December 24, 2012

Snowflakes Outside my Window

Today, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I did my last dash to the grocery store. Not so much dashing as stomping my way through ankle-deep new snow. It has been snowing all of December, every single day, at least that I can remember. On Christmas Eve stores close at noon, and won't open again until Thursday. Finns take Joulu (Finnish for Christmas) very seriously and like to make an early retreat. I do enjoy this time of the year: the snowed-in landscapes, the candle light in the evenings, the mulled wine and other Christmas treats (chocolate being a year-round favorite), the Nutcracker season - and Snowflakes. I love the dance of the Snowflakes most, and wish I could just once be one. Frothy tutu and glittering tiara included. Sadly, the only snowflakes I encounter are outdoors..

Snowflakes in Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo (c) Alice Pennefather / ROH.

When I was still in school, I used to ski and ice skate outdoors whenever there was snow and ice. I'm ashamed to say that I've gotten lazy since. It's much more comfy to sweat in a dance studio, even though sub-zero temperatures mean extra layers of warm-up wear. However, since I discovered that the field at the edge of the forest (I can see it from my window) is now an ice skating field.. Maybe it's time to get myself new skates? I just realised that I haven't ice skated since I started ballet! Professional ballerinas (or those in the making) are probably not supposed to, because of the risk of injury. At least that's what my teacher said. But I'm no ballerina, I can risk falling on my butt. And after twenty years of sticking to non-iced grounds that's pretty likely to happen.

Speaking of ballet (that's what this blog is about after all): I'm taking a break from ballet! Just for the duration of our eleven-day Christmas break, nothing more. And nothing less. This time around, I really need it. There was that stress from moving house, then rehearsals on top of regular classes, then the xmas show, followed by more classes and other stress... and then I kinda zonked out. The last class of 2012 went by in a sloppy-toed and tired blur. My teacher was not pleased with me, she thinks that I take class too seriously and get frustrated too easily - especially when I'm tired or stressed. Which admittedly is not far from the truth, but this time there were circumstances which I explained later. Anyway, my teacher knows me pretty well and reminded that we can't always do and be our best - and that's okay. No reason to get upset over. She's right, of course. But sometimes life is hard, and even ballet class can't make it right. Better, yes.

New York City Ballet's Snowflakes. Photo (c) Paul Kolnik.

So, I'm not really counting the last class of 2012 as the grand finale of my ballet year. That, my friends, took place in the preceding Tuesday and Wednesday lessons. In Marie-Pierre's class I got the kind of corrections that push you further, and the inspiration that lifts you higher - literally. I love that she teaches the way she sees it, without watering ballet down for us adult recreational "ballerinas". The demand for quality is always there, as is the refining of your technique and expression. It doesn't matter so much how high you can lift your legs, but what does matter is how you do it. There is not a moment wasted, not a beat that isn't danced to the best of your ability - present and future.

Tuesday's class was even more awesome than usual. Because of the upcoming Holidays, there were less of us - which translated into more to do and more corrections from a very demanding Marie-Pierre. Sure, I could sometimes take class without, but getting those personal corrections always changes something for the better. Or, at least it gives you an idea where to go from here. For instance, when were doing ronde de jambes, I was told to watch out for that last moment in ecarté (the hardest bit). There are still a few millimeters left to turn my heel out even more. Not forcing anything, but using proper alignment and awareness. I'm continuously surprised that there is so much "more" for me to accomplish! "More!" is in fact something I frequently hear from Madame. It means being generous with your/mine plié, with the length of your allongé, with you presence and projection.

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada backstage at The Nutcracker. Photo (c) Bruce Zinger.

Another awesome moment of Tuesday: I finally nailed my pirouettes right in front of my teacher! She was walking backwards, following our line (a little unnerving) - and I felt confident and on top of my legs. Clean doubles, both en dehors and en dedans. Clean meaning properly aligned heels, which is always a challenge for me. Madame keeps reminding me every time, but this time even she was finally happy. Result! There was also a moment in pointe class. We were doing balances in center, and I had that same secure and calm feeling. From fifth, degagés en avant and arrière (about 45°), and passé retirés - plié and repeat. It's impossible to do the entire exercise without a wobble, but I managed a few nice balances. Marie-Pierre gave me an appreciative nod afterwards on top of the regular praise (she's very generous that way). Yay! There was more, both in the way of corrections and getting-it-right moments - but I want to wrap this up in time to unwrap my xmas presents...

Snowflakes from San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo (c) Erik Tomasson.

Wednesday was "Johanna's Pirouette Day." Really, that's what our teacher Gabriella called it after class (not those exact words in English, but that's the gist of it). Most had left already, only a dance buddy (with better turns than mine) was still there. I would have known it even without the praise, but it's always nice being acknowledged. Especially after a very long and insecure non-turning plateau. I'm not sure what was different, because I know my technique has been there for much longer. It must have been the calm and happy state I was in. No stress, just having fun, while remaining focused in the moment. Even my bad spotting was better - and I managed a rare triple (rare for me). My pirouettes were not the only cherries of that class, it was the entire atmosphere: relaxed, fun, motivated. I had enough energy to do two classes back to back, and Gabriella pushed me to go for a deeper penché and a higher leg. Apparently I can do it! Yay!

But now it's time to rest and recharge ballet batteries. My right knee has been acting up since Thursday, I suspect it's something to do with quads and their tendons, right where they attach at the top of the knee. It hurts when I do a deep plie on one leg, and gets achy after being bent for too long. I have now eight full days to recover, and hope that does it. All I plan to do is enjoy the snow (inside and outdoors), watch several Nutcrackers, read some, write some, eat well and plenty, meet family and friends and have a lovely time. I wish you the same: a wonderful Christmas and Happy Holidays!

- Johanna

All photos not credited are (c) Pointe Til You Drop.

December 12, 2012

Get Your Face On

I'm pretty good with my port de bras. At times I have to watch out for the droopy elbows, and take care that fingers don't freeze into positions. Oh, and make sure that arms are not too high in first, and not too far back in couronne. But, all in all, I think that my port de bras is one of my stonger suits. This, however, is not the case with my port de tête. I know to look sideways when the steps call for it, or front when it's first arabesque - you know, the basic directions. But other than that, my face and eyes tend to stay too much straight ahead. It makes my dancing look static, like I'm just going through the motions.

"Present yourself!" It's perhaps the most frequent guidelines we get to hear in class - and personally speaking, one of the hardest. I get shy in front of an audience, even if it's just the teacher and my classmates watching. Not the kind of shy where I blush and retreat to the corner, but the kind that has me dancing smaller than I could. Like a wallflower, instead of a blooming rose.. I hesitate to put myself out there, to get my face on and dance full out, expressions and all. I'd rather keep my poker face, check my alignment in the mirror and smile mostly on the inside.

Somewhere along I forgot that dancing involves the entire body, literally from head to toes. Partly it's because the performing aspect is fairly new to me. Before, ballet class was something I did for myself only - in the sense that an (imaginary) audience was never part of class. I enjoyed dancing as such, and did not give much thought to what my face looked like or when and how I should tilt my head. Or how to project and present myself. But I'm getting there.

