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.

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, ...