Katherine Barkman- Ballerina and meditation recorder

This was the very first interview I conducted in the name of Artistic and Holistic, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to begin the journey. Katherine is a rare gem, who comes to conversations with a sense of authenticity and raw honesty not often found. Feelings of isolation in the challenges of being an artist in COVID were quickly put to rest, and I sincerely hope that by growing in her wisdom, the same sense of peace flows through you as did for me. If you want to talk about topics that are usually glossed over or avoided, this interview is for you. Disclaimer* Katherine and I spent an hour deep diving in her mind, all of which could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of her answers have been slightly condensed with her approval.

Could you please summarise your career path?

I started my professional training when I was 14, but my career started when I was 18, at which time I was offered a principal position with Ballet Manila where I spent almost 4 years. In 2018 I competed in USA International Ballet Competition (IBC) and Varna IBC. Ms Kent was the announcer for the third round of USA IBC and approximately a month after seeing me perform, she invited me to guest with The Washington Ballet. I did so in ‘Washington Ballet Welcomes’, and then I stayed! I’m currently going into my third season with the company.

Could you speak to your views on taking a more unconventional approach to a career?

Every path is valid, and every path has its challenges. I took a very different career path and it allowed me to travel the world, gaining experience that I may not have had so early on had I chosen to join a larger company. However, the fact I didn’t spend time in the corps was really difficult in the sense that I had no stage experience. I jumped into these big principal roles that I may not have been ready to physically handle and it required a lot more learning as you go. As opposed to observing, absorbing and gaining experience over time. I love the whole concept of everybody having their own path, and this is just my path.

Could you share a favorite quote/poem/piece of art

‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost.
I’ve always resonated with that poem. I remember reading it in my public high school English class and I was just like, ‘oh that’s me’. Why am I still sitting here? I need to go and live my life in order to take the road less traveled.

What did the juggle of high school and ballet coaching look like for you?

I met my Russian coach when I was 14, however at that point I was still in public school. I stayed in school for another two years, only going to my coach three hours a night. I remember walking through the gates on the last day of 10th grade and I just had this feeling I wasn’t going back for junior year. Sure enough, that summer, I made this wild decision to homeschool and train full time. I was also a private student, meaning I was the only one in the studio with my teacher from 11am to 5pm. My training was very unconventional, I was just not at the level I needed to be in order to make a professional jump in a year or two. There was a decision to make, and it was not an easy one. It was not an easy one at all.

Take us through your morning and evening routine, if you have one.

Both pre-COVID and during COVID I’ve tried to stick to a routine. I wake up around 6:30-7 every day with Ellie (*Katherine’s gorgeous puppy) as my alarm! I wash my face and take Ellie out because she’s first priority, then I usually have coffee and meditate. I meditate every morning, even if only for 5 minutes in which I try to simply sit, sometimes with music sometimes without, depending on my mood. I glance at my phone/emails during breakfast, and get to work around 8:30am. I like to have a quiet morning if I can help it.

In the evening, I try to have a 12 hour window where I’m not scrolling. Although, that requires a lot of discipline so I’m still working on it. I usually have dinner, a cup of tea, maybe a little dessert, watch a TV show, play with Ellie, call my family, read, journal, meditate, and sleep.

Do you feel your art influences your day to day tasks and visa versa?

Absolutely. I feel that relationship has evolved though. For a long time, everything revolved around ballet in a fear based relationship. I was scared to do anything other than ballet for fear it would make me undisciplined. Over the years through meditation, mindfulness training, researching, and facing all the hard stuff, what I’ve learned is to flip it around. It’s no longer that dance controls my choices, it’s that I choose things because I love dance. I think my day to day tasks are oriented around the thing that I’ve dedicated my life to, but in a very healthy and empowered way. I choose to go to bed early and write in my journal, because it’s good for my mental health, and ultimately it’s good for what I’ve dedicated my life to.

