December 31, 2011

Two Days Until Class

One of my favorite German words is "Vorfreude"; it literally means the joyful anticipation you feel before a happy or pleasurable event. Be it before Holidays, birthdays, last days of school, first days of vacations, two stops before your final destination, or waiting until ballet-classes resume.. Two days is how much longer I will have to wait, and my initial frustration of having no class to go to is already changing into the vorfreude of hand meets barre, cue music and plié!

Ballet keeps me on my toes, in both senses. In class I have to pay attention and concentrate, which can only happen if I let go of everything else. Leave whatever is bothering me outside, silence the naysayers in my head and suspend any disbelief. Someone might call it escapism, I call it embarking on an adventure! Ballet is exciting, sometimes even a bit scary. But you know the best adventures are. You dance, and you learn. About steps and alignment, about moving to music, of ballets and traditions, and about history and culture. Most of all, even if you were to disregard all the rest, you learn about yourself!

Someone asked me this past week if I ever get bored, since I dance so much. I do not. Get bored, nor do I dance that much. Classes are on three days of the week, you can barely call that an obsession. Okay, there are these two blogs I write and one facebook-page. But more time is still spent not dancing. I hope to change that with the coming new year! Two classes a week are for upkeep, and three classes just about open the door for advancing beyond your present level. Four days a week would suit me fine, with the occasional fifth day thrown in for good measure. This is the time to dance.

This is also traditionally the time to reflect on the past year. Ballet-wise it has been a good one, I got to dance to my heart's content and even had two wishes come true! I wished our guest-teacher Marie-Pierre would continue to teach at our school - and she does! I wished we would get to learn variations - and we are! I do not dare to voice or write what I'm wishing for next year, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed..

I was lucky this year, my attendance record almost perfect and no major upsets (though some minor aches and pains). Okay, my ankle is troubling me on occasion, but I've been given the green light to train as much as I can. You get older and you adjust, that's just how it goes. Overall I think that I've grown into a better dancer than I was last year. At least I hope so! I haven't asked my teachers about it, but Madame once said something in that direction. Though after this many years of dancing (counting 18), improvement tends to be more subtle and slower too.

When you know your basics, it becomes about what happens between those steps, turns and poses. In the words of Madame, "you have to make it interesting". Never mind that I still have to focus on turn-out, on forwarded heels and straight knees and on lengthening my back - and figure out how to turn double grand pirouettes, clean fouetté pirouettes and jump neat beated petit allegro. But to make my dancing interesting to watch has to be the biggest challenge of all!

Advancement in pointe class has been much more obvious, which is no miracle when you start from pointe zero. If you're not counting the pointe break of summer, I have had some 13 months worth of specific pointe practice. Missed classes twice. Considering I have two awesome ballet teachers (or ABT:s, as my fellow ballet blogger Lorry likes to call hers), I would have had to be absent or absent-minded not to learn something! But I still struggle with my echappés and big positions in seconde or fourth. That right heel needs a seperate invitation every time, it just does not want to forward itself! And the right knee is still lazy to stretch all the way, but it's getting better.

Dreaded echappé aside, I found out that I really like to do fast turns in diagonale! Soutenus and piqué turns, and even chaînes. I've become fairly confident with balances and just did my first controlled single pirouettes on pointe. Best of all, I no longer panic when we get to learn variations! Last class before Christmas, our teacher threw Sugar Plum Fairy at us like tinsel on a tree. It was a suitably easy-fied version, but close enough. There was no warning, no time for self-doubt to catch up. I just did my best, thinking on my feet but not over-thinking how I might have looked doing it. It was a blast, scary and exhilerating at the same time!

None of this could have taken place without my Awesome Ballet Teachers. They take us committed adult dancers seriously and reward our efforts by pushing us further than we even dare to dream of! When dance matters this much, there is nothing better. Should you be reading this (you know who you are) - I love your classes, they are simply the best!

Dear Readers, finally I would like to thank you for sticking around! I'm always eager to get feedback from you, so please keep it coming. I wish you a happy New Year 2012 and may there be plenty of pirouettes and moments of bliss!

December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays!


Dear Readers,

wishing you a wonderful time celebrating the Holidays! Enjoy your rest, even if you miss all the dancing - your muscles will thank you for it. Have all your favorite treats, chocolates, puddings, egg-nogs, whatnots - ballet classes will take care of any extra "padding". You have earned it!

Lots of love, take care, be merry and be happy!

- Johanna

December 19, 2011

Six Classes Until Christmas

I was going to write a post about my past year in ballet, about progress and hopes and dreams. But that can wait, because there are still six classes left to dance before the Christmas break. Good thing too, since I've already overdosed on chocolates, truffles and cake. And ballet is really the only "exercise" I like. And I swear these end rhymes are not intentional! Which reminds me that I still have some Christmas / Thank You -cards to write. And cookies to bake..

But, other than baking and writing and last-minute shopping and present-wrapping this week is all about the dancing! It goes like this: I enter class, stash my ballet bag inside but leave my baggage outside. If something is bothering me, I forget about it by the time we do our first tendus, pliés and cambrés. Breath, look at the hand, allongé, stretch, nose to knees - and I´m there. Nothing else matters but the dance. It's my Zen of Ballet.

It's raining outside. Been doing that for as long as I don't care to remember. This time last year, Helsinki was blanketed in snow. Frosted trees everywhere, glittering in the moonlight. I kid you not. Finland in winter usually looks like a backdrop of Nutcracker's snowflake dance. I miss the snow.

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Six more classes. 450 minutes of dancing. Have you ever noticed, or wondered, how time moves differently in class? Exercises last mere minutes, less than it takes me to check my twitter feed. Yet in class every second counts. There is no moment in dance that does not carry value. One time our teacher Marie-Pierre told us tendus should converse with the floor, and that there is a story to tell with each step. You are to move like a cat, caress the floor with your feet, and present yourself at all times, sensuous and elegant.

And let us not forget to put those heels forward, to point that popo down, to stretch the knees, and to lengthen the back! Piece of cake. But if ballet were any easier, where would the challenge and the fun be? Sure, at times it's frustrating. Pirouettes come and go, you confuse left with right, steps refuse to travel from brain to feet, you fall and bruise, you try and fail, you get up and try again. And then you have a moment. And it's bliss.

December 17, 2011

Slide and Turn

Two things worth writing about happened yesterday. One: after dancing 16 months on pointe, I slipped and crash-landed for the first time. Coincidentally, this happened right after I had bragged on Adult Beginner's post about my Nutcracker sliding arabesque. You know, the big wow-moment in the pas de deux - when Prince pulls up-on-pointe Sugar Plum across the stage? It's a trick, of course. Look here for the reveal. Anyway, one time in pointe class I was too brazen with my piqué arabesque and slid about 15 cm straight ahead - un-assisted and without falling down! So when AB mentioned the Slide in her post, I just had to share. But you know what happens. Pride comes before the slide.

Yesterday, we did this fairly simple exercise. En face, tendu degagé plié to the side - relevé to 5th pointe, then three quick degagés on pointe with the back leg moving to the front. I was trying to coordinate the port de bras (arms at "tutu height") with my head and my feet and whooops - one leg slid right underneath me! Into the air, then bang on the right knee with the final pose flat on my popo, both legs up. Think Donald O'Connor in "Make 'Em Laugh" - just put the man in pointe shoes.



Before you ask, I'm okay. Nothing but a bruised knee. After my teacher made sure I was still in one piece, she made me get back up on the proverbial horse right away. Because if you don't, you'll be scared every time!

The other thing worth writing about, occured to me at the end of class. We were doing piqué soutenu turns and chaînés deboulés, and one of the other girls was complaining (quietly) about her painful toes. That's when I realised my toes were not hurting at all! No pressure points anywhere, not even a squished pinky! Although I was so tired yesterday, yawning my way through the entire barre, that it is entirely possible those toes had turned comatose. Which would explain the not-feeling-the floor and crash-landing from grace..

