November 28, 2010

The One About Nice Feet and Magic Wands

The dreaded pointe shoe inspection before class.. I hand my shoes over to our Fabulous French Ballet Teacher, who immediately sees that the shanks are too hard for me. The thing is that I have fairly normal arches, but my insteps are low-ish. That gorgeous curve you see on pointed ballerina feet? I wish.. Madame then asks me if she could break the shoes for me, and hey, who am I to refuse? It takes her about ten seconds to snap the shank along 3/4 of its length. Nothing is cut off, but now there's less resistance under my arch. 


The shoes really do feel different. It's easier to roll through demi-pointe, and I think I have just a bit more foot control. But sadly, not yet the magic trick I was sort of hoping for.  It bugs me that I still can't get properly over the box with my right foot (my left foot is better). Obviously I have to keep working both my feet, and learning pointe technique is a very slow climb uphill. No magic.

So, ballet is not easy. What else is new? This week we are doing slow relevés, rising and lowering carefully through demi-pointe and doing plies and grand-plies while up on full pointe. I find this gives me better control of turnout and I try my best to isolate the proper muscles. But there's not much time to think as we move on to really quick échappés and single leg retirés, followed by lots and lots of quick relevés in first and second positions. Thankfully, it's not all work and no play. We end the barre with a beautiful enchainement where the idea is to be very "Juliet". I feel shy, out of my comfort zone, but at the same time it's very exciting. 

Center work is as challenging as ever, scary and fun at the same time, but forget about looking elegant  or looking like "Juliet", for that matter! I just concentrate on not falling over. We do even more échappés, as well as single leg retirés, bourrés and a prep exercise for tour chaînés (déboulés). Now the correction I keep hearing most often is about my knees. "Stretch your knees! You have to stretch your knees at all times!" The class before it was about forwarding and presenting my heels, but now my lazy knees are the bad guys. There is so much to do, to learn and to remember! Luckily our Fabulous French Ballerina is the sweetest, most demanding and encouraging teacher you could ask for.

After class Madame takes another look at my shoes and says she's going to bring in her old, custom-made pointes so we can see how shoes are supposed to be broken in.  It is different for every dancer I think, but she is the professional ballerina and I trust her judgement. Still, I'm feeling a bit sorry about my mediocre feet. Then Madame surprises me: she tells me that I actually have "nice feet"(!), and if I want to improve my pointe work (Yes!), I need to concentrate more on stretching my knees. Along with everything else, of course (think core strength, plum line, turn-out, coordination, épaulemant, etc..). So my feet do not have glorious ballerina arches, but they don't suck either!

I'm in a happy place right now. Never had "nice feet" before. <insert big grin>. All I have to do is keep taking class, work hard, work harder, and then some (which I coincidentally love to do). And I'm thinking no magic is needed for that.

Just in case things don´t work out...

Photo: Reinhold Thiele

November 26, 2010

A Day Off is a Good Day to Pointe

Ballet isn´t easy on the adult dancer´s body. 

My muscles are still sore from Wednesday´s class, and not sleeping enough hasn´t helped at all. That´s why I plan to do some recuperating stretching today, even before I leave for class, combined with a moderate ab-workout to warm up (not my favorite way to spend time - but need those core muscles!). I like to stretch for at least a full hour, focusing on whatever muscle groups feel the tightest. Since I´m on my feet all day, calves tend to be really tired and cramp easily when we´re doing lots of relevés. I gotta be careful, because two years ago I injured my left calf muscle in the middle of an easy temps levé jump. It was the end of class, I was all warmed up and yet I felt the dreaded kick in the back of my leg. That muscle strain kept me away from dancing for a whole month. So guys, always pay attention to your aches and pains! And take the time to recover between classes. But let´s get back to the good stuff:

It´s Friday again, one of my favorite days of the week. And to sweeten the deal even further, it´s my day off. I can sleep in, there´s no rushing to and from work, just some minor errands to run and a bit of housework (not too much). All this goodness equals more time to prep and enjoy this evening´s double bill of ballet and pointe! I´m going to be early to warm up and ready my legs, ankles and feet. Just a little bit of pilates for those all-important 26 bones, 33 joints, 100 muscles, ligaments and tendons! By the way, Ballet Scoop has some great tips on how to  "supercharge your pointework". Considering that we are doing 90 minutes worth of high-intensity ballet followed by 60 minutes of pointe class, I need all the prep I can manage. Pointe shoes aren´t exactly Birkenstocks!

