December 31, 2013

Happy New Ballet Year!

Dear Readers and Fellow Dancers,

You may have noticed that my blog updates have been somewhat sparse all year. It's the usual adult dancer's combo of work, duty, and dance - and then being too tired/busy to write about it. It has been a great year though. Lots of wonderful discoveries, awesome classes, real progress and the ballet bliss we all love so much. I promise to give you a decent recap, as soon as I recover from the New Year's festivities. There are currently eight unfinished posts in my box, but the ones I'm really itching to finish next are: "Best of Ballet 2013" and "Seeing Myself in Class, on Video, and What Happened Next"(working title). I might still write a "Dance Resolutions for the New Year," as is tradition. But I really have no resolutions, or new promises to make. All I need is class time with my favorite teacher(s), and I'm set. Ballet work is what I love to do.

I wish you the same, lots of amazing classes. Mistakes that lead into new discoveries and progress. Moments when everything comes together. Balances that last forever. Flying grand jetés. Being the boss of your pirouettes. Keep dreaming and believe in yourself!

- Johanna

November 12, 2013

She's Got Legs

I got some very interesting feedback today. We were in the midst of a fondue exercise facing the barre, when my teacher came over. She told me that the shape of my legs has changed... From the tone of her voice (pleased) and the smile on her face, I figured that this was a good thing. She said that it was because of the work I've been doing. I know that my technique has improved in the past year, and I can feel a difference - but I can't really see it. I mean, I see that my feet are more stretched and pointed and my heels more often forwarded than not... But this is action, not appearance.

I've always had very muscular legs, more sporty than ballerina. And I have to admit that I've looked at some of my fellow dancers' slim and long legs with a bit of envy. When I do, I try to remember that mine work pretty well. I would not want to give up my bounce in exchange for mere ballerina looks. Anyway, my legs match the rest of my body. Still... I did not think it possible that they could look any different, not after dancing for twenty years. And guys, I'm not talking diets. Sure, I could skip my treats (chocolate + cookies), and loose a few pounds - but my face gets too skinny before my body gets just "right".  So I rather have a little extra padding. That's all on that topic.

When I got home today and changed into my comfortable sweats, I could not help but check myself out in the mirror. I still see the same: strong legs and slightly out-of-shape thighs. However, when I stretch, turn out and point, they do look like dancer legs. Not ballerina-slim and hyper-extended, but athletic and shaped by ballet. And that's pretty damn awesome.

Summer 2012, which would make this photo the "before-picture". I really should take some new.. ;)

October 20, 2013

Lesson Learned

It happened two weeks ago. We were doing this beautiful and rather challenging adagio in center, to the left side, leg up and in grand ronde de jambe... When I kind of lost my focus, my control and my balance. Normally, it's not a big deal. We're not machines, mistakes happen, and it's all part of the dance, right? But that time, I got this sinking feeling... And with it my confidence flew out of the studio. It's a hole I've been in before, and one that's damned hard to climb out again. Even though I recognized the feeling and knew that I should have axed it right there and then, I could not. But why? I had been counting the hours to be in that class again, it was my day off and Madame was teaching. It should have been ballet bliss, because usually, it always is.

What I had not taken into account: I was exhausted from a long eight-day working week, which included a four day expo out of town. After working weekends, you normally get a day off, but I was in the office on Monday - but not before an early morning root canal appointment. Torture. The next day, I dragged myself out of bed, because the mind is stronger than the body, and went to morning class. Noticed that my left foot was a bit painful around the peroneal tendon, but not so bad as to stop. The following day, while sliding my other foot to the back, I pinched a nerve right at the base of the big toe. It felt like going over a cheese grater. Oh, and to top it all off, I've been having another bout of positional vertigo. When I tilt my head to the right (like you would in a cambré), the room goes spinning for three seconds or so. It's all very annoying - but there are really no excuses. Either you stay home, or you work to the best of your abilities. What you do not do is give up.

I lost my confidence. Somehow I came to the conclusion that I suck. We have all been there, we even make jokes about it - because bad days happen to everyone. Sh*t happens. When I should have kicked myself into the butt and focused on class alone, I was giving myself a hard time instead. Even though I was still getting corrections. Praise too. The next day I thought, let's have a fresh start - but I kept falling back into my hole. One bad day turned into a bad week, and I knew that I was heading for trouble. That's when my teacher stepped in; it was time for an intervention. I'm very lucky that way. She knows me well enough, and told me exactly what I needed to hear. It was a private conversation, so no details here, but I will tell you that it was firm and kind. It lifted the fog off my brain. Not all at once, but I made the extra effort. I've been feeling my normal self since. Happy to be in class, no matter what.

Here's what I've learned: If you are walking-dead tired but still long to be in class, go easy on yourself. If you are achy, sore or are suffering from minor ailments, and still feel you have to be in class: don't push it. Don't expect to be your usual strong/balanced/good at turns or whatever it is you're usually good at. Do not compare yourself to the girls with the highest extensions or most flexible bodies, or whatever it is you don't possess. Remember that we are each unique. Appreciate all that you can do. Listen to your body. Breath. Most of all: be kind to yourself.

