August 12, 2015

Back to Being a Ballet Student

This is my teacher Marie Greve. Before she came to Helsinki, she was a Principal Dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet, and before that, she danced at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She's danced all the big roles: Juliet, Giselle, Odette/Odile, as well as choreographies by Bournonville, Balanchine, and Forsythe (to name a few). Alexei Ratmansky created Anna Karenina on her, and John Neumeier his Little Mermaid. She has the most beautiful port de bras I've ever seen on any dancer, and mile-long legs that extend past six o'clock without any effort. She looks elegant in everything that she does. All of this would be impressive by itself, but Marie also happens to be the most nurturing teacher I've ever had.

I was already forty when I had my first classes with her, but she held my hand to help me with a balance on pointe and sat down onto the floor to shape my foot into a beautiful arch. In the past almost-five years, she's given countless corrections and adjustments, her patience and good humour never wavering. She saw potential where I saw obstacles. She's encouraged me to "play with my port de bras", to "colour" my dancing, and to make it interesting. Marie has made me work and dance in ways I did not know where even possible for a middle-aging late-starter ballet student like myself. It hasn't always been easy (but when is ballet ever easy?). At times, I've struggled, been frustrated, even negative. Not the kind of student you'd be happy to teach... Still, she did not give up on me. I had to learn my lessons, adjust my attitude and re-discover both the joy and discipline of ballet. Which is why I love her classes to bits. Today, Marie's back after a four-month long break - and I cannot wait to be her student once again!

This post is dedicated to all those wonderful ballet teachers who guide, correct, encourage, nurture, motivate and inspire us  - without you it would not be the same amazing experience. Thank you!

P.S. For readers and ballet students in the Helsinki area: Marie-Pierre Greve teaches at Tanssikeskus Footlight, Wednesday evenings (levels basic to advanced) and Tuesday & Thursday mornings (intermediate/advanced/pro). Note: This endorsment is completely unsolicited, I do not receive any benefits or class price reductions.

July 5, 2015


It's been three weeks since my last ballet class. In the past nine years, three weeks is the longest I've gone without dance. Now I'm looking at five more weeks, at least. My best case scenario: back at the barre by the 11th of August. The more likely scenario: sometime in fall, hopefully before winter. At least I'm not sick or injured, so that's good. I'm struggling with my dance budget, is all. Classes are expensive, you could easily feed yourself for two or even three days with just the cost of a single lesson! And when you are living on a very tight budget, every non-essential luxury means significant compromises elsewhere. For instance, I love to travel. But, given a choice, I love dance more. I like pretty shoes and clothes, but if it's class or a new outfit, I'd rather shop second-hand. I get my hair cut on birthdays only, buy generic brands (which often are just as good), and happily borrow occasional clothes from my more stylish friends. Ballet class might be a luxury, but I've never considered it being non-essential. The benefits and pleasure I get from dance far outweigh any compromises or sacrifices. The prospect of not dancing saddens me. A life without dance? Unimaginable.

I have been very fortunate this past year. In addition to my regular classes, I got to participate in a 6-month long intensive workshop (part of a dance pedagogy master thesis study), totaling 129 45-minute sessions (usually 3-4 sessions at once). The workshop helped improve body awareness and placement, and I've definitely seen and felt some progress since. There was even a performance at the end, in front of a small but appreciative audience. The movement material was based on our own improvised dancing, which made the rehearsals and show extra exciting! I'm very happy I had such an amazing opportunity to learn and grow.

There have been great classes throughout the year, with wonderful teachers. I've enjoyed the exercises and challenges, just as I've appreciated their advice and personal corrections. One lesson was a slightly bitter pill to swallow, and I've had to revise and adjust my attitude in the process. Turns out that negative moods (due to stress, fatigue, insecurities, whatever) can be contagious, affecting class mates and teachers alike. Facial expressions (think concentration face, or "resting bitch face syndrome") can also be misconstrued as something else entirely, for instance, showing lack of respect. When this was pointed out to me, I was aghast... Because I had no idea of the negative impact I was making! I was letting my everyday problems affect both my focus and body language, without realising it. Needless to say, I've since made every effort to improve my attitude. The lessons you learn in ballet... Not always about technique, but just as valuable, if not more so.