Actually, that is not it. Why did I not whoot about this earlier? Those friggin chaînés deboulés! Not too long ago I sucked at them, even in flatties, on demi-pointe. I still remember our spring recital of 2009, when my feet seperated into a wide seconde and I debouléd my way back into the wings! Heck, beginning of this year I could not even consider doing them on pointe. Ever. And yesterday I did - in our huge studio with the longest diagonale known to dancer-kind. Yay!

Great studio space for turning and getting ditzy.

December 11, 2011

Pointe Pals

Last Friday I took my new pointe shoes to their first ballet class - and I'm happy to say we danced really well together! Looks like I have found my match, because I ended up choosing the exact same model as last time: Bloch Balance European (size 6 XX). My old pair (Odette and Odile) is still in dancing form, but I decided to break in the new shoes - before I would be clobbering around with a pair of Dead Swans on my feet!

Getting ready to take many breaks.

This time I even managed to sew elastics and ribbons in less than two days - my personal record, I might add. Not that it takes that long to sew a total of 8 endings, it's just that I get bored doing it! Good thing I don't have to sew a pair a day.. I suppose I could be less meticulous with my sewing, but my dad taught me not to do things half-assed. Sorry, demi-derriered. I still remember when I sewed my first pair (16 months being such a long time ago). I googled and youtubed for instructions, then sewed and re-sewed about three times. The first elastics were much too narrow, and after I found Bloch's covert elastics - I removed the old and sewed the wider covert in their place. Twice, because sewing them on the inside did not work. So I got a lot of practice with my first pointe shoes already!

Sewing covert elastics at back of heel. Fun.

I have also adapted my breaking-in practice. My first shoes were Bloch Serenades with heat-activated TMT-paste. It was a lot of fun using a hair dryer and refrigerator for molding the box and shank! Unfortunately, Serenade's shank was too stiff for my foot. You really need banana arches for those shoes! My teacher helped me out by cutting a wedge into the outer leather sole, but my arches were still straining to get over the box. Then I switched over to Balance Europeans, and what relief! Pointe work became less about work and more about fun (and work)!

Meet Odette & Odile II, along with new Sansha Pro1 flatties.

With this new pair, Odette & Odile II, I've used the same break-in technique as before, but I softened the shank higher up. It's almost like dancing with a 3/4 shank, except that I haven't cut anything. Well, except for the right shoe's sole. My right foot has less of an instep, so it needs extra help. Whatever works, right? Check out the video below, if you haven't already. I've used Lisa Howell's technique since my first pair of pointe shoes.



Friday I pulled on my ouch-pouches and my gel socks for the big toes, and tied those new shiny ribbons. Cinderella moment! The shanks fit perfectly under the heels and all I had to do was some extra work on the demi-pointe line of the box. There wasn't even any pain or discomfort, other than a slightly squished right pinky toe! Sure, new shoes always feel a bit odd on your feet - but we're already on our way to become best pointe pals. :)

December 7, 2011

My Little Ballet Wish List

Dear Terpsichore, Goddess of dancers - I beg of you - would you be so gracious and give my Pirouette Fairy another boost to her fairy dust? It does seem a little less potent of late. By the way, I'm still waiting for that quadruple pirouette, remember? The one on last year's wish list.. What do you mean I have to do the work myself? You are not seriously suggesting that there is no magic involved? I bet Hermione could do it!

All right then. I will focus on deep and active pliés, push my working leg into the floor and spot those turns. Yes, I will remember to lift my passé leg into retiré from underneath, and not with the top of my thigh. Heel forward and small toes placed at knee - okay! Still, a sprinkling of fairy dust couldn't hurt..

Darcey Bussell

December 4, 2011

Permission to Speed

Tuesday, pointe class with Madame. Dancing on pointe is no picnic in the park, but I look forward to this class every week. I don't care that my toes are all squished before the hour is over. This is real work that we do - and I love it! Yes, even those slow killer relevés. Sometimes Madame "apologizes" for the muscle burn that she is imposing on us, but I'm happy to work my butt off, literally, and to keep that popo under me and to pointe and stretch and turn-out. I have taken pointe technique with Marie-Pierre (we don't actually call her Madame) since November 2010, and I still can't believe my luck. We get so much positive feedback, expert guidance and hands-on corrections. Seriously, it's master class every week!

My pointe shoes, before and after.

Of course, I'm a long way from being advanced on pointe. I'm just working my way around pirouettes (singles so far) and there is heaps of basic-level technique yet to be learned! But we have advanced to rises on one leg (in center), to fondues, to ballotés in center, to balances, to adding épaulement and fancier port de bras, to jumps on pointe, to steps I don't know what to call, and to choreography. There are even Balanchinean poses!

And turns in diagonale. We did this exercise: Start from fifth, croisé. Step up to relevé wide fourth, effacé. Arms correspond to first arabesque. Close back leg to fifth - turn - degagé front leg - step into big fourth again - repeat. You stay up on pointe the whole time. It's almost like chaînés déboulés, except for the degagé leg, the wide fourth position and the back leg closing in fifth before turning. We have done this exercise before, could have been in spring, don't really remember. I have practiced them a couple of times since, on my own, and I was feeling pretty confident.

Madame demonstrated the turns in slow tempo, which as we all know, is even more difficult. You have to be in control of your balances and you can't cheat. Not that I would ever cheat! Anyway, it was single file and I was first: relevé into fourth, step into fifth, tried to turn but stumbled down. Again and again. Yikes. I was told to keep my weight forward (always good advice) and some other things that were lost in the flailing about. But I did not give up. Never give up!

As the rest of the class turned along the diagonale, I practised on the side and tried to work out the dynamic and rhythm of the turns. Before we embarked to the left, Madame gave some general corrections, and I tried once more - but with more speed. And you know what? I figured out the flow! It worked! Madame must have agreed: "Johanna, that was excellent!" Can you imagine how happy I felt at that moment? Of course, our class is neither pre-professional nor company-class. I know there is "excellent", and then there is excellent. And our teacher is always very generous with her praise. But I think I deserved it just the same!

The best part was when Madame told me I could do the turns at double tempo. No more slowing down, but full speed ahead!

November 27, 2011

"I Know It's Hard For You.."

Wouldn't it be nice to have been born with a body for ballet? One that is pliable, has a bendy back, stretchy ligaments, flexible and strong feet and perfect turnout? I have this wild theory that it would make my life at barre and center a lot easier. Instead it's a struggle - every time! I know, nothing comes easy in ballet, but having a late-starter-non-ballet body makes everything even more challenging...

I chose ballet, but ballet did not choose me. There were no auditions, no selective examinations by physical dance therapists and school boards. Lucky me, or I would never have made the cut. I have written about this before, but please bear with me. Us adult recreational dancers do not need to fit in any set ballet mold. Ballet is for anyone and everyone who really wants to pursue it. For example, here in Helsinki, you can choose between "classical ballet (for adults)" or "adult-ballet" or "low-impact ballet" or even "fitness-ballet". You can be casual about it or passionately serious. You can take classes twice a week at basic levels and feel challenged, or you can push yourself all the way to advanced levels. Whatever works for you!

However, there is no denying that ballet is not always fair. You may discover that you love it more than anything, but that your body won't work with you. At some point in your dancing you may become frustrated that certain moves seem to continuously evade you. Legs won't rise above 100 degrees, fifth positions remain in third, or attitudes lack, well, attitude. I have been there, and I have been miserable about it. When I started ballet, every step and move was an amazing discovery. I aimed high, expected little and was happy with even less. However, with time I became more ambitious but also more frustrated with myself. Why was I not blessed with better turnout for ballet? Why can't I slide down into full splits (despite all the stretching I do)? Why can't I have a hypermobile lower back, and the high arabesque that goes with it? Why can't I be one of the talented girls?

The thing is, feeling sorry for yourself is not productive at all. If you only focus on what you don't have, you miss out on all the potential you do have! I had to accept my shortcomings, and then find a way to work around them. Anyway, nobody really needs a turnout of 180 degrees. A lack of natural ballet talent is not the end of dance, at least not for a recreational dancer! There is so much to learn, so much to think about and work on. Every body can aim for the cleanest technique possible, keeping in mind physical limitations. You do not ever cheat turnout, and you never take the easy way out. As soon as you start to think, I have been there, done that, know it all... You will cease to change and grow.

