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.


  1. Thank you very much for this entry. I had yesterday my first ballet exam and I failed...I was crying a lot all day long, but my teacher told me not to give it up. Cause it´s what you say... even though I don´t have a perfect turnout I work hard everyday and that makes me feel different and special for have been taken ballet and not any other dance! Ballet is challenging ! So Im taking 2 exams next year and Im ready to prepare myself for this hard year!

  2. Hi sweetie!

    Head up and chin high - I can feel your disappointment, but you will improve! Mistakes, even failures, are part of learning and can eventually propel you further than you thought was even possible!

    The most perfect turn-out is not even necessary, despite that we all dream about it. What counts is how you use whatever you've got. Correct alignment and clean technique can be achieved even in third positions. Practice, practice and practice some more and you will get stronger!

    But do remember to enjoy all your hard work. Be proud and happy of every little achievement there is. I'm cheering for you! :)

  3. Hey :)

    as my teacher said, I seem to have that ballet body and it's a pity I started so late... I'm really sad that I haven't started younger and that I doubtet so long about it. Because I really really love ballet and I would take as many classes as possible if I could afford.
    My teacher is not a ballet-body giftet as she says but she is so good and passionate that I would never ever have seen that she doesnt have THE body. :) What is a perfect turn out when there is no passion, no love for the movement? Nothing!
    What I want to say is, every one has their own ballet problems. You have the money but not the body, I have the body but no money for more lessons than 2 per week.
    You're passionate about it so you will be great and whats more important - you're happily dancing. So am I.

  4. Some consider interes and motivation an integral aspect of being talented in something, and I tend to agree. Talent is so much more than turnout, long legs or a bendy back. Those help in achieving certain positions in ballet, granted, but are not everything. Besides, one tends to notice and envy in others those features that they find themselves lacking. Think of your strong sides; do all of your classmates with perfect turnout have those? Jumps, turns, expression, lovely hands maybe?

  5. Lovely post and well said...I'm going to mark this and re-read it when I'm having one of those frustrating "bad days" and use it to reframe and refocus :) You are so right about the wonderful fact that we chose ballet even if it wouldn't have chosen US. Working within your limitations and finding the way to wring every last bit of potential from your body often makes you see that the limitations are NOT as limiting as they may have seemed.

    Having taught academics and coached athletics, I can say that a person who is less gifted naturally but has the drive, work ethic, and the love of what they do will often go farther than the natural talent who isn't as motivated. Yes, sheer talent makes the difference at the very elite levels, but hey, isn't it awesome that we don't have to deal with that? We are totally FREE to do what we enjoy and take it as seriously or as far as WE decide, without anyone else having a say...that's priceless.

    To quote a fellow adult beginner, "Having come farther than I ever imagined, I'm pressing on to see just how far I can go!"

    Thanks for the words of wisdom and beautiful post :)

  6. Hi Kritzelfee!

    My first ballet teacher did not have the ideal ballerina body, but she was a very elegant dancer. Wonderful musicality, clean technique, good jump & balance & pirouettes, and most of all - she had a very commanding presence!

    I am sorry you can't take as many classes as you want. I know what that is like! In my early twenties I lived on a very tight student's budget, and could only take 1-2 classes per week.
    Even now I don't really have "the money". To pay for classes I have to make compromises and sacrifices elsewhere.

    It's a bit harsh to say that you have the body and I have "the money". Sure, money pays for classes, but I work hard to get better. Nothing is handed to me on a silver platter.

    I like to think that we both are passionate about dancing. How great is that? :)

  7. Hi Fellow Dancer!

    I do agree with you: talent is more than innate physical ballet suitability. But this was the only talent that I was refering to. I guess because my teacher speaks only of talent when someone has natural turn-out or very high legs. You know, the kind that might have granted you access to vocational training.

    But I do know that it takes so much more, even if you would happen to be physically gifted. You still need the drive, as well as musicality and intellect. And lets not forget passion and some serious work ethic!

    You are right, we tend to envy features that we find lacking in ourselves. I honestly can't say whether I have any "talent", but I do practice a lot and take corrections reasonably well.

    Hmm.. I am pretty good with balances! And one teacher once said that my lines are not too bad. So there's that. :)

  8. Thank you Kaija, for your lovely feedback!

    Sometimes I forget that I've come a long way. For an adult dancer who has no background in dance prior to her 21st birthday, I'm doing pretty well. I have worked around my limitations, and some are not so limiting anymore!

    It's like you wrote, we are FREE to do as we like. Free to enjoy, free to happily fail and try again, even free to excel. There is no pressure.

    Love the quote by your fellow dancer! :)

  9. Thank you so much for writing this blog! I just discovered it today, and it's like you are saying what is in my own heart. I grew up poor in a small town and there was no option for ballet. I tried it when I was 21 (like you!) but what I didn't realize was that college level Ballet 101 isn't for true beginners. So i figured, this isn't for me. Not until I turned 30 did I try again, and was lucky enough to find a true beginner class! Now, 5 yrs later, I dance at 3 studios for about 9 hours a week, incl. 2.5 hrs of pointe. I however, dance with teenagers, b/c there still aren't adult classes for ballet nerds like me! It's so nice to hear someone else saying what I think myself. I cried when I saw your happy sad song entry. I feel that way all the time. This is a wonderful blog you are writing, and a wonderful resource for your fellow dancers!! Thank you! Shannon

  10. Dear Shannon, now you made me cry :´)

    I'm so happy for you that you found your way to ballet after all! Your class schedule is very impressive, and taking ballet with teenagers can actually be an advantage. All this combined with your love for dance will take you to wonderful new places. That I am sure of!

    I realize now just how lucky I was with my first ballet class - because it was a true beginner's level, and because there were other adults like myself (and older).

    The big challenge came when I slowly progressed from beginners to basic to basic-intermediate. Intermediate (and advanced) classes were crowded with girls and women who had danced their entire lives, some as much as 25 years! I knew there was no way to catch up with that kind of experience and skill, so I just focused on getting better than myself.

    Always believe in your potential.

    - Johanna


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