Seeing myself on video has definitely helped. After you get over the cringe-factor, it's an excellent learning experience. I could see that while my chaînés turned alright, my head was too slow to spot. It made my turning look sluggish. I could also see that the lack of port de tête makes my dancing look boring, which is not the quality I'm looking for! One of my teachers (Marie-Pierre) saw our spring show, and noted the same (the static head - not the boring aspect). Yesterday, she told me that she had planned to work on this with me, but during the long summer break kind of forgot about it (we have been focusing on other things). Anyway, we had a short chat before class about the upcoming show, and then she made me work like I was on stage already. Marie-Pierre reminded me to use my head and eyes and gave me exact directions, even through pointe class. When to tilt my head in pas de bourré, change directions, or how to present myself - not just the basic academics, but the dancing. There is so much to learn, so much to express! A subtle movement here, a big pose there. Nuances, shades and colours. Time to get my face on.

December 10, 2012

Moving Day

I've been saying that home is where the barre is, but last week I found myself a new home. Initially, this was not by choice but out of necessity. My old building is undergoing massive renovation and us renters were asked to vacate our apartments by a certain due date. I found my new place pretty much last-minute, and had to arrange everything within a week. I gotta tell you, I haven't been this tired in years. Did a crazy amount of sorting, recycling and throwing stuff out, packing, lifting, carrying, and unpacking stuff. The amount of said stuff one person accumulates over the years is just unbelievable. I finally had to say goodbye to stacks of ancient Dance Magazines (I saved one), shabby leos and even most of my old (pointe) shoes. But I did make a few fun discoveries in the process, like ballet programmes I had saved from almost twenty years ago..

Well, I couldn't throw Darcey out! The issue is from September 1994, and Darcey was hailed as a Balanchine natural..  The programme in the middle is from Platel's and Legris' guest performance in Giselle, here at the Finnish National Ballet. I can't believe it's been twenty years! I still remember that night, it was pure magic. Legris had the most insane batterie, and Platel was just so delicate and beautiful. Another thing that continues to amaze me: I have danced a small bit from Giselle on that same stage! Of course it's not the National Ballet's stage anymore (they moved into a new building), but I love the history of that old theatre. On the far right is the programme from POB's 1995 tour to Finland. I got to see "Paquita" (Grand Pas and Pas de Trois), Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" and Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Etoiles such as Nicholas Le Riche, Laurent Hilaire, Monique Loudières, Isabelle Guerin, principal dancers Agnès Letestu, José Martinez, and up-and-coming dancers such as Aurélie Dupont. It was absolutely breathtaking and flabbergasting, and I still remember the chills down my spine.

In between the packing and unpacking I managed to sneak in a few ballet classes. Which I can barely remember, I was that tired. But I needed class so bad even a snow storm couldn't stop me! My body was in all the wrong kinds of pain: stabbing needles in my neck, weird aches all over - I knew a good barre would set me right again. And that it did, although it took me almost a week to recover fully. Meanwhile, lots of wobbly balances and spaced-out moments mid-music. Who knew left and right could be so hard to keep apart? But I'm good now - and happily settled in my new-home-without-a-barre. It's a tiny studio, but neat and with a nice view into the woods and the sky above. The name of the street has a poetic sound to it, and if I were to translate it into English, I could say I'm living on a moonbeam.. Kind of fitting for a former wili, don't you think?

My Big Move inspired me to make another change: I moved my barre spot in class! We had to switch studios because one of the fixed barres snapped into half, and apparently you can't buy spare barres off the shelve. So while we wait for our new custom-made barre to be delivered, we have taken over the big studio with the grand windows and view to the theatre and Finland's biggest department store. It's a nice view, with Christmas lights and snow-frosted trees. I had already settled back into my old spot, but after moving homes I decided to be bold. I switched in front of a window, which is a bit drafty this time of the year, but I get to see myself in profile to the mirror. It's not my favorite angle, but that's why it makes sense! My teacher noticed my move too, and thought it a good idea. Now I can check my alignment in the mirror and adjust my popo, turn-out, heels, and whatnot. Mind you, this is not a permanent move. Once we get back into our regular studio, everyone is likely to return to their old spots. Still, it all feels like new beginnings..

November 25, 2012

Ballet, Unplugged

The Big Ballet Studio of the Finnish National Ballet.
Photo credit: mine.

A few weeks back, I had another opportunity to watch company class at the Finnish National Ballet, always a fascinating experience. This time there was a huge bonus treat: after class we got to observe the principals' rehearsal for Kenneth Greve's new ballet Snow Queen, with choreography still in the making! It's one of those fly-on-the-wall moments you dream of.. Seriously, I would be more than happy to hang around the Opera building for the entire day. I could do laundry, fill water bottles, collect stray hairpins, write more blogs, whatever.

We were met at the personnel's entrance half past ten by one of FNB's coordinators, and duly escorted to the big ballet studio. I would have known my way around already, but you gotta follow protocol and stick with your group. We got to class just as the dancers were moving to the center. There was a guest teacher; the charming, energetic and suitably strict Mr. Sandor Nemethy. There were, however, fewer dancers, as Saturday is a voluntary training day (unless there's rehearsal afterwards). Those dancers who are performing later in the day have of course their own warm-up class in addition. But, I was happy to sight familiar (and favorite) principals and soloists and up-and-coming corps dancers, all amazing artists with distinctive qualities of their own. I don't know how happy they were to have an improptu audience, but at least I couldn't sense any discord. On the contrary, some seemed to enjoy the extra attention, giving us a full-out performance! To anyone of you dancers (Mira, Tiina, Salla, Wilfried..) reading this: thanks for making my day!

You know what I like so much about watching company class, aside from the mad skills and gorgeous ballet-bodies? You get to see the dancers work on their craft, in plain view, without all the glamorous accroutements of a staged performance. It's ballet's equivalent of MTV Unplugged. The other reason I like to observe pros in class is kinda obvious: I try to watch every move they make, and soak it all up. The refined épaulement, the port de bras, the linking steps and all that happens in between. Seriously, you learn a lot from watching other (professional) dancers. You also learn that they are not perfect either, make mistakes, take risks, fail at pirouettes - and they get corrections just like us. Another thing I observed is that when the pianist is playing, the dancers are dancing! If the exercise ends mid-diagonale, you either run out of the way or stand still and trust your fellow dancers not to knock you over! The energy is just awesome, and every time I get to observe I want to join in so badly.. Not that I could ever keep up. It took me about four diagonals to pick up the brisé-exercise which they all got after verbal instructions alone.

After class, six dancers remained and it was time for rehearsal. When the choreographer (and Artistic Director) Kenneth Greve explained that there were still minutes of choreography missing, I was way more pleased than if it had been a rehearsal of ready-made steps! How cool to see the creative process in progress..

November 18, 2012

My Barre-Spot

Note to self: working leg needs to be slightly more to the front.
That will drop the hip down and improve turn-out.

