August 31, 2011

Princess Diary, Part 1.

It was towards the end of our pointe class. We stood in center, our teacher smiled and gave us The Talk about repertory and dancing variations. On pointe. The been-there-done-that-crowd did not flinch, but my heart stopped. I knew this was coming, there had been hints, but my teacher had spoken of later next year. Not of the here and now! I half figured that because of our mixed-level class she was talking to the advanced girls who were probably itching to do more than echappés and piqués in center. But no, there was no sorting into groups, no directions for me (or anyone else) to sit in the corner and observe. My teacher pressed play, said something about Sleeping Beauty and took the beginning pose of B-plus, arms crossed delicately in front. My barely recovered heart sank, further down still.

I felt like I had taken an odd turn, missed the sign "Mom of Aurora" and entered the wrong casting. Because no way is this adult dancer a bluebird-wooing, sprightly, pretty, petite, ballet-y princess. You want to scare me away? Flaunt a tutu into my face and I´ll jeté into the opposite direction. Of course, our teacher did not throw the entire variation before us, just the beginning piqués and grand ronde jambes and bourrés. So, really nothing we haven´t done before, except for the piqués followed by the sweeping leg to the side (well, it was new to me anyway). And those arms. I have never felt such a strong urge to call it quits. And quit I did, right there and then.

I could put part of the blame on my big toe, which was crying for release and ice (too much pressure and not enough padding underneath), but that would not even be half of the truth. The ugly truth, Dear Reader,  is that I fear repertory. I fear looking like I´ve come without an invite, crashed the party, trespassed from my seat in the audience right onto the stage. When that Bluebird music started to play, I could not get the image of a real ballerina out of my head - and me making mockery of her!

Deep down I know my logic is lacking, as really all of our exercises and enchaînements are bits and pieces of variations or preparations thereof. I have even been on stage before, in our spring shows, dancing to the music of Swan Lake and Coppelia. But back then I was part of the "corps de ballet", with my feet safely ensconed in soft slippers, not precariously footed on pointe. This repertory business however, is new and alien territory to me.

The thing is, and this might seem curious to some, I was not lured into ballet by the sight of the ballerina-in-the-music-box. As a twelve year old I thought Giselle in her floating tulle lovely, but the princess in a tutu held no appeal to me at all. In fact it took me years to appreciate her iconic status and not regard the hopping on pointe with the bopping tutu as silly. What drew me to ballet instead was (and still is) the architectural line of the arabesque, the flight of grand jetés, the music drawn into movement.

I never imagined me dancing any roles or characters and certainly nothing remotely princess-y. I figured that kind of dancing to be the exclusive domain of the "good girls" (as one of my former teachers liked to call them - compared to the adult rest of us). You know, the ballerinas in training, and those who have danced since they have walked. Dancers with ballet-class cred, the "look" and that enviable trait of je-ne-sais-quoi.. Whereby you take one pose and are instantly transformed into something out of this world, out of my world.

The Sleeping Beauty
Stephanie Williams of Australian Ballet.
Photo: Liz Ham.

Real life and fairy tales, ballet class and repertory.. I do realise that not all of ballet is princess-y. Just as I understand that portraying a majestic countenance on stage is an essential part of it all. Something to do with Catherine de Medici and that Sunny King of France. Ballet was first the spectacle of royalty, and the unwed virgin Princess among their heroines (funny how Disney held on to that). The tiara- and tutu-clad Princess on Pointe has long since become the iconic look of the female ballet dancer. And here lies my whopper of insecurity: princesses and tutus and me - we are no match made for the stage. There are, admittedly, body- and self-image issues involved.

Grown-ups who dance ballet for the joy, do not have to look the part. Professional dancers do. We may come in all sizes and shapes, but all we need is to focus on our placement and line, on the music and the corrections we get. Yet we are drawn to the image of the ballet-body beautiful - and most of us are not so wise and mature as to never compare ourselves. And yes, in comparison I do find my instrument sadly lacking! When thoses Fairy Godmothers dealt out their favors, they threw some bounce at me and then skipped and hopped away.  Ballon, yes. Talent for ballet, no. I´m not talking about musicality or eye for movement, or intellect and perseverance. What I lack is balletic talent; physical suitability such as good turn-out and natural flexibility, and that look of long and lean legs, a small butt and slim hips. One nice left foot does not yet a ballerina make.

