February 29, 2012

Keep Calm and Pointe

After last Friday's Princess freak-out, I have since calmed down and gotten my groove back up on pointe. Took all the wise and kind advice to heart and set out to discover my inner not-quite-a-princess-ballerina. And you know what? Turns out she's not without womanly graces, and some such that on a very good day could be described as almost elegant. Which is not so bad after all! Again, I had made a mountain out of a mole-hill, or in my case, a principal ballerina's role out of one simple diagonale. My teacher gave us the exercise for technique practice and because there is some lovely port de bras to learn. Not to dance Paquita on stage. Which would be way out of my league anyway.

That's the tricky and daunting and sometime frustrating part of learning variations as an adult dancer. You know you don't quite have the chops nor the creds. You may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of having to learn and dance "real ballerina" choreography. But here's the deal: regular technique class prepares you for variations. You do bits and pieces all the time. The one difference: with choreography comes interpretation and you move away from the purely technical. For me this is a huge challenge. I try to dance as clean as possible, and that alone takes a lot of concentration. It is hard to let go of the control and throw myself into a variation. Try to be pretty and expressive. Even if it's "only" steps and hands and épaulement.

Last Monday I asked my teacher if she could help me with the steps, and we did a quick but intensive tutorial after class. The steps on pointe I had no trouble learning, it was more an issue of finding the best stepping style for my feet and abilities. The port de bras.. Well, let's just say I'm still figuring it out. But at least I'm trying and not worried about failing miserably. So what if I can't capture Paquita's charm? I will learn something, for sure. And there are always other variations to freak-out over. No, I will keep calm and pointe. Keep calm and pointe..

February 25, 2012

Princess Power

There are some aspects of ballet that I just don't get. Princesses, Fairys, Sylphides - the entire fairy tale cast. Don't get me wrong, I love to watch ballerinas dance the Auroras, Paquitas or Sugar Plums - but why do grown-up women still have to pretend to be antiquated princesses? Tradition, of course. Respect for the art of ballet. The choreography, the music, the artistry. And let us not forget popular demand. Classical ballet may be considered an elitist art by many, but mostly it's escapist entertainment. As the ballerina is lifted above her prince, our spirits are lifted right along. For a brief moment, disbeliefs are suspended and we delight in the beauty of it all. Ballet is entertainment, but it also feeds our soul. The artist may come in the disguise of an ornamented tutu, but she holds the power to touch us. So I do get it, after all.

What I don't get is me taking on any of these parts. I grew up a tomboy, with a bit of Barbie on the side, but mostly I held my own with the boys. Simply put, I'm not a girly girl. As much as I enjoy watching the classics, it's always from the outside looking in. Even after 20 years of ballet, Aurora and her peers remain alien to me. The aesthetic of the ballerina is akin to that of a doily; pretty and flowery. She is sweet and cute, sugar and spice, and all things nice (not that I'm not a nice person). The Princess as the ultimate bride-to-be, the Jewel of the Crown, to be gifted from father to husband. Come on girls, have we not come further than that? Why still the fantasy role-play?

Okay, it's "just" ballet. We are not making a political or anti-feminist statement when we take ballet class. Au contraire, ballet makes you stronger. To create the illusion of flight without effort, you need a whole lot of muscle and stamina. The pretty ballerina on stage is not just a real woman off stage, she is Superwoman! Hey, why are there no ballets about that? It's about time to have a ballerina with superpowers, instead of supernatural wilis and swanmaids. Vampire-slaying Buffy, anyone? Just a thought..

Yesterday our teacher gave us steps to do from the ballet Paquita, I believe it is known as the first variation. My first reaction: what is up with those arms?? Is the character pretending to create something out of thin air, or is she some sad mental case? It looks lovely in an odd way, but what is the story behind it? And how can I possibly get away with the same? And why do I even care - should I not just try to copy the moves and get on with it? But I do care, albeit too much. That variation is so much out of my comfort zone, I feel like a butcher called in to do a patisseur's job.

The video shows what I'm talking about. I wish I could have found more versions to choose from, but the arms are pretty much the same our teacher gave us (she has danced in Paquita). The "folding arms" start at 01:30, right after the "yawn, just waking up -port de bras". There is also another bit that we have practiced: the "plucking and throwing sequins off my tutu" (00:45 - 00:50). That last part - it's just too pretty for my liking. The other technical stuff is not so impossible. Not that I can do any of it, at least not in center. We have been practicing the pointe balloné - balloné - balloné - developpé (00:30 - 00:34) at the barre, but in my case without the climactic high extension part. The echappé onto arabesqué is under preparation as a traveling sous-sous. Attitude pirouettes on pointe have not been introduced yet, but I once got lucky trying one on my own. The tombé en dedans pirouette with arms en couronne has been done in another class, sort of. But forget anything that comes in mutiple numbers.

