February 23, 2015

My Ballet Habits

"A pirouette is not a pirouette unless you complete it." I was practising my turns on the side, when I got the correction/reprimand from our guest teacher. It was not the first time either. My own teacher is equally strict about it: you do not mark your arms in turns, and you always finish your pirouettes. In other words, cultivate only good habits.

Bad habits, once they have imprinted themselves onto muscle memory, are very hard to get rid off. You might not even know that you're doing something wrong, because it feels right. Which is why changing an old habit takes a lot of time and conscious effort. Essentially, you have to re-wire your brain. I have done this, and I'm still doing it. Some of you might remember my posts about the dreaded "banana foot", which is how my teacher describes a sickled foot. The "banana" used to make recurrent appearances in my tendu degagés and passé retirés (especially in pirouettes). I never knew I had this problem, until Madame pointed it out. For the past four years, we have been working on getting rid of it. Lots of work, countless corrections. And while the sickled foot is not yet completely extinct, it has become a rarity. I just wish I could have avoided it in the first place.

The Banana has not been my only bad habit, or tendency (or glitch in personality). Technical challenges aside, I've been working to improve my mental attitude in class as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fairly hardworking and focused student, but I'm also prone to let bad days and momentary setbacks overwhelm me. There was the video recording from class which rattled my self-confidence, the challenging stretch which I could not do (and I was extremely annoyed at this), life in general, fouetté turns in particular, body issues and whatnot. Not every class, but whenever I'm feeling more tired than usual and/or particularily vulnerable. I can get in a mood, and withdraw. It's not a happy place...

But I'm learning. That time I was super annoyed (or "pissed off" as my teacher called it), I managed to turn my mood around, and use the pent-up negative energy for a positive boost. Guess what? It was one of my best classes. The video recording? Cringeworthy, but ultimately worth it. While I was not happy seeing my many mistakes and flaws, I now have much better understanding of the work that needs to be done. It's a lot more than I thought! The body issues? Working on it. Life in general? That's a tough one. Sometimes, problems can affect my mood in class. But class is also an escape from the rest of the world, so there's that. I can give myself permission to think of nothing except ballet, at least for those 90 minutes.

Focus. My undivided attention. Not letting setbacks get to me. Making a conscious effort every time. Pushing myself, believing that I can. Those are the habits that I try to cultivate in class, along with every correction I receive. It is a challenge, but there can be no progress without change. And the way I see it, ballet is about the journey and making discoveries, never about standing still.

P.S. After the pirouette reprimand, I worked twice as hard, really paying attention to my finishes. When class was over, I continued practicing. My teacher saw what I was doing and gave me extra pointers and corrections. I need to work on my arm-plié coordination before the turn, lift my chin, and relax my neck, among other things. I'm happy to say that there has been some progress! Now I just need to make a habit out of it.

January 20, 2015

Quality, not Quantity

Quality, not quantity. How many times have you heard it, and still felt frustrated because you can't developpé your leg past 90 degrees or turn multiple pirouettes? Today, we had an adagio/stretch exercise where the last developpé a la seconde turned facing the barre. On my right side, it's a struggle every time. I try to lift my knee as high as it allows, but when I extend the leg, it feels jammed. Like something is pushing it down. I've had this problem for as long as I've been dancing. I work, do the best I can, but there's been almost no progress. You can understand how one might give up trying... Especially when the body feels tired, and the barre that I'm facing has a mirror behind it. There are times, when I don't like to look at myself. My mirror image shows my struggle, and it's not pretty.

I was so frustrated today, lifting my leg up, feeling the effort but not seeing the result, that I gave up. My mind was telling me: "What's the use, you will never have a high developpé, where's the fun in trying?" But it's no way to dance... You have to give your body and mind a fighting chance! Because when you practice halfhearted, it shows. The movement loses conviction, it becomes something that is in-between. Not ballet, not anything really. My teacher, she noticed. Of course. And she gave us (me) the Talk.

It is about quality, not how high you can extend your leg. Not even professional dancers have their extensions always up to their ears (although my teacher does). When you are well placed, a developpé is beautiful at any height. Also, it's not just about the destination. The journey is equally important. The way your foot leaves the floor (through a high demi-point), touches the shin at coud de pied, caresses the leg all the way up to your knee, stays pointed while you lift the knee, making room in your hips, engaging your core, stretching and turning out the working leg, keeping the back long, then extending, elongating, breathing, reaching out...

Work on your technique and your strength as much as your body and life allows. But as you dream of greater heights, do not lose sight of what can be beautiful right now. Make every developpé count. And please, never feel it's worth less just because it rises low. The lines you draw with your arms, feet and legs - they have no limits.

I have no picture of me in developpé a la seconde, but this is a good stretch for it.

- Johanna

January 19, 2015

Dancer's DNA

My DNA dictates that I do not have a beautiful body for ballet. My hips are too wide, my popo too square, my thighs too round, my arms and hands not graceful enough. My DNA dictates that I lack turn-out, hyper-mobility, and that my arabesques will always be low. My DNA dictates that I will never look like a ballerina. Well, to hell with those dictators!

My DNA has given me a strong body. It has muscles, legs that jump and stretch and toes that point. It has arms for port de bras, and fingers that can flutter like leaves in the wind. It has a rhythm and a heartbeat and lungs that breath. I can dance with this body.

My DNA dictates that I have a brain, and it has made up my mind a long time ago: my heart is in ballet.

So what if you and I lack the facilities and looks of a professional ballerina? It is not relevant when you dance for yourself. Our DNAs are unique, and if it makes us stands out in a crowd, let's carry it with pride and joy!

If you have a dream that dictates you must dance, then that is the only dictator you should follow.

xoxo - Johanna

This short post was inspired by Misa Kuranaga in SK-II's new ad campaign #changedestiny.

December 16, 2014

When You Feel Small, Dance Big

Sometimes, when we are doing agadio, arabesques and attitudes, I see myself in the mirror and think: it's never going to be beautiful. I'll never have the turn-out, lower back flexibility, hyper hip mobility, slender shape, whatnot. Now let me tell you this: it's a train of thought that will get you to Nowhere quicker than you can passé retiré. Don't go there. Instead, take the opposite track. Tendu, fondue, developpé like you have the longest legs in ballet. Stretch as if you're reaching for the stars. Present your extension as if you had diamonds on your heels. Dance big.

More often than not, something is not working the way I want it to. Balances tumble, pirouettes fail, and in the process, my confidence crumbles. It can make me feel small. But this is not the time to cave in. Instead, take out the big guns: the deep pliés, strong center, stretched knees, and pointed toes. Apply the corrections, try again, believe you can - and dance with conviction. When ballet gets hard (and it always does), you get stronger!

"Dance big!" That's what my teacher always keeps telling us. In other words: don't hold back, and don't make yourself small. Reach out, connect fingers with toes (it's a visual), elongate, lift your chin up, look... And see all that you can be. Trust me, it's more than you think. I found that out today, once again. A pirouette diagonal that was not working at all to the right, but then it did to the left. Why? I went back to the basics: plié-ing and push-ing into the floor, closing my opposing arm in quick, not giving up. Because when you're on the floor, that's what you do. You dance full out. Big time.

The best part: dancing big makes you feel not small, but a kind of beautiful.