April 30, 2011

Potential

Definition of potential: existing in possibility : capable of development into actuality.

It seems the time has come to sink or swim, or more to the pointe - to pull up or topple over! It has been some eight months since I first went up on pointe, and until now we have always started our class with both hands on the barre. That is until yesterday, when Marie-Pierre (Madame) gave us a shortened version of a regular barre to do - you know, with one hand only for support. Of course, it was a different barre from the one I had done just 90 minutes ago in our advanced class - now we did all our pliés, relevés and balances up on our toes. The first exercise went like this (I´m trying to repeat my teacher´s instructions):

In first, relevé - demi pointe - pointe - plié - plié - demi pointe - down. Relevé - pointe - cambré devant - cambré derriere - demi pointe - down. This in all positions, with port de bras in 2nd to both sides, and in 5th grand port de bras going all the way around. I gotta tell you, bending your body over while up on pointe - no easy feat! But it just kept getting better.. For our next exercise we did degagés: From 5th, degagé piqué - degagé piqué - degagé into plié - from plié into relevé with working foot brushing out (45 degrees) - repeat in all directions. I learned that you have to transfer your weight very quickly onto the supporting foot and pull up like crazy! 

In addition we did rondes de jambes, with the last one rising up again onto full pointe and finishing with a grand ronde de jambe en l'air. Then developpés in all directions, and grand battements - all on pointe. But when Madame told us to finish with arabesque penché, I just thought you gotta be kidding me. Right? You seriously think I should be able-bodied to pull that one off? It is hard enough on demi-pointe, wearing soft slippers! Of course, I could not do it. To have your entire weight on that small platform, the back leg high up and the upper body in deep forward-tilt.. Oh dear. Talk about leaving your comfort zone behind! 
Not quite there yet.. Hey, these girls have both hands on the barre!
Photo: Gene Schiavone

After this first part of our class Madame asked if it really had been so much more difficult than our regular two-hands-on-the-barre. Cue my head nodding, vigorously.  She had apparently thought it would be less strenuous than our usual intense work-out, and come to think of it, true. However, it was still too difficult, at least for me. I really need to get my feet under me first, to find those muscles and turn-out and pull-up. That´s why I like to do even them slow killer relevés! But then came the big surprise: Madame asked us what we had been doing with Gabriella before..

Side-note: Gabriella was our ballet and pointe teacher until last November, when she left to welcome her second child. She is coming back already this summer, which I´m very happy about. And Marie-Pierre will also continue to teach come next fall. How lucky are we?  :)

Which is curious, since Madame had come to observe us in September. But now that I remember, she didn´t stay the entire class (as she had already watched one hour of basic beginners and 90 min of advanced class). Anyway, our class has been a mixed-level from the get-go, but at the barre we had started from pointe zero (pun intended), so that even beginners like me could take part and learn. Although we have been able to progress fairly quickly because either there are those with previous years on pointe or those with many years of ballet experience (for me, 17 years in total).

Anyway, when Madame asked, I told her that we had been doing pointe with Gabriella for only two months! And she said that she seriously did not know this! Sure, I can understand, because of the mixed level and some of the girls/women being already quite advanced.. BUT, it just kills me that for the past half year she has been assuming that I have been doing pointe for much longer! I never said anything because I thought it was obvious that I had not! This does not mean that I am somehow more talented or special. No, it means that she thought my skills were such as they are despite previous training! Which as you know I never did have! Jeez.. All those times when she told me you do not have to do the pirouette (or something else), if you don´t want to... and it´s not that I did not want to, but that I had never done it before. And the time I finally did a double, and the first thing she did was correct the position of my talon.. when I was just thrilled to have dared it in the first place!
Potential : The inherent ability or capacity for growth, development, or coming into being.

I mean there is no real damage here, even though Madame might have sometimes given me easier stuff to do instead, and maybe she would have expected less of me. I don´t know. But I have been getting corrections for every exercise we have ever done, and encouragement and positive feedback throughout. I think most other teachers would have raised a pronounced eyebrow at my very apparent lack of skill, and probably reprimanded me at every turn (no pun here). Even worse, they might have deemed me as a hopeless adult wanna-be ballerina with no talent whatsoever. Instead I have been the luckiest girl in class! You see, Madame is a very demanding teacher, but she is also very sweet and caring. She really sees the potential in every dancer, long before you yourself have figured it out.