It is a real challenge, both physical and mental. Me - I would much prefer to dance something neo-classical or anything contemporary. More earthy, or even edgy. In our other pointe-class we have been practicing a modern piece that is inspired by Forsythe´s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated - and I just love it! It's an exhausting choreography, but exhilerating. You get to break a lot of The Rules, hips forward and such, but it's still gorgeous to look at. Well, at least our teacher is. ;)

Then again, I am a student of ballet. And the classics are part of that curriculum. I should count myself lucky that I even have the opportunity to learn these variations! But how can I get past the feeling ridiculous part? How does one unearth all that Princess Power?

February 18, 2012

Pink Tights - Yikes!

Never say never - but when I posted You Will Never See Me In Pink Tights, I meant it. For real. Because when I'm in ballet class I always wear black leggings. Only when I'm feeling particularily bold, I might pull on midnight blue or some brazen dark aubergine colours. Pale ballet-pinks or white? Never.

My favorite look is a capri-length semi-sheer black legging combined with a skin-colored ballet slipper for a nice calf-ankle-toe line. Hey, you see pros wear the same all the time - so it's cool enough for me. And you know what? Even real ballerinas are not all crazy about the pale ballet-pink leg look, despite their slim and gorgeously muscled pins! My own teachers told me the same. Maybe it's just that after years of enforced dress-codes black equals freedom?

My aversion to pale-pink tights has two reasons: despite studying ballet in earnest, I don't want to look like I want to look the part. I'm not pretending to be a ballet student, I just take class. Does that make any sense at all? Reason number two is vanity. I have always been very self-conscious about the size and shape of my thighs. On a plus side, my quads and hams are definitely shaped by years of ballet. But there's too much bulk and soft padding on top of the muscles, which makes them look plus-sized in proportion to the rest of me. Although it might be that my body-image is somewhat distorted; looking through a ballet-studio's looking glass can do that to you..

Black is slimming, ballet-pink is not. But I have to admit that muscle tone is better visible through pink tights. And ballet-shaped legs look good, even in bigger sizes. And I'm bored with my jambes looking always the same. It's not even yet time for a nice summer tan. Which brings me back to the Never Say Never.. I figured if I torture myself with pink for a while, going back to black will be so much sweeter. So I changed my mind about the pink tights! I have been wearing them for the past week!

I gotta tell you, that first time almost felt like going topless on a semi-nude beach in Helsinki, many summers ago. Bare. Exposed. Even though I wore my tights rolled up above the ankle, with black knee-length shorts. And a black skirt on top of it all. But it wasn't so bad. Just like at that beach! Nobody even noticed the difference (though the topless act might have been noticed by some). Next class I rolled the tights down and over my toes. It was a basic level, with most exercises facing the barre and in my case the mirror too. Could not resist taking peaks, whenever my teacher was elsewhere (otherwise it's chin up and eyes forward). I was surprised at how nice my legs looked!

Last time was yesterday's advanced class. I was not sure at first, because there were a couple of young pre-pro girls dropping in. You know, the kind that do ballet competitions. Talented and gorgeous. But I figured, what the heck! I can't change my genetic make-up but I can strut my ballet-bod with some pride, big thighs and all! Mind you, I'm still sticking to the black shorts, but they have been rolled above knee-length already. It's like a really slow strip-release of old insecurities. Just have to remember that the fat mirror is fun-house and not real!

After class I talked to my teacher about my dislike of pink tights and why I had decided to wear them anyway - and she told me that she understands but that she had noticed some very nice lines! It's not that I don't stretch my knees in black, however the pink might have given me an extra push to look good.. I won't stop wearing black leggings - it's my thing - but I promise to go pink once in a while. Might even ditch the long shorts!

February 17, 2012

Delicious Dancers

Ballet class, Tuesday evening. We are doing fondues at the barre - feet are pointed, knees are over toes and it's all very clean and nice. However, it's also somewhat boring to look at, which is why our teacher is not pleased at all. M-P does not care very much for ballet school robotics, nor for eyes that are looking nowhere. She wants to see quality, artistry - and pesonality!

Madame never lets us off easy, but she has a real talent for coaxing the best out of us. If you have read my previous posts (or most of them), you know what I'm talking about. In M-P's class pliés are juicy, feet "caress" the floor and tell stories, and we are to dance big, long, sensual, and move like cats. Be elegant, always presenting yourself. Which is fine, except..

