November 27, 2011

"I Know It's Hard For You.."

Wouldn't it be nice to have been born with a body for ballet? One that is pliable, has a bendy back, stretchy ligaments, flexible and strong feet and perfect turnout? I have this wild theory that it would make my life at barre and center a lot easier. Instead it's a struggle - every time! I know, nothing comes easy in ballet, but having a late-starter-non-ballet body makes everything even more challenging...

I chose ballet, but ballet did not choose me. There were no auditions, no selective examinations by physical dance therapists and school boards. Lucky me, or I would never have made the cut. I have written about this before, but please bear with me. Us adult recreational dancers do not need to fit in any set ballet mold. Ballet is for anyone and everyone who really wants to pursue it. For example, here in Helsinki, you can choose between "classical ballet (for adults)" or "adult-ballet" or "low-impact ballet" or even "fitness-ballet". You can be casual about it or passionately serious. You can take classes twice a week at basic levels and feel challenged, or you can push yourself all the way to advanced levels. Whatever works for you!

However, there is no denying that ballet is not always fair. You may discover that you love it more than anything, but that your body won't work with you. At some point in your dancing you may become frustrated that certain moves seem to continuously evade you. Legs won't rise above 100 degrees, fifth positions remain in third, or attitudes lack, well, attitude. I have been there, and I have been miserable about it. When I started ballet, every step and move was an amazing discovery. I aimed high, expected little and was happy with even less. However, with time I became more ambitious but also more frustrated with myself. Why was I not blessed with better turnout for ballet? Why can't I slide down into full splits (despite all the stretching I do)? Why can't I have a hypermobile lower back, and the high arabesque that goes with it? Why can't I be one of the talented girls?

The thing is, feeling sorry for yourself is not productive at all. If you only focus on what you don't have, you miss out on all the potential you do have! I had to accept my shortcomings, and then find a way to work around them. Anyway, nobody really needs a turnout of 180 degrees. A lack of natural ballet talent is not the end of dance, at least not for a recreational dancer! There is so much to learn, so much to think about and work on. Every body can aim for the cleanest technique possible, keeping in mind physical limitations. You do not ever cheat turnout, and you never take the easy way out. As soon as you start to think, I have been there, done that, know it all... You will cease to change and grow.

Progress, of course, does not only manifest itself in higher extensions or multiple pirouettes. The practice of classical ballet cannot exist without artistry. As you work towards your most beautiful (and unique) lines, remember to breath into your movement. Feel the music, and the space around you. Let your feet converse with the floor, and your port de bras paint the air. Take pleasure in every step you take. Work hard, but dance with joy in your heart.

I could end my ramblings here, but that would leave the title hanging in the air.. "I know it's hard for you." Which is something Madame said in last Tuesday's advanced ballet class. We were doing passé retirés at the end of a longer exercise and as usual she kept telling me to turn my retiré heel out even more. "More. More. More." I already felt the need to speak up and say that there is no more to turn out! But there was - even if we are talking about millimeters. Madame pushed me to find that last teensy-bit of turn-out, right down to aligning my ankle, foot and heel in the proper line. And there it was! Hard, yes, but not entirely impossible.

What I was especially happy about, was this simple acknowlegdment: "I know it's hard for you.. " And the fact that Madame keeps pushing me because she knows that "hard" won't hold me back! Later that evening, in pointe class, I was praised for holding my extension on pointe (above barre height) and for turning. This had nothing to do with natural-born ballet talent. Instead, it has everything to do with drive, determination and passion. So, ballet did not choose me. No Fairy gave me a ballerina body. I can live with that. To be able to dance is a gift in itself, and it's one that I choose to give to myself.

November 22, 2011

My Left Foot

.. is getting all the love. Just look at my new blog banner - out of those five feet, three are shots of the "famed" left one. Strictly speaking, that foot is my only ballet-y body part. It is flexible and has a naturally strong instep and a high arch. Leftie is also getting all the praise in class. "Such a nice and strong foot.. but you really have to work on the right one". Sadly, Right Foot is nothing like its sister. Low instep, and has a hard time aligning itself over the box. Neither does it help that the entire right leg is a wee bit longer than the left, which has resulted in a weaker pull-up of the knee. Oh, how I wish I had two left feet! Well, you know what I mean.

Of course, no body is entirely symmetrical. We all have our left-right idiosyncracies. Don't get me started on the many oddities of mine.. Right, I already did! On closer inspection, that left pied is not only nicer, it is also a tiny bit longer. The right foot is shorter and noticeably wider. It makes for interesting (pointe) shoe shopping, if nothing else. Toes are pretty much the same, short and in sort of square formation. Good for pointe shoes.