April 24, 2011

Pat Yourself on the Back Already!


Why is it so hard to accept praise, or more to the point, believe the positive? When your teacher tells you to pull up, to stretch your knees or that there should be more energy in your dancing, there is no doubt in your  mind that she is not right. However, when that same teacher tells me my moves are good, nice or beautiful, I think she´s just being encouraging. You know, doing her job and all that. Positive feedback from the teacher is among the most important things in ballet class, and I love getting praise as much as the next dancer. It tells me that I´m at least doing something better, if not right. But beautiful? Good? Nah, whenever I hear those appraisals, all I´m thinking is that my teacher is being very nice.

Ballet is all about the pursuit for perfection. And yet nobody ever thinks of themselves as perfect. Not the gifted, not the professionals, not the talent-in-waiting. Not even the Rojos, Polinas, Ferris or Corellas of the ballet world (or so I assume, based on any interview from any dancer I´ve ever read). It´s a complete mystery to me, because I think they are all amazing, gorgeous and perfect in every possible way! I guess you can keep rising that bar(re) so high that it will take a pair of wings and immortality to ever get there. Then again it is exactly that pursuit of the presumably unattainable which makes ballet the most  beautiful and exhilarating artform to watch! And let´s be real here.. Would not ultimate and flawless perfection rob you of the excitement, the element of surprise, and of those sweet moments when everything comes together? After all, ballet is a living art, not for robotic bodies or minds.

Kirsty Martin of Australian Ballet, photo Tim Richardson.

I have to admit that I suffer from the occasional bout of perfectionism. Combine that with its cousin procrastination and it´s a less than productive combo.. In college I had the hardest time finishing my written assignments on time. I could spend endless hours tweaking sentences and chapters, never being quite happy with the final outcome. Putting the work off as far as possible gave me the necessary impetus to get going, and the pressure to write the perfect awe-inducing paper was off. Procrastinating also meant I would never have to find out if having done it all on time would have been good enough in the end. In a sense that is why ballet is ideal for me, because there is no chance for procrastinating. You can dance only in the moment, do the pirouette or leave the floor.. But the quest for perfectionism does get to me.

In Finnish there is a saying that goes tieto lisää tuskaa. I know there has to be an equivalent in English, but basically it means that the more you know the more you suffer. When I started ballet, I was a blissfully ignorant tabula rasa, which come to think of it, not at all a bad thing. I understood that the advanced and pro crowd was in a world of its own, and that our adult beginners class was a mere approximation of the art of ballet. I also knew that I would never have been on a road to professional dancing, so no expectations, no pressure. That is until I became desperately hungry for more!

The perfect Tamara Rojo. Photo: David Sandison.

After less than two years I started taking classes as much as 6-8 per week, reading up on ballet history, going to every live performance I could afford, and quite frankly, becoming pretty obsessed with ballet. I loved how dancing had changed my body and the perception of myself. I was healthier, happier and I had great fun with my fellow dancers. However, I was also becoming increasingly frustrated, about not having a natural body for ballet. I am not super flexible, my turn-out is mediocre at best and I sure don´t have the look of a ballet dancer. This started to bother me more and more, even though I was a recreational dancer, in it for the joy! But I wanted to be proud of my work, blend in with the good girls and be that beautiful dancer I had always dreamed of being. Finally, when I was going through rough times in my personal life, I no longer had the motivation to dance and quit.

Photo: Gene Schiavone
I came back some five years ago after not dancing for three years. This time I was as excited as I had been for the first time around. I delighted in every muscle that I rediscovered, and in every little progress I made. My old teacher gave me a warm welcome, and even though I had put on a lot of weight I was not embarrassed about my body, not like I thought I would be. Then, somewhere along the road, I surprised myself. I had new teachers pushing me to go further, and so I went. I advanced past my former level. My extensions are now higher, my turns have (sometimes) tripled, my jumps are bouncier, my technique is over all better. I have also learned to accept my limitations and can handle my occasional frustrations. Guess I have grown up. 