There it is, my spot at the barre. I take it without even thinking about it, and so far I've never had to chase anyone away. Not that I would.. Okay, not entirely true. When we still had class in our bigger studio, my spot was at the short end - and because the piano was against the same wall, there was only room enough for one. At least when class was not over-crowded. I was very attached to that barre-spot, and everyone else had their places marked too. But occasionally there was a drop-in student who went straight for my spot (even though I already had my water bottle in place), and I just had to let her know. "I'm sorry but this is my place." I'm kind of embarrassed to admit it, even though lots of dancers are known to be quite territorial about their barre spots!

Earlier on, I used to change places fairly often to get different views in the mirror (or no views). But, when you have the same crowd coming to class it all kind of settles into a routine. And it's nice and it feels a bit like coming home. I like my spot at the barre because there's no one in front to distract me. Which also means there's no one to copy from, so I really have to pay attention! I gotta tell you, there have been a few times when I've regretted being first in line. Ever had total black-outs right after you said "no" to the "any questions?"

I like having a bit of a familiar routine in class, but there are drawbacks to being stuck on the same spot.  Like in my Tuesday class. Our teacher does her demonstrations in front of me (I make room), and then begins her barre-round with me. Which means I frequently get corrected during my first plié, but almost never mid- or end-exercise. I don't think my teacher has ever seen me doing cambrés in seconde, up in relevé. I have pretty good balance, and it's something she might note. Or correct, if needed. Although, sometimes when an exercise ends in a difficult balance, and she hasn't seen everyone do it, she will have you do it again. And check the entire barre.

Still, I think I might benefit from an occasional change of barre-spots. Question is, who will trade theirs with mine? And can I have mine back afterwards?

Midway through fondues.. Hang on, it was fondue devant, close to fifth,
then degagé with the back leg into low arabesque, close again and
continue with fondues a la seconde. Possibly.

November 5, 2012

Home is Where the Barre is

At times it feels like I'm adrift in a sea of uncertainties, without any clear outlook on my future. Who am I going to be when I (finally and supposedly) grow up? What's my next job like? Where will I live? What the heck am I doing with my life? Is this really it, and should I have already counted my blessings many times over? But when I dance, there are no such conundrums.

I go to class and my anchor is thrown. For one hour, 90 minutes or three classes, I know I'm in the exactly right place. No place I'd rather be. Dancing makes me happy; before, during and after class. There are days when it's all the joie de vivre there is, but how many do experience such enjoyment on a daily basis? Granted, not every class is or has been wonderful. Sometimes I just don't feel it. I might be tired and sore, and lacking confidence and spirit. But even those bad days have been worth it. If nothing else, they at least have paved the way for better times!

As I type this during the last hour of Sunday, I can't help but have a smile on my face. There is no Sunday night blues, no worries. I know there are many who dread Mondays, but for me it marks the beginning of another week of dance. And I look forward to coming home, once again.

My ballet buddy and I having a great time.

November 1, 2012

Human Pretzel in Training

Did my best impression of a human pretzel in ballet class. Another set of those insane stretches our über-flexible primaballerina teacher likes to give us. She calls them "possible", since you can always lower your leg and hold the stretch at your own height. Sure you can, if your arms are long enough to reach.. The exercise goes like this: stand facing the barre, lift right leg into passé retiré, then into a small attitude devant, enough that you take hold of your right heel with your left hand. Now straighten leg to the front and pull as close to your body as possible. It's really nothing more than a standing split. Which is not nothing, as I can barely stretch into a split on the floor. But I did manage it with my more flexible left leg in front. Right leg - not a chance in hell. I was pleased I could get the limb over the higher barre and then rest it there. Er, I meant strech. Not rest. By the way, this was still the easy part.

We then repeated the first part, passé and attitude, grab right heel with left hand and extend - but to a la seconde! Again, with my right leg up not even remotely possible. I switched hands (right hand for right heel) and did my stretch the regular way. You could of course have lifted the leg onto the barre, or held the leg lower. Our teacher never asks anyone to push beyond their own maximum stretching ability, and she makes sure we are being careful. It's no shame to have lower extension or less in the way of rubber ligaments. Still, it would be so nice.. No wonder then I keep having these dreams where I can lift my back leg in an attitude high enough to touch my bun. Or where I suddenly have six o' clock extensions, totally effortless. It's like my inner ballerina is having a stretch-fest in my dreams. Shame she has to wake up each time to a considerably tighter reality.

But this time I almost had my bendy Barbie moment. I took hold of my left heel with my right hand and maneuvered the extended leg to the side, not unlike operating heavy machinery. Found the angle very akward with my right shoulder coming so much forward. Then had the brilliant idea to move my right arm behind my head, all the while holding the left leg in the air. And it was so close to a full side-split, my eyes almost popped out along with my right shoulder. I could have made it, if I just had a little bit more length in my arms. That or looser hip joints.

Seriously, I need to keep perspective. Not so long ago I was happy to stretch my leg to shoulder height (talon a la main), and getting this far is a huge improvement for me. I also need to be careful. I'm really not sure it's the best idea to push too much against body type. I happen to have tight ligaments and muscles, but on the up side, I have a strong jump. Wouldn't want to loose my bounce to over-stretching. Can that even happen? Does anybody know?

Anyway, don't you get any crazy ideas from my barre maneuver. Always practice safe stretching!

I dunno why she doesn't look any happier. I would grin big time in this position!
The photo is from Wear Moi's gallery, click here for more.

October 29, 2012

Is it Show-Time Already?

Nothing has been confirmed yet, but looks like we're going to reprise our Don Quixote -inspired dance for the school's xmas show! Yay! Now it just depends on whether we get enough of our original cast together. It's always tricky with us adults, especially right before the holidays. We have to be able to commit to additional rehearsals, and be free to dance just two days before all of Finland retreats home to spend Christmas. I know some of our "corps" has travel plans, while a few others are no longer at our school (or even in the same country). I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we get to go back on stage - I have really missed the experience!

I also hope to dance and perform better than I did last time. (Read the re-cap from our spring performance here: Ballerina for a Day.) Our teacher has already given us pre-rehearsal preparation to do: we have to rewatch the video from the spring show and rememorize our steps and positions. I remember being much too nervous to enjoy my entrance, and it shows. My piqué attitudes look like a dog trying to take a leak. It still makes me cringe, but not so bad that I can't make a joke about it! This much I've learned from my very few performing opportunities: there's always something you could have done better (and did do better in rehearsals). You might sail through the most difficult part and then screw up the easiest steps. It happens, shit happens. But as long as you keep going, it doesn't really matter. The audience wants to see you do well and have a good time on stage. You want the audience to enjoy your dance. It's a win-win situation, even if you should fall on your butt. Which I haven't done yet. Phew..

My attitudes are not the only thing that I look forward to make over. Watching that video, I keep wondering: where's my smile? I need to smile! Show some teeth! True, it's hard to flash a genuine smile when you're nervous and trying not to mess up the steps.. But maybe if I just fake it at first, it becomes natural as I dance along? I also need to work on my épaulement, it's still too "ballet class" and not enough Don Q. Gawd, the list of repairs doesn't end there. Must have a snappier head while spotting chaînés deboulés, and prettier arms when jumping. And please, not forget to point toes and stretch knees! And it wouldn't hurt to wear more eye make-up. Now, I know very well it's not going to be perfect next time around. I might have the best attitudes ever, and then be disappointed with my final grand jeté. But that's the beauty of a live one-chance-only performance. Even when you know the steps and counts, you never know at what precise moment the magic happens.