Progress, of course, does not only manifest itself in higher extensions or multiple pirouettes. The practice of classical ballet cannot exist without artistry. As you work towards your most beautiful (and unique) lines, remember to breath into your movement. Feel the music, and the space around you. Let your feet converse with the floor, and your port de bras paint the air. Take pleasure in every step you take. Work hard, but dance with joy in your heart.

I could end my ramblings here, but that would leave the title hanging in the air.. "I know it's hard for you." Which is something Madame said in last Tuesday's advanced ballet class. We were doing passé retirés at the end of a longer exercise and as usual she kept telling me to turn my retiré heel out even more. "More. More. More." I already felt the need to speak up and say that there is no more to turn out! But there was - even if we are talking about millimeters. Madame pushed me to find that last teensy-bit of turn-out, right down to aligning my ankle, foot and heel in the proper line. And there it was! Hard, yes, but not entirely impossible.

What I was especially happy about, was this simple acknowlegdment: "I know it's hard for you.. " And the fact that Madame keeps pushing me because she knows that "hard" won't hold me back! Later that evening, in pointe class, I was praised for holding my extension on pointe (above barre height) and for turning. This had nothing to do with natural-born ballet talent. Instead, it has everything to do with drive, determination and passion. So, ballet did not choose me. No Fairy gave me a ballerina body. I can live with that. To be able to dance is a gift in itself, and it's one that I choose to give to myself.

November 22, 2011

My Left Foot

.. is getting all the love. Just look at my new blog banner - out of those five feet, three are shots of the "famed" left one. Strictly speaking, that foot is my only ballet-y body part. It is flexible and has a naturally strong instep and a high arch. Leftie is also getting all the praise in class. "Such a nice and strong foot.. but you really have to work on the right one". Sadly, Right Foot is nothing like its sister. Low instep, and has a hard time aligning itself over the box. Neither does it help that the entire right leg is a wee bit longer than the left, which has resulted in a weaker pull-up of the knee. Oh, how I wish I had two left feet! Well, you know what I mean.

Of course, no body is entirely symmetrical. We all have our left-right idiosyncracies. Don't get me started on the many oddities of mine.. Right, I already did! On closer inspection, that left pied is not only nicer, it is also a tiny bit longer. The right foot is shorter and noticeably wider. It makes for interesting (pointe) shoe shopping, if nothing else. Toes are pretty much the same, short and in sort of square formation. Good for pointe shoes.

Left foot. Enjoys the spotlight.

Moving up, the right foot bends better down. This is probably a very common feature, that your "push-off" foot has a deeper plie. It does make landing from jumps a bit of a delicate job. The other heel is likely to lift off the floor when coming down, but I´m not sure if forcing it down is such a good idea? I do love to jump though, especially when I get a good bounce from rebounding!

My right side has also better turn-out, but the left side is stronger in extensions to the front and side. That left leg is also much more flexible than the right, to the point that teachers must think I'm always slacking off on the first side! When we do the pied/talon a la main -stretch, and let go off the foot, right leg sinks down to 90 degrees right away. But the left one stays at approx. 130, and on a good day I can hold it for at least 6 counts! So, the left is good for developpés devant and a la seconde but the right one does a much higher arabesque and attitude! Thank goodness there is some balance.

Yesterday we did this simple stretch for penchés at the barre: back leg on the barre, stretch. Leg off, penché arbesque. Hands on floor, turn away so that thigh of back leg rests on barre. Shuffle yourself as close to barre as possible -> upside down split! Then "walk" a little forward with hands and lift back leg off, try to push it further. Walk back again and press thigh against barre. Repeat. I had my left leg up when our teacher observed. "Johanna, get yourself closer to the barre, leg higher, more!" I'm like, are you kidding me? Any higher and my standing leg is gonna lift off! Never seen hand-stands being part of classical ballet rep..

Edgar Degas: Grand Arabesque, troisième temps.
The model could have been me! ;)

It's seriously annoying. Because the moment we switch sides and I have my stretchier leg in action, I get praised for getting it right! But it's not a question of effort. It's just the way my body works or does not work. The first time I even tried to do splits I must have been 22 already! To this day I cannot do a full split with my left leg in front. But I´m happy to say it's getting better since I re-started ballet five years ago. There´s still enough crawl-space for a cat, but at least toddlers are getting too big to fit under!

Perhaps if I had started ballet before my teens there would be less pronounced differences. I did sports long before dance, but having two equally strong and flexible sides was never an issue. I am still working on it, and hopefully left will catch up with right. And right with left.

How about you? Any interesting body specs you care to share? :)

November 20, 2011

Popo?

Stretch your knees, lengthen the back, dance bigger and keep your popo under you! I know, I hear you.. popo what? That is how Madame addresses our ballerina derrieres. The first time we heard it, you could see the collective head-scratching going on. But as there was only the butt to point down in the given context, class was saved from getting lost in translation.

Apparently the French popo is a diminutive form of the French popotin, or as we would call it in English: your bottom. By the way, I said the class was perplexed. Curiously, I was not. You see, I lived my childhood in Germany and der Popo is popular usage there - mostly when talking to children. And both the French popo and the German Popo possibly derive from the same ancient Latin podex. But popo sure sounds nicer!

I thought it so cute to have once again a popo instead of a butt or the usual tailbone! Because not a class will go by when the portrusion of our popos is not an issue to be addressed and corrected. Dancers may have the firmest and shapeliest derrieres there are, but in ballet these are not to be flaunted. Au contraire! The ballet ligne dictates a plum line, and as such popos must point down at all times. It is not merely for the sake of appearance, but to center your dancing body around a strong axis. Form and function.


Unless of course there is choreography to tell you otherwise. If not, the popo never leads the way. If you do a developpé to the back, toes and heels and knees are lifted before the bottom is. If you do a lunge down, or a 6th port de bras, the same applies. As it does in preparations for en dedans pirouettes. Stick that popo out and the line is broken. It also throws you off your axis in turns. Think about it next time you´re in class. Point that popo down!

November 12, 2011

Turn Til You Drop

Sometimes you gotta push yourself. Go for it, and try to turn out of your comfort zone. Believe there is a triple or more waiting for you. So what if you turn and crash-land your pirouette? A bruised knee is not the end of the world. And pride´s got nothing to do with it either. Pros fall down all the time. At least that´s what my teacher told me when my nose was close enough to the floor to smell the marley. :)

It just means you want more and tried harder. Good for you!

Practicing piqué turns en manege. Photocollage by Barry Kite.

November 9, 2011

If it Feels Easy, Make it Harder!

Just something Madame said in class. Why? Because the moment ballet starts to feel easy, you are no longer progressing - you are settling for less. "Easy" is a sign that you can push yourself further, and that you have more to give!

Tuesday's advanced class was intense. Corrections and instructions throughout the entire barre. Twice my teacher asked me to do part of an exercise again, while the rest of the class pliéd and tendued along. Once Madame even did the exercise with me so I could get the rhythm and accent of a tricky double ronde de jambes right. And I was happy to do it! There are still so many things to improve upon.. More turn-out, deeper pliés, no tilting of the hip in pliés, keeping weight on the working leg, longer back, bigger port de bras - always presenting yourself, stretched knees, forwarded heels, pointed toes at all times..

When it gets easy, make it harder. Just be aware that "harder" is not about quantity - what you want is more quality! Yesterday I really pushed myself, to the pointe that I could barely haul my derriere back home! But that's what you get for making it harder. That and better turn-out, improved balances, decent pirouettes, stronger legs, more bounce in the jumps and more dance in the steps. I had an amazing class, and I loved every minute of it! The cherry on top of it - Madame told me "that everything is getting better." Now, how cool is that? :)

November 6, 2011

Tutus and Dancing Queens

That would be an imaginary tutu, much like our imaginary audience behind the mirror. But it was the instruction given by our teacher in pointe class: you have to dance as if wearing a tutu! It is not just about attitude, regal carriage and all that ballerina cred. There is a practical reason. A short tutu shaped like a teacup, saucer or pancake (pick your prefered visual) can get in the way of your usual port de bras. And unless you want tutu to turn into an obstruction of dance, you have to move and hold those arms above the tutu-line. I had never given it much thought before, but the tutu is more than frilly decoration. It evolved from long to less to give freedom of movement and to show off the ballerina´s legs, but in the process it also shaped the way ballet is danced! 