Left foot. Enjoys the spotlight.

Moving up, the right foot bends better down. This is probably a very common feature, that your "push-off" foot has a deeper plie. It does make landing from jumps a bit of a delicate job. The other heel is likely to lift off the floor when coming down, but I´m not sure if forcing it down is such a good idea? I do love to jump though, especially when I get a good bounce from rebounding!

My right side has also better turn-out, but the left side is stronger in extensions to the front and side. That left leg is also much more flexible than the right, to the point that teachers must think I'm always slacking off on the first side! When we do the pied/talon a la main -stretch, and let go off the foot, right leg sinks down to 90 degrees right away. But the left one stays at approx. 130, and on a good day I can hold it for at least 6 counts! So, the left is good for developpés devant and a la seconde but the right one does a much higher arabesque and attitude! Thank goodness there is some balance.

Yesterday we did this simple stretch for penchés at the barre: back leg on the barre, stretch. Leg off, penché arbesque. Hands on floor, turn away so that thigh of back leg rests on barre. Shuffle yourself as close to barre as possible -> upside down split! Then "walk" a little forward with hands and lift back leg off, try to push it further. Walk back again and press thigh against barre. Repeat. I had my left leg up when our teacher observed. "Johanna, get yourself closer to the barre, leg higher, more!" I'm like, are you kidding me? Any higher and my standing leg is gonna lift off! Never seen hand-stands being part of classical ballet rep..

Edgar Degas: Grand Arabesque, troisième temps.
The model could have been me! ;)

It's seriously annoying. Because the moment we switch sides and I have my stretchier leg in action, I get praised for getting it right! But it's not a question of effort. It's just the way my body works or does not work. The first time I even tried to do splits I must have been 22 already! To this day I cannot do a full split with my left leg in front. But I´m happy to say it's getting better since I re-started ballet five years ago. There´s still enough crawl-space for a cat, but at least toddlers are getting too big to fit under!

Perhaps if I had started ballet before my teens there would be less pronounced differences. I did sports long before dance, but having two equally strong and flexible sides was never an issue. I am still working on it, and hopefully left will catch up with right. And right with left.

How about you? Any interesting body specs you care to share? :)

November 20, 2011


Stretch your knees, lengthen the back, dance bigger and keep your popo under you! I know, I hear you.. popo what? That is how Madame addresses our ballerina derrieres. The first time we heard it, you could see the collective head-scratching going on. But as there was only the butt to point down in the given context, class was saved from getting lost in translation.

Apparently the French popo is a diminutive form of the French popotin, or as we would call it in English: your bottom. By the way, I said the class was perplexed. Curiously, I was not. You see, I lived my childhood in Germany and der Popo is popular usage there - mostly when talking to children. And both the French popo and the German Popo possibly derive from the same ancient Latin podex. But popo sure sounds nicer!

I thought it so cute to have once again a popo instead of a butt or the usual tailbone! Because not a class will go by when the portrusion of our popos is not an issue to be addressed and corrected. Dancers may have the firmest and shapeliest derrieres there are, but in ballet these are not to be flaunted. Au contraire! The ballet ligne dictates a plum line, and as such popos must point down at all times. It is not merely for the sake of appearance, but to center your dancing body around a strong axis. Form and function.

Unless of course there is choreography to tell you otherwise. If not, the popo never leads the way. If you do a developpé to the back, toes and heels and knees are lifted before the bottom is. If you do a lunge down, or a 6th port de bras, the same applies. As it does in preparations for en dedans pirouettes. Stick that popo out and the line is broken. It also throws you off your axis in turns. Think about it next time you´re in class. Point that popo down!

November 12, 2011

Turn Til You Drop

Sometimes you gotta push yourself. Go for it, and try to turn out of your comfort zone. Believe there is a triple or more waiting for you. So what if you turn and crash-land your pirouette? A bruised knee is not the end of the world. And pride´s got nothing to do with it either. Pros fall down all the time. At least that´s what my teacher told me when my nose was close enough to the floor to smell the marley. :)

It just means you want more and tried harder. Good for you!

Practicing piqué turns en manege. Photocollage by Barry Kite.

November 9, 2011

If it Feels Easy, Make it Harder!

Just something Madame said in class. Why? Because the moment ballet starts to feel easy, you are no longer progressing - you are settling for less. "Easy" is a sign that you can push yourself further, and that you have more to give!