October 24, 2012

Pointes from the Postman

Oops, I did it again. That is, I waited until the last class to get new pointe shoes - only to find out that my size was not in stock at my local store! My plan B (out-of-town friend with access to another store) didn't work out either, and I was looking at two more very long weeks of dancing in dying-dead shoes.. You know there's no joy in there. That's why I did another online research on dance wear shops within the EU, to find out if I could possibly get my shoes sooner, and for a reasonable price. And I did!

My pointe shoes are from Bloch: Balance European (in size 6 XX). Here in Finland they cost about 60 Euros (75 USD / 45 GBP). At my current rate of two pointe classes per week, I need to replace shoes about every 10-12 weeks. I have never shellaced or glued my pointes before, but I'm going to do a trial with my new pair. That should buy me a few weeks extra usage. I'm also thinking of getting an extra pair, so I can switch my shoes from class to class. Pointes should be aired at least 36 hours between each use, for the glue to re-harden.

The first shops I checked online were Dance Direct and Porselli, but neither carries my model in their selection. Stores outside of the EU are not really an option for me, as shipping costs are too pricey - and you have to pay duty charges. I knew I could buy Blochs directly from Bloch UK, but they charge a whopping 19,95 £ for delivery to Finland. Even if the shoes themselves cost less there than here, I would need to order at least two pairs as not to exceed 60 € / pair. I did manage to find my model and size at Planet Dance, for 34.95 + 9.95 £ shipping, which would cost the same as buying them locally. I almost made an order, but then I googled some more.. and stumbled across Lazy Dancer (click here: Lazy Dancer).

Not only do they carry my Blochs, but the price is almost half of what I pay here! Darlings, for someone who's living and dancing on a very small budget, it's like striking gold. I was of course suspicious at first, and checked out all the details, terms and conditions, and contacts. I even sent an e-mail, just to let them know that I was interested in making an order. Turns out the store is a small but established family business in Athens, Greece - and everyone has a background in ballet. After I checked the payment system for security, I felt assured enough to place my order. I paid 35.10 €, shipping included.

Just one week later the postman rang and delivered my new pointe shoes. The shoes were in pristine shape, if you don't count tiny penciled markings on the inside for ribbon placements. The satin was new and smooth, and there were no tell-tale signs from over-fitting on previous customers. Normally I do not endorse stores, but I think this one's a pretty good deal. Of course, ordering pointe shoes online works only if you have been fitted before, and know your brand, model and size. You also have to take into account that there might be some small variation from one pair to the other.

I got my pointes this Monday, did some fast sewing (new shoes, old ribbons) and wore them to class the next day. What a relief, never mind that new shoes are always hard on you. Sure beats dancing in dead pointes! Anyway, by the time we got to center practice, I had already made friends with my shoes. Hope we're going to have a good time..

6.11.2011 EDIT: Since I ordered my shoes, prices have gone up. The same Blochs I bought for 35.10 €, cost now 42.00 Euros. Either Lazy Dancer started with low prices to get the business started, or they forgot to add VAT on the purchase price. I'm a bit annoyed that I didn't get to buy more with the "old price", but even the new prices are still a deal - at least for pointe shoes. But there's another problem which I find more troubling: the online shop hasn't been working. I've tried to purchase new flatties since the 2nd of November, but the shop won't let me add anything to the shopping cart. If I try to access my account, the entire site goes off-line. Five days later, and still it doesn't work. I have sent two messages to Lazy Dancer, and I'm waiting for the problem to get fixed.

October 17, 2012

Change is Good

A fitting t-shirt for ballet class, don't you think?

It's happened again. My pirouettes have gone haywire. The moment I go up, I loose it. It's the weirdest thing - and seriously annoying. With all my years in dance, I should be able to pull off consistent double pirouettes, right? But I do have an idea why my turns have become deranged. It's like my system operations have been updated, but those darn pirouettes are still running on an old app. Seriously, I have been getting so many corrections, that my brain is frizzing out trying to implement new alignments and dynamics. And since I can't really re-boot myself, I'll just have to accept that turning is going to be rocky roads for a while.

It's again about quality, not quantity. My teacher doesn't care for "dirty triples" (neither do I). What she wants to see is clean, elegant, refined dancing. The very thing that defines classical ballet. For my turns this means paying attention to the turning pose, specifically my en dehors and heel-toe alignment. There is still a slight tendency to sickle the foot in passé retiré, making the dreaded banana shape. I have been working on this for the past two years, and it's definitely gotten better. My teacher keeps a close eye, and she's not just pushing for a correct position, but for my maximum best. This is not limited to pirouettes alone, but to every other step and movement.

It's not easy to change ingrained habits. Especially not in ballet. I'm not going to say that I was a poor dancer before, but there was more room for improvement than I even thought possible. I'm talking about the basics: pliés and degagés, turn-out, placing toes above knees, stretching your knees to the max, pointing the toes, forwarding heels, keeping the shoulders down (and the popo), the back and neck long, the hips in line, and the list goes on.. Ballet is hard, but the choice is mine. I could continue dancing the same way I have done for umpteenth years, and have a fairly good time. Or, I accept that change doesn't come easy, that it can be frustratingly slow work - but it will make me a better dancer.

Yesterday I was feeling a little shitty, with my pirouettes all over the place and a general and persistent feeling of insecurity. After class I had a talk with my teacher, and she pretty much confirmed what I had been suspecting already: I'm trying so hard to make all the required adjustments that it's throwing me off balance. In other words, now that I'm aware of what I should be doing, it's messing with my old way of doing, well, basically everything. But whereas I thought that I'm just not getting it, Madame informed me that it's perfectly normal to feel this way right now. Then she told me that I have improved a great deal in the past years, that I'm doing really good work - and that I should be proud of myself! Can you imagine what it felt like hearing those words? I swear I grew an inch right there and then.

October 12, 2012

Toe Woe

I don't think it could have hurt more if someone had drilled a nail through my big toe. Not your regular ouchy aprés-pointe toes, but unrelenting and sharp throbbing pain. Some of you may already guess what I'm talking about: the dreaded ingrown nail resulting in nail bed inflammation. Which is not all that rare among ballet dancers. There are of course ways to prevent this, like trimming your nails in a straight line across the top. Also, you can avoid wearing shoes that squeeze your toes tightly together. Pointe shoes do probably not fall into this category.. My problem is that my nails don't lie flat on their bed, but are somewhat curved (like the rest of my body). It's not the tip of the nail which tends to dig in, but the bit under the inside corner. So far, only the left one has been affected and never before this badly. What gives?

I suspect part of it was my fault. I had gotten used to the sometime discomfort because it's limited to movements which have the side of my toe pressing into the floor, like doing a degagé to the back. It's annoying but you move on. I should have been alarmed when my usual soft slippers started to press painfully on my toe, but you get used to that too. I remember when I was on this cross-country ski camp way back in school, and had just had a small growth spurt. My ski boots were about half a size too small, but I took to the lopes anyway. The shoes rubbed my heels raw, the blood soaking all the way through the leather - but I finished my 10k just the same. Give up? No way. So I've got a high treshold for pain, and a very stubborn streak. Great combo for pointe, as long as you know your limits! Last Tuesday I could have switched into soft shoes, but no, I had to finish class in pointe shoes - full out. Did I mention that those shoes are on the brink of death and my big toe banging the floor up on relevé? Acknowledging pain is not the same as being a wuss.