Boston Ballet: Larissa Ponomarenko. Photo: Rosalie O' Connor.

Imagine yourself dancing in a tutu.. I gotta tell you, for me it borders on the tutu much. If you look at it purely from a fashion do -pointe of view, powder-pink tights and short pancake skirts are more of a don´t, at least for a short and curvy grown-up woman like myself. And if you´re feeling butt-conscious, wearing a saucer tutu is akin to carrying a neon-sign arrow pointed at your booty! There is just not much in the way of derriere coverage. I prefer longer tutus like the corps in the picture is wearing. Pretty and flattering. That, however, would be missing the point of the exercise. Butts aside, I try my best not to dwell on it, especially as my tutu is all make-belief anyway. 

You would think my imagination would allow me to wear my own design, but all I can "see" is Elisabeth Platel´s Grand Pas Classique tutu. It´s no wonder - since we started practicing parts of the GPC variation, I´ve watched Platel´s dancing on youtube about a 100 times.  I´m hoping something will stick by osmosis alone. Oh, and did I mention our teacher told us to dance like a queen? At this point it was hard to keep a straight face, as I was still adjusting my port de bras to my invisible tutu.. But for once, I cast my inner sarcastic critic aside and held my head up high. Majestically and high above the tutu-line. ;)

November 3, 2011

Break Your Feet!

Look mom, no hands! Remember the first time you were allowed to venture into center with your pointe shoes on? I do. It was not 25 years, but just 14 months ago, and my mother sure as hell was no way near to witness this milestone. I felt jubilant nonetheless, and I think the occasion called for some sparkling drinks in ballet-geek company (the best kind). Ah, the benefits of being an adult dancer.. When you leave one barre, another bar is always at the ready. Not that our aprés-ballet bubbly is a daily event - more like once in a season. Just so you know. ;)

This week there was another fabulous milestone. Or more to the pointe, the stepping stone before the actual milestone. We were still at the barre, both hands on, and our teacher was giving us instructions for the next exercise. "You have to break your feet!" Gotta love Madame for being so blunt about it. The exercise was to jump changements in fifth, on pointe. I have tried it a couple of times before, when I was taking basic level in pointe shoes this past summer. My teacher at the time just told me to go for it, and I did some small sautes without really having a clue. This time is different though.

First up, we were told to relevé from seconde, then plié - but not pointe our feet over the boxes the way we usually do (or try to). Instead Madame told us to "break" our feet, that is retract the foot as if you´re trying to grab something. It is not a pretty sight. In fact, Madame told us that it´s the only time she will ever ask us not to be beautiful! I have to admit, I have had mixed feelings about this hopping on pointe with the retracted foot thingy. On the one hand, it´s an amazing technical feat. On the other hand - there is that broken foot look.. But I get the the practical aspect of it too. There really is no other way to hop on pointe. We then proceeded to jumping changements, still at the barre and with extra attention on the positioning of our feet.

Next up, hops on one foot in the diagonale the way Giselle does! No, that was just Madame joking around. Phew. At least for now.. :)


October 29, 2011

Eyes on Me

Note: "Eyes on Me" is not the sequel to "Eyes on the Prize". My ego is not that huge, no need to deflate it. Anyway, that last post was about pirouette spotting and chasing multiple turns. Not about declaring myself a prize. ;) But I could use an ego-boost nonetheless! Or learn how to fake it in class, instead of looking like I´d rather dance into hiding. "Dance like no one is watching." What is that quote about anyway? Feeling free to express yourself and not fearing judgement - which is a good thing, I´ll give you that. But you can´t dance ballet in your own little bubble, not if you want to captivate your audience (imaginary or not). Gotta own that stage, darlings!

Yesterday we continued to practice the GPC variation in pointe class. G (our teacher) is gradually replacing some of the modified steps with the original steps, and it keeps getting more challenging every week. We are now doing the exact same version from 06:20 until 06:47 (video below). Piqué attitudes are still replaced with piqué soutenus, and there are no en dedans pirouettes. But the tombé coupé developpé (or is it fondue relevé?) at 07:06 is now being introduced into the mix. Yesterday I got to try it for the first time in center! Failed a couple of times, tried again, failed better and then almost got it! Cool. :)



Pointe technique is difficult. Remembering all the detailed port de bras, épaulement and where to look while on pointe - even trickier. It is so tempting to keep your eyes on the mirror to check what you´re doing, or look around at the others to make sure you´re dancing the same steps at the same time! I am making some progress, even remembered to look right, then left on the first piqué step. But the hardest part of all is looking straight ahead, and inviting your "audience" to look at you! You need some ballerina attitude for that. And a healthy amount of self-confidence and self-esteem.

What I need most is to rid myself of the belittling noise in my head: "You´re not good enough. Who are you kidding, pretending to be a ballerina?" That stupid fear of looking like I´m trying too much. Too often I feel that as an adult ballet dancer I have to make some sort of a disclaimer: Yes, I know my ballet is pretend-play. Yes, I know there is no foreseeable future where I would dance a variation on pointe, on stage. Yes, I know that given my age and facilities, not likely to happen. But it´s so much fun to practice, and so exciting to learn all these new steps! Do I really have to apologize to my imaginary audience for not looking and dancing like a pro? Nope, I didn´t think so!

In the end my teacher told me not to be shy, and that I dance beautifully. I should just go for it and capture my "audience". Okay then, deep breath and.. all eyes on me!

October 26, 2011

Face Your Plié

Yesterday we started our advanced ballet class with the usual pliés - except that our teacher had us facing the barre through the entire exercise. Just like in the preceeding beginner's class. Which was a bit odd, but I figured Madame has a good reason for it. I mean, her instructions and corrections are among the best I've ever received. So I don't question, I just do as I'm told.

Sure enough, the moment we turned en face (my barre was in front of the mirror), Madame was behind me. "This exercise is for you." I was to look at my plié, see what I was doing wrong and self-correct myself. Which I then tried to do, with Madame helping me to spot the difference. It's because I have this tendency to do a slight hip-tilt, which I can't feel at all and barely see in the mirror. But it's there.

I think I know why I'm tilting my pliés. There is a very minor scoliosis in my lower back, which causes one hip to be slightly raised, and the right leg to be functionally a wee bit longer. I have also a significantly deeper plie on my right leg than on my left. But it's nothing serious, and has caused me no grief since early adolesence. At least not outside of ballet class.

On the one hand, dancing helps me keep my body balanced. On the other hand, my asymmetry is another obstacle to overcome. I would not care so much, but in ballet those pliés are hugely important! And I have been doing quite well so far, to the pointe that it's only a small adjustment to make. Something to pay extra attention to. I just need to become more aware of my body's mechanics and re-train myself. I so want to get this right.

Ballet is a never-ending journey, pardon the cliché. Except that you don't travel in a straight line, but make stops and midway return-trips along the road. Sometimes you get to do fouetté pirouettes and intricate allegro jumps, and in the next class you are working on improving basic tendus and pliés. One might think that going from advanced to basic is one step forward and two back. It is not. Ballet has its own stepping choreography. Two steps back equal three forward!

My plié is getting there.


Solid advice from Finis Jhung. Pliés and other valuables.

October 19, 2011

Eyes on the Prize

Teacher: "Your double pirouettes are perfect. If you would use your eyes, you could easily turn quadruples!" Never mind the disclosure of the benefits of spotting, it´s the word perfect that is still ringing in my ears. I mean how often do you get to hear that word in ballet class? Like never is how often! Now, I´m not experiencing sudden delusions of grandeur, rest assured. I´m perfectly certain that there was still room for improvement. For one, I did not snap-spot my turn. And I´m pretty sure Madame would have said to turn out my heel even more. But the turning itself.. You know that feeling, when you are perfectly centered and turning around your axis like a big spinning top?