I have this one teacher who has a very special talent of creating a happy class environment. When Madame makes her rounds along the barre, every student gets positive feedback, a "good" here, a "bien" or "beautiful" there. Madame is also very demanding, and gives a great deal of personal and detailed corrections. Guidance too. She really sees everything that you do, and everything that you could be doing. I swear she has some kind of sixth sense. Maybe even x-ray vision. Seriously, I love her classes. I feel that she not only sees the present me, but also the dancer that I'm capable of being... Which made me think. Why be so damn hard on myself, when my teacher is so kind and positively encouraging? In the end, we can only dance with our own bodies - and we should not let doubtful minds get in the way. Believe in yourself. Know that you can.

Painting above by Katya Gridneva, 1965.

September 14, 2013

Shy Swan

This week, we have been working on this beautiful center adagio... It begins with a developpé to the front, then through first into arabesque plié, then developpé ecarté, followed by attitude promenade, into arabesque allongé. It's simple enough, though hardly easy. As if ballet is ever easy... But the real challenge comes with the port de bras. Swan arms! When my teacher demonstrated, it was as if Odette had come alive... No artifice, no cliches - but a fleeting moment of heart-stopping beauty. Feminine, fragile yet strong at the same time. Then it was our turn. "I want to see different swans... Be beautiful, make me enjoy it." At this point, [insert panic] and enter ugly duckling.

I can handle the basic second, third or fifth port de bras just fine - it's what I've been practicing since 1991. You learn the technique, and then it becomes your comfort zone. If you're a shy dancer/person like myself, it's a safe place to be. I can hide behind technique. Why? Partly, because ballet is such an unforgiving art form... A great joy to learn and to experience, but hard. Every flaw and mistake is immediately visible. Every bad day is on display for others to see. Sometimes, it feels like you're naked. But you cannot be an artist without daring to be vulnerable. Yes, I wrote "artist" - even though I'm just your average middle-aged late-starter recreational ballet dancer.

When our teacher told us to be "swans", my immediate thought was: I don't know how to be a swan, I will look silly trying to be one, which arm goes first and how did she make it look so beautiful, and what if I totally suck, and where can I hide... Lots of thoughts, even before the first move. But I gave it a try, duckling-style, and it was not so scary. Next time, Madame gave us a more detailed demonstration of the arms, and I tried to copy it as well as I could. Even though she said that the port de bras could be a little different for each of us. However, "different" means revealing yourself, showing your interpretation of the movement, your style (or lack thereof) - and I was not ready.

I'm still not 100% out there. But my confidence is growing. During the summer, I had more opportunities to "colour" my dancing, and to "play" with my port de bras - and it felt so right. After a lot of square & academic dancing, it was even liberating. Then, one of my summer teachers gave me unexpected and positive feedback, which made me very happy. I was doing my own thing (without changing the exercises of course) - and it turned out to be a good thing!

Now, it feels like everything is new again. I have a dream ballet schedule, I get to work with my favorite teacher on three days instead of one, and I have another awesome class on Sundays (with various teachers). There is still strong emphasis on clean technique, but I've been getting a lot more feedback on expressing myself. How to use my head and eyes, how to breathe into the movement, how to make it look interesting... How to dance, really. It's been an amazing experience. This duckling might yet grow into a swan.

July 15, 2013


I still haven't sewn on ribbons, but the elastic works well without. The shoes are Bloch Jetstreams, a pair I reinstated out of storage. Should really write a post about that. In short: I bought them too small, but recently figured out that I don't need ouchpouches. Tape on one toe and bunion area is enough. 

I haven't had a proper pointe class since May. To be precise, it was my last class with Madame, right before our spring show. During the summer schedule, my school does not offer pointe technique, probably because attendance would be too irregular. The only option is to take regular class on pointe, provided you're an advanced student or get permission from the teacher. I did just that, but it didn't work out as well as in previous summers. For one thing, the "easiest" level I'm able to attend is basic-intermediate - which is fine at the barre, but a challenge in center. Usually, I don't mind challenges, but the class is packed, and I don't like to feel crowded or rushed when I'm up on pointe. It makes me nervous. Another drawback: no pointe exercises at the barre. Last year, our teacher would give a few basic relevés and piqués (which benefit all students), but no such extras this summer. I modified the barre as much as I could, but... There were hardly pointe-specific corrections either, except once or twice. My teacher (not Madame) told me that with this many students (over twenty), it just isn't possible for her to look at my pointe technique. At least she didn't tell me to leave my shoes at home, which means that she trusts me to handle myself in a safe manner. So there's that. But, what's a grown-up dancer to do when she wants to progress on pointe, and there is none?

First, let's forget about progress for a while. Wearing the shoes in a regular class is work-out enough, even standing flat. There's a lot more resistance to simple degagés, and try standing in arabesque in center.. Controlling the wobble is a challenge! The first four weeks of our current 12-week summer schedule, I did a self-modified barre (fondues facing the barre), and switched into flatties after the first center exercise. Once, I tried to do a full class on pointe, but it got too frustrating. I have only three weekly classes and I do not want to waste one tripping over myself. Be as it may, doing something is better than doing nothing, even though most of my fellow students don't seem to mind the three-month break. I guess I'm a bit ballet-crazy like that. But you already knew that.