What qualities/values do you feel moving to a foreign country at such a young age gave you?
Manila could have gone two ways for me. I would have either gone home with my tail between my legs, or I would have evolved to thrive in a place where I was deeply uncomfortable. It started to look like the former for a while, and I remember coming home for the break after my first season and just crying. I didn’t want to go back to a life that was so difficult there. Manila gave me a new perspective, you see the whole spectrum of poverty and wealth. It showed me how to thrive without depending on outside circumstances, learning to not need everything to go your way to have happiness. Once I got over myself, it became much easier to adapt and evolve, and now I adore the Philippines. What’s beautiful is, Manila was the same when I stepped off the plane at 18 and when I left at 22, but I was completely different. Another big lesson Manila taught me was that we should not judge who deserves to watch ballet. There can be a mindset of giving more effort to big theatre performances over school gymnasium ones, and therefore basing the value of a performance on what you get from it. There needs to be a mentality shift from what the performer gets out of it, to what the audience gets out of the performer.

What was happening in your life when you discovered mediation?

It was my second year in Manila and I was struggling with a lot of internal issues. Just to put it all out there, I had very low self esteem, no confidence, and body image struggles. I was 20 and my body was changing, circumstances were difficult, and I was lonely. Mentally, it was not an easy time. That’s when I met my dear friend (and basically my life coach) Angela. She introduced me to this meditative way of life, which at first I definitely opposed. I was like, ‘this is not for me, this is weird. I’m not a yogi, I’m a ballerina’. Eventually I realised my way of life was clearly not effective; I was miserable all the time, and everything was just so difficult, so I figured I may as well try meditation, anything was worth a shot at that stage. I casually mentioned an amazing book I read called ‘the Alchemist’ to Angela and it turned out she loved that book and had even met the author. It’s a very spiritual book and I think that provided the doorway for Angela to teach me about hearing my thoughts but not being pulled by them. It was a big learning process, and still is.

‘Insight Timer’ is an amazing (free!) mediation app and you have two beautifully recorded meditations on it. In your most recent ‘A Gift For Jyoti’, one of the characters introduced is an artist who seems to re-discover joyfulness after burying it under perfectionism and the need for outside approval. How important to you is prioritising joyfulness in our art? Does this reflect anything you’ve noticed or experienced yourself in the ballet world?

I wrote that meditation at 2am one night in Manila. The artist was absolutely based on myself at the time, and I think I still see myself somewhat as the artist in that story. They are completely burdened with this perfectionist need for outside affirmation, which in the end steals the joy of creating. I think my own joyfulness has been uncovered by a conscious effort, but joy is in everyone who decides to at one point or another pursue life as a creative. There’s that fundamental ‘I’m making something, I’m lost in time and space, and everything’s okay’, kind of attitude, however that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, I think the more you catch on to joy, the more difficult your path gets. You start to actually see the perfectionism monsters who want to creep in. That’s where meditation helped me, not to get rid of those thoughts, but choose the thoughts that occupy my brain for extended periods of time. Turning down certain thoughts doesn’t mean I can’t strive for improvement, I just see flaws as a way to get better and have a mentality of ‘isn’t it exciting that I’ve found something I can fix’. Disclaimer, I still have doubts, body image issues, and struggles with perfectionism and inadequacy; I’ve just learnt not to give those thoughts so much weight. In respect to the artist character, writing it helped me find tenderness towards my perfectionist side. Perfectionism isn’t bad, it’s the teenage girl who was always body shamed, and you should just hug her, say I’m so sorry, and move on. Perfectionism: accept it, you have it, go forward, be joyful.

Many in the arts community have found it too hard to keep creating or pursuing in these unprecedented times (no judgment at all, it can be rough). I’ve noticed this topic can be glazed over and many I’ve spoken to feel alone in these emotions. Have you ever had moments feeling this way? If so, what was helpful and/or inspired you in these times? There was a period of about a month where I just watched terrified as my summer gigs disappeared. I had all these great creative things happening, everything was falling into place, and I had never been more excited. All of a sudden, I was sitting alone watching my calendar be deleted. It took me around three months to watch ballet again, and I had a hard time facing how profoundly sad I was. However, I sat with it and just absolutely allowed myself to feel sad, I allowed myself to feel terrified of the unknown. All I wanted to do was lay in my bed, but I had to find it within not to run from the situation. My biggest fear came from just feeling invisible. I felt like suddenly everything was so quiet, there was no audience, there was no outside affirmation. I had to really ask myself, why am I working? Why do I set up my barre in the living room? Dancing stopped being a goal on a todo list and became my two hour a day refuge from what was happening. It was space to just authentically move. Eventually I started choreographing, listening to music, writing, reading, and creating… because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to. Though, that took a long time to happen. Like you said, people shouldn’t gloss over the fact that it’s okay, if you’re not creating things, it’s a pandemic! You’re a good person, rest, meditate, be with your family, watch TV, go on a walk, ​find yourself, face yourself​. ​Don’t worry about creating if you don’t know what place you’re creating from. I feel things also changed for the better when I opened my heart to the knowledge that everyone was going through this together.

