June 21, 2011

Ramblings of a Bunhead

I got off on the wrong foot today. Which, as far as sayings go, probably not the best one for a dancer. On Sunday one of my lower molar teeth chipped, just like that, leaving a sharp edge to rub against my tongue. I have a dentist´s appointment tomorrow, but eating and talking has been no fun at all. Even eating chocolate hurts. Then I decided to color my hair, freaked out by the appearance of two silver strands - hello Grey Swan! - but the shade came out darker than I intended. More goth than glam. I gave my hair another wash this morning, to get rid of the excess color but only got squeaky-clean fly-away hair that won´t bun. It took me three orange-sized applications of thickening mousse, half a can of hairspray and 7 attempts before I got the slippery strands into a half decent bun, just short of a nervous hair-breakdown. 

Made me seriously reconsider cutting my hair off! But, if I cut it short enough for a not-in-your-face-when-turning-ponytail.. Then I can´t wear a proper bun when I want to! And it´s not like I have a stylist with hair-pieces at my service. Also I´ve only recently grown out my bangs, which do make me look younger, but are really a nuisance. If you don´t want to pin your fringe, it hops whenever you hop. Which is great if you want to dance with a prop! And if bobby-pin you do, you can´t remove them after class, unless you´re willing to go public with the dorkiest hair possible! For now, I´m sticking with my bunhead, goth color and all! Interestingly, a new article just came out, "Bob or Bun - A Ballerinas´s Tough Choice", about dancers´ many hair issues like thinning hair-lines (yikes), cookie-cutter images and making up your own head. Read it at New York Times.

I could finish here, make it a short post about bad hair days and bunheads. But there is ballet stuff too, waiting to clear my brain! So, after late trains, a chipped tooth and sore tongue and goth hair that won´t bun (hey, it rimes), I finally rushed out of the office, ran to the train, which amazingly was on time - and relaxed. The closer I got to our school, the more my ballet self took over. Work stuff faded into the background, worries dissipated and I started to think in terms of dance. What variations we did last time, the corrections I received and whether my pirouettes would be back this week (they were not, but what the heck). I had only 10 minutes to change and warm-up, but I was good and ready when we started. 

I loved the challenging class Gabriella gave us! Even the stuff I always mess up first, like flic-flacs at the barre. And sure enough, my teacher made me do them again. I get the theory, and can do them slo-mo, but if you throw flic-flacs into a fast frappé exercise: help! But on the repeat, I got them right. Yay. We also did entrechat quatres and cinq combinations, big jumps like cabrioles in all directions, pirouettes in seconde, and pirouettes from developpé in seconde. 

In center we did a beautiful adagio, which required actual interpreting and delicate emoting! It was a temps lie movement at the end; step forward, tentative arm reaching out (to your love), step back, arm sweeping behind body, gaze turned away, all shy and timid (or coy), then step forward again, reaching out once more, longingly, brazenly.. And that final gesture, where I  retract my hand, so that it is held somewhere between chin and chest.. Today I not just a nutty bunhead, but for a fleeting moment I was Giselle and Anna Karenina and Manon.. 

And I could finish here, because that last line left me all dreamy and dramatic, but there is more! For one, the sudden and kinda weird onset of more flexibility, which really deserves a blog post of its own. Can I just say this: I have never, ever been closer to six o´clock! 

Then there is the story of my pet-peeve: the new lady who literally squeezed in front of my barre spot, after we had done four exercises already. Apparently the girls in her previous spot were also more or less new (and not advanced enough) and she could not copy from them. So she thought it a good idea to jump in front of me (and my mirror), just as the music started. Our teacher had to stop and start again, and I told lady to stand at least behind me. But as my mental state for the day had been a bit fragile, I totally messed up the entire exercise. I hate it when stupid stuff like that gets to me! Anyway, I really don´t know what she was doing in advanced class, as she had to copy every single movement. And poorly, might I add. After the first mess, whenever she was in front of me, I had to mentally block her out, otherwise I would have screwed up my entire barre.  You can tell that it bugs me still, and I really should not get overly annoyed at this late hour. Maybe there is a balletiquette post in the future? Anyone want to share any pet peeves on that subject?

There is more still - it really was such a terrific class, but I have to go to bed now. Tomorrow there is no dance, but early morning dental repair. Yay. Wednesday and Thursday I have two advanced technique classes and one basic level on pointe (or two). On Friday we celebrate Midsummer´s Night in Finland, one of the most loved and legendary festivities of the year. I leave you with one last note:

With all its ups and downs, dance is still the shortest route to happiness. 

Photo above post: Gene Schiavone. Dancer: Elizabeth Farina.

