September 25, 2011


Had an interesting class last Friday. Was so tired my pirouettes were tilting backwards, ready to fall straight into bed. Never mind finishing class first. And of course our teacher chose that evening to introduce new divertissements. Fun and fast. Or was that fast and furious? I vaguely recall some seriously quick Bournonville-style steps.. The kind that require an alert mind and a state of wake-ness. Instead I was still trying to figure out my feet and counts when my teacher was yelling at me to use my port de bras too! Well, maybe next time.

Much more fun was showing off my seriously improved left-leg extension! First up, we did our usual foot-in-hand stretch (or talon à la main as Madame would say), and it´s been much better for some time already. I have been religious about stretching, which for a tight-muscled and jointed adult dancer is really de rigeur. A must.

Still, after having been at it for some twenty years - you´d think there would have been more impressive results already! Eight years ago (before my three-year ballet break), my best assisted extension to the side was probably toes level with chin. Don´t ask me about degrees, I suck at math. That gorgeous picture ( to the left: add a long arm holding the leg and you´d get my picture (which is a pretty good picture). Since then, more progress has been made. Today, on a good day, my stretchier left leg goes foot-in-hand all the way up. We are talking about 10 minutes before 6 o'clock here. Seriously, I never looked at my ankle from that angle before. And I gotta tell you, it´s a whole new world!

Sadly, we all know that feet-in-hand do not neccessarily stay up without manual help. Usually gravity kicks ass as soon as we let go. However.. I´ve been building muscle for a long time. In fact, a bit too much - I bulk up very quickly. But, now it seems that strength and flexibilty are finally coming together! When I let go off my foot, the left leg stays up at the same heigt as the picture above. It´s a short but sweet moment, much better than my usual crashing down in the blink of an eye! On Friday, when we did our developpés devant into plié, my left leg rose and rose - and look mom, no hands! Of course it was no way near pro-heights, but I´m still very happy about my progress. My teacher noticed too. Now if I only could get my much tighter and lower right leg to follow suit..

Quite a few have asked me to share the stretching & extension magic. But what can I tell you? There really are no tricks and short-cuts. Also, I can only speak for my instrument - and we are all unique in our own little idiosyncrasies.. But what I can give away is this:

Be consistent. If you´re a tight bod like me (talking muscles and ligaments, not over-all firmness), you need to stretch on a daily basis. It does not have to be the same routine and intensity every day, but make a habit of stretching anyway.

Relax. Muscle tightness is often accompanied by tension. Do not force / bounce / jerk / push your stretches. Listen to your body, breath. Be calm and focused. Think long.

Warm up and loosen up. You don´t have to drip with sweat, but don´t stretch when you´re all cold and stiff. Go for a walk or a jog, do push-ups and abs. Loosen all your joints, from head to toe. Use a pinky or tennis ball on tight spots. Even massage the soles of your feet.

Try out yoga. You don´t have to get into the philosophy if it´s not your thing, but you learn many ways to stretch your body. Yoga also helps to get calm and centered.

Be patient. If you want to get into splits (still my holy grail with right leg in front), loosen and stretch everything else first. Be patient. Be consistent.

Check out these links and video for further help:

Improving Extension. Dance Magazine, 2008.

Ballet Shoes Pointe Shoes.. And Adult Ballet Class: How to Start Stretching..

Dance Stretching Safely for Splits

Photograph: Ballerina Project, dancer: Irina. Photo: Dane Shitagi.

September 20, 2011

Present Yourself!

So I finally did the near-naked thing in ballet class. Dear Reader, before you skip a beat,  let me assure you. It was not the wardrobe malfunction kind, where you forget to pull up your leo after hurrying (back) to class. And where the first one to notice you all Josephine Baker-like is the only guy in class, sweetly asking you if you did not forget something. I swear this has really happened. Fortunately not to me. Phew. Although, once I had almost too much of a reveal when I was in a very deep cambré to the back. Yay for flexibilty, not so much for too much of cleavage.

Which reminds of a story about the courtesans of old Venice, told to me by my opera-singer/dancer friend. Apparently, when business was not going so well, said ladies obtained permission to display their bounty over the window-sills - thus inspiring new fashions of deep cleavages. And apparently an image helpful to singers and dancers alike. Do not open your ribcage, but stack it over the sill. There you go.

Present yourself! This instruction is repeated to us class after class. Don´t show off your boobs (save this for later), but your jambes, pieds, talons, bras, épaulement, head and eyes. Own your dancing body, and then own the stage. Present your gorgeous arches, heels and legs and upper body. Engage with your audience, imaginary or not. It changes everything, even in class. A dancer who looks down at her feet, loses the line. A dancer who does not look beyond her elongated arm, is closed off in her own little space. It shows.