I have also been doing something you are not supposed to do. That is, I have been my own ballet teacher, practicing pointe by myself. I like doing pointe when my body is properly warmed up, especially my feet and ankles. My classes are last, and depending on the day, we have half an hour or longer before they throw us out. This gives me enough time for basic exercises, the kind I'm most familiar with - and the sort where I've been getting so many corrections, that I know what problems to look out for. Of course, it is not the same as working with an expert teacher. It never is.

Microfoam tape (above: Gaynor Minden Toe Tape) is slightly padded, and does not leave a sticky residue. It works great if your shoes are very snug, and cannot fit ouch pouches. Downside: it doesn't stay put when you sweat a lot.  Apply on dry feet only! Here, I used another tape to secure it at the big toe. The shoe's box/vamp holds the other end in place. Bonus: you can use the tape more than once (it's not that cheap). The pink arrows point to my ouch spots. 

In case you're interested, here's what I do: I start with demi pliés, rising onto demi pointe then stretching to full pointe, then lowering myself back, through the highest demi pointe possible. The same in reverse, and repeated in seconde. On full pointe, I add a plié, really pushing over the boxes and trying to retain that arch when I straighten again. I take care no to loose my turnout and not to stick my popo out. I then do the same relevés, but going up without pliés. Again, more relevés but this time with pliés and quicker. Then, rises on one leg and passé retirés. I've also been doing fondues and ballonés, but skip the harder stuff (like echappés). I have, however, compromised on my alignment: in class we are not supposed to look down at our feet (when practicing at the barre), because it changes your placement and line. But when you have only the mirror to rely on, it can't really be helped. I don't trust my sense of proper pointe placement that much yet.

And I do have quite a few pointe problems. My right knee still does not stretch and straighten properly. Either it's too slow, or too lazy. I know it has something to do with my leg length discrepancy (the right one is functionally longer), but mostly it just needs more awareness and more work. My right foot also has less of an arch and needs more pushing to get over the box. Second position is the worst, because I don't have a lot of turnout - and keeping those heels forward and feet pointed is Real Work! I think that in the three years I've worked on my pointe technique, this remains the biggest challenge.

Long post short, is there a point to my pointe endeavor? Yes, I think so. It has actually been fun. In addition to a mini barre, I've been doing piqué turns in center, as well as single pirouettes. Together with a friend, I've worked on relevés in attitude (holding on to my friend's arm, as in a pas de deux). Nothing we haven't done before, mind you. I'm not about to take any stupid risks or teach myself bad habits. I keep it simple, focus on my alignment, feel every muscle work and try to apply every correction I have ever received (and there have been plenty).  Do I recommend solo pointe work to everyone? No, I do not. Certainly not if you're still a beginner. Intermediate students: you might want to talk to your teacher about your options. I really miss taking pointe classes with Madame (she's back later in August), and being my own teacher is a poor substitute...  But it has been another learning experience. And that is not pointless at all.

June 23, 2013

A Paler Shade of Pink

Peachy or a paler shade of pink? Depends on the light and skin tone underneath. Both feet pictured are mine.

When it comes down to legwear for ballet class, I prefer black leggings over pink tights. Black feels more grown-up, post-grad, individual, even slightly rebellious. Although I never went to a ballet school that required pink tights, so I'm hardly expressing a new-found freedom. Mostly I prefer black because I feel less exposed, as opposed to the overexposure of pale pinkness. And it's no secret that black is slimming. You don't really see women wearing almost white opaque hosiery outside of ballet, do you?

Having said that, pink ballet tights are not without advantages. For one, you see more. Muscle tone becomes more visible, and it's easier to correct and maintain proper alignment. You become more aware of your placement. That is why I do wear pink from time to time. Usually, I add black long shorts and a longish black skirt on top. Like I said before, I don't like to look/feel too bare in class. But a couple of weeks ago, I took the plunge. For the duration of barre, I skipped the skirt and extra layers, wearing only my leo, short shorts and those pink tights. Guess what? It wasn't half as bad as I feared. Sure, at first I felt self-conscious. I wish my bottom half would have a more ballerina-esque look. But I worked the pink tights to my advantage. I pulled up, lengthened, stretched, pointed and presented my feet to their max. The unbroken line of ballet pink tights and shoes made my lines look longer. And pretty good, if I may say so.

Practicing my passé retirés (front to back) for the show.
Wearing Danskin tights.

The last time I had worn pink, was for our spring show. I had been gifted a pair of Danskin's "Style 32 Backseam Footed Tights," in a semi-opaque ballet pink. I was told that they look very flattering under stage lights. The weave is such that it lets more of your own skin tone through, and they did make my legs look nicely defined. The backseam was a bit tricky though, I had to make sure it was in a straight line. The waist goes up very high, right under my boobs, and the waistband felt a bit constricting. But it worked well under the thick fabric of my tutu's bodice. So, all in all, a good choice for the stage.