Most importantly, I enjoy my dancing more than ever. There are even those rare moments when everything comes together, and I feel like a real dancer. And this is the biggest revelation of all: when my teacher tells me to present myself, to be sensuous and elegant, I know I do not have to be perfect in every way. I can still become the beautiful dancer I have always wanted to be! So I´m standing in front of the mirror, my former twentysomething pressure-cooker looking right back at me. She´s telling me to take a deep breath and go pat myself on the back already. Well done, and good girl!

Picture above post: Beautiful, amazing Polina Seminova, photographer unknown.

April 19, 2011

Video of the week: POB school documentary

I have a couple of posts under construction still (the one about flexibility amongst them), but I thought I would share some of my favorite videos in the meantime. This first one is the edited and shortened 52 min version of the 4-part French documentary "Les Enfants de la Danse" (1987?). It´s a bonus feature added to the school´s performance of Coppelia, which can be bought on DVD. I saw the original docu-series when it first aired on Finnish television, taped it on VCR and watched it about hundred times, over and over.. Sadly my VCR has died since. So I was really glad when a fellow dancer-tweeter put me on the trail of this feature! 

The short-film showcases many big POB-stars in their prime, like Elisabeth Platel (now directrice of the school), Manuel Legris, Noella Pontois, but also future stars such as Nicolas Le Riche and Aurélie Dupont (here still students). You have probably seen bits on youtube before, but I recommend taking the extra time to view the full 52 minutes (if you can´t get your hands on the original series). Enjoy!

April 16, 2011

Mon Talon Terrible


There it is, back in the infamous spotlight again - my talon terrible, i.e. my terrible heel. To be fair, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this part of my body. It is a perfectly nice heel, moisturized and not a blister in sight. It´s just that the lines of communication from upstairs dance central (that would be the brain) down  to pavement pounding heel-territory are fickle at best. "Present your heel!" "Heel forward!" I do as told, relaying the command to dance central, loud and clear, and usually it works well enough. Right until we start turning pirouettes. Somewhere along the route from cerebellum to tibia to foot the message gets lost. The heel no longer wants to come forward! All of the sudden it is scared by the spotlight.

It is of course a matter of placement and timing. I´m too slow to come into position and start turning before my passé retiré is placed, fully en dehors and at the knee. This does not happen always and every time we do pirouettes, but it is a frequent and bad habit nonetheless. As in really bad.. Yesterday after pointe class I tried to do a preparatory double pirouette (I had already changed into soft shoes) before going into fouetté, but I had absolutely no control. And just my luck, Madame was watching.

Well, actually it is lucky. She of course picked on the position of my heel immediately, and might I add, for the umpteenth time. "Johanna, heel forward! Show me, again. No, more. Better! Again. More!" At this point I´m just standing on flat foot, holding my passé and trying to forward the heel even more, using every muscle I have got. Madame: "You see, you can do it. There is nothing physically wrong with you.  You really have to focus on this. Everything else is already better now!" She is kind but dead serious, and I understand that the time has come to step up, heel forward!

I´m posting this video here for obvious reasons. La Ferri is just so freaking fabulous. In fact I think her über-feet might be the reason behind those ridiculous padded arch enhancers that even Grishko is selling! Now if I could only imprint these forwarded heels onto mine.. :)

April 12, 2011

Pointe Makes You Stronger!

Yesterday after ballet I tried to do those dreaded fouetté pirouettes again, just me on my own. We did none in class, in fact for the past half year there has hardly been any chance to practice them at all. My current substitute teacher made us fouetté a couple of times this spring, but without any preparatory exercises in the center. So the girls who could turn, did turn. The girls who could not (that would have been me), struggled and failed. "Just fouetté" is not really all that helpful coaching. 

