfast and lunch, and alternated between three different meals for dinner. I like to sit in the same spot in a room, drive the same route, go grocery shopping on a particular day of the week, etc. Justin is adventurous by nature. As a child he would purposely get lost in the woods so he could learn to find his way. He’s always looking for new movies, new music, new books, new ideas, new things happening in the world. Let me say it this way: he loves Twitter and I don’t.

Over the past two years, Justin has cultivated several relationships online. Doing so has exposed him to people and philosophies that you just don’t encounter in a small, rural town. He has had many conversations with people that, over time, led him to the belief that God’s real intention for marriage, and for the world as a whole, is egalitarian: for there to be “no distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, for all are one in Christ.”

When he first started talking to me about this, I was nervous. If he wasn’t the leader in our relationship, did that mean I was? I wasn’t too thrilled with that idea, because although I’m a Type A personality, I’m also incredibly indecisive, and I’d so much rather have somebody else tell me what to do than be responsible to make choices that involve other people. Was Justin abandoning his role as leader because he didn’t feel up to it? I really didn’t know. But I did some reading and thinking and conversing of my own, and to make a long story short, eventually I did come to the same conclusion as my husband.

Now, I’m not here to tell other couples what kind of relationship they should have. This is not a post about why I think egalitarianism is right or what makes a relationship formula good or bad, so I’m not going to go into why or how I came to those beliefs. You can do your own research and come to your own conclusions. As I heard someone on Focus on the Family say once, it’s more important that you agree with your spouse on this issue, than that you agree with me. I’m also not going to try to say that all complementarian marriages look a certain way, or that all egalitarian marriages look like ours does now. I’m just sharing our story, because I think it has an interesting turn.

You see, I noticed a change in Justin around the time he embraced egalitarianism. He became more assertive, more confident in expressing his opinion, more confident in himself than I had known him to be before. Now, these things may all just be the natural consequences of growing up, but I really think that egalitarianism played a big part in that. It took the pressure off him, and that has made him feel free to think and speak and act without fear that he’s going to bring down our whole family by making an error in judgment. Since he sees us as equals in office now, not just in value, he feels secure that our joint decisions will yield the best results, whether those decisions come from his ideas or mine.

The strictly complementarian definition of manhood describes one type of man, and Justin, in many ways, doesn’t fit that description. According to complementarianism, I should feel discontented in my marriage if my husband isn't cutting it as a leader. Justin always felt bad about not having certain so-called "masculine" personality traits; I think those feelings were compounded by the fear that I would be disappointed in him if he didn't live up to the traditional stereotype that's marketed as "biblical manhood." Now that he sees he doesn’t need to fit a mold he clearly wasn’t made for, now that he’s free to be himself, Justin is learning to accept himself, to appreciate his own strengths.

At the same time, though, Justin’s taken more of a leadership position in our marriage, especially by exposing me to ideas that are new to me and encouraging me to learn and grow with him. When we talk about what we believe, what's important to us and how we want to raise our children, he's a lot more confident than he used to be in saying what he thinks. He’s introduced me to books and blogs that have helped me shape my opinions. Like I said before, Justin is naturally inquisitive and interested in learning new things. It turns out that’s where his true leadership potential lies. In this phase of our lives, it’s like he’s exploring a new, unknown wood, but he’s taking me along for the adventure. It’s challenging and thrilling and scary and exhilarating, and I wouldn’t have attempted it without him. Letting Justin be himself has given him the freedom to become more than he was able to be before.

I still describe our relationship as “egalitarian” – we don’t fit the traditional roles in terms of who makes the money or balances the books, and instead of having a leader and a follower, we try to submit to each other as we both follow Christ. Sometimes one of us has to be strong and lead the other for a while, and sometimes the other one does. We lean on each other and learn from each other and take on whatever “role” we need to in a given situation. I wouldn’t attempt to hold up our relationship as the paragon of marriages – we have stuff to work on, like everybody else – but I love our marriage and I love the way our relationship works.

As I said before, it's not my intention in this post to tell anybody what method they need to follow. I wanted to share our story because I think it shows that being "complementarian" or "egalitarian" doesn't always look the way you think it does. As we shifted to a more egalitarian marriage, my husband began to cultivate some of the traits complementarian husbands are supposed to have; I find that funny, but I don't really know what to do with it. At the end of the day, I don't think the purpose of marriage is to master a relationship model - whether it's complementarianism, egalitarianism, or any other formula. I don't wake up every morning and think "How can I assert my egalitarian-ness today?" I think about what I can do to love my husband better.

Today is our third anniversary, and I'm happy to say we are not the people we were on the day we said our vows. I'm also excited to see how different we'll be in another three years, or in another thirty. Life is a journey, and wherever it takes us, however it changes us, we're in it together and that's what counts.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cute Ballet Crafts

As a ballet teacher, summer for me means workshops.  One of my favorite workshops is the one I do for young children.  I call it the Fairytale Ballet Workshop!  it's 90 minutes for 3-5 year olds and 2 hours for 6-8 year olds - during that time we have ballet class (pre-ballet for the younger ones), learn a short dance, make a craft, read a ballet-themed story, and have a snack.  It's just a week long, and on Friday I invite parents to come watch their kids dance!  It's a big hit.  This year I'm also adding a Princess Ballet workshop (same thing but with different crafts and stories - we did fairy crafts at the Fairytale workshop)

One of my friends asked me about the crafts I'm making, so I decided to put each craft up here so other people can try them.  It will take me a while to post my own tutorials but here's a list to start, and links to tutorials that already exist elsewhere.

1. Crepe Paper Streamer
2. Tissue Paper Rose (Flower Fairy Wand)
3. Paper Plate Fairy Mask
4. Tissue Carnation Corsage
5. Invitation to Ballet Class
6. Paper Plate Fairy Wings
7. Princess Hat
8. Ballerina Handprint Art
9. Princess Tiara (pipe cleaners offer endless possibilities - instead of a tutorial I've linked to Pinterest search results)
10. Ballerina Finger Puppet
11. Ballerina Tutu Card
12. Princess Fan
13. Tutu Candy Holder (I've linked a tutorial but mine is a little different; I'll make my own instructions)

I've included links to tutorials I found on other websites.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

So . . . Let's talk about last week. #TakeDownThatPost

Trigger/content warnings: rape, child molestation, rape culture

If you've been online in the last week, chances are you've read or at least heard about Leadership Journal (a subsidiary of Christianity Today)'s now retracted article, "My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon."  For those who missed it, this was an article, posted on Monday the 9th, written by a former youth pastor who is currently serving time for having a sexual relationship with one of his students.  It was presented as a cautionary tale for other church leaders, but as many people noticed, the author of the piece did not appear to understand the true nature or ramifications of his actions.  For the sake of brevity, I'm not going to give a commentary on the article myself because many others have done a fantastic job.  What I will do throughout this post is point you to other sources and strongly encourage you to read what they have to say.