Fresh out of the package. The ribbons, by the way, are still waiting to be sewn. 

My current pair of tights is from Gaynor Minden. I was in fact contacted by one of GM's distributors in Europe, Dancemania, and asked if I would like to try and review some of their Gaynor Minden products. Would I ever! Trying out dance stuff has to be one of my favorite jobs! I made sure that they were looking for an honest review, and then chose some products for my first goody bag ever. So, the tights. They are called Adult Convertible, and are made up of 85% nylon (70 den microfiber) and 15% spandex. I checked the sizing from their chart, and size medium was a perfect fit for me. The waistband could be a bit wider and softer, but I suspect that ballet tights are not made with the average woman in mind. After the first wash, I stretched it out some, and now it fits more comfortably. I have worn and hand-washed the tights for about two weeks now (seven or eight classes), and so far, no snags or runs. The colour is as peachy pink as my Bloch pointe shoes, but pales when you put them on. They are quite opaque (70 den), but I like that they feel a bit more supportive than my usual leggings. The best feature is the convertible opening under the foot. Compared to my Bloch tights, the finish is done with much better attention to durability. At first, I thought the opening was too small and would snag when I rolled it up from under my toes, but it stretched well enough.

After two weeks of wash & wear, the color is a bit paler. But I've never met or seen a pair that doesn't turn from ballet pink to ballet grey, at some point(e). I know you're wondering about the pointe shoes with just the elastics on..
But more about that in a later post!

I have to admit that being asked to test-dance the GM tights gave me the push I needed to step out of my ubiquitous black leggings. I'm not going to ditch them forever (I always have a spare in my bag), but I am going to get more mileage out of my pink ballerina tights. I'm beginning to like how they look on my legs.

June 16, 2013

First Tutu

Took off my tutu, left the theatre, went home, took the trash out, removed my stage make-up, would have loved a cold beer, drank milk instead and thought: was this already it? So many hours and weekends spent in rehearsals, and then the show was over in an instant. I did well enough, could have done better (there's always room for lots of improvement), but I didn't fall over or forget any steps. Somewhere between the nerves and trying hard not to f*** up, I actually had a moment were everything was just fine. And I'm so pleased with the way our (mostly) adult corps de ballet held its own - it really was a lovely and impressive performance all around.

It was also my first time in a real tutu.

May 22, 2013

The Wind Beneath My Fingers

I have this one bad ballet habit: my index finger which keeps sticking out like a lightning rod. I call it the pointy pointer. Like with all mannerisms, it's difficult to tell when it began and how it prevailed, but it's damn hard to get rid of. It takes a lot of corrections and reminders to retrain automatic responses. And sometimes it takes a picture to really drive the point home. A friend of mine took this impromptu shot after our last Sunday class of the season. Nothing planned about it, hence the red face (caused by lack of air-conditioning and subtropical temperatures) and no make-up (would have melted away). We were in a hurry, and only took a couple of photographs - not the hundred you would need for one perfect image. Still, I was pretty happy with this one. Had it not been for the pointy finger!

Next class, my teacher took me aside. Which means she gives you a lengthy correction, which you repeat until you get it (half-)right. This time, it was about my fingers. I have repeatedly been told to soften the movement, even to play with my port de bras. I love these kind of instructions, because I want to dance - not just do technical exercises at the barre. Of course I work continuously at improving and refining my technique, but there has to be expression in dance. The fact that I'm still shy about expressing myself in class is, however, a topic for another post.. Back to the index. It's not sticking out all the time, mind you, and I don't dance around with crab hands! But it's there when I tense up, or when I do big jumps with arms in couronne, or when I try too hard.

Yesterday, my teacher told me imagine that my fingers were moving with the wind. It made me think of leaves rustling in the summer breeze, a most welcome sound and sight after a long winter.. Hands and fingers should not be static, but just as alive as the rest of your dancing body. There can be subtle movement, even when you're  holding still. It's something to work on, and I'm looking forward to seeing and feeling the change. Such is ballet: you live, you learn and you dance. With the wind beneath your fingers. 

May 17, 2013

Ballet de Chat, The Lessons

In the past years, my ballet teacher has often told us to move like cats.. It's an image that has kind of stuck to my mind, and now I cannot help but see ballet in cat photos everywhere. That's how I came up with the "Ballet de Chat -lessons." The photos are from pinterest, and do not belong to me, but all texts were added by myself. The lessons are straight from class, and quite a few are courtesy of Marie-Pierre, our marvellous teacher of the cat move.

Which is your favorite lesson?

May 11, 2013

My New Alpha Pointe Shoes

My first pair of custom made pointe shoes.. I feel like Cinderella, even though the shoes were not made specifically for me. They were a gift from a friend who no longer dances en pointe, and who knew we have about the same shoe size. Lucky me! I couldn't wait to try the "Alphas" on - maybe I have finally found my perfect match? Custom made or not, traditional pointe shoes can be modified and broken in to fit your feet. Unless, of course, they are way too short/wide/narrow to begin with. But before I did anything that could ruin my new pair, I asked my teacher Marie-Pierre for advice. She told me to bring the shoes to class so that we could fix them together (if possible). A professional shoe-break-in-session, yay!