Which reminds me, I have been asked to submit my pointes (Capezio, Aerial) to inspection before tonight´s class. Our Fabulous French Ballet Teacher isn´t too happy about my inability to rise properly over the box. She suspects the fault lies with my too hard shoes. I fear the culprit are my feet. Update will follow..

November 23, 2010

Sleeping Beauty, I wish..
I were.. not because I want to dance her part on stage (hey, to be completely honest - I want to, if only I had the skills) but because I could use the time to get some serious sleep! Sadly, the days when I could pull off a full schedule, work and studying and dance included, with merely 6 hours of slumber, are long gone. Over. Finito. But you get the idea. Life moves on, you grow older, schedules conflict and sleep becomes a precious commodity.

Never mind that sleeping is supposed to keep you beautiful - I need every bit of energy so I can still dance full out! It´s just that, après-ballet, I´m usually too hungry and wired, and it takes me too much time to wind down. And far too often I fall into the trap of TV/DVD, chatting and blogging when I should be heading to bed already. Heck, I´m doing it even now! But it´s hard not to, especially when I come home late from dance class and before you know, it is already past midnight and another tired day lies ahead..

It´s really not the smartest idea to dance when you are sleep-deprived. Learning new combinations is a lot more difficult, as is remembering which came first.. my left or right foot, and why is everyone else going in the other direction? Yeah, just happened to me today. Tricky little tendue frappées! And forget about inching those extensions any higher! Also there´s a real risk of injury, if you don´t pace yourself carefully. Not to mention the missed opportunity to push yourself further, and work harder! So, a lot of valid reasoning to stay home and lay low. But me, I´m a stubborn person and like my ballet far too much to miss out on any classes. I have to confess that I´d rather dance bleary-eyed than not at all. Also, coffee helps.

In an ideal world, I could take all the hours I would need to dance and to sleep. A girl can dream, right?

Aurelie Dupont, danseuse étoile, Paris Opera Ballet

November 19, 2010

definition of elegant: graceful in form or movement

It's Friday evening and pointe class. Our Fabulous French Ballet Teacher is demonstrating a seemingly simple exercise where we are supposed to piqué across the floor: "You have to present yourself.. do a beautiful port de elegant!" She looks stunning, every inch the ballerina. But me? Elegant? ON POINTE? Not so much.. Heck, I'm rarely, if ever, elegant in REAL life. Seriously, how do you learn this stuff? And where do I sign up?

November 18, 2010

Space(y) Pirouettes

I have had this dream repeatedly where I keep turning, endlessly and effortlessly, counting 4, then 8, then 16, then..., well then I usually wake up, somewhat disappointed might I add, because reality never lets me defy the laws of physics and ballet. The thing is, I´m pretty much useless at spotting my turns. And spotting, it seems, is the key in succeeding at triple or quadruple or even - yikes - quintuple pirouettes! Case in point, just check out the amazing dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet taking company class and turning their butts off:

Strangely, I have somehow managed to pirouette for the past 15 years without focusing on any spot. And the truth is, you can do it without - it just doesn´t look neat, and forget about turning multiple spins! This sad fact was finally pointed out to me by my Favorite Ballet Teacher, and only because of her persistence I am slowly learning to snap my head around twice - spot ahead! Nowadays, on a good day, I manage maybe four out of 10 double turns neatly.. but finding my spot three times: impossible! Although the Triple Pirouettes do happen once in a while, that third revolution always seem accidental. Maybe it´s because I never really decide beforehand to turn thrice, and just go into the turn hoping for the best..