There have also been new teachers, and new discoveries. When my own teacher Marie announced that she would be leaving 6 weeks early, and we would have substitute teachers for the remainder of the season, I was initially anxious. I already knew that I would not be able to dance in the summer, and I did not want my last classes to lack in personal corrections and inspiration. It's not that self-evident for (middle-aged) adults to get such detailed and plentiful attention, with some teachers tending to put their main focus on more talented (and younger) students. Not that you cannot convince them otherwise, but it usually takes some time to build a working relationship. Well, I approached class with my best attitude (no pun intended), an open mind and my usual eagerness to learn - and it worked out better than I had expected! Of course, I missed Marie; the warm atmosphere, the corrections and encouragement she would bestow on us, but Arja was just as nice - and she made me work on other areas I had been neglecting. I have been "scooping up" my abs ever since! It was also fun trying more difficult enchaînements, faster tempi and new steps. Sometimes, you need those challenges to progress!

I also enjoyed guest teacher Minna Tervamäki's classes. I only got to attend four times (out of five), but having a recently retired principal dancer share her tips and "tricks" is nothing if not special. The focus was less on academic technique, more on neo-classical and contemporary ballet (think Balanchine, Forsythe..). I did not receive a lot of personal corrections (one or two per class), but there was a lot of fun dancing to compensate! In the long run, I would be frustrated not getting personal attention, but combined with other classes/teachers, it works just fine. Anyway, you cannot rely on your teacher to spot every mistake at all times, or to hope for praise every time there's a nice pirouette or balance... It's very important to develop body awareness, and to learn how to self-correct. Do it before your teacher reminds you! Also, you have to take pleasure in your progress, with our without praise.

Then, just when I thought my classes were over, there was an announcement of a 2-week summer intensive: morning classes from Monday until Friday, at a very cheap price I could actually afford! Of course, I signed up immediately. Classes were aimed at (semi-) professionals, but some exercises were simplified to accommodate a variety in levels. We had a different teacher almost every day, and while I only got a few personal corrections, it was a really good work-out! I even got to try some never-before-turns: pirouette en dehors, opening into seconde (like a fouetté), continuing into arabesque en dehors. Did not "quite" get it, but it sure was fun trying! The intensive was also excellent preparation for the Kuopio Dance Festival's courses. My going to Kuopio was a huge stroke of luck, and definitely the grand finale of the past dance season. I've already written about it (and there will be some follow-ups yet to come), but I could not have wished for a better finish - nor could I ask for more.

What happens next, and when, is uncertain. At present, I cannot afford classes, but that doesn't mean I'm quitting ballet altogether! I just need to stay in shape until I can go back again. Walking and jogging in the nearby forest, swimming, stretching, planks and pliés, plus tendus and fondues in the kitchen, ab exercises, relevés, strengthening feet with rubberband, waterballet... As long as I do something, because it's use it or lose it! So, I try to approach every day as if I have morning class the next. Eventually, hopefully, that day will come. 

Wherever there's a "barre"...

June 23, 2015

All That Jazz and Ballet Too

When I looked at the Kuopio Dance Festival's course programme, I searched for ballet classes first. That's my main focus, everything else comes second. I was delighted to see Arja Tervo teaching the professional morning classes and the adult intermediate course (among other levels). Arja substituted at my studio for six weeks this past spring, and I really enjoyed her friendly manner, positive attitude and professionalism. The combinations are more complicated and difficult than I have gotten used to, but it’s a welcome challenge. Arja also gives lots of personal and detailed corrections, and always encourages to push beyond your current ability. That’s how you do it. If you wish to progress, you have to step outside of your comfort zone, again and again! While still keeping in mind that there are no shortcuts. Solid, clean technique takes a lot of time and hard work, and the focus should always be on quality and musicality, not tricks. Better to make it simple and beautiful than to rush through levels and end up with messy in-betweens. If memory, muscle strength, proper alignment and coordination are not ready to catch up, you will risk learning mistakes - and possible injury. So, step outside that comfy zone, but don’t try to leap over a canyon. If in doubt, ask your teacher.

