Extending to Surf and Sand…Jennifer’s Musings from the first Pointe Break Retreats

 

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THE FINE PRINT

Under the Surface.  Above the Noise.

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Full disclosure. I’ve been a fish since I could stumble. Found my sea legs long before my land legs. As a dancer who grounds herself, welcoming the daily reminder of an open split in the ball of the foot or impact surging through the hamstrings when landing a jump, I was initially drawn to the opposite: weightlessness. To water.

I started out with synchronized swimming, painting aqueous shapes subsurface, then moved on to racing, blindly driving myself through water, this time with an objective of beating time. It was my life for my formative years. Perpetually submersed. And yet. I’d never dreamt of surfing. Perhaps it was the skier in me, resistant to board sports. My sister was the snowboarder. I was a skier. These were different things. Those who rode boards, be they skate or snow, dealt in a different realm. They were far cooler, the chill types, much more likely to ride through life in a zen manner. Don’t get me wrong. I do love the glide. This can take many forms.

When Natalie Sageloly first walked into my studio on Eastern Ave, all spitfire and smile, I knew instantly she needed to move as much as I did. It fed her in a similar way. Getting to know her I began to recognize Natalie’s draw to the surf and was curious. When she decided to move to Costa Rica, I became more curious.

Pointe Break was born of a natural union. From its quirky and clever word-play to its earnest belief in the complementary pairing of two disciplines, Pointe Break brings two disciplines together: dancing on land and dancing on the sea. The moment I embraced the concept of creating a new business with this union, marrying my art form to another, I also embraced a love/fear relationship with something I had never attempted. Surfing was not canoeing. It was not swimming. It was performed in bodies of water where tides and swells and white water will humble you unlike any lake. So here lay a substantial mental challenge. Set aside the natural reservations and concerns of starting any new business…would I be able to even attempt the sport? Would my fear stunt any hope I had of enjoying the very thing I was throwing my time and energy into?

Again, full disclosure. As a dancer and former swim racer, I had absolute confidence in my physical awareness: my strength, swimming capability, and BALANCE. Allow me to insert an observation here. Balancing on land, on a static surface (even while rotating in a pirouette and directed over one foot en pointe), is not the same thing as balancing on a surface which is rapidly moving beneath you. ‘Humbling’ does no justice to this realization! Yet I digress. I’ll step back slightly to the start of my first trip to Costa Rica and to the beginning of our inaugural Pointe Break retreat…

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(Travel day:  Nicole, Liana & Joanne at Pearson Airport)

The beginning of travel day was quite literally a rude awakening. Rude in that, typically, I had left packing until the eleventh hour (this happens to be what I dislike more than anything; I simply cannot pack light or make ruthless decisions on unnecessary garments), and as a result had fallen asleep with a mere four hours until my alarm assaulted me. Or rather, it didn’t. This was the first time in my life that an alarm went off and I actually slept through it. Thankfully, my friend and colleague, Nicole, telephoned to let me know she was nearby for pick-up and I leapt out of bed like a terrified bullfrog (gazelle is not justified in this case), splashed water on my face, and was on my way.  A foggy beginning.  Sun, sand and sea clearly in order.

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(meeting friends everywhere)

Our travel to Costa was smooth and uneventful. Some of our retreat guests had arrived earlier, traveling independently from Canada and the US, while a small group of us made the journey together from Toronto.  After an easy, direct flight, my first and strongest impression upon arriving was the HEAT. As we made our way through the sliding doors of customs into arrivals, I opened my mouth and suddenly was ‘chewing’ the air. It was as if we had stepped into another stratosphere. I looked up. A giant ceiling fan, probably 20 feet in wing span, rotated over us like a heat dispelling space ship. I looked at my travel companions and smiled as we all removed a layer of clothing. Liberia’s airport is a tiny stamp on a piece of land far removed from the mental image most of us have of Costa Rica (lush, wet, deep green jungle). As Natalie would correct me, later, this is the ‘dry jungle’. Which is not to mean that we are dealing with desert-like conditions. Rather, there is a perfect balance between that verdant oasis and the rest of the country, where dust rises in clouds one minute, and mud blankets you the next as you barrel through winding dirt roads. Our shuttle driver escorted us to our ride and we were off. The initial sparse landscape typical to airport proximity in any country rapidly changed to farmland speckled with tiny outposts, pockets of habitation marked repeatedly by a single bus stop and gas station boasting a 1970’s Coca Cola sign (one of our retreat guests commented on how the locals must really enjoy their cola; perhaps equal parts cola enjoyment/remnants of a golden era love affair with America). We barreled through the countryside, which became increasingly lush, as if water had been added to tempra.  It bled into our surroundings, changing not just the palette but the air’s weight.  Occasionally we slowed as horses or cattle with shockingly protruding ribs and ears drooped heavy as Basset hounds casually strolled across the road, unconcerned with our rapid approach.  Curious, my eyes glanced to the similar livestock which were watching us from behind fences flanking the road. Was this a choice?  To be in or out?  Somehow everything was fluid.