Last fall, I had just managed to work myself up to two fairly neat turns with a nice finish. My teacher gave us lots of good exercises at the barre and in the center. She would tell us/me to go for just one or two fouettés but aim for a clean finish. However, with baby on the way (her, not me!) further practice was delayed. The first time I tried fouetté pirouettes again this spring, absolute disaster. My substitute teacher looked at me like I was half-demented, I guess she expected more? Kind of flattering, for sure, but..

As an adult recreational dancer you do not take the regular route in ballet education. There is rarely a progressive curriculum to follow, such as Canada´s National Ballet School´s Adult Ballet program. I read their class level descriptions (click here), and basic fouetté turns are indeed taught at the highest class level. Usually you can count yourself lucky to find teachers willing to coach, encourage and push you beyond intermediate beginner levels! I´m talking about seriously clean technique, combined with musicality and expression of course. 

I think some, not all, teachers do not see the point in demanding semi-professional class work. I do get it though. Us adults come from very different backgrounds, with various abilities and motivations. But we are united by the desire to dance and to improve in our dancing! Good and observant teachers do recognize the variety of potentials, and push accordingly. I have been very lucky in that aspect. And now I´m on the track of digression, way past my post! I was gonna blog about pointe and that it makes you stronger.. 

So, yesterday I tried those fouettés again, on my own and in spite of all. And guess what.. I could turn! Going round not just once, or twice but eight times! I did a repeat performance of what I had thought a freak accident just a couple of weeks ago. Then I had managed to turn for the entire music, there must have been at least 12 rounds. For me, a huge deal! Which our sub did not even acknowledge (I had already told that I'm a beginner with fouetté turns). I knew they were not clean, so some feedback would have been very much appreciated. It made me really miss my own teacher - she would have screamed me deaf with encouraging praise! After which she would have corrected me and make do them again. Hah! Well, the most important thing for me (ballet-wise) is that I can turn. Everything is not impossible!

But, big BUT, why now? Fouetté pirouettes without practicing? I tell you why - pointe classes with Madame! Mind you, I can barely pull off a semi-clean 1,5 en dehors turn on pointe. But I seriously did not know that learning pointe technique would make me a stronger dancer overall, in soft shoes and on demi-pointe as well. All those relevés, especially the slow killer relevés Madame loves so much (though sometimes she apologizes, with a big grin, about the sh***y, but oh so necessary work she gives us to do). It´s so much harder to hold your turn-out and stretch your knees on pointe. And because you cannot sit in your shoes, you must lift yourself up at all times. Not to mention all that squeezing of inner thigh muscles.. It's ballet boot-camp! But seriously, it's all done in good and encouraging spirit. Makes everyone only want to work that much harder.

So, courtesy of pointe classes and one very discerning teacher I have new-found strength in my feet, calfs, hamstrings, quads, flexors, abductors, abs, butt, back.. My technique has gotten better, including my turn-out and balances. There is still much work to be done, like being snappier with the head spotting. And other stuff which I can't see while turning. But I am turning. And I'm stronger than ever before.

April 8, 2011

Friday - Back at my Favorite Barre

Dear readers, I´m all done reminiscing now and back to present-day dancing and blogging! Though the past week I managed only one measly ballet-class, and even that fell pretty much flat. And I missed my favorite Friday class because I was out of town for 4 days, working. But not today! I´m itching so bad for a decent ballet class that I can hardly contain myself. Really, counting the hours here! So, TGIF and Madame is teaching. Happy, happy me :)

By the way, I have another post under the works - about flexibility, not having any and how to get some! I do not plan to re-invent the wheel here, but since some of you have asked, I´m gonna share anyway. I will post some of my favorite ways to prepare for class (before and in-between), and compile a list about the best expert sources online. If you have any questions, comments, tips or favorite links you would like to share beforehand, please feel free!


I have actually dreamed about this. All of the sudden I was able to pull my leg over my head, just like that. I remember thinking, wow, finally.. Of course, at that moment my alarm rang. What a cruel awakening! But seriously, despite the fact that I´m not what you would call naturally flexible, I have improved a lot over the years. All it takes is perseverance!

Picture from Ballerina Project, photo: Dane Shitagi.

April 7, 2011

Early Revelations, continued..

Note: This is the second instalment of a two-parter. Read the first part here: Late Starts..