Yesterday, I started my class as usual - that is in my now-favorite warm-up romper. Comfortable, warm, cozy, hide-it-all. Usually I discard any extra wear after our plié exercise, but I had figured out that you can roll the legs up and and the top down. It´s a very pro-dancer-y look. Really flattering only on a skinny ballet bod, but I like to use my imagination. Anyway, I had planned to toss the thing in my bag right after barre. Which was really no option, as we were all hot and red-faced and sweaty by the time we did our frappés(how´s that for a lovely ballerina image?). But, after I had stripped down and was reaching into my bag for my ballet skirt - there was none! I must have left it in the locker! Our teacher gives us no break between barre and center, so I could not go to look. No choice but to suck it up. Literally.

So, there I stood with nothing between me and the mirror except for one black leotard and black leggings. I did also wear a long-sleeve, cut-off top made out of old black tights, which made my upper half all modest and covered. But. My butt, that is. All exposed to the world. I was admittedly unnerved. In ballet class you spend substantial time to keep that popo in a plum line, with your tail-bone pointed down. Which suits me just fine, I´ve never been one to flaunt my derrière. Not that anyone in class was looking or could have cared any less.

I decided to go for it. Present myself. It´s a bit like jumping off from a high spot into deep water. Either you dive in or you butt out. And I gotta tell you.. Although I was acutely aware of my every little line and curve, it was not so bad. In fact, it made me work harder. Dance better. This time, less was like totally more. But(t) enough is enough. By the time we were doing our pirouette exercises across the floor, I was mentally exhausted and changed back into my trusted romper. Baby steps, darlings. Baby steps..

Photo above post: Lana Jones of Australian Ballet. Photographer: Justin Smith.

September 14, 2011

You Will Never See Me In Pink Tights, but..

I just got my first ever real-deal ballerina ballet skirt in the mail! And it´s a barely a whisper of a skirt - seriously, I don´t think I own any garment with less fabric and weight. Even my bikini takes up more space. But I´ve been wanting to get myself a real ballet skirt for some time, it´s just that I´m shy! Shy of exposing too much thigh - and of losing my "class cred". Funny thing how so little fabric can weigh so much after all.

When I started ballet, way back in the day, the class fashion de rigeur was as laid back as possible. My dance studio was popular with the jazz and modern dance crowd, and those with more ballet background had long since ditched their class-coded dance gear. Layers and crocheted scarfs around hips, even thermal wear. But hardly a pink tight or black skirt in sight. Wearing a ballet-school style uniform would have implied actual ballet-school cred, and the skills to accompany such. Even those who had the talent, wore anything but. Occasional visting pros included.

But wearing clothes that are decidedly anti-ballet? Much better! After some trial and error, I went with the mod crowd, to blend in as inconspicuously as possible. I wore sweats to class, loose clothes, never mind not seeing your lines properly. At some point though, I advanced and slimmed down (a lot), and gained enough confidence to wear an unitard (in lovely melange mauve) I had purchased in Paris. Oh, those heady fashionista days!

Five years ago - in fact exactly to this date - I returned to ballet, after a three year long hiatus. I wore black yoga-style pants and a loose, tunicy black top. I had gained way too much weight during those years of not-dancing, and could not quite reconcile myself with the voluptuous woman in the mirror. I also noticed that the class fashion had changed since. Here were grown-up women dressed in leos and pink and white (and black) tights. Some wore jazz pants with a bit of flare, but you could see the full ballet-school regalia on some, even in a beginner´s class. Not for me though, not with 15 kilos over my pre-break ideal weight! I would have felt way too self-conscious.

Now, time flies when you´re dancing. Weight rolls off, literally. From baggy black sweats I proceded to knee-length cut-offs, from there to black leggings with loose and long tops, from there to ditching tops and supportive sports-bras (yeah, figures that your boobs grow smaller way before your thighs follow suit) in favor of thinly strapped leos and black leggings. That´s when I discovered my first skirt, a black, salsa-style short beachy skirt from H&M, made out of 100% viscose fabric. It has a kind of ruched waist-band, which you can pull higher up or lower down. There is a bit too much fabric which adds bulk at the waist, and if you pull it down to your hips, it´s a tad too tight. It looks like a dance-y skirt, but it´s not yet the ballet look I had been secretely longing for..

Bloch Professional skirt, model: not me!

When I got home last night and unwrapped my flimsy new skirt, I swear I felt like the girl who pulls on her first tutu. Excited, and in my case, unnerved too. To wear or not to wear? And how does one tie those skirts anyway? It´s a wrap-around, so why are there no loops for the strings? And how do they not slip around? Do you tie at the side, or at the back? Once I figured it out - tie at the back, have it sit at the hip - it did not look too bad! More thigh exposed, yes, but my legs actually look longer because of it - which is always a bonus for the vertically challenged! So, the class-test is next Friday, right after barre. Can´t decide yet whether I´m gonna be totally blasé about it.."What, this old thing? Why, I´ve had it forever, just found it in the back of closet Siberia." Or, if I´m gonna parade it around and ask my friend to take pictures!

Next up: tutus.  Nope, that´s where I definitely draw the line. Like totally. Unless..

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, ...