I was in class early, as we had agreed, and waiting with my shoes and carpet knife. Unfortunately I had forgotten to pack my own, and the knife I borrowed from work seemed much too flimsy. Yes, you read right: a carpet knife is a handy tool for tuning and thinning the sole of your pointe shoes. The Alphas are already pre-cut, but I had also brought my old Balance Europeans which needed some fine-tuning. Just make sure the blade is sharp, and take safety measures. M-P told me how she had once witnessed the soloist prepare her shoes before Giselle's opening night. She was cutting into the leather, when her hand slipped and the knife sliced right into her thigh. So be extra careful, and kids: do not do this at home, and certainly not without adult supervision! But before any sole-slicing, things were about to get even more violent.

Satin cut away from under the box. 

My teacher apologized beforehand, but I had already given her the custody of my shoes. I trust her implicitly, so she could do with them whatever she felt necessary. First, she opened the door and placed the shoe between the hinges. This is how you flatten a too hard/high box (if you know what you're doing). It's also a way to break doors, so watch out.. After the door treatment came the stepping onto shoes. Madame stood on the box with her full ballerina-weight (ask a big guy for more pressure), and then handed the shoe over to me. Oh, and lest I not forget: she checked how the shoes fit my feet before she proceeded to break them in. They were okay length-wise, but felt a bit too narrow across the metatarsal bones. And the box was damn hard on my big toe joint, around the bunion area. After she gave the shoes the ballerina treatment, I was amazed at the result. They fit my feet, I could go on pointe, without pain - and without padding!

The outer sole is of 3/4 quarter length, and the shank has been pre-cut to match. The leather insole is full length for comfort.

That's another thing. Pointe shoes are made to dance in. It's not like wearing stiletto Jimmy Choos and taking the limo to your destination so you only need to cross the red carpet (and kick you shoes off under the table). Of course, pointe shoes are not like wearing sneakers either. There's bound to be some discomfort, certainly at the end of a pointe class. But you cannot have the shoes and dance too. Okay,  not sure if my cake reference is working here... What I mean to say is that pointe shoes are supposed to be an extension of your feet, your technique and your artistry. If you can't articulate your feet in your too hard shoes, what good will that do? Whatever we are doing in soft shoes, we should be able to do in our pointe shoes.

My new shoes are now almost ready. I've sewn on the ribbons, which have a bit of elastic to relieve pressure at the achilles tendon. I've never tried these "elastorib"-ribbons before, and it took me a while to measure the correct placement. The little user's manual tells you how to, and it's really not that complicated. I still need to get elastic ribbons to prevent the heels from slipping off, but that's been a bit trickier. I like to use Bloch's covert elastic, which was sold out last time I checked. I bought Gaynor Minden's similar elastic instead, but I don't like it. The colour doesn't match and it's not wide enough. I called the shop yesterday, and will make a trek there this Sunday (yes, it's open on Sundays). I really want to wear my new shoes next Tuesday. There are only two more classes with M-P before the summer break, and I really prefer her expert guidance.

Elastorib satins from Bloch. Love how the colour matches the shoes. Oh, and they do feel more comfortable. 

Another thing.. These shoes have a much narrower fit than my usual Bloch Balance Europeans (size 6 XX), which means I can't fit my ouch-pouches into them. It's been a while since I've taped my toes, a procedure I have not missed. It's a bit of a hassle, especially if you need to tape them already before your regular class. Feet get sweaty, and tape doesn't always stay in place. I wonder what your experiences are with taping?

I haven't written anything yet about the 3/4 outsole and cut shank design.. They are supposed to help you achieve maximum arch of the foot, and still be supportive enough. My teacher reckons they could work very well on my feet, which are strong but don't have that much of an instep. She's already shown me how to adapt the soles of my old (and current) shoes, so I have some experience with a very bendy shank. I expect first class to be hard on my feet, and I'm defintely bringing my old shoes along if I need to change before pointe class is over. But we will see. The story continues...

May 2, 2013

Natural Dancer

Vacant eyes, furrowed brows and dead poses.. That doesn't sound like the ballet we all love so much. Yet, most of us have been guilty of committing one or more of the above. I have at times concentrated so hard on my alignment that I was en dehors with my feet but turned in with my expression. So deep inside my own dance-sphere that I forgot my "audience" entirely. Okay, I admit that it's easy to get lost in the music and in the moment, but that abandon should be a joy that's entirely visible to anyone looking. Even if it's only your teacher. Even if she happens to look in the other direction at the precise moment of your wonderful balance, triple pirouette and twinkling eyes. My own teacher always tells us to be generous with our dancing, in both our pliés and our personality. Don't want to look like nobody's at home, now do we?