Almost as soon as the article was published online, a wave of concern and criticism rose up against it, most of it coming from other Christians.  Many people questioned the wisdom of allowing a convicted child rapist to have a platform and tell "his side" of the story.  Many victims of rape spoke up and warned the editors of LJ, and the Church in general, of how this action was alienating people like them from the Church.  Psychologists, counselors, and people who work with abuse victims pointed out that the author's language was indicative of a non-repentant serial rapist, not a penitent, reformed man ready to resume a mantle of leadership.

And yet CT kept the post up.  First they added a post-script in which the author claimed 100% of the responsibility for his actions (still not admitting to what those actions were).  Then whoever was in charge of comment moderation deleted at least 60 comments of the type I have just described and requests for the article to be removed.  When the outcry didn't stop and more and more people joined the #TakeDownThatPost hashtag event, the editor published a very long defense of the article, claiming the purpose was to warn and protect churches against lawsuits but acknowledging that the author had committed statutory rape.  They changed some of the wording of the article - making "we" statements into "I" statements as an attempt to answer some of the criticism.
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, the post was removed and replaced with a sincere apology from the editorial staff.  They also pledged to donate the money generated from page hits on that article to organizations that worked with victims of sexual abuse.  And the Internet cheered.

It was a whirlwind of a week for those who were involved, and while I'd like to say I'm glad it's over, I don't believe it truly is.  I think now that everybody's had some time to settle down and think, it's very important that we take advantage of this opportunity to talk about what we can learn from what happened.  Again, I'm going to be linking to lots of outside sources in this post.  I encourage you to check them out and seriously consider what they have to say.

1.  Rape culture exists.  

"Well... Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback, Annie... is there anything you would have done differently?"

If you're not familiar with the term, rape culture is a term that's been adopted to describe a social perception in which the act of rape (or actions leading up to rape) are trivialized, rationalized, and justified, while the victims of rape are assigned blame either in part or in whole. Years ago, I read a news story about a Middle Eastern man who raped a woman and then defended his actions by saying that her immodest dress made him rape her; he couldn't help it.  We Americans were outraged I can't find a link to the article now; as I said, it was years ago.  What I did find were several articles about a Muslim leader in Australia blaming rape on women's dress, and the backlash he received for his comments.  Surely we would never be so blind to reality, right?  And yet when two high school boys date-raped some girls at a party, the media lamented the lost futures of these promising athletes, shaming the victims for going someplace where being raped was a possibility.  When we tell rape victims, "If you hadn't done _____, you wouldn't have been raped," we encourage rape culture.  When we feel more sorry for the rapist than we do for the victim, we encourage rape culture.  When we tell boys and men they have no control over their thoughts or actions, we encourage rape culture. When we tell women they are responsible for the thoughts or actions of the men around them, we encourage rape culture.  When we treat date rape, child rape, or statutory rape as equal to consensual "affairs," we encourage rape culture.  When we give the rapist rather than the victim a platform to speak, we encourage rape culture.  When we have to teach people how not to be raped rather than teaching people not to rape, we encourage rape culture.  (I was gender-neutral in that sentence on purpose because we're deluding ourselves if we think that only men can be abusers or that only women are victims of domestic violence; this is often included in the rape culture discussion but I see it more as an effect of patriarchy - nevertheless you should read about that too.)  Rape culture not only exists - rape culture exists in the church.  Only when we acknowledge and accept this can we fight against it.

2.  The Evangelical Church does not understand rape.

"The fact that we published it; its deficiencies; and the way its deficiencies illuminate our own lack of insight and foresight, is a matter of record at The Internet Archive."
- Editors of Leadership Journal

If anything, the actions of the Leadership Journal and Christianity Today staff, as well as the comments and blog posts in support of the article they published, were a glaringly obvious lesson into just how ignorant we are about rape.  I don't think whoever approved the article for publication had any idea that the author was trying to justify himself and normalize his behavior, or that he sounded eerily like non-repentant rapists who also see their behavior as normal and understandable.  I think they thought that because the man was caught, pled guilty, and said "don't do this," he had a great testimony and that would encourage a lot of people as well as give church leaders a very helpful and much-needed warning.  I imagine they were genuinely surprised at the backlash the article received because they themselves probably saw nothing wrong with it.  I don't think it occurred to them that such an article would be tremendously harmful for rape victims (especially those who have been molested by pastors or other authority figures).   The Church - and in particular, church leadership - needs to educate itself about rape, about what a rapist sounds like, how a rapist behaves, how to spot the warning signs of a predator grooming a target, and what to do about it.  I strongly urge every member of the Church, whether clergy or laity, to do so.  The organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E.) is an excellent place to start.

3.  The Evangelical Church does not really care about rape.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly;defend the rights of the poor and needy."
- Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)

This is a hard one to write, and I imagine that if any part of what I'm writing draws criticism, it's going to be this part.  But what I've learned this week is that the Church considers consensual sex outside a monogamous, heterosexual marriage to be a much bigger sin than child rape.  Case in point: when World Vision redefined their employment qualifications, allowing Christians in lawful same-sex marriages (who fit all the other criteria for employment) to be employees and volunteers, it was only a matter of hours before Franklin Graham, the Gospel Coalition, Charisma News, and I don't even know who else made statements urging Christians to pull their sponsorship and encourage others to do so as well.  Around 2000 children in third-world countries lost their sponsorship in one day, and subsequently so did their families and communities which World Vision is invested in helping.  Given the choice between letting children die or letting homosexuals minister to them, the Evangelical Church decided the latter was by far the greater evil. Within 48 hours, World Vision reversed their decision.

When Noah, came out, practically every Christian who has ever had their name published responded with an opinion (some of them without even seeing the whole movie).  Months before its release, my Facebook feed was full of warnings from Christian websites that I not be deceived into thinking that the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster was an accurate depiction of the Genesis account (because the one thing I thought Hollywood was known for was their unwavering faithfulness to source material).  It was impossible to miss.