Okay, back to Kuopio Dance. I figured that I might be able to do morning class with the pros (dancers, teachers, students..), but that class overlapped with Pattie Obey’s jazz course. I would have also liked to take the intermediate contemporary course, but it was at the same time as intermediate ballet! Finally, I decided to take jazz intermediate (10:15 - 11:30) and adult ballet intermediate (13:30 - 15:00). There would be just enough time for a light lunch in-between.

4th floor dance studio (Kuopion Tanssistudio), with views to the City Hall and market place.

I haven't been to jazz class in, like, forever. To be more precise, the last time must have been in the mid-90s. Back then, I was taking classes with Maiju Pohjonen at the Tanssivintti dance studio, but I never progressed beyond advanced beginner. I had a hard time learning coordinating and adding of move upon move, and more often than not I fell behind. Now that I think about it, at the time I was still a beginner (basic level) in ballet - and solid jazz technique also requires solid ballet technique! Really not the best background to jump into an intermediate jazz intensive 20 years later, especially one that is being taught by renowned master teacher Pattie Obey... But, there were no basic levels for jazz at Kuopio, and I really wanted to take the plunge, hoping that my ballet would be a strong enough foundation to build all that jazz on! It felt like the right timing, despite my very limited experience. I’m not getting any younger, and you have to grab those once-in-a-lifetime chances like there is no tomorrow.

How convenient to live next to the dance studio! My usual one-hour commute was reduced to five minutes, which meant that I was always in a rush to get there. But never late! The studio is on the fourth floor, and I skipped the elevator to give myself a warm-up (which got harder with every day). When I got to the studio, I realised that I had not thought about footwear. Most dancers wore black jazz shoes, a few had socks. I slipped into my worn-out ballet flatties, only to realise that they were much too slippery for the studio floor. It was okay doing exercises in place, but as soon as we got moving across the floor, I felt extremely insecure, and tossed them back into my bag. I tried to do the next class barefoot, but it was too sticky for tendus and turns. Finally, I found a suitable floor contact with thin socks. Combined with sweat and humidity, they gave secure traction but were still low-friction enough to allow for turning and sliding. What did I learn? Always come prepared for different floors and conditions!

Before class started, Pattie asked us about our jazz dance experience. For a moment, I felt my heart sink. If I told her that it had been advanced beginner 20 years ago, would she give me a raised eyebrow? I settled for "some jazz", which is accurate enough. She also asked if we do any teaching, which is common for Kuopio course participants. Sure enough, there were two contemporary/jazz teachers in the first class, and more throughout the course (the size kept changing as many had overlapping courses, performances and volunteer duties). I said to Pattie, "just ballet", and later realised that I had inadvertently introduced myself as a ballet teacher. I'm still a bit embarrassed about it.

When class started, I was not as lost as I had feared. I think Pattie gave us a basic level introduction instead of an intermediate class, just to see what we could do. Many of the warm-up and stretching exercises were surprisingly familiar, taking me right back to my first ballet teacher Jill Miller's dance workout classes. Jill had been a jazz dancer, but she taught mainly ballet (beginners to professionals). She also gave "workout" classes, which I now realise, had elements from jazz dance warm-ups. Roll downs, flat backs, ab exercises, to mention some. Coincidentally, Jill Miller and Pattey Obey were both trained in the Cecchetti ballet method. The ballet part of Pattie's jazz class was the "easy" part, not that ballet is ever easy. But I could do the pliés, tendus and jetés and chaînés, developpés and attitudes and whatnot without overloading my brain capacity. The part where we started adding moves onto moves? Oh my...

Thankfully, we practiced basics first. Getting my somewhat rigid upper body to contract, release, isolate, roll, swing was fun - and oh boy could I feel it by day three. I realise that I've underused my body and its capacity to move in different ways! Ballet keeps things pretty square, even with neo-classical and contemporary influences. I'm always excited when teachers urge us to "dance big", but it's not easy to move away from a strictly academic style. Some teachers will admonish you right away if you go for temps lies with big sliding glissés or upper bodies that move out of their most square confines. Which is why I like Arja Tervo's and Marie Greve's ballet classes so much. They are constantly reminding us that we are no longer at "ballet school", meaning that it's time to dance and to express - not just to execute the steps in a technically correct manner. It has to be interesting, both to the dancer and to the audience (even if you only ever do class). Personalities should not disappear underneath technique! The same with Pattie Obey's jazz class.