Many experience shame or a sense of failure around doubts. Do you have anything you wish to say to others about the specific doubts of this time?
The thing is doubt is just a bully, it wants you to sit down and stop. It’s just a thought that can’t really do anything to you, and it’s usually absolutely not real; but the doubt itself is real. I don’t know how someone could not have doubts right now, it’s kind of impossible not to. Personally what the doubts bought up were insecurities around what others think of me. What would they think if I don’t make anything, or be productive, or post workout videos? I came to realise 1) no one really cares and 2) I’m not here to please everybody anyway. I’m here to make sure what I’m giving the world comes from an authentic place. That’s why I feel we need more conversations about self growth, and self awareness.

Has there been a specific time when dance has become a form of mediation? Is that something you value about art, and want others to experience?
I strive to find frequent little pockets of meditative experience. Most people probably expect me to talk about on stage transcendance, however performing is a difficult thing and what people don’t see is me shaking in the wings. With saying that, there have been performances where I’ve felt completely in the zone and flowing with positive energy. Recently some of the most mediative times have been dancing on the back deck in the sunshine, and simply being with the music and movement. Ballet class is more than my job, it is something to bring me closer to myself, and that’s the essence of meditation.

What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far? *note from Sarah, I don’t believe in the notion of failure or success, however used those words here for the purpose of demonstrating that point.
2017 Moscow IBC. I was already a principal with Manila, and decided to do a competition again. I arrived in Moscow so consumed with my own need for approval and had put my entire self worth on a ‘perceived’ positive outcome. I was shaking the whole performance of Gisele, and straight after walking off stage I knew I’d blown it. At the time, it was an earth shattering experience as I had placed my entire self worth on this very fragile thin ice and it cracked beneath me. I remember nervously calling my director, who gave me this piece of wisdom: “Katherine you have to plié before you jump, and this is your biggest plié”. It still took a while to climb back out of that pit, and at first I swore off competing, but after about 4 months I decided to get back on the competition horse. I spent most of the next year on an internal preparation journey. I faced my nasty monsters that rose in Moscow (arrogance, need for approval, lack of confidence, lack of self worth, body image issues etc). That low point was the best thing that ever happened, as I went to Moscow with so much negativity in my head and it forced me to ask myself if this was the mindset of someone who’s successful. I think if Moscow had gone a different way, it would have just affirmed those dangerous mental patterns instead of inviting me to reevaluate them. I realised if you want to be good, focus on getting better, not how ‘bad’ you are. The 2018 competitions were very different experiences to Moscow. Though I won two silver medals, I placed much greater value on what the preparation and experience taught me about myself than those accolades.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
Katherine means pure in Greek, and I’ve always identified with it, I think ​pure​ gets an unfair wrap. For me, it evokes this thought of pure intention and pure integrity. A state of purity is a state of authenticity.

Can you give us any sneaky insights on ‘InterMission Dance’?

I’m the executive producer of this really exciting project and in a nutshell it’s a free online dance performance, featuring beautiful artists, in breathtaking locations, across three continents. It’s coming in December!

In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?

I would love for people to be kinder to themselves and have compassion for what is arising both externally and internally in their lives. I try to be candid about my own struggles, in order to help others (young girls especially) realise they’ll be ok. You have to take everything as a lesson, and grow kindness for yourself instead of waiting to receive affirmation from others.

You can find Katherine Barkman @katherine_barkman on IG or her website https://www.katherinebarkman.com/ (which includes her own amazing blog that I couldn’t recommend more highly)

*featured photo credit Pixel Empathy

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