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!


  1. Great pictures :)
    Your teacher is fantastic! A good teachers knows when a student needs a little push, and also knows when to ease a little.
    I think it's essential that a class has such a safe and relaxed athmosphere that dancers feel it's ok to try and fail, that is the only way to learn and progress.
    On the other hand, I have to say that it sounds like you might have been pushing yourself a bit too hard? Please remember to rest and drink plenty, especially if the heat wawe returns :)

  2. Hi Aija!

    Yes, she is fantastic - I´m a very lucky dancer :)
    I thrive best when there is a student-teacher relationship, that is when the teacher already knows how my head and body works. Sometimes I need a strict approach, other times it is best to be really gentle ;)

    However, you are right, I might have pushed myself too much. I´m really stubborn like that. Have to faint or break a leg before I miss class. But heat and too little sleep are not a good combo. I will be more careful this week.

    Thanks for your comment and your concern too :)

  3. I very much relate to days like that and agree that you have a great teacher for spotting what you needed.
    I am really enjoying reading your blog. I'm a thirtysomething dancer too - not en pointe anymore although I started learning pointe a few years ago. Then I had two children and ballet classes were cut right back. At the moment I'm not dancing at all because my youngest is only 12 weeks. So reading your blog is giving me a vicarious pleasure, thank you! I'm itching to get back to class, so I love reading your detailed descriptions.

  4. Hello Katherine!

    Glad to be of vicarious service ;) I don´t have kids myself, but lot of my dancing friends do. I understand that you have to cut back for a while, and that scheduling/juggling family and work and ballet is a challenge!

    You can always get back on pointe when you´re good and ready :)

    Thanks for reading and commenting, I always love to hear from other 30++ dancers :)

  5. I have two kids and I think that it's good that they see that I am dancing ballet... I mean it could be any kind of hobby, but it's good for children to realize that their parents are doing something purely for fun, and working hard, progressing and enjoying every moment!

    My kids have come to see me perform and they are proud of me, it feels really good! I've noticed that they are not so unhappy that I leave to take a class, because they know it's so important to me. I want to teach them that practising and learning is rewarding itself, not just because there might be a prize (or a punishment...)

  6. I totally agree, Aija. I think it's great for so many reasons. For your children to see that you have personal interests and passions, that you value yourself enough to pursue them, that you have dedication and work hard and have fun.
    I also found ballet great through pregnancy. What I lost in technique I felt I made up for in emotional connection with the music, which was really heightened for me during that time. It felt like I was sharing the movement and music with my baby who I didn't yet know. But it doesn't combine well with frequent breastfeeding and broken nights. Last time I tried to go back at 4 months, but my daughter was a bad sleeper and I had to admit defeat until about 10 months. This time I'm hoping I'll be back a lot sooner.
    I hope my kids will see me perform some day.

  7. Wow ballet dancing during pregnancy sounds like such a beautiful experience! I also have two kids (5 and 7 yrs) - and it's actually through them that I found ballet for myself! They both started ballet this winter and I thought I'd try it too - only to discover that it became a real passion! So much so that I'm training more than them now.. It's fun to have a shared hobby with your kids - we watch ballet videos together and try out positions together at home. We all also play the piano together, which is another shared experience.

    I agree with what both of you said about how beneficial it is for children to see their parents' dedication and hard work at something that is particularly quite difficult - it teaches them not to give up too easily and that with practise it's possible to learn new skills.

    I'm new to ballet (only 4 months) and this is my first hobby outside the home since the kids were born - I still have the occasional guilt trips about doing something (ie spending time!) purely for my own pleasure and not something 'useful'.. But learning ballet makes me so happy, I think it's important and 'useful' enough for the whole family! : )

    I hope you get dancing soon Katherine - patience! : )

  8. I like moving around! I used to always go to the same spot on the barre and at the same spot for centre, until one day my teacher moved me to another place at the barre. Seeing myself in a different spot made me notice different things in the mirror, so moving around is good!

  9. Such beautiful photos - thank you for sharing them

  10. I love the back row: that's where I feel the most comfortable! Ok, I don't learn as well, and sometimes I don't see the movements, but the pros in front of me usually know the routines really well. I also don't get corrections while being in the back, but I am ready to compromise it, because when I am in the front or the middle, I only think about being the first layer before the eyes of the teacher and the mirror. I really don't like the mirror, and as a complete newbie I remember having extreme difficulty balancing while looking my reflection in the eyes.

  11. Noora, I used to be in back row when I first switched from my own level to way harder. I would not have dreamed of being up front and messing up everybody else´s concentration. Or worse, getting in their way!

    BUT: in your own class, you really need to step out of your comfort zone, at least once in a while. For one, you are not invisible in back row. You just think you are. However, your are sending a message that you rather go into hiding.. You have noticed that you don´t get corrections in the back. That is a pretty high price to pay! I can only say this: life is short, dance classes even shorter. Don´t waste that precious time.