When CT published its article, where was the Gospel Coalition?  Where was Franklin Graham?  Where were the people who are supposed to be leading our church and showing us by their example how the Christian life is to be practically lived out?  They were silent.  (The Gospel Coalition had a good right to be, after members of their leadership hushed up a sex scandal within their own organization and then kicked out one of their members for opposing their actions.)  The post was up for six whole days, and nobody in the "big leagues" of Evangelical Christendom ever commented on it.  I suppose it's possible that they never saw the article.  It was only published by one of the world's leading Christian magazines which they all probably subscribe to.  Maybe they were all on vacation.  Criticism for the article has appeared everywhere from Time to Richard Dawkins' website, but I have yet to see even a moderately well-known Christian figure comment on it.  I don't think that's a fluke.  I think it's a direct representation of our inability to grasp how vital it is that we not be silent about rape. 

When I was doing research for this blog post, I looked up youth pastors convicted of sex crimes and I noticed a shocking pattern: the majority were charged with multiple counts and/or molesting more than one child.  This happened because these men and women got away with their crimes for years and years.  Their victims remained silent until someone was brave enough to speak up, or until an adult became suspicious enough to find out the truth and then the rest of it came out in the aftermath. About 60% of rape victims will never report the crimes done to them, often because they're terrified - and sometimes because they feel that they were somehow to blame for what happened to them. We have to speak for these people - and more than that, we have to give them a voice and a platform from which they can be heard.  During the course of this week I spoke with a number of victims of rape and abuse, some of whom have published their own stories online or in books, and some of whom have not.  These are the stories that need to be shared.  These are the voices that need to be heard.  These are the people we need to stand with - publicly, vocally, unapologetically.

4. The Church does not know what to do about rape.  

"Leaders and workers inside the Christian community are often ill-equipped to understand how offenders operate and how children experience abuse. They don’t know how to protect children from experienced abusers; they don’t recognize the signs of abuse; they don’t know how to measure the scope of the abuse; nor do they know how to effectively respond to abuse disclosures."

- G.R.A.C.E. homepage

"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."
 - James 3:1 (NIV)

This is where we get down to pure practicality.  Leadership Journal and Christianity Today published their article because they thought it would serve as a useful warning to other church leaders and give them helpful advice about what to do if they were considering raping minors themselves.  The author's advice was to confide in a spouse, boss, or accountability partner before the relationship went too far and ruined their lives and careers.  As another blogger (I can't find it now) pointed out, this is what good advice looks like: if you are in a leadership position and you are considering having a sexual relationship with a minor, resign from your position immediately and get counseling.  You have already compromised your authority and you need to get out before you destroy the lives of your victim (not your "friend", your victim), your family, the other people under your care, the people in your church, and last of all yourself.  If you find out that an adult is molesting a child, that a child was molested by an adult, or that a person you know was either the victim or aggressor in a sexual assault, report it to the police.  So many churches and Christian institutions wrongly discourage people from doing this; they don't want to give Jesus a bad name and they think it's more Christian to forgive and forget.  Here's the truth: Jesus doesn't need to be defended any more than Chuck Norris does.  What he does need are people willing to defend the cause of the weak and the oppressed.  I believe the grace of God is great enough to cover any and all sins, and I believe we should forgive people who sin against us.  But when a person's sin is criminal, when it causes lasting harm to another individual, and when other people are at risk because of that person, it needs to be dealt with according to the law.  That is why laws exist - to protect people.

In publishing their article, Leadership Journal and Christianity Today rightly and wrongly believed that anybody could be a rapist.  The truth is, leaders are (and must be) held to a higher standard because they have the power to destroy people's lives if they mess up, and therefore, leaders need to be careful that they steer clear of inappropriate behavior.  Churches need to put measures in place to guard against the development of inappropriate relationships.  Open-door policies, accountability teams, background checks, and general transparency and openness to critique are all really good ideas and things that should be put into place.  However, many psychologists believe that not just anybody can be a sexual offender; these are people who have serious delusions about themselves, their victims, right and wrong.  If the LJ article or any of the talk resulting from it has made you worried that you too might accidentally become a child rapist, you can stop worrying.  No youth pastor rapes a child on accident.  The author of the article made it seem as if he couldn't help his actions, as if he was just a regular guy - just like you! - who was pulled off-course by the same temptations that affect all of us - this could so easily be you!  This is just another attempt to rationalize and justify himself by normalizing his behavior.  Child molestation is a deliberate act, and you have to get past a whole sea of red flags and WRONG WAY signs to get there (even the author acknowledges this).  You are responsible for your own actions and therefore are capable of self-control.  This doesn't mean you should let your guard down because you're impervious to moral decline or sabotage (nobody is).  All of us should make a conscious effort to keep our lives "out in the open," as it were, to be transparent because we have nothing to hide.  This protects others and ourselves, and it makes us people of integrity.

"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin."
- 1 John 1:7 (NIV)

All of that is the bad news.  Though it may be hard to believe, there is good news as well.  That news is that change is happening.  Leadership Journal removed the article and replaced it with a heartfelt apology.  The vast majority of people who read the article recognized its flaws and were not shy about saying so, nor about speaking up for rape victims.  As a result of the article, a number of victims of sexual assault have also stepped forward with their own stories, one of which Leadership Journal published.  Then there's the fact that ministries such as G.R.A.C.E. exist and are gaining momentum.  (Recently, G.R.A.C.E. was hired to investigate Bob Jones University; the university fired G.R.A.C.E. but later reversed their decision, allowing G.R.A.C.E. to continue working on their own terms.)  Although I strongly believe it never should have been published, this article got a lot of people talking; eyes were opened and (I hope) lessons were learned.  We have a long way to go yet, but more and more of us are at least traveling in the right direction.

Finally, there are people like you and me, who were affected by this incident enough to keep reading or to post about it.  Please share at least one of the stories I've linked in this post with the people in your life.  Talk about what happened.  Talk about rape culture and make your stance on it clear.  As we spread knowledge, as we speak out against sexual assault and rape culture, we are bringing light into the darkness.  Don't stop - together we can light up the world.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Teacher Salaries Should Not Be Tied to Student Performance

On paper, it seems like a great idea: good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers.  I mean, ideally there are no bad teachers, so let's at least say that the best teachers should make the most money.  Many different types of jobs operate in the same way; why not education?