It´s plain awesome.

I love pirouettes. I love watching a good turner, I love practising turns. Even when they tilt, fail, crash and burn. Something about pirouettes just makes you want to get back on the horse´s axis right away. There is always another chance. Like spinning the roulette. But pirouettes are not about luck. All dancers know the technique involved. The required plum line, the strong core, the preparatory deep plié, the pushing down to get up, the arms that close, the instant pose. I know this too, and still my pirouttes fail me far too often. My triples, they come and go as they please. As for those quadruples - I could possibly crank one out if my life depended on it. Or if it would get me backstage at Kings of Dance.



I´m not a bad turner. I do, however, suck at spotting. So far I have managed  to turn without, but it doesn´t look as neat. And there are apparently limits to the amount of turns you can do without spotting (unless you´re on skates). I can tell you I have practised a lot. A lot lot. Spot - turn - spot. We have been doing this beginning exercise in class where you stand in 6th, and keep shuffling around with the focus on your spot-snapping head. I have repeated the same exercise at home. It´s the same as in the video above. But when I get to the actual pirouette, my head somehow refuses to spot twice. It´s like it has a mind of its own.

Maybe the problem is my eyes. I´m nearsighted, and wear neither contacts nor eyeglasses to class. By the way, that´s what still keeps me looking young in the mirror. In-built soft-focus lense - smooths away wrinkles like no botox does! Maybe that is not the problem either. I can see both the trees and the forest outside my window, so I should be physically able to spot a spot in class, right? Perhaps I just have slow eyes. Maybe I´m too much of a dreamer. Lots of maybes going on here.. But, it´s one thing to let go and have the music carry you to new places. It´s another thing to maintain control at the same time. Turning is not about letting go. You have to take charge, be the boss of your pirouette. Decide beforehand whether you want turn once, twice or thrice. See yourself turning - and always finish in style!

Occasionally I succeed and all the x-factors come together to produce one super pirouette (for my own standards, mind you). In Berlin I did a triple from fifth with arms en couronne, and it was sweet! In Madame´s class I once did a 3,5 turn - we were supposed to finish facing the other corner and I had too much speed going. So I let it turn. There is definitely potential for more. Maybe even those quadruples. I just need to keep my eyes on the prize.

October 16, 2011

Cabrioles, Cake and Cinderella

Sunday evening, and my vacation week is just about to close. Normally I would not suffer from the Monday Blues, but this time I have come down with a very annoying cold. Which means that there will be no dance classes for me! Work, if I can manage it, but afterwards straight home and back on the couch. Did I already mention that I hate missing classes? You guessed? Alright then..

Terence Kohler: Cinderella – A Tragic Tale
Pictured Tiina Myllymäki, Michal Krčmář
  Photo: Sakari Viika.

But let me recap my vacation week just a little, because it was all dance from Monday to Friday! To kick the week off, I took my usual intermediate-advanced class - but followed by a basic level class in pointe shoes. The last time I did this was way back in summer, when there were no actual pointe classes available. But I liked it, and it helped me a lot. Even doing a simple developpé in center becomes a challenge in those boat-is-rocking pointe shoes! Which means you get a better sense of feeling the floor, and your balance will improve. So I asked my teacher if it would be okay to squeeze into basic level, and then tied my ribbons.

It was fun! We did a basic barre, but there were some pointe exercises as well: sous tenus, piqués, and added relevés. I did my fondues facing the barre, because I´m not strong enough to do a clean set with just one hand for support. But I tried to do the entire and very long frappé set entirely in relevé. Cramp alert! Center was good, and no cramps. The pirouette exercise was too quick, but I braved single turns nonethless. Doubles? Not there yet. To finish the class, we did chaînés déboulés: three turns, pause (come down) and repeat. On my right, more newborn giraffe than graceful ballerina. On my better left, hello chaînés! Now I´m seriously considering adding this class to my permanent rep. That would mean a total of three pointe classes each week. I might have to buy my new pair sooner than I had budgeted for..

Tuesday it was time for Madame´s classes again. My favorite time! Right along with my Friday classes, and please never ask me to choose. I love them both; their styles are different but compliment each other in the best way! Anyway, Tuesday class was solid goodness. Our teacher was in an especially good mood and gave us a tough, pro-level class. Just the way I like it! There was a bit of Balanchine, some Denmark (as in Bournonville), lots of French school and plenty of Madame´s own elegant and fluid style - you can´t really ask for more. Having said that, my pirouettes from Monday have gone missing but I´m hoping they haven´t travelled too far. Miss you guys!

Class note: when jumping grand allegro, do not neglect the second leg! Let it go higher!

Pointe class with Madame was brilliant. Hard work, but she calls it "money in the bank". Seriously, you have to do the killer relevés. Nothing comes from nothing. There was this one move where we did a big honking grand plié in second, on pointe, and all the way down. Then took one hand from the barre and used it to push and stretch our arches. In center we did a small variation with piqués and ballonés, which I´m finally getting.. And our usual balances up in fifth, with battements lent in all directions. I don´t know why it feels easier to piqué into balance and stay there, than to degagé from a closed position in relevé - but it does.

Wednesdays I usually recover from Tuesdays, but hey - vacation! As in sleeping late and relaxing. Which is why I decided to take another class with another teacher. Except she was ill, and my own teacher surprise substituting! I hope that other teacher is feeling better already, but at the time I was not complaining! It was a good class and I had a fun stretching-chatting session afterwards with a dance buddy. Get me talking about dance and there´s no end to that conversation!

Thursday we went to see the last dress rehearsal for the Finnish National Ballet´s new production of Cinderella. The choreography by Terence Kohler is not the traditional fairy-tale, but a psychological and dark retelling of a tragedy. It´s a story about loss and loneliness and the need to be loved. Despite its sinister overtones, there is hope and in the end, love heals. We were really impressed by Kohler´s cinematic storytelling, by Auerbach´s equally cinematic score and by the dancers. The choregraphy is a mix of modern dance and dance theatre, but the language of classical ballet is not forgotten. Cinderella´s pointe shoes play a significant role..

After our ballet at noon, we of course had to have some après-ballet cake and coffee. Cheesecake with sea buckthorn berrys and capuccino. Delish. Followed by pointe shoe shopping! My friend bought Bloch Heritages and I bought me some big-toe gel tubes. It really was a good day for ballet. And cake. Yes, you can have your cake and dance too! :)

This is the cake I had. One piece only!

Did I say short recap? Okay then. Friday was another double set of advanced class, followed by pointe class. I was already feeling the upcoming cold, lead in my legs and hardly any lift-off on my jumps. But I do recall something.. Yes! I love doing cabrioles to the side!

Class note: when doing rondes de jambes en terre, remember to stretch the working foot before you pass it through first.

October 8, 2011

Magic

Yesterday I had a Moment in class. The kind which not only restores faith in potential abilities, but takes you places. New places. Makes you fall in love with dancing all over again. 

We have been practicing parts of the Grand Pas Classique variation, modified to our level of course, but still a big deal for an adult dancer. Huge. Anyway, I have been watching that GPC with Elisabeth Platel over and over, admiring her brilliant technique, elegance and apparent ease. Did I mention that she is one of my all-time favorite ballerinas? Madame Platel has been to Helsinki many times, and I was once lucky enough to see her dance Giselle (partnered by Manuel Legris). Still gives me chills. Platel has also been visiting Helsinki in preparation for the upcoming International Ballet Competition (May-June 2012), as she will be teaching a master-class for a select group of pre-professional young dancers. And she has been giving courses and seminars to ballet-educators, including my own teacher.

Elisabeth Platel

Yeah, I´m digressing from my Moment. But it was Platel who inspired me, who held the wand for ballet magic. Because that was what it felt like. Pure out-of-body-magic.

