December 31, 2011

Two Days Until Class

One of my favorite German words is "Vorfreude"; it literally means the joyful anticipation you feel before a happy or pleasurable event. Be it before Holidays, birthdays, last days of school, first days of vacations, two stops before your final destination, or waiting until ballet-classes resume.. Two days is how much longer I will have to wait, and my initial frustration of having no class to go to is already changing into the vorfreude of hand meets barre, cue music and plié!

Ballet keeps me on my toes, in both senses. In class I have to pay attention and concentrate, which can only happen if I let go of everything else. Leave whatever is bothering me outside, silence the naysayers in my head and suspend any disbelief. Someone might call it escapism, I call it embarking on an adventure! Ballet is exciting, sometimes even a bit scary. But you know the best adventures are. You dance, and you learn. About steps and alignment, about moving to music, of ballets and traditions, and about history and culture. Most of all, even if you were to disregard all the rest, you learn about yourself!

Someone asked me this past week if I ever get bored, since I dance so much. I do not. Get bored, nor do I dance that much. Classes are on three days of the week, you can barely call that an obsession. Okay, there are these two blogs I write and one facebook-page. But more time is still spent not dancing. I hope to change that with the coming new year! Two classes a week are for upkeep, and three classes just about open the door for advancing beyond your present level. Four days a week would suit me fine, with the occasional fifth day thrown in for good measure. This is the time to dance.

This is also traditionally the time to reflect on the past year. Ballet-wise it has been a good one, I got to dance to my heart's content and even had two wishes come true! I wished our guest-teacher Marie-Pierre would continue to teach at our school - and she does! I wished we would get to learn variations - and we are! I do not dare to voice or write what I'm wishing for next year, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed..

I was lucky this year, my attendance record almost perfect and no major upsets (though some minor aches and pains). Okay, my ankle is troubling me on occasion, but I've been given the green light to train as much as I can. You get older and you adjust, that's just how it goes. Overall I think that I've grown into a better dancer than I was last year. At least I hope so! I haven't asked my teachers about it, but Madame once said something in that direction. Though after this many years of dancing (counting 18), improvement tends to be more subtle and slower too.

When you know your basics, it becomes about what happens between those steps, turns and poses. In the words of Madame, "you have to make it interesting". Never mind that I still have to focus on turn-out, on forwarded heels and straight knees and on lengthening my back - and figure out how to turn double grand pirouettes, clean fouetté pirouettes and jump neat beated petit allegro. But to make my dancing interesting to watch has to be the biggest challenge of all!

Advancement in pointe class has been much more obvious, which is no miracle when you start from pointe zero. If you're not counting the pointe break of summer, I have had some 13 months worth of specific pointe practice. Missed classes twice. Considering I have two awesome ballet teachers (or ABT:s, as my fellow ballet blogger Lorry likes to call hers), I would have had to be absent or absent-minded not to learn something! But I still struggle with my echappés and big positions in seconde or fourth. That right heel needs a seperate invitation every time, it just does not want to forward itself! And the right knee is still lazy to stretch all the way, but it's getting better.

Dreaded echappé aside, I found out that I really like to do fast turns in diagonale! Soutenus and piqué turns, and even chaînes. I've become fairly confident with balances and just did my first controlled single pirouettes on pointe. Best of all, I no longer panic when we get to learn variations! Last class before Christmas, our teacher threw Sugar Plum Fairy at us like tinsel on a tree. It was a suitably easy-fied version, but close enough. There was no warning, no time for self-doubt to catch up. I just did my best, thinking on my feet but not over-thinking how I might have looked doing it. It was a blast, scary and exhilerating at the same time!

None of this could have taken place without my Awesome Ballet Teachers. They take us committed adult dancers seriously and reward our efforts by pushing us further than we even dare to dream of! When dance matters this much, there is nothing better. Should you be reading this (you know who you are) - I love your classes, they are simply the best!

Dear Readers, finally I would like to thank you for sticking around! I'm always eager to get feedback from you, so please keep it coming. I wish you a happy New Year 2012 and may there be plenty of pirouettes and moments of bliss!

December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Dear Readers,

wishing you a wonderful time celebrating the Holidays! Enjoy your rest, even if you miss all the dancing - your muscles will thank you for it. Have all your favorite treats, chocolates, puddings, egg-nogs, whatnots - ballet classes will take care of any extra "padding". You have earned it!

Lots of love, take care, be merry and be happy!

- Johanna

December 19, 2011

Six Classes Until Christmas

I was going to write a post about my past year in ballet, about progress and hopes and dreams. But that can wait, because there are still six classes left to dance before the Christmas break. Good thing too, since I've already overdosed on chocolates, truffles and cake. And ballet is really the only "exercise" I like. And I swear these end rhymes are not intentional! Which reminds me that I still have some Christmas / Thank You -cards to write. And cookies to bake..