When I went home after that class, I was still okay. But instead of the ouch fading away, it got worse. I took a maximum dose of paracetamol, but to no effect. Could not sleep because of the constant drilling pain. Watched old episodes of The Nanny until 4 am. The next day I was still in pain and miserable. My left big toe reddish and swollen at the inside edge of the nail bed. I had to get out of the house, but putting on shoes and walking: no fun at all. Fortunately my dancing doctor friend came to the rescue. I went to see her later that day for a consult. The bad news: the toe's nail bed was inflamed. The good news: it could have been worse. Antibiotic cream twice a day and it should get better soon. After having googled partial nail removements, I was very much relieved.

After the initial medical care, I was given the full consolation treatment: some lovely Italian Valpolicella which we drank while watching a POB master class on DVD. This was followed by an impromptu sauna-spa evening and finished off with late night deli snacking. You can't get better health care than this. After three days my toe is already much better. Walking longer distances (in shoes) is still a bit painful, and pointe shoes are obviously out of the question. Which really sucks as our pointe class has just been up-graded from 45 minutes back to a full hour, repertoire included. We are currently practicising Raymonda's big variation. Sigh.. I hope my toe is back in dancing shape by Monday. Hopefully even in pointe shoes next Tuesday.

September 29, 2012

Ballet Class Outfits: Make Your Own

The first time I made my own cropped top, I recycled an old pair of black leggings - but why stop there? You can find lots of leggings and tights in the sales bin; in colours and textures you would not normally wear. Like these pink lace leggings I just found for 1,85 euros. They look way too much 80's Madonna, but when you cut out the gusset and pull them over your leo - instant fun fashion update!

Tips and tricks:
  • Recycle old tights/leggings. Ballet pink or white tights go great under leos for extra coverage & warmth.
  • If you customize your top from new tights, don't spend a lot of money. The fabric will snag anyway.
  • Don't buy the cheapest quality. Microfiber holds better, as does denier above 40.
  • Buy a size (or two) bigger than you would for your legs. Makes for a comfier fit.
  • Leggings come with pre-cut hand openings. ;)
  • Hipster models are no good, they ride too high up on your torso.
  • Necks are easiest to cut when there's a gusset to trace. Turn the tights inside out before you cut.
  • Do not cut the neck like you would a cotton t-shirt. The fabric will stretch like crazy.
  • Be careful when you pull your top over the first time, it will stretch. And it will snag.
  • Hand-wash only.
  • Have fun!

September 15, 2012

Class Outfits: Black and White

Sometimes I like to fall back on the classics. A simple white camisole leo, pale pink tights and a short black tulle skirt. Hair in a neat bun, polished off with hairspray. Classic ballet student. When I took this photo, both flatties and pointe shoes were still new, but they have since earned their class cred. The t-shirt was earned volunteering, but I usually loose any extra layers before barre is over. Too hot! By the way, have you noticed how ballet pink tights turn into a whiter shade of pale? And then look more white grey-ish than "natural" on your legs? Not that pale pink is a natural shade to begin with. Really, what grown-up woman would wear pantyhose in such a shade? But us ballet students do, that is when we are not in black leggings. Which reminds me I need new ones, all my tights have snags and holes. Not so classy..

September 11, 2012

Ballet Class, The Sequel

You recall how I wrote about having to cut over two thirds of my daily ballet? Even worse, looking at the months ahead, I have been thisclose to cancelling all my classes. As a fellow dancer, can you imagine anything more pathetic? While I've been working at improving my situation, many of you have supported me with helpful advice and sympathetic comments - and I give you my heartfelt thanks. You readers are awesome! Not everyone (outside of ballet) is inclined to understand the need for an adult recreational dancer to dance. I have been told that I will adjust, that twice a week is better than once, that once is better than not at all. That less should still be enough. Of course I can adapt, my life is not going to fall apart if I dance less - but why should I justify my want and need to dance more?

This is the time to dance. I'm still relatively young (dance keeps you that way), I'm in good shape and there are very few responsibilties to restrict my dance schedule. There's even time for other interests and activities. It's almost an ideal situation, and if it weren't for the "almost", I would be one happy dancer indeed. Here's another difference between us hobby dancers and professionals: the pros get paid to dance. Ballet class, rehearsals, performances - just like another day at the office, only not. I could be envious, but I know that being a professional dancer is one the toughest jobs out there. And even though it's hard work, this is rarely reflected in numbers. You're not going to make a lot of money dancing. Why then would anyone want to make a career out of dancing? I suspect it's the same desire that drives us recreational dancers to class after class. Dance is just plain addictive.

Coming down from daily ballet to twice a week has been hard. There have been withdrawal symptoms: restless feet and anxious dreams of missing class and not fitting into my leos or shoes. I have gone walking/jogging when I normally would have been in class, and I have done stretches and some ab work at home. But it's amazing how quickly you notice the difference! In just one month I have gone softer and less limber. Even my teacher recommended I should work out more to compensate for less class time. Yikes. The problem is, I don't really like to exercise. The gym is just not my place to be. Although, if it could be functional training to aid with my dancing.. That would be okay. ;)

NEWS! Since I started writing this (first draft was done a week ago), there has been a new development! I can't go into detail here, but it's safe to say that I don't have to quit dancing, at least for the time being. Even better, I get to dance full-time for the next two months! Daily classes! I don't know yet what happens after that, but right now I feel like I could grand jeté down the street. Which I might just do.

September 10, 2012

From Boston to Helsinki, with Love

Misa Kuranaga in William Forsythe's The Second Detail.
Photo by Liza Voll-Photography

Mind-blowing, breathtaking and beyond awesome - Boston Ballet came and brought the house down in Helsinki! For real, it was so good I wanted to cry. Jorma Elo is a genius, his Plan to B possibly the best contemporary piece I've ever seen. The choreography is as hard as it gets, and then some - but his dancers deliver - and then some! I'm now officially a fan of the gorgeous Whitney Jensen, and of both Cirios (Jeffrey and Lia). Heck, everyone who came to Finland and danced blew me away. The men were dazzling and strong, crazy with the jumps and turns. The women were powerful, limber and elegant - and equally crazy with the jumps and turns. What also impressed me was how well they all danced together. Such a fantastic ensemble!

