April 8, 2014

Ten Questions, Ten Answers

Dear Readers and fellow dancers, it's time for another questionnaire... I hope you have time to answer as many questions as you like! To start, here are mine:

1. What is your favorite time for ballet class? 

How about always? Ok, seriously. I love my morning classes, because nothing gets in the way between waking up and taking to the barre. Except for a good breakfast, you can't dance without one. Although, sometimes I wish I could sleep a little longer. And have a nap after class. Still, it's an awesome way to start the day! Oh, and time-wise I also love my Sunday classes. Because I can nap afterwards.

2. How many classes do you take on a weekly basis?

On a regular basis, six classes. 90 min morning class on Tuesdays (adv.level), 90 min (adv.) + 45 min pointe on Wednesdays, 90 min morning class (adv) on Thursdays + 60 min rehearsal in the evening, 90 min (int-adv) on Sundays. Saturdays is optional, and occasionally, I might take a class on Fridays.

3. What do you eat before class?

In the mornings, it's usually a banana, müsli with yoghurt or oatmeal, and lots of coffee. When I have class in the evenings, I need a substantial snack between lunch and class. Bananas, again, and I also like to take one of those organic nut-fruit bars along. I don't always get it right, and when hunger strikes mid-class, it's best to have something easily digestible that you can take a quick bite off (before center).

4. What's inside your ballet bag?

It depends on my schedule, but this is what I packed today: Pointe shoes, toe tape (+ small scissors), flatties, new pair of flatties (Bloch Pro Flex canvas), black leggings, purple leggins (I like to have a spare), new blue 3/4 sleeve leo, black leo (again, I like to have choices), skirt, short black shorts (old ones, from H&M), favorite loose long-sleeve flowy t-shirt (you can wrap it into a skirt), hair pins, elastic, hairspray, brush, water bottle, energy bars, ibuprofen. Plus all the other stuff a girl needs on a daily basis.

5. How do you prepare for class?

In the mornings, there's very little time. We don't get into the studio until 15 minutes before. I put my hair up at home, and wear most of my dance clothes under my regular wear, to save time. Once I'm at the barre, I focus on my feet, hip flexors and back of thighs. I try to loosen up and lengthen myself. I don't need to warm up, barre work does it for me. But it depends who's teaching. With some teachers, I need more preparation time (and different exercises) to get ready. Otherwise, I prepare for class by stretching in the evenings. I've noticed that it makes a big difference.

6. What's your favorite part of class?

All of it. Okay, it depends somewhat on the teacher (I was thinking about my favorite classes). If it's a very basic, but hard and tiring barre - then I'll enjoy center even more. I like adagio, moving across the floor, pirouettes (despite bad turn days), and I love allegro. So, really all of it.

7. What's your biggest challenge in class?

Not comparing myself to other (better) dancers. Do I really need to explain why? Also, overcoming my shyness to "present myself." Not losing confidence. Keeping my focus when I feel discouraged. And, of course, all the technical stuff. Maintaining turn out at all times, pointing toes to the max, keeping that popo down, and my back long, heels forwarded, not jumping into my turns, spotting those pirouettes, and the list goes on... Ballet would not be ballet without the challenge!

8. What is your level?

Someone once commented that I'm not a very advanced dancer, considering all the years I have taken class.. This may be true, but how do you measure advancement? And why should you even care? Ballet is not a sport, we don't keep track of our turns, beats and balances. Having said that, my level is not carved in stone. Depending on the day and exercise, I fluctuate between advanced beginner, beginning intermediate and intermediate-advanced. There's always something to work on - that's what makes it so interesting.

9. Describe a "moment" you had in class.

It can be anything, like an unexpected but awesome balance. When I finally nail a turn, perfectly on axis. Or when I don't have to think about the steps and it's only about feeling the music. When I've been struggling with a difficult step, and suddenly get it! Or when I feel there's just been real progress, and my teacher confirms it. There have been many sweet moments over the years...

10. What is it that you love about taking ballet class? 

When I'm in class, there's no other place I'd rather be. I feel at home.

