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!

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, ...