December 16, 2014

When You Feel Small, Dance Big

Sometimes, when we are doing agadio, arabesques and attitudes, I see myself in the mirror and think: it's never going to be beautiful. I'll never have the turn-out, lower back flexibility, hyper hip mobility, slender shape, whatnot. Now let me tell you this: it's a train of thought that will get you to Nowhere quicker than you can passé retiré. Don't go there. Instead, take the opposite track. Tendu, fondue, developpé like you have the longest legs in ballet. Stretch as if you're reaching for the stars. Present your extension as if you had diamonds on your heels. Dance big.

More often than not, something is not working the way I want it to. Balances tumble, pirouettes fail, and in the process, my confidence crumbles. It can make me feel small. But this is not the time to cave in. Instead, take out the big guns: the deep pliés, strong center, stretched knees, and pointed toes. Apply the corrections, try again, believe you can - and dance with conviction. When ballet gets hard (and it always does), you get stronger!

"Dance big!" That's what my teacher always keeps telling us. In other words: don't hold back, and don't make yourself small. Reach out, connect fingers with toes (it's a visual), elongate, lift your chin up, look... And see all that you can be. Trust me, it's more than you think. I found that out today, once again. A pirouette diagonal that was not working at all to the right, but then it did to the left. Why? I went back to the basics: plié-ing and push-ing into the floor, closing my opposing arm in quick, not giving up. Because when you're on the floor, that's what you do. You dance full out. Big time.

The best part: dancing big makes you feel not small, but a kind of beautiful.

November 24, 2014

Pretty in Purple

Every adult ballet dancer should have at least one perfect go-to-leotard, the kind that makes you feel pretty even on a shitty day. I have two, in my favourite colours of purple and blue. Both have half-length sleeves, which is probably not a coincidence. Let's just say that upper arms loose some of their firmness once you hit forty... I also have some lovely camisole and tank styles, because you can't really wear long sleeves in summer. But, as it's now winter, I'm happiest with my arms covered. Long sleeves used to be too hot for me, but with stretchy lace and mesh fabrics you won't overheat (unless you're lucky and live somewhere warm. Not Northern Europe).

My latest go-to-leo is this one from So Dança. Wherever I wear it, it gets the most flattering comments! I love the lace sleeves and back, and the boat neck -cut. Very elegant. The fabric is warm and soft but also a tad lightweight, which means that you don't get a lot of support. The sizing was a bit tricky for me. Usually I wear a size medium, but the lace sleeves felt too constricting, so I went one size up. Now the sleeves fit well, but the torso could be a little shorter. I think this model would work well for dancers with longer backs.

Love the lace sleeves! Leotard by So Dança, provided by Suomen Tanssitarvike (dancewear store in Helsinki).

Same leo as above, here with a skirt by Grishko (no longer in their collection). The skirt is a pull-on, with a side-slit.
It has two layers of mesh, in black and red. You can wear either one as the top layer. 
Same leo and skirt as above. 

My other go-to-leotard is this blue one from Mirella. High points for the semi-mesh sleeves and the gorgeous back! I also like the round neck and the seam under the boobs. It fits very well, and the fabric is more supportive than So Danças leo. I have worn this also in summer temperatures, as it's cooler than the purple one.

Blue leo from Mirella. Wrap-around mesh skirt from Wear Moi. The back of the skirt is longer than the front.

As for bottoms: I never go without a skirt. Sometimes, when I'm feeling very confident, I might wear only short black shorts at the barre - but I always add a skirt for center. I have a short mesh "warm-up dress" from Bloch, which looks a lot like a negligé (and you could probably wear it as one). It's great for covering up a too generously cut cleavage (sometimes I worry about leotard-malfunctions), and it does actually keep you warm. What I also like about it: you can roll it down as a skirt. Plus it weighs nothing and takes up no space in your dance bag. The only drawback: the slight flare cut can add width to your hips. Not a lot, and certainly not too much. In fact, I had my slender no-hips ballet buddy try it on, and it did not flatter her at all. So, if you are curvy like me: this dress might look great on you!

Bloch mesh warm-up dress. 
I have quite a few dance skirts. Some are longer, a few are very short, and one has a cheery red polka dot print. Short skirts work best with my height (1.61 cm), but I tend to be a little shy about exposing too much thigh. I don't really like the look of my legs, at least not the upper part. But going for longer lengths does not always look better. It really depends on the proportions. You do not want to shorten the appearance of your legs, or hide too much of your hard-earned lines! Still, go with whatever coverage makes you feel most confident. In short: you don't want your dancewear to distract from your dancing. And: Looking oh so pretty always works!

Leo from Mirella, red polka-dot skirt (sorry you can't see it very well) from Designed by Alice.