I get to make new discoveries, meet challenges, overcome fears and weaknesses. Ballet makes me feel strong, like I can handle anything.

I love having friends in class, they are part of my extended family. You get to meet so many amazing people through dance, and it's wonderful to share the same passion.

My teachers. Inspiring, motivating, demanding, patient and kind. Always pushing me, but also taking care of me. Love them. Past and present.

And then there's the beauty of it all... The artistry, the music, the quality of movement, the line, the elegance, colours, nuances... Reaching for these qualities is what motivates me. I want to find my own voice as a dancer.

The obligatory after-class selfie.

February 17, 2014

"You Should be Doing Triples"

"You should be doing triples." Just something one of my teachers said last Saturday, during pirouette exercises. Before that, I had managed a  few wobbly doubles and a couple of fairly neat singles. Okay, I was really tired (late Friday night), but that's not my excuse. The truth is, that after twenty years of ballet, I'm still working on turning consistently clean doubles. With pirouettes there's always so much going on, so much that can go wrong, and a whole lot of corrections that you can work on. Believe me, I've tried them all. The hardest part has been un-learning bad habits, like sickling the foot in passé retiré or jumping into the turn. That is why, if I were to give you one piece of advice, it would be this: quality must come first! Then, a deep plié and remember to breath! Oh, and it's perfectly fine to make a lot of mistakes. Believe me, I've done them all. It's also fun to keep trying, even after 20 years and counting.

Back to the "you should be doing triples." I'm not sure if I should be encouraged or embarrassed. Part of me feels like there was a test that I failed, and that I'm missing important ballet credentials because of it. A few years ago, I got a similar comment from another teacher: "You should know how to do fouettée pirouettes." It seemed odd to be graded in class, considering that we were all recreational dancers (some with more experience than others.) The thing is, it is quite rare to have adult ballet classes with a progressive curriculum all the way up to advanced levels. Even though adults can learn some things faster than children (and often have better focus), technique takes time and dedication. When I moved from basic-intermediate to intermediate and advanced levels, the gulf between those classes was such that I'm still trying to cross over! Fouettée pirouettes were done at the end of class, and you either knew what you did or you got out of the way. It did not bug me, I never expected to be in the same league with the ballet vets and semi-/pros. Even when another teacher introduced Fouettées 101, I did not catch up. I guess, you can't win them all.

I've never been embarrassed that my turns are not up to par (annoyed, yes). But I have sometimes felt dispirited by my lack of flexibility and range of movement. I used to dread split stretches in class. I hated being the only one who could not make contact with the floor. To me, the message was that I was not flexible enough for ballet (past beginner levels). It made me feel excluded from the rest of the class. Well, I've gotten over it. I stretch as far as I can, and I don't care if it looks less than ballet-ready. You can only work with your own body, not that of bendy-ballerina's next to you. Anyway, in the past three years I've actually gotten a lot more flexible! I can do a split with my left leg in front, I can stretch my legs into a semi-sidesplit and lie flat with my belly in between. Talon à la main? I can now lift my left leg up way past my shoulder. The stiffer right one is also coming nicely along. I still wish that I could be stretchy like a ballerina (who doesn't?), but I've stopped fixating on my weaknesses, or stiffnesses. I think having a positive mindset even helps with the stretching!

The comment my teacher made? I've decided to look at it as encouragement. Clearly, I must be doing something right. I have taken less than ten classes with this particular teacher (half of it last summer). He does not know my history, and has not seen my progress from adult beginner to adult passionate. I don't know what he sees when I dance, but I like to think it's something good.

