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. :)

July 7, 2012

Ballerina Cookies, Anyone?

Finnish Ballerina cookies, with a vanilla cream and liquorice filling. Black and white, like Odile and Odette!

July 6, 2012

Pirouette, Balanchine Style

Do you ever have those days when your pirouettes are just not working? You veer off to the right, try to correct yourself, then tilt backwards, correct yourself again, then you can't hold your passé retiré, then it's the working leg or the arms coming in too slow. Pirouette-panic starts to creep in.. What happened to the awesome double/triple of last week? At this point, all I can say is relax. You are probably overthinking your turns and putting too much pressure on yourself. Pirouettes are complex steps, but they can also be fun little merry-go-rounds - we should enjoy the turning! However, if you can't shake it off, try something else.

Which is exactly what I did yesterday, after class. I wanted to work on a Balanchine style pirouette, which is rarely done here. I do remember a class many, many years ago.. Jarmo Rastas from Finnish National Ballet was teaching, and being a natural turner himself, loved to challenge us with a variety of pirouettes. I was fairly new to ballet, pretty clueless, but also fabulously fearless! When Jarmo wanted us to do manly hopping turns in seconde, we did just that. Double fouettés en dedans, at the barre - done. Double en dehors from fifth, with arms en couronne - done. Hey, where did this girl go to? I hardly recognize myself from these memories.. I guess I should channel my younger self back into class. Not my body, mind you. I'm perfectly happy with what I have now. But I definitely need to recall her free spirit!

What about the pirouette? Right, when Jarmo asked us to do the turn Balanchine style, it was more of an experiment and never became part of our regular rep. It's possible some teacher somewhere along the road had us do it again, but I'm not entirely sure.. Occasionally I have tried it for myself, for fun. You know, like everything else in ballet. But yesterday I wanted to give it a more serious go, and asked our teacher Silvia about the specifics. Big fourth position with stretched back leg. Check, I knew that one. Arms in 3rd arabesque position, and you pull them in quickly. Most weight on the front leg, and the back leg does only a tiny plié at the very last moment. Okay, I can do this. Big position, breath, plié  - and I turned a clean double! It was totally different from my regular en dehors pirouette! It was bigger, wider.. American style! Awesome. Want to do it again!

July 5, 2012

Dance is Music Made Visible

One of my readers asked if I could post my top five dance quotes - and I'm more than happy to share. Hope these quotes inspire you just as much!

“You will only get out of a dance class what you bring to it. Learn by practice.” - Martha Graham

Obvious, right? Nobody can dance for you, not even the greatest teacher. It's your responsibility to be present, alert, take corrections and never stop trying. You will be a better dancer every time you leave class.

“You have to believe there's something at the other side. And you have to have faith in yourself. You have to think that you have the tools to accomplish it.” - Twyla Tharp

This is a hard one. Faith in yourself is often the first to go when ballet is not working out. But you are learning constantly, and the tools you have managed to aquire this far do not suddenly disappear! Most likely you are struggling because your brain and body is adapting to new information. You will get there, eventually.

"We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance." (Japanese proverb)

Pretty much sums it up. Also a good reminder that ballet is not that serious! Let's have some fun!

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Samuel Beckett

I don't think Beckett was a dancer, but he could have gotten far with this attitude! Appreciate every tiny step towards improvement, and never give up on yourself. You don't have to be exceptional, not even "good". If something, anything, is better than the last time you tried - that's good enough. And even if it doesn't - you are still working, breathing, living, dancing..

"Dance is music made visible." - George Balanchine

Music and rhythm lies at the heart of dance. You may not be able to extend legs up to your ears, or turn quadruples or dance on a stage.. But you can dance to the music.

Below: Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain." Music by Arvo Pärt. Never fails to capture me.

July 4, 2012

Floral Bunhead

1. Buy a bunch of cheap but pretty fake flowers. Posies work great.
2. Remove the plastic bits that hold the petals together.
3. Take a hairpin and stick one end through.

4. Pull your hair up into a bun, secure first with regular pins, then arrange flower-pins as you like. Done! You might want to use hairspray to tame fly-away hair, I didn't. I was in such a hurry to share this with you! :)

If you want to wear this for recitals/shows, just add a hairnet before you pin the flowers, and give it an extra dose of hairspray. Otherwise, wear whenever you want to look extra pretty. Or when you're heading for après-ballet bubbly with the girls!

July 3, 2012

Bunhead Must-Haves

This is all the stuff I need to fix my hair into a proper ballet bun. I don't leave home without it. Well, except for the volume hair powder. That I apply after my hair has been blow-dried. You sprinkle a bit onto your palm, rub both palms together and work it into hair. It gives fine and slippery hair more volume and "grip", which makes buns a lot easier to do! 

The other bun-essentials are more or less obvious. You need elastics (use the ones without metallic bits), pins and bobby pins, and snap-clips. Snap-clips hold better than bobby pins, but if you're going for a sleeker look or are going on stage, use pins that match you hair color. I always carry extra, and have been known to fix friends' hair emergencies as well! What you don't see here, and might wonder about is the absence of hair nets. I'm not a fan of nets as they're just another thing to fiddle with. And I don't really need it; once I have my bun all pinned it stays in place. Add some hairspray and I'm good to dance!

