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?


  1. Much the same as real life, I think. There are those who are not size 2 supermodel types, but pull off beauty and confidence no matter their shape and size simply because they are happy and confident. Others struggle to find their "posture" in the world regardless of their appearance. I think what you described is very similar. When I watched a ballet by Atlantic Ballet Theatre, I was struck speachless watching a particular dancer - she was short, broad, curvy - but she danced with such strength, skill, conviction and beauty that it simply did not matter what body she was born with - she was her character, through and through. It is what you make of it and I'm glad you are finding your way :)

  2. A good foot does not ballerina make. True, dancing makes one. The teacher knows what you look like, that's not what's interesting, what is is what you can do, and become.

  3. Elfie, thanks for your comment. The "one nice left foot" was supposed to be funny, and a reference to an earlier post of mine. It was also the only time I have ever received a compliment about any body part (in ballet). I am quite aware that looks alone do not a dancer make. Especially not in recreational and joy-ful dancing.

    My current teacher does not care if I have the "right look" or not. She cares what I do with my abilities. But my insecurities are still there. Not saying I cannot dance, or become a better dancer still.

  4. Kim, thanks - love your comment and please tell me the name of said dancer!

    Ballet provides very few realistic body-role-models for the adult ample-bodied dancer, even though it should not matter! I have seen voluptous dancers move with grace and confidence, just as I have seen adult thin gals. You gotta own what you´ve got and make the most of it. In and out of ballet class!

  5. I am sooo jealous that you are dancing this variation! Or any variation ;)

    I'd say that listen to the music, let it move you, let the choreography touch you and make it your own. Own the rep! You are so right that you need to discover your inner princess - have some fun with her, I am sure she is a lovely girl!

  6. This is one of the most inspiring things about dance I have ever read! Truly touching and beautiful, really! I feel the same way - while I'm tall and slender, my hips are a giant mess and I know I'll never dance with the beauty I used to. Posts like this give me hope. Thank you so much!

  7. Aija - no need to be jealous :) You will get back there -and look and dance every bit the princess!

    You are right too. I need me to have some fun with this. Life is not that serious! My princess might be a bit of a spaz and more comfortable out of court, but she can put her right foot forward - if the occasion calls for it :D

  8. La Chanteuse - thank you so much!! I did pour my heart and soul into this, thinking that some other adult dancer out there might feel the same..

    While I would love to have the legs of Darcey, Alessandra or Polina, I can only dance with this body of mine. You and I (and the rest of us grown-up not-quite-ballerinas) each have our strengths and weaknesses. Be proud of your strong suits, but do not despair of your weak spots. Watch. Listen. Learn. Love the work.

    Dance is created between poses, within transitions and suspensions. High legs, über-flexibility and 180 turn-out do not alone a dancer make. Nor does looking like one.

    There is something to be said for dancing against the odds - and for being unique.

  9. This is a wonderful post and one I can completely relate to! I avoided all the (what I percevied as) overly girly stuff like ballet when I was a tomboyish kid, prefering to play sports and refusing to wear pink. I liked to watch ballet however, because I loved music (played piano and sang in the choir) and athletic movement and what drew me to ballet was that the dancers seemed to be 'playing the music' with their bodies and it seemed so expressive and beautiful. I love doing ballet as a adult because I get a small glimpse of that feeling of embodying music and movement that comes from the inside, not to look a certain way from the outside.

    I was/am the opposite of you, body-wise...really tall, kind of gangly but also muscular, and always felt like a big Clydesdale horse next to the petite and composed "good girls"...not a ballet type at all! But I love to dance :)

  10. Kaija - yes, yes, and yes! I was a tomboy too -and supported in my un-girly endeavours by my low-maintenance, jeans-wearing, feminist mom. ;)

    I loved anything physical, and teachers pushed me into swimming and track&field. Ballet was never mentioned. But like you said.. the music and the movement! I used to sit with my eyes closed, listening and imagining myself leaping and flying..

    Body-wise you´re not the total opposiste - I´m muscular too! And if we are speaking horses.. I can be the Connemara pony to your Clydesdale:

    "The Connemara has a well shaped head, compact body with medium length neck, fine sloping shoulder, strong back, well developed quarters and short legs. The Connemara pony is hardy and strong, with a free and active movement."

    "Connemara ponies are good tempered, sensible and intelligent with good jumping ability."

    That´s like totally me!! :D

    (quotes from Equine World UK)

  11. I started learning pointe variations while helping the kids practice for performance... A couple of the 12-13 year old beginner pointe students would take class with the adults, so we'd do 5 minutes of rehearsing at the end of our class to help them out.

    Makes it a lot less intimidating. (Marzipan is tough though.) Also the fan dance in Don Quixote is really, really fun, if she gives you that eventually.

    And ugh, Bluebird's music is the music for a particularly brutal pointe barre routine in my class. Think tons of weight shifting and bourrees.

    Horses? I dunno. I would have a decent ballet body, slightly tall, if I had no boobs and a flat stomach. Legs and hips no problem. I kinda enjoy messing with the new girls' minds when I'm in the front of class. :)

  12. Hi Candice!

    I wish I could have gotten around this repertory business earlier, even in soft shoes! Back in my early twenties Bluebirf might have felt more, I dunno, relevant?

    Sounds a lot of fun that you get to dance with the kids! :)

    The horse reference got a bit out of hand, I admit. But I like how they often describe well devloped quarters with good jump. Maybe I was one in a past life? ;)

    I think boobs are fine on a ballet body too. Our curves just add a bit of embellishment to our lovely lines ;)

  13. Thank you Johanna. Your post spoke directly to my heart.

  14. No, thank you Melancholy Swan :)

    I´m so glad you could relate!

  15. Hi Johanna, dancing with the kids is lots of fun; I've taken modern dance with them occasionally as well.

    There's no classes just for over-15; mostly because the high school arts programs have dance in them for the serious girls. So intermediate ballet ranges in age from 15-65 or so. In that class (soft shoes) we do the occasional "real" ballet variation which is fun. Sometimes we get a men's one, like this big jumpy thing from La Bayadere.

    Do you have men in your classes? This whole year we've had between one and four, sometimes five guys in the class. A lot of teachers will give more jumps if you've got them there; I think it's contributed to improving my grande jete. (It only took fifteen years, but it is high -and- split nicely and both legs are stright. Woo!)

  16. I really liked the horse and pony analogies...awesome! :)


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, ...