On a bad day I don't know what the heck I'm supposed to present! I can try to put those heels forward and lengthen my back, but as for the "elegant" and "sensual" part - let's just say it takes a great deal of suspension of disbelief. I look at our teacher (one of the most beautiful dancers I have ever seen up close) and it's obvious why we all love to watch her demonstrations. She doesn't even have to lift her long legs above six o'clock, the port de bras alone is stunning enough. Of course, I would be crazy to compare myself with her, and I am not.. but I have never really considered me and my dancing to be all that "presentable".

But that's when Madame told us to "make our fondues delicious." Seriously, our teacher was not kidding. "Dance like it's something special. Make it delicious." Everyone was smiling, but there was something else in the air too.. We repeated the exercise, and the difference was palpable. The atmosphere had changed, there was almost electricity in the room.. Instead of ballet school robots, the class was full of dancers doing their most delicious fondues ever! It's weird, but the moment she told us to be special, I felt special. Like I really have something beautiful to present. 

February 15, 2012

Adult Ballet Dancer

You may have seen different versions of this on facebook, all funny and to the point. Teachers, doctors, yoga teachers.. but not an adult ballerina in sight! Are we not a force to be reckoned with? Well, long story short, I came up with my own. Enough said.

P.S. While the story board is my "intellectual property" (hah!), all photos have been shamelessly ripped off from the Internet. However, the last one can and should be credited to photographer Angela Sterling. The soloist in glorious grand jeté is Lindsi Dec, and the company Pacific Northwest Ballet.

February 12, 2012

Bourrées, Gift-Wrapped

Friday pointe class, towards the end. We are doing our usual reverance preceded by bourrées (couru or suivi, whatever your ballet dictionary / school tells you). First traveling to the side, then en tournant, then in a big circle, then repeating all to the left. It's pretty much the same exercise as in Royal Ballet's glossary video below. Only the music is from Swan Lake, and it's all very lovely. We finish with a deep curtsy, and that's it. Or so I thought. My teacher tells me to wait, goes to her bag and whips out a red thera-band. I'm thinking maybe she wants me to do some ankle exercises or such, which would be odd enough - but instead she tells me to relevé in fifth. Takes the rubber band and wraps it around my legs, above knee height, and finishes with a nice big bow. I look like a left-over from Christmas.

She then tells me to repeat the entire bourrée exercise. It's very funny - I notice everyone chuckling along (out of sympathy I hope) - but it's also damned effective! I had been so eager with my bourrées, that my legs had seperated in the rush. And because I was not able to check myself in the mirror while turning around, I had not noticed the big gap between my thighs. Another reminder why the teacher's eye is so important! We may think our moves are spot on, but thinking is not yet doing. Of course, my teacher could have just told me to keep those thighs together, but having my legs tied really drove the pointe home. Corrections are always a bonus, but this was the first time I got mine gift-wrapped! :)

February 8, 2012


Piruetti is the Finnish word for pirouette. The Finnish word for devil is piru. Coincidence? You think? Well, I can tell you this for sure: that devil's leg has been broken. My pirouettes are back, as is my confidence. The latter came first and lo and behold - multiple turns followed! Yesterday I managed a clean double from fifth, which always feels harder to do. And today I turned several solid doubles in our advanced class, which felt really nice. Madame's class is not exactly easy to begin with and sometimes I end up trying too hard. But today I was in the right state of mind and on top of my legs. Love when that happens. Oh, and got me some pirouette-praise from Madame! Happy now. :)

February 6, 2012

Hops on Pointe!

I can't believe I forgot to write about this pointe milestone: hops on one foot! Seriously, the kind Giselle does in her famous first act solo variation! I had thought this would be pretty much impossible for a late-starter like myself, but there you go. Or in my case, hop.

We started a week ago, at the barre. The step is a balloné sur la pointe, the supporting leg is on relevé but bent, like in a small plie. At first I could not figure it out at all. My entire weight pressing on my toe, feeling like my nail would dig through the floor anytime. But I was not using my foot properly. You have to "break" your foot, not a pretty sight but it's the only way to hop. I got the broken foot fixed, but moving anywhere seemed still implausible to me. I can tell you my attempts must have looked totally demented :D

We repeated the exercise a couple of times with me trying to hop like mad but going nowhere. Aargh, talk about frustrating! But I could not let it go. When my teacher went to check the music for the next exercise, I kept trying - without the barre. Crazy, yes? Well, you know what - it worked! Once I was not gripping on the barre for dear life, I found my center of balance. So there I was hopping happily along, just as my teacher turned around.. and I loved the expression on her face! "You are doing better without the barre!" Guess I suprised us both. :)

Last Friday we continued, and this time my teacher added the hopping (4 counts) into attitude devant and back again. Most of us were feeling brazen and tried the same in center - myself included. It felt very ballerina-like. Awesome.