The evening started when the Artistic Director of the Finnish National Ballet, Kenneth Greve, stepped in front of the curtain and introduced Mikko Nissinen of Boston Ballet. And here's a curious fact from my life: I have once been in the same ballet class as Greve and in the same class as Nissinen! I kid you not. The latter came to my old school's morning class sometime in the nineties (can't remember the exact year). It was summer, and Nissinen on vacation (he's Finnish, you know). Our 10 am morning classes used to attract a myriad of professional dancers who at the time didn't have access to company class. Anyway, I was fairly new to dance and blissfully ignorant. But I could tell the pro from the amateur, and when Mikko Nissinen took to the floor, you just knew. He was still turning when everybody else had already finished. Amazing control, and handsome too. ;) As for Greve, he once came to our advanced class at my current school. Usually you wouldn't expect the AD of the National Ballet to venture out of his company for class, but his wife Marie-Pierre happens to be our teacher. I have to say, for someone supposedly retired, K. Greve has serious skill! It was a bit distracting to be in the same class, but in a cool way. And he was very unassuming and friendly. Looking at the two directors on stage, it made me wonder how ballet is such a small world that even I could be connected by less than six degrees!

Still have all my old DMs. Should have gotten this signed!

I can only imagine how proud Mikko Nissinen must have felt yesterday. It was the first time that he presented his company Boston Ballet in Finland. You know, Mr. Nissinen was once considered for the AD's position at the Finnish National Ballet. In the end, I think that his management style and strategy came across as bit too tough for local likings. I don't know/remember for sure, except that company dancers have a say in the manner. But I'm glad he found his place in Boston, and he sure has made a success of it. As a fellow Finn, I admit to being a bit proud of his achievements! But there's no company without dancers and no dances without choreographers. And Boston Ballet's program delivered real treats.

First we got to see Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia, which struck me as an exciting hommage to Balanchine - whilst coming across as new and inventive. There were acrobatic elements which demanded extreme flexibility and strength, and instantly recognizable classical vocabulary. Both came together like they had never been seperate before. The music by Ligeti was challenging, but the various moods were beautifully illustraded in the dancing. Especially one pas de deux with blue back-light was so intense it made my arm hair stand up. Elo's Plan to B was next, and I already gushed about that. Let me say it again: wow.

Whitney Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio in Jorma Elo's Plan to B.
Photo by Liza Voll-Photography

Among the ensemble pieces we got to see a sole pas de deux choreographed by Helen Pickett, called Tsukiyo. The music was one of my favorite pieces: Spiegel im Spiegel from Arvo Pärt. Coincidentally, Wheeldon has choreographed his ballet After Rain to the same music. It was a lovely and delicate number, but somewhat overshadowed by the rest. The final piece was from Forsythe: Second Detail. Again, very powerful dancing and superb ensemble work, but the music was a bit taxing. Even so, it was one of the best dance nights I have ever experienced. It lifted my spirits and made me want to soar with those amazing dancers on the stage. This is why I love dance so much.

August 31, 2012

Dancing Along My Trail

You know the old adage about ballet being hard - but I can tell you it's even harder to go without. Staying at home, watching the clock, knowing there's a ballet class about to start that should have my name on it. Which is why I leave the house at the same time, and take refuge on my favorite trail by the shore. At first, my body still feels the rhythm of class, the tendus and pliés like a missing limb. I walk fast and let the sea breeze clear my head. I let the waves wash over fondues and battements, over barre and center. Before I'm half-way, I'm no longer miserable. There's a whole world outside of class, and it has the power to lift my spirits just as much as dance does. As long as I let go - for the time being.

I know I could eventually adapt to a life without dancing. Hey, I never danced for the first 21 years of my life - and those were some good times! Ballet is not my reason for living, and it is not my sole joie de vivre. There are more layers to me than tights and ballet skirts. Having said that, let me tell you this: I'm not going to give up dancing - ever. I can adjust to less class time. It just makes the anticipation for the remaining hours that much sweeter. Almost like waiting for Christmas, week after week. I can accept, albeit grudgingly, that there's going to be a (temporary) setback in my progress. I can live with stiffer muscles and less bounce in my jumps. It's not the best case scenario, but we don't always get what we want.

This has been my first week with seriously less dance. You might wonder why it's such a big deal to me, but the thing is I don't know how temporary this arrangement is. Do I get my old dancing life back next month or next year? But I've done okay. Jogging along my trail, I've let my mind wander freely - something you can't do in class! Funny though, more often than not, my head's been occupied with all things dance. I might think about a correction I got last time - how I should never mark with my hands when doing a pirouette on pointe. Must turn full out, in the correct position. Or I might savour the cool praise I got some weeks ago, about being "powerful". Or how awesome it would be to finally nail a clean triple turn, right in front of Madame... You can take the dancer out of class, but you can't take the class out of the dancer!

This evening it's class time again - and I'm already buzzed about it!

It's a barre - what else are you supposed to do with it?

August 20, 2012

Less is Not More

I was really looking forward to this dance semester. My dance school is offering daily ballet classes (Mon-Fri) at my own level, with all my favorite teachers. I was planning to continue with my Triple-Tuesdays, with technique classes backed up by pointe and even throw in some extra Sunday ballet at another school. Dance to my heart's content. But, unless current circumstances improve considerably, I'm forced to make drastic cutbacks on my dancing hours. I'll be lucky if I can manage two classes a week. I know it's not the worst case scenario ever, but it still makes me miserable.

We can't always get what we want - it's one of the earliest life lessons learnt. Adult dancers work, study, have families and budgets to balance. And unless you're living in Big City, daily ballet classes for adults are a rarity. You wish for more, but if all else fails, you have to settle for less. I have been here before. Back in my student days, I could barely afford the one weekly dance class. Fortunately, I had a teacher who gave me free classes in exchange for the occasional baby-sitting. And I was okay with less, as there was other stuff to keep me interested, busy and occupied.

It's not like ballet makes up my entire pie of life, it is merely a (very tasty) slice. But I would be lying if I didn't admit to the huge size of it! And it's not like there hasn't been an on-off relationship with ballet before. During the Big Break of 2003-2006 I didn't take a single class. This time around, however, stepping back does not feel right. For one, I'm in great shape and don't want to waste it. There is so much work to do, to learn and to enjoy!

Class Time

One class per week is an introduction, if you are new to ballet. Like nibbling on a bite-sized appetizer. You get a taste, but it's not yet time for the main course. If you have been dancing for a long time, one class per week is a reminder of what you're missing. It's also hard work, no matter what level you're dancing. Even if you stretch and work out, you're never quite ready for class. Arabesques - ouch. Jumps - where did all the ballon go to? But once is still better than never.

Two classes a week is just enough for minimal sustenance. It keeps the systems operational, without loosing bounce or closing the doors on turn-out. There's even the possibilty of progress, especially if you focus on quality. For me, this means working on my projection, on directing the eyes, using the head and presenting myself. I also need to fix the placement of my hips - I have this bad tendency of lifting my hip when the leg goes into retiré for pirouettes. There are of course many other things to think about, but it's easier to work on one correction at the time.

Three classes a week is where you move from maintenance to pushing comfort zones. Muscles start to respond better, strength, coordination and balance keep improving. Even if you haven't danced for long, you see visible progress. It is also the point where many start craving for more. That fourth class is just around the corner..

Four classes a week is where classes become a habit, a way of life. Ballet begins to take presedence over other ways of spending your free time. And you do not mind in the least. On the contrary, it is a joy to keep the motor running and yourself dancing. And your hunger keeps growing. Surely there is room for yet another class?

