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.


  1. I have tried dying my own hair too; it never works out right! I have finally decided to grow out my is too much work to get them to stay back.

    Don't let anyone get to you in class. If anything bothers you, you have to block it out!

  2. I am also debating on whether to keep growing my hair out so I can keep wearing buns, or just totally cutting off.

  3. That was a great post, especially the adagio part. I loved it! I hope you keep writing about your classes, because reading about them is the next best thing to actually being in class.
    I must add that Helsinki really has an excellent and wide range of ballet classes for adults, compared with many other places, even big cities like Philadelphia, which mostly have kids' or pre-professional teens' classes, and the teachers are not keen to let adults join in (which I can maybe understand).

    As for balletiquette, I have my own few pet peeves. First thing is the barre. It's annoying when people squeeze right in front of you, and then you basically hit your nose on their derriere when you do cambre forward. On the other hand, sometimes I ask people if I can please come in front of them on the side barre (in Mansku 3) because I have difficulty learning the steps from the back, and they say no, even though there is space. The second concerns adagio: going to stand in front of someone else, without checking that you are not obscuring the other persons line of vision to the mirror. Then, not responding when someone you see weekly in class says hello. Joining in lengthy conversations with the teacher in the middle of class, for example during a correction. Sometimes it's necessary in order for you to understand, but most of the time not.

    I also find that people get annoyed when I ask clarifications during class, for example, which muscle groups should I aim to use when I perform this and that movement. Learn and let learn, I suppose.

  4. Hello 4-eyed Ballerina :)

    I hear you! It´s so much easier without bangs. Though I might reconsider them in a few years, you know, to look younger again! As for the color, I´ve been doing it myself for so long, you´re bound to botch it up on occasion :D NO biggie, summer sun will fade it out quickly enough.

    That spot-stealing incident threw me off because it was so rude, or at least very mis-informed ballet class behavior! You should have seen the fumes coming out of my ears, hahhaa! But seriously, always hold on to your focus and stay in the zone. It´s good prep for performances, where anything can happen..

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. I'm with you on the bad hair days and what to do about hairstyles that are convenient. If it makes you feel any better, if you color is a little too dark at the beginner, it'll fade to a lovely color after a few washes :) And if you really want a detachable bun, there are some awesome fun and natural looking hair falls that come attached to a can make a ponytail and then stick the comb in behind the elastic and pin it in for security.

    I love the way ballet clears your mind, as you described so well. Whatever is on my mind when I go to class is quickly lost because I need all of my powers of concentration to follow the exercise pattern, think about my rotation and alignment, and work on the things I'm trying to improve. By the time class is done, I feel refreshed and mentally clear, not to mention physically beat but in a good way :)

  6. You are truly a Writer! I could feel the anxiety and the excitement and the peace of all worries washing away and just dance, dance, dance...

    I read the article you linked, interesting! I can imagine that dancing in an ensemble might make you longing for some individuality! I love my hair long and I love wearing it on a bun, and I'm planning to keep it that way for as long as possible. I think that among 30+ women the cookie-cutter is shaped like a bicycle helmet - you know the typical adult-woman-haircut? Not short enough to be a pixie cut, not long enough to be a bob... so I think long hair makes you stand out!

  7. Jen, short hair can be ballet-fab too! I´m thinking of a gamine cut, something you can accessorize with a cute clip, but doesn´t have to be pinned back. Short bobs are more cumbersome, personally I don´t like anything flopping about when jumping in class.

    By the way, I have had about every hair-style possible. Even short blonde :D
    But like Aija said, there is a certain cookie-cutter look women over 35+ tend to wear.. something boringly in-between or strangely over-trendy.
    If you decide to cut it off, let us know :)

  8. Noora, I´m saving your comment for that future post on ballet class etiquette, likes and dislikes (more likely more of the latter). Already got some great feedback on :)

    Something I would like to comment on now:

    If the class is very full and barre spaces tight you have to adjust. I have done cambrés where I had to do my best not to face-plant on the next dancer´s butt :D In more advanced classes you do the exercises in directions, and even take turns with grand battements. However, if there is room, it is unacceptable to crowd your fellow dancer!

    As for asking others to change barre spots.. Tricky. You could ask someone you know if she would not mind to switch, but not after everyone has already settled. Each dancer in class is entitled to their chosen spot. Sometimes the teacher may change spots, say if a short dancer is left at the extra play pen -barre. If you absolutely need to be somewhere specific, you should be early, but running to secure a barre spot also not recommended. It´s best to move around and learn to pick up exercises no matter where you are placed!

    I absolutely agree about floor placement! Every dancer is responsible not only to her/his self, but also to the other dancers in class! There is a front row, mid row and back row (not three back rows) - and each row places itself so that everyone has direct view to the mirror and room to move. Of course, you stay within your "box" and in your line and don´t trespass on others´spaces. Moving in diagonal, the dancers in the back always watch out for the front, it is their job not to collide, even if first dancers mess up.

    Conversations in class are a no-no. Questions are allowed, but: not when the teacher has turned away to press play. Then you suck it up and do your best anyway. However: class is mostly for dancing, not so much for theory. If you have many analytical, anatomy-related questions (no matter how good), it may be best to save them after class. Asking the teacher to provide off-menu explanations can indeed irritate others as it interrupts the pace and flow of class. I know there is so much to know, but give yourself the chance and your muscles the time to learn!