I was already obsessed with ballet, taking classes up to six times a week, and loving every moment.. Looking back, I had actually forgotten how not-scared I was about leaving my comfort zones behind! Come to think of it, I probably did not yet have any! Within a couple of years I took the plunge and made the jump to intermediate classes, with the permission of my teacher of course. But it was a whole different ball(et) game.. The dancers in that class were all more or less advanced, mostly adults (18-35+), with a variety of pro-statuses: ballet-pro (with sub-categories of corps/soloist, even principal pros), retired ballet-pro, pre-ballet-pro, possible future pre-ballet-pro, former pre-pro ballet students (who never went pro) plus a colorful assortment of modern/contemporary/jazz dancers, again with a variety of pro-statuses.. Well, you get the picture. I was the late starter without any status, the new kid on the floor, trying hard catch up and stay out of the way at the same time! 

Knowing that I was just barely allowed class-access, I never asked any questions so I would not slow down the flow of the class. Instead I tried to soak up the moves and positions as fast as I could. I took the last free spot at the barre, seeing that the regulars had their fixed places. I practiced in the back row for the longest time, which was a fairly safe place to be.. The exercises we did in the diagonal, however.. Yikes! Jill loved to change directions mid-step, and I was still trying to figure out my left from my right. The weird thing is that because everything was equally difficult, I had no idea of what was outright out of my reach - so I tried to do everything! Though I did fail, frequently and miserably. But I can still taste the adrenalin rush I got out of those classes.

You know those moments, when a perfectly executed pirouette catches you (and everyone else) off guard, or when a quick allegro suddenly feels like a breeze to do? For me that first moment was a balance. We were doing adagio in the center: from 1st, temps lié to seconde, push off into balance with left leg extended high to the side and arms in 5th (couronne). From there, enveloppé left leg to passé and down. It might have continued into pirouette. Anyway, I did the whole sequence in balance, using every bit of the music. I just didn´t think about it. My teacher raised one eyebrow appreciatively and said "nice balance". For me, it was like a stamp of approval. Also, I figured out that I have at least one strength in ballet - balances!

Check out her balances..



Another revelation permanently etched into my memory came in my regular intermediate-beg. class. It was a valse, and something about the music.. I did not know enough to fret about technical purity, but I loved the sequence of the movements - such fluidity - so I just enjoyed myself. After class, my teacher came up to me.. and praised me for my musicality! Needless to say, I was totally floored. My extensions are not at 6 o´clock, my splits let light shine through, and I will never do Kitri´s grand jeté (where the head and back leg almost meet). But, baby, I got me some balance and some rhythm! You can´t go too wrong with that combo..

In Memoriam
I was not sure this would be the post to write about my first ballet teacher, but now that I did.. And before someone else writes about it in the margins of the comment box: Almost four years ago we got news of the worst kind. Jill had died suddenly, in the middle of ballet class. She had just finished teaching her own group and had rushed over to take the professional´s class. Help came quickly, but too late. She literally died mid-dance, and as her rabbi consoled us two days later, Jill had danced straight into Paradise. Her untimely death tore a huge gap into our dancing community - she had been teaching over 25 years! She was a wife, a mother of three, a friend, a mensch, a dancer and a mentor to many. She was my teacher for more than 15 years. I still miss her. I wish I could show her how much I still love the gift she gave me so many years ago..

Late Starts..

I intended this blog to be about "Flexibility and the Adult Ballet Dancer", but that one is still in the making. The opening sentence goes something like this: I am not naturally flexible. However, people can change.. There. A teaser for my next blog. If you have any pre-comments or questions, feel free!

For this blog-post I am still on the memoire-track of my own dance-story (Check out Nichelle's excellent site for different ways to write your own: Dance Advantage.net: Your story.) I started to write this blog mid-dance, so to speak. But there is so much back-story, and so many experiences I carry with me everyday and to every class. It's not baggage, but the back-bone of my dancing and my love for ballet. So I hope I still have your attention..