Expression in dance class has always been more challenging for me than the technical aspect. I'm not a performer by nature, and my inhibitions tend to surface whenever we are told to "dance as if you were on stage!" In fact, after our first ballet class at Kuopio, Arja took me to the side and told me in the nicest way not to be "so Finnish." In this context, being Finnish means being too reserved. Of course, you cannot put every Finn under one hat, but it's a recognized national tendency. There's also the fear of what others might think of us. If we step out of line and draw attention to us, it might convey that we consider ourselves to be superior to our peers. "Who does she think she is?" But why take dance class if not to express yourself, be the dancer you truly want to be? I have learned that some classes work better for me than others. The atmosphere has to be positive. An encouraging teacher with a sense of humour definitely helps. As do fellow dance students. What I loved about those jazz classes: after we took turns across the floor, every group was applauded. You don't see that in ballet class, at least not where I dance.

I wish I could have danced more "out there" in those jazz classes, but I was hard at work to keep track of triplets, ball changes, funky moves and port de bras that seemed to have a mind of its own. I would have needed twice the time to pick up all the combinations, and then add some flavor. Sure, my ballet technique helped, but it also got in the way at times. I can do consistent double pirouettes, but turning from a parallel position is surprisingly difficult. Even harder when you have to finish in seconde parallel. My feet keep turning out automatically! So much of my ballet technique is embedded deep into muscle memory, which is fine for ballet, but... It was interesting, to say the least. When we did ballet steps, it was a welcome rest for my brain. Just as everything jazz was exciting to the point of being overstimulating. Too much new information to handle! I think it was day four when my brain fried (apparently not than uncommon). Day five I can't remember, but during the last two classes we did jazz in the style of musical theatre. It was a short combination out of "Over There!" (1976), and I loved it! First time I felt myself dancing, not just trying to keep up. I still messed up some steps and moves, but I had so much fun getting there!

I have to add that Pattie Obey is a great teacher: passionate, professional, inspiring and chock full of dance wisdom which I would have liked to written down, word for word. She's demanding but friendly, and has a terrific sense of humour. Pattie often told us that she's old enough to be our grandmother (well, not mine), and if she can do it, so can we. Except that she was in better shape than any of us! What did she say...? "If you stop (now), that's it." Considering that she demonstrated full out while still suffering from a cold and jet lag, I have only one word: respect. No wonder Dance Magazine has named her "Teacher Extraordinaire!"

I'm very happy that I took the plunge into jazz, it really pushed me into a new direction. Even my ballet teacher Arja noticed the change! She had urged me to show my love for dance, to present myself and to bring some pizzaz into my steps.. And I did!

Last day group photo (class kept changing, some switched to advanced when their schedule allowed it). Pattie in the middle, I'm third from left. My eyes are closed, which happens a lot in group shots. But it was a great group!

P.S. Another benefit of jazz class: All that upper body work loosened up my stiff neck. It also helped with the lower back pain that had been bothering me all year (ouch in cambré)! Since I got back from Kuopio, I've added some of the exercises to my daily pre-stretch warm-up. 

June 12, 2015

Kuopio Dance Festival, Day 1: Here Comes the Rain Again

Finnish National Ballet Summer Tour: Snork Maiden is about to be entangled by some flesh-eating Angosturas... Excerpt from Anandah Kononen's ballet Moomin and the Comet. Artists of FNB. Photography (c) Johanna / Pointe Til You Drop.

The first day of the Kuopio Dance Festival began with sunshine but ended in rain for the Finnish National Ballet's Summer Tour. Because of the moist stage, all pointe numbers had to be cancelled, and the 1-hour programme was shortened to 15 minutes. The same thing happened last year in Helsinki. Which is why I made a detour to Lahti that summer, to see the full show performed on an indoor stage. Sadly, today was the last tour date, so no chances for a rain-check. But at least we got to see four great numbers instead of none!