Five classes a week is where it seems there's no turning back. You're hooked on ballet. For professionals and dancers-in-training it's the minimum amount of class time, for you it's the ultimate in luxury. From five it's the shortest pas to six days and double classes, to obsessing about forwarded heels and attitudes, to thinking you can't live without dance. I have been there. I am here now. Knowing about all the classes I'm going to miss makes me sad. The fact that I don't know when things will get back to "normal" makes me miserable. But two classes a week is not not-dancing, and whining about it doesn't really help. I need to look at this positively. How do I turn less into a little bit more?

August 16, 2012

Pen on Paper, Foot on Floor

That's me, first day of school.

Looking back to my first day of school, it was not unlike switching from improvised contemporary dance to the discipline of a formal ballet class. But at least for me, school was not the end of freedom. I would roam about Berlin, climbing trees and ignoring fences - and then I would sit still in class, eager to learn and observe. I took to school like I would later take to ballet class.

Back in elementary school, we had classes for handwriting. My generation (and now I feel old for saying it) was still taught looped cursive, which has since become somewhat old-fashioned. We were given specially lined notebooks with three parallel lines for each row instead of a single line. Writing by hand, with ink, took a lot of disciplined practice. It requires hand-eye coordination, dexterity and developing a feel for the paper and pen connection. How much pressure to apply, which way to swing the tip so that ronds de main turn into o's and a's on paper. It was all about getting into the flow.

These days I mostly use keyboards instead of pencils. Compared to the elegant port de bras of cursive handwriting, it is all staccato and petit allegro. But the disciplined practice has not disappeared. Instead of a paper and pen, it has simply changed into feet and a floor. O's have become ronds de jambe, T's and I's degagés and piqués the dots on my i's. It is still a matter of flow, how to caress the floor and present your text/self. Music and choreography provide the framework, the lines in which to move. Letters become words, steps turn into dance. The blank page turns into space, waiting for us to write our stories. And just like our handwriting, each dance and dancer is unique.

I remember when I learned to read, how letters shaped into words that all of a sudden started making sense. It felt like something wonderful had been un-locked. All those words and books and new worlds for me to grasp and make my own! I'm no longer that eager, tree-climbing first-grader, but I'm still a student. Instead of a backpack for books, I carry a bag for my pointe shoes. Learning about arabesques, ballonés and cabrioles has not been unlike learning my ABC's. Ballet class gives me that same feeling of constant discovery and marvel.

August 7, 2012

What's In My Ballet Bag

You don't need a whole lot of stuff to dance. You need music. Some place where you can move freely. If you take ballet, a barre and a mirror. For clothing, something that's form fitting and comfy. For your feet either flatties or pointe shoes. I have on occasion managed to pack as little as one leo, leggings, flatties and a towel - and fitted all in my handbag. But usually, it looks more like this:

I have long hair, so I can't leave the house without my bunhead essentials: hair brush, pins, elastics, mirror and hairspray.  A small towel if I need to hit the shower afterwards. Antiperspirant. Lip balm, this one from Labello. My spikey pilates ball, and/or my trusted tennis ball. Good for kneading and rolling out tension in muscles and under feet. Rubber theraband for warming up. Water bottle is a must. I always carry a snack, either bananas or natural energy/protein bars like these. If there's pointe class, I can't dance without ouch-pouches. I also have a big-toe jelly tube in my bag, just in case. The ibuprofen is seldom needed, but I like to be prepared. Bunhead's stitch kit is handy for sewing emergencies. The nude coloured fabric medical tape works great for patching up canvas flatties! The ones shown here are still new, and travel along as a spare pair. All this stuff, and still not ready to step into class. No, for that I need an outfit like this:

The blue leo is from Bloch, as is the skirt. I wear my pink tights on top of the leo, which feels more comfortable. And it keeps that leo in place, no wedgies! On top of the pink tights I usually wear seamless black shorts. I like to wear another pair of black leggings for warm-up. These are old winter tights, which I cut off at the ankle. The pointe shoes featured are Bloch Balance European, and still fairly new. I've worn them for a few regular classes, just to break them in. The new flatties are Sansha Pro1 (my current flatties are too dirty to be pictured). Since this is my summer ballet bag, there are no legwarmers, wool socks or fleece zip-ups. Yesterday's ballet class was so ridiculously hot and humid, we all had sweaty rivulets running down our backs after first pliés! 

As for the rest, all you need to bring is yourself, your full attention and a happy attitude!

August 2, 2012

Summertime Ballet

My summer classes of late have been challenging in a different way. Our teacher keeps telling us to relax into more "natural" positions, not to push ourselves. I get the reasoning behind this: too much tension in the body (and mind) inhibits freedom of movement. That's why Silvia's barre is relatively short and not a developpé or grande ronde de jambe in sight. Fondues are not a separate exercise, put part of another. Frappés and petit battements are complex with quick directional changes, but easy on the legs. Still, I miss a doing a tougher barre. I like to work on achieving my own maximum turn-out, extension, pointed feet, long back etc. Not forcing anything, but for me barre has to feel like "real work." Not barre-lite.

Then again, it's summer. I could be taking a break from classes altogether. And although that barre has left me wanting more, center has been twice the fun! Silvia gives very dancey exercises, with emphasis on musical phrasing, eyes and épaulement, deeper pliés, rebound in jumps, and covering as much ground as possible. Less poses, more traveling steps, big faillis and contretemps, glissés, temps lies, continuous movement.. And there have been technical challenges. Ballonés with half-turns and battu, assemblés tournant with battu, cabrioles to the back, fouette jumps with beats. Double attitude turns finishing with soutenu, and straight into deboulés. Grand jetés italienne in manege. Tempos (or tempi) have been fast. It's been borderline comfort-zone, but that's the fun and challenge of summer classes. Different teachers, styles and new steps and combinations that throw you for a loop. Good for the brain and body. And I've made well on an earlier promise and resolution: to let go and enjoy myself!

July 23, 2012

Imagine You're On Stage, In the Bolshoi..

That's what our teacher Silvia told us to do. You can pick another theatre of your liking, say La Scala or Opéra Garnier - just make it a grand one. There has to be a third row balcony, because that's as far as you need to project your stage presence! You see, it's not enough to dance to the privileged viewers in first row. You want to dance to the ballet lovers who can only afford seats in the nosebleed section! The idea of dancing in the Bolshoi theatre made us all giggle, but everyone stood immediately a little taller. We might be just a bunch of adult dancers, but we can imagine with the best of them!

Personally, I've often found my imaginary audience to be a tricky one. When I look at the mirror, I try to think there's someone behind that looking glass - but I get quickly distracted by my own reflection. Even when I assume the standard poses, head positions included, the idea of "projecting" has yet to sink in. I suppose it's because a lot of confidence is required to present yourself in such an obvious way. But that's ballet for you.

I remember when another teacher told me to look into the direction of my hands, but not at my hands. Like when your arms are up in fifth/third/couronne - they have to be in your line of vision, but without craning your head. Or when you do an allongé - the head is turned towards, but the eyes don't linger on the wrist or fingers. Simply put, elongating your lines does not stop at the body. The eyes will take you to third balcony and beyond, as far as you want to dance.