    Start in mid row, move your way up. The first time can be daunting, but you get used to it. Don´t rely on the "pros" to lead you, in your own level you should be able to do the exercises without. Don´t worry if you make mistakes - we all do - it´s much more important to make the effort. Your teacher will notice, and be more motivated to correct you.

  12. Hi Ballet News!

    Thank you! I do go the extra mile to find photos that fit both the text, and that have artistic value.

    Of course, you know that I´m only re-sharing these photos (and without obtaining permission). I figure as long as I´m not making any money (and I´m not), and make sure to give proper credit, it is sort of okay. Companys, dancers and photographers are getting additional PR in the process, not that my little blog is that significant.

    I plan to publish more photos of my own, but there are so many stunning images out there that deserve every view they can get :)

  13. Hi Four-eyed Ballerina,

    I agree with you, moving around is a good idea! In my usual classes, I tend to rotate between side and front mirror, but I can also do without. It is also good to feel the movement and not rely on visual feedback.

    I do, however, have a fixed spot in my Friday classes with M-P. The studio is big, with a rectangular shape. The most popular barre is the window-barre which gives everyone side-view to the mirror. I on the other hand, prefer the short end, closest to the teacher´s spot (I can´t see fromthe other end).

    Because of the piano and other music equipment it fits only two (who know what they´re doing), and usually it´s just me. Or my dance-buddy Suvi and me :) This spot I will not give up, which works fine, as the rest of us have all their own spots too!

    Once another student wanted to change her spot, and stepped in front of me, and because I did not want make a fuss in MP´s class I switched to the other barre. My teacher, however, made us switch back. :)

  14. This coincided with my own "move up" to the middle of the pack in one class and to the front in another...I'm gradually challenging myself and pushing myself out of my comfort zone and your post was good validation. Thanks, as always, for astute observation and good ballet advice! :)

  15. Hi Kaija,

    I´m happy for you that you are getting more confident!

    Have you ever been the first on a dancefloor (you know, outside of a dance studio)? It is daunting at first, but then you get used to it :)
    Ballet class is actually less scary, as others are bound to follow you onto the floor!

    It is good to remember that the teacher sees you no matter where you are. Well, except if you´re taking a class with 40 other dancers! And as you know, it is very good practice to rely on yourself and try to remember exercices without copying others (hey, they make mistakes too). So, if you sort of know what you´re supposed to be doing (and it´s more or less your level), then there is no reason to hide!

    And if you mess up, big deal. Or as our very lovely primaballerina/teacher tells us: "Don´t worry. If you f*** up, we will do it again."

  16. "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 used to go to feel a little sorry for myself and disappear." omg! this was like snapping your fingers in front of my face--a total wake up call! I think I just realized i do the same thing! and it's not helpful, it doesn't help me grow or improve or become more self-assured. i'm going to make this my 'dancelution,' to not hide in the back row when i'm uncertain or feeling like a failure. i will step forward and try harder. great post, Johanna.

  17. Hi Shannon!

    Almost missed your comment, sorry for the late reply. Glad you got that wake-up call!

    I finally realized that retreating to the back (in order to hide) makes me always feel worse. So I don't do it anymore. It's so important to believe in yourself, even on bad days. You don't have to be the best student to step forward. But you will be a better student for it!

    Thank you Shannon, and I would love to hear how things are working out for you :)

  18. hi, Johanna! I just started back to ballet this week, after a 3 week holiday break. Had my 2nd class last night, with Ms. M, who can be very intimidating. It's mostly in her class that I hide! I consciously thought of your post and stepped forward. Flubbed the routine terribly, but afterwards she said to the class "You have to be your own dancer. I can tell when you are thinking. It's fine to check in with other dancers in the mirror, but I appreciate those of you who are doing your own work, even if you mess up." So I didn't feel so terrible about my performance because I had tried my best. And THEN, at the end of class in the pointe section, we were doing sous sous/echappe en croix and had to stay perfectly centered on these tiny x's she taped to the floor. did it once, ended up behind my x. she gave corrections, did it again, and Ms. M came and stood directly in front of me (so intimidating!!!) and when i hit the last sous sous I looked down and was perfectly on the x!! i whooped and she smiled and said 'that's right." All those prior mistakes were wiped out in that one moment of really nailing something. it was an awesome way to start the semester!!! i almost sent you a note on FB b/c I knew you at least would appreciate that moment!

    1. Hi Shannon!

      That is great, I'm actually quite proud of you! When you're up front you have to rely on yourself, and that will help you discover your "own dancer".

      Your teacher does sound quite strict, but fair. I'm glad she pushes you, and appreciates your effort and hard work.

      In ballet you're bound to flubb/screw/f*** up on occasion, it's all part of the game. You fail, and you try again. Eventually failing morphes into getting it right!

      Yay for you! :)


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, ...