This is why current federal legislation wants all states to adopt a policy of basing teacher salaries on student test scores.  The higher a class's test scores are in a given year, the better the teacher, right?  If a school has three fourth grade classes, with a roughly even spread in terms of demographics, ability, and previous years' test scores, and one of those classes does better overall than the other two, that teacher is clearly the best, right?  And if a teacher is good, their class's test results should steadily improve from year to year.  


I disagree with this philosophy.  I believe there are a number of reasons why performance-based salaries for teachers are illogical and ill-advised, and potentially detrimental to our nation's public education system.  I'm by no means an expert in this field - I'm a ballet teacher with a bachelor's degree in dance, which included some classes in dance pedagogy and teaching methods; and I'm the daughter of a public school teacher, and that's about the extent of my credentials.  However, this is something I feel pretty strongly about.

1. Performance-based pay presupposes that one teacher is solely responsible for their students' performance.
As a ballet teacher, I can attest to the fact that students do not come to us as blank canvases.  Education begins at home, and the quality of education children receive in their homes is radically different and based on a plethora of factors.  Some children attend preschool; others do not.  Some children can read when they enter kindergarten; some children have parents who can't read English themselves.  By the time students have spent just a couple years in elementary school, their academic knowledge is already the product of an amalgamation of many influences, from their parents or guardians to their previous school teachers to educational materials outside school (such as libraries, children's museums, and extracurricular activities) to the friends they have.  All this affects a student's learning style, learning ability, and learning level - which affect classroom performance and test scores.  A teacher should not be held responsible for the influence others have had in educating their students - whether positive or negative.  If a student performs well on a test, is it because the teacher did a great job, or is it because the student's parents read to him or her every night and make sure they do their homework?  On a broader scope, if one school in a town does more poorly than another school, is it because that school has inferior teachers, or because they are teaching students who are at an educational disadvantage because of where they live or their parents' income?  (As a side note, this is why many people support vouchers to make it affordable for students to go to a different school if their school under-performs - but again, how do you know the other school is better, and not just populated by children from affluent families, giving them more opportunities for success?)

2.  Performance-based pay assumes that tracking a teacher's results is the same as tracking student progress.
To me, this is the most obvious flaw in performance-based salaries.  You can't tell whether a teacher is improving by looking at their class performance from year to year, because they have a different group of kids every year.  If you do a six-year study of a new medication, but choose a new group of test subjects each year, you're not doing a six-year study; you're doing six one-year studies.  Every teacher will tell you that each class is unique and it's unfair to compare them to a previous class.  Some classes are bigger than others (especially in years when the budget is tighter).  Some classes have more students with behavior problems.  Every class is a different mix of IQ, income level, family situation, and other factors that contribute to their performance.  The only way to link teacher performance with student progress is for one teacher to teach the same group of students every year.  I feel like pointing out that this is exactly how ballet education works in Russia, the country that consistently turns out the best dancers in the world.  Each class has one teacher for eight years, the entire length of time they are in the school.  If a class begins to develop technical weaknesses, the schools' directors know it's the fault of the teacher because the students have had no other input.  It's a system that might be worth considering in academic education, really.

3.  Performance-based pay punishes good teachers for bad teachers' mistakes.
I am fully aware that some teachers are just better than others.  The problem is, when a bad teacher's students move on to a good teacher's class, those students are going to have a harder time no matter how good the teacher is.  My mom is a fourth-grade teacher in a public school.  In fourth grade, students are supposed to memorize the multiplication facts.  My mom has had so many students who, at the beginning of the year, do not know their addition facts and have to count on their fingers to add.  Obviously these students are already at a disadvantage compared to students who know their addition facts and have already begun multiplication.  Getting them on track requires them to learn faster than "bright" students.  My mom is a great teacher, and she works with these kids, but some of them still don't finish learning the multiplication tables by the time they leave fourth grade.  Performance-based salary means that not only is the initial "bad" teacher punished if their kids fail to show growth, but every subsequent teacher is liable to receive the same penalty even if their students improve, because they may never reach the top of their grade level.  That sounds pessimistic, but it's just reality.

4.  Performance-based pay holds teachers responsible for things outside their control.
There are two parts to this point: a) class composition and b) class curriculum.  In a school that has more than one classroom per grade, many factors go into dividing the students: student behavior, performance, ethnicity (if one of the teachers is multilingual), disabilities, class size, and in some schools, parent requests.  Most teachers have very little, if any, say in who gets put in their classrooms. And once classes are set, they don't always stay that way.  Kids move to or away from town.  Behavior problems may result in a child getting moved to another class.  Some students may be selected to join a magnet school, or the parents may decide to private or homeschool their children.  Teachers have no control over these factors, and performance-based pay doesn't take these things into account.  Another factor teachers have little control over is curriculum.  For the past few decades, our country has been scrambling to fix the education system, and one of the primary ways it's been doing that is with new curricula.  Many schools are adopting new curricula on top of new curricula before they even have time to try out one system to see if it works.  Adopting a new curriculum is hard; it takes time to get familiar with the material, to learn to navigate any digital materials that are part of it, to work out the bugs and find errors (because that happens), and to develop a sense of pacing and flow.  This can affect student performance either positively or negatively, and there's really no way to know how it will go until it happens.  A performance-based pay system does not allow for variances in test scores that are the result of using a different curriculum.

5.  Performance-based pay discourages collaboration.
In a world where competition and bitter rivalry mark most career paths and corporation, education stands apart as the one field in which information is freely shared, because good educators recognize that one person's success is everyone's success.  A performance-based salary model puts teachers in the same boat as retailers, news stations, and Internet providers by creating an environment of competition rather than collaboration.  Most teachers are collaborators by nature.  We are always going to other, more experienced teachers for ideas and advice on how to be more effective at what we do.  There are teacher-created websites, Pinterest boards, and blogs dedicated to teachers sharing lesson plans, activities, and strategies with other teachers.  This is on top of the numerous workshops and meetings teachers attend each year.  We all want the best for our students - that's why we got into this business - therefore there is no reason not to help each other.  A salary based on student test scores alters this paradigm.  In a school with that kind of model, teachers will recognize that their best chance for success is to keep all their good ideas to themselves.  It is easy to imagine how this could negatively affect our school system - new teachers will not be inclined to share the latest theories on teaching with those who have been teaching for many years, and the experienced teachers will keep their wisdom to themselves rather than helping young teachers grow.  And who will suffer the most? Students, because in a performance-based pay system, other people's failure is my success, and "other people" ultimately means students who are in someone else's class.