The dead pose is another trap we sometimes fall into. Thinking "hold" when you should breath and elongate, and most of all, dance. It's so obvious - that's why you're there, to dance. But often there's a tendency to work through exercises, thinking about positions and corrections, pushing and working to get the legs higher, the core stronger, the back longer... And then we forget to dance. Movement becomes artificial, not art in motion. It can be a simple port de bras, a cambré to the side, like we did last time in class (and in every  class before). Our teacher Marie-Pierre was not happy with us. We were being static, like dead statues, when we should have been fluid, continuously in movement. She told us to dance, because if you really dance, ballet looks natural. Yes, ballet with all its unnatural turnout, extreme positions and épaulement dating back to Louis the Great.

Ballet - c'est dur, so hard - and yet we keep coming back for more. Why? It has to be more than work and staying in shape. It's living, breathing, dancing. The feeling of accomplishment when you finally grasp a difficult move, after not giving up. The sense of joy when your body leaps off the ground in a big jeté. The way your arms and fingers and toes become extensions of something bigger, something that can only be expressed through dance. And, finally, that moment when dance has become second nature and you  really are a natural dancer.

April 14, 2013

Birthday Ballet

What a day! First, I was almost late for my bus because I had so much fun reading all the incoming b-day wishes on facebook. Luckily, I made it to class just on time... phew. You see, it's a time-honored tradition of mine to celebrate birthdays with ballet and bubbly (in that order, mind you). Last year I was sick with the flu, but before that it has always been class or going to ballet performances. A few years back, I even used to fly to my old home town Berlin - lots of great memories there! Last time I was there, spring had arrived early (not late like this year), and the whole city was in bloom. I took morning class at Marameo, then had a lovely après-ballet mimosa in an outdoor boat café, anchored on the Spree river. The sun was warming my face, and I was loving my life..

Today was just as awesome. Before we began with the barre, our pianist Dmitri serenaded us with a rendition of Happy Birthday, and my fellow dancers sang along. I was not the only b-day girl in class, which made it all twice as fun! Jenny, thanks for sharing.. :) Our teacher Virve Olsson gave us a challenging barre in a quick tempo, which had me struggling at times, but not too much. Although, I really have to work on my en dedans turns from fifth, especially when the finishing pose opens the passé leg a la seconde. I was better on the right side, but going to the left.. a mess. Still, it's always fun trying! I liked Virve's barre, it was very dancey. I also loved her demonstrations, she looks like she just stepped off the stage. Well, as it happens, she only recently retired from the Finnish National Ballet.

Center was lovely. We did an adagio with a bit of a Don Quijote feel. We were to imagine being the ballerina who is preparing to dance Kitri, right before she goes on. What I liked about it most, is that we we got to interject our own personalities, and play a little. It's much more enjoyable that way. But the best part was still coming. After a few more degagés and pirouettes and warm-up jumps, the familiar music from Sleeping Beauty's big entrance filled the studio... It was my first time practicing any of Aurora's variations. Well, it's only a short bit of course, but exactly the one I've wanted to dance. Full of energy and excitement and joy! I love that we got to have fun with it, without worrying too much about technical purity. Anyway, we are still leaning the steps - cleaning it all up comes next. To top the class off, we did our grand jetés to Kitri's music from Don Quijote. Oh, and let's not forget the après-class bubbly pink champagne, macarones and box of chocolates.. Can you think of a better way to spend a ballet birthday?

March 3, 2013

My Dear Younger Self

My dear younger self, first let me congratulate you upon all your past birthdays - it has been a delight to grow old. Despite quite a few aches and pains.. But you will be happy to know that I never ceased to dance. I still dance to this day, a silver and wrinkly swan among unlined faces and young, firm things. There is no resisting the pull of gravity, but my dancer's body is putting up one hell of a fight! Looking back at your present fortysomething age, I wish you would enjoy your "ripeness" instead of worrying about grey hairs. My dear, you're still a plum - not yet a prune. There is bounce in your jump (which I now only dream of), you can turn without getting dizzy, and you have yet so much to learn and dance! Sweetie, you think it's odd to be old enough to be a mother to your fellow dancers? Just wait until you're old enough to be a mom to your teachers! Still, life is good - I have no regrets, at least not when it comes to dancing.

My dear younger self, I'm writing this so you might learn some lessons earlier than I did. First, do not be afraid. Your dancing life will eventually come to an end, so be sure to make it a good one. You don't have to dance every class like it's your last, but you're going to be so much happier if you don't hold back.  Make "someday" this day. Give yourself every chance to fail and try again and learn as much as you can. Failing in class is not equal to being a failure - it is part of learning and growing as a dancer. Falling on your butt does good too. There's no harm in pushing beyond your comfort zone.

My dear self, stop believing you're less of a dancer because you're not as talented as you would like to be. There are more aspects to classical ballet than perfect fifth positions, high extensions and bendy backs. Musicality, personality, artistry - all these are essential in dance. Be as it may, your turn-out isn't that bad, neither is your plié. You are able to stretch your knees, forward your heels, point your toes and elongate your back. This is not a bad instrument you have. You do not look like a ballerina, but sometimes you almost dance like one. Short but sweet moments, here and there. Enjoy every moment, and embrace all that you can do. Do not listen to the Shitty Committee, ever.