June 12, 2011

Back Row

The Royal Danish Ballet in Balanchine's Symphony in Three MovementsPhoto: Kyle Froman.

Sometimes I like to take refuge in Back Row. Away from the clearing that is Front Row, hidden behind other dancers as if they were trees and I was the deer escaping from the limelight.. Which is futile, since our studio is neither the size of a stadium nor are there enough dancers to make a dense forest! Besides that, our teacher has 20/20 vision that does extend beyond the front row - so there really is no place to hide. Do not get me wrong, it´s not like I dont want be in class right there and then - but when Front Row starts to feel like front line - that´s when I need to step back. 

Last Thursday was one of those days. I was on my 2nd day of sleep-deprived dancing and achy from Wednesday´s two technique classes, one of which I did entirely on pointe. My feet felt like they had been stuffed into lead-lined slippers, and my center was somewhere offstage along with my confidence. It was the third class with the same adagio exercise, combining jambe sur la barre: standing in croisé toward barre, developpé devant onto barre, cambré forward and back. Leg up and off. Developpé front into plié, then quarter of grande ronde de jambe - straighten plié leg at the same time - and only then take hold of foot for the talon a la main stretch. The difficult part is that the leg has to be high enough, so you can grab it without a lasso. I can just about manage it on my left side (yay), but with my right leg it´s Catch Me If You Can, and I can´t. For the past two lessons my teacher Gabriella has kindly been coming to my aide, lifting and holding my leg up at the crucial moment. This time it´s strike three and you´re out. And me having another extensional crisis.

In center, we repeat our beautiful adagio exercise. I have an actual Moment when we plié from 1st arabesque into attitude, then promenade en dehors. Our teacher tells us to linger in the plié, really going down, and I do feel the difference - and then get to bask in the praise! However, at this point I´m dancing on fumes alone and when my balances start to wobble, I know I´m heading for trouble. Muscles start to tense up and I get nervous, which turns my pirouettes into half-assed attempts. It does not help that we are practicing our turns a la seconde - not exactly the easiest pirouette in the curriculum! When our teacher gives general corrections after the second group has completed the exercise, I sneak to the back of the class. 

We do not have fixed places in this class. There are no best-girl barre-leaders, instead it´s each to her own. When we move to the center there is never an elbow-pushing  rush to get to the front. Usually it´s the same girls, but anyone who wants to can step up and dance in the first row. Having said that, our teacher often takes care that not all of the most advanced girls are in the same group. Sometimes she rotates lines and when we move across the floor she divides the girls so that the less experienced dancers get some additional support.

The Australian Ballet, Swan Lake. Photo: Jim McFarlane

Usually I like to be in First Row, front line territory. For one, I can see better (I´m nearsighted but don´t wear contacts). Secondly, I have to pay extra attention as there is no one to copy from. Finally, Front Row gives me an adrenaline boost. It´s like the rehearsal before dress rehearsal - you want to get it right and make a good impression.

Other times it´s The Back Row that rescues my class. I often join the second group to get more practice, and on good days I´ve done most of my triples when I´ve been practically out of sight. I´m also less shy to dance big and full out (and then repeat it in the front). This time, however, I fall back to give myself a break before the rest of class turns into a stumbling disaster. Or so I think. When we are ready to begin again, our teacher is already on the look-out for me. "Johanna, where are you?" Me, in the back, holding arm up. Teacher: "Come to the front." Resistance is futile so I pull myself together and try again.

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
- Samuel Beckett 
Turns out, my teacher kind of rescued me from myself. Again. Even though I was moving to the back to recharge and calm down, this has too often been the beginning of the end, as in giving up on myself altogether. On a bad day Back Row is where I go to feel a little sorry for myself and disappear. That rarely happens anymore, but the association of being lost is still there. My teacher giving me the proverbial kick in the butt was just the psycho boost I needed, refueling my tired body and pushing me to not give up. The remainder of class is as good as tired me can get. Which is not so bad! In grand allegro I add the beat to the balloné before my teacher has a chance to tell us, earning myself praise. I even feel frisky enough to add another beat on the temps levé arabesque. Class finishes on a high and with break-neck-speed piqué turns. What a buzz!

Front row or middle row or back row - whatever works for you. You can dance as if no one is watching, if that helps at all. But don´t dance as if it does not matter. You gotta own your row, baby!

June 3, 2011


What a fabulous summer vacation day it has been! I could write an entire post just about it, but lets get straight to the pointe (pun absolutely intended). This summer my school is offering ballet classes Mon-Fri, but no pointe classes at all, not even the kind where you have 15 minutes of exercises at the end of class. Dear readers, no way am I going to store my shoes away until mid August! Twelve weeks without is too long, especially since I´ve been making a bit of progress every week. That is why I consulted my teacher G and - yay - got permission to do a regular class in my pointe shoes! So today I hopped, skipped and piquéd my way some three levels down to basic ballet and it felt like.. a milestone.