So, we have been practicing said GPC variation sans the most difficult bits. It would be crazy not to, since I´ve barely graduated out of beginner´s pointe class. The first eight counts of the ballerina´s solo are almost indentical, but instead of the relevé into attitude we do a sous sous. Our teacher has slowed down some steps, and added bourrées where there are none, but it fits the music. Instead of the piqué turns in attitude we do sous tenus, but with the same arms as in the original. No pirouettes yet, and the ballonés on pointe will undoubtedly be replaced with something else. But even with the modifications there is nothing easy about it!

Post-edit: " Our teacher has (..) added bourrées where there are none." It was kindly pointed out to me that this is not correct. And yes, on careful re-inspection I can see that there are tiny bourrées in the original variation too. Ours were just more pronounced because of the slightly slower tempo. There are of course different interpretations of this variation (as many as there are ballerinas dancing it), even if they are only subtle nuances.

Dear Reader, something has changed, and for the better. I no longer fear The Variation! Yes, I´m still in awe. Okay, dumbfounded is more like it. And I will always have serious respect for anything danced on pointe. But I no longer feel like I want to go into hiding. You cannot dance and keep holding back. You cannot dive into the deep end without jumping off that edge first!

My Moment was a private little affair. Our teacher was giving instructions to the first group (our class is split into 2-3 levels with corresponding center exercises), and my group was waiting and quietly goofing around at the other end. We practice in this huge and long studio, you could pretty much have two different classes at the same time.

I wanted to try out those piqué attitude turns, because I love anything with piqués in it. Piqué into attitude and turn. Not too bad, and I keep trying. Then it just happens. I piqué into a high attitude and do a full turn around, in slow-motion. Any slower and I would have needed a prince to rescue me. It feels like gliding and floating and like I could stay up forever. I´ve had this dream before. Only at the time I was sleeping, not dancing.

Magic is believing in yourself. If you can do that, you can make anything happen.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

October 5, 2011

Ballet Buzz


I get no kick on a plane. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do.. No, I get a kick out of.. battemants and grand jetés, ballonés and pointe shoes, Balanchine and bourrées! I know there are other addicts out there, but we are not B.A.D. (Ballet Dorks Anonymous). No, we carry our addiction quite proudly, like hearts on our little sleeves. Never mind the dazed glazes of our friends and family, when we recap our classes to the last detail, again and again. Or when we go on and on about the finer points of a McMillan, Ashton or Ratmansky ballet. Or when we dissect the many virtues of Marcelo, Rojo or Hallberg. But thank the heavens and twitter for peer support - I know my non-dancing friends do!

If you don´t dance, you just don´t get it. If you do dance, you can´t do without. It´s a habit that feeds itself. The more you dance, the more you need your classes. Before you know it, you´re cultivating a daily habit. Okay, not daily. Even dedicated and driven dancers need to take a day off. If only to complain about their poor Monday shape the day after.. But your body gets used to it. I loved my Summer Dancathon, taking 5-6 classes per week. Now I´m back to three days a week, which is just not enough! I´m so desperate for more!

My dance-week starts on Monday, and boy do I feel that weekend break! Stiff and hardly any bounce in my body. Tuesday I´m back on my game again, Wednesdays are spent recovering from Tuesdays. Thursdays I´m climbing walls because there is no class (suitable to my schedule and requirements) and Fridays it´s back to advanced class and pointe, but I´m feeling the preceeding two-day break again. I know, I know -  it´s much better than one class or nothing at all, but what can I say? Both body and mind need a regular ballet-fix!

Yesterday´s class gave me such a buzz I´m still riding on its waves. We did a small bit of Balanchine´s choreography - intricate and quick steps and very different from my usual technique class. I´m not sure if it was out of Theme and Variations or some of Mr. B´s other ballets. I asked after class, but I´m sorry to say it did not stick to my memory. Which is funny because I do remember the steps. I gotta say that I absolutely adore Balanchine´s style of movement! And it´s a real privilege to learn (some) of the choreography from Madame, who has also danced in Balanchine´s Serenade (in the photograph above, "seated" right) and Apollo. Once you get your head and feet around the new steps and the speed and the accents, Balanchine is such a joy to dance. Not saying our attempts were any joy to watch though. But I did get a kick out of Madame´s demonstration!

My buzz did not end there. I got some very profound corrections, or lets call them directions instead. You see, I´m always told by my teachers to lengthen my back. I feel that I´ve done all I can, short of growing an extra vertebra. My line is plum, shoulders are mostly down, abs are strong, imaginary someone is pulling the top of my head, and imaginary someone other tugging in opposite direction. Still it is not enough. I can´t do a degagé before my teachers are on my case. Lengthen your back. Longer!  

Again, it goes back to the idea of presenting yourself. I have been standing straight alright, but Madame with her keen eye for the tiniest detail sees that my upper back is holding me, well, back. It´s not so visible as to hit you in the face like a bun gone astray. But it is lacking something. Attitude. Non-apologetic presence. Finally, Madame tells me to lift my upper sternum, and for the first time I think I get it. At least the idea of it. It will take some time to become second nature, but until then I can just fake it. Present myself, instead of holding back. Dear Readers, this is more than relevation, this is a revelation!

I apologize if I´m causing buzz-envy, but it did not end there either. It appears I´ve been jumping my sauts in first all wrong. I´m not sure I do it all the time, but instead of extending my legs in an open première, I´ve been pointing my feet underneath me, with heels almost touching. No idea where I got that from. When Madame pointed this out to me, I was totally baffled (and a little bit embarassed). But: it was the easiest thing to fix. Ever!

Then we did the turning on pointe thing, not piqué turns, not sous tenus, nor chaînés déboulés ( I really have to ask next time). You start from fifth, raise straight onto pointe in fourth, bring back leg in (it stays in the back), turn and open front leg again into fourth, staying up on pointe the whole time. Repeat until you reach end of diagonal. Arms close from 1. arabesque position and open again. The video clip of Lander´s Etudes shows it best, although they cross the back leg to the front (forward to 1:45).


We did this slow, and it was hard. Up, legs together, turn, stay up, open leg, stay up.. Madame, who is not wearing pointe shoes, asked me to demonstrate and darlings, it was not pretty. But I did as I was told, and kept my weight forward and used my shoulder and the inside of my thighs and all the confidence and 'tude I could master. And it worked! By the time we turned to the left, I was having the best time!

Even when there are no short-cuts to technique, ballet remains a short-cut to Happy. Buzzz...

October 2, 2011

Sneaky Does It

Teachers can be sneaky. Like when they don´t tell you that you´re about to practice a very famous variation, because they know that it would freak you out and have you jeté into hiding before the pointe shoe drops. My teacher is like that. She knows me so well, it´s embarrassing.

The funny thing is that I should have recognized the music right away. I have watched that variation on youtube so many times that Auber´s music is permanently burned on my brain. But I´ve never ever considered trying or learning any of those steps. Dreamed, yes. But which ballet enthusiast/dancer/wannabe-ballerina would not dream of dancing like the sublime Platel?

Piqué passé retiré - pas de chat - pas de bourré dessus - relevé attitude (we did a simple sous-sous instead) - back leg coud de pied - front leg coud de pied with corresponding port de bras - plié into passé retiré - pas de bourré en tournant with legs into high retirés - repeat.. I was concentrating so hard on the steps that I did not realize we were doing the beginning of the female solo of Grand Pas Classique! Way to sneak that in, Signora..

Had you shown me that variation a year ago, I would have deemed it mission impossible. And to be completely honest and get-real realistic, 90 percent of it still is (and at least 65% will always remain that). The attitude turns, the hops on pointe - please educate me as how to desribe them in correct ballet-French - the fouetté pirouettes, and the list goes on and on.. All we did was the first 8 counts repeated twice. You can now go and watch the video, fast forward to 06:25 and stop before Platel does her piqué attitude turns. Remember to replace the attitude relevé with a sous-sous.



I know, for you been-there-done-thats out there, baby steps. For me, a huge deal. I´m so not going to be blasé about it. You may have to trick me into variations, at least until I learn how not to freak out at the sight of Solo Dancing. But darlings, I have to admit it - I loved every classique step!