Note: Purple So Dança leotard provided by Suomen Tanssitarvike.
Finnish readers: So Dançan violetti tanssipuku yhteistyössä Suomen Tanssitarvikkeen kanssa. 

November 10, 2014

Dance Away

It was my third class with our guest teacher, and the tricky exercises were at last familiar. Not easy by any means, but I was no longer getting lost within all those changing directions. Time to focus on technique and corrections. But with a huge studio full of students, there was no time for any personal feedback. I had to fall back on myself. And as soon as the music started, so did the record in my head: Ribs in. Knee over toes. Point those toes! Are my knees stretched enough? Is my leg in derrière crossed enough? Am I sitting? Must round arms more. Relax those fingers. Shoulders down. Where is my head, where do I look? Stomach... I'm not using my abs. Heels... Must forward heels in degagé, work through demi-pointe. Don't lose turnout!! No banana feet. The toes! Breathe, remember to breath.

Only when it came to ronde de jambe à terre exercise, I found my calm. Plié degagé devant, in effacé, with the free arm in fifth/couronne, then to a la seconde, then to the back, in effacé again, allongé. Our accompanist was playing another beautiful piece of music, and I started to feel... The many voices in my head simmering down to one: "You can do more." And then it happened. I was dancing as if no one was looking... And no one was. It did not matter. I felt complete, beautiful. I had my moment.

Still, I'm happiest in class when I have my teacher to guide me. My brain is much too busy, over-thinking and over-correcting all the time. It's another aspect about ballet class which I like so much: I don't have to make all the decisions. Our teacher gives us the exercises and combinations, and we follow her directions and apply her corrections. Of course, it doesn't mean that you sit back (no sitting in class!) and stop working. But it means I can focus on the dancing right away. I trust my teacher to push me into the right direction, to captain my ship when needed and to let me sail away when I'm ready...

August 11, 2014

From Beach to Barre

Another summer coming to an end... My dance studio's fall/winter semester begins today, and I have my first morning class already tomorrow. I'm happy, because I've missed those classes, but I'm also feeling a bit of fall melancholy... Not quite ready to make the transition from life at the beach to schedules, adult responsibilities and outerwear. Thankfully, there is dance. What would life be without a passion to sustain us?

I continue to be passionate about ballet, even though I spent more time at the beach than in a dance studio this past summer. Two classes per week, that's all. Can't even remember the last time I've danced as little. I can feel the difference, and I can see it. My leos have shrunk, and there's a new heavyness. But I've never taken class to maintain a certain weight, not even to stay fit... Those have just been bonuses. I dance for the pleasure of it.

This summer, there has been little feedback and even less personal corrections, but I've still had some big relevations. I discovered that working with gravity, really going down into the floor, makes my dancing look and feel more effortless. If you focus only on pulling up, you loose a dimension. One has to go down to come up again. Rebound, in dance and in life. I've also rediscovered my back leg. Previously, when we've been doing chassés/glissés, I've had my weight on the front leg - when I should have pushed more with the back leg. A small adjustment, but a big difference.

My happiest class was when we repeated one of our beautiful adagios. I knew the steps, directions and counts - and then I let go. No more thinking about technique, just flowing with the music. It was a really intense feeling. Made me fall in love with ballet all over again.

Last day at the beach, getting back into the spirit of dance. 

June 15, 2014

When Kenneth's Friends Came to Dance

When I first found out about Finnish National Ballet's end-of-season ballet gala "Kenneth & Friends," I was over the moon... Tamara Rojo would dance in Helsinki! Oh my goddess! Friedemann Vogel from Stuttgart Ballet! Maria Kochetkova! Not to mention the divine Isabelle Ciaravola! As well as FNB's own beautiful dancers. I was doing a happy dance in my living room - until I realised that my studio's spring show was going to be on the same weekend. Imagine my disappointment... I had missed Tamara Rojo once before, when she guest danced in Manon. I did not want to miss her again, not Ciaravola, not any of it. But I had committed myself to our group, choreography and performance. You don't desert your company, and you don't skip a show just because. Even if it means missing the most glamorous ballet event of the season. Then, just as I had come to terms with the unfortunate timing, I got lucky. Our performance was scheduled to Sunday evening. I got an invite for the gala on Saturday. I was back doing my happy dance!

It was the most amazing weekend. We had the warmest May since ever, with temperatures well into heat wave degrees. Every tree and bush blooming. The scent of lilacs drifting in the summer breeze... I was walking towards the theatre, Saturday morning, when it hit me just how lucky I am. This is the real life! Sweating in a dance studio, getting ready for our one and only stage/dress rehearsal, cues and lights, two run-throughs... Then, sitting outside, having coffee with friends, enjoying the warm sun and conversation. I got home just in time to change; a vintage-feel black-and-bronze cocktail dress, bare legs and high-heeled sandals. It's very casual here in Finland, even at gala events, but I do enjoy getting all dressed up.