Finally, some things you should be doing in class:

Knees over toes, always.
Breathing into the movement - it's good for you.
Mistakes. Because you're trying.
Pay attention to details. It's all in the details!
Keep your popo down and your head up.
Look where you're dancing.
Smile. You love to dance - don't keep it a secret. ;)

Wishing you all exciting learning experiences - keep dancing!
- Johanna

February 9, 2014

Time to Play

Pointe class. We're all facing the barre, doing really slow relevés. I let go as often as possible, because I like the added challenge of trying to stay in balance. Anyway, it's hard work and I'm totally focused, like there's nothing else in the world. My teacher approaches me to give a correction, or so I assume... Instead she tells me that I can now play with it, specifically with my head. I know she is talking about port de tête, or the carriage of the head, but I do not know what to do with mine during that particular exercise. Should I incline it, look left or right, or what? My sole focus has been on my feet, on keeping the popo in line, the back and neck long, the shoulders relaxed and myself breathing. It did not seem like playtime. But I did get the feeling that there has been some sort of achievement, and I was being challenged to step it up.

Later on, I got the feedback: there has indeed been progress. According to Madame, my dancing has improved. The port de bras is more confident, as is my overall technique. She even pointed out the alignment of the passé retiré I'm working on, telling me how much better it has become. I told her that I haven't really noticed. Which is not entirely true. I have noticed that my dancing feels different. Stronger, more balanced, perhaps even more fluid. But when you are not seeing yourself, how can you tell? Feeling good does not automatically mean that you also look good. Ballet can be tricky like that. Of course, there are some things which are more obvious. Like pirouettes. You cannot not know when you have turned three instead of one. You know when you're right on your axis, because it feels awesome. And you know when you've landed in style. Just as you know when you've failed. At my current rate, it's fifty-fifty. I get half right, and the other half is negotiable at best. Pirouettes tend to be a dealbraker for me. If I fail too many, class doesn't feel like progress. Yes, I know I'm giving way too much importance to turns. After all, our art is called ballet, not pirouette.

Then there are extensions. Why do we get caught up in degrees anyway? It might have something to do with all those sky-high extension you see posted and pinned on the internet. But bringing your leg into a developpé is dance, not a competition. It was already my first teacher who stressed the journey, not the destination. My current teacher speaks of caressing your (standing) leg as you bring the foot up. Then, raise the knee as high as possible (without compromising proper alignment), and draw a line with your pointed toes as you unfold your leg. The height of your extension is not the point, the quality of movement is. There's a bonus: quantity often follows quality. I've been told that my extensions have been getting higher since I started working with Madame. And this after dancing for twenty years! Funny how these things escape your attention...

So, what is next? We all know that ballet never gets easier, you just get better. For me, this means shifting my focus to the port de tête. My teacher knows that I get shy in class, which is why I tend to dance too much to the front, looking "flat" in the process. Now she is asking me to "play" with my head, and I have to admit that if feels more difficult than any fouetté pirouette I have ever attempted. At the same time, it's also way more exciting! Playing means there's room for self-expression, for making up my own mind (and head) about how I want to dance. Well, not in the sense that I get to change the exercises. I don't even want to do that! No, it's more subtle than that. Nuances and shades - that's what it is.

Now I just need to figure out what to do with my port de tête. I told Madame as much, that I don't really know (unless it's clearly part of the given exercise). She told me that if that's the case, I should just copy her. My dear readers, if you've ever seen our teacher dance, you know that is an near impossible task! Everything she does, looks natural and elegant. But I will try my best to absorb something and make it my own. I don't know what will come of it, but I want to find out. 

January 13, 2014

Twenty Years of Ballet

In January 1991, I took my first ballet class ever. It was love at first tendu. This month I'm celebrating my 20-year ballet anniversary. That is right, my math is not wrong. Not if I discount the three years when I did not dance at all. I wish I could undo the not-dancing, but at least I figured it out eventually. Ballet is where my heart is. I returned to class in 2006, and haven't looked back since. Except for today, when I went rummaging in my old calendars/diaries. This is what I wrote down in January 1994: "After class Jill (my teacher) asked me when I was going to get myself pointe shoes. I told her that I was too old to go on pointe." At the time, I was 24 years young. Can you believe it? It's a good thing that dance keeps you young, or in my case, progressively younger.