The route to Nosara was incredibly textured in visual stimulation.  It also became increasingly textured in terrain, and my stomach re-calibrated with each hairpin turn as we climbed further into the jungle.  After two hours of the most ‘lively’ drive I’ve experienced, we arrived at the glorious Bodhi Tree Resort in Nosara.

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(arrival: The Bodhi Tree Resort)

Beckoning from the top of an almost 180 degree ascent was a series of bamboo roofs, nestled under a cloak of green palms.   After ensuring our retreat guests were settled in, Nicole and I continued on to meet our gracious host Natalie, (Co. Owner and Surf Director of Pointe Break) at her home nearby,  where we would be staying.

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(our first sea welcome)

Within one minute of arrival, clothes were replaced by bathing suits and we were barefoot, steaming cup of coffee in hand, strolling to the beach for our first glimpse of the surf.  It is absolutely impossible to do justice with words alone to this view, and so I have attached a few images.  As we gazed up and down the beach, dumbstruck, we realized that we were the only people in sight.  The sunset  was ours exclusively to enjoy.   I felt every vestige of tension drain from my body,  as quickly as the coffee drained from my cup.  So here it was…

Pura Vida.

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(Natalie & Nicole- bye bye city clothes, hello bare foot in bathing suits)

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Morning comes swiftly and early in Costa Rica.  Especially when one has barely slept. Unaccustomed to the sensory magnitude of monsoon-like rain, I had lain awake for hours, wondering if the roof would succumb to the barrage of water assaulting it all night.  This was thunderous rain, relentless and heavy.  Aside from my skepticism as to the building’s staying power, I began to worry about the morning’s surf lesson.  Would we be rained out on day one?  I had no cause to worry; a pattern established itself that night which would remain consistent throughout our entire stay.  Just as I was finally nodding off from sheer exhaustion, the rain suddenly ceased and morning sun crept into the jungle, so that upon waking, the deluge of the night seemed like a vague dream. In fact, we were so bathed in sun each morning, there was no question of sleeping in. Our early wakeup call to hit the surf at the ideal time was easy to greet with the lovely wash of sun that accompanied it, and the calls of howler monkeys, who served as natural alarm clocks.  Let me point out here, that the bodily size of said howler monkeys is in direct and bizarre contrast to the size of their voices.  My first hearing sent me spinning like a top, fearfully scanning for the ferocious, gorilla sized beast that was clearly responsible.  Not only was the reality a quarter of the size I imagined, but it was so far away it was impossible to discern.  If I had a voice of that magnitude which carried from treetops there would be no need for the Madonna mic I bark into when I teach.

First adventure of the day, after downing unspeakably delicious coffee (Costa Rica is known amongst other things for its coffee, by the way) and velvety mango, was our inaugural trip to the Bodhi Tree on a 4×4 (ATV). With some experience driving this type of vehicle, I adapted fairly easily to its basic operational shtick.  What took some adjusting to (and by necessity rapidly so), were the dirt roads with hairpin turns and absolutely fearless motorcyclists and truck drivers who have been navigating these roads since infancy.  No joke; we repeatedly passed entire families: multiple children, babies, and a dog, all piled onto one motorcycle.  On occasion, I would also round a bend to find a horse casually strolling towards us, just doing it’s equine thing.  As they do in Costa Rica.  In fact, every living creature in this blessed place is just ‘doing their thing’.  And it’s good.