The Gala

Edita Rauserova and Wilfried Jacobs in Sherezade. Choreography by Kenneth Greve.
The Finnish National Ballet. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

I have a seat in eighth row, not quite in the middle, but close enough. It's hot, summer has made its way into the theatre. Many are using their program leaflets as impromptu fans, myself included. Then, lights dimming, and guest conductor Graham Bond takes his place in front of the orchestra. Applause. The evening begins with Kenneth Greve's ballet Sherezade, to the music by Rimsi-Korsakov. The stage is filled with a glittering pas de deux corps, dressed in tutu & harem-pant costumes, as is tradition for oriental-themed ballets. The principal ballerina looks glorious in her glitzy golden outfit. Edita Rauserova and Wilfried Jacobs (her dangerously dashing suitor) spare nothing in their passionate performances. Their pas de deux is full of high jumps and even higher above-head lifts. Some of the elements make me think of ice pair skating.

Three Princes and One Swan

You know it's going to be a special night when the artistic director welcomes the audience, then rushes backstage to quick-change into a prince's costume. What makes it so interesting: Kenneth Greve retired from the stage six years ago. I was told he worked very hard to get back into performing shape. And I've seen Mr. Greve once or twice in class, practicing or leading rehearsal - and he always seemed to be in good shape. But performing on stage, with invited world-class dancers, in front of an audience that has never seen you dance live... That must have been unnerving. I certainly felt a bit nervous. I am familiar with Kenneth Greve, The Artistic Director, not Greve, The Principal Dancer. But that he is, with every step, saut and expression.

Friedemann Vogel (with Kenneth Greve in the back) in Swan Lake.
Choreography by Kenneth Greve (based on Petipa). The Finnish National Ballet.
Photography (c) Jack Devant.

Desislava Stoeva and Kenneth Greve in Swan Lake.
Choreography by Kenneth Greve. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

It's Swan Lake's iconic pas de deux, or in this case pas de trois. Rothbart is showing off Odile, luring Siegfried into their seductive web. There's is back and forth, Siegfried doubting, almost resisiting, but then succumbing. Men... How could he not distinguish his beloved Odette from Odile? FNB's newcomer Desislava Stoeva danced the part of Odile. She has got the long legs and lines (when you're partnered by 1.96 cm tall Greve, you can't be short), but I was not all that impressed. Although Stoeva did send off some Odile-vibes, I feel that this kind of evening would have called for a ballerina with more sensuality and star quality. Of course, a dancer is always a work in progress. Stoeva has both time and talent, and I'm very interested to see what future performances will reveal. Meanwhile, big stars were lining up behind curtains... And one of them made an early surprise appearance as Greve's double: Friedemann Vogel. Oh my god. That man's last name (German for bird) really suits his ballon and elevation! It's also what I love about galas: Unexpected fun. Why have just one prince when you can have two? Or three, as the Russian Aleksei Timofejev joined the princely team. Jumps, leaps, turns! And dare I say, I was very impressed by Greve's big a pirouette à la seconde.

Diana and Actaeon
Maria Baranova and Aleksey Timofejev in Diana and Acteon. Choreography: Agrippina Vaganova.
Photography (c) Jack Devant.
Agrippina Vaganova's choreography is classic competition fare, and I have seen my share. It's an extremely difficult pas de deux, where audiences have come to expect bravura technique. We Double, even triple fouetté pirouettes, and jumps that make you gasp... Aleksei Timofejev from the Mariinsky Ballet certainly delivered. FNB's young principal Maria Baranova is perhaps not in her best form this evening. Her technique is secure, she makes no mistakes, but her dancing feels a bit restrained. I have seen Baranova shine and sparkle before, and I expected more bravura skill from her. Still, a solid performance and a fine pairing.

The Golden Cherry

Artists of the Finnish National Ballet taking their bows. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.
Choreography by William Forsythe. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

Next up: A thrilling excerpt from one of my favorite ballets, Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. I've seen it danced many times by FNB's dancers, but tonight's energy was incredible. Maybe it was the combined magic of early summer, end-of-season, and all those visiting stars in class... Whatever it was, it blew me out of my seat. The angular and sharp, yet sensual movement. What I love about Forsythe's choreography is that you cannot just focus on the soloist or pas de deux. Something is always happening, in the side lines and shadows. Dancers coming in, posing, showing off their mad skill (as the piece calls for it), leaving, coming back again. If you're in luck, you might catch a member of the corps out-dancing the principals - even if it's just a moment. Tonight was Kailey Kaba's turn. Her perfectly aligned, fearless quintuple was awesome - and not missed by the audience. I have noticed her before, she has long, luxurious lines... And a kind of movement quality that suits Forsythe's piece very well. Kailey Kaba definitely goes on my list of Dancers to Watch.