Before the basic class was my own int-adv class, which was good too. I don´t know what is different this week, but my balances have been better than in the longest time. No wait, I´m on vacation! That must be it! That and sleeping more than 6 hours each night. I guess earlier nights are a must if one wishes to balance and pirouette. I probably should reduce that tweeting habit of mine.. Anyway, back to class. I was changing into my pointe shoes when the next group came in, lots of new faces. But oh dear, you should have seen some of the bambi-caught-in-headlights expressions.. One girl thought I was packing up, and was about to drop her stuff at my barre spot. When I told her I´m staying not leaving, she nearly double-backed out! Me: "Yes, this is basic class, but I´m still a beginner on pointe, and no, pointe shoes are not required!" Big relief all over.

Modifying a regular barre for pointe shoes:

  • Class starts as usual with plié exercises. I decide to do one side as I would in soft shoes, and the other up in relevé - we have been doing this with my other teacher M-P, so I feel confident enough. But it´s way harder with just one hand on the barre, especially if you do a grand plié on pointe all the way down, that is going over the boxes (with a fully pointed foot). 
  • I do all relevés rolling up, not springing up, and all balances on pointe. A couple of times my teacher comes over and corrects my ankle positioning or reminds me to straighten my knees more. When we do cambrés, she tells me to do them in relevé as well.  
  • Fondues are hard, and for a moment I wonder if I could turn towards the barre - but I don´t want to distract the girl next to me - so I do them on my stronger side, but with the heel down on my weaker side. Frappés on pointe, and when my teacher praises my effort I almost topple over!
  • Since this is basic ballet class, pirouettes are practiced facing the barre. Tendu to the side, 1/4 ronde de jambe to the back into fourth, plié and passé relevé, without turning first. We have been doing this in pointe class as well, so no prob. Except that I still worry about hitting the barre with my knee (would not be the first time). Fortunately for me, many girls in class do not yet have that plié - straighten knees fast -coordination, so our teacher adds another plié-relevé exercise which is identical to the one we have been doing in pointe class. Good thing too, because I really need the work!
  • Developpés into arabesque, and here G comes over to push me over my box. I´m just glad we are not yet doing penchés! The stretches (jambe sur la barre and talon a la main) I do in relevé, just like we have been doing with M-P. Grand battements with heel down, but I think we have done these sur la pointe as well.. 

In the center it´s your basic tendu-pirouette enchaînement, but G tells me I can do just the preparations instead. This elicits more curious looks from the others - maybe because some expected more skills from a student in pointe shoes. Guess I should have worn a Learning sign on my rear! When we get to the jumping part of class, 16 x sauts in first, I´m told to do relevés instead - but I would not have to do all sixteen, and could do the exercise in a slower tempo. I feel strong enough to be defiant and do them anyway. Changements come next, and I can´t think of any way to modify, so I jump with the rest. Making lots of noise in the process. Then G surprises me.

She tells me to go up into fifth, and hop my changements on pointe! I have seen this, but never done it. Your knees stay slightly bent, and you don´t really jump up high, just enough to get off the floor and change legs in the air. I do as I´m told, then she corrects me (smaller jump, quicker change), I hop again and it works! And it´s fun too! I´m so surprised that I don´t even notice everyone else watching and waiting.. After that it´s back to normal basic ballet stuff, glissades and pas de chats across the floor, and no difference with pointe shoes. Except for the noise.

I´m very happy to discover that the tempo and difficulty of the class suit me just perfectly. There is really nothing I have not done or attempted to do in pointe shoes before. Marie-Pierre´s pointe classes have been an excellent preparation for this, and I feel pretty close to strong and confident! In addition, Gabriella gives me bonus stuff to do, despite having to look after three barres full of other dancers, and I really appreciate it.  I´m also a bit proud of myself that I already know how to modify the barre, and after class G tells me to add even more. Balances, where there are none, and if I need to, face the barre while doing fondues. 

Dear readers, usually I do not write about every detail in class - but this time it seemed more relevant than usual. I hope I didn´t bore you out of your pointe shoes! It was just such a new and exciting experience for me - to be one of those dancers who comes to "regular" class all nonchalant in her pointe shoes. In all of my 17 years of dancing, I never thought I would get here! Of course, I have many more years to dance before I (hopefully) reach my current soft-slipper level.  After all, I have been on pointe for only eight months, once a week. And I know it will only get more challenging! But apparently I did quite well today - which is enough reason to give myself a pat on the back and simply enjoy this milestone.. with a lovely glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. Cheers!

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, ...