March 30, 2011

Spot and Snap that Pirouette!

The strangest thing happened to me last ballet class.. We were practicing double en dedans pirouettes, and I was doing my usual of too much momentum combined with passé foot snaking around my supporting leg. I know that you need to finish the position before you turn and then hold it, but it always takes a conscious effort. Sometimes (okay, too often) I just throw myself into it, and there are times when that works too. It´s so awesome when you get to turn right on top of your axis; it feels like nothing can come between you and your pirouette!

It would be so sweet if all, or at least 8 out of 10 pirouettes would turn this effortlessly (instead of 5 out of 12).Then why, oh why, if I know all the theory and practice my turns as much as the next person in class, do those en dedans pirouettes keep failing me? One technical problem I already mentioned is not being in position before you turn. The other one, too much speed. For a double you really don´t need that much. It´s basically just one balance turning twice. I am also doing the deep plié beforehand, and push off and into the floor. But. I do have a real problem with spotting my turns. In fact I frequently don´t.

I still manage to pull off the occasional triples, on the sheer momentum of my speed - but pirouettes just do not look finished if that head does not snap neatly around on each turn. Oddly enough, I thought this was the main issue with me not spotting my turns, namely how it looks to the audience. I mean I can turn just fine without, right? Wrong. Last class I caught myself in the mirror just before I went spinning around and saw that my head was slightly tilted, kind of signalling "let´s turn this way!" Think about it, the human head weighs what, about 5 kg on average? Not surprisingly, it tipped me off  my axis each time.

The segment AB is perpendicular to the segment CD because the two angles it creates (indicated in orange and blue, respectively) are each 90 degrees. Source: Wikipedia. For turning purposes, A represents my head / eyes, the segment AB my neck, CD my shoulder. I call it ballet physics.

Long post short: I figured it out! I concentrated really hard on keeping my head perpendicular to my shoulders, with my neck relaxed, eyes looking straight ahead and snapping my head around only at the last moment. I turned doubles with the least speed ever, and even my position was much improved (though it still needs work). I have not yet tried this with en dehors turns, but can´t wait to see what will happen.. Spot, snap, spot, snap!

Picture above post: Viktoria Tereshkina, Mariinsky. Photo: Gene Schiavone

March 27, 2011

First Dance

Dancing Down Memory Lane, part three..

It was one summer, eons ago.. I might have been seven or nine years old and we were in Finland for the duration of my school holiday. I was staying with my grandparents in a lovely wooden house situated next to a small forest.  It was the kind of carefree summer that makes me go all nostalgic; the long days, the sun and trips to the beach, the freedom, the pancakes my gran made, almost quicker than we could eat them. My second cousin, Tiina, lived just a holler away and we spent most of time running about outdoors, playing and pretend-playing. Then one day we decided to put up a dance performance..

I had seen lots of Hollywood musicals, which I loved, but neither of us had had any previous experience with dance lessons. Nor did we have dancing siblings or ever seen a ballet performed. What we did have, was a huge lawn as the stage, the sun as our stage light, a thankful audience of parents and grandparents and our unbridled joy to move with the music! It must have been an interesting "choreography", a mix of musical influence a la "Singing in the Rain" with some Isadora Duncanesque movement thrown in.. But, there was no inhibition, no technique nor style to adhere to, no judgement. We were as innocent and naive as you could be. 

I remember that feeling still, the thrill of letting the huge string sections take over, my feet jumping off the ground and being airborne. 

Cyd Charisse, one of my early idols.
Our dance received the appropriate applause and accolades, as you would expect from gran and moms. Sadly, it did not result in ballet classes, though neither Tiina or me had a clue that such things even existed! Actually I´m not sure whether I would have loved dance classes as much as I do now. I was too much of a tomboy, more excited by climbing trees, jumping fences and doing general mischief. Ballet would have to wait..

Want to read more? Dancing Down Memory Lane, part 1

March 24, 2011

Dancing Down Memory Lane, part 2

Last night I was rummaging through my closet, looking for something else entirely, when I rediscovered a stack of my old journals - from way back when there was no twitter, no facebook, no internet even. In those days I actually put my writing on paper, and shared with no-one. How things have changed since.. Anyway, I found my first dance-entry! This was not written after my first class, but approximately 1,5 years later: 

"I have finally found myself a hobby that excites me every time - dancing!  I would never have believed this a couple of years ago, that I would be taking dance lessons 6 times a week, and often 2 classes a day! (...) I'm not all that flexible, but I have already improved. Can developpé my left leg to 90 degrees. (...) The teacher is terrific, she gives corrections hands-on and sometimes there is even praise. (...) My class level is now advanced-beginner, but on Saturdays I have permission to attend the intermediate class - so exciting! I feel that dancing has become my lifestyle.."

It makes me smile to look back at my much younger self and see that she hasn't changed all that much! Mind you, I'm actually quite flexible now and developpés are a lot higher too. ;) Hey, it's been thousands classes since! Lots and lots of work and stretching. But I had forgotten how quickly dance took my live over - or was it the other way round? And I can't believe I trained 6 times a week! But I do remember my first ballet class ever. A friend had wanted to take dance classes and asked me along as moral support. I remember the pieces falling into place right there and then. Of course I would join her! Why had I not figured this out earlier? Dancing just seemed so right. And I was not wrong..  