Oh Romeo..

Petia Ilieva and Friedemann Vogel in Romeo and Juliet. Choreography by John Cranko. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

After Thom Willem's thunderous electronic score, classical music to our ears: Sergei Prokovief's Romeo and Juliet. The famous balcony pas de deux, choreographed by John Cranko. And who better to portray Romeo's boyish charm than Friedemann Vogel? Oh my... He is utterly convincing, in every tender gesture and adoring smile. Vogel leaps like a cat, flies like a bird and has every woman (and probably quite a few men) sighing... But on stage, he has eyes only for his Juliet, danced by FNB's own étoile Petia Ilieva. The beautiful Ilieva is equally believable in her portrayal of a lovestruck teenager. Together, they produce some truly dreamy dancing. Magic.

La Rojo!

The moment we have all been waiting for. In a night filled with stars, Rojo's shines perhaps the brightest. English National Ballet's Artistic Director is here to dance Kitri, and I was expecting a quick solo variation, to a standard blue backdrop. Instead we are treated to a long excerpt from Kitri's & Basilio's wedding, completed by FNB's corps de ballet and soloist dancers. This version of Don Quixote has been staged by POB's Patrice Bart (after Petipa), and it has been in FNB's rep for ages (can't remember the exact run, so I'm going with ages). I like that it has real Spanish flavour, fandangos and boleros (choreographed by José de Udaeta), even though they seem strangely at odds with the classic Bridemaids variations. But that is ballet for you. Tutus show off legs and technique, never mind about dress-historical accuracy. Ballet is fantasy, and we are all ready and willing to escape. As Tamara Rojo steps onto the stage, there is electricity... And immediate welcome applause. She owns the stage, and the audience.

Frans Valkama and Tamara Rojo in Don Quixote.
Photography (c) Jack Devant / Finnish National Ballet.
Tamara Rojo as Kitri. Photography (c) Jack Devant. The Finnish National Ballet.

Frans Valkama and Tamara Rojo in Don Quixote.
Photography (c) Jack Devant / Finnish National Ballet.

It's not just Rojo's bravura technique, the insane fouetté pirouettes or breathtaking balances, which make her irresistible to watch. She has a warmth about her that encompasses all. Including her partner/Basilio of the evening, Finnish National Ballet's principal dancer Frans Valkama. Valkama looks like he's won the ballet jackpot, and his joy is contagious. He may not be the most typical casting for Basilio, but he is an attentive partner, suitable in stature and height, and happy to let his ballerina shine. Rojo is no diva, she gives equal attention to her Basilio, and it's a happy pairing. Valkama is in fine form, Rojo is absolutely stunning and the audience loves it. I'm applauding so hard, my hands burn.

Black Milk and Colours

Rachele Buriassi and Friedemann Vogel in Kazimir's Colours.
Choreography by Maurio Bigonzetti. Photography (c) Jack Devant.
The Finnish National Ballet.
Rachele Buriassi and Friedemann Vogel in Kazimir's Colours.
Choreography by Maurio Bigonzetti. Photography (c) Jack Devant.
The Finnish National Ballet.
Deca Dance Helsinki: Black Milk. Choreography by Ohad Naharin.
The Finnish National Ballet. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

After the intermission, there are two contemporary numbers. Ohad Naharin's "Black Milk" (from the full-length DecaDance Helsinki), and "Kazimir's Colours", choreographed by Maurio Bigonzetti. I had seen Naharin's intense, ritualistic "Black Milk" before (and I'm not going to review it here), but "Kazimir's Colours" was a new experience. Friedemann Vogel, in his third appearance of the gala, which I'm thrilled about.. But this time, it's more of a showcase for his partner Rachele Buriassi. The choreography takes every advantage of the dancers' über-flexible and athletic bodies. It's very impressive, but I'm not jumping out of my seat. I would like to see more of Buriassi though, and Vogel you cannot see enough of.

Manon and Maria

Maria Kochetkova and Johan Kobborg in Manon. Choreography: John Cranko
Photography: (c) Jack Devant / The Finnish National Ballet.

There's one downside to gala evenings: So many interesting and wonderful performances, but you never get the full plate, only tastings... It's also a bit of a challenge to immerse yourself into a story ballet that begins mid-story. Even if you know it well, the mind and senses need time to pick up mood and rhythm. When we get to see Maria Kochetkova as Manon, she has already met des Grieux (danced by Johan Kobborg), fallen in love and escaped with him to Paris. We are inside their bedroom, Manon is luring des Grieux away from his letter-writing... It's a happy lovers' pas de deux, playful and passionate. I love Massenet's music, it carries you away. For Manon, literally. Kochetkova is absolutely lovely, Kobborg noble and strong. I've never seen these two paired, I don't know if they ever have danced together before, but what's not to like? The one thing that I would like: to see the full ballet.