But, other than baking and writing and last-minute shopping and present-wrapping this week is all about the dancing! It goes like this: I enter class, stash my ballet bag inside but leave my baggage outside. If something is bothering me, I forget about it by the time we do our first tendus, pliés and cambrés. Breath, look at the hand, allongé, stretch, nose to knees - and I´m there. Nothing else matters but the dance. It's my Zen of Ballet.

It's raining outside. Been doing that for as long as I don't care to remember. This time last year, Helsinki was blanketed in snow. Frosted trees everywhere, glittering in the moonlight. I kid you not. Finland in winter usually looks like a backdrop of Nutcracker's snowflake dance. I miss the snow.

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Six more classes. 450 minutes of dancing. Have you ever noticed, or wondered, how time moves differently in class? Exercises last mere minutes, less than it takes me to check my twitter feed. Yet in class every second counts. There is no moment in dance that does not carry value. One time our teacher Marie-Pierre told us tendus should converse with the floor, and that there is a story to tell with each step. You are to move like a cat, caress the floor with your feet, and present yourself at all times, sensuous and elegant.

And let us not forget to put those heels forward, to point that popo down, to stretch the knees, and to lengthen the back! Piece of cake. But if ballet were any easier, where would the challenge and the fun be? Sure, at times it's frustrating. Pirouettes come and go, you confuse left with right, steps refuse to travel from brain to feet, you fall and bruise, you try and fail, you get up and try again. And then you have a moment. And it's bliss.

December 17, 2011

Slide and Turn

Two things worth writing about happened yesterday. One: after dancing 16 months on pointe, I slipped and crash-landed for the first time. Coincidentally, this happened right after I had bragged on Adult Beginner's post about my Nutcracker sliding arabesque. You know, the big wow-moment in the pas de deux - when Prince pulls up-on-pointe Sugar Plum across the stage? It's a trick, of course. Look here for the reveal. Anyway, one time in pointe class I was too brazen with my piqué arabesque and slid about 15 cm straight ahead - un-assisted and without falling down! So when AB mentioned the Slide in her post, I just had to share. But you know what happens. Pride comes before the slide.

Yesterday, we did this fairly simple exercise. En face, tendu degagé plié to the side - relevé to 5th pointe, then three quick degagés on pointe with the back leg moving to the front. I was trying to coordinate the port de bras (arms at "tutu height") with my head and my feet and whooops - one leg slid right underneath me! Into the air, then bang on the right knee with the final pose flat on my popo, both legs up. Think Donald O'Connor in "Make 'Em Laugh" - just put the man in pointe shoes.

Before you ask, I'm okay. Nothing but a bruised knee. After my teacher made sure I was still in one piece, she made me get back up on the proverbial horse right away. Because if you don't, you'll be scared every time!

The other thing worth writing about, occured to me at the end of class. We were doing piqué soutenu turns and chaînés deboulés, and one of the other girls was complaining (quietly) about her painful toes. That's when I realised my toes were not hurting at all! No pressure points anywhere, not even a squished pinky! Although I was so tired yesterday, yawning my way through the entire barre, that it is entirely possible those toes had turned comatose. Which would explain the not-feeling-the floor and crash-landing from grace..

Actually, that is not it. Why did I not whoot about this earlier? Those friggin chaînés deboulés! Not too long ago I sucked at them, even in flatties, on demi-pointe. I still remember our spring recital of 2009, when my feet seperated into a wide seconde and I debouléd my way back into the wings! Heck, beginning of this year I could not even consider doing them on pointe. Ever. And yesterday I did - in our huge studio with the longest diagonale known to dancer-kind. Yay!

Great studio space for turning and getting ditzy.

December 11, 2011

Pointe Pals

Last Friday I took my new pointe shoes to their first ballet class - and I'm happy to say we danced really well together! Looks like I have found my match, because I ended up choosing the exact same model as last time: Bloch Balance European (size 6 XX). My old pair (Odette and Odile) is still in dancing form, but I decided to break in the new shoes - before I would be clobbering around with a pair of Dead Swans on my feet!

Getting ready to take many breaks.

This time I even managed to sew elastics and ribbons in less than two days - my personal record, I might add. Not that it takes that long to sew a total of 8 endings, it's just that I get bored doing it! Good thing I don't have to sew a pair a day.. I suppose I could be less meticulous with my sewing, but my dad taught me not to do things half-assed. Sorry, demi-derriered. I still remember when I sewed my first pair (16 months being such a long time ago). I googled and youtubed for instructions, then sewed and re-sewed about three times. The first elastics were much too narrow, and after I found Bloch's covert elastics - I removed the old and sewed the wider covert in their place. Twice, because sewing them on the inside did not work. So I got a lot of practice with my first pointe shoes already!