So, I´m short and squat, broad-shouldered, curvy and compact. So what? What I and every other sometime insecure adult-not-quite-a-ballerina needs to understand, is that it does not matter. Not as much as we like to think. In ballet you essentially aim to create an illusion - that of infinite lines and flight. You achieve this by work, not talent alone. Every able-bodied can strengthen their core, lengthen the back, stretch those knees, pointe them feet. You breathe, you elongate, you live, you love to dance. The bottom line is that the shape(liness) of your derrière does not stand in the way of the loveliness of your ligne!

The princess is just another illusion. She is created by the lines you draw onto the music, by épaulement, port de bras, a pas here, another enchaînement there. Dancing her should not be mission impossible. Granted, a grown-up ballet dancer would be an odd casting for the part of virgin bride-to-be Aurora. But it does not have to be a choice between the teenage princess and the walk-on part of mothers or queens. Though in real life.. I´d rather be the Empress residing over her court than the talent called to entertain at her daughters pre-nuptials.

As for myself, I´m still finding my voice as a dancer. Anything that goes beyond the purely technical is still fairly new to me. Only in the past year have I thought about "presenting myself" in ballet, whether it´s a forwarded ankle or an attempt at elegance. Princess Florestine? Not quite there yet. Although, after the initial shock faded and I later confided in my teacher - about my fears, insecurities and bad memories - something changed. I looked at that particular variation (and others) with a fresh perspective and new attention to detail. In our next class, our teacher broke the steps down and - lo and behold - I could actually pull it off!

Now, let me just unearth and rediscover my latent inner princess. A modern single gal wooing her Prince. Somewhere between Princess Florestine and Charlotte of Sex and the City. The tutus you do not have to bother with, but darlings - I´ll wear the tiara. Those are real diamonds, right?

August 24, 2011


Home alone and sniffling my time away - yes, flu season has officially begun. Being sick is boring and not nice, but being a sick dancer equals being one unhappy camper! Yesterday I still gave it all I got, and did 90 minutes of advanced ballet class and 60 minutes of pointe. I knew that Flu was hanging out around the corner, but I told It to wait until Wednesday. See, there is no ballet today and none tomorrow (no class that I would hate to miss anyway). It´s really amazing how much ballet can motivate you! Sadly, it can delay but not chase viruses away. So, rest it is. I would very much like to be in acceptable shape by Friday, and being generally of sturdy disposition, that might just be possible. With a little help of some nasal spray - because no one likes to turn chaînés déboulés with a runny nose!

In the meantime, I´m drinking loads of hot honey-water and emptying my trusted vaporub jar. Hmm.. there should be some Tiger Balm somewhere too.. Luckily, this Flu around I´m spared the light-sensitive eyes and can at least while my day away in front of of my dear little macbook. Thank you twitter, facebook and youtube! And thanks to a generous dancer friend, I also have the entire Bournonville School borrowed, that is a 2-disc DVD-set of all the classic lessons! I just finished watching the "Monday Lessons" and was pleasantly suprised to find the beginning port de bras of our Friday´s adagio in lesson nr 2! The pirouettes from grand plié fifth, and the turning positions with foot in coud-de-pieds also rang a bell, as did some steps sequences. I mean, I knew our teacher was incorporating some Bournonville into our classes, but only when she had told us. I had no idea that so many moves are straight out of Denmark. :)

Wish I could share at least one lesson here, but even if copyright were a non-issue, I don´t have the tech skills to do that. Really, how do people clip those videos on youtube? Well, it does not matter as I found this very lovely video of Bournonville´s Flower Festival in Genzano, danced by The Royal Danish Ballet itself. I happen to be quite partial to RDB - my own teacher G´s first teacher was a soloist there, and my other teacher M-P was a principal dancer at RDB until 2008. The soloist who dances in the clip below, Gudrun Bojesen, is also featured in the School DVD, so there you go. What I find so inspiring about Bournoville is the apparent effortlessness - especially since it is the hardest thing of all! Minden does list Bournonville´s Choreographic Creed in her Ballet Companion, and I find this quote particularily convincing:

"Dance, with the help of music, can raise itself to poetry but it can also sink to buffoonery through an excess of gymnastics. The so-called difficult has numerous adepts, while the apparently easy is only achieved by a chosen few." 