Now, I have worked a lot on my pirouettes. I try to learn from all the different corrections our teachers have given to us in class. I´ve read almost every 101/article/blog/thread there is on on improving your turns. Most have been helpful. I know that there have been many glitches in need of repair, and I´ve gotten a lot better. I have learned that beside spotting your turns, a strong core, deep plié and perfect timing of all elements are what make a great pirouette.

By the way, if you want to do the same, that is look for advice on the internet, this guide by Nichelle of Dance Advantage is one of the best: .

Still, something weird happens when I try to snap my head around more than twice. Suddenly my spot is all over the place. Last night, my substitute ballet teacher kindly told me in my native Finnish that "sun katse on avaruudessa", which roughly translated means that "I´m off and headed into space". Yeah, space.. and spotting.. my final frontier. It was funny, really, because aside from being a total ballet dork, I´m also a bit of scifi-nerd. For me, the best drama truly happens in space. But spacey pirouettes? Not so much.

So, I gotta figure out how to re-write my pirouette base-code. Remove that fail-safe in my brain which prevents my head from staring just straight ahead into space. Put theory into practice. Fail 19 times and succeed the twentieth (the definition of perseverance according to Julie Andrews). Turning multiple pirouettes (as in 4 or even 5) is a sweet dream indeed, right along there with flying spaceships. But unlike dreaming of traveling through Stargates, non-spacey-pirouettes could actually still become reality! And guys, when that happens and I nail my first clean quadruple, the tab´s on me!

Disclaimer: open tab only for first person to witness actual act of turning quadruple, and only applicable at my local pub. In this galaxy.

November 15, 2010

Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly. - Robert Schuller

Ballet is hard. Even after thousands of tendues and plies and practice it doesn´t really get any easier. There are always new things to learn, and old stuff to improve upon. For instance in today´s intermediate class we did this new move, I hope I can explain it right: jump from 5th, the front leg opens into seconde (same arm up), and you do a quick ronde en l´air as you come down, followed by pique (with same front leg) arabesque in effacé. And repeat. Hmm.. I really need to work on these explanations. 

Anyway, it was a new combination for me, and I just couldn´t figure it out. Am I supposed to do the ronde while still airborne? Is that really possible? If I do the ronde on landing, then what was that first jump? Sissone ouvert? Again, I´m over-thinking the steps, when we should already be doing them. Our teacher does explain, but she can no longer demonstrate full out, and I´m a visual learner.  To confuse myself further,  I´m reminded of another jump I´ve seen in Balanchine´s Nutcracker.. I think it´s called "gargouillade", but there you do the rondes with both legs, and simultaneously. Must try that sometime. But I digress. We repeat the exercise many times, and I´m doing something slightly different each time. I really hope we are doing this combination again next class so I can get another go at it ( or closer to). 

Ballet is full of these challenges, and I love it, even though I sometimes get frustrated. I suppose it´s all part of the learning process and dancing and life in general. It´s what makes it such a rewarding experience and just plain fun. With ballet, you are never over and done!

November 13, 2010

Friday Evening - Happy Hour at the Barre

Friday evening, and nothing feels better than finishing the working week at the barre! First up, 90 minutes of advanced ballet with our new ballet teacher, The French Ballerina. At times I get a little distracted, because of her insanely high extensions and wonderfully expressive port de bras. It's a great class. She is a lovely person and a terrific teacher, giving everyone lots of personal attention and positive feedback. The barre is fast-paced, with quick degagées, developpées and enveloppées, and lots of balances. In the center we do a beautiful adagio, which has me both terrified and excited. Terrified, because there's a real chance of looking totally silly, and excited because I feel like I could express something with my dancing! And I even managed to pull off a couple of triple pirouettes! The class ends late, with no time for reverance, but there's big applause and I quickly rush to change into my pointe shoes.