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As I mentioned, the sun had risen with the dawn and drawn the moisture from the jungle.  For the most part.  Roads were deceptively dry, until we reached an inevitable pothole or a stretch which hadn’t yet been kissed by warm rays.  And so began what I like to call the ‘mud bath dance’.  As is the case with most dances, those rides were filled with speed, joy, abandon, twists and turns…and with each enormous spray of mud, our laughter magnified.  Once you get over the fact that you’ve turned into a bog creature from the waist down, it’s actually quite enjoyable. The mud was still warm from the sun and it was like a free spa treatment (localized to a place where one doesn’t typically seek a mud masque; but hey, semantics).  By the time we arrived at the Bodhi Tree I was doubled over with laughter and also regretting my choice of footwear.  Do not, I repeat DO NOT travel anywhere you expect to end up covered in mud, wearing flip flops. You will understand why in a moment.

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(Jenn and Chico at the surf shack-what is on her feet?!?)

Our group of novice surfers shared a similar look of anticipation and trepidation as we gamely strolled to the surf shack to collect our boards. Wearing matching rash guards (designed by Akela Surf specially for Pointe Break), we presented a uniformed front of neophyte meets warrior.  And we did feel like warriors, myself included.  Until an unexpected and very swift twist landed me squarely-actually sideways-on my hip with a violent lift and a thwack. Witnesses will attest, I was indeed air born before the fall. Which brings me back to my afore mentioned lesson: do not wear anything bearing the name ‘flipflop’ when traversing muddy terrain.  It wasn’t so much the ground beneath my feet that was the problem.  Rather it was my muddy foot sliding sideways INSIDE the shoe, which started a chain reaction that ultimately concluded with me sprawled very ‘un-warrior-like’ in the dirt.

As the shock wore off, the burning pain caught up, and I struggled to climb bravely to my feet.  Apparently the speed and angle of my descent made it impossible for my companions to stifle their laughter.  Through gritted teeth I attempted to match the mood and not let this auspicious start dampen my mood.  I had no need to worry. By the time we reached the surf, the sting had subsided and I was rather enjoying the badge of my battle wound.

A person’s first experience with surfing, if it is anything like my own, is a perfect balance of desperately itching to hit the water instantly, and avoid it at all costs.  Mixed into the ego driven worries about not getting up on the board, is a cornucopia of fears bearing different names.  Some of these fears are reasonable and healthy to observe, such as jelly fish (provided you slide your feet through the sand you’re fine), the rip tide (your instructor will monitor this and guide you), the capability of the board to cause serious bodily damage if you do not handle it appropriately (see aforementioned instructor guidance), and the sheer magnitude of the ocean’s power, which necessitates an enormous amount of respect.  Others not so much, such as sharks. Indeed, there have been stories of surfers’ battles with the teethy beasts, but in the warm waters of Costa Rica, certainly the depth of water beginners hang out in, there is no cause for concern (requisite JAWS viewing as a child born in a certain decade not withstanding).

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(Joanne and Nicole in their element)

Reasonable or not, fears accompany any new endeavour which lies outside the realm of mundane daily life, and I was determined to meet them head on and subsequently quash all. I can confirm that by the end of the week, I had.  I still carry that healthy respect for the surf and the instructor, and halt myself when I become too eager and begin to skip steps, but trepidation is no longer part of the equation.

Our first day on the water began with a dry-land tutorial on the actual mechanics and step-by-step process of paddling out and getting up on the board.  Practising ‘pop-ups’ on the sand is essential and very useful in terms of the physical chain of events.  What it doesn’t really prepare you for is the hesitation, once on the water, in initiating said chain; and once you wait a few seconds too long to begin the process, you’ve missed the wave. This quickly became my biggest challenge. That and the fact that as a professional dancer who has trained my body for years to master fine movements, I tend to overthink the process and obsess over perfecting each small step, rather than simply going with the flow.  As trite as it sounds, this is actually what you must do when working with the rhythm or literal ‘flow’ of a wave. Of course, learn the steps individually, but once you begin to feel that swell lift the back of your board, there’s can be no hesitation involved. It’s what we should all learn to do with our lives in general. Catch the momentum and from that point on, don’t fight it. Ride it, baby. You made it up for a reason.

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(catching a wave on the beautiful break at Playa Guiones)

After a few humbling fails, I caught my first wave properly and rode it out.  There is no feeling like it (well, perhaps landing your first perfect triple pirouette can compare). When I say ‘ride it out’, I mean for a modest length of time.  We’re not talking epic long rides on a wave that gives you time for switch backs and various other techniques. That requires what is called ‘going out back’, kind of like the transition from the kiddie pool to the deep end of an in-ground. You can see the difference from the beach. The white water close to shore are the waves we learn on, which for a novice are intimidating enough.  Look further, scan the horizon and you will begin to discern the beginning of a swell that gradually becomes a glorious convex wall of aquamarine before it shudders and finally breaks into foamy white.