When I get tired of being online, or of watching videos and daytime-TV - and yes, that can happen, there are books to read. You know, actual books made out of paper and ink. Not kindles. That very nice dancer friend of mine, the same who borrowed me her Bournonville, just happens to have an amazing dance-book library! Right now I´m reading Gaynor Minden´s Ballet Companion (Book Depository), and Eric Franklin´s Conditioning for Dance. I´ve also got my own Inside Ballet Technique by Valerie Grieg, which I definetely recommend! Now, I gotta share some of Minden´s wisdom with you.. Especially as I´m working on a Balletiquette co-post with fellow blogger Bead109. Here goes:

"Always finish every combination. Even if you flub it completely, the discipline of ballet requires that you finish it, and finish it with as much poise as you can." - So very true! And never mind that it is required, because it actually makes you a better dancer. Your technique wil improve heaps if you never give up!

"Know where to stand." When you go to a new school/class, look out for fixed barre spots. "Dancers are as territorial as lions." - Hahahhaa, guilty! :D Seriously, it makes sense to rotate barre spots and center placements. But sometimes set barre places make for speedy beginnings. And for some reason it´s just comforting & familiar to have "your own place". For instance, in Madame´s class, spots just fixed themselves as the same crowd kept coming back. I will not give up mine, so back off. Thank you, darling. ;)

"Stay after class and practice any step that´s given  your trouble." - This does not relate to etiquette, but it´s good advice nonetheless. Of course this option is not a given, as often there are other classes after your own. Or you really have to rush to the bus/home/work/wherever. Or the studio is closing. But when there is opprtunity, use it! As for myself, I  have never been able to rush out of class. Even when new people are streaming in, I quickly try out some moves (then get out of the way, just as quick). When our class has been the last, I often practice until I´m kicked out. Sometimes I´m lucky and get extra help and coaching from my teacher.

Dang, I´m running out of kleenex. Glad though I got some writing done, despite my scratchy throat and runny nose. Now, excuse me if I sink back into my couch and watch Tuesday´s lessons. Nothing like the prospect of ballet class to fight the flu!

August 21, 2011


Dear Reader, it was precisely one year ago when I embarked on my very first pointe class. Before I tied those satin ribbons, I had long ago given up on pointe shoes. I figured that after 16 years of dancing in slippers and never going higher than demi (with the exception of one sorry and short-lived attempt in my twenties) - what would be the pointe? In slippers I don´t suck too much, that is I have fairly good technique for a late starter and adult recreational dancer. Of course there is no crowd lining up to see me perform, but on a good day I do well enough to get my kicks out of my jetés and some praise to boot. On bad days I still love it enough to keep coming back. What more could a girl ask for?

Happy Hour at the Barre (November 13, 2010)

But when my own teacher opened the door to pointe and invited me in - all of a sudden there was no doubt in my mind. I knew right away that no way would I deny myself this opportunity. Come hell and high water, bloody blisters and akwardness. Now, nearly 50 classes and three pairs of shoes later, I have advanced from akward to slightly less-than-akward - that is from pointe beginner to pointe basic-er. And dare I say it, I´m actually a little bit proud of myself!

1000 Minutes on Pointe (December 13, 2010)

Last Friday I went back in time, and re-started at pointe beginner level. Our school offers two classes, beginner and basic, and I take both. Classes have always been mixed; one year ago there were only two complete beginners: me and a friend of mine. This year, there are a lot more hopefuls and eager new dancers, and I hope they will find it just as exciting as I did. And still do, if not even more. Yes, more. Dancing more does not take away your hunger, it feeds it. Sure, at first exercises are difficult as hell and you think it will never amount to anything. But then your body starts to change, responding differently to your commands, becoming compliant instead of defiant.