To be continued..

March 17, 2011

What Do You Feel When You Dance?

When I dance, I feel.. like everything comes into focus. 
Like every breath, every beat of the music, every moment and movement carries meaning and value. 
Time slows down, even as the outside world rushes by.
On a very good day I feel beautiful, I feel the music, and the flow...
 On a bad day, I still leave happier than I came in. 
When I dance, I know that there is nothing else I'd rather do, no other place I want to be. 

Shortest post ever prompted by a tweet from Tights and Tiaras.
Photograph by Gene Schiavone.

March 13, 2011

Reaching out, to a Faraway Land . .

Scene: at the barre, final équilibre in arabesque. Our teacher is doing rounds and I´m the last student in line. I hold my pose until the end of the music, and then some - but there are a lot of students and I can feel my supporting leg cramping.. I need to come down and shake my legs, but there is no escaping Madame´s friendly scrutiny, so I quickly relevé up again, raise my leg into arabesque and let go of the barre. And just in time..

"Stretch your knees!" Check. "Point your toes, more!" Check. Then she hoists my leg up way higher, and okay, no problem,  I can do this. "Front arm further!" Check. I do as told, already going beyond the strictly academic, but it´s too high and not what she is asking for. "Further, more!", and seriously, I am not kidding you. So I try to reach out even more, short of popping my shoulder blade,  and trying hard not to topple off my center. 

I imagine myself yearning for someone (a prince, maybe?) or somewhere, even though there is no place I´d rather be right now. I let my front arm take me and my back leg hold me and.. there it is. Arabesque is not a static position, but a movement. There is energy going in every direction, into the floor and out of the tips of your fingers and the toes of your feet. You don´t just hold your pose, you tell a story..

Picture: Oliva Bell in Black Swan pas de deux. Photography Justin Smith

March 10, 2011

No More Spectator Ballet!

I used to take class six days a week, often 2 - 3 times per day. I could not have asked for more or wished for less. That, sadly, was a lifetime ago - or so it sometimes seems to me. Back then I was a young chick (as in current age -15 years) and had all the time I wanted and all the I energy needed. Now I have to plan each day ahead, go to bed on time, eat properly, stretch diligently and be altogether a sensible adult, just to enjoy my 90 minutes of ballet three times a week. If I get lucky. 

Lately there have been too many flu-, work- and dental emergency -related obstacles, all of which have been keeping me from my regular dose of ballet class. Instead I have been relegated to youtubing and blogging ballet, which is fun and all - but without the actual dancing it´s only spectator sports. Oh, and  a dancer friend of mine borrowed me the DVD of the Paris Opera Ballet documentary "La Danse". It is a very long film, and although it is all dance, and no special effects, you would need really good sitz-bones to last through a movie-theatre viewing! But I will post more about La Danse later. 

Now, back to classes and to not getting enough: I do know many adults who are happy to dance only twice a week, but that person is so not me! I know I need to practice a minimum of three times, just to maintain my level and strength. If I can, I like to train at least four times a week - otherwise it is pretty hard to advance and grow stronger! Last spring I took an average of 4-5 weekly ballet classes, in addition to our recital rehearsals. I loved how my body responded to the extra work! That is until my iliotibial band got inflamed from overtraining.. So there is that too. 

At this moment there is really only one class that I absolutely cannot and will not miss, and that is Friday´s advanced ballet (90 min) plus pointe (60 min) with Madame. If she would teach any more classes (to us adults), I would want to go to each and everyone. But she does not, and so my other classes are mainly chosen to fit my schedule, as there is not that much difference between teachers. Meaning they are all pros and know their stuff for sure, but not everyone can be a master teacher.. Mondays it´s intermediate ballet and Wednesdays advanced beginner class, both old-school Vaganova (a bit too old-school for my liking and previous training). Sundays I take the occasional intermediate at another studio, which is fun but not really that productive.

Looking at my meagre schedule now, I see that I somehow have to work in more classes. Our spring recital is approaching fast and I do not want go on stage ill-prepared! I need at least one more class which is challenging, energetic, fun, and where all the students get lots of personal corrections. Unfortunately (for me that is) my other favorite teacher is still on her maternity leave. Even if she hopefully returns this summer or fall, it does not help me right now. So, in addition to the 3-4 ballet classes, I plan to do some pilates and yoga, and once the snow and icebergs melt away, lots of power-walking outdoors. Not too much to risk injuries from overworking muscles, but enough to survive the few minutes I get to be on stage!

Yikes, it´s 10 pm already and I still have to sew one last elastic on my new ballet slippers! Also I have not stretched yet, and need to be in bed in less than one hour. I wish I could function with a mere six hours of shut-eye.. But tomorrow is ballet class again and the end of my spectator dancing. Yay for that!

March 5, 2011

Where is Terpsichore When You Need Her?