    You learn by practice and repetition. If a teacher would give each dancer every correction and theory she would need at once = information overload! That is why you will get new corrections and feedback as you dance and move along. You are not even supposed to get it right and perfect from the get-go. But is such a reward to make new discoveries :)

    Having said that, it really pays off to be analytical in dance! There are many terrific books and web sites on ballet topics. I recommend Eric Franklin´s books, for example "Dynamic Alignment through Imagery" or "Conditioning for Dance".

    Noora, I love your comments - you always make the extra effort! Thanks for sharing and wishing you a wonderful time dancing.

    P.S. Again, absolutely agree on saying hello to you fellow class-mates. It is very rude not to greet and/or respond in kind!

  9. I am really looking forward your future posting of ballet class etiquette. There are certainly things you are not supposed to do in a ballet class. I can understand if you start your "ballet career" as an adult so it is really hard to know how to behave. There should be a book about this issue for ballet beginners or at least a paragraph or too in some other ballet book!

    Some very good points have been mentioned here already as no for conversations and no for too many questions. Good ballet teacher usually observes the whole class extremely well and points out after exercise the most common faults. At that point you should be listen very carefully and try to do it yourself when teacher is showing the movement slowly again with very thorough explanation. If any questions, please say them out loud but don't start to wonder with the person next to you. In the beginner's class this person is most likely as ignorant as you :)

    I suppose "hate" is too harsh verb to describe my feelings but I dislike when teacher begins to show the exercise and you don't move away quickly. For me it is like you don't honour your teacher very much to give her/him the space needed. I almost laugh at myself the way I get upset if Marie-Pierre needs to ask very nicely somebody to move a little bit as otherwise her foot would hit this poor girl's nose.

    The floor placement is a story of itself. So many times I set myself to a perfect spot where I can see myself very well in the mirror. Then somebody comes to do the exercises just behind me and only God knows why as you shouldn’t come to a ballet class if mirror is your enemy. Then I need to move a little bit to another direction but of course the girl in front of me doesn’t adjust her position. And then I found myself a bit irritated as in a ballet class you need to be aware of your own position and movements but also be aware of others around you.

    My former ballet teacher (Russian) used to start the floor exercises by arranging us properly in three rows so that everybody could see herself (some himself) in the mirror. My sweetest thank you to her! I was also very pleased when Gabriella wanted us to do some floor exercises in three groups and her only intention with this exercise was to show how groups are supposed to move in the class room (when the first group has almost finished the second group is ready to move to the positions, the first group runs away quickly and gives space to the second group and so on).

    I could continue this comment forever: don’t twirl around before the exercise begins but be in the position calmly and focused as you can, try to think yourself and don’t copy all the time the person next to you (from time to time you might forget something and of course you are then allowed to copy but ballet is about thinking and being aware of your muscles, your head position, your finger tips, your feelings, your everything and you loose this self awareness if you spend the whole class just watching others.).

    I have learned the certain way of behaving in the ballet class when I was already a child with strict but warm and honourable teachers so my apologies if I may sound a puritan. My problem is that in my head I would like to be in Jatko3 classes but after several (15 years) of break my skills are not anymore what they were. So some issues which are so clear to me are not for adult beginners and I try to bear this. But I must say that ballet is like bicycling: once you have learned it is somewhere deep inside of you waiting for coming up again. But in ballet you forget all the fine tiny details and strength and it takes years and years to get it back.

    Oh dear, this comment is wayyy too long. Thank you again for an excellent posting (I have given you praises already in your Finnish sister blog)! I will continue Midsummer day by watching one of my all time favourite ballet dancers Darcey Bussell with Jonathan Cope dancing Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Prince of the Pagodas”. What a lovely, airy lifts he choreographed.

  10. Wow, that is not a comment, but a blog post of its own! :D

    I appreciate the time you took to write it down, because it´s always fascinating to find out what goes on inside other dancers´s heads.. Like you said, no talking in class ;) Sometimes I think it is a shame that everyone is in such a hurry to leave once class is over! Of course, if you have to catch a bus or have family waiting.. But it is so much fun to debrief with your fellow dancers!

    So I gather you were taking Marie-Pierre´s basic level this past year and Gabriella´s classes too? Have me met? Will you tap me on my shoulder when we do? :)

    That was funny what you said about people not moving away to give the teacher room. Once when we did pointe exercises at the barre, and M-P came over, I jumped away so quickly that she thought it the funniest thing! Of course you have like 20-30 dancers in that class, and many without previous experience. I imagine quite a few were also star-struck, because M-P´s demonstrations are so gorgeous. The first class she gave us, I almost lost my concentration! I can´t wait until she and Gabriella are back in August :)

    I like how strict they both are, even while being very nice and caring. Marie-Pierre seems to have a 6th sense, she picks up on stuff like no one! When I did something unintentionally funny, and had a hard time not cracking up, I could see out of the corner of my eye that she had seen the same thing and was laughing back at me. And when I had a bad class, and felt just overwhelmed, she came over to encourage me. Gabriella is like that too, she does not let you off easy, but you get the feeling that she really wants you to flourish in class. To me, this is ballet etiquette too. And I have huge respect for my teachers!

    That is a very long break, 15 years! It is tough, you know the theory, and there is a little bit muscle memory, but not the strength, agility, flexibility, bounce or speed. It can be quite frustrating. But it will come back to you!

    Five years ago I came back to ballet after not dancing for three. It was hard seeing me in that big mirror and not having my former ballet body looking back at me, but I kicked my pride in the butt and started from basic level again. When Gabriella came to teach in 2008, I got the push and coaching I had yearned for and now I´m back at advanced level. Returning to ballet is one the best decisions I ever made!

    Love Darcey Bussell! Have a wonderful evening and summer, and see you in class sometime :)

    P.S. this turned into another blog too :D


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, ...