Kenneth & Isabelle, or the story of Tatiana and Onegin

Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Nicholas Ziegler as Prince Gremin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.

Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Nicholas Ziegler as Prince Gremin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.

Nicholas Ziegler, FNB's principal dancer étoile, is a perfect choice for Prince Gremin. He has handsome looks, with long and elegant lines - and very fine technique. His Gremin is noble and chivalrous - and it's easy to see that he is Tatiana's Mr. Right. 
Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Kenneth Greve as Onegin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.
Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Kenneth Greve as Onegin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.

When Kenneth Greve retired from the stage six years ago, he gave his farewell performance in John Cranko's ballet "Onegin". When Isabelle Ciaravola retired from the Paris Opera Ballet earlier this year, she danced the role of Onegin's love, Tatiana. Tonight, they are both making a comeback in the ballet's third act - as Onegin and Tatiana. It's a positively poetic pairing. For Greve, a one-off performance, and when he makes his first appearance as Onegin, I feel again a bit unnerved... Then it happens. I'm looking at Kenneth dance, but all I see is Onegin. His desire and love for Tatiana, and his despair when he realises that he's lost, that it's too late. Then there is Isabelle Ciaravola. I have seen her only on the small screen, but I could recognize her from her incredible feet alone. Arches and insteps to die for, almost too much of a good thing, but it's her thing - and she speaks volumes with those feet. But what strikes me most is her presence. When she sits behind her desk, waiting for Onegin to come, she does not move... And yet she fills the stage. You can feel and see Tatiana's pained resolve, her remnant and rekindled feelings for Onegin. It's not a pas de deux with a happy ending. A past lover who is desperate in his longing, and a beloved who denies their love. It is a beautiful and impassioned performance by Greve & Ciaravola, and I feel blessed to have witnessed it.

Finnish ballet audiences rarely give standing ovations, we (as a nation) tend to be a tad too reserved, too shy to be the first to rise. But this evening, there was no stopping us. When all the dancers, guests and friends, returned to give their final bows and receive their well-earned thanks, I stood up. I applauded their skill and passion, their artistry, the emotions they shared with us. It was a wonderful, magical evening. And what an amazing feeling to take home with me, on the night before my own show.

Photography courtesy of Jack Devant: Like on facebook: Jack Devant Ballet Photography

April 8, 2014

Ten Questions, Ten Answers

Dear Readers and fellow dancers, it's time for another questionnaire... I hope you have time to answer as many questions as you like! To start, here are mine:

1. What is your favorite time for ballet class? 

How about always? Ok, seriously. I love my morning classes, because nothing gets in the way between waking up and taking to the barre. Except for a good breakfast, you can't dance without one. Although, sometimes I wish I could sleep a little longer. And have a nap after class. Still, it's an awesome way to start the day! Oh, and time-wise I also love my Sunday classes. Because I can nap afterwards.

2. How many classes do you take on a weekly basis?

On a regular basis, six classes. 90 min morning class on Tuesdays (adv.level), 90 min (adv.) + 45 min pointe on Wednesdays, 90 min morning class (adv) on Thursdays + 60 min rehearsal in the evening, 90 min (int-adv) on Sundays. Saturdays is optional, and occasionally, I might take a class on Fridays.

3. What do you eat before class?

In the mornings, it's usually a banana, müsli with yoghurt or oatmeal, and lots of coffee. When I have class in the evenings, I need a substantial snack between lunch and class. Bananas, again, and I also like to take one of those organic nut-fruit bars along. I don't always get it right, and when hunger strikes mid-class, it's best to have something easily digestible that you can take a quick bite off (before center).

4. What's inside your ballet bag?

It depends on my schedule, but this is what I packed today: Pointe shoes, toe tape (+ small scissors), flatties, new pair of flatties (Bloch Pro Flex canvas), black leggings, purple leggins (I like to have a spare), new blue 3/4 sleeve leo, black leo (again, I like to have choices), skirt, short black shorts (old ones, from H&M), favorite loose long-sleeve flowy t-shirt (you can wrap it into a skirt), hair pins, elastic, hairspray, brush, water bottle, energy bars, ibuprofen. Plus all the other stuff a girl needs on a daily basis.

5. How do you prepare for class?

In the mornings, there's very little time. We don't get into the studio until 15 minutes before. I put my hair up at home, and wear most of my dance clothes under my regular wear, to save time. Once I'm at the barre, I focus on my feet, hip flexors and back of thighs. I try to loosen up and lengthen myself. I don't need to warm up, barre work does it for me. But it depends who's teaching. With some teachers, I need more preparation time (and different exercises) to get ready. Otherwise, I prepare for class by stretching in the evenings. I've noticed that it makes a big difference.