Tuesday's advanced class was intense. Corrections and instructions throughout the entire barre. Twice my teacher asked me to do part of an exercise again, while the rest of the class pliéd and tendued along. Once Madame even did the exercise with me so I could get the rhythm and accent of a tricky double ronde de jambes right. And I was happy to do it! There are still so many things to improve upon.. More turn-out, deeper pliés, no tilting of the hip in pliés, keeping weight on the working leg, longer back, bigger port de bras - always presenting yourself, stretched knees, forwarded heels, pointed toes at all times..

When it gets easy, make it harder. Just be aware that "harder" is not about quantity - what you want is more quality! Yesterday I really pushed myself, to the pointe that I could barely haul my derriere back home! But that's what you get for making it harder. That and better turn-out, improved balances, decent pirouettes, stronger legs, more bounce in the jumps and more dance in the steps. I had an amazing class, and I loved every minute of it! The cherry on top of it - Madame told me "that everything is getting better." Now, how cool is that? :)

November 6, 2011

Tutus and Dancing Queens

That would be an imaginary tutu, much like our imaginary audience behind the mirror. But it was the instruction given by our teacher in pointe class: you have to dance as if wearing a tutu! It is not just about attitude, regal carriage and all that ballerina cred. There is a practical reason. A short tutu shaped like a teacup, saucer or pancake (pick your prefered visual) can get in the way of your usual port de bras. And unless you want tutu to turn into an obstruction of dance, you have to move and hold those arms above the tutu-line. I had never given it much thought before, but the tutu is more than frilly decoration. It evolved from long to less to give freedom of movement and to show off the ballerina´s legs, but in the process it also shaped the way ballet is danced! 

Boston Ballet: Larissa Ponomarenko. Photo: Rosalie O' Connor.

Imagine yourself dancing in a tutu.. I gotta tell you, for me it borders on the tutu much. If you look at it purely from a fashion do -pointe of view, powder-pink tights and short pancake skirts are more of a don´t, at least for a short and curvy grown-up woman like myself. And if you´re feeling butt-conscious, wearing a saucer tutu is akin to carrying a neon-sign arrow pointed at your booty! There is just not much in the way of derriere coverage. I prefer longer tutus like the corps in the picture is wearing. Pretty and flattering. That, however, would be missing the point of the exercise. Butts aside, I try my best not to dwell on it, especially as my tutu is all make-belief anyway. 

You would think my imagination would allow me to wear my own design, but all I can "see" is Elisabeth Platel´s Grand Pas Classique tutu. It´s no wonder - since we started practicing parts of the GPC variation, I´ve watched Platel´s dancing on youtube about a 100 times.  I´m hoping something will stick by osmosis alone. Oh, and did I mention our teacher told us to dance like a queen? At this point it was hard to keep a straight face, as I was still adjusting my port de bras to my invisible tutu.. But for once, I cast my inner sarcastic critic aside and held my head up high. Majestically and high above the tutu-line. ;)

November 3, 2011

Break Your Feet!

Look mom, no hands! Remember the first time you were allowed to venture into center with your pointe shoes on? I do. It was not 25 years, but just 14 months ago, and my mother sure as hell was no way near to witness this milestone. I felt jubilant nonetheless, and I think the occasion called for some sparkling drinks in ballet-geek company (the best kind). Ah, the benefits of being an adult dancer.. When you leave one barre, another bar is always at the ready. Not that our aprés-ballet bubbly is a daily event - more like once in a season. Just so you know. ;)

This week there was another fabulous milestone. Or more to the pointe, the stepping stone before the actual milestone. We were still at the barre, both hands on, and our teacher was giving us instructions for the next exercise. "You have to break your feet!" Gotta love Madame for being so blunt about it. The exercise was to jump changements in fifth, on pointe. I have tried it a couple of times before, when I was taking basic level in pointe shoes this past summer. My teacher at the time just told me to go for it, and I did some small sautes without really having a clue. This time is different though.

First up, we were told to relevé from seconde, then plié - but not pointe our feet over the boxes the way we usually do (or try to). Instead Madame told us to "break" our feet, that is retract the foot as if you´re trying to grab something. It is not a pretty sight. In fact, Madame told us that it´s the only time she will ever ask us not to be beautiful! I have to admit, I have had mixed feelings about this hopping on pointe with the retracted foot thingy. On the one hand, it´s an amazing technical feat. On the other hand - there is that broken foot look.. But I get the the practical aspect of it too. There really is no other way to hop on pointe. We then proceeded to jumping changements, still at the barre and with extra attention on the positioning of our feet.

Next up, hops on one foot in the diagonale the way Giselle does! No, that was just Madame joking around. Phew. At least for now.. :)

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, ...