September 25, 2011

Stretch!

Had an interesting class last Friday. Was so tired my pirouettes were tilting backwards, ready to fall straight into bed. Never mind finishing class first. And of course our teacher chose that evening to introduce new divertissements. Fun and fast. Or was that fast and furious? I vaguely recall some seriously quick Bournonville-style steps.. The kind that require an alert mind and a state of wake-ness. Instead I was still trying to figure out my feet and counts when my teacher was yelling at me to use my port de bras too! Well, maybe next time.

Much more fun was showing off my seriously improved left-leg extension! First up, we did our usual foot-in-hand stretch (or talon à la main as Madame would say), and it´s been much better for some time already. I have been religious about stretching, which for a tight-muscled and jointed adult dancer is really de rigeur. A must.

Still, after having been at it for some twenty years - you´d think there would have been more impressive results already! Eight years ago (before my three-year ballet break), my best assisted extension to the side was probably toes level with chin. Don´t ask me about degrees, I suck at math. That gorgeous picture (ballerinaproject.com) to the left: add a long arm holding the leg and you´d get my picture (which is a pretty good picture). Since then, more progress has been made. Today, on a good day, my stretchier left leg goes foot-in-hand all the way up. We are talking about 10 minutes before 6 o'clock here. Seriously, I never looked at my ankle from that angle before. And I gotta tell you, it´s a whole new world!

Sadly, we all know that feet-in-hand do not neccessarily stay up without manual help. Usually gravity kicks ass as soon as we let go. However.. I´ve been building muscle for a long time. In fact, a bit too much - I bulk up very quickly. But, now it seems that strength and flexibilty are finally coming together! When I let go off my foot, the left leg stays up at the same heigt as the picture above. It´s a short but sweet moment, much better than my usual crashing down in the blink of an eye! On Friday, when we did our developpés devant into plié, my left leg rose and rose - and look mom, no hands! Of course it was no way near pro-heights, but I´m still very happy about my progress. My teacher noticed too. Now if I only could get my much tighter and lower right leg to follow suit..

Quite a few have asked me to share the stretching & extension magic. But what can I tell you? There really are no tricks and short-cuts. Also, I can only speak for my instrument - and we are all unique in our own little idiosyncrasies.. But what I can give away is this:

Be consistent. If you´re a tight bod like me (talking muscles and ligaments, not over-all firmness), you need to stretch on a daily basis. It does not have to be the same routine and intensity every day, but make a habit of stretching anyway.

Relax. Muscle tightness is often accompanied by tension. Do not force / bounce / jerk / push your stretches. Listen to your body, breath. Be calm and focused. Think long.

Warm up and loosen up. You don´t have to drip with sweat, but don´t stretch when you´re all cold and stiff. Go for a walk or a jog, do push-ups and abs. Loosen all your joints, from head to toe. Use a pinky or tennis ball on tight spots. Even massage the soles of your feet.

Try out yoga. You don´t have to get into the philosophy if it´s not your thing, but you learn many ways to stretch your body. Yoga also helps to get calm and centered.

Be patient. If you want to get into splits (still my holy grail with right leg in front), loosen and stretch everything else first. Be patient. Be consistent.

Check out these links and video for further help:

Improving Extension. Dance Magazine, 2008.

Ballet Shoes Pointe Shoes.. And Adult Ballet Class: How to Start Stretching..

Dance Advantage.net: Stretching Safely for Splits



Photograph: Ballerina Project, dancer: Irina. Photo: Dane Shitagi.

September 20, 2011

Present Yourself!



So I finally did the near-naked thing in ballet class. Dear Reader, before you skip a beat,  let me assure you. It was not the wardrobe malfunction kind, where you forget to pull up your leo after hurrying (back) to class. And where the first one to notice you all Josephine Baker-like is the only guy in class, sweetly asking you if you did not forget something. I swear this has really happened. Fortunately not to me. Phew. Although, once I had almost too much of a reveal when I was in a very deep cambré to the back. Yay for flexibilty, not so much for too much of cleavage.

Which reminds of a story about the courtesans of old Venice, told to me by my opera-singer/dancer friend. Apparently, when business was not going so well, said ladies obtained permission to display their bounty over the window-sills - thus inspiring new fashions of deep cleavages. And apparently an image helpful to singers and dancers alike. Do not open your ribcage, but stack it over the sill. There you go.

Present yourself! This instruction is repeated to us class after class. Don´t show off your boobs (save this for later), but your jambes, pieds, talons, bras, épaulement, head and eyes. Own your dancing body, and then own the stage. Present your gorgeous arches, heels and legs and upper body. Engage with your audience, imaginary or not. It changes everything, even in class. A dancer who looks down at her feet, loses the line. A dancer who does not look beyond her elongated arm, is closed off in her own little space. It shows.

Yesterday, I started my class as usual - that is in my now-favorite warm-up romper. Comfortable, warm, cozy, hide-it-all. Usually I discard any extra wear after our plié exercise, but I had figured out that you can roll the legs up and and the top down. It´s a very pro-dancer-y look. Really flattering only on a skinny ballet bod, but I like to use my imagination. Anyway, I had planned to toss the thing in my bag right after barre. Which was really no option, as we were all hot and red-faced and sweaty by the time we did our frappés(how´s that for a lovely ballerina image?). But, after I had stripped down and was reaching into my bag for my ballet skirt - there was none! I must have left it in the locker! Our teacher gives us no break between barre and center, so I could not go to look. No choice but to suck it up. Literally.

So, there I stood with nothing between me and the mirror except for one black leotard and black leggings. I did also wear a long-sleeve, cut-off top made out of old black tights, which made my upper half all modest and covered. But. My butt, that is. All exposed to the world. I was admittedly unnerved. In ballet class you spend substantial time to keep that popo in a plum line, with your tail-bone pointed down. Which suits me just fine, I´ve never been one to flaunt my derrière. Not that anyone in class was looking or could have cared any less.

I decided to go for it. Present myself. It´s a bit like jumping off from a high spot into deep water. Either you dive in or you butt out. And I gotta tell you.. Although I was acutely aware of my every little line and curve, it was not so bad. In fact, it made me work harder. Dance better. This time, less was like totally more. But(t) enough is enough. By the time we were doing our pirouette exercises across the floor, I was mentally exhausted and changed back into my trusted romper. Baby steps, darlings. Baby steps..

Photo above post: Lana Jones of Australian Ballet. Photographer: Justin Smith.

September 14, 2011

You Will Never See Me In Pink Tights, but..


I just got my first ever real-deal ballerina ballet skirt in the mail! And it´s a barely a whisper of a skirt - seriously, I don´t think I own any garment with less fabric and weight. Even my bikini takes up more space. But I´ve been wanting to get myself a real ballet skirt for some time, it´s just that I´m shy! Shy of exposing too much thigh - and of losing my "class cred". Funny thing how so little fabric can weigh so much after all.

When I started ballet, way back in the day, the class fashion de rigeur was as laid back as possible. My dance studio was popular with the jazz and modern dance crowd, and those with more ballet background had long since ditched their class-coded dance gear. Layers and crocheted scarfs around hips, even thermal wear. But hardly a pink tight or black skirt in sight. Wearing a ballet-school style uniform would have implied actual ballet-school cred, and the skills to accompany such. Even those who had the talent, wore anything but. Occasional visting pros included.

But wearing clothes that are decidedly anti-ballet? Much better! After some trial and error, I went with the mod crowd, to blend in as inconspicuously as possible. I wore sweats to class, loose clothes, never mind not seeing your lines properly. At some point though, I advanced and slimmed down (a lot), and gained enough confidence to wear an unitard (in lovely melange mauve) I had purchased in Paris. Oh, those heady fashionista days!

Five years ago - in fact exactly to this date - I returned to ballet, after a three year long hiatus. I wore black yoga-style pants and a loose, tunicy black top. I had gained way too much weight during those years of not-dancing, and could not quite reconcile myself with the voluptuous woman in the mirror. I also noticed that the class fashion had changed since. Here were grown-up women dressed in leos and pink and white (and black) tights. Some wore jazz pants with a bit of flare, but you could see the full ballet-school regalia on some, even in a beginner´s class. Not for me though, not with 15 kilos over my pre-break ideal weight! I would have felt way too self-conscious.