This, the ‘outback’ of the surf is the dangling carrot for me at our next retreat in February 2016 (interested? there are a few spots still available!)  As I mentioned earlier, there is a swim racer still in me somewhere and I feel confident that I can condition myself for the serious paddling required to make it out back. The next step is not second guessing myself when the swell nudges and I register its size. I feel ready for it.  Stay tuned, updates to follow…

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(Jenn and Nat- post-class stretch time)

Back to that glorious week last June. After our first morning on the water, I am proud to share that all retreat participants had made it up on the board, and we headed back to Cachos surf shack fatigued and salty, yet satisfied.  It boded well for a good week ahead.  Next was our inaugural ballet fitness class at the Bodhi Tree,  conducted in an open air platform in the trees.  After a fragrant five minute climb through the jungle, we began our first Allegro Ballet Bootcamp class with a stunning 360 view of verdant green and howler monkey accompaniment.  I thought back to the previous winter of classes in Toronto performed with joints achy from cold and air so dry it made swallowing difficult. I could get used to this. That first day of surf and ballet in paradise is unforgettable. We chased the workout with fresh mango and coconut smoothies by the pool, and capped the evening off with a gentle stretch class at dusk and a hearty yet healthy organic dinner under the stars. Here I risk beginning to read like the propaganda of a vacation brochure for a travel company, but I assure you, embellishment has been strictly avoided.

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(sweaty and happy after Coda; winding down at sunset)

There were challenges, of course.  Our third day of ballet fitness in the jungle scheduled the infamous ‘Coda Ballet Cardio’, which I like to refer to as ‘ballet on speed’. Think Allegro Ballet Bootcamp jacked up in intensity to ensure the feet rarely touch the ground and you should have a fair idea. This just happened to fall on the hottest day of our week in Nosara, which meant that before the warmup had even concluded, I was sweating so profusely the floor had become a sort of ‘ice-less’ skating rink.  Who knew that the bottoms of the feet could sweat?  Scanning the faces of my students, an assortment of various shades of plum, blush, even scarlet, I had a moment of doubt. Was this wise? Or should I pull the cord and cancel class? Never.  Provided we all stayed hydrated and safety was monitored, I had faith that my intrepid team would prevail. We did. We lost copious amounts of water and I’m sure each participant, if being completely honest would admit to a steady and alternating stream of internal cursing and cheerleading over the course of that hour.  But we survived.

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(trickster mango stealth bomber)

Our gleaming (and beaming) faces beelined straight to the pool, and as we filed down the path from the studio, I felt a heavy thud at my feet and slap of something wet on my leg. It took a few moments to register what had happened.  I scanned my immediate environment.  At my feet lay a split mango, it’s ripe, juicy flesh splattered on the pathway and halfway up my calf. As I processed the fruit, the true culprit revealed itself.  A distinctly non-human sound, suspiciously similar to a titter of laughter, filtered down to us from above.  Above me perched a monkey, leaning forward as if he could barely contain his delight in his prank. This was no accident. That monkey had hurled the orange fruit deliberately at my head. We exchanged a look. What passed in that moment was part stand-off, part inside joke. The real joke was on him.  As I ducked away to avoid another imminent attack, I enjoyed the delicious fruit that had found its way up to my arm. What had prompted this jokester? Maybe he didn’t like the look of me.  In all honesty, I was a frightening sight after that class.  Or perhaps he didn’t appreciate my choice in music.  That would be a first.

Several other magical moments highlighted the week. There were personal breakthroughs on the board and in the studio, milestones met and surpassed. There were Cervezas on the beach and sunset horseback rides, conversations deep into the night competing with the cicadas. There was constant laughter.

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(Yohan and pipa helper)

A very special experience for me involved an aspiring young ballerina, a local resident whose parents dropped her off daily for Extension Method class. She was quiet yet keen, and progressed immensely throughout the week, both in her technique and her confidence.  On the final day, her mother pulled me aside to thank me.  She told me that her daughter suffered from extreme anxiety.  Because of this she was home schooled, and her mother had been unsure if she would feel comfortable dancing in a room full of adult women she had never met. Yet she was astounded by the fact that as the week progressed, her anxious daughter had turned into a little girl who was only anxious about how soon she could attend another class.  On day three, this precious girl bounded across the floor to me after reverence (traditional bows at the end of class) and hugged me.  Flashes of uncertainty had been replaced by smiles.  It is one of the most rewarding memories of my teaching career.