See you at the Bolshoi! ;)

July 20, 2012

Class Outfits: Très Pink

We have no dress code in my dance school. Anything goes as long as it's form-fitting and class-appropriate. Not that I would mind regulation wear, but it's much more fun to choose your own style!  I like to mix it up: pink tights, purple leggings, black cut-offs on top of pink tights, shorts, skirts, long-sleeved tees pulled down and tied as skirts. Leos in hot pink, jade, lilac, black, red and white. Self-made tops from leggings and tights, preferably in funky colors. T-shirts with ballet logos/prints. I might even wear the occasional fake flower in my hair!

Today, I feel like pink.

Hot pink leo from Bloch, skirt Designed by Alice, tights Plume, slippers Sansha Pro1, pointe shoes Bloch Balance European.

July 18, 2012

July 12, 2012

Before & After

I should have tossed these old work-uniform pants out long ago, but I like to keep them as a reminder. This is what happened to me when I quit dancing nine years ago. It wasn't a conscious decision, but at the time I was going through some rough personal stuff. Dancing was simply the last thing on my mind. I never decided not to dance, I just didn't go back to class. The weeks rolled by, then months, then years. I turned into a couch potato, potato chips and chocolates in one hand, remote in the other. The extra kilos kinda crept onto me, I never saw it coming until it was all there.

New friends who didn't know me from my dancing days, never considered me fat - just voluptuous or "well-rounded". And after I was done grieving (the personal stuff I mentioned earlier), and had my life and groove back again, I honestly didn't care about the surplus of pounds. Not until hot summers and chafing thighs (sorry if that's TMI ). Not until I was actually told by a health-care professional that I had become officially over-weight. Not until I yearned to dance again. 

At that point, I felt embarrassed. I wanted to dance but I didn't want to go back to with all my added weight. I hated the idea of anyone from "before" seeing me. Now I wish someone had just kicked my butt back into class right there and then! I wasted another year not dancing. But everything changed six years ago, when I convinced a friend of mine to take ballet in addition to her modern classes. I took her to my old school, and we watched a ballet barre through the glass door. It hit me right there and then. I should be in that class! I had managed to loose a few kilos, but that wasn't why I was ready to go back. I just needed to be in that ballet class so badly, it hurt. It was a happy hurt, if you know what I mean. 

The first classes were hard on the body, but not so much on the mind. I was a bit shocked to see my former slim dancer's body enlarged in the huge mirrors, but got over it when I focused on the steps instead. Nobody in that class knew me from before, and that helped my vanity/insecurity a little. My teacher made no comments other than that she was happy to have me back. I relaxed, as much as you can relax when muscles are being pushed back into familiar moves. I started with one weekly 60 minute class, then added another, then more. The weeks rolled by, then moths, then years. Those baggy pants from the photo came loose during the first year and were replaced with one size smaller. The next year it was a smaller size still. Clothes I had kept from "before" started to fit me again. 

I never diet, but I try to stay away from too many sweets, cakes and other vices. I like to eat, and I like my treats but I like to feel healthy too. On the days I dance (which is most days), I think about carbs and proteins, energy and recovery. I might have oatmeal and a banana in the morning, a fruit smoothie later, pasta before class, a nutty energy bar, and salad with protein after. Even the occasional beer. Chocolates too. On the few days I don't dance, I just eat whatever I feel like. 

My one regret is that I didn't go back earlier. The extra pounds I was carrying had nothing to do with how well I could dance, how others would view me (why even care?) or how much I would love it. Don't get me wrong, I'm very pleased and proud to be slim and fit again - but all that has just been an added bonus. You can look at my photo and see the "before" and the "after", but I didn't return to ballet to lose weight. I returned because I had to. The excitement of learning new steps, the joy of moving to the music, the sweat and happy exertion that is ballet class. I needed to feel the sheer bliss of dance again. There is no more "before",  only now - and let us all dance happily ever after.

July 8, 2012

Prep, Sew, Pointe!

First, have a cup of coffee and relax. Lay out all the stuff you need: ribbons, elastic, scissors, thread, needle(s). I like to use Bunhead's Stitch Kit, because of the strong thread (needles are included). Dental floss works too. You are also going to need a lighter and possibly a measuring tape (not pictured). 

Prepare your ribbons. (1.) Usually pointe shoe ribbon comes precut, about 2,5 meters long. (2.) Cut the ribbon into half, then repeat until you have four ribbons of equal length. At this point it's a good idea to seal every ribbon-end to stop it from fraying. I like to use a candle, but if you're on the road a lighter will do. (3.) Take the ribbon and bring it close to the edge of the flame. The heat will melt the satin - but be careful, it doesn't take much to burn.  Kids - do this only under adult supervision! (4.) Sealed ribbon.

Before you start to sew, you need to place the ribbons. Fold the heel over until it's flat against the insole. Mark the spot next to the crease. The ribbon will fit between the two arrows pictured. 

Fold one end of the ribbon about 2 cm over, tuck the open end under. This prevents fraying. I have ironed the fold, as it's easier to sew into place, but you can survive without.

Sew along all four sides. I like to sew my upper line into the binding (just along the original stitches), but make sure you don't sew the string fast! You can tell that my sewing style is not very refined, and I don't know any technical terms, but the ribbon does hold. That's good enough. 

To keep the heel secured, I prefer to use Bloch covert elastic. It's wide and stretchy so it's comfortable, and it blends in with your leg line. Important: this elastic comes in a length of 75 cm, but you need only about 25-28 cm for one shoe. Do not start by cutting elastic into half! This way two packs of ribbon will be enough for three pairs of shoes. If it's you first time sewing covert ribbon, measure about 30 cm ribbon for each shoe. If you feel apprehensive about pre-measuring, just cut into half and don't worry about it.

Place ribbons outside, so it doesn't scratch the skin. You need about 4 cm to fold over for each side. Start along the edge of the binding, then tuck ribbon end under and sew along all sides. You want the ribbon to sit flush. 

After you have sewn the first side, stretch over your ankle, until you find the right tension. Mark and sew next to the edge of binding. Fit again. If it feels right, finish sewing. The picture above is from an earlier pair, by the way. That time I wanted the elastics on before the ribbons.

Almost done! Pull the shoes on, tighten the draw-string, and make a double knot. Trim excess string, but leave at least 2 cm so you can still adjust the fit later on. Just tuck the ends under when you wear the shoes. Tie the ribbons as you would, then trim excess ribbon. You need enough ribbon so you can still tie a knot without help but not so much that you can't tuck the ribbon ends under. Better to trim less at first then figure out what works best for you. 

Well, this is how I do it. There are of course many other ways which are just as good. Or possibly better. You might want to check out these links for more:

- Grishko Pointe Shoe Fitting - this sewing technique was new for me too, might try it next time. There's a fairly good instructional video too. Click here: Sewing pointe shoes.

- Lisa Howell (dance physiotherapist) shows you how to sew the ribbon at a slight angle. I did this once, but didn't notice any difference during class. But it might work fo you: video.  Howell has also a very good video on how to tie those ribbons (neatly hiding the knot): click here.

Done! Next step would be breaking in these babies. Let me just take a break first. :)

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, ...