February 4, 2012

Set Yourself Free and Dance

I have this recurring bad habit of being my own worst critic. I find too many faults when I should be seeing strong suits. I get hung up on body issues when I really should be happy that I have actually quite nice lines. And I can get terribly frustrated if I feel that I'm starting to fall behind. I can set my bar so high that it becomes impossible to reach, which is a sure way to set yourself up for failure and disappointment, big time.

When we come to class, we come equipped with certain images in our minds. All the ballets we have seen, and the beautiful dancers who perform them. This inspires and motivates us. We want to be part of that world, in whatever way we can.

Years go by. Thousands of lessons go by. I learned, even found out about strengths I never knew I had. But with all the experience and added knowledge I became more critical of my dancing, and more demanding. As did my teachers. They pushed, corrected and coached me. Still, I thrived with the attention I was getting. Difficult steps? Tricky combinations? Hah! I was up for the challenge!

That's when I hit my plateau. Stop on the progress. Challenges became obstacles to stumble over. My confidence is currently at an all-time low. This is hard for me, and not my usual ballet is a short-cut to happiness post. I talked with my teacher about it and we agreed that I need to re-set my attitude and take a breather. Not make any more demands on myself, but enjoy what I already do well.

Sometimes it's better to forget about perfecting your technique, about pushing yourself and being 100% all the time. Let go of everyone's expectations, including your own. Be happy with less. Listen to the music, breathe, be present in the moment. Set yourself free and dance!

February 1, 2012

New Visions

Last Friday I got fitted for my first contact lenses. That same evening I saw myself in the big studio mirror for the first time without soft focus since my mid-twenties. It was like reverse photo-shopping. Dorian Gray and all that. Fast forward to the future. Oh, well. I could of course opt out and return to looking at my "younger" mirror image, but there really is no turning back. Especially since 20/20 vision is so much better for spotting those pirouettes! It's a bit of a trade-off, but I think I'd rather face my lines than give up on multiple turns. But would it kill anyone to install more flattering lighting?

You may wonder why I waited for so many years?  For one, I can't wear glasses and dance at the same time. I tried but it was hugely distracting and not practical at all. Mostly I wear them for watching TV or when I'm traveling in strange surroundings. Whenever I want to see past 2 meters with clear precision. Ballet class, on the other hand, is familiar territory, and I could probably do a basic barre blind-folded. Although at times it has been problematic. If the teacher is on the other side of the class-room (we have big studios), and looking straight at me - I cannot tell. I'm afraid that because of this I might on occasion have come across as stand-offish. And if she's giving me advice or a correction without saying my name, I know only for sure if I noticed the error myself. To be on the safe side, I take all corrections personally anyway. 

When I got back to ballet some five years ago, I never considered my nearsightedness to be an issue in ballet class - other than for the reason I just wrote above. Until I started to wonder if my lazy pirouette-spotting could have anything to do with it. I turn well enough if we're in the smaller studio, or if we're going in the diagonal and I can focus on the wall at each end. But if we dance in the bigger studio it's much more difficult. It's even worse if we have to turn facing the mirror. How are you supposed to spot when you can't focus your eyes? Still, I was weary of getting contacts. I hated the idea of putting some foreign object into my eyes.

Finally, my teacher gave me the necessary push and told me to consider contacts. Which I then did. Booked myself an appointment and braved the moment of first contact. Well, turns out I have excellent control of the eyelid wink-reflex and very good hand-eye coordination. Got that lense in on my first try! It was kinda awesome to find out about this previously un-known skill! ;) The lense felt a bit odd, but not itchy or otherwise unpleasant like I had feared. What a relief!

First class was a new experience. After I got over the initial shock of seeing myself so clearly in the mirror, I enjoyed the sensation of fully visualizing my surroundings. I could see other faces across the room! I could focus from a distance! Now, if that could have been followed by quadruple pirouettes.. But not quite there yet. I have to readjust myself first, learn to dance again outside of my own little space. After class my teacher told me that she saw a difference already. I had appeared more "present". Before, she could not always tell if I was concentrating on my turns or not, as I often looked "inward". Now, there seemed to be a new kind of certainty.

There's another added bonus. I became immediately aware of the many faces I tend to make in class! You know, the lip-biting and furrowed brows, the weird expressions we make when we stumble or screw up.. It may look funny, but you're not supposed to show your mishaps on your face while you dance. Ballet is a performing art, and our expressions are part of the performance. Though I'm not one to plast a perma-smile on for class. A relaxed, alert and happy looking face is plenty enough!

P.S. Last Tuesday my dearly missed and long awaited triple pirouettes made a come-back. There was one, totally out of the blue, and another one which just kept turning. Two, not more, but a promising start nonetheless. I am excited to see where this is going!

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, ...