I had given up on the idea of doing pointe. Too old, too late, too hard. However, after some 16 years of practicing ballet in soft shoes, I started to feel that not learning pointe would be something I was going to regret. So, when our teacher Gabriella Serra told us that she would start teaching pointe classes this August, beginners included, I jumped at the chance! Not too late after all! Pointe class turned out to be much more challenging and difficult than I anticipated, but fast-forward ten weeks and ten classes, and I'm still excited about every new exercise. Then, just as I'm getting the feel of pointe shoes (and first blisters), Ms Serra goes on maternity leave. Happy news, but I wonder what will happen to our adult beginners pointe class... Enter our new teacher, Marie-Pierre Greve, aka The French Ballerina. 

We are all a bit dumbfounded to have such an elegant principal dancer teach our adult class. Ms. Greve retired from the Danish Royal Ballet just two years ago, at the age of 38, and it shows. One of my friends tells me that she would buy a ticket just to watch her port de bras. I've had many good teachers over the years, but taking class with Ms. Greve does feel a bit like winning the ballet lottery!

There I am, standing at the barre, on pointe, in a really scary wide second position. Ms. Greve is sitting at my feet. She takes hold of my left foot, molding the arch and telling me to point more, and I do my best to comply. “There, you see, you can do it!” she exclaims, looking quite delighted at the result, until she sees my other foot all un-pointed and starting to turn in. At that point(e), I feel the need to apologize but instead I merely nod when she tells me that there is plenty of work to do, that I have to get stronger and that there would be no pointe for me (sorry, pun intended) if I could not get properly over my box at all times. I keep nodding my head, as my power of speech is frequently lost in ballet class. But I know what I want: to learn how to dance on pointe!

Class is more difficult now, with quick echappées and single leg passée retirés in center. I feel my legs no longer belonging to me, and have the hardest time getting up and staying there. But Madame is très sweet, encouraging and correcting everyone. She even takes hold of my hands to help me with a challenging balance, and I try my hardest to get it right. At the end of class, my feet are smokin' hot and I'm feeling slightly disoriented. It's like I had one drink too many, in a foreign bar where I don't quite understand the language. Then, I catch my reflection in the mirror, red cheeks, glowing skin and grinning from one ear to the other. It's been another happy hour at the barre!

Pointe in my kitchen. November 2010. 

November 10, 2010

Ballet on a Budget

Let´s be frank about it. Doing ballet doesn´t come cheap. Pointe shoes cost a bundle. Ballet performances sometimes a small fortune. Taking regular ballet classes is a lot more expensive than your average gym membership. I take a minimum of three classes a week, totalling at approx. 1450 euros on a yearly basis. Considering the state of today´s economy, that´s a whole lot of money that could, and perhaps should have been spent more wisely elsewhere. Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls of being a grown-up means that you get to pay for your own classes and pointe shoes. That is after all those other bills, student loans and mortgages have already been paid for. So what if not-dancing is not an option to save money? How do you stretch a budget to accomodate enough classes and pointe shoes?

Now, you could get your ballet fix through blogs and video postings alone. But for me, dancing vicariously merely bridges the gap from one ballet class to the next. It´s just not the same. Still, there are a lot of great tips and demonstrations on the internet to broaden dancing horizons and help to improve your technique. Check out my video links on the right to some of the best companies in the world. Sadly, they provide only snippets of ballets, but it´s still great fun.

Some of my other favorite and easy ways to save money (and resources):
- recycle where you can: I cut off the elastics once my soft ballet shoes are worn through. The color and width is just right for pointe shoes.
- wear your slippers as long as possible: because I like my soft shoes to fit really snug, the canvas gets holes pretty quick. As soon as I notice the fabric wearing thin, I tape my shoes inside and out with sports tape. This really works!
- if you wear black tights, no need to shop in the dance section. Black leggings are everywhere (and cheap)
- take care of your pointes, always air for at least 36 hrs after wear. Also, shellac on the inside of your box works to keep the tip hard.
- buy online, but only when you´re 100% sure of the size and model

In the end, all the money I have put into ballet has been worth it tenfolds. You just can´t put a price on passion! I would love to read about any money-saving ideas you might have..

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To That Special Ballet Teacher

To that special ballet teacher, who not only teaches you about technique, but helps build your confidence, nurtures your inner artist, ...