Now, time flies when you´re dancing. Weight rolls off, literally. From baggy black sweats I proceded to knee-length cut-offs, from there to black leggings with loose and long tops, from there to ditching tops and supportive sports-bras (yeah, figures that your boobs grow smaller way before your thighs follow suit) in favor of thinly strapped leos and black leggings. That´s when I discovered my first skirt, a black, salsa-style short beachy skirt from H&M, made out of 100% viscose fabric. It has a kind of ruched waist-band, which you can pull higher up or lower down. There is a bit too much fabric which adds bulk at the waist, and if you pull it down to your hips, it´s a tad too tight. It looks like a dance-y skirt, but it´s not yet the ballet look I had been secretely longing for..

Bloch Professional skirt, model: not me!

When I got home last night and unwrapped my flimsy new skirt, I swear I felt like the girl who pulls on her first tutu. Excited, and in my case, unnerved too. To wear or not to wear? And how does one tie those skirts anyway? It´s a wrap-around, so why are there no loops for the strings? And how do they not slip around? Do you tie at the side, or at the back? Once I figured it out - tie at the back, have it sit at the hip - it did not look too bad! More thigh exposed, yes, but my legs actually look longer because of it - which is always a bonus for the vertically challenged! So, the class-test is next Friday, right after barre. Can´t decide yet whether I´m gonna be totally blasé about it.."What, this old thing? Why, I´ve had it forever, just found it in the back of closet Siberia." Or, if I´m gonna parade it around and ask my friend to take pictures!

Next up: tutus.  Nope, that´s where I definitely draw the line. Like totally. Unless..

August 31, 2011

Princess Diary, Part 1.

It was towards the end of our pointe class. We stood in center, our teacher smiled and gave us The Talk about repertory and dancing variations. On pointe. The been-there-done-that-crowd did not flinch, but my heart stopped. I knew this was coming, there had been hints, but my teacher had spoken of later next year. Not of the here and now! I half figured that because of our mixed-level class she was talking to the advanced girls who were probably itching to do more than echappés and piqués in center. But no, there was no sorting into groups, no directions for me (or anyone else) to sit in the corner and observe. My teacher pressed play, said something about Sleeping Beauty and took the beginning pose of B-plus, arms crossed delicately in front. My barely recovered heart sank, further down still.

I felt like I had taken an odd turn, missed the sign "Mom of Aurora" and entered the wrong casting. Because no way is this adult dancer a bluebird-wooing, sprightly, pretty, petite, ballet-y princess. You want to scare me away? Flaunt a tutu into my face and I´ll jeté into the opposite direction. Of course, our teacher did not throw the entire variation before us, just the beginning piqués and grand ronde jambes and bourrés. So, really nothing we haven´t done before, except for the piqués followed by the sweeping leg to the side (well, it was new to me anyway). And those arms. I have never felt such a strong urge to call it quits. And quit I did, right there and then.



I could put part of the blame on my big toe, which was crying for release and ice (too much pressure and not enough padding underneath), but that would not even be half of the truth. The ugly truth, Dear Reader,  is that I fear repertory. I fear looking like I´ve come without an invite, crashed the party, trespassed from my seat in the audience right onto the stage. When that Bluebird music started to play, I could not get the image of a real ballerina out of my head - and me making mockery of her!

Deep down I know my logic is lacking, as really all of our exercises and enchaînements are bits and pieces of variations or preparations thereof. I have even been on stage before, in our spring shows, dancing to the music of Swan Lake and Coppelia. But back then I was part of the "corps de ballet", with my feet safely ensconed in soft slippers, not precariously footed on pointe. This repertory business however, is new and alien territory to me.

The thing is, and this might seem curious to some, I was not lured into ballet by the sight of the ballerina-in-the-music-box. As a twelve year old I thought Giselle in her floating tulle lovely, but the princess in a tutu held no appeal to me at all. In fact it took me years to appreciate her iconic status and not regard the hopping on pointe with the bopping tutu as silly. What drew me to ballet instead was (and still is) the architectural line of the arabesque, the flight of grand jetés, the music drawn into movement.

I never imagined me dancing any roles or characters and certainly nothing remotely princess-y. I figured that kind of dancing to be the exclusive domain of the "good girls" (as one of my former teachers liked to call them - compared to the adult rest of us). You know, the ballerinas in training, and those who have danced since they have walked. Dancers with ballet-class cred, the "look" and that enviable trait of je-ne-sais-quoi.. Whereby you take one pose and are instantly transformed into something out of this world, out of my world.

The Sleeping Beauty
Stephanie Williams of Australian Ballet.
Photo: Liz Ham.

Real life and fairy tales, ballet class and repertory.. I do realise that not all of ballet is princess-y. Just as I understand that portraying a majestic countenance on stage is an essential part of it all. Something to do with Catherine de Medici and that Sunny King of France. Ballet was first the spectacle of royalty, and the unwed virgin Princess among their heroines (funny how Disney held on to that). The tiara- and tutu-clad Princess on Pointe has long since become the iconic look of the female ballet dancer. And here lies my whopper of insecurity: princesses and tutus and me - we are no match made for the stage. There are, admittedly, body- and self-image issues involved.

Grown-ups who dance ballet for the joy, do not have to look the part. Professional dancers do. We may come in all sizes and shapes, but all we need is to focus on our placement and line, on the music and the corrections we get. Yet we are drawn to the image of the ballet-body beautiful - and most of us are not so wise and mature as to never compare ourselves. And yes, in comparison I do find my instrument sadly lacking! When thoses Fairy Godmothers dealt out their favors, they threw some bounce at me and then skipped and hopped away.  Ballon, yes. Talent for ballet, no. I´m not talking about musicality or eye for movement, or intellect and perseverance. What I lack is balletic talent; physical suitability such as good turn-out and natural flexibility, and that look of long and lean legs, a small butt and slim hips. One nice left foot does not yet a ballerina make.

So, I´m short and squat, broad-shouldered, curvy and compact. So what? What I and every other sometime insecure adult-not-quite-a-ballerina needs to understand, is that it does not matter. Not as much as we like to think. In ballet you essentially aim to create an illusion - that of infinite lines and flight. You achieve this by work, not talent alone. Every able-bodied can strengthen their core, lengthen the back, stretch those knees, pointe them feet. You breathe, you elongate, you live, you love to dance. The bottom line is that the shape(liness) of your derrière does not stand in the way of the loveliness of your ligne!

The princess is just another illusion. She is created by the lines you draw onto the music, by épaulement, port de bras, a pas here, another enchaînement there. Dancing her should not be mission impossible. Granted, a grown-up ballet dancer would be an odd casting for the part of virgin bride-to-be Aurora. But it does not have to be a choice between the teenage princess and the walk-on part of mothers or queens. Though in real life.. I´d rather be the Empress residing over her court than the talent called to entertain at her daughters pre-nuptials.

As for myself, I´m still finding my voice as a dancer. Anything that goes beyond the purely technical is still fairly new to me. Only in the past year have I thought about "presenting myself" in ballet, whether it´s a forwarded ankle or an attempt at elegance. Princess Florestine? Not quite there yet. Although, after the initial shock faded and I later confided in my teacher - about my fears, insecurities and bad memories - something changed. I looked at that particular variation (and others) with a fresh perspective and new attention to detail. In our next class, our teacher broke the steps down and - lo and behold - I could actually pull it off!

Now, let me just unearth and rediscover my latent inner princess. A modern single gal wooing her Prince. Somewhere between Princess Florestine and Charlotte of Sex and the City. The tutus you do not have to bother with, but darlings - I´ll wear the tiara. Those are real diamonds, right?


The Balletlove Interview

A while back, Singaporean dance wear company Balletlove.co  asked me if I would like to do an interview. As it happens, Balletlove.co is no...