In Memoriam: My First Pointe Shoes (February 10, 2011)

When I decided to make the jump out of the comfort of my slippers, I knew big challenges lay ahead. Having walked in uncomfortable shoes before (like most women I know), I figured that pointes would be no Birkenstocks. I had done some exercises like echappés and bourrés on demi, and done my research beforehand. I knew that getting over the box is a big deal, and that you would need to pull up and not sit in your shoes. Yeah, pointe technique turned out to be as difficult as I had expected. And then some. I could not get over my box. Pulling up on one foot, with a stretched knee and strong core - no easy feat. When Madame told us to be elegant, I was going for comedic. Pirouettes on pointe? Scary as hell. 

Potential (April 30, 2011)

That´s the thing - when your´re a grown-up ballet dancer, you know all that can go wrong. Instead of doing the pre-teen thing and being fearless and eager, you fear falling over. But I consider myself lucky. For one, I have had the best teachers you could ask for - they pushed me out of my comfort zone, but never let me pointe alone. They have been meticulous about proper alignment and technique, and encouraging when I had the hardest time suspending my disbelief!

Since that first class and Pointe Zero, I have improved and learned a lot. My feet are arching over the boxes, single leg relevés have become less daunting and I have just embarked on my first balanced pirouettes (singles still). But you know what the best part is? Despite all my research, the blisters and the achy feet and the killer-slow roll-up relevés, and the burn - I had not figured I would love it as much! It´s a whole new world out there, waiting to be conquered. One plié, piqué and pointed foot at a time..

August 13, 2011

Back to School!

It´s that time of the year again.. The Finnish summer drawing to its close, days getting shorter, mornings colder, sun-sets more spectacular. The Rowan trees lining my street are heavy with orange berries, and that August moon looms large above the sky. Fall beckons. It is time for harvests as much as it is for new beginnings. Schools all over Finland start next Monday. Our dance studio introduces its fall/winter semester. How much fun is it to go back to school and actually look forward to it?

My kind of class-room. Dance-center Footlight.

Of course I never left (dance school that is). Those of you who read my summer posts know that I´ve been on a Summer Dancathon from beginning of July until now. I got back into the habit of daily ballet class (excluding weekends), which is awesome. So, if there have been no breaks for me, why am joining the back-to-school chorus? For one, the dance schedule is all new. But more importantly, my favorite regular teachers are back. It´s been seven weeks since I had class with G, and over 3 months since M-P´s last ballet class. I absolutely love their teaching, so you can imagine how much I´m looking forward to a new semester!

Do you remember what it was like going back to school (not dance-) after those long summers? The excitement of seeing your friends again, who appeared at once familiar yet different? You all had grown, experienced new things, and changed in the process.. I feel a bit like that right now. Except for that growth spurt which I´m still waiting for. Seriously, something is different. You know how five classes a week can do wonders for the body and technique? Well, it´s true. Although, my pirouttes have made only rare appearances. For that I still blame my teacher G, who told Summer Sub that I had advanced to triple turns the past year. I guess she was a little proud, but my Pirouette Fairy took it as a cue to take off on holiday, laughing all the way to the beach, mojito in hand.. Silvia, our Summer Sub, never saw a single triple. Singles, yes, and shoddy doubles, but no triple pirouettes. Sorry, signora G!

That´s our fabulous teacher M-P!

Pirouettes aside, I think I learned a lot this summer. I have grown more confident in my use of épaulemant, and in the phrasing of movement to music. In class, there has been more focus on performing, on dancing before an (imaginary) audience, and on interpreting the mood of the music, not just counting the beats. I have learned to relax more. We tend to get caught up in technique, often tensing up instead of dancing with the optimum amount of effort. Dancing 100% all the time is actually counter-productive! I have also learned to be more conscious of my transitions - to be fluid in movement, not superfluous.