I do think our education system needs work.  I think there are things we can do to help fix it, but I don't think this is the way to do it.  I'm not convinced that legislators understand how teaching actually works or how children actually learn.  I think the best ideas for improving our school system need to come from the people who know best - from the people who are actually teaching.

Friday, April 18, 2014

I Want to Be Like Mary Magdalene #StoriesofEaster

Mary Magdalene occupies an odd place in Christendom.  Tradition identifies her as the woman of unsavory reputation who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  She’s also been labeled an adulterer and a prostitute, a woman of low character, an outcast among her peers and even among Jesus’ own followers.  She has become the embodiment of the “sinful” woman.  None of this comes from the Bible, but for some reason, she’s acquired a less than saintly reputation.  When little girls in Sunday school say they want to be like one of the women of the Bible, she probably isn’t named too often.

Well, I want to be like Mary Magdalene.

 What do we really know about this woman?  We know she was from Magdala (a town near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus called his first disciples), and that she followed Jesus to Jerusalem, along with many other women.  We know that Jesus cast seven demons out of her.  We know she watched Jesus die, that she witnessed his burial, and that she was among the first both to hear the news of his resurrection and to see him alive.  Beyond that, the Bible doesn’t talk about her.  Luke is the only writer who even mentions her name before the crucifixion.  In literary terms, she seems like an afterthought.  The two other Marys in the gospels – Jesus’ mother and the sister of Martha and Lazarus – get a lot more character development.  It seems odd that she’s the one to whom Jesus first revealed himself after he rose from the dead.

Actually, we do know a little more about Mary than just what I listed above.  Though she’s rarely mentioned, three things in the gospel accounts stand out about her.  First, she not only followed Jesus, but ministered to him.  That implies she spent time with Jesus in a personal setting, probably when he was hungry and tired.  Secondly, she went to the Eleven immediately after seeing Jesus alive.  That she knew where to find them when they were hiding out for two days means that either she had been hiding with them, or she was at least close enough to the group to be privy to their secrets.   Third, she called him “Rabboni.”  The Hebrew word “rabbi” means “teacher” or “master”; it designates position, like saying “Professor So-and-so.”  “Rabboni” means “my great master”; it is a term of the highest respect, used of second-generation disciples to refer to their teacher.  It’s personal, familiar.

I look at all that and I realize that Mary wasn’t a groupie; she was a member of the band.  She listened to the sermons, observed the miraculous signs, and even, perhaps, was present during the Last Supper.  In short, she basically lived the same life of discipleship the Twelve did – leaving behind whatever home and family she had to follow the Teacher, her Teacher.

When Jesus was arrested, everyone with him fled.  Peter followed at a safe distance for a while, buts at the crucifixion we see only John and some of the women – Mary among them.  The other disciples were hiding from the Jews lest they also be arrested and put to death – and I can’t really blame them for that.  But Mary didn’t hide.  She didn’t care who knew she was a follower of Jesus, or what it would cost her.  And when the rest of the disciples continued to hide over the next few days, she and a handful of other women ventured out to anoint Jesus’ body.  They had to know it was risky to approach the guarded tomb of an enemy of their religion’s leaders, but they went anyway.

I want to be like Mary Magdalene.

Peter was the guy who never hesitated to make bold declarations of loyalty and faith.  James and John were hoping for power and authority.  Thomas was the guy who asked questions, always trying to figure things out.  Meanwhile, there was Mary, working quietly in the background.  If she said anything profound or provocative or probing, we don’t know it, probably because nobody paid attention.  By all accounts, she just wasn’t important.  She’s not counted among the disciples or even named among the crowds.  We don’t even get to read the story of her exorcism.

All Jesus’ disciples gave up everything they had to follow him.  In return twelve of them (the Eleven plus Matthias) are remembered as saints, as men of legendary faith and tremendous miraculous power.  Mary Magdalene is remembered as a slut (a reputation she may not have even earned).  And she had the audacity to call Jesus “Rabboni,” a title we only see twice in all Scripture.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” [. . .]

 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”  At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

(John 20:1-2, 11-18 NIV)

Every time I read this passage, I have to stop when I read of Jesus calling Mary’s name.  Somehow, that one word transports me back in time and it’s like I’m there in Mary’s place.  I can hear the depth and richness of Jesus’ voice, the gentleness and yet the power as he says the word that cuts straight to her heart.  I can feel how her heart must have swelled, the tears that sprang to her eyes, as realization dawned and she turned to fix her eyes on the face she thought she’d never see again.  “Rabboni!” my heart cries with her.

I want to be like Mary Magdalene because she was the first to see Jesus alive, the first to know the true joy and power of the gospel, the first human to share the news of the resurrection.  I want to be like Mary because she called Jesus her Great Master, boldly claiming the role of a disciple although Jesus’ own followers never acknowledged her as such.  I want to be like Mary because she wasn’t afraid to be seen with Jesus when nearly everyone else was. But most of all, I want to be like Mary because Jesus called her by name, and she recognized him – and seeing him for the first time, she ran to him, clung to him, so much that he had to tell her to let go.  I want to be like Mary because she loved Jesus more than anything else in the world – more than home, more than power, more than security, more than decency.  Reading her story ignites in me a longing to see Jesus as she did, to know him as she did, to hear him call my name and run to him with reckless abandon.

Several years ago I wrote a poem that came out of a prayer and some jumbled thoughts about Easter.  A good friend of mine, Gregg Hart, put the poem to music, and a very talented singer, Aleena Korell, recorded it with him a few years after that.  I think it ties into this blog pretty well as it mentions Mary, so if you want you can listen to it here.  I think it sums up my thoughts on the matter.

I wish everyone a Happy Easter.  Christ has died – Christ is risen – Christ will come again!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Modesty in Tights: A Dancer's Perspective on Modesty Culture

This essay was originally posted on my husband's old blog.  I'm reposting it here because one of my friends asked for it and my husband has since deleted the blog where it was located.  So for what it's worth (slightly updated, and with pictures for visual aids) . . .