Let your personality shine through (and on very bad days, at least make an effort not to act like a grumpy old woman). Do not worry what others might think. There are worse things in life than looking silly in ballet class. Exercise your smile muscles, let your eyes sparkle, feel the music vibrating on your skin, the floor beneath your plié, the air under your jetés. Do not forget to breath. Breathing has never been overrated. Remember the advice your teachers gave you, and dance from your heart. While you do, keep working on the quality of your technique. It will carry you (us) into old age.

Finally, I would like to say this: It has been an amazing learning experience, from beginning to middle. A journey without end, and a helluva ride. 

February 16, 2013

Opening Night at the Ballet

You know when I don't mind missing ballet class? When I get to see ballet performed live, on stage! Which is why I skipped class last night and headed instead to the premiere of The Finnish National Ballet's triple bill Bella Figura. Since I was at work until 18:00 hrs (the ballet starts at 19:00 hrs), I first had to do a quick dress change in our decidedly unglamourous back-office. I tossed my jeans and sweater (we are casual at work) and dressed up in my new LBD and vintage glass beads. Some make-up and hair-spray later, I was feeling elegant enough to mingle with the usual high society premiere crowd. Not that you can't come as you are. In Finland, even jeans are no faux-pas at the opera. But clothes and other finery aside, it's only the dance that really matters. And I was in for a Big Treat.

A girl's gotta have some bling for opening night ;)

It's been almost eighteen years to the day since I last saw Balanchine's Four Temperaments. That time around, Paris Opera Ballet was on tour in Helsinki and I was lucky to be in the audience. Although I don't remember that much - other than being very impressed by elongated lines, technical precision and beautiful dancers such as étoiles Isabelle Guérin, Monique Loudières, Nicholas Le Riche and Aurélie Dupont. Since then, I've only seen bits and pieces on youtube. The Balanchine Trust being overly protective, you only get to see full performances on stage. So I was very excited to finally see live Balanchine again. And I was not disappointed.

If you have seen all the neoclassical and contemporary ballets that came after 4T, you might think that you're seeing nothing new on stage. But look closely, and you will recognize bits of Forsythe and Wheeldon and many others who were strongly influenced by Balanchine's style: the ever-unfolding patterns of the corps, the off-balances, the hips thrusting out of square torsos, the angular lines and the way he stripped ballet of its narrative. The ballet is not easy on its dancers: there's the Balanchine style - which many say requires specific training early on - the kind you would get at SAB's school. Then there are the costumes: the ballerinas wear black leotards and white tights - which tend to add weight to even the most svelte dancers' legs. Actually, it makes ballerinas look more womanly - like us non-pro-dancers! Not that I could ever pull it off on stage..

Artists of the Finnish National Ballet in George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments.
Photo courtesy of The Finnish National Ballet. Photographer Sakari Viika.

But never mind the technichal nor costume challenges -  the artists of The Finnish National Ballet looked assured and elegant on stage, and danced the most difficult steps with considerable aplomb. I was especially impressed with Eu-Jin Ha's performance - she has long lines (despite being tiny of size), the kind of technique that lets you sit back and enjoy the ride, and a glamorous presence to top it off. Linda Haakana (one of the few Finnish dancers) was perfectly cast as the choleric temperament. But 4T is really a company piece, and as such was well danced. And the orchestra (led by Ollitapio Lehtinen) played Paul Hindemith's music to perfection. But I have to admit that Four Temperaments is not my favorite Balanchine ballet. On that list goes Serenade, Jewels, Who Cares - and there are others that remain to be seen yet.

William Forsythe: In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Dancers Eun-Ji Ha and Andrew Bowman.
Photo courtesy of The Finnish National Ballet / Sakari Viika.

After sipping some complimentary bubbly during intermission, I was most eager to see Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This piece too was danced by POB on their Helsinki tour - but again I remember no details - other than being blown out of my seat. The same happened yesterday. Except about the memory loss. FNB's performance was superb, world-class, über-cool contemporary ballet. Really, I'm running out of superlatives here. Musically, spot on - and Thom Willem's music is far from easy to dance to. I know this by some personal experience, as our teacher Marie-Pierre rehearsed a In the Middle -inspired small piece with my pointe class last year.  She has danced both female leads herself, and trust me when I say that she still looks and dances the part. Of course, our choreography was considerably shorter and adapted to our abilities, but it was still different from anything else I have ever danced. It was oddly exhilarating hearing the music last night, and equally exciting that there were a few moves which I recognized from our own rehearsals. Made my muscles twitch!

As for FNB's dancers: Wow. One dancer especially stood out: Xiaoyu He. He's still very young, but already a technical virtuoso with a strong stage presence. Could not take my eyes off him. Although In the Middle is a company piece, and all dancers get to be on the forefront. The women rocked, with Eu-Jin Ha, in of the the female leads, impressing me yet again. I only wish that I could be so fearless in my dancing (and be as flexible and whatnot). Edita Rauserová was equally brill, with luscious extensions and precision attack. Andrew Bowman of the Royal Danish Ballet (he is guest-performing with FNB this spring) was rock solid in everything he did - both as a soloist and partner. By the way, he also happened to partner my teacher Marie-Pierre ten years ago (see photo above)! And he provided an interesting if unvoluntary visual effect: sprays of sweat glistening in the spotlight, with each turn and jump. Kathryn Bennets, who rehearsed the ballet, apparently told the dancers that "others too have survived (this)". I can see that In the Middle is the ultimate test for every ballet dancer - and a must-see for every ballet fan!