It's a cliche, but the years do fly by. Life rarely goes as planned (another cliche, sorry). This is why I've always appreciated the time-honored tradition of ballet. Over the years, the steps and positions have become familiar, the French understandable, the movement ingrained in both body and mind. Yet, there's always change. For me, this is probably the best part of learning and dancing ballet. As long as I keep an open mind and never settle for less than my full potential, I keep moving on. That first class was my point of departure, and I've been dancing without a destination ever since. I like to think that I'm always halfway there. Because as an adult dancer, class itself is the beginning and end. For professional dancers, it's all about the performance, dancing on stage in front of a real audience. For us, it's mostly an imaginary audience behind the class mirror. We love to do the hard work, but it's not payed work. Unless you count joy as the ultimate reward. I'm pretty sure that most of us adult dancers do just that. We dance because dance brings us joy.

Another reason why I never lost my love for dance: awesome teachers. I will skip the math on this one, but I do remember them all. Your first ballet teacher you never forget. If you are lucky, she's the one who will instill a love and respect for the art. Jill Miller gave me a solid foundation to build on, and an understanding of how placement works. It was not the Vaganova-school that is so common here in Finland, but it was very safe on untrained adult joints and limbs. I loved her classes, the way she phrased the exercises to music, and the challenges she threw at us. "Move! Dance!" We were told to use the whole space, and not to hold back. "Don't dance like you have a stick up your butt!" Or, somewhat more eloquent: "Be organic in your movement." She was one of a kind. Strict, but caring. I'm happy that I got back to ballet and Jill's classes before her untimely death in 2007.

You do not necessarily have to like your teacher, as long as you learn and enjoy the dancing. However, sometimes it can happen that the class just does not feel right, which has happened to me on occasion. It can be a simple matter of chemistry, or the lack thereof. I still took the classes, learned the steps and worked on my technique. But in the long run, the physical work alone is not enough. Like I wrote earlier, we are in it for the joy. If you enter class with a positive attitude, energy and focus, you should leave class feeling like a million bucks. Sweaty, energized and happy. Of course we all have bad days, certain insecurities and flaws... Nobody can be a perfect student all the time.

I also take classes where there's almost no interaction between a student and teacher. You know, some teachers give a short warm-up barre and a dancey center, but hardly any personal feedback. That's okay, especially when you get plenty of corrections elsewhere. In those classes, I often think less about technique and focus on the dancing alone. Over the past 20 years, I've learned that both ways work for me, as long as one outweighs the other. In any case, variety in school and style is a wonderful thing. You get fresh perspectives, familiar corrections are rephrased (= eureka!), and you get to work on new exercises and enchaînements.

I have learned from every teacher I've ever had. Some focus more on pirouettes, others have awesome petit allegro or a very lyrical adagio. There's been Vaganova, French School, Checcetti, RAD, Balanchine and Bournonville, and a mix of schools, styles and teachers' personal experiences. Some have been wonderful, some a little scary, others easy-going and very nice. Most have been motivating, even inspiring. All have been professional, skilled and knowledgeable. Many have been very important to me. Still are. 

When I'm in class, I need to feel both challenged but also safe to make mistakes. I like to be pushed, but preferably in a positive and encouraging manner. I like to get feedback, lots of corrections and guidance. Some praise is nice too. I was already lucky when I started classes with Jill. I can't think of a better teacher for that time in my life. I'm even more fortunate now. Since I started taking class with my current teacher, Marie-Pierre Greve, so much has changed. Ballet feels like a new experience, yet again. I love Madame's elegant and beautiful dancing, her generous and attentive style of teaching, her keen eye for the tiniest of detail (which can make a huge difference), the emphasis on quality and artistry, the positive and encouraging class atmosphere, the real work we do and the fun we have in class. It's pure and undiluted ballet joy!

Where ballet is concerned, I consider myself a very lucky person. Between that first class and the latest one, there has been a lot of dancing: thousands and thousands of classes. So many wonderful and memorable experiences. Sure, there have also been injuries and struggles and breaks. But for the most part, it's been all good. Amazing, in fact. I would not trade this experience for anything.

Ballet anniversaries are best celebrated with pink champagne!