6. What's your favorite part of class?

All of it. Okay, it depends somewhat on the teacher (I was thinking about my favorite classes). If it's a very basic, but hard and tiring barre - then I'll enjoy center even more. I like adagio, moving across the floor, pirouettes (despite bad turn days), and I love allegro. So, really all of it.

7. What's your biggest challenge in class?

Not comparing myself to other (better) dancers. Do I really need to explain why? Also, overcoming my shyness to "present myself." Not losing confidence. Keeping my focus when I feel discouraged. And, of course, all the technical stuff. Maintaining turn out at all times, pointing toes to the max, keeping that popo down, and my back long, heels forwarded, not jumping into my turns, spotting those pirouettes, and the list goes on... Ballet would not be ballet without the challenge!

8. What is your level?

Someone once commented that I'm not a very advanced dancer, considering all the years I have taken class.. This may be true, but how do you measure advancement? And why should you even care? Ballet is not a sport, we don't keep track of our turns, beats and balances. Having said that, my level is not carved in stone. Depending on the day and exercise, I fluctuate between advanced beginner, beginning intermediate and intermediate-advanced. There's always something to work on - that's what makes it so interesting.

9. Describe a "moment" you had in class.

It can be anything, like an unexpected but awesome balance. When I finally nail a turn, perfectly on axis. Or when I don't have to think about the steps and it's only about feeling the music. When I've been struggling with a difficult step, and suddenly get it! Or when I feel there's just been real progress, and my teacher confirms it. There have been many sweet moments over the years...

10. What is it that you love about taking ballet class? 

When I'm in class, there's no other place I'd rather be. I feel at home.

I get to make new discoveries, meet challenges, overcome fears and weaknesses. Ballet makes me feel strong, like I can handle anything.

I love having friends in class, they are part of my extended family. You get to meet so many amazing people through dance, and it's wonderful to share the same passion.

My teachers. Inspiring, motivating, demanding, patient and kind. Always pushing me, but also taking care of me. Love them. Past and present.

And then there's the beauty of it all... The artistry, the music, the quality of movement, the line, the elegance, colours, nuances... Reaching for these qualities is what motivates me. I want to find my own voice as a dancer.

The obligatory after-class selfie.

February 17, 2014

"You Should be Doing Triples"

"You should be doing triples." Just something one of my teachers said last Saturday, during pirouette exercises. Before that, I had managed a  few wobbly doubles and a couple of fairly neat singles. Okay, I was really tired (late Friday night), but that's not my excuse. The truth is, that after twenty years of ballet, I'm still working on turning consistently clean doubles. With pirouettes there's always so much going on, so much that can go wrong, and a whole lot of corrections that you can work on. Believe me, I've tried them all. The hardest part has been un-learning bad habits, like sickling the foot in passé retiré or jumping into the turn. That is why, if I were to give you one piece of advice, it would be this: quality must come first! Then, a deep plié and remember to breath! Oh, and it's perfectly fine to make a lot of mistakes. Believe me, I've done them all. It's also fun to keep trying, even after 20 years and counting.

Back to the "you should be doing triples." I'm not sure if I should be encouraged or embarrassed. Part of me feels like there was a test that I failed, and that I'm missing important ballet credentials because of it. A few years ago, I got a similar comment from another teacher: "You should know how to do fouettée pirouettes." It seemed odd to be graded in class, considering that we were all recreational dancers (some with more experience than others.) The thing is, it is quite rare to have adult ballet classes with a progressive curriculum all the way up to advanced levels. Even though adults can learn some things faster than children (and often have better focus), technique takes time and dedication. When I moved from basic-intermediate to intermediate and advanced levels, the gulf between those classes was such that I'm still trying to cross over! Fouettée pirouettes were done at the end of class, and you either knew what you did or you got out of the way. It did not bug me, I never expected to be in the same league with the ballet vets and semi-/pros. Even when another teacher introduced Fouettées 101, I did not catch up. I guess, you can't win them all.

I've never been embarrassed that my turns are not up to par (annoyed, yes). But I have sometimes felt dispirited by my lack of flexibility and range of movement. I used to dread split stretches in class. I hated being the only one who could not make contact with the floor. To me, the message was that I was not flexible enough for ballet (past beginner levels). It made me feel excluded from the rest of the class. Well, I've gotten over it. I stretch as far as I can, and I don't care if it looks less than ballet-ready. You can only work with your own body, not that of bendy-ballerina's next to you. Anyway, in the past three years I've actually gotten a lot more flexible! I can do a split with my left leg in front, I can stretch my legs into a semi-sidesplit and lie flat with my belly in between. Talon à la main? I can now lift my left leg up way past my shoulder. The stiffer right one is also coming nicely along. I still wish that I could be stretchy like a ballerina (who doesn't?), but I've stopped fixating on my weaknesses, or stiffnesses. I think having a positive mindset even helps with the stretching!