Jiri Kylian: Bella Figura. Dancer Emmi Pennanen.
Photo courtesy of The Finnish National Ballet / Sakari Viika.

Another intermission, and more bubbly plus delicious pink macarons - you gotta love opening nights! The final pièce de résistance of the evening was Jiri Kylián's Bella Figura. This I had never seen before. But what little I've seen of Kylian's work, has always struck me as genius. In Bella Figura, he employs the curtains as ever changing frames and props for the dancers to wrap themselves into. When the first dancer (Emmi Pennanen) appeared behind the curtains, I was struck both by her vulnerability, physical beauty and strength. The topless-ness of the dancers (both female and male) may be what has given this piece its most fame, but the semi-nudity is never gratuitous. The human body is celebrated as such - in its purest form. Bella Figura made me tear up. Happy tears - for the dancers who get to perform such works of art, and for us viewers who get to share in the experience.

February 6, 2013


Looking at my last post "Without Dance", I should have named it "Without Blogging" instead. But, as life happens, sometimes you get busy with stuff and other stuff suffers. Not to make a mystery of it: I went back to full-time paid employment. Which was a welcome change after stretching my budget till no end. Seriously, the end of all ballet classes was thisclose. So you can imagine my relief and enthusiasm after finally finding what I was looking for, and still being able to dance as much as I want. And need. But the blogging has been hard to squeeze in. For a while, I moved "operations" over to facebook - but I do miss the writing (and hope you've missed it too.) So much for explaining my blogabsence. Now let's get on with the blogging!

"I Want to See Colours From You"

That's what my teacher told me, some weeks ago. I trust she was not refering to my class attire, although I did change into a more colourful outfit the next week: a red cotton tank top, which goes well with my two-layered ballet skirt (black & red), and a crocheted multi-colour triangular scarf to tie around my waist. I figured that it would at least work as a reminder. Because what my teacher was essentially telling me, is that my dancing is kind of bland. Technically fairly neat and clean, and all the arm and head positions correct, but without colours and nuances. Madame wants me to be more pronounced with my épaulement, more creative with my port de tête, and not look like a ballet school robot. She wants to see me dance in class, at the barre, in center - and then do the same on stage. Which is possibly the best feedback I've ever gotten. There was really nothing negative about it ("bland" is my own choice of word). Instead I feel like I've been given a positive task, a compliment even. She must think that I'm ready for it.

If all else fails... ; ) Dancer: Ilmira Bagautdinova. Photo (c) Mark Olich.

"Play With Your Port de Bras"

Seriously, how often do you get told to play in ballet class? For me, it was a first. Now, I've always been confident about my port de bras, and have considered it as one of my strengths in ballet. Madame said nothing to the contrary, she even called it nice and pretty - but now she's asking me to play. Again, I think this is positively awesome advice. All my other classes are very much text-book academic, at least at the barre. Even allongés are strictly regulated. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to strict ballet class academics. You do need to learn the rules first before you get to break them. Playtime is earned.

Colour Me Happy

I have to admit that I've been somewhat shy to follow these new in-colour-instructions. I'm not one to shout out my presence in class, or elsewhere for that matter. Blogging is different. But I've noticed something very interesting. When you focus less on your feet, and think more about the upper body dancing - you dancing - then the rest follows much more easily. It can be no coincidence that my triples have returned at the same time I started to "play"! And it makes class so much more joyful when you get to infuse some of your own personality into everything.

Up until recently, I used to think that my weak points (lack of flexibility and turn out, among others) would always outweigh my strong suits and set me apart from the more talented crowd. You know, along the lines of "she dances quite well for an adult, shame about the _____ (insert whatever perceived or real flaw). But it's not like that at all. I have it in me to be a beautiful, elegant and expressive dancer. It's not going to be easy - but I fully expect it to be wonderful. This is why I love to dance, after all.

January 2, 2013

Without Dance

My eleven-day-ballet-break ends today. First class of 2013 is coming up, and I'm feeling both excitement and a little dread. A bit too much of rest & relaxation during the holidays, not to mention a surplus of chocolates and mulled wine.. Yesterday evening I caught my reflection in the window, and just had to practice arabesques, extending my leg as high as possible. Today my lower back reminds of the fact that I'm not the youngest dancer anymore. Ouch. I vaguely remember a time when eleven days of not dancing was no biggie in terms of bouncing back to ballet form. You went to class and were as good as before. These days I need twice the time of a break to realign myself. I need to keep this in mind, because one of my New Year's dancesolutions is this: Aim high, and work hard - but don't be too hard on yourself!

Dear Readers, I wish you a Happy New Year - many wonderful discoveries, and plenty of ballet bliss!

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, ...