Modesty in Tights: A Dancer's Perspective on Modesty Culture

audition shot (high school); photo by Julie Waites

The issue of modesty has recently filled the blogosphere (well, the religious part of it anyway), especially as part of the rising movement against what we now call “modesty culture” and “rape culture.”  Up till now I’ve mostly stayed out of the debate – for some reason, participation in stuff that’s popular is repellent to me – but my husband pointed out that I have a relatively unique perspective on the issue, and as such, I may be able to contribute something fresh to the bowl.

You see, I’m a dancer.

More specifically, I’m classically trained in ballet with a general background in modern dance as well (largely Graham and Graham-based techniques, but not exclusively so).  I have a BFA in dance with an emphasis in ballet performance from an NASD-accredited university; I currently teach ballet, and I am a member of a contemporary dance company.  Oh, and my alma mater is a strongly Christian college, complete with a dance ministry ensemble and a missions-based mime squad; the studio where I teach is competition based (jazz, clogging, and contemporary); and I’m occasionally invited to dance in church and church-related events.  So I’ve got a foot in just about every corner of the dance world.  My professional wardrobe consists of leotards and tights (and more recently, sports bras and bike shorts).
senior action shot (college)

As for my Christian pedigree, I grew up in a traditionally conservative, fundamentalist home.  My family’s church is CMA (theologically similar to Baptist but believing in all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and emphasizing missions).  I was in AWANA from the time I was three until the program fizzled out in my late teens, and I even went to AWANA camp five summers in a row.  I attended a Baptist-based Christian school for 11 years, followed by the aforementioned Christian college that is loosely tied to the Presbyterian Church of America.  Needless to say, I’m familiar with “modesty culture.”

Neither my church nor my parents were particularly vocal about modesty.  They didn’t have to be, because my school had a very specific dress code.  In fact, my mom often expressed frustration with the restrictive rules about skirt and shorts length (because you couldn’t find any long enough in stores at the time).  I didn’t think much about the moral implications of a dress code until I was in junior high.  That’s when both AWANA camp counselors and teachers at my school started talking to us girls about the importance of modesty.  I was taught, in no uncertain terms, that if I wore a fitted shirt, every guy who saw me would lust after me.  Men are wired visually, we were told.  That’s the way God made them.  If you show off your body, they’re going to look at you the wrong way.  It’s our job as Christian women to protect our brothers.

But then I went to ballet, where I wore outfits far more revealing than anything one would wear to school.  Black leotard, pink tights – that’s it.  No bra, no underwear.  And the guys in my classes, most of whom were in fact straight, didn’t seem to notice a thing – not even in partnering class, which involved a lot of touching and a lot of sweat.  Not one guy I danced with ever made a suggestive comment to me or did anything inappropriate.  We were there to work on our technique, and that’s what we did (don’t get me wrong, we had fun in class too – there was just never anything sexual about it).  Maybe that’s really where the stereotype that all male dancers are gay came from – because dancers have been wearing leotards for decades, and as far as I know, no one has ever been raped for it.
Excerpt from La Bayadère Act 3 (college)
A Christian message board I once frequented had a discussion about modesty (this was before modesty discussions were cool).  I stated, as I had been taught to believe, that girls had a responsibility to dress in a way that didn’t tempt men, etc.  I also said I thought men had a responsibility not to look at girls that way, no matter how they were dressed.  Boy, did that last part get a lot of feedback!  I was told that I didn’t emphasize the woman’s obligation strongly enough, that my putting so much of the responsibility on men was unreasonable (maybe even morally irresponsible).  I was confused, because I’d always seen the issue as 50/50 – I do my part, you do yours.  But there on that message board, I was given the strong impression that I was mostly, if not solely, responsible for how men looked at me.  Later on in the discussion, a few guys pointed out that dressing modestly was no guarantee against lust.  One of my friends said that a woman could be wearing a burlap sack, and men could still mentally undress her if they wanted to.  I was shocked – and increasingly frustrated – to discover that my dressing modestly apparently didn’t even do any good.  If a guy wanted to lust after me, he just would.  So not only was I responsible for my beloved Christian brothers’ sin, there was also nothing I could do to prevent it.

And again, I went to dance class, where by all appearances (let’s just say the male dress code in ballet is also revealing), the guys could look at me, stand next to me, even pick me up by the waist or grab me around the thigh, and not have a sexual reaction.  The guys I danced with in college were Christians, but the ones I danced with before that were not.  And yet it seemed they were better men than the Christians who apparently couldn’t help seeing my body as a sexual object, no matter what I did with it.  That, or men really can develop the self-discipline to turn off the part of their brains that thinks about sex all the time – they’re just not trained to do so (not in Christian circles anyway), because they’ve been taught that it’s the woman’s job to make sure they don’t lust – they’re told they can’t help it.

"Why Not?" choreographed by Laura Morton (college)

Jesus had a few words to say on the issue of lust.  A lot of people coming from the “modest culture” perspective quote, “If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and pointing to the word “with,” argue that the woman is consciously participating in the man’s mental adultery, and that therefore dressing immodestly is deliberately inviting extramarital sex.  They don’t usually continue on to Jesus’ next words, which are also about lust: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  Jesus didn’t say, “If a woman causes you to sin,” or “If your right eye and a woman cause you to sin,” or even “If your right eye causes you to sin, it’s really the woman’s fault so blame her.”  He essentially said, to use the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, “DON’T LOOK.”  Just because you’re tempted to do or think or say something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.  Every person is ultimately responsible for their own actions.  Adam blamed Eve for his sin, and we all know how well that worked for him.

I’m not saying women should walk around in leotards all the time, or that it doesn’t matter how we dress.  I want to make the argument that unless you really are purposely trying to sell your body (literally or metaphorically), modesty isn’t an issue of morality, but of propriety.

Clothing exists mostly because humans are not perfectly adapted to certain climates.  We put on however many layers are necessary to keep warm, or keep protected from the sun, or what have you.  Therefore, cultures develop a sense of propriety in dress based largely on the climate in which they live, and secondarily on other factors such as the economy, formal versus casual occasions, practicality, status, and so forth.  The problem is when we ascribe objective moral value to those customs, or when we elevate any one culture’s paradigm above the others as morally superior (which do we choose?), or when we pick one culture’s standards of propriety and try to make it universal (what about the people who lived before that standard was set up?).  Conservative Christian culture tends to elevate the social customs of upper-middle class America in the 1950s, but that’s just one culture’s short-lived aesthetic.  Poodle skirts would have been scandalous to pre-Depression Westerners, and the only reason women stopped wearing pantyhose was because the material was rationed during World War 2.  Ballet dancers developed the uniform of leotard and tights out of a necessity to see the muscles of the body, especially of the hips and legs, in order to perfect their technique.  The tutu was invented as a short dress that showed off that technique on stage.  Among students it has the additional implication of high status because usually only the most advanced students perform in them.