The comment my teacher made? I've decided to look at it as encouragement. Clearly, I must be doing something right. I have taken less than ten classes with this particular teacher (half of it last summer). He does not know my history, and has not seen my progress from adult beginner to adult passionate. I don't know what he sees when I dance, but I like to think it's something good.

Finally, some things you should be doing in class:

Knees over toes, always.
Breathing into the movement - it's good for you.
Mistakes. Because you're trying.
Pay attention to details. It's all in the details!
Keep your popo down and your head up.
Look where you're dancing.
Smile. You love to dance - don't keep it a secret. ;)

Wishing you all exciting learning experiences - keep dancing!
- Johanna

February 9, 2014

Time to Play

Pointe class. We're all facing the barre, doing really slow relevés. I let go as often as possible, because I like the added challenge of trying to stay in balance. Anyway, it's hard work and I'm totally focused, like there's nothing else in the world. My teacher approaches me to give a correction, or so I assume... Instead she tells me that I can now play with it, specifically with my head. I know she is talking about port de tête, or the carriage of the head, but I do not know what to do with mine during that particular exercise. Should I incline it, look left or right, or what? My sole focus has been on my feet, on keeping the popo in line, the back and neck long, the shoulders relaxed and myself breathing. It did not seem like playtime. But I did get the feeling that there has been some sort of achievement, and I was being challenged to step it up.

Later on, I got the feedback: there has indeed been progress. According to Madame, my dancing has improved. The port de bras is more confident, as is my overall technique. She even pointed out the alignment of the passé retiré I'm working on, telling me how much better it has become. I told her that I haven't really noticed. Which is not entirely true. I have noticed that my dancing feels different. Stronger, more balanced, perhaps even more fluid. But when you are not seeing yourself, how can you tell? Feeling good does not automatically mean that you also look good. Ballet can be tricky like that. Of course, there are some things which are more obvious. Like pirouettes. You cannot not know when you have turned three instead of one. You know when you're right on your axis, because it feels awesome. And you know when you've landed in style. Just as you know when you've failed. At my current rate, it's fifty-fifty. I get half right, and the other half is negotiable at best. Pirouettes tend to be a dealbraker for me. If I fail too many, class doesn't feel like progress. Yes, I know I'm giving way too much importance to turns. After all, our art is called ballet, not pirouette.

Then there are extensions. Why do we get caught up in degrees anyway? It might have something to do with all those sky-high extension you see posted and pinned on the internet. But bringing your leg into a developpé is dance, not a competition. It was already my first teacher who stressed the journey, not the destination. My current teacher speaks of caressing your (standing) leg as you bring the foot up. Then, raise the knee as high as possible (without compromising proper alignment), and draw a line with your pointed toes as you unfold your leg. The height of your extension is not the point, the quality of movement is. There's a bonus: quantity often follows quality. I've been told that my extensions have been getting higher since I started working with Madame. And this after dancing for twenty years! Funny how these things escape your attention...

So, what is next? We all know that ballet never gets easier, you just get better. For me, this means shifting my focus to the port de tête. My teacher knows that I get shy in class, which is why I tend to dance too much to the front, looking "flat" in the process. Now she is asking me to "play" with my head, and I have to admit that if feels more difficult than any fouetté pirouette I have ever attempted. At the same time, it's also way more exciting! Playing means there's room for self-expression, for making up my own mind (and head) about how I want to dance. Well, not in the sense that I get to change the exercises. I don't even want to do that! No, it's more subtle than that. Nuances and shades - that's what it is.

Now I just need to figure out what to do with my port de tête. I told Madame as much, that I don't really know (unless it's clearly part of the given exercise). She told me that if that's the case, I should just copy her. My dear readers, if you've ever seen our teacher dance, you know that is an near impossible task! Everything she does, looks natural and elegant. But I will try my best to absorb something and make it my own. I don't know what will come of it, but I want to find out. 

January 13, 2014

Twenty Years of Ballet

In January 1991, I took my first ballet class ever. It was love at first tendu. This month I'm celebrating my 20-year ballet anniversary. That is right, my math is not wrong. Not if I discount the three years when I did not dance at all. I wish I could undo the not-dancing, but at least I figured it out eventually. Ballet is where my heart is. I returned to class in 2006, and haven't looked back since. Except for today, when I went rummaging in my old calendars/diaries. This is what I wrote down in January 1994: "After class Jill (my teacher) asked me when I was going to get myself pointe shoes. I told her that I was too old to go on pointe." At the time, I was 24 years young. Can you believe it? It's a good thing that dance keeps you young, or in my case, progressively younger.