My "own barre-spot" is in the corner, next to the speaker.

I had a great time learning & dancing with our Summer Sub, and I´m really going to miss her teaching. But I´m also eager to apply my new and improved skill to our regular classes! I wonder if my "own" teachers will notice anything.. So, beginning next week I have three advanced and two pointe classes lined up. One of those pointe classes is actually marked as basic (last year was beginner), but with our teacher M-P, basic is more closer to intermediate. I just hope she goes easy on us for the first classes! I´m still gathering courage to even try out those pirouettes en dedans! Rising onto one foot while turning at the same time - scary! But piqué pirouettes - so much fun! It´s a good thing that there is balance between the two. I seem to remember it was a bit like that in school too, fun and sometime scary.

Now, let´s see.. My hair is freshly cut, favorite leo washed, new pointe shoes broken in, still need to sew elastics on flats, read that "Inside Ballet Technique" book and call it an early night come Sunday. I am ready - back to school it is!

Putting theory into practice.

August 6, 2011

The Bar/re

Ever been to an informal get-together of dancers and seen anyone sitting on chairs, fixed at their table placing, for the entire time? Nope, didn't think so. Dancers tend to migrate to the floor, always stretching and limbering up their bodies. And if we're not limbering up our bodies, we are dancing. Relevés while getting the plates out of the cupboard, penché arabesques when picking up something from the floor. Heck, pirouettes whenever there's enough space. I've done mine in the kitchen..

In the company of fellow dancers, nobody thinks anything of it. It is perfectly acceptable and normal behavior. Seriously, it's hardly a wonder that the body stays in dancer-mode 24/7. That is what practice is all about, to make the physics of dance an integral part of your system. Once you have converted your body to ballet, it seeks every opportunity to move in its now natural state! A dancer is a dancer, outside of class and out of leos and tights, and even between dances. As for myself, I'm no pro, far from it, but I cannot help but feel my ballet body take over!

Sadly, out of class there are not that many opportunities. No piqué turns in office corridors, no checking out lines in every mirror, no grand jetés in the park, no waltzing to the bus-stop. Ballet is life, but life is not a ballet. Or is it? Last Thursday, after another fun & challenging ballet class, my ballet sis spontaneously suggested that we head for a post-ballet drink. Despite it being a work-night, I could refuse neither the good company nor the chilled bubbly. It was a lovely evening, warm enough to sit outside and relax into girl-talk and ballet-chat. Perfect, except for the sitting-in-place. Because when we got up to leave, we were both all stiff and sore. Pretty sure this is not the norm with non-dancers..?

Someone fixed that barre all wrong!

Must have been the bubbly (Spanish cava), but it got me into thinking about a bar for dancers only. You know of après-ski, the hot chocolate and sitting by the fire, relaxing? I would like to propose a similar space where tired dancers can spread out on a cushioned floor, stretching with refreshing drinks in hand. Protein-enriched banana smoothies or sparkly bubbly, whatever works for you. And as for the actual bar, remember the railing where you can put your feet? Lift the whole thing up, and presto: you have the barre at the bar. Mirrors optional.

But why stop there? Lets add a jacuzzi and sauna, plus epsom-salt foot-baths and free massages! Come to think of it, and leaving the bar out of it (just for a second) - why are dance studios not more like fancy gyms? Dance classes cost more, spaces are essentially the same (except for the dance-flooring), and showers are there already. Yet in Finland, where saunas are everywhere, not a single dance-studio has one. Except for the National Opera House. They heat their sauna every day. Lucky dancers, but I think they deserve it.

But back to The Bar/re. It's a funny and fitting coincidence, that our building used to host one of the more popular (and later, infamous) night clubs in Helsinki. Many, many years ago I stood at that bar, drink in hand, two floors under our current barre-filled studio space. That club is long since gone, but others have come since. One time last spring we left after our evening Friday class, just in time for the opening of an new club. The red carpet had been rolled out, rose petals were strewn and hunky doormen were giving us way. After our reverance to Swan Lake´s music, it only seemed appropriate. Darlings, I'll have champagne with that..

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, ...