"Why Not?" choreographed by Laura Morton (college)

The Bible does occasionally talk about modesty, but never in the context of lust or causing men to stumble.  On the contrary, the apostles’ directions against certain hairstyles and accessories indicate that what they were really telling women was not to be ostentatious – that is, not to flaunt their wealth.  It’s not that braided hair or gold jewelry is inherently immoral, or that by extension anything fancy is bad; it’s just that in that culture, those things were considered too flashy, meretricious even (like wearing an opera dress to church or real jewels to a barbecue).  Propriety, or what is socially acceptable in a given situation, is the key factor.  It’s okay to wear a bathing suit at the beach; it’s not okay to wear one at work.  You can wear sweatpants to the grocery store (although What Not to Wear may ambush you for doing so), but in dance class you had better wear tights.  It’s not that any of these articles of clothing is inherently bad, it’s just that society has deemed them appropriate in certain settings and inappropriate in others.  In another twenty or fifty years, what is appropriate or inappropriate may be completely different from what it is now as our world changes.  Whatever the culture looks like, propriety means staying within the acceptable parameters for that specific culture and situation.

Finally, I think the only reason modesty is such a big issue is because our culture is so hyper-sexualized.  Whether people advocate having as much casual sex as possible or strongly forbid it in any context outside marriage, people are just obsessed with sex.  I think we could take a lesson from the men I danced with and just stop making everything about that.  Like my friends who realized dance class was about far more than what we were wearing, let’s focus on what we’re supposed to be doing here and act accordingly.

senior picture (high school); photo by Julie Waites

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Complementarianism on Ice? A Dancer’s Response to “An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives”

Yesterday my husband showed me a tweet by John Piper along with a corresponding article by his associate John Ensor that uses pairs figure skating as a lesson for how marriage is supposed to work.  He (my husband, not Ensor or Piper) asked me to offer my point of view on the subject as a dancer.  (So in a complementarian sense, he initiated this response by leading me to the article, while I received his request and responded to it.  I think that means it’s his fault if you don’t like what I have to say.)  For a more entertaining response to Ensor’s article, I recommend the movie Blades of Glory.

I’m not a figure skater.  My expertise, as I’ve stated in previous blog posts, is in dance.  However, pairs figure skating, partnered dancing or gymnastics, contact improvisation, and other similar movement forms, all operate on the same basic principles: physics, timing, and a combination of independence and interdependence.  The stunts and shapes are different in each discipline, but the science and preparation behind them are essentially the same for everyone.  So while I don’t know the names of all the skating moves and I’ve never studied that particular style of partnered dancing, I think my experience does give me somewhat more of an insider’s point of view than John Ensor has.

First of all, I’m thrilled to see somebody using figure skating as a metaphor for anything at all.  That’s fairly uncommon in my experience, and it’s unfortunate because in my own dance career I’ve discovered a number of principles that hold true for life and even theology, so it’s refreshing to see somebody else doing much the same thing.  Ensor seems to have a genuine appreciation for the beauty and grace demonstrated by the athletes on the ice, as well as an understanding of the amount of work (not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears) that go into creating such a performance.  Unfortunately, in his effort to create a metaphor of complementarian marriage out of pairs skating, he makes several mistakes in describing the mechanics of how partnering actually works.

Who really leads?
Ensor writes, “[The man] leads [the woman] onto the ice and initiates each part of their routine.  She receives that leadership [. . .] her focus is on following his lead and signaling her readiness to receive his next move.”  Throughout the article, Ensor repeatedly uses the word “lead” to describe the male role and “receive” or “support” to describe the female role, but I get the impression that he thinks the couples are improvising.  That’s not how a skating routine (or a dance routine, or a gymnastics routine) works.  In reality, neither party is actually the “leader” – they have a choreographer or a coach (sometimes both) designing the routine, down to the timing and spacing.  Additionally, there is usually music or at least a rhythm that dictates when each movement should occur.   On professional stages, that music is controlled by a conductor.  It’s not up to the man – or the woman - to decide when the next stunt happens. The couple doesn’t have a leader and a follower; they have to move together as one.  On the ice or on the stage, the music is the real leader; before that point, it’s the choreographer, coach, or rehearsal director – the one who plans the whole routine and who guides the couple through the rehearsal process.

Ensor adds, “His raw physical strength is more on display than hers; he does all the lifting, twirling, and catching.  She complements his strength with her own; a more diminutive and more attractive strength of beauty, grace, speed, and balance.”  This is a very eloquent way of saying “Man lifts woman, not woman lifts man.”  This is true, but it’s incorrect to state that the act of lifting (throwing, catching) the other partner requires more strength than the movements the woman does while the man lifts/throws/catches her.

The men who do partnering do become incredibly strong, it’s true; but so do the women.  And I’m not just talking about a “more diminutive . . . strength of beauty, grace, speed, and balance” (which by the way, men also develop in these art forms); I’m talking about literal physical strength.  In pas de deux class, girls quickly learn that we can’t expect the guy to do the work for us; we have to be able to do turns, extensions, balances, jumps, leaps, and various connecting steps ourselves.  I know from experience, having danced with partners who were far less experienced than myself or who weren’t strong enough to “save” me if I was off balance – I learned to hold myself, to move decisively, to jump and leap like nobody was helping me, and it made me a good partner.

The other thing you find out in partnering is that a lot of things that look like feats of strength really are feats of physics.  Partnering is a delicate combination of timing, momentum, balance, and weight-sharing.  Most lifts and supported jumps and turns, done correctly, are not so much about sheer muscle but are the result of perfect balance and synchronization between the partners.  What makes the athletes so physically strong is the countless hours of repetition leading up to the performance.