It's a cliche, but the years do fly by. Life rarely goes as planned (another cliche, sorry). This is why I've always appreciated the time-honored tradition of ballet. Over the years, the steps and positions have become familiar, the French understandable, the movement ingrained in both body and mind. Yet, there's always change. For me, this is probably the best part of learning and dancing ballet. As long as I keep an open mind and never settle for less than my full potential, I keep moving on. That first class was my point of departure, and I've been dancing without a destination ever since. I like to think that I'm always halfway there. Because as an adult dancer, class itself is the beginning and end. For professional dancers, it's all about the performance, dancing on stage in front of a real audience. For us, it's mostly an imaginary audience behind the class mirror. We love to do the hard work, but it's not payed work. Unless you count joy as the ultimate reward. I'm pretty sure that most of us adult dancers do just that. We dance because dance brings us joy.

Another reason why I never lost my love for dance: awesome teachers. I will skip the math on this one, but I do remember them all. Your first ballet teacher you never forget. If you are lucky, she's the one who will instill a love and respect for the art. Jill Miller gave me a solid foundation to build on, and an understanding of how placement works. It was not the Vaganova-school that is so common here in Finland, but it was very safe on untrained adult joints and limbs. I loved her classes, the way she phrased the exercises to music, and the challenges she threw at us. "Move! Dance!" We were told to use the whole space, and not to hold back. "Don't dance like you have a stick up your butt!" Or, somewhat more eloquent: "Be organic in your movement." She was one of a kind. Strict, but caring. I'm happy that I got back to ballet and Jill's classes before her untimely death in 2007.

You do not necessarily have to like your teacher, as long as you learn and enjoy the dancing. However, sometimes it can happen that the class just does not feel right, which has happened to me on occasion. It can be a simple matter of chemistry, or the lack thereof. I still took the classes, learned the steps and worked on my technique. But in the long run, the physical work alone is not enough. Like I wrote earlier, we are in it for the joy. If you enter class with a positive attitude, energy and focus, you should leave class feeling like a million bucks. Sweaty, energized and happy. Of course we all have bad days, certain insecurities and flaws... Nobody can be a perfect student all the time.

I also take classes where there's almost no interaction between a student and teacher. You know, some teachers give a short warm-up barre and a dancey center, but hardly any personal feedback. That's okay, especially when you get plenty of corrections elsewhere. In those classes, I often think less about technique and focus on the dancing alone. Over the past 20 years, I've learned that both ways work for me, as long as one outweighs the other. In any case, variety in school and style is a wonderful thing. You get fresh perspectives, familiar corrections are rephrased (= eureka!), and you get to work on new exercises and enchaînements.

I have learned from every teacher I've ever had. Some focus more on pirouettes, others have awesome petit allegro or a very lyrical adagio. There's been Vaganova, French School, Checcetti, RAD, Balanchine and Bournonville, and a mix of schools, styles and teachers' personal experiences. Some have been wonderful, some a little scary, others easy-going and very nice. Most have been motivating, even inspiring. All have been professional, skilled and knowledgeable. Many have been very important to me. Still are. 

When I'm in class, I need to feel both challenged but also safe to make mistakes. I like to be pushed, but preferably in a positive and encouraging manner. I like to get feedback, lots of corrections and guidance. Some praise is nice too. I was already lucky when I started classes with Jill. I can't think of a better teacher for that time in my life. I'm even more fortunate now. Since I started taking class with my current teacher, Marie-Pierre Greve, so much has changed. Ballet feels like a new experience, yet again. I love Madame's elegant and beautiful dancing, her generous and attentive style of teaching, her keen eye for the tiniest of detail (which can make a huge difference), the emphasis on quality and artistry, the positive and encouraging class atmosphere, the real work we do and the fun we have in class. It's pure and undiluted ballet joy!

Where ballet is concerned, I consider myself a very lucky person. Between that first class and the latest one, there has been a lot of dancing: thousands and thousands of classes. So many wonderful and memorable experiences. Sure, there have also been injuries and struggles and breaks. But for the most part, it's been all good. Amazing, in fact. I would not trade this experience for anything.

Ballet anniversaries are best celebrated with pink champagne!

January 6, 2014

Good Morning Class!

Tomorrow is the first morning class of 2014 - and I gotta tell you that days have been counted. I love all my classes, but mornings are my favorites. There's just no better way to begin the day! Hand on barre, breathing into the music, elongating limbs, balancing body and mind, pirouetting and jetéing across the floor, feeling alive... It's all that and so much more. I love getting corrections (and praise) first thing in the morning. I love that the first people I communicate with are ballet people. Even when I'm so tired that I should bring a coffee thermos instead of a water bottle. Hmm... There's an idea! Speaking of tired, it's almost bedtime. One of my resolutions for this year is to sleep more (and to dance better). So, my ballet bag is packed, flatties have been washed, new favorite leos bought, the alarm set, and I am as ready as can be. Bring it on! 

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, ...