Darcey Bussell as Terspichore in Balanchine’s 'Apollo'
Photo by Bill Cooper

After last week´s you-did-well class it was only a matter of time before good times came to an end. It is how my learning curve in ballet works: I make some kind of breakthrough, enjoy the moment, then realize that the bar has just gotten higher, after which there´s the obligatory nothing-getting-better plateau, to be followed by the one-step-forward, two-steps-back, pirouettes crashing and mis-placed placement. Sure, I could put the lingering effects of the snivel on yesterday´s lackluster class performance - but truth be told, I was really just way out of my comfort zone!

Class was a lot more difficult this Friday. The pace was faster and the moves trickier, with the usual demand for absolutely clean technique - combined with some seriously dance-y port de bras. Our teacher gave us a lot of Balanchinean choreography to do, with emphasis on high extensions, speed and elongated lines. You can tell that Madame loves Balanchine´s style, and I sincerely believe that Mr. B himself would have appreciated her talent just as much. She has in fact danced the part of Terpsichore (in the ballet Apollo) and still looks like she could do a repeat-performance on the drop of a hat. 

Old me, on the other hand, hasn´t been visited by any dance-muses of late. Instead I feel the need to join my fellow ballet-blogger Adult Beginner in the Happy Sad Happy Sad  -song:

Happy we have Madame willing to go out of her way to teach a bunch of adult dancers Balanchine.
Sad I´m as far removed from such artistry as is Helsinki from New York.
Happy my arms are learning to "breathe" and elongate.
Sad they still look readier to swim than to swan.
Happy that my neck is long and that my bun looks credible.
Sad you cannot use special effects in class and paste my head onto a legit ballet body instead.
Happy that I have been called a "good girl" - in class - just the same.
Sad that my "girl"days and frothy-pink-tutu dreams are long since gone.
Happy to be a woman in black leggings learning how to dance en pointe.
Sad that my right foot looks sorry on pointe.
Happy that my left foot has been described as "nice" instead.
Happy I can take my talon á la main and stretch that leg up to the height of my head.
Sad it will never be 6 o´clock.
Happy that my heel has been promoted to a body part of importance.
Sad that the same heel does not wish to face forward and welcome the spotlight.
Happy that there is another class tomorrow.

March 2, 2011

You Did Well Today!

You may have noticed that I´ve been playing around with the look of my blog, changing title pictures, fonts and templates. That´s what four days of staying indoors will do to you - not only do I have the flu but I´m suffering from cabin fever as well. Not being able-bodied to dance is driving me up the wall! So, in the meantime you will be surprised and possibly irritated by ever changing blog templates. My apologies! I promise there will be a more final version soon, although I still reserve the right to change things whenever it gets too tired. Also, I am working on the content - it´s just that after last Friday´s class my brain did not cooperate anymore. Over the weekend I was  mostly asleep. That is when I was not watching episodes of Bones online.
Another discarded blog title banner:

But I do remember that Friday´s ballet was awesome! Despite a persistent tickle in the back of my throat and headache that was just announcing itself - for some reason I did better in class than usual. I guess the pressure was off, and I was just so glad to still make it to ballet class before the flu got the better of me! Or, it is actually possible that my teacher´s corrections are finally sinking in.. It´s like there is this persistent voice track playing in my head, right alongside with the "normal" stuff that usually keeps my brain occupied. It sounds something like this:

Turn out. More! Present yourself. The back is long. Stretch your knees. Heels forward. Arms are breathing. Elongate the line.. match the phrasing of the music. Work the floor in degagés. Use oppositional forces. Weight on the working leg. Legs are long, longer! Pliés are juicy, and deeper. Positions bigger. Do your maximum. No in-betweens! Turn out. More!

I knew I was doing something right the moment we did our first grand pliés. I felt centered and stretched and placed, and everything seemed just a little bit easier. In the center pirouettes turned like there was no tomorrow, even though I lacked the nerve to go beyond doubles. Adagio was beautiful (the exercise, not me), and I did not loose balance on the arabesque penchée. I even managed the attitude pirouette en dehors finishing in plié. I have always trouble with that one! Petit allegro was fine, grand allegro less so but I´m out of practice. Really need to work on those grand jetés! Still it was the kind of class you wish you had everyday. Our teacher gave us some amazing demonstrations, the usual 6 o´clock positions which she does so effortlessly and a couple of surprise grand jetés which looked like they just sliced the air in half!

Picture of Lucinda Dunn, photo James Morgan
Pointe class was much better than last time, now that my shoes have been cut and molded to my feet. We did some crazy new stuff, like stretches on the barre in relevé. Crazy, because how on earth am I supposed to get up on pointe with one leg when I have my other back on the barre? In arabesque no less! Also I could not do the foot-in-hand stretch, not on pointe. Then Madame had us do pirouettes in the center, without ever prepping them at the barre. She gave us the option to do just relevés (when did this become "just"?), but I gave it a try anyway. To the right I could not even get up. To the left I managed one and a half turn, sadly with turned in legs. Not good! But over the years there have been a lot of things I thought I would never be able to do. Only to be proven wrong. See, sometimes it is really good to be wrong! 

Best of all, after class Madame came up to me and said that I did well today. Which is why I´m still smiling five days later.

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, ...