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(en route to Costa Rica Yoga Spa and Playa Ostional)

Nearing the end of the week, Natalie and I decided to go on an adventure.  On our designated ‘free afternoon’, our guests stayed at the resort and lounged by the pool, resting their warrior bodies, and the two of us hopped on the ATV.  We set off into the Costa Rican countryside, leaving the chill laisse faire of the surf for the local reality of surrounding farmland.  Stopping at a gas station, it dawned on us that we couldn’t be more conspicuous.  Two blonde women wearing only bikinis and trucker hats on an ATV…it was a strong choice.  I wonder about that now. We certainly attracted attention in an almost solely male populated environment.  In fact, the further we drove into the mountains, the more we came across farmers who had rarely seen a woman in the flesh besides their wife and mother, let alone of the fair haired persuasion.  As we bombed along the the increasingly difficult to navigate roads (I have never white knuckled like I did that afternoon), various creatures dashed across our path.  Crawfish scuttled like aged polka dancers, barely avoiding our wheels. Lizards of all shapes and sizes perched and checked out the strange riders before disappearing into the undergrowth.  Everywhere drooped cows meandered in and out of ditches and fields, pausing to process our presence before deciding there really was nothing to see here.

Our tour was an exploration of sorts for the next year’s retreat. Nosara and area being so richly diverse, we had decided to change things up and continuously discover new gems to share with our guests. Our travels led us to the highest possible altitude and the Costa Rica Yoga Spa, with a devastatingly beautiful view of the Pacific and the jungle below.  Each discovery was better than the last.  As we left the resort and made our way back down to sea level, Natalie informed me that she was taking me to a very special beach. Playa Ostional is home to one of the famous Pacific nesting grounds for marine turtles.  Though we did not time our visit to catch the phenomenon, I could easily envision its extraordinary splendour.  We lounged and drank cold Cervezas as Natalie painted a vivid picture of what she has observed in the early morning hours before sunrise in that very spot.  I closed my eyes to see it:  thousands of sea turtles slowly making their way like subtly shifting shadows in the moonlight, from the surf to the perfect sandy spot where they will lay their eggs.

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That day marked the beginning of our plans for this year’s retreat in February. I’ve been dreaming of the view from the mountain top and those turtles since.

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As I finalize flight bookings, examine patterns for our new 2016 Pointe Break rash guards, and remind myself that a rosy glow will soon return to my translucent white skin, I recall one more magical moment from our final evening in Nosara last June.  We had all just made our way back in the evening shadows from our last class, and were settling in for dinner.  A motorcycle announced its approach, a faint hum building to a roar that muted the cicadas and even the howler beasts. Yohan, our other phenomenal PB surf instructor (and Co. Owner of Nosara Family Surf) had arrived to join us.  He came bearing a gift.  It was time to celebrate and champagne was in order.  One of our Pointe Break guests, Craig, had made it up on the surf board for the first time.  He had been attempting to for years, and was determined that after recovering from a hip replacement, this time the triumph would be his. The table as a whole protested that they were not proficient in opening a bottle of champagne.  After 12 years of experience in the service industry (I am an artist, after all), I volunteered.  I removed the foil and cage and paused as Yohan finished his toast to Craig’s accomplishment and we all applauded.  Suddenly, the cork exploded into the night sky, disappearing into the jungle and champagne followed, erupting like a geizer onto the table, my head and lap. Screaming with laughter and hustling to salvage what we could of the golden nectar, we realized what had happened. Yohan had just spent the past half hour on a motorcycle on a Costa Rican country road, with the bottle in the back basket. By the time he arrived it had become a tiny liquid pressure bomb.

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As I licked the sticky vintage from my fingers and mopped my face, I decided there couldn’t have been a more perfect way to end the retreat. Clichés aside, we all realize at some point in our lives that we have been building our own little pressure bombs inside us.  We yearn to break from the steady path we are on, put ourselves squarely in front of our fears, and release the pressure of expectations or restrictions, internally or externally dictated.  If we don’t ever allow ourselves the freedom, we might just explode.  And unlike the champagne, it doesn’t necessarily mean a party after.  Make the decision to pop that cork intentionally.

There is always something to celebrate, a jeté to lift you off your feet, and another wave to catch.

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(Jenn and Nat- friends and Pointe Break retreat directors)

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