Sewing covert elastics at back of heel. Fun.

I have also adapted my breaking-in practice. My first shoes were Bloch Serenades with heat-activated TMT-paste. It was a lot of fun using a hair dryer and refrigerator for molding the box and shank! Unfortunately, Serenade's shank was too stiff for my foot. You really need banana arches for those shoes! My teacher helped me out by cutting a wedge into the outer leather sole, but my arches were still straining to get over the box. Then I switched over to Balance Europeans, and what relief! Pointe work became less about work and more about fun (and work)!

Meet Odette & Odile II, along with new Sansha Pro1 flatties.

With this new pair, Odette & Odile II, I've used the same break-in technique as before, but I softened the shank higher up. It's almost like dancing with a 3/4 shank, except that I haven't cut anything. Well, except for the right shoe's sole. My right foot has less of an instep, so it needs extra help. Whatever works, right? Check out the video below, if you haven't already. I've used Lisa Howell's technique since my first pair of pointe shoes.

Friday I pulled on my ouch-pouches and my gel socks for the big toes, and tied those new shiny ribbons. Cinderella moment! The shanks fit perfectly under the heels and all I had to do was some extra work on the demi-pointe line of the box. There wasn't even any pain or discomfort, other than a slightly squished right pinky toe! Sure, new shoes always feel a bit odd on your feet - but we're already on our way to become best pointe pals. :)

December 7, 2011

My Little Ballet Wish List

Dear Terpsichore, Goddess of dancers - I beg of you - would you be so gracious and give my Pirouette Fairy another boost to her fairy dust? It does seem a little less potent of late. By the way, I'm still waiting for that quadruple pirouette, remember? The one on last year's wish list.. What do you mean I have to do the work myself? You are not seriously suggesting that there is no magic involved? I bet Hermione could do it!

All right then. I will focus on deep and active pliés, push my working leg into the floor and spot those turns. Yes, I will remember to lift my passé leg into retiré from underneath, and not with the top of my thigh. Heel forward and small toes placed at knee - okay! Still, a sprinkling of fairy dust couldn't hurt..

Darcey Bussell

December 4, 2011

Permission to Speed

Tuesday, pointe class with Madame. Dancing on pointe is no picnic in the park, but I look forward to this class every week. I don't care that my toes are all squished before the hour is over. This is real work that we do - and I love it! Yes, even those slow killer relevés. Sometimes Madame "apologizes" for the muscle burn that she is imposing on us, but I'm happy to work my butt off, literally, and to keep that popo under me and to pointe and stretch and turn-out. I have taken pointe technique with Marie-Pierre (we don't actually call her Madame) since November 2010, and I still can't believe my luck. We get so much positive feedback, expert guidance and hands-on corrections. Seriously, it's master class every week!

My pointe shoes, before and after.

Of course, I'm a long way from being advanced on pointe. I'm just working my way around pirouettes (singles so far) and there is heaps of basic-level technique yet to be learned! But we have advanced to rises on one leg (in center), to fondues, to ballotés in center, to balances, to adding épaulement and fancier port de bras, to jumps on pointe, to steps I don't know what to call, and to choreography. There are even Balanchinean poses!

And turns in diagonale. We did this exercise: Start from fifth, croisé. Step up to relevé wide fourth, effacé. Arms correspond to first arabesque. Close back leg to fifth - turn - degagé front leg - step into big fourth again - repeat. You stay up on pointe the whole time. It's almost like chaînés déboulés, except for the degagé leg, the wide fourth position and the back leg closing in fifth before turning. We have done this exercise before, could have been in spring, don't really remember. I have practiced them a couple of times since, on my own, and I was feeling pretty confident.

Madame demonstrated the turns in slow tempo, which as we all know, is even more difficult. You have to be in control of your balances and you can't cheat. Not that I would ever cheat! Anyway, it was single file and I was first: relevé into fourth, step into fifth, tried to turn but stumbled down. Again and again. Yikes. I was told to keep my weight forward (always good advice) and some other things that were lost in the flailing about. But I did not give up. Never give up!

As the rest of the class turned along the diagonale, I practised on the side and tried to work out the dynamic and rhythm of the turns. Before we embarked to the left, Madame gave some general corrections, and I tried once more - but with more speed. And you know what? I figured out the flow! It worked! Madame must have agreed: "Johanna, that was excellent!" Can you imagine how happy I felt at that moment? Of course, our class is neither pre-professional nor company-class. I know there is "excellent", and then there is excellent. And our teacher is always very generous with her praise. But I think I deserved it just the same!

The best part was when Madame told me I could do the turns at double tempo. No more slowing down, but full speed ahead!

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, ...