The first piece shown was a contemporary solo choreographed by Ville Valkonen, commissioned as a birthday present for dancer Kailey Kaba - what a cool gift! Beautifully danced too, especially under less than ideal circumstances. Finnish summer is fickle, either cold and rainy or warm sunshine. Usually, a mix of everything with no guarantees whatsoever. Any outdoor performance comes with weather reservations - although not for audiences. Finns are quite used to dressing weather-appropriately.

The ballet highlight of the short show was a pas de deux performed by Tuukka Piitulainen and Elena Ilyina. Although Elena did not dance en pointe, it still took a lot of guts from both dancers to lift and leap across a moist stage! Elena has an amazing jump, and a beautiful presence on stage - she didn't seem bothered by the cold and rainy weather at all! Tuukka was her gorgeous partner, strong and secure. Just the kind of man you'd want, in any given situation. Okay, he's way too young for me, but a girl can dream, right? 

The Summer Tour ended with an excerpt from the Anandah Kononen's Moomin ballet: fabulously costumed, flesh-eating Angostura flowers (but no too scary for the kids) and a cute pas de deux by the hippo-like Moomin couple. The kids loved it, as did the adult audience. As an extra special surprise and condolence for the shortened show, the company donated a bunch of signed pointe shoes to the fastest in line. Oh my goodness. Young ballet girls rushing to the stage like starved wild animals! Four pairs of pointe shoes were clearly not enough, so the dancers donated every pair from that last Moomin ballet: tangerine-dyed Angostura pointes. Their new owners could not have been happier!

Dance festival newbie

It's the first time I'm in Kuopio, but I almost did not make it here. I was delighted when I received the press invite, but Kuopio is a long distance from Helsinki. I had to arrange travel and accommodation on a next-to-zero budget. Luckily, I got super-cheap round trip bus tickets for a mere 20€. Which is a bargain, considering the drive takes over five hours! Then I found accommodation via the "International Network of Ballet Dancers": a friend of a friend (actually more than one, it's a small world of dance) is hosting me for the entire festival. There's even a cherry on top: the flat is right at the town square, and within easy walking distance to all dance studios and theatres. In fact, my jazz class is in the next building across the street!

All that jazz

I was crazy enough to sign up for Pattie Obey's jazz intermediate (course aimed at adults), even though I took my last jazz class back in the 90s. Talk about dancing outside your comfort zone! Usually, I don't go that far above my skill level, but there was no basic jazz course available, and I figured that my strong background in ballet would help. Guess what? It's surprisingly hard to do pliés and tendus and pirouettes in parallel! My legs keep turning out all by themselves, so deeply ingrained is ballet in my body and brain. And oh boy with the coordination of arms and head and the hips are moving and developpés are in releve plié... I had also forgotten about syncopated steps and triplets and whatnot. But Pattie teaches old school classic jazz (in a variety of styles), and you really need to be fluent in ballet as well. At least I got some moves right! It's a lot of fun though.

And Ballet Too

Of course, no dance festival without ballet class. I was happy to see that Arja Tervo is teaching ballet, because I really enjoyed her classes when she substituted for my regular teacher (Marie-Pierre Greve) this past spring. Arja is a super teacher, she's very friendly, gives lots of hands-on corrections and that all-important feedback and encouragement. Classes are challenging, but there's no progress if you don't push yourself every class you take. What I love about Arja's classes: she really cares about her students, and you can tell that she loves teaching all levels and ages. She makes us work hard, but we always have a great time. You know what else is fun? The change of scenery. Taking ballet in new surroundings, with different people.

Things I love about Kuopio

Ballet. Jazz. Everything within easy walking distance. Good coffee, and cheaper than in Helsinki. Found this great lunch place, three-course gourmet food for 10€. Friendly people. Views to the lake. And I keep bumping into old dance friends everywhere!

Coming up: Day 2 & 3, plus review of Compagnie Käfig's mindblowing, jaw-dropping, hip hopping, boxing Boxe Boxe!

On my daily walk to ballet class.

Dance studio

View from class. Really.

Studio. The floor is really springy!

Walking to and from class has never been this scenic.
VIP tickets for the shows!!

Cute Cafe Kaneli (cinnamon).
Street view in Kuopio.