You probably already know that I was a late starter to ballet, along with everyone else in my beginner's class. We newbies concentrated on learning the basic building blocks: proper placement, clean line, organic movement and musical phrasing. My teacher, Jill, a very elegant dancer, had originally been trained in the Cecchetti method. It is more of a no frills, no flowers  kind of style, very clean. During summer she also took classes in New York, and I suspect that there were plenty of influences from the likes of David Howard (click for video on youtube) et al. I loved the music she used: in addition to the typical classical ballet scores we danced to music from the American Songbook - all arranged for ballet class. She was a soprano singer in her own right and that musicality came clearly through in class. Jill had a real talent for phrasing movement to music, and gave challenging barre exercises, with changing accents and tempi. Never boring.

Her style of teaching was not the most academic classical ballet, and as such it was especially popular with modern and jazz dancers, and us adult recreational ballet dancers. Technique was never forced at the cost of anatomical proper placement, which is a very safe introduction to ballet. The only drawback was that "safe" was "super-safe", still leaving plenty of room for individual abilities. I learned only much later to push myself just that little bit further, and to find my own maximum turn-out, heel-forward, highest extension etc. But there is a time for everything. Learning proper placement and musicality from day one, was the best gift any teacher could have given us!

April 5, 2011

First Ballet Class

"Did you know that there are ballet classes for adult beginners?"
There it was. The question that launched a thousand+ tendus and a love-affair with ballet which is growing stronger still.. Looking back, it is almost funny. I had always been into dance in a big way, ever since I saw my first musicals on TV. And when I was about 12, my grandpa took me to see Giselle. The vision of wilis entering the stage from both sides, all under the same veil - I was thrilled beyond! My best friend at the time had taken ballet classes but already stopped, and I never thought I could still have a go at it. How could I possibly be that special? Surely you had to be chosen to dance ballet. Instead I read every Dance Magazine at our local (and very impressive) library, looking at pictures of ballerinas until the images were burned onto my brain permanently. This was before The Internet, and long before youtube. If lucky, you either danced yourself or saw dance performed live.
"You´ve got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying.. in sweat." 
Lydia Grant, as portrayed by Debbie Allen
That old 80s TV show Fame was a huge hit with us. Despite that the actors were twice our age, and as such not really convincing high-school students. But the singing! And most of all, the dancing! The character of Lydia Grant, the school´s vivacious, talented, tough yet caring dance teacher, was my favorite the moment those famous opening lines were spoken. I loved the drive behind that statement, the passion it evoked and the promise of something larger than life. To be able to dance like that! My friends and I were crazy enough to buy the soundtracks (on tape, no less) so we could sing and dance along. We copied all the moves, right down to that jumping split - which we called the "Fame-jump"! It was great, but I still had not figured out that there where actual dance classes waiting to be taken..
"I´m not too old for ballet? Really?"
Some seven years later.. I had finally made it to a dance studio, enticed by a friend´s plea for moral support. Not that I really needed much convincing.  It was a sweaty and fun jazzy work-out class, but I was not yet feeling The Dance. Some moves we did seemed silly to me, others just arbitrary.. That is until our teacher told us about ballet. As in Ballet for Adult Beginners. Cue the curtain opening, and orchestral music swelling.. Me: "What? There´s ballet for adults? I can learn ballet? I´m not too old/average/whatever? Really? Where do I sign up?" Seriously, it felt like the last-day-of-school-before-summer and xmas rolled into one tingling anticipation. I just knew that something good was coming.. 
"Toe, ball, heel. Heel, ball, toe."
First ballet class, we sat down on the floor, backs straight.. My new teacher was giving out commands from the corner.  She was an ex-pat New Yorker, with an authoritative presence not unlike that of Lydia Grant. And a stance that was unmistakably all dancer. She was friendly, yet assertive, with a resonating voice that carried easily to the back of the room. "Toe, ball, heel. Heel, ball, toe." This I could do, point and flex my feet to the music. It was a simple beginning, but it made sense to me. We moved from the floor to the barre, to first plies and plies in first, seconde, third and sixth. Concepts of turn-out and tendu were introduced. Every new thing we did was exciting, like turning the pages of a newly-discovered first volume! I knew right then.. that I would be in it for the long run!