Who supports whom?
Ensor believes that pairs skating is about “male leadership and female support.”  I’m sorry, but in traditional/classical partnering (“man lifts woman”), it’s actually all about the girl.  She’s the one in the front, she’s the one making the pretty lines and poses, she’s the one whose face is visible the whole time (his is often hidden by her body).  It’s the man who supports the woman (literally) as she moves through space.  Granted, in figure skating, the man gets to move more than he generally does in ballet (the art form on which the figure skating aesthetic is partly based), but the general idea is still the same.  We see this female-centered aesthetic even more in classical ballet.  In this art, once performed exclusively by men, the ballerina has been the focus of the stage for nearly two hundred years.  Practically every classical ballet storyline has a female main character.  The man escorts the woman forward for the curtain call, then steps back and gestures to her while she bows in front of everyone else.  There was a period of time in which dance critics disparaged the male leads in a performance simply for existing; all they cared about were the females.  In fact, at one point male dancers were so scarce that men’s roles were played by women.

I’ll agree with Ensor on this point, though: “the roses and teddy bears, thrown onto the ice when they have collapsed into each other’s arms at the end, are for her.”  Dang right!  (Seriously though, men get flowers and stuff too.  But the women always get more.)

Yes, it’s an art form – but not the only one
Ensor, along with John Piper, seems to believe that this structure of large man lifting + small woman being lifted is the only way that partnering can or does work.  Piper tweeted, “Egalitarian manhood and womanhood would not be beautiful in olympic [sic] figure skating. Complementarian dancing is.” Ensor writes of this structure, “Alternative approaches only add more pain and yield less satisfaction.”  Unfortunately, in saying so, both men betray their own ignorance of the arts not featured in the Winter Games.  In the dance world, partnering can be done in any combination.  Classical dance evolved the way it did because of the society in which it developed, not because of necessity.  The sight of a man lifting or catching a woman is more familiar to most audiences because of this history, but contemporary choreographers do, in fact, feature more “egalitarian” partnering.   The man and woman, often of more equal size (again, physics at work) each do their share of both roles, and the result – far from the disaster Ensor and Piper seem to anticipate – is stunning (for your consideration, I highly recommend John Neumeier’s Sylvia featuring the Paris Opera Ballet – the pas de deux are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen).

Nontraditional partnering (something other than “man lifts woman”) is a common sight in contemporary and modern dance as well as gymnastics, another Olympic sport.  As choreographers learned more about the science of partnering, they started combining dancers in different ways – two men, two women, and even groups.  The world-renowned modern dance company Pilobolus, which grew out of a contact improv class at Dartmouth, is famous for its “shadows” or silhouettes formed by dancers all climbing on each other to create recognizable shapes.  Recently a friend of mine shared with me a video of three female gymnasts doing an amazing partnered routine in which all three girls share the responsibility of support at different times.  Not only is the classical partnering model not the only viable one, but in implying outright stating that partnering is a model of God’s design for marriage, Ensor is unwittingly passing approval on many types of relationships that would probably make him very uncomfortable.

It’s about trust
One thing Ensor does understand correctly is that the foundation of the partnership is trust.  My pas de deux teacher used to say nearly every day that partnering is like a marriage.  It doesn’t work unless both parties are equally dedicated and can trust each other unreservedly.  If that doesn’t happen, it weakens the whole performance, and the audience can tell.  In the best pairings, the individuals are equally matched in terms of strength and technique.  They rehearse together every day, often staying partners for years, and in doing so they develop a sense of unity and timing that is beyond what they feel when dancing with anyone else.  You can run and leap straight at your partner or fall into their arms or let them pull you off your feet because you know they’ll catch you.  You can experiment with new stunts, more daring lifts, and more challenging sequences of movement, because you trust each other’s abilities and you know that however long it takes, you can work it out.

As Ensor rightly notes, it takes time, patience, and usually lots of pain, to get to that point.  Things almost never go right the first time, or the second, or the third.  Each partner makes mistakes during rehearsal, and it’s only with continual practice that a routine becomes fluid.

I mentioned earlier that partnering requires both independence and interdependence.  In one sense, partnering is like dancing on your own – you still have to do the movements, hold your leg up, turn, and jump as if you didn’t have support.  But in another sense, it’s different because you can’t just think about yourself.  You develop a “sixth sense,” a finely-tuned awareness of the other person, and you learn to execute every movement with that person in your consciousness.  You start to feel like one person dancing in two bodies, or like an image reflected in a mirror.

Even more than that, there are times when one partner has to “submit” to the other.  Sometimes (in a traditional pairing) it’s the girl’s job to hold her position while the guy moves her around; sometimes he has to hold back and wait for her to pose before he can step in.  In cases like these, if either partner tries to do all the work, things feel forced and awkward. I mentioned earlier that in pas de deux I learned to move as if I was on my own, and that’s true, but I also had to learn when to let my partner move me, when to trust him to put me in the right place while I held my shape.  My partners also had to learn when to release control and let me step or turn or lift my leg or initiate a movement myself. The process becomes a mutual give-and-take.  You can perform a solo, but you can’t do a pas de deux alone.  It’s a different type of moving, designed in such a way that each partner needs the other.

A lesson for marriage
Am I saying that the type of partnership we see in pairs figure skating is bad?  Absolutely not.  It obviously can work, and I enjoy watching a traditional pair as much as the next arts aficionado.  But Ensor seems to be unaware that the traditional structure is not the only combination that does work.  The combination of man and woman, and the movements they do, are specifically designed to highlight the dynamic that emerges when you have people of different sizes and builds moving together.  But that kind of partnership only works with certain people and certain combinations.  Imagine, for instance, a short, small-boned man attempting to do the same routines you see in the Olympics with a tall woman of a more athletic build.  According to Ensor, - according to complementarianism - everyone has to fit into the same mold regardless of whether those roles actually fit you.  The great thing about egalitarianism (at least, in my own experience) is that you fill the role you fit.  In my opinion, if traditional gender roles work for you, that’s great.  If they don’t, that’s great too. 

In partnering, you pair up the people who are a good match for each other in terms of relative height and weight, movement quality, and technical ability.  You give them movements that cater to the strengths of each while at the same time working on their weaknesses, hoping to build them into new strengths.  Through an endless cycle of trial and error, success and failure, people who are different from one another come together and learn to trust each other and work toward a common goal.  In a sense, they become one.  They equally share the work, the pain, the responsibility, the triumph, and the reward.  Marriage is the same way, at least in my experience.  It’s not about having a leader and a follower, an initiator and a receiver; it’s about mutual strength, trust, and dedication, and as Christians, mutual submission to the real Leader.