July 2, 2012

Present Your Feet: Ribbons for Pointe Shoes

I wonder why they make pointe shoes so satiny and shiny and pretty? You know you can't properly dance in them until they have been broken in, banged up and lost most of their virginal sheen. The same applies for ribbons. Shiny satin looks spiffy, but it's also slippery. And it doesn't really blend in with your tights. With my first pointe shoes, I tried the opposite and used pink cotton ribbon. But cotton tends to wrinkle up, and the color didn't match my shoes/tights. I also looked at regular satin gift ribbon, but it's far too flimsy. Even though I like the idea of gift-wrapping my feet. Goes together with the idea of presenting yourself! 

When I finally had to get new ribbons, I trusted my teacher to pick the best kind. It was not shiny pink, but matte satin ribbon in a peachy off-white. Not the perfect color match, but close enough. The ribbon feels soft to the touch and is sturdy enough to wrap around your ankle. I don't know the brand, as the shops here sell it pre-measured and cut. Sadly, it doesn't come cheap. One local shop in Helsinki would have you pay six euros for 2,5 meters of the stuff! That's just enough for one pair of shoes. Another reason why I always recycle my ribbons. Really don't care if they get a bit tatty. My last ones even had a bit of blood-stain on them! Rest assured, though. That blood had nothing to do with pointe class. I had just absent-mindedly scratched an un-related scab open when I tucked my ribbon ends under. Didn't even notice the blood trickling down my foot until my teacher yelled out! Sorry, I'm going off on too many tangents here. Back to ribbons it is. 

From left to right: old ribbon, new from Tendu, and too-shiny from Dance Direct.

I haven't yet tried any of the satin ribbons with elastic inserts (Bunhead, Bloch..) They kind of make sense, as they are supposed to protect your achilles tendon from possible irritation. However, since I haven't felt any discomfort from my regular ribbons, I'm not yet inclined to spend the extra euro. But I did make a nice discovery in a Finnish ballet shop (Ballerina ja Liikunta) last week. I found the same quality ribbon that I've been using, but in a matching pale ballet pink! This time I can even give you the brand: an English company called appropriately "Tendu". 

Lovely ballet pink, matte satin ribbon from Tendu. Width: 2.5 cm.

I wouldn't mind trying out other ribbons as well. I did buy pre-cut ribbon from Dance Direct, but decided against using it. Too shiny and slippery. Don't know the brand, but looks similar to the big honking ribbon roll I saw in our National Ballet's shoe room. They didn't like it either. I have read some good reviews for Freed's own ribbon, maybe some of you use it? Would love to get your input on this. Oh, and if anyone at Bloch, Capezio, Gaynor Minden, Sansha, Freed et al. would like me to review their ribbons, please send 2.5 meters over! ;)

Next on my to-do-list: Sewing those ribbons. My least favorite ballet-related chore, but still more fun than most chores! 

July 1, 2012

Ballet Blogathon, Day One.

After my recent lapse into bloggin' laziness, I've decided to go the opposite way and challenge myself with a July blog-a-day. One ballet-related (what else?) post for every single day of July! You have given me so many fun ideas to write about, and there are also lots of interesting questions I want to answer. Other than that, I'll just write about whatever ballet-y pops into my head. On some days that might mean short mini-posts, maybe even photo-posts with hardly a written word.. But for the most part, I hope that I can come up with more than one chapter worthy of your attention! So, here goes..

Friday Night Fouettés

Last Friday class I had a real blast turning fouetté pirouettes - which still surprises me. I mean, fouettés are not my forte - and the "regular" kind still aren't. But Friday we did this fast and fun center diagonal: four soutenus en tournant - chassé - grand jeté - bourrée to the front, step back into fourth and turn double pirouette - open leg to attitude devant, low arms to the side - plié, turn, plié, turn.. For as long you can muster within the music, of course. Finish with another (double) pirouette, if possible, but do finish in style. The first time, I did a solid double pirouette to get me going, then I managed about six fouetté turns. In the last diagonal, I lost count but turned until the music stopped. I don't know how clean and polished those fouetté turns were, but I felt like I was on my own private merry-go-round. Awesome!

Friday Happy Hour

It's that time again! My old shoes have been squeaking so loud it's embarrassing already. Not to mention that the vamp & wings (there's a name for a band) are no longer giving my feet the support I need. I can still do a regular basic level class in them, but single leg relevés are getting too scary. Time to say goodbye. Called my regular ballet shop - and it turns out my size and model is sold out! None to be found in all of Helsinki. Yikes! The shop's clerk said they could order, but it might take as long as 6-8 weeks because of the summer. I'm not sure what summer has to do with it, unless all of Bloch is taking a vacation.. I could of course have ordered straight from Bloch UK, but with postage costing as much as 19,95 GBP, I was more than reluctant. It's annoying, really. Pointe shoes cost 15-20 euros less in the UK, but shipping doesn't come cheap. I finally found my model and size in another store in another city. Luckily one of my ballet pals just happens to live there (Tampere, if you want to google) - and she was coming to visit Helsinki! Aija called the store, they were more than happy to quick-order, and I got my new shoes specially delivered! Added bonus: I rarely get to see my out-of-town ballet pals, and this time we even got to take class together. It was Friday Happy Hour, that's for sure.

Bloch Balance European (size 6 XX). Plus covert elastic (Bloch) and ribbons from Tendu.

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, ...